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The Authorship of Luke-Acts

by Barry L. Davis


Although both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts have been traditionally ascribed to Luke the physician, Paul's fellow worker and traveling companion (Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philemon 24), both books are anonymous. The author does not name himself in either work. Kummel affirms that "neither Luke nor Acts allows us to determine directly or indirectly who the author was" (p. 147).

Luke and Acts, while they remain anonymous, do give many evidences pointing to their authorship. This evidence can be found both within the text of Luke-Acts, and from external sources. While still not conclusive, these evidences will be examined and will determine that Luke the physician is the most likely author of both Luke and Acts, and that the traditional view is still the most valid. The nature of the evidence demands that both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts be taken into consideration.

The New International Version and the Nestle-Aland (4th revised printing) text of the Greek New Testament are used throughout.


When considered together it is easy to see why many have concluded that Luke-Acts is a two volume work by the same author. In fact, Bruce (p. 15) claims that "originally, no doubt, these two volumes circulated together as one com- plete and independent work." This statement can be backed up by several internal observations.

Similar Prologues

One of the most convincing evidences for this connection is found in the Prologues. "When the Prologue of Acts (1:1-3)is compared with the Prologue of the Third Gospel (1:1-4), the similarities are striking" (Gaertner, p. 11). Both Prologues are written to a common addressee, Theophilus. As Luke's Gospel begins by giving his purpose for writing to this "most excellent Theophilus" (1:3), so Acts begins by reminding the addressee, "in my former book, Theophilus" (1:1), and then continues with his narrative.

          This proclamation or witness is in direct continuity with the Gospel of Luke (1:1).               The Acts prologue, of similar style and addressed to the same reader, Theophilus,               makes explicit reference to the earlier volume. The familiar Lukan theme of                       promise/fulfillment is continued with the overlapping material at the end of Luke                and the beginning of Acts. The Gospel closed with the promises of the Father to be            realized in Jerusalem (Luke 24:49) and with the ascension. Acts extends the account          of the ascension into the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost (Willimon, p. 11).

The similarities in both Prologues, at the very least, show that the author wanted his audience to believe that he was the author of both works. There is no reason to believe that his desire was founded on anything but the fact that he truly was the author of both Luke and Acts.

It also is significant, as Willimon (p 11) points out, that the Prologue of Acts picks up exactly where Luke left off in his Gospel (Luke 24). To begin reading Acts immediately after completing Luke would seem most natural to any reader. Luke (24:49-53) ends with Jesus' commission and ascension. Acts (1:1-9)begins with a reminder of what was previously written, and repeats the narrative of commission and ascension. Some details are added to the Acts narrative, but it is basically the same account found in Luke. This continuation of narrative helps to build a bridge between Christ and the Church. The reader is not left believing that the church was an afterthought, but that it is a vital part of the process of God. This appears to be intentional by the author and helps to strengthen the argument for common authorship.

Similar Themes

There are a number of unique themes common to Luke-Acts that help to lead to an understanding of the unity of these two volumes. While these themes do not prove unity, the evidence is much more than circumstantial.

The kingdom of God is mentioned over thirty times in Luke's Gospel (e.g.,4:43; 6:20; 8:1,10; 9:2,11,27, 60,62; 10:9,11; 13:18,20,28-29; 16:16; 17:20-21; 19:11; 21:31; 22:16,18; 23:51). This is also a consistent theme throughout the book of Acts (1:3; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23,31). In both Luke and Acts "the Kingdom of God is regarded as a present reality as well as a hope for the future" (Maddox, p. 136).

A prominent theme in the apostolic preaching of Acts is concerned with the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Christ (3:18; 8:32-35; 17:3; 26:23). This is complementary to the Gospel writer's presentation of Jesus' insis- tence that His suffering, death, and resurrection must take place to fulfil all that was written about Him previously in the Scriptures (Luke 9:22; 18:31-33; 24:7,26, 44-46).

