Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Luke the Priest

As I noted July 9, 2008, Rick Strelan cited an article[i] I wrote in his new book, Luke the Priest (Ashgate Publishing Co., 2008). Naturally I wanted to read the book.

I do not write book reviews. It strikes me as a bit unfair for me to make what of I would call “a curbside appraisal” based upon a quick reading of a book someone spent a long time researching and writing. I have spent a lifetime thinking about who is Theophilus and why did Luke write to him. One day it became crystal clear to me that he was the High Priest. Then I had to explain how it is that a Gentile could write to the High Priest. I quickly concluded that Luke was Jewish. I say this by way of background, which includes four published articles on Theophilus and over 600 postings on my blog, as to why I am uniquely qualified to write this article. Let not call it a book review.

Knowing who the author is helps us to identify the addressee and the knowing who is the addressee helps us to identify the author. In case of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, many people would say we are unable to identify either the author or the addressee. Rick Strelan has written a book explaining why he believes Luke is a priest. His impressive list of publications can be reviewed at

Strelan states: “My simple line is that the authoritative theologians and historians of the day were nearly always the priests, and that Luke is claiming such priestly authority to interpret the scriptures, interpret the gospel (and Jesus) and interpret Paul.” The story line is well presented and supported. This book, which every Lucan scholar should own, contains a wealth of valuable information.

This author states that his “book focuses on the authority and status of the author” and discusses the anonymity of NT authors. Therefore it is somewhat surprising that Strelan did not discuss Pseudonymity and canon: an investigation into the relationship of authorship and authority in Jewish and earliest Christian tradition by David G. Meade (Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1986).

If Theophilus is the High Priest as I contend, it makes perfect sense that Luke would be a priest. It also strongly supports my identification of Luke as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Strelan discusses the blessing by the Lucan Jesus at the Ascension but does not mention that Luke did not tell us the words of the blessing. A priest writing to the High Priest would not need to include the words of the Priestly Blessing. But if Theophilus is not a priest, it would seem to me to be presumptuous not to include the words. Luke does not include the words of the blessing. In fact there are numerous instances in Luke-Acts where Luke writes something without explanation that would not be known by a Gentile let alone the average Jew.

Strelan disagrees with me about the identity of Theophilus because he does not believe that Luke-Acts can be considered to be an irenical writing. Schaff in History of the Christian Church stated: “Thus the whole literature of the New Testament is represented as the living growth of a century, as a collection of polemical and irenical tracts of the apostolic and post-apostolic ages.” My point is that Luke-Acts is certainly irenical when compared the rest of the New Testament. In one of my footnotes in Theophilus: A Proposal, I stated: “In a different context, C.J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, (Tubingen 1989), 185, stated in part: ‘ . . . and an essentially eirenical work like Acts does not deny the sharpness of the present issue.’ Other writers including F.C. Baur, (1860) and D.P. Moessner, The Lord of the Banquet, (Minneapolis, 1989), 315, have noted the Lucan irenic qualities.” Strelan cited Moessner with approval.

Strelan contends Luke-Acts can not be irenical because it includes the horrible deeds committed by high priests although not one horrible deed is said to have been committed by Theophilus and no mention is made of the death of James by the younger brother of Theophilus. It should be further noted that a High Priest and a member of this same family issued letters to Saul but Luke does not tell us the name of this High Priest. Nor does Luke tells the name of the High Priest when Stephen was stoned to death. These people are either Theophilus and/or members of his family such as Caiaphas, brother-in-law of Theophilus and Jonathan and Ananus, brothers of Theophilus, none of whom are mentioned by name in the Gospel of Luke and only Caiaphas is mentioned by name in Acts of the Apostles, although some variant readings have Jonathan in Acts 4:6; but Theophilus would know! Eleazar and Matthias, who both served as High Priests in this same time period, are also brothers of Theophilus. Johanna of Luke 8:3 and 24:10 is the granddaughter of Theophilus the High Priest.[ii] Ananias is the only High Priest mentioned in Luke-Acts who is not a relative of Theophilus. This is an important clue overlooked by Strelan.

