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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

The Author of Luke-Acts as a Smooth Operator: His Use of Sources As a Guide to Genre

It is widely remarked that the author of Luke-Acts is a smooth operator. That is, his Greek is more polished than the other Gospel authors. So polished, in fact, that it difficult to detect his use of sources based on an internal review of the Greek alone. Fortunately, in the case of the Gospel of Luke, we can compare him to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and see that he used Mark and Q as sources. From the comparison, we can see that Luke takes his sources and linguistically makes them his own, but that he is generally faithful to them. See Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity, page 209 (“[W]hen passages in Luke are set alongside passages from Mark, Luke proves to have been a sober and careful scribe.”). Given the lack of comparative material for the Acts of the Apostles, searches for the sources of Acts have been less fruitful. Moreover, in the case of Acts we may be dealing with more oral tradition than written material. Nevertheless, given his knowledge of early Christianity and his literary abilities, few doubt that the author also utilized sources for his second book.

Interestingly, the author’s use of sources compares very well with what was expected of ancient historians of his day. Around the middle of the second century, Lucian of Samosata wrote his How to Write History, in which he critiques poor historians. Therein, Lucian describes how good historians should make use of sources:

As for the facts themselves, he should not assemble them at random, but only after much laborious and painstaking investigation…. When he has collected all or most of the facts let him first make them into a series of notes, a body of material as yet with no beauty or continuity. Then after arranging them into order, let him give it beauty and enhance it with the charms of expression, figure, and rhythm.

Lucian, How to Write History, 47-48.

As we can see, Lucian advised that historians should carefully investigate their subjects and gather sources, put them down in a series of notes, arrange them into a more orderly account, and then finalize them into a higher literary style.
There are some interesting comparisons to the preface of Luke; where the author says he “investigated everything carefully”, he was aware of the many accounts already compiled, and that his purpose was to put things into an “orderly account.” But most important for our purposes here is that the author has faithfully used his sources but reworked them to such an extent that they are not readily apparent as such from the text. It appears, therefore, that he is following the expected step-by-step use of sources by ancient historians.

We should notice here the three stages of composition: first, the series of notes, then a formless draft and finally, order and style. The existence of preparatory notes leads to the conclusion that the author puts the information from his sources into a document that he himself writes. The use of these notes in the definitive text makes it intelligible that, through this double filter, the indications which would permit us to identify the author’s sources have disappeared from the surface of the text…. So we can conclude that Luke has rewritten everything, erasing the traces of the documents consulted.

Daniel Marguerat, The First Christian Historian, page 16.

Although I am skeptical that Luke has simply “erased” such traces, his drafting and reworking them has no doubt made them much harder to detect. Of course, this does not indicate anything nefarious on the author’s part. Just the opposite, in fact. The author of Luke-Acts appears to have written and used his sources as the ancient historians of his day were expected to. Which is yet more evidence that he and his audience understood that he was writing according to the conventions of historians of his day.

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