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Apocalypticism In Luke? Part I

August 23, 2010

I am going to start a new series. Basically the purpose of the series and the posts I have planned is to pursue a line of thought that considers whether apocalypticism was an influential way of viewing the world, and for understanding events, from the communal memory that influenced the author of the gospel of Luke. In my actual line of academic work I do very little to no NT research. I generally tend to focus on earlier periods and texts. So, on the one hand, it should be ‘fun’ to play around with some texts that I wouldn’t subject to some lines of reasoning normaly; however, on the other, public thought experiments are open to public criticism, so I ask my NT colleagues not be too harsh with me in their criticisms! One of the benefits to blogging is practicing thinking and writing. The benefits of this are enormous when one begins to construct arguments that are going to be peer-evaluated. Therefore, while I ask my NT colleagues not to be too harsh, I also hope that good feedback and criticism is given in areas I am unaware of, or concerning arguments that need to be sharpened.

Let us begin.

The author of the gospel of Luke provides us with an interesting conundrum. From the text we could guess that the author wrote many years after the life of Jesus, and that he relied on the testimony of others in compiling his narrative. However, Luke’s reliance begs the questions: How were his sources remembering Jesus? And maybe more importantly: to what end? It is the purpose of this and forthcoming posts to consider Luke 3-7 using the methods of historical criticism and social science criticism in an effort to identify some of the ways the Lukan sources were possibly remembering Jesus, and maybe, for what purpose. In pursuing this purpose it will be argued that an apocalyptic worldview was influential in the Lukan community, and that apocalyptic literature such as 1 Enoch and apocalyptic interpretations of Isaiah 61 were important in the memory of the Lukan community reflected in his gospel. (Digression which should be a footnote: As I am not trying to define or decide who wrote the gospel of Luke, for the sake of convenience I will refer to the author as ‘Luke’ or ‘him’ or some such impersonal pronoun.)

Early in the twentieth century Sir William Ramsay declared, “Luke is a historian of the first rank.”[1] Subsequent scholarship did not always follow his confident lead. Later academic emphasis came to focus on Luke as theologian; therefore, some suggested that when theologically motivated Luke adjusted the historical narrative to fit his needs accordingly. Hans Conzelmann recommended a kerygmatic approach to the gospel of Luke in which it was important to understand the book in its final form—bearing witness to the theology of the author and the “preaching” of the church—and not to enquire into possible sources or into historical facts which provide the material.[2] Marshall posited a position somewhat between the two arguing that we must consider Luke as historian and theologian. However, Marshall’s understanding of history and the historian are telling. He suggests that the historian is only interested in “real events, things which actually happened,”[3] and “the view that Hellenistic history writing was in general tendentious and that therefore Luke must also be tendentious and inaccurate is ungrounded,”[4] and finally, while Luke does have a unique theological aspect that demarcates him from the other gospel writers, “Essentially the gospel tradents and writers were passing on history.”[5] Within this model Luke is a very conservative theologian rather than historical innovator, and basically he “builds upon tradition and treats it faithfully.”[6]

In these posts I would like to avoid these categories and suggest that Luke was neither a ‘historian’ nor a ‘theologian’. I am proposing we consider the gospel of Luke as a result of social memory reflective of the Lukan religious community. Historian and theologian are individualistic and modern terms loaded with modern connotations. Of course there are two dangers to avoid here. First, we will have to be careful not to confuse genre and the phenomenon of social memory, and second, ‘history’ writing is an ancient category.

However, most of these posts are going to attempt to avoid the terms ‘historian’ and ‘theologian’, and instead try to understand the social memory of Luke within ancient ideas contemporaneous to the authorship of the book. The study of social and cultural memory and the formation of memories are important issues for the current task, and I am fully reliant on the hypotheses of Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher in Memory, Tradition, and Text concerning memory, its formation, and function. When I use these interpretive theories for actual academic research and writing I will use Assman, Halbwachs, etc; however, seeing as these are blog posts I will gladly shortcut and use the appliers of their theories!

Kirk and Thatcher’s first proposal argues that memory is embedded and produced by an individual only in relation to their larger interpersonal world. This may be the easier of their theories to experiment with concerning Luke and will be pursued in another post.

Their second theory concerning memory is that as time passes and living memory or communicative, face-to-face memory begins to fade, a community must turn to more enduring media able to carry memory. In communities with writing technology “writing takes on a particular importance in the event of a ‘breakdown in tradition.’” Third, in commemorating the past a “community impresses its present identity upon its “collective re-presentations” of its past” and a community “states symbolically what it believes and wants itself to be.” Lastly, this process of social memory is constructive; thus, memory formations are not static, immobile forms they are dynamic and unceasing, “because it is wired into the ever-shifting present.”[7]

The largest difference between the usual approach to Luke and these theories is that the older approaches advocate some form of cold memory: for Marshall it is the faithful repetition of tradition based on actual events with a little bit of theological innovation on the part of the author. Conzelmann agrees that the community does project its own problems and answers into the life of Jesus, but with Luke there is a demarcation between “then” and “now,” and there is a historical reflection between the two epochs that leads to his understanding of “salvation-history.”[8]

The understanding and issue that will be pursued here is that Luke demonstrates hot memory. His gospel reproduces the constructive memory of his community as they are remembering Jesus for their present purposes; in this sense Luke is mirroring the dynamic social remembrances of his community as they try to understand the meaning of Jesus’ life and death for their immediate needs and experiences rather than reflecting an individual’s theology or a historical record.


[1] I. Howard Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 18, n.1.

[2] Hans Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 9.

[3] Marshall, Luke, 21.

[4] Ibid., 57

[5] Marshall, Luke, 52.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher, “Social and Cultural Memory” in Memory, Tradition, and Text (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 1-24, esp. 4-10.

[8] Conzelmann, Luke, 13.

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