In my private devotional reading time of Sacred Scripture last night I started reading the gospel according to St. Luke1. I have always been fascinated by Luke's "dedication to Theophilus" passage (V. 1-4). It has the ring of a most formal and academic venture by a mind no doubt immersed and influenced by such genre's2,
"Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write and orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed3."
Hence we are told the objective in the clearest manner by St. Luke in composing his gospel. In one way or another, there is a strong motivation for Luke to try his hand at a διήγησιν writing4. St. Luke now sets down in writing the oral traditions concerning Jesus and the events surrounding his life as precisely as he can. Notice the flow of thought, many have written but now I will write - all of us depending on the oral traditions for our material. St. Luke's gospel like all of Scripture is drawn and depends upon revelation from God, be that directly from His mouth or from the mouths of prophets and apostles as safeguarded and preserved in tradition. In Luke's case he states it was the latter that he depended upon and received.
St. Luke tells us he now has a unique contribution to make in the literary history of Jesus. Yet this uniqueness does not subtract from the reality that Luke follows closely the regula fidei as it were, the interpretive tradition. Luke tells us that "many have undertaken" thus tying himself further to a traditional thematic genre5. Again Luke employs another highly nuanced term, pregnant with meaning, - παρέδοσαν, this content about Jesus Christ was "delivered, handed down" to us6. In other words, it is not sloppy or careless accounts that Luke depends upon but rather the carefully guarded and well memorized apostolic tradition as it is handed down to him from word of mouth from eye witnesses themselves. This form of handing down was very special in the ancient world having much precedent in both Jewish and Greek cultures7.
And so we have the backdrop of the gospel of St. Luke. Luke's first century contemporaries would have understood the impact and specific nuance that this introductory dedication pericope conveyed. Luke is not an innovator but rather part of the tradition of early Christian interpretation, all stemming from oral tradition.
1. And this inaugurates a series of small posts I will be writing as I go through Luke.
2. The prefaces of Josephus, Herodotos, Thucydides, Polybius and other such classical works immediately come to mind. Luke was well read in the classics.
3. (Luke 1:1-4, RSVCE).
4. Much has been made over this presumed insufficieny of the prior narratives that Luke sought to eclipse. What can be said with caution is that whichever of the other gospels that already existed at the time of Luke's composition these were looked upon as positive contributions and/or sources to draw from.
5. Cf. J. Bauer, (NovT. 4, "πολλοὶ") where Luke uses πολλοὶ as a rhetorical device to fall in line with the widespread practice of oral beginnings not necessarily implying a large number.
6. Cf. Buchsel in TDNT. 171-73 for a lengthy background on παρέδοσαν and it's technical meaning as "transmission of tradition."
7. Cf. BAGD on the Greek usage of this verb. Among the Jews see for example Ep. Arist. 148, 196. In Christian usage, 1 Cor 11:23, 1 Thess4:1-2, etc. Cf. the excellent discussion in F. Godet (St. Luke. 1.60-61).