Another noticeable theme involves the person of the Holy Spirit. In both Jesus' life and ministry, Luke presents the Holy Spirit's evident involvement (1:35; 2:26-27; 4:1,14,18-21). This same involvement is demonstrated visibly in the life of the early church as portrayed in the Acts account. It is the Holy Spirit who gives instruction and fills God's prophets to both say and do what He desires, and also to resist speaking or acting when He does not want them to (Acts 4:8; 6:3,5; 7:55; 8:29,39; 10:19; 11:12; 13:2; 16:6-7; 20:23; 21:4,11). The Holy Spirit cared for the church by filling them at crucial times and giving needed gifts for ministry (Acts 1:5; 2:1-4; 8:15; 10:44-48; 11:15- 17; 19:6). The work of the Holy Spirit in the church is presented as a continuation of the ministry of Jesus. In fact, the Holy Spirit touches all areas of church life in Acts. These would include the areas of evangelism, stewardship, problem-solving, and leadership.

Both Luke and Acts lay great emphasis on possessions and the need to give to others. The Gospel of Luke records a number of instructions concerning the proper attitude toward possessions and giving(3:11; 6:30; 11:41; 12:33-34; 14:14; 18:22; 19:8). A similar emphasis is found in Acts where the church freely shared its possessions with those in need (2:44-45; 4:32-34), and places special significance on individuals who demonstrated their generosity, such as Barnabas (4:36-37), Dorcas (9:36-43), and Paul (20:33-35). Antioch is singled out as a generous church (11:29-30). Negative examples are also given in Acts that show the necessity of good stewardship and honesty (1:16-19; 5:1-11; 8:20-24; 24:26).

Luke-Acts have a similar interest in building a bridge between Jew and Gentile, with salvation being portrayed as universally available. Luke's Gospel traces the genealogy of the Christ back to Adam (3:38)and not just to Abraham, showing that his concern was not specifically for the Jewish nation. There are specific references made to Samaritans in this Gospel. In Jesus' parable (10:30-37) the Samaritan is the hero. Of the ten lepers healed by Jesus only one returns to thank him (17:16)with Luke emphasizing the fact that, "he was a Samaritan." Jesus rebukes James and John (9:55) for wanting to call down fire on a Samaritan village. In the healing account of the centurion's servant (7:10) not only is Jesus willing to heal on behalf of a Gentile but the good relationship the centurion had with the Jews is emphasized, as well as Jesus' overwhelming approval of the centurion's faith and a comparison to the lack of this type of faith in Israel. Jesus has words of praise for both the widow in Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian (4:25-27). Luke also emphasizes the universal nature of God's kingdom, asserting that "people will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God" (13:29). The great commission was given for "all nations" (24:47), not just to Israel.

This same inclusive language is used throughout the book of Acts. The commission is repeated (1:8) and includes all ethnic groups. Peter's Pentecost sermon includes a promise, not only for the nation of Israel, but also for those who are "far off" (2:39). In Acts 10 the gospel is introduced to the Gentile community formally. In that chapter Cornelius the centurion is visited by an angel (vss. 3-6), Peter is sent to him and preaches the Gospel (vss. 9- 43), which results in Cornelius and his household all receiving the Holy Spirit and then being baptized with water (vss. 44-48). In this account Cornelius is held in high esteem by the Jewish community, by God, and by Peter the Apostle. Peter is instructed by the angel to recognize Gentiles as "clean" (vs. 15), and communicates this new revelation to Cornelius and his companions (vs. 28). This change in policy is questioned by the Jewish Christians in chapter 11, where Peter's defense is accepted and those who opposed this new venture are left proclaiming, "so then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life" (vs. 18).

While Luke emphasizes, in both Luke and Acts, that the roots of Christianity are found in Judaism, God intended from the beginning to gain for Himself a people from all the nations of the earth. This is vividly displayed in the ministry of Paul. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, but he usually went first to the Jewish synagogue when he arrived in a town. All of the disciples were Jewish but the Gospel would spread through them to the Gentiles. This theme is striking in Luke-Acts and is solid evidence of a unified authorship.

