Contemporary study of the Gospel of Luke takes its starting point from the mid-twentieth-century publication of Hans Conzelmann's redaction-critical study, The Theology of St Luke. In Conzelmann's hands, the distinctive voice of Luke the evangelist emerged, leaving in its wake earlier judgments of Luke as the voice of Paul (who sometimes misunderstood the Pauline message) or as one so slavishly devoted to his sources that he was incapable of any theological contribution of his own. Arguably, the pillars of Conzelmann's perspective on Luke – for example, his emphasis on the delay of the Parousia, his apology for Rome, or his presentation of Jesus' ministry as a Satan-free period – have been felled, one by one, by subsequent scholarship. Nevertheless, Conzelmann's work altered the course of historical study of the Third Gospel, paved the way for what would become first composition – and then literary-critical analysis of Luke – and set the interpretive agenda in ways that would open the door to a wide array of other, especially social-scientific and political, approaches to reading Luke.
If, in retrospect, Conzelmann was the catalyst for these new pathways in interpreting Luke, it is also true that he shared this role with many others in biblical studies more generally. Similar work on the other Synoptic Gospels dates to the same period, for example, with Günther Bornkamm and his students' work on the Gospel of Matthew and Willi Marxen's work on Mark.
We refer to the wider discipline of studying the nature, form, and functioning of narrative texts as narratology, but in biblical studies a constellation of interests and a variety of practices in the study of narrative have consolidated under the heading of narrative criticism. As a mode of study, narrative criticism would seem to require little by way of justification, because the first five books of the New Testament (NT), the Gospels and Acts, are each cast in narrative form, but lingering questions about the literary unity of these documents and the significant differences between ancient and contemporary narratives press for care in the construction of a narrative–critical method.
FROM THERE TO HERE: THE RISE OF NARRATIVE CRITICISM
With precedents far back in the history of interpretation, any time readers took seriously how the Bible tells stories and promoted the practice of close reading, narrative criticism in the modern era surfaced prominently in the 1980s. At the outset, narrative study was limited by its overly narrow focus on the texts themselves, as if texts could and ought to be regarded as self-sufficient, self-contained verbal artifacts. Accordingly, the text was presumed to be the unique and privileged source of meaning, with “meaning” available to the interpreter only by means of careful attention to its language and structure, without regard for concerns of a social–historical kind and with no sensible way to account for how or why different readers might understand the same narrative differently.
More than one hundred years ago, Martin Kähler spoke of the gospels as 'passion narratives with extended introductions'. Although directed at all four of our New Testament gospels, subsequent research took this as a description especially of the Gospel of Mark. This label is now dismissed as overly simplistic, and rightly so, given the importance of Mk 1-10, chapters too easily marginalized when relegated to the status of mere introduction. Nevertheless, Kähler's formulation helpfully underscores the centrality of the cross of Christ to the Gospel of Mark at the same time as drawing attention to the fact that Mark's narration from Jesus' entry into Jerusalem to the empty tomb occupies fully one-third of the gospel. Indeed, there is no coming to terms with this gospel - its spirituality, christology, theology, ethical vision and so on - without giving maximal consideration to Jesus' ignominious demise at the hands of Roman justice. Perhaps more importantly, we have in Kähler's statement a reminder that the cross of Christ is cast within a larger plot, from which it draws its profound significance. How it does so is perhaps the central question confronting those who read and study Mark's narrative.
This is not only because the crucifixion of Jesus iswoven so pervasively – sometimes with subtlety, often explicitly – into the fabric of the narrative. It is also to recognize that the cross is capable of multiple interpretations, and that Mark’s gospel presses its readers in a particular direction as they seek both to make sense of Mark’s perspective on Jesus of Nazareth and to embody his vision of discipleship.
Why did Jesus have to die? This question is capable of multiple answers. For example, a Latin historian writing at the end of the reign of Tiberius likely would never have heard of Jesus or his execution; or if he had, he would probably have had no reason to mention it. Had he woven this crucifixion into his narrative, the most credible impetus would have been to illustrate the religio-political agitation that marked Roman-Jewish relations during this period, perhaps as an anecdote displaying how Rome dealt with those who threatened the pax romana. If reports of this incident were written up differently in the second century, or if already within the first century those who penned documents that would become our New Testament had relocated it from a footnote in the annals of history to its status as an epochmaking event, this is because Jesus' death had been set within different interpretative horizons.
