In the first two posts in this series, we looked at various elements of Richard Carrier’s analysis of the first two Gospels found in the New Testament, specifically The Gospel According to Mark and The Gospel According to Matthew, as discussed in Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. We saw many examples that illustrated that those Gospels were demonstrably myth and fiction, as opposed to being any kind of written histories. In this post, I’ll be mentioning some elements of Carrier’s analysis as it relates to The Gospel According to Luke.
For starters, The Gospel According to Luke is the first Gospel to superficially represent itself as history. Unlike the other Gospel authors, Luke actually does write more like a historian, where he adds superficial historical details to form a local color, and even attempts to date some of the events contained therein. He even includes a preface (although rather vague) explaining what his authorial intentions are. Unfortunately, after a close examination of what he wrote, we can see that he was no better than Mark or Matthew, and in fact fabricates numerous details throughout his Gospel. One interesting element that tips us off is the fact that Luke creates a resurrection narrative that is thoroughly designed to answer the skeptics of Matthew’s account, employing a tactic that “requires” his own story to be true. However, since no other Gospel (nor Paul for that matter) ever mentions the odd and quite convenient details that suddenly make their first appearance in Luke, we can be fairly certain that it is indeed a fabrication. For example, Luke mentions that Peter not only double-checked the women’s claim that the tomb was empty, but that he also handled the shroud (Luke 24.11-12); that Jesus showed the disciples his wounds and made sure that the disciples touched him and fed him to prove he wasn’t a ghost (Luke 24.36-43); or that the resurrected Jesus actually hung out and partied with many (dozens) of his followers for more than a month before eventually flying up into the clouds of heaven (Acts 1.2-9). So we can see several examples of Luke fabricating historical events, deliberately trying to win a particular argument against doubters (which included many Christians that had very different beliefs about the details and nature of the resurrection). That we find these types of things in what Luke wrote, should serve as a clear warning to not trust anything that he has added to the stories found in Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels. Rather, we should assume that, just as Mark and Matthew demonstrably fabricated their stories for a particular purpose, such is the same for Luke (unless of course, we find evidence to believe otherwise).
Further justifying this assumption of fabrication is the fact that, although Luke at least tries to sell his readers the pretense that he is reporting history, his methods are entirely non-historical. He is not doing historical research, nor weighing various facts, nor checking their validity with respect to independent sources in order to write about what events he thinks most likely transpired. Instead, Luke appears to be producing an expanded and redacted amalgam of Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels, which were themselves non-historiographical products composed of carefully constructed literary structures containing various allegorical and obviously mythical contents. Unlike what we’d expect from historians (and those living in Luke’s era no less), Luke never names his sources nor explains why he (or we, the reader) should trust them, nor does he mention how he chose to include or exclude the contents we find in his Gospel. What we find from Luke is instead an insistence that he diligently followed what had been handed on to him — another claim we know to be a lie, since we have two of his sources (The Gospels of Mark and Matthew) and are able to confirm that he freely altered them in order to support his own agenda. For example, though there are many instances of Luke borrowing excerpts from Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, he also changes some of the details, such as redacting Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and changing it (effectively reversing it) into a Sermon on a Plain. Despite this reversal that Luke makes to Matthew’s version, both Matthew and Luke’s Sermons are followed by the unrelated narrative where Jesus heals the centurion’s son in Capernaum (Matt. 8.5-13, Luke 7.1-10), and both Sermons are preceded by a general account of Jesus healing many people (Matt. 4.23-5.1, Luke 6.17-19).
