Notes on Luke-Acts

The author of the books of Luke and Acts is unknown, though Church tradition holds Luke was a close follower of Paul (Luke “the Evangelist” who is described by Paul as a physician, or “healer”). According to tradition, he was martyred, killed by hanging from an olive tree. Perhaps an argument against this theory of Luke’s authorship is that the account of Paul’s conversion to Christianity differs in some ways between Acts and the Pauline Letters. The title of Acts was almost assuredly not “Acts” but was a latter addition by Irenaeus (praxeis). The Book of Luke does not claim to be written by a first-hand account, as the preface indicates, while the Book of Acts does. If Luke “the Evangelist” and companion of Paul was the author of Luke and Acts, he is the single largest contributor to the “New Testament,” writing about 30% of the text.

At the time of writing for these two texts, Christianity was colloquially referred to as “The Way.”

Luke

The Book of Luke, like Acts, contains a preface addressed to Theophilus (a Greek word meaning “friend of God” – thus the book may be addressed to a particular man, or more generally to the public). The preface addresses the problem of the need for eye-witnesses to Jesus’s activities (since his miracles and wonders require reliable accounts from others) and the best way to communicate these deeds to others. The survival of Jesus’s theology is dependent upon the technology of the day, namely the transposition of the written word – observing an activity, and communicating it to someone else, until it is finally written down, translated into other languages, interpreted, and dispersed. Luke is concerned with communicating ‘reliable knowledge.’ The Book of Luke straddles the line between history, historiography (collecting accounts from others), and edification, or proselytizing/intending to inculcate virtue and wisdom.

Theology requires a defense. However, one theme shared by both philosophy and theology is that in both situations, a teacher is judged by his followers. Socrates was judged by Alcibiades, though he says he should not be judged by his followers. Jesus loudly proclaims that a teacher should be judged by his followers (Luke 7:35) and he will thus be vindicated by his fruits. Theology requires the teaching to be passed on. Jesus does not write anything himself, so his teaching, and more importantly his signs and wonders, require convincing communications – “reliable knowledge” – to be passed down and throughout the world, otherwise it dies with Jesus.

Messiah is the term used in varying ancient languages (such as Hebrew) to refer to the political and spiritual savior. Christ (“khristós”) is the hellenized term, typically used in Christianity to refer to Jesus of Nazarethe.

The early chapters of Luke detail the miraculous birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah and Elizabeth, when the angel Gabriel appears to them (in homage to the story of Abraham and Hagar). Then the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, as well (recall in other Gospels we are only given an account of an angel appearing to Joseph). Mary goes to Elizabeth and they celebrate each other’s babies. Mary sings a song of joy.  Notably the genealogies of Jesus royal bloodline differ, the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew begins with Abraham and goes forward to Joseph, while in Luke his genealogy begins with Mary and goes backward to Adam. Matthew is a book written to the Jews. Luke is a book written to the Gentiles. The genealogy of Joseph is the legal line (since Joseph is not Jesus’s biological father) and the genealogy of Mary is biological -perhaps he is the “son of Man” because of his inheritance from Adam.

The “Holy Spirit” plays a significant role in the text – it is the overwhelming spirit that fills Mary when she becomes pregnant, it overcomes Elzabeth, as well, and even Zechariah sings a song in divine inspiration from the “Holy Spirit.”

Chapter 2 of Luke details the census ordered by Caesar, the first under Governor Quirinius of Syria. So Joseph went from Nazareth in Galilee to the town of Bethlehem in Judea, since he was descended from the line of David. The account of their escape to Egypt is absent in Luke. Instead of the “wise men” of Matthew, we see an angel appear to shepherds watching their flocks, who advise them of a savior lying in a feeding trough in Bethlehem, so they then depart for Bethlehem. They recount this story exactly, and Mary memorizes the words exactly. Thus the shepherds praised God because the things they had heard and seen happened exactly as it was told to them (2:20) – in reference to Luke‘s need to justify miraculous accuracy, in an effort to inculcate virtue into its readers. In addition, a “wise” man named Simeon sees Jesus in the temple and proclaims him a “sign” for the Gentiles -an obvious latter interpolation as Luke is a text intended to be read by non-Jews in the ancient world.

