One of the recurring comments I have read over the years about Luke the Evangelist is that he was the church’s first historian, and that his Acts is a history. You know, there’s the oft-repeated idea that the Acts of the Apostles is a history of the early church.
In the ancient Greek tradition, the two predominant historians were Herodotus and Thucydides. The latter, writing during the Peloponnesian War, which led to the ruin of Athens, considered himself the first serious historian, writing his history based off evidence — speeches he heard or had reported to him by reliable witnesses.
In the centuries since Thucydides wrote, the Romans entered the scene and took over the Mediterranean region and along with it, the remains of the empire of Alexander the Great. Building on the Greeks, the Romans had their own historians. By the first century, among the most famous was Livy, who wrote the History of Rome.
This history was an origins narrative, explaining how Rome came to be, and came to rule. But in this sense, there was a commonality with Thucydides and Herodotus — history is a search for origins. For Thucydides, the origin he examined was what led to the defeat of Athens.
Luke begins his Gospel with an explanation that he is writing a narrative (v. 1), and that these events about which he is writing “were handed down to us” by certain people (v. 2). These people, who he does not name, “became from the beginning eyewitnesses and servants [i.e., “at your service/in your service] of the word.” They were not eyewitnesses — they became so, hence the use of γενομενοι, which means “became/were made.”
In Luke 1. 1 – 2, Luke writes that his narrative is an orderly account based off what was handed down by people who became reliable eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So Luke is establishing to the Roman ear that this narrative has an origin of Jesus’s life (Mark’s Gospel does not), and so they should listen to it. The reference to the account have been “handed down” is a phrase of familiarity to them, and the mention of Augustus in Luke 2 highlights to the Romans the period in question.
To the Romans, for whom chronology was important in history writing, this was essential to provide. And so this is how the Gospel and Acts were written. But, rather than being a history of the early church, or even the life of Jesus, as is commonly stated, Luke-Acts is a “history of the word of God,” from Jesus to Paul, from Galilee and Jerusalem to Rome (Luke 1 – 2; Acts 28).
There is something about Livy’s work which is interesting. In the beginning of the history, he writes: “It has been handed down to us, as a certain fact . . . .” Is Luke referencing Livy and Thucydides here? Both Luke and Livy begin with a reference to things handed down, as fact, and he alludes (as per Thucydides) to the presence of eyewitnesses. This word “eyewitnesses” appears only once in all of Scripture, and it appears only here, in verse 2. And in Luke 2, he announces the birth of Jesus by referencing how this happened during the days of the decree of emperor Augustus that the whole world then be registered in a census (2. 1).
If we consider that the name Luke is actually Latin (i.e., Lucas, Lucius, Lucianus), the prospect that Luke was writing specifically to the Romans as a civilization is plausible, but why did he choose this narrative format, and what was his message to them?
It is plausible, and likely, that Luke-Acts is an invitation to the Romans, within Rome and beyond, to find this word as worthy of their table fellowship, and to find common space with the people they considered barbarians or subjects of theirs, including the Jews of their time.
Think about it –the Romans considered themselves to have been the greatest civilization ever. They beat the Greeks and absorbed their culture as needed, and introduced to their known world paved roads, aqueducts, and architecture. They also introduced the notion that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and they were proud of their legal system.
Why would the powerful Roman families adopt a teaching that had a genesis within Judaism, a people with whom the Romans kept mostly professional and strictly non-social relations? After all, the Jews functioned to the Romans as “less-than.” So, what would draw a Roman to the Gospel, whose origin (a la Luke 24) is in the law and the prophets?
Luke’s ingenious approach has much to do with answering this. Under Roman practice, practicing Jews did not have to offer incense to the emperor, merely to pray for him. The reason is that Judaism predated the Roman empire, and this was a concession and acknowledgement of Roman society. If the Good News and, therefore, Luke-Acts is a “history of the word” in the time of the Romans, but whose antecedents go back to the Law, then by extension, Rome has been made a part of Luke’s, and thus Scripture’s, history. Are we not speaking of the word of the Cross to this day?
To explain further, the Romans were presented with an opportunity to receive the Good News as a privilege; to accept the history into which they were written (by Luke) and submit to it, or to go their own way as they were and leave the world in the same condition.
Secondly, those barbarians. The natural tendency of an elitist Roman would be to see in the barbarians as uncouth and immoral peoples, with whom virtuous Romans would have no dealings. At best, they are a conquered peoples. But how could they not listen to the trial of Jesus in Luke 23 before Pilate and not also conclude that, they too, are no less brutal? Where is there virtue in a society if the innocent are so easily disposed?
Thirdly, by ending Luke with table fellowship, a staple of the Roman society, Luke now makes of his Luke-Acts the subject of table conversation. How can a powerful Roman patrician, who would dispose of a biological progeny at will, not have to re-assess his “house rules” after hearing Luke 15 and the parable of the Prodigal Son? How could a patrician bury his slaves under harshness when in Luke 18 even the blind man has been given a voice?
As such, Luke-Acts is a true book of evangelization, of the spreading of the Good News, uniting Jew and Gentile at table. Luke-Acts is thus the door through which the Gentile could come to know Jesus Christ and the word he carried with him to the cross (Luke 24. 44 – 49).