Another more conspicuous example of Luke redacting Matthew’s Gospel in particular (and creatively so), is when Luke rewrites Matthew’s Nativity Narrative. In his version, Luke reverses almost every key element. Whereas Matthew depicts Jesus’ family (Mary and Joseph) as basically outlaws, fleeing from Bethlehem and Herod’s dominion and authority and cowering many miles away for more than 10 years, Luke depicts Jesus’ family as being in complete obedience of the law and going to Bethlehem in observance of their emperor’s command (Luke 2.1-4). While Matthew tells us that Herod was searching to kill the infant Jesus, Luke has Jesus being presented in the Jerusalem temple to several public pronouncements of Jesus’ messianic status by Anna and Simeon (an event that obviously wouldn’t have escaped Herod’s attention, nor that of Herod’s informants). Also, when Matthew has Jesus’ family hiding in Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath, Luke has Jesus’ family living deferentially in their home in Nazareth for that entire time, even bringing Jesus back to Jerusalem for the Passover every year without fail, to remain in full compliance with Levitical law (Luke 2.41). So it appears that Luke deliberately changed the reason that Jesus was “born in Bethlehem” yet somehow “came from Nazareth”, which were details that Matthew had already attempted to harmonize in his own Gospel. It’s unlikely that Luke would attempt the same harmonization unless he knew that Matthew had already started this “Bethlehem” tradition.
There are several other differences between Matthew and Luke’s Nativity narratives that are unlikely if those differences weren’t intentional. As mentioned before, for Luke, the family of Jesus is always obedient to religious and secular law (and they are never in danger), but also notably they are never hiding in a foreign country (unlike in Matthew’s Gospel). Luke also completely removes the involvement of foreigners (e.g. the Persian “magi”) and instead replaces them with (apparently Jewish) shepherds. He even replaced Matthew’s magical star (which informed the “magi”) with an angelic light from heaven (informing the “shepherds”; Luke 2.8-18). Clearly, Luke didn’t like Matthew’s version of the story, so he changed it to fit his own desires. It’s also unlikely that Luke’s Nativity Narrative would share so many elements with that of Matthew’s, for example, the way angels send practically the same messages to Mary and Joseph, the fact that both accounts involve an annunciation and mention a virgin birth, and that both have a genealogy in them (though Luke’s genealogy differs from Matthew’s) — unless these similarities and presumably intentional differences are because Luke was in fact borrowing and redacting Matthew’s Nativity Narrative. There are even certain phrases in Matthew’s narrative that Luke copied verbatim (e.g. “and you will call his name Jesus”, Matt. 1.21 vs. Luke 1.31-32, where the Greek used is identical), thus further supporting this conclusion. To be sure, in many cases, Luke’s Gospel doesn’t redact Matthew’s line-by-line or verbatim, but it was often the case in antiquity that many redactions were made more freely, to conform to the author’s own linguistic style and literary preferences, which Luke certainly employs.
As mentioned in the last post, whereas Mark’s Gospel was advocating a Pauline (i.e. “gentile-friendly”) form of Christianity, Matthew’s Gospel seemed to be a redaction of this, where instead Matthew emphasized the importance of a Torah-observant (strictly Jewish) form of Christianity. Luke’s Gospel seems to strive to unify these two major divisions of early Christianity, both the Gentile and Torah-observant sects. Luke’s account (spanning both Luke’s Gospel and Acts) seems to be revising history in several ways in order to give the impression that both of these Christian divisions were actually in continuous harmony with one another, while also portraying Jesus and Christianity in general as a credible and reverent sect that was law abiding and even respected by the Romans. In fact, Luke portrays Jesus and Christianity as only opposed by a branch of the Jewish elite. Thus, Luke is effectively rebutting Matthew, just as we saw that Matthew was attempting to rebut Mark. So rather than promoting Gentile or Torah-observant Christianity per se, Luke is promoting a harmonious church — one that is a positive and faithful transformation of Judaism into what is ultimately the Gentile church (although Luke is careful not to explicitly describe it as such). Notably, this amalgamated model of Christianity that Luke describes throughout his Gospel is a significant example of Luke freely changing fairly important details and perspectives that are conspicuously unknown to Matthew and Mark, and it seems fairly clear that Luke did this as a response to the ongoing disagreement between these dissenting sects of Christianity, and so he revised the events in his story as if to imply that they weren’t ever an issue. In any case, Luke doesn’t appear to be reliably reporting history here, but rather is revising it to fit his literary and theological aims.