Much of what we know about the Bible has been based upon the analysis of polemical and irenical literature to determine the identity of different biblical groups. I am thinking in particular of the writings of Stephen L. Cook.[iii] Many of his “studies have been interested in the writings and arguments of the differing biblical groups, many of them priests, but not all (e.g., Micah was a clan elder, not a priest).” These writings usually by priests attempt to persuade one group, usually priests, to adopt the position of another. The alternating polemical and irenical approaches have been considered valuable rhetorical tools. Luke used these tools in his writings but was quite careful in his criticism so not to personally attack the Theophilus the High Priest, who like all high priests, was considered the “captain of their salvation” and held in high regard by Judaism. For this reason, the writings of Luke is best regarded as irenical and Luke as the first irenical theologian. One day Luke will be properly appreciated for his efforts.

Lee Dahn has recently proposed a rather interesting and possible solution to this question of why Luke made an irenical presentation to Theophilus. An old Arab proverb states: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Felix, Governor of Judea, is believed to have arranged the assassination by the Sicarii of Jonathan, brother of Theophilus and a former High Priest. Dahn proposed that perhaps Theophilus was receptive to an appeal by Luke concerning Paul and willing to lend his assistance because he would be undermining Felix who had “killed” his brother.[iv]

Strelan ends his discussion of my article with this paragraph: “But the theory interests me because I propose that the author ‘Luke’ was himself a priest. I would not rule out the possibility that Theophilus was also a priest. If that were the case – and I acknowledge the sheer speculation on this point – then it means that a priest was writing to a priest. How would Luke-Acts then read? It raises again the issue of how little we really know!”

The last sentence of the paragraph preceding the one I just quoted stated: “In addition, most of the argument that Anderson puts forward would fit any Jewish Theophilus – he would not need to be a priest, let alone a high priest.” When my article was published in 1997, no one had said that Theophilus was Jewish. Strelan says not only is Theophilus Jewish, Luke is also. Strelan said my findings could apply to any Jewish male but this is not true. It can only apply to any Jewish male of high rank and status serving as a Roman appointee bearing the name of Theophilus. What Strelan fails to realize is that there are no examples prior to the third century of a Christian bearing an honorific title.[v] There is only one person meeting that description.

The preceding quotation is also true about Strelan’s book. The argument could be applied to any author of a book of the New Testament, except the 7 letters by Paul, because Strelan has not fully developed his argument showing how different unique pericopes of Luke-Acts support the argument that these pericopes were written by a priest. For instance, the priests in Judaism performed the circumcision ritual and ceremony. Only Luke tells us that Jesus was circumcised and discusses circumcision and the covenant of circumcision.

The language of Luke is quite unique and variegated. Luke uses several hundred words not appearing anywhere else in the New Testament. Hobart attempted to demonstrate that Luke was a medical doctor and Weissenrieder has recently revived this discussion as noted by Strelan. Other writers have shown that Luke could have been an attorney. For instance, Acts 4:20 (cf. 26:10) tells us that “. . . the Apostles as reliable witnesses bear witness only to what they themselves have 'seen' and 'heard'. In the linguistic practice of late Judaism, the terms have 'seen' and 'heard' have a distinctly legal sound.”[vi] These terms are used not only in connection with the witness of events but also of sayings and teachings.[vii] I. Howard Marshall recently noted Luke's use of political and military language for telling about Jesus' mission in Luke 1-2.

Stevan L. Davies wrote that Luke was a female based on her stories about women; Sylvie Chabert d'Hyères proposed that Mary was a co-writer with Luke based on the same evidence.

The use of language does not establish that Luke is a medical doctor, lawyer, priest, “blind guide”, politician, soldier or mariner. Therefore one must exercise caution or we will soon be reading books about Luke the geographer and probably a very good one!

The language of Luke was written in the faultless classical style of one with a strong Greek education. It does establish the fact that Luke is either well educated, a first class wordsmith and/or a savant. There is more evidence external and internal proving the existence of Theophilus the High Priest and establishing this real person of status was the person to whom Luke wrote than there is proving Luke is a priest.

Although Strelan makes much of the priestly interest of Luke, he overlooks the fact that “ideas have to be expressed in terms that are intelligible to their audience” and acceptable to the addressee or the author is wasting his time. Obviously Luke provides the priestly interest he shares with Theophilus and this is the “hook” that grabs the interest of Theophilus the High Priest beginning with chapter 1.

