What is the earliest convincing attestation to the gospel of Luke? I believe that Justin Martyr quotes from Luke's gospel ca.150. Is that generally considered unassailable? Are there other earlier mentions?

  • 3
    This is a good question, but can you define indisputable? I've seen things disputed that shouldn't be. I knew one atheist a few years ago who would dispute that quote above unless Justin specifically stated that it was from Luke. Not a good method as that simply wasn't required back then. I have an answer on early dating Luke's gospel here.
    – Frank Luke
    Oct 28, 2014 at 16:17
  • Given the nature of Justin's use of the "gospels", one can understand a degree of caution. See Helmut Koester's discussion: Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Trinity Press Int'l, 1990), pp. 40-43. FWIW.
    – Dɑvïd
    Oct 28, 2014 at 21:50
  • 1
    Does not Acts 1:1-2 count?
    – cdjc
    Oct 29, 2014 at 0:10
  • @cdjc: I would say "yes" and "no." Obviously it is an attestation to the Gospel of Luke, but assuming it is the same author, then it is not an independent testimony (which, though the OP does not mention it, seems to be the implication; i.e. who besides the author of the Gospel of Luke is the earliest to attest to it).
    – ScottS
    Oct 30, 2014 at 19:15
  • Earliest attestation to Luke is Marcion, circa 140-150, and his opponents (his opponents after he's a few decades dead) Ireneaus (circa 180) and Tertullian (first decade of 200s). Nov 3, 2014 at 2:48

2 Answers 2



I agree with Frank Luke's comment, further adding that using such a term does technically make the question unanswerable (because, as Frank noted, people dispute things that ought not be).

Probable Testimony Circa 60-70 A.D.

The earliest probable reference to Luke's gospel is by the apostle Paul himself in 1 Tim 5:18, circa mid 60's A.D. (which of course depends upon one's view of the authorship and dating of that work).1 Regarding this verse, Wayne Grudem states:

The first quotation [of v.18] from “Scripture” is found in Deuteronomy 25:4, but the second quotation, “The laborer deserves his wages,” is found nowhere in the Old Testament. It does occur, however, in Luke 10:7 (with exactly the same words in the Greek text [see below]). So here we have Paul apparently quoting a portion of Luke’s gospel and calling it “Scripture,” that is, something that is to be considered part of the canon.2

He footnotes further as argument:

Someone might object that Paul could be quoting an oral tradition of Jesus’ words rather than Luke’s gospel, but it is doubtful that Paul would call any oral tradition “Scripture,” since the word (Gk. γραφή, G1210, “writing”) is always in New Testament usage applied to written texts, and since Paul’s close association with Luke makes it very possible that he would quote Luke’s written gospel.3

The Greek in the two quotes is the "same," with some qualifications:

Luke 10:7     ἄξιος  γὰρ ὁ   ἐργάτης τοῦ μισθοῦ αὐτοῦ   [ἐστίν ?]
Lit. Trans.   Worthy for the laborer the wages  of him  [is]
1 Tim 5:18b   Ἄξιος      ὁ   ἐργάτης τοῦ μισθοῦ αὐτοῦ

The post-positive γὰρ ("for") is found in Luke, since in that passage Jesus is stating the clause as a "reason" for remaining in a house as the disciples are out ministering, so the quotation of Paul would not carry that over.

The ἐστίν ("is") may or may not be in the original Luke 10:7 passage.4 It is found in the majority of texts, but not in all texts, the NA28 not including it, and citing in the apparatus the witnesses for each as such:

[Including it] A C K W Γ Δ Θ Ψ ƒ1.13 33. 565. 1424. 2542 𝔐 syh

[Excluding it] 𝔓75 א B D L Ξ 579. 700. 892. 1241. 2211 i

However, even if the ἐστίν is valid in Luke 10:7, Grudem's statement is not inaccurate, as the omission of the "being" verb ἐστίν in Greek is a common elision of text, and otherwise still has the quote (1 Tim 5:18) with the same wording and the same meaning as the source (Luke 10:7).