Luke also heavily relies on re-writing texts and older myths found in the Old Testament (OT), which, as we’ve seen with Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, illustrate that Luke isn’t writing history here or repeating any kind of eye witness reports, but is in fact simply reusing older myths as models for new ones. Of the material that Luke adds to that found in Mark and Matthew, there is quite a bit that is demonstrably fabricated rewritten versions of the Elijah-Elisha narrative in 1 and 2 Kings, placing Jesus within them as the central character and changing the setting to 1st century Roman Palestine. Sometimes Luke directly parallels those stories and other times he inverts them, but there are too many coincidences for this to have plausibly arisen by chance. Here’s a list of some examples:
Luke 1.5-17 reverses 1 Kings 16.29-17.1
Luke 7.1-10 transforms 1 Kings 17.1-6
Luke 7.11-17 transforms 1 Kings 17.17-24
Luke 7.18-25 transforms 1 Kings 22
Luke 7.36-50 plays on 2 Kings 4.1-37
Luke 8.1-3 plays on 1 Kings 18
Luke 9.51-56 transforms 2 Kings 1.1-2.6
Luke 9.57-62 transforms 1 Kings 19
Luke 10.1-20 transforms 2 Kings 2.16-3.27
Luke 22-24 adapts elements from 2 Kings 2.7-15
In order to illustrate this myth rework that Luke is employing, I’ll mention a couple examples from this list that Carrier explores as they exemplify the rest well. In Luke 7.11-17, we hear of a new story that Mark and Matthew have no apparent knowledge of, that is, the healing of the Widow’s Son at Nain. The story on its own is already quite obviously fiction, employing many dramatical elements and miraculous events that we would typically find in fiction rather than in reality. Also, as it happens this kind of story was a trope at the time, where effectively the same story was told a few decades later about the medical doctor Asclepiades by Apuleius, and similar stories were told by Pliny the Elder before Luke even began writing his Gospel. It sounds like an urban legend — a tale retold many times involving different people living in different places, but with very similar elements otherwise just as we’d expect from an urban legend, including the typical convenient lack of an actual eye witness account for any of the events in the story. Adding to these already obvious signs of fiction, is the fact that this story is simply a rewrite of the exact same legend told of Elijah in 1 Kings. Here are some of the parallels between the two:
- Luke — “It happened afterwards…” (7.11)
- 1 Kings — “It happened after this…” (17.17)
- 1 Kings — At the gate of Sarepta, Elijah meets a widow. (17.10)
- Luke — At the gate of Nain, Jesus meets a widow. (7.11-12)
- 1 Kings — Another widow’s son was dead (17.17)
- Luke — This widow’s son was dead (7.12)
- 1 Kings — That widow expresses a sense of her unworthiness on account of sin. (17.18)
- Luke — A centurion (whose “boy” Jesus had just saved from death) had just expressed a sense of his unworthiness on account of sin. (7.6)
- 1 Kings — Elijah compassionately bears her son up the stairs and asks “the Lord” why he was allowed to die. (17.13-14)
- Luke — “The Lord” feels compassion for her and touches her son’s bier, and the bearers stand still. (7.13-14)
- 1 Kings — Elijah prays to the Lord for the son’s return to life. (17.21)
- Luke — “The Lord” commands the boy to rise. (7.14)
- 1 Kings — The boy comes to life and cries out. (17.22)
- Luke — “And he who was dead sat up and began to speak” (7.15)
- 1 Kings — “And he gave him to his mother” (17.23)
- Luke — “And he gave him to his mother” (17.15)
- 1 Kings — The widow recognizes Elijah is a man of God and that “the word” he speaks is the truth. (17.24)
- Luke — The people recognize Jesus as a great prophet of God and “the word” of this truth spreads everywhere. (7.16-17)
The main tip-off here is Luke’s use of the exact same phrase, given verbatim, from the Septuagint text of this Elijah story (“and he gave him to his mother”), which along with the other parallels is a strong indication of literary borrowing (as these coincidences arising by chance are highly unlikely). There are also several differences or inversions that are worth noting which are also unlikely to have arisen by chance, for example, when Luke changes the ultimate message the story is trying to convey. Whereas in the OT text, the idea and recognition of sinfulness leads to a form of despair and is accompanied with the idea that the man of God (or simply God) is a troublesome visitor who comes to punish sinfulness with death, in the New Testament (NT) text, the idea of unworthiness is joined with a sense of profound faith along with a powerful reverence for the Lord. The NT text shows a clear conviction that despite one’s unworthiness or sinfulness, the Lord comes to heal and save people from death, so rather than the OT portrayal of God passing along the sins of a mother onto her child, the NT portrayal replaces this with the concept of a God that doesn’t look at one’s unworthiness or sinfulness but rather looks at one’s faith in the Lord. We can even see that in the OT portrayal, we hear “that the Lord is the author of evil, the one who brings harm to the widow (1 Kings 17.20), whereas in the NT, God is seen as the one who comforts and heals instead (Luke 7.7).