Similar Style and Language

The author of Luke-Acts has been noted by many scholars for his unique style and language. Satterthwaite (Winter, p. 378) believes that Luke's literary techniques in Acts show "a large overlap between them and classical literature." Powell (p. 24) states that when Luke and Acts are considered together, "it becomes apparent that Luke employs the most extensive vocabulary of any writer of the New Testament."

          Luke's versatility with language is also evident in the varieties of style found in his             work. At times, Luke writes in what would be considered good Greek, with all the               refinement of classical oratory. He uses the optative mood, rare elsewhere in the                New Testament, and evinces a fondness for rhetorical devices such as littotes, by                which an expression is emphasized through the negation of its opposite (e.g., "no                small stir," 12:18). At other times, however, Luke writes in what is called "Semitic             Greek": the Greek language is employed, but words or phrases are constructed                   according to the conventions of Hebrew or Aramaic grammar (Powell, p. 24).

The polished style of this author is particular to the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, again, showing probability of common authorship. Gaertner (p. 11)states that "the implication that both works were written by the same author is unavoidable."

Another literary device employed in Acts gives indications that the author of Acts was a companion of Paul, who traveled with him on some occasions. These indications are found in what are known as the "we" sections of Acts. These are the places in Acts where the author writes in the first person plural instead of the usual third person (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). By employing this "we" language the author is presenting himself as a close associate of Paul's. Acts 20:4 excludes Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus, and Trophimus as possible authors. It would be difficult to fit Silas into these sections and there is no evidence for Titus (Dayton, p. 1002). All evidence appears to point to Luke.

It is possible that the author kept some type of a travel diary that he himself wrote at an earlier time, and used it as his source for these "we" sections. Hengel (p. 66) believes that the "we" sections point to Luke the physician:

         The remarks in the first person plural refer to the author himself. They do not go                back to an earlier independent source, nor are they a mere literary convention,                   giving the impression that the author was an eyewitness. From the beginning, this is           the only way in which readers — and first of all Theophilus,...could have understood           the ‘we' passages. ‘We' therefore appears in travel accounts because Luke simply               wanted to indicate that he was there.

While Maddox (p.7) points out that some scholars believe the "we" passages to be fictitious, there is really no compelling reason to do so. The "we" passages help to show that the author was an eyewitness, not to everything that he records, but at least to the accounts where he paints himself as part of the picture.

Another literary fact that needs to be noted is that the author of Luke-Acts has a way of employing medical and scientific terminology that is not found in the rest of the New Testament. While it can no longer be stated conclusively that the author was a physician based on the terminology employed (Gaertner, pp. 12-13), it does show a consistency between Luke-Acts, and furthermore, the fact that this terminology differs from that used elsewhere in the New Testament adds to the probability that Luke-Acts has a common author. In Hobart's work, The Medical Language of St. Luke, he identifies 400 terms that were either used exclusively by the author of Luke-Acts in the New Testament, or were used much more frequently by this author than any other. These particular terms, Hobart argued, were also found in the works of those who wrote Greek medical literature. All of this evidence was used to point to Luke the physician as the author of Luke-Acts. A study that drew many away from Hobart's, as well as Adolph Harnack's, conclusions was done by Henry J. Cadbury and published in a book entitled The Making of Luke-Acts. In this work Cadbury argues that the evidence used to prove Luke the physician was the author of Luke-Acts, namely the use of medical language, could at its best show only that the author was an educated man. To prove his argument Cadbury uses a number of sources from non-medically trained contemporaries of Luke who use some of this same language in their writings.

          As a result of Cadbury's studies less emphasis is now placed on this evidence than at           one time, yet his criticisms do not exclude the argument from being used to                        corroborate Lucan authorship, although no-one would claim that it can prove it                  (Guthrie, p. 118).

