The gospel by Doctor Luke has popular appeal, but the oldest manuscripts of the gospel of Luke have no title or attribution. So where did the idea originate that a Greek physician authored the third gospel? And in what ways can that claim be challenged or validated?
The first extra-biblical association of Luke the physician with the Gospel of Luke occurs in the writings of Irenaeus, an eminent Church Father active in the late second century AD. Other Church Fathers concurred, and the general consensus was established that Luke the physician was the author of the third gospel.
The Church Fathers would have based their argument primarily on the biblical record itself. In the New Testament, Luke is mentioned three times. In Philemon 1:23-24 Paul refers to Luke as a fellow worker, who also sends his greetings to Philemon. Paul mentions in 2 Timothy 4:11 that Luke alone has remained with him in his travels, and urges Timothy to bring Mark to meet them. In Colossians 4:14 Paul refers to Luke as “the beloved physician” (ὁ ἰατρὸς ὁ ἀγαπητὸς, ho iatros ho agapaetos). Colossians 4 seems like our best bet for identifying Luke as a physician, but there is some complication.
Some scholars suggest that Colossians was not authored by Paul. The tendency to address a letter in the name of one’s teacher was common in the ancient world, particularly in Greece. Much of the book’s diction suggests a rhetorical style that differs from Paul’s. These factors have led some people to conclude that Colossians was authored by one of Paul’s helpers. It would seem, then, that Luke’s identity as a physician hinges on one verse, which might not have been penned by Paul. From this line of reasoning, some have even argued that the author of Luke was not a physician at all.
But how compelling is this argument? Paul was a gifted writer, and it is possible he changed his technique on occasion. Furthermore, if the author of Colossians was a disciple of Paul’s, he too could have known Luke. It would be absurd to conclude that only Paul would have called Luke a physician when he made mention of Luke in a letter. Challenging Luke’s status as a physician, based on the possibility that Colossians was authored by one of Paul’s helpers, does not carry much weight as an argument.
Regardless of what Colossians says, what evidence is there from the book of Luke itself? If we look for evidence of a background in medicine, what do we find? While Acts concerns itself more with recording the homilies and martyrdoms of apostles, as well as Paul’s travels throughout Asia and Europe, the gospel of Luke’s focus is Jesus as Messiah and healer.
Luke prefaces his gospel account by telling Theophilus that it is a history resulting from the author’s own research: “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you” (Luke 1:3). If he was a physician, Luke might have noticed certain details that may have been passed over by the other gospel writers. What sort of things did Luke consider worth recording?
Luke’s gospel contains several events and parables that are not mentioned in other gospel accounts: the annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary, including Gabriel’s blessing: “Blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:28); Jesus’ birth in a manger and the use of bands of cloth for wrapping the child (Luke 2:6-7); and the raising of the widow’s dead son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17). Luke takes a greater interest in the women of Jesus’ life narrative; he is uniquely attentive to the conditions of Jesus’ birth. Such attentiveness fits a physician’s nature.
Also to Luke’s credit is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), in which Lazarus is described as being covered in sores, which are licked nightly by the dogs that wander near the gate. The Greek term Luke uses is εἱλκωμένος (heilkōmenos, “having been ulcerated”). Luke’s medical detail is just what we would expect a physician to remember.
Other instances of Luke’s take on illness include his description of a leper as a man full of leprosy (ἀνὴρ πλήρης λέπρας, arnaer plaeraes lepras; Luke 5:12 , which contrasts with the simple use of ‘leper’ (λεπρὸς, lepros) found in Matthew 8:2 and Mark 1:40.
Also, in Luke 6:6 we find the story of the man with the ‘withered’ hand, who Jesus heals on the Sabbath. In the Greek, the word translated ‘withered’ is ξηρά (xera, “dry or parched”). This seemingly insignificant detail further points to Luke’s attentiveness to particular medical conditions. Chronically dry skin, perhaps some form of dermatitis, psoriasis or a fungal infection, can take on the appearance of hideous decay and withering. Luke’s original vocabulary in this instance reveals a preference for technical description.
Luke’s gospel is distinct in numerous ways, all of which, as with the other gospels, reveal the particular concerns and interests of its author. In the case of Luke, these interests reveal a mind attuned to medical details and descriptions. If this was the man referred to either by Paul or one of his early followers in Colossians 4:14 then there is good reason to conclude that Luke was in fact a physician. Far from being a questionable hypothesis, the doctor is still in.
Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Each issue of Bible Study Magazine provides tools and methods for Bible study as well as insights from people like John Piper, Beth Moore, Mark Driscoll, Kay Arthur, Randy Alcorn, John MacArthur, Barry Black, and more. More information is available at www.biblestudymagazine.com. Originally published in print: Copyright Bible Study Magazine (Jan–Feb 2010): pgs. 32–33.
Publication date: November 8, 2012