The second example that Carrier describes is in regard to Luke 9.51-56 and how it emulates 2 Kings 1.1-2.6, where there are many more examples of direct verbatim and some near-verbatim borrowing from the Greek Septuagint, as well as many parallels and deliberate differences and inversions. Both stories also have the same five part structure: a plan of death and assumption into heaven (2 Kings 1.1-6, 1.15-17, and 2.1; Luke 9.51), a sending of messengers (2 Kings 1.2; Luke 9.52), those messengers being turned back (2 Kings 1.3-6; Luke 9.53), there’s mention of calling down fire from heaven upon those who rejected those messengers (2 Kings 1.7-14; Luke 9.54-55), and finally journeying from one place to another (2 Kings 2.2-6; Luke 9.56). Even where there are a large number of other differences between the two stories, the changes Luke made aren’t incoherent at all, and they fully correspond to stable patterns of adaptation including modernization, abbreviation, emulation, and fusion, all of which are common in Luke’s imitation of OT texts. So just as we saw in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, Luke is also making up new stories of his own by rewriting other myths found in the OT.
The last example from Carrier’s analysis that I’m going to discuss here is the Emmaus narrative of Luke 24. This is a tale of a resurrection appearance that isn’t found in any other Gospel, and thus is a distinctive example of Luke’s inventiveness. In this story, Luke talks about a man named Cleopas (along with some unnamed friend or companion) who goes on a journey from Jerusalem to a nearby city called Emmaus, after hearing that the corpse of Jesus has vanished. On the way to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus appears to both of them (although in disguise) and explains to them the secrets of the kingdom, which in this case happens to be a spiritual rather than a physical kingdom. Afterward, he vanishes and Cleopas realizes who the “stranger” was and goes on to proclaim to others what Jesus told him. Interestingly enough, the name Cleopas conveniently means “tell all” (i.e. “proclaim”), which is one of several obvious markers that what we are reading is myth. Whenever characters in the story have a name that has a meaning which is extremely relevant to the tale told (in this case Cleopas “proclaiming” to others what he was told and had seen), it is most often the case that the name was specifically chosen or invented for exactly that reason. Additionally, the absurd nature of the story gives us more hints that this is myth, including the miraculous vanishing, Cleopas’ unrealistic conversation with a total stranger, and the patently fictional concept of a disguised divine visitor. In fact, this looks just like the age-old “Vanishing Hitchhiker” legend, conformed to an ancient Roman setting.
The founding myth of Rome, which was at that time famously known everywhere and even celebrated in yearly passion plays, is almost identical to the story that Luke is telling us. In the Roman version, a man named Proculus (which in archaic Latin means “Proclaimer”, just like Cleopas’ name) takes a journey from a nearby city called Alba Longa to Rome, after the Roman people just learned that the corpse of Romulus had vanished. On the way to Rome, the resurrected Romulus appears to him (although not in disguise, but rather in a magnificent and glorious form), and Romulus explains to Proculus the secrets of the kingdom (specifically, how to conquer and rule the world), and then Romulus ascends into heaven (which Luke eventually has Jesus do as well). After this, Proculus, realizing who he was, goes on to proclaim to others what he was told. If in fact Luke’s intended “Emmaus” is supposed to be the “Ammaus” that was mentioned by the Jewish historian, Josephus (a town located a few miles away from Jerusalem), then in both tales the proclaimers are going from a city on a mountain to a city in a valley (located just a few miles away), in almost the same east-to-west direction. However, some of the differences are even more telling, for example, while Proculus receives his gospel on the road to Rome, Cleopas instead receives his gospel on a road from Jerusalem. Whereas Romulus appears in a glorious and explicitly recognizable form sharing the secrets of the visible, physical kingdom/empire on Earth, Jesus appears in disguise, sharing the secrets of the hidden, spiritual kingdom in heaven.