In this same context, Hemer (p. 311) adds that "it ...remains true that the failure of a hypothesis does not amount to disproof of its essential contention." J. Vernon McGee points out that the author "approaches his gospel from the scientific point of view" (p. 23). Blaiklock adds:

          A habit of expression and choice of vocabulary common to both books make it                  highly probable that the author was acquainted with Greek medical writers.                       Linguistic evidence so occasional would not in itself finally prove that their common           author was a physician, but in support of the tradition that "Luke, the beloved                   physician" (Col. 4:14) was that author, the phenomenon is of evidential value (p. 40).

If the author is Luke, as described in Colossians 4:4, the use of this language would make sense. The author pays attention to minute details which would seem to be of little or no significance to the average reader. In the gospel of Luke there is a longer account of the virgin birth than any of the other gospel writers (Luke 1:26-56; 2:1-20). Luke is the only gospel writer to tell of the birth and childhood of John the Baptist (1:5-25, 57-80).This author tends to put emphasis on the length of infirmities that had been mira- culously healed. The crippled man outside the temple had been that way "from birth" (Acts 3:2). In Acts 9:33 the detail is given that Aeneas had been paralyzed for eight years. In Acts 14:8 there is another crippled man who had been in that condition "from birth and had never walked". In Acts 5:16 and 19:12 a distinction is made between diseases and demon possession. By this it is implied that the author is advanced in medicine and thinks rationally as a trained physician should. The physicians in an earlier time period would have approached this much differently.

          The early Egyptian physicians were primarily priests, and secondarily medical men.             Sickness was considered due to the presence of evil spirits in the afflicted person,               and these evil spirits had to be exorcised by incantations and magic known only to             the priests (Pousma, p.788).

There are many terms in Luke-Acts which are used by Luke exclusively in the New Testament. These are either technical medical terms or statements that are made in the fashion of a medical writer.

In Luke 4:38 the author states that Simon's mother-in- law was suffering from a high (megalow) fever. The other Synoptics do not include this designation (Matt. 8:14; Mark 1:30). Vine (p. 91) states that "Luke, as a physician, uses the medical distinction by which the ancients classified fevers into great and little." Luke makes the distinction that a man was "full" of leprosy (5:12) while Matthew and Mark simply state that the man was a leper. Luke appears to be noticing details that would not be of concern to the layman. In the case of the man with the withered hand Luke points out that it was his "right"hand (6:6) while Matthew (12:10) and Mark (3:1) make no distinction. The dead man "sat up" (anekathisen)in Luke 7:15, which Robertson notes (p. 96) is the word "used by medical writers in the intransitive sense for sitting up in bed." In the narrative of the Gerasene demoniac, only Luke gives the detail that the man was wearing no clothes (Luke 8:27; Matt. 8:28; Mark 5:2). When Jairus' daughter was raised from the dead, only Luke mentions that Jesus gave orders for something to be brought for her to eat (Luke 8:55; Matt. 9:25; Mark 5:41). Luke records the only account in the New Testament of a person suffering from dropsy (14:2-4). Again, a probable distinc-tion can be made that Luke is viewing people through a physician's eyes. All three Synoptics record Jesus' teaching concerning how difficult it can be for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25), but Luke employs a different term for "needle" (belona). In both Matthew and Mark it is the needle used "to sew" (Vine, p. 106), but in Luke it is "the word that Galen uses for the surgeon's needle, a distinct trace of medical authorship" (Robertson, p. 95). "It should also be noted that in the case of the woman suffering from hemorrhage, Luke omits the comment that she had spent her savings on doctors and was not cured (cf. Mark 5:26; Luke 8:43)" (Guthrie, p. 118).

Out of the six miracle accounts that are unique to Luke's Gospel, five of them are miracles of healing. The case of the dead man from Nain receiving resurrection from Jesus (7:11-15);Jesus healing the woman who had been bent over double for eighteen years (13:11-13);Jesus healing the man with dropsy (14:2-4);the cleansing of the ten lepers (17:12-14); and, finally, the restoring of Malchus's ear (22:51).

