The Reliability of the Gospels
1 Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which [a]have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having [b]had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.
The prologue to Luke’s Gospel is one long sentence (Luke 1:1-4). And, his Gospel is the longest of the four. It was written to Theophilus. A name which literally means “one who loves God.” Luke wrote to demonstrate to Theophilus the reliability of the Gospel story he has recorded. This Gospel represents one of he finest pieces of historical writing in all the ancient literature. It is packed with indicators as to how Luke went about his research.
What Makes The Gospel of Luke So Reliable?
• Oral Sources: “…have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of…”
The term “taken” is often used in connection to literary efforts. It means “to compile an account.” It identifies Luke’s Gospel as a historical account instead of a novel. “In hand” is also a technical term used to communicate oral tradition. Luke was handing down to Theophilus, and all mankind throughout time, truths via oral transmissions. He was not an eyewitness but he was using the words of the eyewitnesses. This does not mean Luke is saying that this Gospel was not the result of Divine inspiration.
Luke calls this work a “narrative.” It comes from the Greek word diegesis from which comes our English term “digest” which means a compilation or summarization of material or information. He was telling him “the Greatest Story Ever Told.”
• Historical Events: “…those things which have been fulfilled among us…”
The events which Luke writes about have been fulfilled in history. These stories, or events of the life of Jesus, have been completed. To a greater extent they fulfill God’s Plan of Redemption of mankind which was planned from eternity. The birth, life, death, resurrection, etc. of Christ belong to the ages. Luke’s writings contain the historical events which shall ever change history.
• Complete Details from the Beginning: “…just as those who from the beginning…”
Luke traced the story of Jesus from its beginning to its conclusion. He researched from the beginning for the total story. Nothing was left out that was essential to tell the Good News about the life and death of Jesus. When one reads Luke’s Gospel he can have enough information to have faith. When comparing it to the other Gospels about thirty percent is new material.
• Eyewitness Accounts: “…were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us…”
The Greek term translated “eyewitnesses” is autoptai. Believe it or not, it is related to the English word “autopsy.” Luke is not the only historian to utilize this term. Herodotus, Polybius, and even Josephus use the word to describe the source of their historical accounts. The word literally means to see with one’s eye. When a coroner is performing an autopsy, he must observe with his own eyes the condition of the body. And eyewitness is one who has personally been present to see an event unfold with their own eyes. No other type of testimony is more reputable or reliable.
Luke no doubt conducted interviews with these eyewitnesses. Available to him would have been Mary, the mother of Jesus, the seventy which Jesus had sent out two by two; the various women who followed and ministered to Jesus, the hundred and twenty at Jerusalem, the five hundred witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, and of course the Apostles. The Apostles “…did not follow cunningly devised fables… but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). John explains the role of him and his fellow apostles: “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life …these things we write to you” (1 John 1:1,4). Using them as checks and balances, Luke used reliable sources.
• Written Reports: Inasmuch as many(1) …it seemed good to me also…to write to you (3)
Luke acknowledged that many others had already undertaken to compile an account of the life of Jesus. Perhaps both Matthew and Mark had been written and in circulation at this time. He is not criticizing their work but appealing to the idea of having a third Gospel written from a different perspective. Having more than one Gospel to witness the life of Jesus, increased the chances of readers being able to regard all three as reliable. After all, they could compare them.
• Meticulous Research: “having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first”
The New American Standard translation reads “having investigated everything carefully from the beginning.” Luke researched “carefully” making sure everything was accurate. He crossed all his t’s and dotted his i’s. This historical work involved him scrupulously checking all the facts. Of Luke, Sir William Ramsay wrote, “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in regard to its trustworthiness.” A prominent archaeologist carefully examined Luke’s references to thirty-two countries; fifty-four cities; and six islands without discovering one mistake. Luke pursued the truth with excellence, and the Holy Spirit kept him from error.
• Logical Method: “…an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus…”
Instead of “an orderly account”, other translations read “in orderly sequence” or “in consecutive order.” The Gospel of Luke is clearly not chronological with a perfect sequential order of events. Some of the material has been arranged thematically. However, in general his writings are in orderly sequence. Such an account makes Luke easier to understand and follow. They were used to persuade Theophilus that events about Jesus are reliable.
• Convincing Evidence: “…that you may know the certainty of those things…”
“To know” is from epiginosko meaning “to fully and completely know.” Luke wanted to give Theophilus certainty about Jesus, so he could trust the truth absolutely. Not only certainty as to the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, but also concerning the salvation offered in believing. The presentation of Luke’s material was designed to persuade the reader that the Good News is believable. Luke did not want his readers to blindly accept what he wrote, he wanted them to have their eyes opened by checking these facts out for themselves.
• Harmonious Information: “….in which you were instructed.”
The verb “instructed” is from the Greek katecho which means “to hold firm.” From this the English term catechism is derived. In this context it is used in a technical sense “to formally and systematically give instruction.” Although many who read Luke’s account may have already heard about these teachings and events in the life of Jesus, it would reinforce that knowledge. Luke’s info did not contradict the other Gospels. Unlike the Gnostic Gospels of the second and third centuries, his was not bizarre or dramatically different. It was also consistent with the teachings of the apostles and prophets.
The offer of salvation for all is far more prominent in Luke than in the other Gospels. The word is not even used in Matthew and Mark and appears only once in John. Therefore, the salvation must represent the purpose of Luke’s Gospel. Notice that only Luke traces Christ’s genealogy all the way back to Adam, the father of the entire human race. God’s saving purpose included Gentiles. He himself was a Gentile and he wrote to Theophilus, also a Gentile. Including women (even prostitutes), outcasts (including lepers), those possessed by demons, even tax collectors. The Gospel mentions women, children, babies, and the poor.
Luke’s Gospel thoroughly investigates the claims about Jesus, because the sinner’s conclusion about Him is a life-and-death matter.
– Daniel R. Vess