So Luke has reversed the importance of a few key characteristics in Rome’s founding myth, as if to devalue it and send a different message with his story. Whereas in the Roman myth, all roads lead to Rome, in the Lukan myth, all roads lead from Jerusalem, possibly illustrating that unlike the Romans, the Christians’ resurrected hero promises a hidden kingdom originating from Jerusalem. Whereas in the Roman myth, Romulus’ glorious appearance is what proved to Proculus that what he was being told was true, it was the powerful word of the gospel that proves to Cleopas that what the stranger said was true (as well as what proves that the stranger was in fact Jesus). So overall this story appears to have adopted most of the elements of the Roman myth, but as is often the case with mythmaking, this re-written myth is meant to illustrate different values (in this case, some of the differences between Christian and Roman values). It should be noted that Carrier elsewhere demonstrates in his analysis just how much the Gospels borrowed from this earlier Romulus resurrection tale, as this narrative isn’t the only instance of borrowing, and in fact we find numerous parallels between the resurrection story of Romulus and various elements not only in Luke’s Gospel, but also in Matthew’s and Mark’s. To illustrate the similarities, recall that in the first post in this series, I mentioned how there were many authors in antiquity who wrote fictional historical biographies, including the example of Plutarch’s Life of Romulus. In Plutarch’s biography of Romulus, he mentions a few attributes of Romulus that are remarkably parallel to the Gospels’ description of Jesus. For example, among other things we are told of Romulus that:
- He was the son of god.
- He was born of a virgin.
- An attempt was made to kill him as a baby (and he was saved).
- He was raised by a poor family.
- He became a lowly shepherd.
- As a man he becomes loved by the people, and hailed as king.
- He is killed by the conniving elite.
- He rises from the dead.
- He appears to a friend to tell the good news to his people.
- He ascends to heaven to rule from on high.
Plutarch also mentions that as he wrote this, there were still annual public ceremonies being performed, celebrating the day Romulus ascended up to heaven. The sacred story that was told at such ceremonies was described as such: at the end of Romulus’ life, there were rumors circulating that he had been murdered by a conspiracy of the Senate (much like how Jesus was “murdered”, in a sense, by a conspiracy of the Jewish Sanhedrin), the sun went dark (just as was the case with Jesus), and Romulus’ body vanished (as did Jesus’). The people wanted to look for Romulus, but the Senate instructed them not to, “for he had risen to join the gods”. Most went away in happiness, wishing for only good things from their new god, but “some doubted” (as is mentioned in all the Gospels after Mark; e.g. Matt. 28.17, Luke 24.11, John 20.24-25, though it is implied in Mark 16.8). Soon after all this, a close friend of Romulus named Proculus, reported that he met Romulus “on the road” between Rome and some nearby town and he asked Romulus, “Why have you abandoned us?”, which Romulus then replied and said that he had been a god all along but had come down to earth and taken human form in order to establish a great kingdom, and that he now had to return to his home in heaven. Then Romulus instructs Proculus to tell the Romans that if they are indeed virtuous, they will possess all worldly power. Plutarch then mentions that this annual Roman ceremony of the Romulan ascent involved some people reciting the names of those who fled vanishing in fear, while some people re-enacted the scene of being afraid and fleeing (sharing many similarities to the ending of Mark’s Gospel).