In Acts, a number of terms connected with the medical profession are used. In Acts 1:3 the word "proofs" (tekmahrioi )occurs, and is the only place in the New Testament it can be found. This word "was technically employed in medical language" (Robertson, p. 99). In Acts 3:7-8 several interesting observations take place concerning the crippled beggar who was healed. It is noted that the man's feet and ankles are strengthened, and that he leaps, stands upright, and walks. A great number of people were healed according to the account in Acts 5:15-16, and the author distinguishes between those who were physically ill, and those who are afflicted with unclean spirits. Acts 13:11 uses the word "mist" (axlu)in describing what fell around Elymas the magician. Reese (p. 466) explains that "the word mist is a medical term used to describe a disease of the eye." In Acts 28:4 the word translated "snake" is tharion, which Reese (p. 923) says "is used by medical writers for venomous snakes."

          Even when proper allowance is made for lay use of medical language, Harnack's                 explicit statement of the case still stands (Luke the Physician). He proves that Luke            was a physician not only by his vocabulary but also by a variety of traces throughout          his writings, such as points of view, preference for the healing miracles, tendency to            diagnose diseases, interests characteristic of physicians, and ways of reporting                    anecdotes. It is true that a few isolated instances prove little. But the overwhelming            mass of data appears conclusive that the author was indeed a physician, presumable         Luke, the only physician known to belong to Paul's missionary party (Dayton, p.                   1002).


The internal evidence that indicates that Luke the Physician is the author of Luke-Acts is overwhelming. While it cannot be stated conclusively that Luke is the author, especially since he does not identify himself as such, all evidence definitely points in his direction.


The external evidence for Luke the Physician being the author of Luke-Acts is sufficient enough for Blaiklock (p. 39) to claim that; as early as the middle of the 2nd century the Church appears to have believed unanimously that Acts was written by Luke, the physician, the friend and fellow traveler of Paul.

Not one source consulted would dispute this claim. While a number of modern scholars would disagree that Luke is the author, none would argue that the early church had a question regarding Luke's authorship. In fact, not until modern critical scholarship was the authorship of Luke-Acts questioned by any extant sources. Guthrie (p. 114) writes that:

           The earliest witnesses to the authorship of the gospel belong to the latter part of the            second century AD, but the subsequent testimony is so fully in agreement with this              that it may be fairly surmised that this tradition had already had a considerable                 history before its earliest witnesses.

Although a majority opinion does not make an opinion a fact, it does weigh in its favor. The claims of the ancient church must not be taken lightly in this regard. The external evidence can be broken down into five basic cate- gories: 1) Patristic Evidence; 2) Canons; 3) Direct References to Luke's Authorship; 4) Translations; 5) Coun- cils.

Patristic Evidence

According to the chart The New Testament Canon During the First Four Centuries (House), the Gospel of Luke is alluded to by Psuedo-Barnabas (c. 70-130), Polycarp (c. 110- 50), the Didache (c. 120-50), Justin Martyr (c. 150-55), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), Tertullian (c. 150-220), and Origen (c. 185-254). This Gospel is specifically named as authentic by Irenaeus (c. 130-202), Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-86), Eusebius (c. 325-40), Jerome (c. 340-420), and Augustine (c. 400). The witness to Acts is identical except no citation or reference is made by Pseudo-Barnabas, or the Didache. These books were never disputed in any sense and so they are considered part of the homologoumena. Luke-Acts are not cited by every Church Father but those who do cite them do so favorably. Geisler (p. 108) points out that "the absence of a citation may merely indicate the lack of occasion to make one in the extant writings of the Father." Concern would be called for if one of the Fathers disputed Luke or Acts, but this is not the case. In fact, Dayton (p. 1002) asserts that "upon those who reject Luke as author there rests the burden of explaining the universal voice of the ‘Fathers' in his favor."


The Gospel of Luke is named as authentic in every major canon of Scripture. These would include Marcion's (c. 140), the Muratorian (c. 170), Barococcio (c. 206), Apostolic (c. 300), Cheltenham (c. 360), and Athanasius (367). Acts is listed as authentic in all of the above with the exception of Marcion where it is not listed at all. Dayton (p. 1001) points out that "the Muratorian Fragment not only refers to Luke but calls him medicus."