Is this an Attestation?

Obviously 1 Timothy does not say something to the effect of "Luke's testimony says...," so the main connections for it being an attestation are:

  1. The statement of it being "Scripture" by the writer of 1 Timothy (I believe Paul)
  2. The fact that the wording is otherwise only found in the Gospel attributed (I believe correctly) to Luke.
  3. The testified association between Luke and Paul

The weight of these points will of course vary based on a number of factors, and so it is not "indisputable," but it is a common understanding of the earliest attestation.5

One implication, however, is that if 1 Timothy is a reference to Luke, and if 1 Timothy was written within the 7th decade of the 1st century, then Luke's gospel would be earlier than that. Many scholars do not place the writing of Luke that early, rather

Most experts date the composition of Luke-Acts to around 80-90 CE, although some suggest 90-110 (Wikipedia, accessed 10-30-2014)

This would still allow for 1 Timothy to be the earliest attestation if one took a later composition in 2nd century (see n.1 below).

However, it may also be that the Gospel of Luke was written earlier, as not all scholars have abandoned an early date, with evidence pointing to Acts being composed 60-62 A.D. according to that link (which this timeline and this timeline both would put the end of the Acts account around 60-62 A.D.), making the Gospel of Luke composed some period of time prior to that. The same timelines would put the "we" passages of Acts (which start at 16:10) about 50-51 A.D. So if the early dates are correct, it leaves us with the following possibilities:

  • Luke's Gospel was composed prior to Luke's meeting Paul in Acts 16, having perhaps been converted early to Christianity (Acts 2?), and he may have already done his writing of the Gospel. This would make the Gospel written before 50 A.D., which does have the benefit of it being more "established" as a writing for Paul to quote in the mid-60's, being at least nearly 15 years prior (if not more). Also, see below "Update: Further and Earlier (50's A.D.) Evidence?" for more on this possibility.
  • Luke's Gospel was composed during Luke's time with Paul. If in fact Luke used research to compose his gospel, which is by far the majority opinion (as opposed to direct revelation, the competing view of the interpretation "from the very first" [ἄνωθεν] in Luke 1:3), then perhaps his research was done earlier and composition ended sometime in the early to mid 50's. Paul would of course become familiar then with the writing, and could easily be quoting it roughly ten years later. If Luke's research was done later, perhaps during Paul's return to Jerusalem (Acts 21, part of the "we" passages), then the gospel composition might have been as late as 59-60 A.D., right before the probable early composing of the its sequel, the Book of Acts. This would still make Paul's quotation of it perhaps 5-8 years from its writing, but it could be that Paul considered it "Scripture" because he was confident that Luke had accurately made account of Christ's sayings (which is what 1 Tim 5:18 is quoting).

Who is Taking from Whom?

There is also the question of who might have borrowed from whom, as Dick Hatfield's comment below states:

May I also suggest that if Paul really did write 1 Timothy, it would be more likely that Luke would echo him, not Paul echo Luke.

I would disagree with the likelihood of that reversal for the following reasons:

  • As noted above, Paul refers to the quote as "the Scripture" (ἡ γραφή), an explicit reference to the written word, as Grudem also noted above in his argument against a quotation of an oral tradition.
  • So if Luke got it from Paul's preaching (oral), and penned it based off Paul's testimony, then it would be very odd (to me) for Paul to then turn around and reference it in such an authoritative way as a written document, rather than testify to it himself (without call to the authority of Scripture).
  • Therefore it seems that Luke's account of Christ's words in Luke 10:7 that Paul is quoting was something Paul became aware of from his familiarity with Luke's gospel account.

That's my opinion on it, but again, probably not "indisputable."

Update: Further and Earlier (50's A.D.) Evidence?

