Evidence that Luke the Physician did NOT write the Gospel of Luke

Copied from:  The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager

Having seen (two posts ago) that the author of Mark could not have been the John Mark, the interpreter of Peter and the companion of Paul and Barnabas, we will see here that:

                Luke could not have been written by Luke the physician, companion of Paul.

Luke did not write Luke


The first traditional attribution of the third gospel to Luke, the traveling companion of Paul, was Irenaeus of Lyons (130-200) around 180 CE. Irenaeus based his evidence on the “we-passages” in Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15, 21:1-8 and 27:1-28:16) which makes it look like the companion of Paul was the one writing the Acts. Furthermore II Timothy 4:11 (“Only Luke is with me”), Colossians 4:14 (“Luke the beloved physician…greet[s] you”) and Philemon 24 (“Luke, my fellow worker…) all seems to mentioned this person Luke who seems to be Paul’s’ close and constant companion. And since Acts and the third gospel is generally accepted as being written by the same person, this makes the author of the third gospel Luke, the physician. [10]

There are, of course, problems with this traditional attribution. It boils down to three separate issues:

  • That Paul had a constant traveling companion named Luke.
  • That Acts shows evidence of being written by a close companion of Paul (whoever he or she is).
  • That the “we-passages” prove the case that what we have is the eye-witness accounts of a traveling companion.

We will look at these three issues in order.

Luke as Paul’s Constant Traveling Companion

It must be remembered that Luke was referred to in only three verses in all of the Pauline corpus. These are:

Colossians 4:11-14

 Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions — if he comes to you, receive him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of yourselves, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always remembering you earnestly in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you.

II Timothy 4:11

 For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me.

Philemon 1:23-24

 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24: and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.


Note that everything that is normally mentioned of Luke is given in these three passages. The fact that he was a Gentile is normally derived from the fact that in Colossians, Luke was named after “these men of circumcision” were introduced: implying that Epaphras, Luke and Demas were therefore Gentiles. We are also told there that he was a physician. In II Timothy, which is set during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (II Timothy 1:16-17), we are told that “Luke alone” is with Paul. In other words we are told that he was with him till (near) the end. In Philemon, we are simply introduced to Luke as a “fellow worker” of Paul. [11]  The problem is that the derivation of information about Luke from these Pauline epistles is of dubious value. II Timothy is almost universally regarded by critical-historical scholars as a “pseudepigrapha” or, to put in bluntly, a forgery. A document written by someone else pretending to be Paul. [We give the reasons why elsewhere in this website.] Similarly a substantial majority of scholars also think that Colossians is pseudepigraphal. [12]  Thus the only certain information we have about Luke is that of Philemon 1:23-24. Here all we know is that Paul referred to Luke as a “fellow worker”. We do not know if he was a Gentile, or that he was a physician or that he traveled frequently with Paul. All these additional “facts” are derivable only from Colossians and II Timothy, and since these are forgeries, we are in no position to know how reliable they are as far as Paul’s companions were concerned. [13] Thus the name “Luke” is only one of the names of the many people who were, either occasionally or often, with Paul during some of his missionary work. There is no way to single out that name as the companion who wrote Luke-Acts.

The Author of Luke-Acts as a Traveling Companion of Paul

Whatever the case may be with regards to the name or identity of the author, can it at least be concluded that the author must have been a companion of Paul? No.

A number of factual errors in Acts which weigh heavily against the author being a companion of Paul: [14]

