Authorship Of Luke–Acts

The authorship of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, collectively known as Luke–Acts, is an important issue for biblical exegetes who are attempting to produce critical scholarship on the origins of the New Testament. Traditionally, the text is believed to have been written by Luke the companion of Paul (named in Colossians 4:14). However, the earliest manuscripts are anonymous, and the traditional view has been challenged by many modern scholars.

Common authorship of Luke and Acts

There is substantial evidence to indicate that the author of the Gospel of Luke also wrote the Book of Acts. These hypothetical connections are dependent upon repeating themes that both of these books share. The most direct evidence comes from the prefaces of each book. Both prefaces are addressed to Theophilus, the author’s patron—and perhaps a label for a Christian community as a whole as the name means “Beloved of God”. Furthermore, the preface of Acts explicitly references “my former book” about the life of Jesus—almost certainly the work we know as The Gospel of Luke.

Furthermore, there are linguistic and theological similarities between the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. As one scholar writes, “the extensive linguistic and theological agreements and cross-references between the Gospel of Luke and the Acts indicate that both works derive from the same author”. Because of their common authorship, the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles are often jointly referred to simply as Luke-Acts. Similarly, the author of Luke-Acts is often known as “Luke”—even among scholars who doubt that the author was actually named Luke.



Views on authorship

Views concerning the author of Luke-Acts typically take the following forms:

  • Traditional view – Luke the physician as author: the traditional view that both works were written by Luke, physician and companion of Paul.
  • Critical views – Anonymous non-eyewitness: the view that both works were written by an anonymous writer who was not an eyewitness of any of the events he described, and who had no eyewitness sources. Or Redaction authorship: the view that Acts in particular was written (either by an anonymous writer or the traditional Luke), using existing written sources such as a travelogue by an eyewitness.

Traditional view – Luke the physician as author

The traditional view is that the Gospel of Luke and Acts were written by the physician Luke, a companion of Paul. Many scholars believe him to be a Gentile Christian, though some scholars think Luke was a Hellenic Jew. This Luke is mentioned in Paul’s Epistle to Philemon (v.24), and in two other epistles which are traditionally ascribed to Paul (Colossians 4:14 and 2 Timothy 4:11).

The view that Luke-Acts was written by the physician Luke was nearly unanimous in the early Christian church. The Papyrus Bodmer XIV, which is the oldest known manuscript containing the ending of the gospel (dating to around 200 AD), uses the subscription “The Gospel According to Luke”. Nearly all ancient sources also shared this theory of authorship—Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and the Muratorian Canon all regarded Luke as the author of the Luke-Acts. Neither Eusebius of Caesarea nor any other ancient writer mentions another tradition about authorship.

Ministry of the Apostles. Russian icon by Fyodor Zubov, 1660.

Ministry of the Apostles. Russian icon by Fyodor Zubov, 1660.

In addition to the authorship evidence provided by the ancient sources, some feel the text of Luke-Acts supports the conclusion that its author was a companion of Paul. First among such internal evidence are portions of the book which have come to be called the “we” passages (Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–37; 28:1-16). Although the bulk of Acts is written in the third person, several brief sections of the book are written from a first-person perspective. These “we” sections are written from the point of view of a traveling companion of Paul: e.g. “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia”, “We put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace” Such passages would appear to have been written by someone who traveled with Paul during some portions of his ministry. Accordingly, some have used this evidence to support the conclusion that these passages, and therefore the entire text of the Luke-Acts, were written by a traveling companion of Paul’s. The physician Luke would be one such person.

It has also been argued that level of detail used in the narrative describing Paul’s travels suggests an eyewitness source. In 1882 Hobart claimed that the vocabulary used in Luke-Acts suggests its author may have had medical training, but this assertion was challenged by an influential study by Cadbury in 1926 that argued Luke’s medical terminology was no different than terminology used by other non physician authors such as Plutarch.

The traditional view recognizes that Luke was not an eyewitness of the events in the Gospel, nor of the events prior to Paul’s arrival in Troas in Acts 16:8, and the first “we” passage is Acts 16:10. In the preface to Luke, the author refers to having eyewitness testimony of events in the Gospel “handed down to us” and to having undertaken a “careful investigation”, but the author does not mention his own name or explicitly claim to be an eyewitness to any of the events, except for the we passages.

Critical view – Authentic letters of Paul do not refer to Luke as a physician

The epistle of Philemon, almost universally accepted as an authentic letter of Paul, merely includes the name “Luke” among other “co-workers” of Paul who are sending greetings to the letter’s recipients (Philemon, verse 24). The identification of Luke as a physician comes from Colossians 4:14, but Colossians is believed by many New Testament scholars to be pseudonymous (i.e. written under a false name), although just as many believe it an authentic writing of Paul, likely by means of an amanuensis. 2 Timothy 4:11 also mentions a “Luke” and refers to him being “with me” but most modern scholars do not accept 2 Timothy as an authentic letter of Paul either.

