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The Core Curriculum


50 CE – 120 CE

  Saint Luke by James Tissot, c. 1886-1894 (Wikimedia Commons) Saint Luke by James Tissot, c. 1886-1894 (Wikimedia Commons) All four Gospels—the Greek word for gospel is euangelion, which literally means “good news”—in the New Testament, despite their titles, were written anonymously. In the second and third centuries, however, Christians began to associate the authorship of these anonymously written gospels with particular figures in the early Christian movement. While these attributions remain affixed to the canonical gospels down to the present day, their historical veracity is unclear.



At the turn of the third century, Christian writers attested a tradition that associated the figure of Luke mentioned in the Epistle to the Colossians—a physician and friend of the apostle Paul (Col. 4:14)—with the author of the Third Gospel (2 Tim. 4:11 and Philem. 24 similarly reference a person named Luke, though there is no mention of his occupation). The historical or literary reasons why and how Luke came to be associated with the author of the Third Gospel is without definitive explanation. There is no evidence in the Third Gospel itself to indicate that the text was written by the Luke mentioned in Colossians, Philemon, and 2 Timothy. Whether Luke the physician or a different Christian named Luke actually wrote the Acts of the Apostle and Gospel that bears his name remains uncertain.

Biblical scholars now agree that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were authored by the same ancient writer. Though born a Greek, at some point in his life the nameless author seems to have been drawn to Judaism as a proselyte, a partial adherent, or perhaps even as a full convert. The author—who omits any specific information about his occupation, location, or family—was a well-educated Greek speaker, trained in both Greek rhetoric and Jewish methods of scriptural exegesis. His refined prose style indicates that he likely came from an upper class family. Textual evidence suggests that he may have hailed from the region of Macedonia, though this is contested among scholars. His background in Judaism, whether as a full convert or a partial adherent, and his knowledge of the Jewish scriptures provide the immediate context for his involvement in the early Christian movement.   


The Vision of Saint John by El Greco, c. 1608–1614 (Wikimedia Commons)The Vision of Saint John by El Greco, c. 1608–1614 (Wikimedia Commons) John

The Gospel of John presents its author as the unnamed figure of the “beloved disciple” (Jn. 19:26), who testifies both to the crucifixion and the risen Christ (Jn. 19:35, 21:20,24). In the third book of his polemical treatise Against Heresies, Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 180 C.E.) identified the beloved disciple as John, son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles, who lived at Ephesus until the turn of the second century (Against Heresies III.1.1).

While early Christians accepted the tradition associating John, son of Zebedee, with the Fourth Gospel, modern scholars debate the identity of the beloved disciple. Additionally, stylistic and syntactical oddities in the text have led some to hypothesize that very early in its history the text underwent a process of editing at the hands of an unknown, though ideologically and communally related, redactor. What is clear, however, is that the author and his editor viewed themselves as belonging to a tradition of disciple loved by Jesus


Written by Todd BerzonDepartment of Religion, Columbia University


Works Consulted

Bovon, François. Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50. Hermenia Series. Edited by Helmut Koester. Translated by Christine M. Thomas. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002

Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997

Brown, Raymond E. The Community of the Beloved Disciple. New York: Paulist, 1979

Edwards, Mark J. John. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004

Ehrman, Bart D., and Bruce M. Metzger. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005