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Time for a little thought experiment. People have been reading the Gospel of Luke for about two millennia, but just imagine if today, for the very first time, monks had discovered the gospel in their monastery. What would the headlines be? How would people react? Enter thought experiment.
Two monks charged with cleaning their monastery's cellars have uncovered a shocking manuscript containing an account of the birth, work, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, titled "According to Luke" and written in Greek. Luke clearly knows of Jerusalem's destruction by the Romans at the end of the Jewish War in 70 (19:41-44; 21:6, 20-24), seems to have used the Gospel of Mark as a source, and explicitly places himself in the second or third generation of Christians (1:1-2).
"What this means," says Professor Doodle of Shmoop University, "is that we've discovered a really early gospel written shortly before the close of the 1st century. That makes this text almost as early as Matthew and not much later than Mark. This is a big deal. It's like finding out that Abraham Lincoln really was a vampire slayer. By the way, the jury's still out on that one."
Significantly, Luke dedicates his story to a certain "Theophilus" (1:3). People familiar with the New Testament will recognize that this is the very name of the addressee of the Book of Acts, too (Acts 1:1). What's more, a great many of Luke's themes and issues are also treated in Acts. "These facts," says Doodle, "indicate that Luke is the long-lost first volume to Acts. This is as exciting as when all of the prequels to Star Wars first came out. Don't get me wrong. Luke-Acts is not sci-fi. But it is in keeping with ancient history-writing, which means that with Luke we're dealing with the first installment of a two-volume history of Christian origins."
The discovery is not only making waves among those who are redrawing the story of Christian origins. What truly has the potential to challenge everyone (believers and non-believers alike) is the emphasis that Luke's Jesus places on a social ethic—something that only over-achievers will even try to live out.
Luke's Jesus gives pride of place to those who are otherwise social rejects, such as widows, the poor, the blind, the lost, and "sinners" (4:18-19; 5:27-32; 14:13, 21; 15:1-32). Jesus also argues that an excessive attachment to possessions leaves the wealthy unprepared for death and/or the sudden arrival of God's kingdom. A big pill for the wealthy to swallow is that they're supposed to sell all their things and work on behalf of the poor and society's other outcasts (12:16-40; 16:13-15, 19-31; 18:18-30).
"The ideals of this text put even Gandhi to shame," says Doodle. "Rare is the person, Christian or not, who has or will put what Luke's Jesus demands into practice." Doodle points out that Luke offers many other valuable gems, even startling new details about what happened at the first Christmas (1-2) and about Jesus's first female followers (8:2-3; 23:49-24:12). One thing is for certain. This discovery will be shocking and challenging the world for years to come.
Let's face it: a lot of Luke's concepts are going to land us with a pretty healthy dose of skepticism. After all, what can revived corpses, miraculous healings, demons, exorcisms, supernatural impregnations, and fulfilled prophecies mean to us after Darwin and Einstein? Sure, it makes for great TV (can someone get on that?), but can we really relate?
The good news is that Luke's gospel is the gospel for those of us who are the biggest skeptics of all. It's the gospel that open-minded atheists, agnostics, humanists, and non-believers of all stripes should read first, and we're here to tell you why.
Luke's demand that people love their neighbors—even the ones they don't like—doesn't just mean dropping a few nickels in the Salvation Army's buckets during the holidays. He's talking about the good Samaritan, for example, who dares to cross and challenge hostile ethnic and religious boundaries for the sole purpose of helping someone who's suffering (10:30-36). Or he's talking about the father who forgives his "prodigal" son, who returns home in poverty after squandering his entire inheritance on some R-rated activities (15:11-32).
Think about enjoying next year's Thanksgiving dinner with a bunch of "sinners" instead of friends and family. The cast of The Usual Suspects? Yeah, that's what your party will look like if you take Jesus's instructions for issuing party-invitations seriously (14:12-24).
So even if you're feeling a little cynical, we're guessing the Gospel of Luke will challenge you to be a more compassionate human being.
Beefing up on Luke
Who needs libraries? This site offers over two dozen translations of the Bible along with the original Greek and Hebrew texts and a virtual candy store of study-helps. We're talking maps, commentaries, chronologies, visuals, and a whole library of early Christian writings not found in the New Testament. Not too shabby.
Luke in Any Language
This site is a gateway to over a dozen translations of Luke. Plus, it comes equipped with a cool feature that shows you the parallels between the four New Testament gospels.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Charlie Brown asks, "Doesn't anyone know what Christmas is all about?" Linus responds by reciting (from memory!) the story of the shepherds in Luke 2:8-14 according to the KJV. He concludes, "That's what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown." That's one well-read kid.
The Road to Emmaus, PA
Don't let the rickety RV scare you off. In this documentary, three quirky friends document their road trip from Jerusalem, Ohio to Emmaus, Pennsylvania in search for God. Initially somewhat skeptical, their journey turns into a pilgrimage in the true sense of the term, yet with many "postmodern" twists and turns along the way. The inspiration and namesake of the documentary comes from Luke 24:13-32.
The Destruction of Jerusalem
Luke definitely knows about the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans at the end of the Jewish War in 70 (see 13:34-35; 19:41-44; 21:20-24; and 23:27-31). Want more deets? The first-century Jewish historian Josephus also writes about Jerusalem's siege and destruction in his multi-volume history of the entire war.
Josephus on John
Christians weren't the only ones writing about John the Baptist. In his work The Antiquities of the Jews, the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus, one of Luke's contemporaries, writes about John's execution. How does Josephus's John look compared to Luke's John?
Josephus on Jesus
Josephus briefly mentions Jesus, too, but the Greek text has been, um, adjusted by Christians over the years. Despite the tampering, the so-called "Testimonium Flavianum" is still worth a look.
The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Get this: people are still composing operas. Watch as composer John Adams talks about his oratorio, "The Gospel According to the Other Mary."
The Rolling Stones' "Prodigal Son"
Listen and follow along with the lyrics of this song based on Luke's story of the Prodigal Son (15:11-32), Rolling-Stones style.
"I Say To You That Listen" (6:27 NRSV)
Pop in your earbuds in and listen to the whole Gospel of Luke read from the American Standard Version. What do you think? Better read than listened to?
This simplified map of Palestine at the time of Jesus will help you orient yourself geographically as you read Luke's gospel. Believe us, getting lost in biblical lands can be pretty dangerous.
Jerusalem, City of Destiny
Jerusalem is the center of Luke's gospel. This is how it looks now in the present. We wonder if it was a similar but ancient view that moved Jesus to tears in Luke 19:41?