Luke 1: The Prologue
Luke introduces his Gospel with a long prologue, a run-on sentence that spans four verses. This cannot compare with some of Paul’s, to be sure. But for many years it did discourage me from looking at it closely. I discovered much later what I’d missed. Luke’s prologue is rich in meaning. It tells us much about Luke’s perspective, and what he intends his Gospel to do.
But much of that gets lost in the conventional English translations because they stay close to the literal meaning. We shouldn’t dismiss the literal meaning, of course. But Greek and English differ greatly. Some words in Greek carry a more specific meaning than their English counterparts. And some Greek words allow much more ambiguity than the English translation.
Let’s take, for example, the Greek word ἐν, a simple preposition meaning “in.” In is in, right? How complicated could it be? Yet the definition of the word isn’t quite that simple:
properly, in (inside, within); (figuratively) “in the realm (sphere) of,” as in the condition (state) in which something operates from the inside (within).
You can see that this doesn’t entirely correspond with the English word “in,” and we don’t really have a word that carries that meaning.
Many translators substitute the English word “among.” That’s because for someone in 1st century Greco-Roman culture, perhaps especially in Jewish culture, a person was identified with the group to which they belonged. Where a Greek-speaker might say that something happened “in” a group, we as individualists would be more likely to say “among” the members of the group.
When we look at a translation like the NRSV and compare it with the Greek, we find that it leaves out a lot of the subtle meaning of the words. It comes out flat and lifeless. The NIV offers little improvement. And the KJV, while its language remains beautiful, doesn’t really come close.
But when we depart from the literal translation, we are challenged to remain true to the author’s actual meaning. Whenever we try to mix connotation with denotation, we risk distorting the meaning. As I translated this passage, I tried to consider its literal meaning, the more subtle implications of the words used, and the text it introduces. It took more words to convey the meaning, and the sentence was already too long for English, so I split it in two. Both sentences are still long, but I don’t see how to break them down further without losing meaning.
So here, for better or worse, is my translation.
Many have tried to arrange an encompassing narrative to express the magnitude of the things revealed in and among us, which from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word have passed on to us. As one who has been involved myself, and after careful investigation of every part of the story, it seemed good to me to put this in a narrative to you, most noble Theophilus, so that you would come to experience that which you have been told and thus know it with certainty.
You’ll notice that in this translation, Luke emphasizes the aspect of revelation, that Jesus’s life and death revealed something new and astounding that others have not adequately conveyed. Obviously the most prominent feature for Luke was the inclusion of the Gentiles– us. But as we work through his Gospel, we’ll see more. For Luke, the coming and work of the Holy Spirit among (and within) us cannot be overstated. While Mark, like Luke emphasized an economic message, for Luke this economic shift is inseparable from the Holy Spirit and the Kingdom.
Another aspect that this translation includes is the distinction between head knowledge, “that which you have been told,” and heart knowledge, that which we truly know because we have experienced it. The Greek word ἐπιγνῷς means not just learning, but knowing through experience or relationship.
Luke intends for his Gospel to achieve that experience and relationship. He wants not to convince us, but to bring us into relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit. He wants to influence not merely our minds, but our hearts.