Luke: Who Are the Many?
Many have undertaken to draw up an account… (Luke 1:1 [NIV])
As I said in my previous post, Luke begins by alerting us that he’s going to say something that “many” have so far failed to say. Who are these “many”? We don’t know. But we can make some educated guesses.
Most scholars believe that Luke wrote sometime in the 70s, about 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. This puts it about the same time as Matthew, after Mark, and before John. Some insist that because Acts ends with Paul’s arrival in Rome and doesn’t mention Paul’s execution in 64, Luke must have completed his work before Paul’s execution. But we should remember that Luke tells us not only what happened, but what it meant. Symbolism is important and, as I said before, Luke does nothing by accident. His major movement tracks the Gospel coming from Galilee to Jerusalem, then to Samaria, and finally to the Gentiles. Paul’s arrival in Rome represents the great victory: the Gospel comes to the seat of Empire itself. This final movement provides the finale for Luke’s narrative of the Gospel. The martyrdom of Paul (and of Peter as well) adds nothing to this movement– and for Luke, the Word eclipses those who carried it. Acts does not tell Paul’s or Peter’s story, it tells God’s. As a writer, Luke need not include all information, only that relevant to the narrative.
So let’s assume that Luke and Acts were indeed written in the 70s. This gives us more context to guess at who the “many” may have been. Paul’s letters were in circulation. The Gospel of Mark had already been written. These two sources are fairly certain.
Many scholars think there existed a written collection of the sayings of Jesus, which they call Q, used by both Matthew and Luke (as well as Thomas, and may have been available to Paul as well), but no copy of it has ever been found. Did Q actually exist? Possibly.
Some argue that Luke had access to Matthew’s gospel. I tend to agree, having found literary evidence that Luke responds to some of Matthew’s positions. I’ll write more on this later, but let me give as example the language Luke uses in his version of the parable of the lost sheep. Matthew emphasizes the sheep on the mountain– the symbolic representation of Zion as the place to which the nations come– using language that echoes Isaiah. This was important symbolism for the Jewish community. But it put Jews at the center of Christianity. Matthew was a Jew writing to a church of Jewish Christians. Luke, on the other hand, emphasizes that the Gospel goes out to the Gentiles. His version of the parable emphasizes the wilderness and doesn’t mention the mountain at all. We can see a similar change in the Beatitudes, placed by Matthew on a mountain but by Luke on a plain, a level place. For Luke, equal access for the Gentiles is a major theme.
Let’s consider another possibility: The Gospel of John claims to have been written by an eyewitness. Scholars still debate whether John the Apostle or someone else wrote it. In one theory, admittedly not widely held, the “beloved disciple” refers to Lazarus, the one man John’s gospel tells us Jesus loved. Moreover, it would make sense to wonder if Lazarus would ever die (John 21:23), since he already had. Some believe that the name “John” comes from the man who transcribed Lazarus’s words, possibly “John, whose other name was Mark” (Acts 15:37). Considering this in depth would take more time and space than this post allows. However, this eyewitness probably had already begun teaching, and Luke may have had access to those teachings as well. We do see some interesting common word use between Luke and John.
In summary, we really don’t know what sources Luke had. Certainly Paul and Mark had been written. Possibly he also read Matthew, Thomas, and an early version of John. And the mysterious document called Q remains a possibility.
We can say one thing with certainty: the Greek word for “many,” πολλοὶ, emphasizes the number being considered. It can be translated “multitudinous.” Luke responds to more than just one or two accounts. And it shouldn’t surprise us, even before Christianity became widespread, that the momentous events of the life of Jesus created a great deal of talk and written consideration.
Luke tells us that he plans to tell the story in a way it hasn’t been told before. And that’s exactly what he does.