When the principles for discovering canonicity that were used in the early church are considered, it lends further evidence to the authorship of Luke-Acts. Geisler (p. 67) lists five basic questions that were considered before a book(s) was considered genuine and included into the New Testament canon:

           (1) Is the book authoritative — does it claim to be of God? (2) Is it prophetic —                  was it written by a servant of God? (3) Is it authentic — does it tell the truth about            God, man, etc.? (4) Is the book dynamic — does it possess the life-transforming                   power of God? (5) Is this book received or accepted by the people of God for                    whom it was originally written — is it recognized as being from God?

For Luke-Acts to pass the above criteria and to be included in all the major canons of Scripture is undeniable evidence of both its authority and authenticity. The early church did not take inclusion in the canon lightly. The inclusion in these canons is direct evidence that Luke was universally accepted as genuine by the church at large. To argue otherwise would appear to be a denial of the testimony given by those closest to Luke in time, geography, and culture.

Direct References to Luke's Authorship

The direct references to Luke's authorship of Luke-Acts are most compelling. Dayton (p. 1001) lists several of these references that help build the case for Luke the Physician as the author of both works. Irenaeus quotes from nearly every chapter of Luke's Gospel and makes frequent reference to Luke as its author. Clement of Alexandria also quotes from the Gospel of Luke and attributes it to Luke. Tertullian makes use of this Gospel when writing against Marcion and labels it as Luke's. The Muratorian Fragment is the first document to ascribe the Gospel to Luke, along with the information that it was Luke the Physician whom Paul had taken with him on his missionary journeys that was the author.

          The Muratorian Canon, the anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke, Irenaeus, Clement of           Alexandria, Origen and Tertullian all specifically state that Luke was the author,                 not only of the gospel, but also of the Acts of the Apostles. Moreover, at no time                 were any doubts raised regarding this attribution to Luke, and certainly no                        alternatives were mooted (Guthrie, p. 114).

These direct references to Luke as the author of both Luke and Acts cannot be ignored. These overt citations by these early leaders and documents of the church must be taken into account if authorship is to be determined. They cannot be pushed to the side as if they did not exist. When they are considered their testimony is overwhelmingly favorable to Luke the Physician.


A translation of a book cannot be made unless that book is first determined to be authentic. Luke's Gospel is included in the three major translations prior to A.D. 200 and named as authentic. These translations are the Tatian Diatessaron (c. 170), the Old Latin (c. 150-170), and the Old Syriac (c. 200). Acts is included and named as authentic in both the Old Latin and Old Syriac translations.


Four major church councils named both Luke and Acts as authentic works of Luke the Physician. These councils were Nicea (c. 325-40), Hippo (393), Carthage (397), and Carthage (419). These councils give evidence that Luke-Acts was not only considered authentic by individuals but by the church as a whole. The members of these councils were represen- tative of the church at large, leading to the fact that Luke-Acts was accepted by the church universal as the authentic work of Luke the Physician.


When the evidence is examined the overwhelming weight of it falls on Luke the Physician as being the author of Luke-Acts. Guthrie (p. 125) states that: "There would appear to be far stronger grounds for retaining the tradition of Lucan authorship for both the gospel and Acts than for rejecting it."

While it is impossible to conclusively prove who the author of Luke-Acts is, considering the author's own indif- ference to signing his name, the facts are very clear. Both the internal and external evidence point to Luke as the author of both works. In fact, after examining the case both for and against Lucan authorship, the observation can be made that those who reject Luke the physician as author have to go out of their way to find reasons to do so. There are no solid reasons to reject Luke as author, but many very valid evidences to support him. The traditional view that Luke the physician is the common author of both works is still the most valid option available.


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Von Harnack, Adolph. Luke the Physician. Reprint ed. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1909.

Willimon, William H. Acts. Interpretation: A Bible Commen- tary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988.

Winter, Bruce and Andrew Clarke, ed. The Book of Acts in Its First-Century Setting: Ancient Literary Setting. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.