I was reading in Three Views on the Rapture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), specifically chapter 4 "The Case for the Posttribulation Rapture Position" by Douglas J. Moo, and in that he notes "particularly compelling" parallels between Luke 21:34-36 and 1 Thess 5:2-6, also stating there are "strong indications that one is dependent on the other" (185). Specifically he is addressing the parallels in the context of discussing 1 Thessalonians 5:

Both have as their subject the Day, which, it is warned, will come upon those unprepared suddenly and unexpectedly ("as a trap," Luke 21:34); both emphasize that there will be no escape (cf. Luke 21:35); both encourage believers to watch in light of that coming "Day"; both use the same verb (ἐφίστημι) and the same adjective, αἰφνίδιος ("suddenly") of the "Day"—and the latter is used only in these two places in biblical Greek.

So to summarize Moo's parallels:

  • "the Day" as subject (Lk 21:34; 1 Th 5:2); NOTE: Moo is linking "that day" of Lk 21:34 to Lk 21:27 and the coming of Christ.
  • comes unexpectedly upon the unprepared (Lk 21:34 "like a trap"; 1 Th 5:2 "like a thief in the night" [cf. v.4 also])
  • no escape (Lk 21:34-35; 1 Th 5:3); NOTE: the failure to escape in Luke is conceptualized in the "trap" and it coming upon "all those who dwell on the face of all the earth."
  • believers encouraged to watch (Lk 21:34, 36; 1 Th 5:6)
  • verbal choice of ἐφίστημι for the event (Lk 21:34, ἐπιστῇ [Aorist Active Subjunctive], "will come"; 1 Th 5:3, ἐφίσταται [Present Mid./Pass. Indicative], "will come" or more literally, "comes"); NOTE: the word has the idea of being "present" or "at hand," and given the context similarities makes the parallel word choice a stronger argument for some literary dependence.
  • unique correlation of adjective choice of αἰφνίδιος for the event (Lk 21:34; 1 Th 5:3); NOTE: this may be one of the most compelling points about some literary dependency, as the only two uses of this word in the NT appear in these two passages that do have such apparent similarities of topic.

One other parallel Moo does not note:

  • avoiding drunkenness in anticipation of these events (Lk 21:34 "not be weighted down with ... drunkenness"; 1 Th 5:6 "be ... sober")

The significance of possible dependency means that either Luke is depending upon 1 Thessalonians, or vice versa, if a dependency exists at all. Given that Luke is roughly a parallel to other Gospel accounts about Christ's preaching, the dependency is far more likely to be Paul in 1 Thessalonians depending upon Luke, rather than Luke taking language and concepts from Paul and weaving them into his understanding of other gospel accounts.

Yet if 1 Thessalonians shows some dependency on Luke, then that argues for a fairly early rendering of Luke, for 1 Thessalonians is currently noted on Wikipedia to be "probably written by the end of AD 52" (the citation coming from the Anchor Bible). It further notes there that "the majority of New Testament scholars hold 1 Thessalonians to be authentic," so it is one of the least disputed for Pauline authorship.

However, since there are always two sides (at least), it also notes there:

It is also sometimes suggested that 1 Thes. 5:1–11 is a post-Pauline insertion that has many features of Lukan language and theology that serves as an apologetic correction to Paul's imminent expectation of the Second Coming in 1 Thes. 4:13–18.

So there is still not "indisputable" points to be made here. Nevertheless...

  1. If the 1 Thes 5:1-11 passage is authentically Pauline, and
  2. If 1 Thes 5:2-6 is Lukan dependent (which even the suggestion of insertion above favors Luke as the source), and
  3. If 1 Thessalonians is in fact circa AD 52, then that book, rather than 1 Timothy, would be the earliest attestation to the Gospel of Luke.


1 The Wikipedia article states (accessed 10-20-2014),

The dating of 1 Timothy depends very much on the question of authorship. Those who accept the epistle's authenticity believe it was most likely written toward the end of Paul's ministry, c.62–67 CE. Other historians generally place its composition some time in the late 1st century or first half of the 2nd century CE, with a wide margin of uncertainty.