Chapter Nine is the most important chapter in this book. Strelan notes that the priests “taught Torah in their communities and synagogues, they made judgments on legal matters, and they collected the tithes and so on.” Strelan notes the priestly interests in Luke-Acts such matters as Scripture interpretation, teaching, blessing and judging. Strelan noted the interests of priests in the calendar but failed to point out Luke’s interest. Acts begins with a reference to “all the things that Jesus began to do and to teach” and Strelan recognizes that this phrase was used by Ezra the priest in Ezra 7:10. A number of other important observations are made. In fact, a surprisingly strong case is made for Luke being a priest.

Although Chapter 5 is well written, Strelan would have benefited from utilizing the insights provided by Nelson in Raising up a Faithful Priest (1993). If anything, Strelan would have appreciated the significance of the Jesus in the Temple story at the age of 12 as an allusion to Samuel and that Caiaphas and Jonathan may been conceptually alluded to as the “two wicked sons of Eli.” Because the presentation is irenical, we have missed the allusion.

The following quotation from Nelson illustrates this point:

“Precisely because priests were seen as custodians of the faith, the issue of unfaithful and disobedient priests became a recurring literary theme: . . . .”[viii]

Luke adopted this theme but we did not appreciate it because we did not realize that that Theophilus was the High Priest and/or Luke was a priest.

This is not to say the other chapters should be ignored. In fact, they are important to his argument. This book includes discussion about the findings of many authors not usually cited by Lucan scholars. This in itself is of great value.

Initially, and perhaps out of order, it should be that more could have been made about “judging.” Strelan cites Deuteronomy 21.5 [concerning the occasion of finding a dead body lying in a field] but does not discuss it: "The priests, the sons of Levi, shall step forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister and to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord and to decide all cases of dispute and assault." This should remind us of the incident of Luke 12:13ff., where someone asks Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replies, “Man, who appointed me a judge or divider over between you?”[ix]

But a stronger case can be made that Luke is a priest based upon the priestly language he has employed and his sacerdotal concerns. There are numerous examples showing how different unique pericopes of Luke-Acts support the argument that these pericopes were written by a priest that can be added.

Two examples would strengthen the argument that Luke was a priest and will illustrate what I mean. The first example is based upon a blog article written by Lee Dahn about Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve as an allusion to the story of Samuel in the Temple at the age of twelve and particularly to the promise regarding the raising of a prophet like Moses (3.22) and the raising of a faithful priest (cf. 3.26) which Lee Dahn believes Jesus has applied to himself. Expanding on Dahn’s suggestion, I believe that the allusion is also to the sons of Eli.

The second example is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. A number of writers have used the word 'irony' in describing the outcome of reversal depicted in this Parable. The real irony has not been fully appreciated. I suggest that not only was the story directed to the Sadducees, the rich man was a known ranking member of the Sadducees entitled to be 'clothed in purple.' A priest would know that the color purple in this context identifies the person as the High Priest.

The Lucan Jesus instructs his host: “When you give a dinner or banquet, . . . invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”[x] The inclusion of the maimed is significant in that they were banned from full participation in Jewish worship, a matter of concern to a priest.[xi] At the conclusion of the Lucan Parable of the Wedding Guests, “the master said to the servant: Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” The rich man only had to go to 'his gate' to invite Lazarus to his table. Lazarus may be the epitome of the faithful priest!

The High Priest as head of the Temple establishment controlled the Temple commerce and the disposition of the annual tax of one half shekel paid by every Jew to the Jerusalem Temple. The Temple commerce was directly linked to sacrifices in the Temple, a main source of income for the Temple, and the offerings to the Temple treasury that was originally meant for redistribution among the poor. None of this is criticized by Luke who holds the Temple in high regard. Luke's criticism focuses on the use of these resources by the religious aristocracy for their own selfish purpose. This means that the religious authorities controlled tremendous wealth that had been in times past been properly redistributed to the people as part of institutional form of almsgiving. All of the New Testament passages concerning alms and almsgiving are in Luke-Acts except one in Matt. 6:1-4.

I now suspect that knowing that Luke is a priest, if we accept the thesis of Strelan, establishes my thesis that Theophilus is the High Priest because only by identifying Luke and Theophilus in this manner can we fully appreciate the irony of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus and why it is appropriate that the rich man be purple be identified as the High Priest.

