Who was St. Luke the Evangelist?
By Fr. Tirso Villaverde
St. Thomas of Canterbury, Chicago
October 18th is the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. He, of course, is one of the four gospel writers found in the New Testament, the other three being Matthew, Mark, and John. Those four gospels were chosen to be in the canon ("list") of gospels to be included in the Bible. To be sure, when the canon of scripture was being formed, the Church never denied the existence of the other gospels. To this day, the apocryphal gospels (from a Greek word meaning "things put away") include such works as the Gospel of Thomas and others. These gospels and others like them did not meet the criteria used in determining which Christian writings could be used for purposes of the faith. Among these criteria were similarities with other gospels, ancient liturgical use, nurturing faith in Jesus, and others. Because the apocryphal gospels did not sufficiently meet those standards, they were not included in the canon of the New Testament.
In regards, though, specifically to the gospel of St. Luke who the Church will honor this month, St. Luke is also attributed as being the author of the Acts of the Apostles. It is believed that his writing was meant to be a continuation of one another considering that both were written to the same person, "Theophilus."
The gospel of St. Luke was written sometime between the years 85-100 AD. Careful study of the original text of the gospel revealed several details regarding this written work. For one, by the strong familiarity with the Greek language, scholars have come to the conclusion that the gospel was written by someone who was a Greek. From the various themes and emphases in the gospel, the gospel is also believed to have had a Gentile (Greek) audience. Even the name of the person to whom it was written,
"Theophilus" meaning "a lover of God," has come to suggest that Luke was writing to a Greek audience trying to convince them of the truth of the message that they had received regarding the man known as Jesus Christ.
The gospel of Luke also contained stories and perspectives that would have been easily appreciated by a Greek audience. For instance, the miraculous birth of Jesus would have been well understood by the Greek mind given the fact that Greek mythology itself had similar stories. The gospel of St. Luke also has the most miracle stories than the other three gospels which again would have appealed to the Greek mind. The Greek mentality would have loved the idea of a sort of "superhero" story which St. Luke's gospel delivered. The second installment of the Acts of the Apostles was meant to further the Greek's appreciation of the life of Jesus and to see how that same power was effective in the lives of the first disciples and apostles. In the end, as the gospel of St. Luke itself states, the purpose of telling the story of the gospel together with the Acts of the Apostles was to convince the audience of the reliability of the instruction that was received (Luke 1:1-4).
In writing the gospel, it has been theorized that St. Luke had a copy of the manuscript of Mark's gospel along with some resources of his own. In observing the two gospels of Mark and Luke, practically the entirety of Mark's gospel can be found within Luke's text and almost in the same order. The gospel of Luke expounded on the story of Jesus using Mark's gospel as his foundation. However, it also seems that Luke had his own personal resources because there are stories in Luke's gospel that are not found in any of the other three gospels.
The traditional symbol of St. Luke is the ox which was one of the four creatures mentioned in the Book of Revelation. The ox was one of the animals used for sacrifices in the Jewish Temple. It was seen as a symbol of the priestly office since a priest's primary duty was to offer the sacrifice that would sanctify the People of God. Luke's gospel was given the symbol of the ox because of its emphasis on the priestly role of Jesus. In other words, one of Luke's focuses was to show how Jesus' sacrifice of himself made holy the whole of humanity.
St. Luke has been named as the patron saint of physicians, doctors, and surgeons. An ancient tradition portrayed the evangelist as a physician perhaps scantily based on the reference made in Luke 4:23 when Jesus tells the unbelieving crowd that the quote "Physician heal yourself" would be used against Jesus.
Another ancient tradition has also described St. Luke as an artist and was the first to paint a picture of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus. Of course, this is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. Rather, the custom developed from ancient icons bearing the name of St. Luke as the one who painted the image.
As was the case for Theophilus, may St. Luke and his gospel help all Christians become convinced of the truth of the instruction that we have all received.