Friday, December 19, 2008

The Writings of Luke and the New Prophesies

This is the third post in a series reviewing various New Testament writings and particularly how they handle "new prophesies" -- prophesies of the future made during the New Testament era, with particular emphasis on how new prophesies were handled by the authors who wrote the canonical gospels.

In the Gospel of Luke, we can again trace the same three prophesies as in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark: Jesus' prophesy of Peter's denial, Jesus' prophesy of his execution and resurrection, and Jesus' prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. However, some of the more interesting material on Luke's handling of the new prophesies is seen in the book of Acts. The fact that this author wrote more than one surviving work covering similar types of material provides a unique perspective into the author's purpose and approach in handling prophesies.

Jesus' prophesy of Peter's denial
Readers who have followed this series are, by now, familiar with the general approach to recording Peter's denial in Matthew and Mark. Luke, like Matthew and Mark, records a prophesy of Peter's denial (Luke 22:34) and records the fulfillment of that prophesy as Peter denies knowing Jesus (Luke 22:60-62). The record of the prophesy's fulfillment again contains explicit mention that the prophesy was remembered when it was fulfilled. Here Luke stays close to the material and approach already known from earlier sources such as Mark.

Jesus' prophesy of his execution and resurrection
In Luke's handling of the prophesies of Jesus' death and resurrection, we find one such prophesy at Luke 9:22 just before the transfiguration, as in Matthew and Mark. Luke does not repeat the prophesy as Jesus and his disciples come down the mountain, as Matthew and Mark do. Luke records Jesus repeating the prophesy at 18:31-33, and here he records the disciples' incomprehension, which Mark had mentioned in a somewhat different form as the disciples came down from the mountain after the transfiguration.

When recording the fulfillment of these prophesies, Luke records details not found in Matthew or Mark. He also places repeated emphasis on the remembrance of the prophesy:

In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee, 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'" Then they remembered his words. (Luke 24:5-8, emphasis added)
And again,
He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." (Luke 24:44, emphasis added)
Particularly in the record of the fulfillment of the resurrection, we see Luke contributing information not known from Mark or Matthew, and showing some independence from both Mark and Matthew.

Jesus' prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple
The prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple was seen as a fairly short passage in Mark, then as an extended section in Matthew. Luke also has an extended section on the prophesy of the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Luke 21). There is another possible prophetic allusion to the fall of Jerusalem in Luke 23:28-31, though that is not so clearly worded as to be classified beyond dispute as a prophesy of Jerusalem's destruction.

"No one knows the day or the hour" -- this hesitancy formula was seen once in Mark shortly following the prophesy of Jerusalem's fall. As we saw, it was repeatedly emphasized in Matthew, both following the prophesy of Jerusalem's fall and also in passages more closely associated with Jesus' return from a long absence to pronounce judgment. Here in Luke, we see a form of the "no one knows" passage in a parable of the Last Judgment (Luke 12:46; see Matthew 24:50, possibly Mark 13:35). In Luke, this is far removed from the prophesy of the destruction of Jerusalem. Did Luke place it there because he knew that Jerusalem had now fallen, or did he place it there because even in Mark the "no one knows" motif is contextualized in the "return from an absence", which is not necessarily the fall of Jerusalem?

Again, Luke has no mention of the fulfillment of this prophesy. Why not? The author has made a point of recording the fulfillment of prophesies; it is part of his intended material. Would Luke omit mentioning the fulfillment of a prophesy if it had already been fulfilled? If so, why mention the prophesy at all? Had the sack of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple simply not happened yet, providing a fairly straightforward reason why it was not mentioned? Or was it merely outside the scope of his narrative, outside the scope of his intended material, and was not mentioned for that reason? Would a concern for limiting and focusing the scope of his narrative outweigh his concern to mention the fulfillment of prophesies? To consider this, we are fortunate to have more than one document written by Luke. The other document, the book of Acts, sheds light on that question.

From Luke to Acts
In the gospel of Luke, the author had developed what he intended as a historical narrative of what could be known with certainty about Jesus of Nazareth. In the book of Acts, the author seems to intend a historical narrative of the growth of the religious movement viewed as a continuation of the narrative about Jesus, now focusing on those who proclaimed the message about him, the message that Luke had set out to document in his gospel.

Among these early followers of Jesus, some were reckoned as prophets. When we consider how Luke handled prophesies, we see additional examples of prophesy that have a bearing on our question. We find that we do have an example of a prophesy that was made in which the details of the fulfillment were not in the scope of his writing. Given the religious content of his writing and the religious interest of his readers, how would Luke have handled a prophesy with a fulfillment outside his intended narrative?

