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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 57, 2009

RICK STRELAN, Luke the Priest. The Authority of the Author of the Third Gospel (Aldershot UK/Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2008). Pp. x + 194. Hardback. 55.00.

In this carefully written monograph, Rick Strelan reads Luke–Acts as the work of an author who “created Jesus and Paul in his own image according to his own agenda and goals.” He challenges the traditional understanding that this Gospel was written by a Gentile for Gentiles as well as the assumption that Luke, the author, was a medical doctor. Rather, he argues that this authoritative author was more likely to have been a Jewish priest who believed that “Jesus is God’s Lord and Christ, the fulfilment of Israel’s Scriptures” (1) and who was, at the same time, an “eschatological teacher, acting as an agent of God for the instruction of Israel” (48).

After exploring, briefly, the developmental traditions of the Gospel narratives in general and the Third Gospel in particular, Strelan argues that the Lukan author “shapes and controls” the Jewish scriptural traditions, a received Jesus tradition and the earliest apostolic traditions (47). The capacity to write such an erudite piece of work with deep connections to the story of Israel is the basis for Strelan’s assertion that Luke must have been a priest as “priests dominated the literary elite and were the ones who controlled the writing, reading and maintenance of books” in Palestine at the time (53–54).

Strelan goes on to examine, extensively, the differing opinions amongst the early church Fathers about the authorship and provenance of the Third Gospel. As well, he explores the research of a number of well-regarded contemporary New Testament scholars. In doing so, he asks the question, “Why was the name ‘Luke’ associated with the Gospel that came to bear his name as author? Why not call it the Gospel of Paul?” (88).

It is not until the final third of the book that Strelan presents his own thesis, noting that, in the context of Jewish faith communities after the destruction of Jerusalem, priestly authority was in the process of change. He argues that those priests whose had secure roles in their local communities as well as in the Jerusalem temple were able to retain their authority and had the capacity to lead their communities in religious understanding and regulation. Their focus of ministry was able to move from Temple to Torah and from oral traditions to written texts. This, according to Strelan, resulted in conflicts amongst the authoritative leaders of the traditions of Israel as interpreting “Torah requires a teaching priest” (120–22).

Strelan justifies his assertion by citing passages in Luke–Acts that describe confrontations on matters of interpretation between Jesus and his followers with Pharisees, High Priests, elders and Sadducees. But, citing the examples of Zechariah, Simeon, Stephen and Barnabas, “there is certainly no indication that the run-of-the-mill priests opposed apostles” (126). Priests are also teachers and judges who discern sin and righteousness, they can both bless and curse, and they have the role of mediator between God and humanity. All of these characteristics are found over and over again in Jesus and amongst his followers depicted in Luke–Acts. Strelan also argues that the liturgical elements found only in Luke–Acts are further indicators of a priestly focus (140–44).

Strelan’s thesis that the author of the Third Gospel is an authoritative priest, who interprets Jesus and the Church through the inherited true traditions of Israel, is well researched and soundly constructed. The Church has inherited a Gospel that interprets and re-interprets, not only God’s revelation to humanity in Israel, but also the received traditions of the early Church itself. Amongst other storylines, Peter and Paul are depicted in Luke–Acts as mutually supportive leaders. Perhaps the next question is whether the author was not only a priest but also a bishop?

Review by
Merrill Kitchen
Churches of Christ Theological College
Mulgrave VIC 3170