Clearly, there are numerous parallels between the story of Romulus and the stories of Jesus we hear about in the Gospels. Most importantly, this tale of Romulus is widely attested as being pre-Christian. Although Plutarch wrote this biography sometime between 80 and 120 CE (during the time the Gospels were being written), he was recording a long-established Roman tale and custom, and this has been proven by noting that the sources Plutarch used for his fictional biography were undeniably pre-Christian (including: Cicero, Laws 1.3, Republic 2.10; Livy, From the Founding of the City 1.16-2.8; Ovid, Fasti 2.491-512 and Metamorphoses 14.805-51; and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.63.3; which were all written prior to the Gospels). Beyond the parallels noted here, in terms of the origins of Christianity and the various influences on its origin, it should also be noted that within several different cultures there were in fact a number of pre-Christian savior gods who took on human form and endured various trials, passions, and tribulations, with many of them even dying and later resurrecting from the dead (e.g. Osiris, Zalmoxis, Dionysus, Inanna) and sharing their victory over death with those that believed in them and/or those that took part in various mysteries (including baptisms and pseudo-cannabalistic rites similar to the Eucharist). One last thing to note regarding these other savior gods is that even though they all were placed into history, with many even having detailed biographies written about them, we can be fairly certain that none of them actually existed.
Now getting back to the Emmaus narrative in Luke, beyond the fact that this Emmaus narrative is written in a distinctively Lukan style (employing his syntax and vocabulary), it also appears to be crafted specifically for the purpose of echoing and reinforcing Luke’s first two opening chapters. This echoing is especially obvious when comparing Luke 2.40-50 and Luke 24.13-33, where we hear about “another Passover, another Jerusalem visit” and another “couple beginning their journey away from Jerusalem”, where they are either discovering or erroneously believing “that Jesus was not with them”. In both sections of Luke we hear about a couple that is distraught about having lost Jesus, and both of them quickly return to Jerusalem after a climactic discovery (when Cleopas and his unnamed friend discover Jesus is present, or when Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus is absent). Likewise, Mary and Joseph find Jesus “after three days”, just as Cleopas and his friend do (Luke 2.46 vs. Luke 24.21). Both stories involve Jesus asking what exactly they’re doing (i.e. “Why are you looking for me” and “What are you talking about”), and both are followed by Jesus explaining some scripture to those present, telling them that “it is necessary” that he did what he did (i.e. “it’s necessary for me to be among the things of my father” and “it’s necessary for the messiah to suffer these things”). Furthermore, both stories involve the theme of people not understanding what had happened, and of course, both feature Jesus having disappeared. Notably neither of these stories found in Luke were ever seen in the other Gospels, thus implying that Luke either invented both stories, deliberately having them echo one another, or implying that Luke used another (likely fictional) source that no longer exists.
In summary, we can see that Luke is inventing the material in his Gospel, as illustrated by the many instances of convenient coincidences as well as other historical implausibilities, with Luke also borrowing and freely redacting material from Matthew and Mark’s Gospels (which as we’ve already seen are demonstrably myth). Luke also appears to have borrowed and rewritten other myths from texts found in the OT (including his rewriting the Elijah-Elisha narratives found in 1 and 2 Kings). Furthermore, Luke’s Emmaus narrative as well as his general narrative of the resurrection appears to have used the myth of Romulus as the model for it (as the other Gospels appear to have done as well). The only sources we can identify that Luke used for the main elements of his stories are unreliable ones (in terms of having any historical merit), as they themselves were littered with numerous markers of myth and various elements that are wholly unrealistic, yet are exactly what we would expect to find in fiction. There is also reasonably strong evidence that Luke used Josephus as well, specifically as a source for adding various elements of local color to his fictional history. On top of this, it is also agreed by scholars that the author of Luke’s Gospel was also the author of Acts, and several scholars (including Richard Pervo) have thoroughly demonstrated that Acts is riddled with historical inaccuracies and obvious fiction (Acts looks exactly like an ancient novel), and this authorial link thus further discredits the idea that Luke is reporting history accurately in his Gospel (Here’s a related post I’ve written mentioning some of Carrier’s analysis on Acts to expand on this topic and illustrate what scholars have found in more detail). So, as was the case with both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, even if there may in fact be some nuggets of historical truth buried within the fiction that Luke wrote, we are once again unable to discern what those historical truths may be (if there are any), as we simply don’t have any independent evidence or historical sources to corroborate such details. The fourth and last post in this series will highlight some of Carrier’s findings regarding the last of the four Gospels, namely, The Gospel According to John.