Was Luke Really a Gentile?

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Hypothetically, if it were to be settled in court that Luke was a Gentile, one would need a kangaroo court—a biased, unreliable, agenda-driven court that predetermines cases without evidence. The case is that weak. Luke’s profile as the New Testament’s only Gentile author was emboldened by centuries of tradition in which people parroted the idea without question. I was once guilty. It didn’t seem important enough to even investigate at the time. I was wrong—for repeating an unchecked statement and for doubting its significance.

Does It Really Matter?

The truth always matters, and false narratives have negative consequences. Furthermore, consider the “latent ‘antisemitism’” that surfaces when scholars pontificate as to why Luke wasn’t Jewish. It’s often said his writing reflects someone who was sophisticated, refined, educated, and highly proficient with the Greek language—as if 1st-century Jews were incompetent.1 

I believe Luke’s non-Jewishness actually contradicts a biblical maxim from Romans 3:1–2: “The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”

Significantly, I believe Luke’s non-Jewishness actually contradicts a biblical maxim from Romans 3:1–2: “The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (ESV).2 All other canonical texts—inspired by the Holy Spirit—were penned by the stock of Jacob. It’s a challenge for Jewish people to consider the New Testament’s witness about Messiah if its most prolific author (27 percent) was a non-Israelite.3 Additionally, there’s an excellent linguistic case that Luke likely authored Hebrews (as a Jew),4 raising his contribution to 31 percent.5 If the traditional view of Luke is wrong, we must ask, What support was there for ever believing he was not Jewish?

The Case That Luke Was a Gentile

Traditions aside, Luke’s non-Jewishness was inferred from Colossians 4:10–14. There, Paul sent greetings from three men he called the “only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are of the circumcision” (v. 10). Three verses later (v. 14), Paul says, “Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you.” Since Luke was not mentioned with those three men “of the circumcision,” many suspect he was a Gentile. 

Problems With the Colossians 4 Reading

The Colossians argument assumes Paul uses “the circumcision” synonymously for all Jews; further assuming he didn’t add Luke as an afterthought when closing the letter.6 It also assumes Paul didn’t have another reason to exclude Luke from the previous group.7 The biggest blow to the Colossians 4:10–14 argument points out that the Greek behind the phrase “from the circumcision” (v. 11) is better translated as “from the circumcision party,” as with Galatians 2:12 in multiple translations.8 

Remember, an immediate debate arose among Jewish-only believers after Jesus ascended: How are Gentiles incorporated into this new understanding of the Jewish faith? Two groups emerged in the early church: 1) The circumcision party insisted Gentiles must follow Moses and be circumcised to become Christians (Acts 15:1, 5); and 2) The leading Jewish Christians stood alongside the Hellenists—Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews—and opposed them (Acts 15:23–29). 

The circumcision party notoriously antagonized Paul; but he said in Colossians 4 that Aristarchus, John Mark, and Justus are the only ones of that party that comforted him. Context even suggests that this circumcision issue was what divided Paul and Barnabas over John Mark in the first place (Acts 13:13; 15:36–40).9 Paul is asserting John Mark’s restoration (Colossians 4:10) for the Colossians. 

The Evidence for Luke’s Jewishness Is Stronger

Seriously, “not one of the [so-called] church fathers identified Luke as a Gentile.”10 A stronger case exists that Luke was a Hellenistic Jew. Consider that: 

Luke is a strange name . . . . it rarely appears outside of the New Testament . . . in spite of . . . a vast number of documents in Greek mentioning thousands of Greek names. So we are justified in asking . . . “What if Luke is not his full name?”11

Astonishingly, it has been “discovered in the papyri of Pisidian Antioch that ‘Luke’ and ‘Lucius’ were used interchangeably for the same individual.”12 The explanation is that Luke is:

a diminutive version of a Greek name that is very well attested in Greek literature. . .  Lucius. In English Luke and Lucius have only 2 letters in common, but in Greek it becomes five [(Loukas and Loukios, respectively)]. In fact, in Greek they are almost one and the same name.13 

Acts 20:1-6 indicates that Luke was present when Paul likely wrote Romans.14 Astonishingly, Paul refers to this Loukios (Lucius) as a fellow Jew in Romans 16:21.15 

Luke as a Participant in His Own Book of Acts

Syrian-Antioch figures prominently in Acts as the first church outside of Jerusalem; it was originally only Jewish (Acts 11:19–21). In Acts 13:1, a list of Antioch’s leaders contains a Loukios (Lucius) “of Cyrene.” Could this be Luke, unobtrusively listing himself among Antioch’s first leaders? Possibly. We can’t be sure. The first “we” passage of Acts makes Luke a participant at verse 11:28 in some manuscripts—rather than the usual 16:10—putting Luke in Antioch at its first mention.16 Eusebius wrote that Luke was born there.17 

What we do know is that as a witness to the book’s events (chaps.16; 20—21; 27—28), Luke was present for Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem. Paul was falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple and defiling it (21:28). Significantly, Luke doesn’t record himself, but Trophimus, as the Gentile that everyone was concerned with (v. 29).18 

