This chapter introduces the comparative method for studying the Gospels. This approach works very much like redaction criticism: it explores the similarities and differences between similar stories in different texts to identify an author’s emphases. Unlike the redactional approach, the comparative method does not rely on the identification of literary sources.
A Comparative Overview of the Gospel
The Gospel of Luke is a Greco-Roman biography that was written anonymously by a Greek speaker. Like Mark and Matthew, this author most likely lived outside of Palestine. The author of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel tells about Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, and Acts traces the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire.
The Preface to Luke’s Gospel
Luke’s Gospel begins with a formal historiographic preface. The author acknowledges his sources, noting that others have told this story, but he promises to record it in an orderly fashion. The preface dedicates the work to Theophilus. Scholars have debated the meaning of this dedication: Was Theophilus a person to whom Luke wrote an “apology”? Or does Theophilus (literally, “beloved of God”) refer to the Christian community for whom Luke wrote?
Luke’s Birth Narrative in Comparative Perspective
Although the basic narrative is the same in both Matthew and LukeJesus is born in Bethlehem to a virgin named Mary who is betrothed to Josephnone of the specific stories are the same. For example, Matthew has Magi while Luke has shepherds. In Matthew the angel speaks to Joseph; in Luke he speaks to Mary. Matthew records the flight to Egypt; Luke records the journey to Bethlehem.
Luke’s Gospel shows that God’s salvation is available to the entire world. In his genealogy, for example, Luke traces Jesus’ heritage not to David or Abraham, or even Adam, the first human, but to Adam’s father, God. While Luke’s genealogy does identify Jesus as a descendant of important Jewish leaders, it also suggests that Jesus belongs not to the Jews but to the entire world.
From Jew to Gentile: Luke’s Portrayal of Jesus the Rejected Prophet
Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke begins Jesus’ public ministry with the story of Jesus speaking in a synagogue in his hometown. In his sermon, Jesus presents himself as a prophet. The Jews were offended by his words and tried to kill him. This story summarizes Luke’s narrative: The gospel is first offered to the Jews who reject it, and then it is taken to Gentiles.
Luke’s Distinctive Emphases throughout His Gospel
Luke depicts Jesus as a prophet sent by God. Hebrew prophets were opposed, rejected, and often killed by the people to whom they were sent. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is born as a prophet, performs miracles as a prophet, and realizes he will die as a prophet. Whereas Mark’s Jesus dies in traumatic agony, Luke’s Jesus knows he must die and shows no doubts about that necessity. His final words on the cross are, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23:46)
Jesus, then, is rejected by his people and killed as a prophet. His death is related to salvation, but salvation is not brought by Jesus’ death per se. Rather, Jesus’ death as an innocent prophet elicits guilt and repentance. It is repentance that brings forgiveness and salvation.
Luke emphasizes Jesus’ importance for Gentiles. Although this is the primary theme of Luke’s second volume, Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ importance for Gentiles is apparent already in the Gospel. The mission to the Gentiles, moreover, is understood as a part of the divine plan. Indeed, God is a significant actor in Luke’s stories of Jesus and the spread of Christianity through the Empire. In Luke, Jesus does not preach the imminent end. Rather, the end will occur after the mission to the Gentiles is completed. It is perhaps because of this delay of the end that Luke emphasizes Jesus’ concern for social injustices.
Conclusion: Luke in Comparative Perspective
A comparison of Luke with Mark and Matthew reveals a number of distinctive emphases, including the idea that a worldwide mission to both Jews and Gentiles was always part of God’s plan.