The Gospel of Luke’s Preface as Classical Greek Historiography

In 2011, John Moles of the School of Historical Studies at Newcastle University closely examined the preface of the Gospel of Luke (1:1-4). The Preface reads as follows,

“Since indeed many have set their hand to draw up a narrative guide about the things done which have been brought to fulfilment amongst us, (2) just as those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and servants of the word gave them on to us, (3) it seemed good to me also, having closely followed all of them accurately from the up, to write/inscribe them down for you in order, most powerful Theophilos, (4) so that you may additionally know/experience/recognise the truth/security/safety about the words in which you have been orally instructed” (1:1-4).

Moles argues that this Preface contains signs resembling Greek decree and is therefore best viewed as part of Classical Greek historiography. The Preface evokes “primarily the ‘Classical’ historiography of Herodotus and Thucydides and their followers, including Polybius” (p. 463). This has also been noticed by other scholars. Eckhard Plümacher, for example, has highlighted the Preface’s Thucydidean quality (1). According to Moles,

“The single type of writing that Luke’s Preface resembles most is the Greek decree. Along with other indications, the structure situates Luke in the tradition of Classical historiography. It also creates important links to the narrative, helping to define: the relationships between Roman power and Christianity and between Classical and Lukan historiography; the character of the Christian politeia; the superiority of Lukan historiography both to Classical and to previous Christian historiography; the superiority of Lukan Christian doctrine; and the superiority of the ‘reward’ from Luke’s Christian ‘contract’ to the ‘rewards’ of the Classical historians Thucydides, Livy and Augustus and to those of the Roman politeia” (p. 461).

And again,

“Luke’s Preface imitates Herodotus multiply in the ‘equation’ of theme and treatment. There are numerous other commonalities: use of λόγος for ‘historical account’; characterisation of the theme as neuter ‘things’, followed by a middle/ passive verb (Hdt. Praef.); concern with ‘beginnings’ (Herodotus 1.5.3); use of αὐτόπται; ‘road imagery’, including the idea of text as journey (Herodotus 1.5.4); claim to represent the Truth (Herodotus 1.5.4); and inversion of ‘big things’ and ‘small things’ (Herodotus 1.5.3-4)” (p. 478).

Much recent discussion of Luke’s Preface has been motivated by biblical historian Loveday Alexander’s claim that there are strikingly close and numerous parallels regarding thought, structure, rhetoric and vocabulary with the prefaces of scientific, medical, or technical works (2). According to this perspective, because Luke’s narrative exhibits a similar ‘professional-man’ style, indicative of his general culture and social status and those of his projected readership/audience, the Preface should accordingly be read as that of a technical/scientific work.

Nonetheless, several arguments have been given in favor for reading the Preface as historiographical, perhaps the most decisive is the use of the Greek word διήγησιν. Although this word does not necessarily denote narrative, it does do so when it is a διήγησις of “the things done which have been brought to fulfilment amongst us”. This indicates a series of past events and a “narrative” of past events, especially one that is “drawn up”/“written up” “accurately” and “in order”, and with a beginning and an end. This denotes historiography, hence history consisting of “things that happened or that were done”. As Moles writes, after this immediate generic ‘signal’, readers must read the rest of the Preface historiographically. Moles explains further,

“In the Preface, the first clause consists of an ἐπεί-clause, giving the first justification for Luke’s work, as relating to past and present circumstances; the third clause is a main clause stating a decision and based on the impersonal ‘it seemed good’, plus dative; and the fourth clause is a ἵνα clause, giving the secondary justification for Luke’s decision to write, as relating to the future. There are, then, objective parallels with the format and vocabulary of Greek decrees and no less than three quarters of the syntactical structure are closely parallel” (p. 465).

Importantly, as a writer whose Preface employed a classical historiographical approach, this is not to say that Luke’s author did not have biases and a motive for writing,

“Here, however, there is a double implication, because ‘the truth’ is not merely ‘a true account of the events I have chosen to narrate’ (the usual historiographical claim) but ‘the Truth’: everything readers need to know about ‘life, death and the whole damn thing’. Grammatically, the περί phrase can function as a periphrasis for a genitive, and ‘I shall tell the truth of Christianity’ means both ‘I shall give a true account of Christianity’ and ‘I shall show that Christianity is true’ (genitive of definition)” (p. 476).

But being biased no more expunges Luke’s author from the classical historiographical tradition as does Herodotus’ biases of him being “naturally predisposed in favour of certain political myths, and whose ethical and literary interests were stronger than his critical faculty” (3).

Luke’s Preface is also unique because within Greek decree it is unusual for the impersonal “it seemed good” to “be followed by a singular person, as if of a people or a constitutional body, or by a first person, whether singular or plural, with similar implication” (p. 466). 

Important in the Preface is the sentence “just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word”. The notion of “handed down” or “giving on” is “school” terminology (p. 467). Luke’s author is also aware of the “inscriptional inheritance of Greek historiography, and referencing it strengthens his own work’s historiographical character” (p. 469). Moles notices important similarities between the work of classical historians and Luke’s Preface,

“[It] implies the same sort of general claims as in the Classical historians mentioned: concrete memorialisation; formal weightiness; the ‘authority’ of this ‘author’ (= ‘I am the authority here’); the public nature, availability, utility, durability and ‘monumentality’ of this work, parallel to, but exceeding, those of public decrees published on fixed and perishable media such as bronze or stone. Like those Classical historians, Luke hereby targets as wide a ‘public’ as possible. We should immediately applaud his skill in weaving the decree format into the many-stranded fabric of his Preface” (p. 469).

Similar classical historiographical signs are also found in the book of Acts, which was also written by Luke’s author: “Certainly, ‘know the truth’ is part of the meaning. There are good parallels in Acts and elsewhere; the sentiment is standard in historiography, as ‘professional works’” (p. 475-476).

References

Moles, John. 2011. “Luke’s Preface: The Greek Decree, Classical Historiography and Christian Redefintions”. New Testament Studies 57:461-482.

1. Plümacher, Eckhard. 2006. “Stichwort: Lukas, Historiker”. ZNT – Zeitschrift für Neues Testament 18:2-8.  

2. Alexander, Loveday. 1978. “Luke–Acts in its Contemporary Setting with Special Reference to the Prefaces (Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1)”. D.Phil. thesis; Oxford.

3. Sherwin-White, A. N. 1963. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 191.

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