In her 1984 essay, “Jesus–Paul, Peter–Paul, and Jesus–Peter Parallelisms in Luke–Acts: A History of Reader Response,” Susan Marie Praeder surveyed the cataloging and analysis of parallelisms in Luke–Acts from the nineteenth century to 1983. In particular, she noted how different approaches to Lucan studies – tendency criticism (Schneckenburger, Bauer, Schwegler, Zeller), radical criticism (Bauer), literary criticism (Morgenthaler), typological criticism (Goulder), and redaction criticism (Talbert, Mattill, O'Toole, Radl, Muhlack) – have produced lists of alleged parallelisms that continue to share a significant degree of overlap, even if these data have then been subjected to disparate interpretations. Noting that parallelisms have been understood, for example, “as proof of literary sequences and structures, lack of historicity, and certain theological concerns,” she maintains nonetheless that, “although interpretations of the parallelisms have tended to be relatively short-lived, the proposed parallelisms lend some con-tinuity to the history of interpretation. At the same time, she cautions against what we might call parallelomania – i.e. the undisciplined ransacking of Luke–Acts for recurring patterns of narration – and urges readers (1) to be more forthcoming regarding their criteria for locating parallelisms and (2) not to confuse their findings with authorial intent. In their words of caution, some redaction critics have gone much further, querying whether such “correspondences” or “parallel structures” have much relevance at all for attempts at discerning the theology of the Evangelist. After all, in whose mind do these phenomena occur – Luke's or the modern reader's? Against the backdrop of such concerns, we will argue that, from the standpoint of our reading of the narrative of Luke– Acts, authorial intentions are less material than are the manifold interpretive responses supported by the narrative itself.
It will surprise many readers to discover that Luke is responsible for more material, measured in sheer words, than any other New Testament writer. This is surprising because his influence as a theologian has not often been felt in such explicit ways when compared with Paul or John. Indeed, it is only in recent decades that the expression “Luke the theologian” has become a commonplace, and it is personally satisfying to be able to participate in this way in the recovery of Lukan theology for the church.
My own appreciation for Luke has developed in conversation with my students, former and present – first at New College Berkeley, and now at the American Baptist Seminary of the West and Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. In particular, I have benefited from interactions with Meagan Howland and Michael McKeever, both of whom have served in varying capacities as research assistants and conversation partners. I am grateful to them; to the Graduate Theological Union, who awarded Michael and me a Henry Mayo Newhall Fellowship for Student–Faculty Partnership for work on “Luke–Acts and the Jewish People” and to the Catholic Biblical Association, who awarded me a Young Scholar's Fellowship for work on the application of discourse theory to the Gospel of Luke. I am also indebted to the Friday Night Fellowship of St. Luke's United Methodist Church, Richmond, California; together we have been working through the Gospel of Luke and its implications for faithful discipleship for almost two years – with no end yet in sight!
The Gospel of Luke narrates the long–awaited intervention and determined activity of God to accomplish his historic purpose. In Luke's rendering of this redemptive project, God is joined by others – both human and spiritual – working either to embrace and serve or to reject and oppose his aim.
This is good story-telling: the highlighting of a problem requiring a solution, the resulting motif of conflict raising readers' interest, building tension, and pushing the story along toward its climax. For Luke, though, this is much more than a good story. For him, this is the way things “were” and “are,” for the divine purpose and the conflict to which Luke's account bears witness was at the time of his writing still ongoing. Situated in the latter third of the first century GE, he relates the story of Jesus for more than entertainment, just as he does so for more than antiquarian interest or fidelity. His is an engaged and engaging accounting of the ministry of Jesus and Christian beginnings.
The struggle to achieve the divine aim Luke recounts did not reach its resolution in the Third Gospel, but spilled over into the activity of the Jesus-movement in Acts. In an important sense, then, Acts is grounded in the Gospel of Luke, just as the Gospel is grounded in God's purpose as related in Israel's Scriptures. What is more, the aim of God, by the end of Acts, had still not reached its consummation; nor had it done so by the time of Luke's own writing.
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