  • There are a number of serious discrepancies in the portrayal of Paul in Acts and what we can derive from his authentic epistles. These we have shown in detail elsewhere in this website. Here we will give a summary of some of the major points:
    • Number of trips Paul made to Jerusalem.
      Acts say five, Paul noted only three (Acts 9, 11, 15, 18:22, 21 versus Galatians 1:18, 2:1 and the (planned) visit to Jerusalem in Romans: 15:25).
    • Paul’s first meeting with the apostles.
      Paul mentioned that he only visited the apostles in Jerusalem three years after his conversion (Galatians 1:16-19 ) But the narrative in Acts showed that he went to Jerusalem a short time after his conversion. (Acts 9:1-26)
    • Paul in Jerusalem
      According to Acts, Paul took an active part in the execution of Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7:58, 8:3) where he would certainly have been seen by at least some Christians there. Yet Paul in Galatians 1:22 mentioned that when he visited Jerusalem for the first time after his conversion he was “still unknown by sight to the Churches of Judea”
    • Paul as a Miracle Worker
      Acts portrayed Paul as a miracle-worker (Acts 13:6-12; 14:8-10; 20:7-2). Yet Paul’s epistle do not contain much claim of miracle working and in the rare case where it is raised, it seems to be mentioned in a clearly defensive tone (II Corinthians 12:1-12) – implying that the criticism of his opponents was that his miracles were not impressive.
    • Paul as Outstanding Orator
      In Acts Paul is portrayed as an outstanding orator able to command the attention of philosophers, unruly crowds and Roman prosecutors alike. (Acts 17:22-31 21:40-22:21; 24:1-21) Yet Paul admitted that he has been criticized of having weak “bodily present” whose speech making skills is of “no account” (II Corinthians 10:10).
    • Paul as an Apostle
      Paul presented himself as an apostle (I Corinthians 9:1-3; Galatians 2:8). Acts give the criteria to be an apostle to include being one of the twelve and having eaten and drunk with the risen Jesus (Acts 1:21-25; 10:41) – thus leaving Paul out.
    • Paul’s Attitude Towards the Law
      Acts portrayed Paul as a loyal and practicing Jew. (e.g. Acts 16:1-3; 16:4; 18:18;18:21, 20:16) Yet in his epistles Paul’s position on the law is more complicated (I Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 2:1-6, 11-14; 2:21, 5:4 Philippians 3:5-9)

  • In Acts 15:2-21 James was portrayed as the mediator between Paul and the Pharisees but in Paul’s own account (Galatians 2:9) James was placed squarely on the side which opposes Paul.
  • Acts 10:1 -11:18 stated that the mission to the Gentiles was started by Peter, yet in Galatians 2:1-10 Paul is called to defend his mission to the Gentiles against the “three pillars” (James, John and Peter). Why would he have to defend a mission to the Gentiles when Peter had already started it?

These mistakes rule out the possibility that the author personally knew the apostle to the Gentiles.

The “We-Passages” in Acts

Having ruled out the hypothesis that the author of Luke-Acts was a companion of Paul it is time to look at passages in Acts that uses the first person plural, the so-called “we-passages”. (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15, 21:1-8 and 27:1-28:16) First let us, as an example look at one such passage:

Acts 20:37-21:1

 And they all wept and embraced Paul and kissed him, sorrowing most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they should see his face no more. And they brought him to the ship. And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara.

Probably desensitized by biblical narratives, we no longer notice how odd the above passage actually is. The third person singular (“Paul”, “he”) suddenly and without warning shifts into a first person plural (“we”), the moment the sea voyage starts. One would expect, perhaps something more natural like, “Paul came to the ship and I, with the other brothers, were waiting for him and we set sail”. Instead the change is in midstream, as it were. [15] Indeed as Stanley E. Porter, Professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College admits:

An admitted difficulty for any analysis of the book of Acts, it must be conceded, is that there is apparently no significant parallel yet found in any major Greek historian, including earlier classical authors and the later Oxyrhynchus historian, that evidences a similar use of anonymous first person plural embedded within a third person narrative. [16]

This means that far from proving that the author of Luke-Acts was a companion of Paul, the way in which the “we-passages” are embedded within Acts is actually quite puzzling. This suggests something artificial about the whole construct.  The first step in the resolution is to note that the “we-passages” are limited only to stories which involve travel by sea. It is strange if the author was only present during sea voyages and nowhere else in Paul’s ministry. As we can see above the shift is artificial and it happens only when there is sea travel involved. In an important paper, Vernon Robbins [17] showed that there was a literary convention at the time Acts was written. Although in general historiographical writing was done in an informal third person (i.e. “he” they”, “Paul” etc), this changed when scenes relating to sea voyages were involved. With examples from Mediterranean literature (Roman and Greek) around the time of the writing of Luke-Acts, Robbins showed that the “we-passages” is a mere stylistic device to add vividness and excitement to the account of sea voyages.  One of the examples Robbins amassed is the tale of The Voyage of Hanno the Carthaginian (c 3rd or 2nd cent BCE). Note how the narration starts in the third person and then shifts to the first person plural when the sea voyage starts:

The Carthaginians decided that Hanno should go past the Pillars and found Carthaginian cities. He set sail with sixty pentekontas ( fifty-oared ships) carrying thirty thousand men and women with provisions and other necessities. After passing the Pillars of Hercules and sailing for two days beyond them we founded the first city, which was named Thymiaterion.

