oday’s saint is Luke, according to the Roman Calendar, anyway. “The glorious Evangelist Saint Luke was natiue of the city of Antioch, son to noble and rich parents, and from his childhood inclined to the study of good learning, and all vertue,” according to Pedro de Ribadeneira (The Lives of the Saints, St. Omers, 1669). “His perseuering all his life a Virgin, was a signal testimony of his honesty. He studied much eloquence and other sciences but more particularly Physick which he practised: and Saint Paul calls him the most beloued Physitian.”
There’s a lot to unpack in these claims, especially considering that the only historical fact we have about Luke is that Paul of Tarsus mentions him in a letter to Philemon as one of five people sending him greetings. Everything beyond this belongs to hypotheses piled on top of rickety foundations.
The first notable addition came late in the first century, when somebody took it upon himself to write a letter in Paul’s name ostensibly to the Colossians. Taking the letter to Philemon as model, Paul’s imitator expanded on it in its conclusion. Where Philemon has:
Epaphras, who is my fellow prisoner for Christ Jesus, sends you his greeting; and Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers, send theirs
My fellow prisoner, Aristarchus, sends you his greeting, and Barnabas’s cousin, Mark, sends his. (You have received directions about him. If he comes to you, make him welcome.) Joshua, who is called Justus, also sends his greeting. These are the only converts from Judaism who have worked with me for the kingdom of God; I have found them a great comfort. Epaphras, who is one of yourselves, sends you his greeting. He is a servant of Christ Jesus, and is always most earnest in your behalf in his prayers, praying that you may stand firm, with a matured faith and with a sure conviction of all that is in accordance with God’s will. I can bear testimony to the deep interest he takes in you, as well as in the followers at Laodicea and at Hierapolis. Luke, our dear doctor, sends you his greeting, and Demas sends his.
Are these new items of information about Epaphras, Mark, and Luke derived from solid tradition? Or are they just corroborative details, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing production (to borrow from Pooh-Bah)? Personally, I lean towards the former possibility, given that the new composition was probably created within living memory of the original, but there’s no real way of telling at this distance, and the audacity of forgers knows no bounds.
So we now have Dr. Luke rather than just plain Luke. For what that’s worth. I suppose we could examine what a physician in the Roman era might be expected to know, and from that build a generic picture of the good doctor. I don’t say it’s a waste of time entirely—but it is guesswork built on an uncertain basis. The other element—ἀγαπητὸς—could mean anything. It could be as meaningless as the word “esteemed” often is in English—the esteemed Dr. Luke sends his regards—or an indication of high regard—the extremely popular doctor, Luke, salutes you. Assuming that Paul’s imitator intended these new details to resonate with his readers, we may suppose that they believed—or would be gratified to learn—that Luke was a beloved figure.
With the next development of this historical snowball we are clearly in artistic verisimilitude country. Some second-century author, whose style suspiciously resembles that of a distinguished pillar of the Great Church, took it upon himself three letters in Paul’s name—two of them addressed to Timothy, and one to Titus. In 2 Timothy (4:10–13 to be exact) we find the following wonderful farrago:
Do your utmost to come to me soon; for Demas, in his love for the world, has deserted me. He has gone to Thessalonica, Crescens to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. There is no one but Luke with me. Pick up Mark on your way, and bring him with you, for he is useful to me in my work. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. Bring with you, when you come, the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments.
I love the mentions of the cloak and the parchments; Polycarp (or whoever it was) had a delightful imagination. “There is no one but Luke with me” he has Paul say with some pathos. So Dr. Luke, the much-loved physician, stayed with Paul when Demas, Crescens, and Titus had all deserted him.
Our next stop in this trip is Irenaeus, writing late in the second century. He tells us that “Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.” This is the first reference to Dr. Luke being a writer as well; he is presumably the author then of the two-volume work addressed to Theophilus that appears in the New Testament as The Gospel According to Luke [volume 1] and The Acts of the Apostles [volume 2]. (If there were subsequent volumes they have not come down to us.) Raymond E. Brown in his introduction to the New Testament gives this description of the author as determined from his work:
An educated Greek-speaker and skilled writer who knew the Jewish Scriptures in Greek and who was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. … Probably not raised a Jew, but perhaps a convert to Judaism before he became a Christian. Not a Palestinian.
There is nothing in this description that would either confirm or contradict its attribution to Dr. Luke, which is about where Raymond E. Brown leaves it. If Luke and Acts are his work, however, we are in a position to deduce quite a bit about him based on his own writings. But again, it is worth noting, to do so we put ourselves in the position of piling conjecture upon conjecture.
Our final stop on this tour will be a prolog written to the gospel, possibly as early as the second century, but more likely a couple of centuries further on down the road (considerably abridged here):
The holy Luke is an Antiochene, Syrian by race, physician by trade. As his writings indicate, of the Greek speech he was not ignorant. He was a disciple of the apostles, and afterward followed Paul until his confession, serving the Lord undistractedly, for he neither had any wife nor procreated sons. [A man] of eighty–four years, he slept in Thebes, the metropolis of Boeotia, full of the holy spirit. He … in parts of Achaea wrote down this gospel…. And indeed afterward this same Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles.
So, there you have it. That’s not really the end of the road; in later centuries we will learn that Luke was also a painter, as well as a close confidant of Jesus’ mother Mary. Not bad for a guy whose only real claim to fame is that he sent his greetings to a fellow named Philemon a couple thousand years ago. It’s better than you or I are going to do anyway.