As a child, Mary and Joseph serve as a literary foil to Jesus. They are constantly “stunned” and “amazed” by the things he does. They buttress the reader’s skepticism, and meanwhile Mary records all of these speeches and deeds in her “heart.”

At any rate, in Chapter 3, John the “Baptizer” begins proclaiming a forgiveness of sins doctrine, commanding Jews to pay what is needed, and also commanding tax collectors to only collect what is necessary and nothing more, and for Roman soldiers to behave similarly. Thus Roman readers of Luke gain instructions on how to live. For these reasons John is locked up in prison by Herod. Then Jesus is baptized and the heavens opened up with a voice and a dove. Then the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert by the “Devil” is repeated as in Matthew. Thus, with John gone, Jesus carries up his ministry. He returned to Galilee and preached in the synagogues while a rumor about him spread. He then returns to Nazareth and reads from a scroll of Isaiah, which he claims is a prophecy of himself. The Nazarenes become greatly angry intending to throw Jesus off a cliff for heresy, but he walks through them and out of town.

Then Jesus completes an exorcism in Capernaum in Galilee, impressing many people, and also cleanses/heals many people. This, more so than the fulfillment prophecies, is what builds his reputation among the poor peoples of the region, for the masses of people are more impressed by signs and wonders than articulate teachings. Great masses of people begin following Jesus but he claims a need to teach in other towns, as well. He also makes a big political gain, winning over a tax collector/revenue agent: Levi.

Jesus sees himself as a physician, perhaps not unlike Socrates. He has come not for the healthy, but for the sick (5:31-32). Jesus is routinely questioned by the elders for allowing his followers to eat, and not fast on the Sabbath. He then heals on the Sabbath, as well, a prosecutable offense.

Jesus selects twelve from among his disciples: Simon, called “Peter”, and his brother Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, James son of Halphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas the son of James, and Judas of Kerioth (“Iscariot” from the town of Kerioth) who became the betrayer. A reformulation of the Sermon on the Mount moral teaching (transvaluation of values) occurs in Luke at Chapter 6: blessings to the poor, sorrowful, hungry, and hated and so on; while bringing woe to the rich and comfortable and powerful. Love enemies and hateful people, do not judge lest you will be judged -a moral law of reciprocity is offered by Jesus. Every student will be exactly like his teacher when fully trained (a notable difference from the Socratic approach). Jesus teaches against hypocrites.

After proclaiming his moral teaching in Luke, Jesus returns to Capernaum healing sick people, and raising people from the dead. Notably, this moral goal – healing illness and extending life is a primary objective of the modern medical and technological fields. In other words, they are not “value-free” projects.

At any rate, John the Baptist (imprisoned) has two of his followers go to Jesus and ask if he is the messiah, to which he merely responds with miracles – more healings and so on. These signs and wonders are intended to be sufficient.

At any rate, we encounter Mary called Magdalene first in Chapter 8: she had seven demons cast out of her. He teaches by means of parables, the word of God needing to be placed in good soil by his followers so it may grow and save people (again referring to Luke‘s need to spread the teaching throughout the region). Curiously, his mother and brothers are prevented from getting close to him among the crowd, but Jesus shuns them saying his disciples are his mother and brothers now.

Chapter 9 is why Luke is the chosen book for missionaries – take nothing for the journey but live on the word of God.

Meanwhile, Herod has beheaded John the Baptist and becomes perturbed by Jesus’s teaching. He sends out the twelve to preach his word. They see another man performing an exorcism and try to stop him, but Jesus says whoever is not against you is for you. Then Jesus sends out 72 to preach his word.

A lawyer asks Jesus – ‘what is needed to gain eternal life?’ and Jesus asks him what he has read, and he responds – ‘You shall love Yahweh your God from your whole heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus is pleased with the response. In wanting to know more, the lawyer asks who is my neighbor? So Jesus responds with the parable of the “Good Samaritan” in Chapter 10. The Lord’s prayer is repeated in Chapter 11. Jesus is tested as he commits more exorcisms, as being a follower of Baalzibub.

Jesus continues laments with “woe to this generation” who longs for a “sign” that he is God. However, the only sign is that of “Jonah” -another example of Luke being a book for missionaries. He encourages the people of “this generation” to be lit like a lamp, and to be open and willing, not closed and stingy with skepticism. He starts preaching woe to lawyer and pharisees and the Jewish elders. He proclaims a life without concern for false financial security, and to instead “consider the lilies” and focus on storing up riches with God. He claims to come bringing division, dividing houses, and to cast fire upon the earth.

