Here are some aids as you study the Gospel of Luke:
The Gospel of Luke is the longest of the four gospel accounts, and Luke is the only one to write a follow-up volume: the book of Acts. Discussion of when exactly the various gospels were written and who depended on who, and so on, is a massive issue and cannot here be entered into.
The Gospel of Luke has many similarities with the other two synoptic gospels – and John as well. As Stephen Wright puts it: “The core of Luke’s narrative is shared with Matthew and Mark, and its basic shape with John. Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed God’s kingdom, called and taught disciples, restored the victims of spiritual, physical, and social dysfunction, encountered opposition, was crucified, and rose from death.”
But there are some differences as well. Writing one and a half centuries ago J. C. Ryle mentioned some of them:
St. Luke’s Gospel contains many precious things which are not recorded in the other three Gospels. For example, the histories of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the angel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary, and, in general terms, the first two chapters of his Gospel. Only St. Luke records the conversions of Zacchaeus and the penitent thief, the walk to Emmaus, and the famous parables of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the Lost Son.
Authorship and purpose
As mentioned, there is no end of discussion and debate about things like authorship, dating and dependency when it comes to the gospels. Entire libraries exist to deal with such matters. One’s theological leanings will in part determine how one proceeds here. Those in the very liberal theological camp will have major scepticism and concerns with just about everything, not least of which the ‘quest for the historical Jesus’.
Here I will run with those who are more conservative in outlook. In his short, popular-level commentary N. T. Wright says this: “I wish we knew for sure who the author of this book was, but actually we don’t. . . . A fair guess is probably that he was indeed Luke, one of Paul’s companions, and that he was writing in the 60s and 70s.”
Larger commentaries with detailed introductions will look at the various options. (Which is why I divide my recommended commentaries into critical commentaries, which almost always discuss at length such matters, and devotional ones that seldom do.) And most of these will come down with somewhat firmer conclusions. For example, in his discussion of authorship in his Teach the Text commentary, R. T. France writes:
The only “Luke” we know from the New Testament was an associate of Paul, described as one of his “fellow workers” (Philem. 24; cf. 2 Tim. 4:11), and as “our dear friend Luke, the doctor” (Col. 4:14). It is unlikely that such a relatively obscure person would be credited with the authorship of these two important books unless his name was already firmly associated with them in Christian tradition, and no other name was ever proposed as author; most scholars accept the attribution.
Or as David Garland puts it, “Though Luke does not attach his name to the gospel or Acts, the author would have been known from the start since he includes a specific dedication to Theophilus. Complete anonymity would have been impossible. Traditions external to the New Testament unanimously attribute the gospel to Luke from an early date.”
As to Luke’s purpose in writing the gospel, the first four verses lay out his intention: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
He wants Theophilus in particular and all readers in general to have certainty about the truthfulness that he writes about concerning Jesus. As many have pointed out, the gospels are not strict biographies. They do have theological motivation behind them. But as Dale Ralph Davis reminds us in his brand-new commentary:
Some might object that since Luke and others had an agenda (to win people to Jesus) they obviously must have ‘souped up’ the truth in order to make their account more convincing. But they dared not do that. There were gobs of eyewitnesses around in the first century and not all eyewitnesses were pro-Jesus. In the first century there were many eyewitnesses who were hostile to Jesus and opposed to the apostles. If the early Christians, whether in written accounts or in oral witness, had exaggerated or twisted the truth, they would’ve been exposed by the ‘anti-Jesus’ coalition. They had to be careful with their claims. So, it is simply not true that evangelism compromises historicity; rather, evangelism demands accuracy. And since such care was taken for truth, you need to face its claims.
Or as New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has said in his very important 500-page work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006):
The Gospels, though in some ways a very different form of historiography, share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted. Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he needed to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy). This, at least, was historiographic best practice, represented and theorized by such generally admired historians as Thucydides and Polybius.
Here then are some recommended commentaries on the book of Luke. As usual, my selection features works that are relatively recent, and mainly reflect a more or less evangelical and conservative point of view.
Luke commentaries – devotional and expository
Davis, Dale Ralph, Luke, 2 vols. (FOTB, 2021)
Hughes, R. Kent, Luke (PTW, 2015)
Ryken, Philip, Luke, 2 vols. (REC, 2009)
Ryle, J. C., Luke (Crossway, 1858, 1997)
Sproul, R. C., Luke (Reformation Trust, 2020)
Luke commentaries – academic and critical
Bock, Darrell, Luke (NIVAC, 1996)
Bock, Darrell, Luke, 2 vols. (BECNT, 1994, 1996)
Caird, G. B., Saint Luke (Penguin, 1963)
Edwards, James, The Gospel According to Luke (PNTC, 2015)
Evans, Craig, Luke (NIBC, 1990)
Fitzmyer, Joseph, The Gospel According to Luke, 2 vols. (AB, 1981, 1985)
France, R. T., Luke (TTC, 2013)
Garland, David, Luke (ZECNT, 2011)
Geldenhuys, J. Norval, The Gospel of Luke (NICNT, 1951)
Green, Joel, The Gospel of Luke (NICNT, 1997)
Liefeld, Walter, Luke (EBC, 1984)
Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke (NIGTC, 1978)
Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to St. Luke (TNTC, 1974)
Nolland, John, Luke, 3 vols. (WBC, 1989-1993)
Spencer, F. Scott, Luke (THNTC, 2019)
Stein, Robert, Luke (NAC, 1992)
Wilcock, Michael, The Message of Luke (BST, 1979)
Wright, N. T., Luke for Everyone (WJK, 2001, 2004)
It would be difficult if I were asked to select a handful of my top recommendations here. However, if pressed, I would likely select these four: Bock (BECNT), Garland, Nolland and Spencer. As to forthcoming commentaries on Luke, keep an eye out for Richard Bauckham (ICC), Stanley Porter (EEC), and Nicholas Perrin (TNTC).
Happy reading and happy study.
(For Australian readers, many of these titles can be found at Koorong: www.koorong.com/ )