As Dick Harfield pointed out in a comment, even if written as late as "first half of the 2nd century CE," it would still likely be the earliest attestation.

2 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 61-62 (page 62 in the online Google book preview, my page numbers come from my Logos Bible Software electronic version).

3 Ibid., 61 n.21.

4 There is also a very minority variant in the 1 Tim 5:18 text that NA28 also does not take as correct, going with the majority reading. There are a few witnesses (א*vid (ar*; Cl)) that replace τοῦ μισθοῦ ("the wages") with της τροφης ("the food").

5 Of course, the oldest extant document witness for 1 Timothy itself (that I am aware of; see this study) is in Codex Sinaiticus, ca. 4th c. A.D. However, as best I could track down, the oldest extant document of any of Justin Martyr's work is also 4th c., and that probably does not even have the Luke attestation within it. So both on grounds of "original" authorship date as well as "extant witness" date, the 1 Timothy 5:18 passage in Codex Sinaiticus may be it. I believe the oldest extant witness to Luke's gospel itself is Papyrus 75 (ca. 200 A.D.).

  • 1
    May I sugest that even if 1 Timothy was written during the first half of the second century, as many scholars claim, this could be the earliest attestation to Luke's Gospel? May I also suggest that if Paul really did write 1 Timothy, it would be more likely that Luke would echo him, not Paul echo Luke. Oct 28, 2014 at 22:41
  • @DickHarfield: Thanks for the input. I agree with your first point, but not the second. I've updated my answer to address both aspects.
    – ScottS
    Oct 30, 2014 at 19:12
  • Thx. To expand my second point. First: Paul had an encyclopediac knowledge of Greek & Hebrew sources to call on when needed. Second: he was the master and Luke only his disciple - citing one's pupil like this would lessen Paul's perceived authority. Third: 1 Tim 5:18 says the saying comes from "scripture", and Paul would hardly call something written by his own disciple a few years ago at most, "scripture". "Scripture" was ancient and authoritative. (By the 2nd cent, Luke's Gospel was "scripture). Oct 31, 2014 at 20:43
  • @DickHarfield Thx back. Of (1): I would agree Paul had such a knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, but not necessarily Greek sources (being familiar with some of their poets is not enough to consider "encyclopediac") nor for sources about Jesus's life (i.e. gospels). Of (2): I would challenge the assumption that Luke is Paul's disciple or pupil, rather than simply a companion (indeed, they may have been mutually teaching each other what the "learned"). Cont...
    – ScottS
    Nov 4, 2014 at 17:38
  • Of (3): That is the heart of my answer, that Paul did call Luke's gospels Scripture, but such need not be "ancient," only authoritative, and if Paul considered Luke's gospel authoritative about Christ's life, I see no reason He would not have used the term (even as I believe Peter used it of Paul's writings in 2 Pet 3:15-16).
    – ScottS
    Nov 4, 2014 at 17:39

The earliest probable reference to Luke's gospel is by the apostle Paul himself in 1 Tim 5:18, circa mid 60's A.D. (which of course depends upon one's view of the authorship and dating of that work).1 Regarding this verse, Wayne Grudem states:

The answer is in the brackets, as the consensus of biblical scholars attest that 1 and 2 Timothy along with Titus are commonly known as the pastoral epistle are some of the unauthentic Pauline epistles. The scholarship is also in consensus with Mark being the first of the gospels with Matthew and Luke being copies taken from Mark (Synoptic) and "Q" or Quelle manuscript. None of the canonical gospels had authors names, it was not until the late 2nd century or early 3rd century that the names of the apostle were linked to them. However, one forgets that the disciples like Jesus were peasants and illiterate, we know this because the Greek NT states that Peter and John were uneducated/illiterate idiots/ανθρωποι αγραμματοι εισιν και ιδιωται. ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ ΤΩΝ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΩΝ (Acts) 4:13. Cofion (regards)

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