According to early church traditions, Luke was a Jewish, Greek-speaking physician who accompanied Paul on his three journeys, and was chosen to write the third Gospel because his knowledge of Greek was better than most of the other writers in the church at that time. Even his use of language gives a hint about his social and cultural origins since it was composed in the same style as technical books and the type of Greek used by artisans and urban officialdom in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Luke was not from the elite or aristocracy, unlike the many Roman critics of Christianity, but probably from the artisan or techne caste to which even physicians belonged in the ancient world. Both Paul and Jesus were also from the same stratum of society, and the early Christian message seemed to resonate particularly well with the freed slaves, artisans and craftsmen of the cities and towns. His Gospel placed particular emphasis on social and economic justice, and proclaiming Jesus as having brought the Good News to the poor, the marginalized, slaves, women, children, prostitutes and outcasts. He ministered to their physical and spiritual needs, forgave their sins and welcomed them into the Kingdom of God. All of this gives a strong hint as to the social and cultural status of Luke's religious community, along with the fact that he also attempted to shift the blame for the death of Jesus away from the Roman authorities.
Possible Social and Cultural Background of Luke and His Religious Community
Luke's Gospel is most similar the classical biography in that it presents Jesus as a great hero of divine origin and favored by God from birth, who lived a virtuous life and is finally killed by his enemies. He followed the same structure as Matthew, describing the virgin birth, the ministry in Galilee, the journey to Jerusalem, and the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. He also had all the sayings of Jesus from the "Q" source (Quelle) but edited and rearranged these in the middle section to create a new pattern (Black, 2001, p. 73). Church tradition dating from the 2nd Century described Luke as a physician and companion of Paul on his missionary journeys, and that he also used Mark as a source (Comfort, 2008, p. 156). Dennis McDonalds carried theory further and suggested that Mark and the other Synoptic Gospel writers used the Iliad and the Odyssey as literary models. He described the original narrative as a "hypotext" that "relies somehow on a written antecedent" (McDonald, p. 2).
Specifically, Mark and his successors may have used Books 22 and 24 of the Iliad as models for the death and burial of Jesus, in which Achilles brutally kills Hector and then releases the body to his father, King Priam of Troy. Hector's soul went to Hades and never returned, but of course Jesus was resurrected on the third day, even if his rather dim disciples failed to recognize him initially. He maintained that the Odyssey was the most important model, however, with Jesus playing the role of King Odysseus and his disciples the frightened, confused and not terribly bright crew of his ship. When he finally arrived back home after many adventures in the Aegean Sea, he found that the suitors of Penelope have been literally eating him out of house and home while he was off fighting the Trojan War. These men represented the evil and corrupt Temple authorities in Jerusalem, the scribes, priests and Pharisees who collaborate with the Romans and conspire with Pilate to have him executed. Jesus takes direct action against them when he drives the moneychangers out of the Temple, but naturally does not use the same level of lethal force as Odysseus, since he is "more compassionate, powerful, noble, and inured to suffering" than the Greek warrior-king (McDonald, p. 6).
This carries the thesis of classical literary models much further than most scholars are willing to follow, even for those Gospel writers who were particularly oriented to and integrated in the Gentile world, as Luke was. None of the Gospels were written in the classical or literary Greek of the social elites, and Luke's use of the language reflected an acquaintance with officialdom and with technical works such as a physician or artisan might have read. He had little knowledge of "Greek classical literature or was little interested in it," no more than an artisan or craftsman, and in social status at the time, doctors were considered part of that techne caste rather than the middle of upper classes, as in modern society (Loveday, 1993, p. 176). Luke and the other Gospel writers were not taken serious by aristocratic Roman enemies of Christianity like Celsus, dismissed them as "vulgar and illiterate persons," peasants and sailors, little better than slaves (Loveday, p. 180). Indeed, many artisans were freed slaves, or at least descended from them, and the early Christian message seemed to be particularly popular among this group in the cities and towns of the Roman Empire.
All the Synoptic Gospels have the same structure about the trial, execution and burial of Jesus, possibly based on Mark, which was written for the church in Rome. Matthew was written for the Jewish Christians, possibly in Alexandria or even Jerusalem, but identifying Luke's specific community has always been more problematic. He addressed his Gospel to a Roman official named Theophilus (literally 'lover of God) which no other Gospel writer did, and church tradition indicates that Luke was Jewish, but also a Greek-speaking missionary to the Gentiles who knew the language better than the other Gospel writers. Because of his audience, he put special emphasis on the complete innocence of Jesus, and had both King Herod and Pontius Pilate repeatedly declare him guiltless. Some scholars have speculated that Luke was particularly "anxious to mediate between the fledgling Christian church and that social and political world," by blaming the Jewish crowds and Temple leaders for the death of Jesus rather than the Roman authorities (Senior, 1990, p. 12). His religious community also seems to have been particularly interested in "the universal mission of the church," and may have suffered persecution and economic hardship because of their faith (Senior, p. 11). Luke's Gospel repeatedly has Jesus blessing the poor and the marginalized as well as condemning the corrupt and greedy rich, especially those who refuse to give charity.
Luke and the Gospel of the Poor
In Luke's Gospel, one of the most important goals of Jesus is to proclaim the Good News to the poor, the marginalized and the outcasts of society and welcome them into the Kingdom of God. Jesus had literally come as a physician to the sinners, including even despised tax collectors who had spent their lives robbing and cheating the people. If they repented and made restitution, they were also welcome to his table and into the community of God. For most of the rich and powerful, the aristocratic elite of that world (and this one) money was "a source of security apart from God" and human society (Green, 1995, p. 86). Luke illustrates this point with the story of the beggar Lazarus, who literally waited outside the gate of his house to be fed like a dog with scraps from the table. When he dies, though, he goes immediately to heaven while the arrogant and greedy rich man ends up in Hades, begging for even a drop of water. As a physician in the ancient world, Luke's understand of illness and the human body would have been very different from the medical-scientific theories of the modern world. For him and his audience, the miraculous healings of Jesus were a sign of "the presence of a divine reality in the human sphere" (Weissenreider, 2003, p.2).
Jesus almost always performed his healings before a large crows, including his enemies among the priests, Sadducees and Pharisees, and made a point of assisting the poor and the outcasts of society, including lepers, demoniacs, and women. He cleansed and healed them, cast our their demons, forgave their sins and welcomed them into the family of God, which of course only further enraged his enemies. He welcomed women and children into the family of God (despite their extremely low social status), ate with sinners and prostitutes, healed the slave of a Roman centurian, and blessed the poor and purified lepers. So great is his reputation that even when he is dying on the cross another Roman centurian confesses that he is indeed the Son of God (Green, pp. 89-90). Throughout Luke's Gospel, Jesus is highly "attuned to the voice of the poor and the marginalized," and reports that even when he was on the cross, he forgave the good thief (or murderer) and welcomed him into paradise (Senior, p. 9).
Although Luke's Gospel has always been classified as one of the Synoptic Gospels that used Mark and Q. As source material, it contains a number of unique features that indicate…