Luke Was A Local
As we begin a two-year sermon series, it’s worth asking ourselves why we should even trust the Gospel of Luke. Is it a reliable source? The author clearly wanted his readers to trust him; he believed he was writing well-researched history and hoped his readers would become “certain of all [they] were taught” (cf. Luke 1:1-4).
Christian scholars often tout that Luke was a doctor, so we know he’s no dummy. But, then again, he practiced medicine during the first-century. With all due respect to Dr. Luke, I won’t be taking any of his medical advice.
So should I believe what he has to say about Jesus? How is history different from medicine and science? Should we believe any narrative this old, especially one that includes wild, supernatural events and a strong agenda?
These are great questions which deserve great answers.
Skeptics and believers alike are justified in testing the truth of the gospels. Obviously, if you’re not a Christian, it makes sense that you would ask for some proof before you “take up your cross” to follow anybody (Luke 9:23). And, even if you already believe, your faith needs support. Following Christ is not easy. Faith must be fed in order to survive.
Which is why I was so encouraged by the recently published book, Can We Trust the Gospels? In under 150 pages, Cambridge scholar Peter Williams distills and organizes a vast amount of scholarly data— from both secular and Christian sources. Altogether, the research supports the full reliability of the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
I highly recommend this short book. I’m usually pretty bored by textual criticism and archaeology talk, but Williams does a great job keeping it moving. He covers a lot of ground in this book. (An excerpt with table of contents.)
My favorite part of the book by far was Chapter 3, which asked “Do the Gospel Authors Know Their Stuff?” Here’s a taste of his argument.
Buy Fresh, Buy Local
Everyone knows that great food is made from great ingredients. The same is true for great history. One way to determine the reliability of an author’s narrative is to look closely at its ingredients. How well does he know the local geography and culture behind the story?
If he’s ignorant of basic places and customs, how can we trust him to write good history? But if he exhibits detailed knowledge of Judea and its people, we can at the very least trust that the author is able to write accurate history. (And, given the limits of historical research in the first-century, this probably also means that he’s working within first- and second-hand experience.)
So do the ingredients of Luke’s narrative hold up? Is he using only the freshest and most local details to tell the story of Jesus, or is he trying to pass off sparse and dated data?
All in all, Luke mentions a total of 99 places (62 towns, 29 regions, 3 bodies of water, and 5 other places). These are not simply used for color, but display an awareness of how the geography fits together. Luke knows where these places are in proximity to each other, including what it’s like to travel between them (e.g., using phrases like “going down” and “going up” in relation to altitude).
By comparison, the Gospel of Thomas mentions Judea once, but no other place. The Gospel of Judas names no locations. The Gospel of Philip uses three place names, but only the most obvious (Jerusalem four times, Nazareth once, and the Jordan River once).
Williams then details how the gospels’ use of personal names evidence familiarity with Palestine. Names in the New Testament, and how they are employed, correspond with gravestones and formal documents from Jesus’ day. However, they don’t match up with percentages of names in other Jewish communities in the Roman world. (Contrast the Gospel of Judas which contains two normal Palestinian names, Jesus and Judas, while adding a great many Greek and even mystical names.)
I’ve read the gospels my whole life, but I have never before appreciated the level of detail in the narratives. The gospels even show familiarity with local botany, finance, politics, and religious customs. These details make their stories about Jesus readable and vivid, but they also give them substantial credibility.
The Gospel of Luke: Food You Should Eat
This is just one line of argument Williams marshals in support of believing the gospels. Chapter Three is impressive on its own, but feels insurmountable when set alongside the other seven chapters.
By the end of the Williams book, even if one doesn’t personally believe the gospel accounts, one must acknowledge that belief in the gospels is completely rational. It is not unreasonable for a modern person to approach these narratives as historical fact. And, given the significance of their claims about Jesus, it is also not unreasonable to spend a couple hours reading them for yourself.