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St Luke the Evangelist |
A physician writes history

St Luke the Evangelist is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 171, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Though long disputed, Luke’s ancient details prove to be true

St Luke the Evangelist - A physician writes history

St Luke the Evangelist - A physician writes history

Who is the most read historian of the ancient world? the learned professor asks his class. Tacitus perhaps? Suetonius? Herodotus? All wrong, he’s afraid. The most read and probably most reliable recorder of ancient history was a man known as Luke, the probable author of the Third Gospel of the New Testament and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.

Sir William Ramsay, a late-nineteenth-century archeologist, started out his career convinced that the Acts of the Apostles had been produced in the middle of the second century, a hundred years after the events it purported to describe. On the basis of his archeological discoveries, however, he was gradually compelled to reverse his views. “Luke’s history,” he wrote, “is unsurpassed in respect to its trustworthiness,” and “Luke is an historian of the first rank” who “should be placed along with the very greatest.”

Ramsay’s view of Luke was considered close to preposterous at the time. Luke’s critics of the then-scholarly establishment held that Luke frequently gives the wrong titles for imperial officials, the wrong dates, and the wrong places. That is, he was inventing the Acts of the Apostles as he composed it.

For example, they said, Luke mistakenly identifies Sergius Paulus as proconsul of Cyprus. A bad guess, they said. Cyprus was governed by an imperial legate, not a proconsul. Then in 1889, Ramsay noted an inscription found at Soli on Cyprus. It refers to “the proconsulship of Paulus.” In another passage, Luke calls the authorities in Thessalonica “politarchs.” Another bad guess, said the critics. There was no such thing as a “politarchy.” Then, in the twentieth century, Thessalonian coins were found bearing the inscription “politarch.”

These and other unexpected accuracies turned Luke’s reputation from that of polemical flak for Paul into that of a dependable historian.

Something else helped. Luke’s narrative of Paul’s shipwreck provides unparalleled descriptions of sailing conditions and techniques, all of which square with ancient records. Moreover, his description of the hurricane-force wind that dooms the ship corresponds exactly with that of modern-day sailing yachtsmen who, following the south coast of Crete, are occasionally hit with the same fierce winds that sweep down from the island’s seven-thousand-foot mountains.

Paul refers to Luke as “the most dear physician” (Col. 4:14), prompting Luke’s critics to ask: Yes, but do his writings betray any unusual interest in medical evidence? They do indeed, replied Luke’s defenders. People aren’t just “sick” in Luke. Simon’s mother-in-law is suffering from a “high fever” (Luke 4:38), not just “a fever.” A man is “full of leprosy” (Luke 5:12), he doesn’t just have “leprosy,” as in Mark and Matthew.

Of the six miracles described uniquely by Luke, five are miracles of healing. One final observation: Mark (5:25—33) notes that a woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years had fruitlessly spent all her money on doctors. Luke (8:43—48), doubtless out of professional ethics, delicately omits that detail.

So picturesque were Luke’s portrayals of the cities of Asia Minor that some critics accused him of cribbing from an ancient travel brochure. Likewise, his descriptions of Paul’s trials show an astonishing familiarity with Roman legal procedure. Luke himself acknowledges, in the prologue to his gospel, his attention to accuracy of detail. “I have followed all things carefully from the beginning,” he writes. And so apparently he did.

One thing, however, Luke did not record, notably what became of him after he reached Rome. The last reference to Luke comes from Paul who, under arrest in Rome, writes, “Only Luke is with me” (2 Tim. 4:11). His Acts of the Apostles ends in mid-story. A late-second-century account asserts that Luke, “filled with the Holy Ghost,” died at the age of seventy-four in Bithynia, the Roman province south of the Black Sea.

This is the end of the St Luke the Evangelist category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 171, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about St Luke the Evangelist from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at