Is Luke trustworthy? Does it matter? If it does matter, must everything Luke says be trustworthy? If not, what needs to be and how can we tell?
Does it matter?
Unlike other religions and philosophical views, Christianity is a religion based on a historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth. It’s not merely the following of the teachings of a religious leader that makes one a Christian, rather it’s the placing of one’s trust in a person and what he did while he walked the earth. Events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are thus important to get right. If what Luke says about these things isn’t true, then Christianity is false (assuming the other Gospel writers also got it wrong). And if Christianity is false, we shouldn’t be Christians; we should find something else to believe and to do with our time. However, if what Luke says about Jesus is true, then we should be followers of Jesus. Thus, given the historical nature of the Christian faith, it definitely matters whether or not Luke is telling the truth about Jesus.
Must everything Luke says be trustworthy?
Does Luke, or even the whole Bible, have to be completely error-free in order for us to be confident in the central claims of Christianity? No. All we need is for Luke’s reporting of certain features of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to be trustworthy. Even if the rest of Luke’s Gospel turned out to be pure fiction, we’d know enough about the central claims of Christianity to have confidence in Jesus and who he claimed to be. On the other hand, even if 90% of Luke’s Gospel was trustworthy but it got the important details about Jesus wrong, then it wouldn’t really matter if his Gospel was generally trustworthy. What matters are certain details about Jesus.
What details? The Gospel writers portray Jesus as understanding himself to be: the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Son of Man (more on these titles as they come up). There are also some implicit clues as to his self-understanding: his preaching, authority, miracles, and prayer life. We only need to have confidence in a sufficient number of these details to believe that Jesus is who he said he was.
How can we trust what Luke says about Jesus?
We can test statements in a document for accuracy first by determining the document’s overall genre (e.g. is it a letter, poetry, biography, historical chronicle, wisdom literature, etc.). Luke and the other Gospels closely resemble ancient biographies or bioi. So, their authors are concerned with representing their subject matter accurately–although they don’t stick to the strict chronology of events in a subject’s life, and there are some other differences between them and our contemporary understanding of biography (I can add more about this later if need be).
Next, we can use the so-called “criteria of authenticity” developed by historians to evaluate individual claims made about Jesus in Luke. Christians, Jews, other non-Christians, and even atheist scholars agree that this is a good approach for testing claims not only in the New Testament documents, but also in the Apocrypha, Jewish writings, and even the Qur’an.
Criteria of Authenticity/Signs of Credibility (‘S’ is for “saying”):
(1) Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.
(2) Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon one another nor upon a common source.
(3) Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.
(4) Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.
(5) Semitisms: Traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebraic linguistic forms.
(6) Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.
A note on these. They are not necessary conditions; if a statement lacks all of these features, it doesn’t mean we should think it unhistorical. At worst, we should be agnostic about it. Rather, these criteria are sufficient conditions for authenticity. If a statement exhibits at least some of these features, we should think it more likely authentic than not.
When we get further along in Luke, we’ll have an opportunity to apply these.
Some Recurring Topics
The Problem(s) of Evil, Pain, and Suffering — what resources does Christianity offer here?
Divine Hiddenness — why does God (seemingly) hide from us?
The Trinity — What is it? What about the Holy Spirit: Who is he? Why do Christians believe in him? What role does he play in Christian belief and practice?
The Concept of God — what is God like, how do we go about finding out?
Different holy books say different things about Jesus, which is right?