Acts: Agabus' prophesy of a famine
Agabus receives only two brief mentions in the Bible, both of them in the book of Acts. Luke introduces Agabus as a prophet:
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30, emphasis added)
Here we have Luke recording a prophesy of a famine, but the famine itself is not within the intended scope of his writing. Still, we see Luke mention the fulfillment of the prophesy. Luke may have recorded the fulfillment because he had recorded the prophesy and now wanted to show that his record was reliable, or that Agabus was a reliable source, or that the Christian movement had special gifts of the knowledge of God. Luke may have also recorded the fulfillment because of the involvement of later Christians during the time when the prophesy was fulfilled (see vv. 29-30), though it would hardly be necessary to mention the prophesy if this were the whole of the reason. Compared with other prophesy/fulfillment pairs we have seen in Luke's writings, there is no "remembrance" or "told you so" clause; then again, the prophesy and its fulfillment are recorded back-to-back, with no intervening material. Here we see that Luke records the fulfillment of a prophesy even when the details of the fulfillment are outside his area of direct interest. The prophesy itself as a prophesy seems to be of interest to Luke so that he records the fulfillment, even though there is not much interest in recording the famine as such.

Acts: Agabus' prophesy of Paul's arrest
For thoroughness' sake, we will also review the other prophesy which Luke records from Agabus.
After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul's belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, "The Holy Spirit says, 'In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.'" (Acts 21:10-11)
In this case, the fulfillment of the prophesy -- Paul's arrest -- is of direct interest to Luke, and he records the fulfillment in some detail later in the same chapter.

While trying to determine whether the gospel of Luke was written before or after the fall of Jerusalem, the internal evidence within the gospel of Luke was much the same as that from the gospel of Matthew. That is, the silence about the destruction of Jerusalem was striking given the author's pattern of pointing out the fulfillment of prophesy, but this break in pattern may not be persuasive in that we can easily imagine other reasons for this break in pattern, particularly that it may have been outside the scope of his narrative, and given that Luke -- in distinction to Mark or Matthew -- lacks the "no one knows" disclaimer in any text associated with the fall of Jerusalem. The lack of the "no one knows" disclaimer is in itself a flag. But a flag of what? A flag that Luke considered the "no one knows" material to have been misplaced, in that he records it elsewhere? A flag that Luke knew a version of Mark with a different version of the "no one knows" formula, as there are textual variants there? Or a flag that Luke knew when Jerusalem fell when he wrote the his gospel, but chose not to mention the prophesy's fulfillment? From the gospel of Luke alone, the evidence is ambiguous, much as it was with Matthew.

It is the book of Acts which provides a way to evaluate how likely Luke would have been to keep silence about a fulfilled prophesy that happened to be outside the scope of his main narrative. We see in Luke's handling of the prophesy of the famine: if Luke records a prophesy, Luke at least works in a mention of its fulfillment if he is aware of it, even if the mention is pointedly brief so as not to break up the flow of the narrative. Either we must conclude that Luke was very careless in his handling of prophesy and fulfillment, or that he had more interest in Agabus' reputation than Jesus' reputation, or that Luke did not know of the fall of Jerusalem when he wrote the gospel of Luke. Based on the texts we have, the first two seem implausible to me, and the third option seems the most plausible. Bear in mind that the main reason for dating the synoptic gospels later than the fall of Jerusalem has been their inclusion of the prophesy of Jerusalem's destruction. But in one gospel after another we have seen that this is the only new prophesy whose fulfillment is not recorded. In Matthew and Mark, this prophesy is accompanied by a hesitancy formula that is in sharp contrast to the "remembrance" and "told you so" formulas seen for the prophesies that were known to have been fulfilled. In Luke, this prophesy is not granted a passing mention of fulfillment such as Luke grants to Agabus and his famine.

The argument for a late date based on the existence of these prophesies is incomplete; it neglects to study how the authors handle the fulfillment of prophesy and the evidence that they are interested to record such a fulfillment whenever it is known. Based on the internal evidence of how the synoptic gospels handle the fulfillment of the recorded prophesies, it seems most likely to me that the three synoptic gospels were written before the fall of Jerusalem.

I hope I haven't tired everyone on the subject yet, but I still have two more posts intended in this series: the 'let the reader understand' comments during the prophesy of the destruction, and the handling of prophesy in the gospel of John.


BruceA said...

I think you make some good points here, especially with the Acts material.

I'm not fully convinced of this:

Either we must conclude that Luke was very careless in his handling of prophesy and fulfillment, or that he had more interest in Agabus' reputation than Jesus' reputation, or that Luke did not know of the fall of Jerusalem when he wrote the gospel of Luke.

If the gospels were written after the destruction of the Temple, there is still a big difference between Agabus' prophecy fulfilled during the reign of Claudius some two decades prior, and the destruction of the Temple, which would be a current event.

It would be similar, possibly, to the difference between:
"Xyzzy predicted in the 1970s that a woman would be appointed to the Supreme Court (this happened in 1981)" and "Xyzzy predicted when Martin Luther King was assasinated that a black man would some day be elected President." I don't need to say that this was fulfilled last month.

Were someone to make the claim that the gospels were written long after the destruction of the Temple (as some have), I think they would need to justify the lack of explicit mention that the prophecy was fulfilled. But if they were written soon after, I'm not convinced that it would be necessary.

BruceA said...

Oh, and by the way,

I hope I haven't tired everyone on the subject yet,

I, for one, am thoroughly enjoying this series.