Gradually as Luke proceeds, the book has become increasingly more radical. In addition, it becomes increasingly more esoteric, as he preaches a vast number of parables, particularly later in the text. Also, the kingdom of God is revealed to be “within you” (17:21). His triumphant entry into Jerusalem is detailed and he goes to the temple to clear it of vendors. He prophecies the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the vindication of the son of Man and the kingdom of heaven. Then the standard story of Jesus’s betrayal and execution is recounted. After rising from the dead he appears to the women, to two men, and then his apostles. He prays with them about sending them out into the world to preach the word, and while blessing them near Bethany, he ascends into heaven while his disciples return to Jerusalem and continue praising God in the temple. Thus concludes the book of Luke.

Acts

The central problem of the Book of Acts, or the “Acts of the Apostles,” is that the teaching of Jesus came to the Jews who rejected it, so it is now being offered to the Gentiles (non-Jewish peoples) of the Aegean and Central Asia. It is a defense, or a response, to the question: how did the Messiah of the Jews, come to be the Christ of a non-Jewish Church?

Acts appears to be the sequel to Luke, as acknowledged in the author’s preface where he mentions his “first book”. Jesus presented himself to his disciples after death by means of “many proofs” or “demonstrations” -as discussed in detail in John. Then Jesus ascends into heaven in a “cloud” and tow robed men appear and mention that Jesus will reappear in the same way. When they return to Jerusalem Peter suggests they cast lots for who will replace Judas, and Matthias, a follower not appointed by Jesus wins the lottery. In Jerusalem they also experience a loud, tempestuous wind that allows the great multitude to speak in their many languages yet understand one another. This leads Peter to preach about Jesus. Peter and John begin healing people, and thus they are arrested, as well, but soon freed. The apostles live “each according to his needs” (recall the famous Marxist maxim) and even sell their homes to provide for the group. A couple is killed by the Holy Spirit for failing to give over their entire property to the apostles – they are stricken dead miraculously.

Many other “signs and wonders” are recounted, such as the apostles being freed from prison miraculously to teach in the temple. Many of the followers are persecuted, like Stephen who is stoned to death by the elders. While being stoned, he called out to God to forgive them. Saul, ruler of Jerusalem, brought great persecution against the Church and thus scattered the apostles after Stephen’s death. Philip preaches and heals in Samaria, Simon preaches and performs “magic” in Samaria (8:11). Then, Saul, a political and religious leader in Jerusalem, miraculously is converted by a revelation from Jesus. Saul was one of those who condemned Stephen to death by stoning. HE imprisoned many early Christians (Saul later became “Paul” of Tarsus). Peter preaches the word to all “in every nation” at Caesarea (on the Israeli coast) after a man named Cornelius receives a vision, and Peter also receives as a vision.

James, brother of John, is put to death by the sword by king Herod, and Peter is again imprisoned and then freed miraculously by an “angel.” Much of the apostles proselytizing takes place in Antioch – an ancient city in Eastern Greece not far from Ankara, Turkey.

Paul’s Conversion

Saul (or “Paul”)’s conversion takes place in Chapter 9. He is on his way to Damascus to try to find any followers of “The Way” (early Christianity) so he can imprison them. Suddenly, a light from heaven flashes around him and asks him why he is persecuting Jesus’s followers. Saul’s followers are speechless, and Saul is stricken blind for three days and he also does not eat or drink. Ananias is told in a vision to go to Saul to fulfill Saul’s vision and heal him. When Ananias arrives, ‘something like scales’ fall from Saul’s eyes. Saul began spending time with the disciples in Damascus and starts preaching about Jesus in the synagogues. He eventually wins over the disciples and flees the elder Jews who try to kill him.

The remainder of Acts gives accounts of the followers of “The Way” throughout the region, including Paul fleeing the Jewish elders while preaching throughout the Roman Empire. The elder Jewish men believe he is a revolutionary of the “Nazarene sect.” It ends as Paul is imprisoned and then put under house arrest in Rome while still teaching about the “kingdom of heaven.”

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