Thus the presence of “we” in narratives of sea travels was a literary device during that time. It use was meant to make the accounts more vivid and exciting. It may mean the author was present during the events described but it could also equally mean that he was not. For our purposes here, we can say that the “we” in the “we-passages” can no longer be used as evidence that the author was a companion of Paul. [18] [a] Of course if the author was merely attempting to follow a literary convention, it remains to be explained why not all the accounts of sea voyages in Luke-Acts are in the first person plural (e.g. Acts 13:13). Marrianne Bonz, managing editor of Harvard Theological Review has argued in her book The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and the Ancient Epic that the “we-passages” serves an important rhetorical function. They begin only after the Jerusalem council (15:22-29) where, significantly, full equality was given to Gentiles. The whole of Acts now move away from a focus on Jerusalem and the Jewish Christian church towards the Gentile mission. As Bonz continues:

Once introduced the “we” group serves as a peripheral or vicarious participant in all of the elements of Paul’s active ministry: proclamation [e.g. Acts 16:13], the breaking of bread [Acts 20:7] and its salvific results – even acceptance by James and the body of Jerusalem elders [Acts 21:17-18]. Most importantly the group accompanies Paul to Rome [Acts 28:16], the dramatic climax of the narrative journey and the geographical and theological symbol of the fulfillment of the missionary prophecy.

The “we” passages do not represent historical, eye-witness accounts…the “we” references serve as a rhetorical shorthand for the Pauline Christians – those who are vicariously privy to Paul’s example and who, as heirs to his legacy, have been called by him to continue his unfinished mission. They are Luke’s intended audience, whose participation of the ongoing drama of God’s salvation plan is signaled by the words of the Lukan prologue: “concerning the events that have been fulfilled among us.” [Luke 1:1] [20] [b]
[Verses from Luke and Acts added – PT]

Thus we can discern the reasons why “we” was used in those passages in Acts. Firstly, by using a literary convention it adds a certain “vividness” to the picture and secondly, since the “we” meant, like “us” in Luke 1:1, the Gentile Christians, the vividness was a way to represent their spiritual journey.

Conclusion on the Authorship of Luke-Acts

The evidence speaks against Luke as the author of Luke-Acts:

  • A “Luke” is referenced only once in the genuine Pauline epistles, and all we know of him is that he was a “fellow worker” of Paul. Every other bit of information about him: that he was a Gentile, a physician and a constant companion of Paul came from the two spurious epistles and cannot be counted as historical.
  • The mistakes in historical events and discrepancies of the portrayal of Paul (when compared to the Pauline epistles) specifically excludes a companion of Paul (whoever he may be) as the author of Luke-Acts.
  • The “we-passages” do not imply the writing of eye-witness. It’s form (switching from third person to first person plural) is puzzling and there is no known historical parallel outside the genre of sea-voyage narratives. The best explanation is that it was used as a rhetorical short  hand for “all Gentile Christians”.

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a. Predictably Vernon Robbin’s paper has been criticized quite extensively by more conservative theologians. However their criticisms have normally centered on the claim that the parallels presented by Robbins are “somewhat inexact” (Joseph Fitzmeyer) or “not similar enough” (Stanley E. Porter). Yet as we see in Porter’s admission above, there exist no parallel at all with any historiographical work of an anonymous eye-witness who shifts from third person to first person singular without explanation. It is important to note that Fitzmeyer, despite his criticism, did not dismiss the existence of such a literary convention altogether. [19]
b. Vernon Robbins reached more or less the same conclusion in his paper on the sea-voyages.

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© Paul N. Tobin 2000For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin

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