In the last blog, we explored Luke’s purpose in writing his Gospel, and I suggested it was quasi-apologetic—meant to stabilize or to reinforce faith in Christ. Now we can ask a second question: what was Luke’s method in writing his Gospel? The prologue gives us five clues.
Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed (Luke 1:1-4).
First, Luke could draw upon previously written works about Jesus. Good news travels fast, and God raises up workers to share the good news about Jesus Christ with others. The events happened, then they were spoken about, and finally they were written about. For example, from v 1, we know that Luke’s Gospel was written at a time when many people had already tried to write about Jesus. Luke says many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us. While the Scriptures imply that people went out sharing the good news soon after the Ascension of Christ (e.g., the existence of the church in Rome before Paul got there), Luke further informs us that people had already written about Jesus, too. That is, they had taken in hand to write, not merely collections of sayings, but whole narratives (diēgēsis—BDAG, “an orderly description of facts, events, actions”) of what Jesus said and did. What other narratives are these? We do not know. Luke may have been referring to the other canonical Gospels, but he does not explicitly say that, and even if he did consult those works (the traditional view), there is no reason to limit the “many” to just those three. Evidently, those other writings have been lost to history, but not before Luke was able to consult some for his own research. Notably, Luke did not think any of those other works fit what Theophilus required to reassure his understanding of Jesus; otherwise, Luke would have sent him one or more of those works. Instead, Luke writes his Gospel because he has a specific purpose in mind.
Second, Luke was familiar with eyewitness testimony about Jesus. He referred to eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry, who then became ministers (underlings, servants?) of the word, where the two terms share an article, indicating they are one and the same group. These eyewitnesses then delivered their testimony to us, that is, to believers such as Luke. We do not know how Luke came to learn about or to believe in Jesus, but it was evidently through such eyewitness testimony. Potentially, this included several hundred people besides the Apostles, for Paul said, “After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once” (1 Cor 15:6).
Third, Luke planned to write a logically ordered book. Despite, or perhaps because of, this abundance of evidence, Luke thought that there was a need for an orderly account of what Jesus said and did, one that would give certainty to Theophilus. In other words, those other works and testimonies did not suit Luke’s purpose. He had his own aims and intended to write something uniquely suited to ministering to Theophilus. This is not necessarily a chronological order but means it is arranged carefully to suit Luke’s purpose. I. Howard Marshall says that the Greek for orderly, kathexēs, here implies “the continuity of items within a logical whole, so that Luke’s aim is to show that the story of Jesus, taken as a whole, makes sense and is therefore worthy of belief” (Marshall, Luke, p. 43).
Fourth, Luke says he had a perfect understanding of all things from the very first, where BDAG defines the Greek word for understanding as “to pay careful attention to someth[ing] in a segment of time, follow a thing, follow a course of events, take note.” (BDAG, p. 767). Hence, the NIV translates v 3 as, “since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” In short, Luke had researched his material—he had investigated the previously mentioned written and eyewitness evidence for Jesus. That’s why he was in a position to write his own Gospel.
Fifth, Luke’s method is reflected in the writing style of the prologue. Lenski notes it is written is the very best literary Koine (Lenski, Luke, p. 3). Marshall (among others) notes how the prologue parallels other works such as Josephus’ Against Apion, which reads like this:
I suppose that, by my books of the Antiquities of the Jews, most excellent Epaphroditus, I have made it evident to those who peruse them…However, since I observe a considerable number of people giving ear to the reproaches that are laid against us by those who bear ill will to us, and will not believe what I have written concerning the antiquity of our nation…I therefore have thought myself under an obligation to write somewhat briefly about these subjects, in order to convict those that reproach us of spite and voluntary falsehood, and to correct the ignorance of others…As for the witnesses whom I shall produce for the proof of what I say, they shall be such as are esteemed to be of the greatest reputation for truth, and the most skillful in the knowledge of all antiquity, by the Greeks themselves… (The Works of Josephus, p. 773).
I’m sure you notice the similarities. Marshall says that Luke’s writing style indicates that he meant his Gospel to be a work of literature “worthy of an educated audience” (Marshall, Luke, 39), such as someone like Theophilus.
In sum, what was Luke’s method in writing his Gospel? I think these five points indicate that Luke was self-consciously writing as an historian. His method was to write carefully organized, meticulously researched, evidence-based history that would reassure even the most intelligent readers of the truthfulness of what they had been taught about Jesus.