The Identity of Theophilus

Theophilus, Luke’s intended recipient and possible benefactor (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1), has been the subject of guesswork for centuries. Those envisioning a Gentile-Luke writing mainly to Gentiles imagine Theophilus as a Roman dignitary. Indeed, calling him “most excellent” does convey he’s someone of rank (Luke 1:4; Acts 24:3), but not necessarily a Roman. The argument that he was Theophilus ben Annas, a deposed Sadducean high priest of Israel (AD 37–41) is stronger; at least it has evidence based on an actual historical figure. His existence is confirmed both archaeologically19 and in the writings of Josephus.20 Since the archaeological discovery indicates that Theophilus’ granddaughter was named Joanna, it’s even suggested that this explains why a woman named Joanna is unique to Luke’s Gospel (8:2–3; 24:10).21

Luke’s Concern With the Temple and the Priesthood Explained

The biblical data supports Luke writing to a high priest like Theophilus and a larger Jewish audience as well. His Gospel begins and ends with the Temple. He doesn’t bother to elaborate on the priesthood’s customs, probably because he didn’t have to. He’s the only writer to mention that “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Jerusalem’s centrality and the Tanakh’s importance in his writings reflect someone steeped in Jewish Scripture and history. Israel’s redemption and the testimony of righteous Israelites figure prominently in Luke’s narrative.22 It’s been shown that Luke is preoccupied with priestly matters. 

Jerusalem’s centrality and the Tanakh’s importance in his writings reflect someone steeped in Jewish Scripture and history.

The books of Luke and Acts emphasize themes like the resurrection, assistance of angels, and God’s sovereign intervention into human affairs; as if to convince a Sadducee to abandon his party.23 A Gentile writing to convince Gentiles would hardly take interest in Jewish details like Luke does. If Theophilus ben Annas is Luke’s recipient, it underscores the magnitude of Luke’s assurance that he’ll order a narrative of “things which have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1). It’s a narrative their ancestor prophets had spoken of long ago (24:27).

Conclusion

It’s more sensible that a Hellenistic Jew would dedicate himself to the cause of doing exactly what the prophets say Israel should do: remain a light while blessing the Gentiles (Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 49:6). Would it be impossible to write, or would it change Scripture’s truth, if Luke were a convert to Judaism? No. However, it’s rightly noted that a Gentile-Luke’s message seems “self-serving”; but from a Jew this worldwide Gospel becomes truly “compelling.”24 Clearly, the New Testament is totally Jewish; capturing in-house debates within Judaism while revealing how Abraham’s Seed would truly bless the Gentiles (Genesis 12:3).

Endnotes
1 R. Wayne Stacy, “Colossians 4:11 and the Ethnic Identity of Luke,” Eruditio Ardescens: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 6 (2015): 4-5, accessed August 19, 2022, https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1027&context=jlbts.
2 Thomas McCall, “Was Luke a Gentile?,” Zola Levitt Ministries, March 1996, accessed August 19, 2022.
3 Doug Enick, “The New Testament’s Most Prolific Authors,” Pastor’s Blog, December 11, 2017, accessed August 19, 2022, (http://dougenick.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-new-testaments-most-prolific-authors.html).
4 David A. Allen, Lukan Authorship of Hebrews, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010).
5 Compare this to Paul’s 23.5 percent and John’s 20.4 percent.
6 Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, “Could Luke be Jewish? (Part 1),” Israel Bible Weekly, June 25, 2018, accessed August 19, 2022, (https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/luke-jewish-possibly-part-1/).
7 McCall 1996.
8 Stacy, 6-11.
9 Ibid., 11.
10 Allen, 263.
11 Lizorkin-Eyzenberg 2018.
12 Allen, 266.
13 Lizorkin-Eyzenberg 2018.
14 Allen, 267.
15 Interestingly, Paul uses Demas, a diminutive of Demitrius, in Colossians 4, where Luke’s diminutive is used. However, he uses Sosipater instead of the diminutive Sopater in Romans, which is the place where he uses Lucius instead of the diminutive Luke. Allen suggests it’s because the church in Rome wasn’t familiar with Paul and his inner circle at the time Romans was written.
16 Allen, 264-265.
17 C.F. Cruse, trans., Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), 69.
18 McCall 1996.
19 Merrilyn Mansfield, “Joanna and Theophilus: A Proposal” (University of Sydney), 1, accessed on August 23, 2022, (https://www.academia.edu/43708969/Joanna_and_Theophilus_A_Proposal).
20 William Whiston, trans.,The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), 485 and 520.
21 Mansfield, 1.
22 Michael Brown, “The Gospel of Luke and Jewish-Christian Relations,” in A Handbook on the Jewish Roots of the Gospels, ed. Craig A. Evans and David Mishkin (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2021), 301.
23 Allen, 335.
24 Stacy, 12.

About the Author
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Cameron Joyner

Cameron is the Assistant Program Ministries Director for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry. He resides with his family in Atlanta, GA. If you would like to learn more or partner with Cameron’s ministry, you can contact him at cjoyner@foi.org or call our headquarters at 800-257-7843 and speak with someone in North American Ministries. You can also support his ministry online here.

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