Critical view – the “we” passages as fragments of earlier source

See also: Historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles

In the “we” passages, the narrative is written in the first person plural but the author never refers to himself as “I” or “me”. Some regard the “we” passages as fragments of a second document, part of some earlier account, which was later incorporated into Acts by the later author of Luke-Acts. Many modern scholars have expressed doubt that the author of Luke-Acts was the physician Luke, and critical opinion on the subject was assessed to be roughly evenly divided near the end of the 20th century. Instead, they believe Luke-Acts was written by an anonymous Christian author who may not have been an eyewitness to any of the events recorded within the text. The author of Acts “wanted his readers to understand that he was for a time a traveling companion of Paul, even though he was not.” Alternatively Vernon Robbins (1978) regards the “we” passages as a Greek rhetorical device used for sea voyages. However, more recent scholars have since written on the incoherence of Robbins’ sea voyages literary device theory by arguing that contemporary first-person accounts were the exception rather than the rule, that Robbins’ cited literature is too broad in both linguistic range (Egyptian, Greek, and Latin) and its temporal extent (1800 BC to third century AD), many of the literary sea voyages cited represented the author’s actual presence and were not literary devices at all, many of his examples use the third-person throughout and not just during sea voyages, etc.

Interpretation of the “we” passages in authorship discussions

The “we” passages—a number of verses in Acts are written in the first person plural (“we”) apparently indicating that the writer is participating in the events he is describing—were first interpreted by Irenaeus as evidence that the writer was a personal eyewitness of these events, and a companion of Paul on his travels; the traditional Luke. This interpretation had come under sustained criticism by the middle of the twentieth century.

Although there currently exists no scholarly consensus on the “we” passages, three interpretations in particular have become dominant: a) the writer was a genuine historical eyewitness, b), the writer was redacting existing written material or oral sources, whether by genuine eyewitnesses or not, c) use of the first person plural is a deliberate stylistic device which was common to the genre of the work, but which was not intended to indicate a historical eyewitness. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman goes beyond the theory of stylistic insertions to propose that the “we” passages are deliberate deceptions, designed to convince readers that the author was a travelling companion of Paul, even though he was not.

Historical eyewitness

The interpretation of the “we” passages as indicative that the writer was a historical eyewitness (whether Luke the evangelist or not), remains the most influential in current biblical studies. Objections to this viewpoint mainly take the form of the following two interpretations, but also include the claim that Luke-Acts contains differences in theology and historical narrative which are irreconcilable with the authentic letters of Paul the apostle.


The interpretation of the “we” passages as an earlier written source incorporated into Acts by a later redactor (whether Luke the evangelist or not), acknowledges the apparent historicity of these texts whilst viewing them as distinct from the main work. This view has been criticized for failing to provide sufficient evidence of a distinction between the source text and the document into which it was incorporated.

Stylistic convention

Noting the use of the “we” passages in the context of travel by ship, some scholars have viewed the “we” passages as a literary convention typical to shipboard voyages in travel romance literature of this period. This view has been criticized for failing to find appropriate parallels, and for failing to establish the existence of such a stylistic convention. Distinctive differences between Acts and the works of a fictional genre have also been noted, indicating that Acts does not belong to this genre.


According to Bart D. Ehrman, the “we” passages are written by someone falsely claiming to have been a travelling companion of Paul, in order to present the untrue idea that the author had firsthand knowledge of Paul’s views and activities. Ehrman holds that The Acts of the Apostles is thereby shown to be a forgery.

21st Century Theories

According to Mark A. Matson, there are over one hundred instances in which the Gospels of Luke and John agree with each other, while both disagree with the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. For one well-known example, the Gospels of Luke and John have the angel at the tomb say, “Jesus said to meet him in Jerusalem,” while the Gospels of Mark and Matthew have the angel at the tomb say, “Jesus said to meet him in Galilee.” There are dozens and dozens of such examples. This was sufficient evidence for Mark Matson to write his book, In Dialogue with Another Gospel? (2001, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series, New York, ISBN 1589830105)

Matson offers strong evidence that the writer of Luke had the Gospels of John, Mark and Matthew before his eyes as he wrote. In other words, the Gospel of Luke was the first Diatessaron, or “Harmony of the Gospels.” In other words, Luke-Acts was the final addition to the canonical New Testament. This is a game changer. It breaks apart the Synoptic trio. It dates John earlier than Luke. It suggests a solution to the problem of Q, i.e. Q is simply the Gospel of Matthew which Luke paraphrased. Further, it marginalizes the Gospel of Thomas, which relies so heavily on the Gospel of Luke.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia