Could Luke be Jewish? (Part 1) – 10 min to read

Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

All four canonical gospels are, technically-speaking, anonymous documents (only later tradition ascribes to them their formal current titles – Mark, Luke, Matthew and John). There is nothing in the body of the sacred text itself, and in this case in the Gospel of Luke, that can clearly identify someone named Luke as its author. Ironically this stands in sharp contrast with the non-Canonical gospels. They usually go out of their way to identify various NT figures as their authors, in order to gain credibility. The Canonical Gospels, like most other books of the Hebrew Bible, do no such thing. This being said, we really don’t know if a person named Luke, who accompanied Paul, was the same person who wrote the books of the Bible we call The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. But be that as it may, for the purpose of reference we all, including myself, refer to the author of the Gospel of Luke, simply as Luke, and accordingly I will follow this custom in this essay. My story begins almost 20 years ago in a Seminary class in Central Florida. Back then I was convinced that Luke was not Jewish.

Why? Well… largely because everyone I knew believed that was so. The idea that Luke may have been Jewish was treated only jokingly: “You know… How can people say that Luke was not Jewish, he was a doctor!!!”

In this article I have only one goal – to show that Luke being Jewish is not as radical an idea as may have been previously thought. My clear and express purpose is not to prove that Luke was Jewish – that I believe is unachievable – but to clearly show why I believe that 1) Luke being a Gentile is an unfounded proposition and 2) there is in fact a real possibility that Luke was in fact either born a Jew or a proselyte convert to Judaism for many years.

Inconclusive arguments against Luke being Jewish

Like most people I did not question it – until that fateful Monday morning when I was listening to a seminary lecture. The professor, who incidentally authored around 40 books (and loved Jewish people dearly), took up the topic of “Luke not being Jewish”.

At first I said: “Oh no, more of the same again”. But as I began to listen to the arguments of this very learned man as to why we know for sure that Luke was not Jewish, I remember clearly telling myself: “The arguments are weak and inconclusive. In fact, they make no sense.”

Examples of the arguments included: ‘Luke writing in better Greek than the authors of other gospels’ – as if no Jew in the Roman Empire had an excellent command of the Greek language; ‘Luke being a Greek name’ – as if some Jews of that time did not also use Greek names, alongside their Jewish ones, like John Mark (Yohanan Markus) or Saul Paul (Shaul Paulus) for that matter; and, ‘Luke displayed much interest in the nations of the world’ – as if Jewish thought was not, by that time, full of visions of the Nations coming to worship the God of Israel. Actually, I found only one argument he presented worthy of any attention, and I will discuss that later and show that, even this argument is, on examination, also inconclusive and may be countered by a stronger argument pointing to the Jewishness of Luke.
Inconclusive arguments for Luke being Jewish

As I went about my life, every once in a while, I would raise this question in my head and look around for some possibilities. There were few brave souls who argued for the Jewishness of Luke, but their arguments, much like the arguments of the traditional camp, sounded at best unconvincing.

Among them were arguments such as: ‘Luke was Jewish, because all Scriptures had to come from the Jews.’ (Rom. 3:1-2) – As if Luke could not have been a Gentile God-fearer, fully conversant with the Jewish ways of life and thinking of his time; ‘Luke was Jewish, because he had a detailed knowledge of the Temple Levitical operations.’ (Luke 1:8-20) – as if this, like other subjects Luke researched, could not have been borrowed knowledge from a priestly source; and, ‘Luke was Jewish, because he had meetings with Mary, Jesus’ mother, and described her very thoughts.’ (Luke 2:19, 51) – as if each time a Biblical author ever described something, he had to have had a personal encounter with the person he was describing, and as if the idea that Mary would agree to talk to a Gentile God-fearer was out of the question.

Enough said! As you can see I am not persuaded, either by those who say Luke was Jewish, or by those who say no, he was not. It is at this point that an argument could be made that, since all the arguments are unconvincing, the burden of proof belongs with those who say that Luke was the only non-Israelite author among all the other writers of the Bible. There is some rationale here of course, but for the time being, I would like to treat this argument as a “hit below the belt” – to use imagery from a boxing ring.

I will now present for your consideration what I believe to be the only argument that can be legitimately used to claim that Luke was not Jewish. I will then counter that by presenting an argument to show that Luke may indeed have been Jewish.