Strelan acknowledges that Luke does not have a ransom saying or provide the significance of the death of Jesus and does not discuss the limited atonement value of the death of the High Priest. Luke does not connect forgiveness of sins with the death of Jesus. It seems strange that a Christian writing would have no theology of the cross. No explanation is provided. I have provided such an explanation in The Cross and Atonement from Luke to Hebrews, Evangelical Quarterly, 71:2, (1999), 127-149. I. Howard Marshall, Editor. As part of this continuing discussion I have noted on my blog that there is an inverse relationship between repentance, which Strelan notes is a matter of importance to priests, and a theology of the cross.

My comments should not be understood as criticism because only by accepting the identification of Luke as a priest and Theophilus as the High Priest is it possible to appreciate the numerous passages in Luke-Acts that scholars have said were enigmatic such as the Parable of the Unjust Steward. These enigmatic passages are now appreciated as being directed to the High Priest.

Strelan discussed blessings as one of the act of a priest but his discussion could have been enhanced by applying the findings of Mekkatukunnel in The Priestly Blessing of the Risen Christ (2001). I suspect this book could have strengthened several parts of his argument.

Strelan identified Ananias, the High Priest as the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the High Priest. There is no evidence that the two were related. Caiaphas is the son-in-law of Ananus. Caiaphas served as High Priest for 18 years ending in 37 CE while Ananias served as High Priest from 47-59 CE.

It seems problematic that Luke, a priest with a weak or no atonement theology strong on repentance and a very Jewish outlook, would publish his book supporting temple theology after the destruction of the Temple. Although there is an extensive discussion of date, provenance and authorship, there is no real discussion of how the identification of Luke as priest is consistent with this information. Why did Luke write at this time and why does he have a weak or no atonement theology? An earlier date of publication would make more sense.

Luke the Priest is an easy to read book and one which I can recommend. Strelan intends his book to be a provocative invitation “for others to reject or hopefully to improve or to substantiate better” than he has. It will provoke considerable discussions about identity and occupation of Luke and Theophilus. Anyone reviewing my blog and that of Lee Dahn will now appreciate that there are numerous passages that can now be better explained and properly understood.

This book, Luke the Priest, merely by being published makes a major contribution to Lucan studies and may even establish a new area of New Testament research. This book is a compelling read, one which you will not want to put down until you have completed it.

I plan to make additional comments about the book as I continue to digest it many insights.

Copyrighted 2008

[i] Theophilus: A Proposal, Evangelical Quarterly, 69:3, (1997), 195-215. I. Howard Marshall, Editor.

[ii] D. Barag and D. Flusser, The Ossuary of Yehohanah Granddaughter of the High Priest Theophilus, Israel Exploration Journal, 36 (1986), 39-44.

[iii] Strelan did not cite Cook.

[v] See generally the dissertation of Lucilla Dinneen, Titles of address in Christian Greek epistolography to 527 A.D. (Patristic Studies 18, 1929). See also New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity.

[vi] Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscripts, (Lund, 1961, ET 1998), 221-222.

[vii] Lk.24:49; Acts 1:4f.,8; 2:1ff., 4:8, 31; 8:15ff.

[viii] Nelson, 90.

[ix] Suggested by Lee Dahn.

[x] Lk. 14:12-14.

[xi] Lev. 21:17-23.


Blogger LTD said...


Thanks for the mention. I must now read Rick Strelan's book. And I am most interested in the prospect that Luke wrote Hebrews.


11:38 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Richard:

Greetings from Spain and sorry if my English is not very good.

About the rich man 'clothed in purple', roman magistrates had the right to use the 'Toga Praetexta', white with a broad purple stripe on its border.

So, Theophilos could be a roman magistrate too.


10:50 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks so much for this review and your comments. As far as I can tell, getting a copy of Strelan's book will cost me $100... ouch.

I too have a friend that, having put a great deal of time into the study of Hebrews came to the conclusion that the writer of Hebrews had to have been a priest... this, strictly derived from the fact that the writer seems to have had an incredibly dynamic / full / complete knowledge of the law and its inter-working with the people of Israel.

8:17 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home