Argument against Luke being Jewish

To my mind, the only argument worth its salt that can be presented to claim that Luke was not Jewish, is an argument concerning Colossians 4:7-18, especially verses 10-11. There we read:

7 As to all my affairs, Tychicus, our beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant in the Lord, will bring you information. 8 For I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts; 9 and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your number. They will inform you about the whole situation here.

10 Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas’s cousin Mark (about whom you received instructions; if he comes to you, welcome him); 11 and also Jesus who is called Justus; these are the only fellow workers for the Kingdom of God who are from the circumcision, and they have proved to be an encouragement to me.

12 Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bond slave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God.13 For I testify for him that he has a deep concern for you and for those who are in Laodicea and Hierapolis.

14 Luke, the beloved physician, sends you his greetings, and also Demas. 15 Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house.16 When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea. 17 Say to Archippus, “Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.”

18 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my imprisonment. Grace be with you.

The central idea in this argument is that, in verses 10-11, when Paul mentions several people, classifying them as the only workers with him from the circumcision (meaning those who are Jewish/Israelite), he does not mention Luke. In fact, he does mention Luke in this letter, but in a separate place and only later, thus declaring Luke as not being part of those who labor with Paul who are “of the circumcision” (or so it is argued!).

Here is why I don’t believe that this is the only way to look at this text. First of all, this is part of a letter and not a systematic theological treatment of the matter, and as such it follows the normal dynamic of letter writing. (We know that Paul did not write his own letters but usually dictated them, signing and approving them at the end. See Rom.16:22; Col. 4:18; Gal.6:11.)

If we write or dictate a letter, we might write something to make our point, and then, if we have forgotten to include an important detail, we may add a p.s. (a postscript or that which comes after the writing), and even a p.p.s (a post-postscript, that which comes after that which comes after the writing). That is to say, since the Letter to the Colossians is just that – a letter – it is possible that the reason Luke was not included earlier is because Paul, either forgot to include him and remembered only afterwards, or did not include him there because he was a doctor and not a member of his teaching team. In other words, the argument that says that this separate mention clearly sets Luke apart from Paul’s kinsmen is unsound, simply because it tries to extract too much mileage from this text. It cannot prove what it sets out to prove. It only allows it as one possible reading of this textual unit.
Argument for Luke being Jewish

The argument I find very interesting as to the possibility that Luke was Jewish, is twofold:

First, the name Luke is a strange name. It is strange because it rarely appears outside of the New Testament collection, in spite of the fact that we have a vast number of documents in Greek mentioning thousands of Greek names. So we are justified in asking an additional question: ‘What if Luke is not his full name? What if Paul does here with Luke the same thing he does with his friend Demas?’ Demas, who is mentioned together with Luke in Colossians 4:14, is in all probability a diminutive of Demitrius – what we would call a nickname. If this is so, then Luke may also be a diminutive version of a Greek name that is very well attested in Greek literature. That name is Lucius. In English Luke and Lucius have only 2 letters in common, but in Greek it becomes five (Λουκᾶς and Λούκιος). In fact, in Greek they are almost one and the same name.

Second, now that we have established the possibility that Luke and Lucius may refer to the same person, let us consider a text that links someone named Lucius to Paul’s own kinsmen!

In Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom.16:17-23) we read:

17 Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. 18 For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. 19 For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil. 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

21 Timothy my fellow worker greets you, and so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen.

22 I, Tertius, who write this letter, greet you in the Lord.

Notably, Paul, through his scribe Tertius (vs.22), links Timothy, Jason, Sosipater together with Lucius, by actually calling them my kinsmen! (vs.21) If Luke and Lucius was one and the same person, first being a deminitive of the second, then we may have here a very interesting case that while it does not prove the Jewishness of Luke, it certainly succeeds to offset the Colossians 4 claim.

The purpose of this article was and still is not to prove the Jewishness of Luke that due to the lack of data, probably cannot be achieved. Instead its purpose was to suggest a somewhat more tempered and careful assessment that could be summarized as follows: There are no serious reasons to continue to claim that Luke was definitely a Gentile.

So to answer the question I asked in the title of this essay: “Can Luke be Jewish?” The answer has to be given in affirmative.