Paul makes reference to a physician named Luke:

Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas.—Colossians 4:14 (ESV)

Tradition also assigns Luke as author of the gospel that bears its name and the history of the early church: the Acts of the Apostles. Many commentators have assumed this is one and the same man known to Paul, which influences their understanding of those texts.

What are the limits of interpretation of Luke/Acts, specifically with regards to the reference to a Luke in Colossians 4:14?

  • Are you more interested in the question of whether the author of Luke/Acts is the same Luke in Colossians or whether Luke's profession (whatever it might have been) matters when interpreting his works? Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 20:49
  • Yeah. Having a hard time articulating my question. Basically, how reliable is any interpretation of anything in Luke/Acts that is based on Colossians?
    – swasheck
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 20:51
  • I edited the question pretty extensively. I also tagged it with authorial intent, which I think is what you are getting at. Should we assume that Luke wanted us to read his work in light of his profession? (I also hinted at the other question of whether we can make the connection at all.) Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 21:05
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    Thank you for the interesting question and also for helping me get the Strunk & White badge! Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 21:25
  • Two quick points (both from David Pawson): first, another point to bear in mind when reading Luke & Acts is that Luke is the only Gentile author of the Bible. Secondly, Pawson believes that Luke got the "Christmas story" account from Mary; he attributes the details Luke was able to obtain from the bedside manner type of questioning one might expect of a doctor. Commented Apr 17, 2012 at 6:29

2 Answers 2


Was the Luke of Colossians the author of Luke/Acts?

Probably. As the two volumes do not themselves include the author's name, we can't be sure that the author was named Luke at all. However, Luke is only mentioned 3 times in Paul's letters and there is no indication there that he was a particularly prominent personage. Therefore, any external evidence for Luke as author is somewhat stronger than it would be if Luke were already recognized as an authority in the church.

According to Wikipedia, "Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and the Muratorian Canon all regarded Luke as the author of the Luke-Acts" Also, P75 clearly labels the end of the Gospel with Λουκᾶς:

P75 showing the end of Luke and the start of John.

One reason Luke might have been assigned authorship, however, is Paul's reference to him as a physician, which implied a man of great learning. (Galen, for instance, was known both as a medical doctor and as a philosopher. Intellectual typecasting was less common in those days.) Since both Luke and Acts are masterfully written histories in the classic style, it might have been tempting to make that connection. However, it does seem unlikely that no other names would have been mentioned if the authorship were simply an educated guess. (Compare with the suggestions for who wrote Hebrew to see the significance.)

One intriguing hint that the Luke of Colossians 4:14 is the author of Luke is the word choice in the "eye of the needle" saying. Rather than ῥαφίς, which refers to a sewing needle, Luke uses βελόνη, which apparently refers to a surgical needle. A medical doctor of the time would have had a wide variety of tools for dealing with injuries and may very well have imagined preparing to close a wound rather than preparing to fix a garment when he heard the saying.

Does it matter to interpretation that Luke was a doctor?

This is a far thornier question. When it comes to understanding Luke 22:36-38, I tend to agree with you: there's very little reason to bring up Luke's profession at all. But in the broad sense, I think it does matter. In fact, I think knowing something about the author matters a great deal when it comes to interpreting any text. Knowing who an author is can aid in understanding what he wrote and why. While we should not be slave to authorial intent (especially when we can only speculate about it), we should be guided by it (especially when recorded in the work itself).

Thankfully, we know what the author of Luke/Acts was trying to accomplish:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative...it seemed good to me also...to write an orderly account for you...that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.—elision of Luke 1:1-4 (ESV)

In other words, Luke was acting primarily as a historian (commissioned by Theophilus) in his writing. We must always evaluate his work in those terms first.

In broad terms, the care and attention to detail required of a doctor would have served Luke well as a historian. This is born out in Luke's meticulous usage of official titles. When we compare his output to Mark (who seems to mis-remember minor details) or Josephus (who displays considerable bias), we find Luke a man of even temperament and thoughtful care. These are evident even if we did not know or suspect that the author was a doctor, but knowing that detail fills in another piece of the puzzle.

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    Love your answer, and will upvote it. Nonetheless, Luke as physician based on semantic analysis alone has since been disputed. As such, any conclusions drawn from the study of Luke/Acts that are based an a supposed profession as a "physician" are on some shaky ground.
    – swasheck
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 18:49
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    +1 Love the phrase "intellectual typecasting." Another way we've been damaged by Immanuel Kant and his progeny. But maybe StackExchange runs counter to that kind of prejudice...? Anyway, fantastic answer.
    – Kazark
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 14:15

Luke's supposed profession would no doubt matter when interpreting his work as an author, if indeed he was the author. As the question says, tradition assigns Luke as author of the gospel that now bears his name and of Acts of the Apostles, but this is only tradition and these books were originally anonymous, remaining so until the second century. If there are good grounds for believing that Luke was not the author, or if there are good grounds for believing that Luke was not a physician, then our interpretation of this work should not be based on Luke's supposed profession.

What is the evidence that Luke the physician was the author of Luke-Acts?

Clearly, the author of Luke-Acts was an educated man, and the profession of physician would at least fit that criterion. It is only in the disputed Epistle to the Colossians that we learn that Luke was, supposedly, a physician:

Colossians 4:14: Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you.

However, Bart D. Ehrman believes that this was not the reason the Church Fathers chose Luke as the probable author of Luke-Acts. He says, in Forged, page 207, the idea that Luke was a Gentile companion of Paul comes from Colossians. He says there are three persons in Colossians who were Gentile companions of Paul: Epaphras, Demas, and Luke the physician (Col. 4:12-14). Of these, it seems unlikely that Demas could be the author, since we learn elsewhere that Demas "abandoned" Paul (2 Timothy 4:10). Epaphras appears to have been known as the founder of the church in Colossae (Colossians 1:5-7), a church that is never mentioned in Acts. That would be odd if its founder were the author. This leaves the Church Fathers with one candidate, Luke the physician.

However, a substantial majority of New Testament scholars believe that Colossians is pseudepigraphical. Scholarship was divided on the issue until the 1970s but has steadily moved towards rejecting Pauline authorship. Richard DeMaris (The Colossian Controversy, page 11) cites Raymond Brown, who estimated that by 1984, around 60 per cent of scholars thought Colossians inauthentic. John Barclay examines the evidence against Pauline authorship (Colossians and Philemon, pages 22ff) and says this is not decisive, but nevertheless Colossians is routinely bracketed out as deutero-Pauline, with the consensus accepting only seven letters as 'assuredly' Pauline.

If all this seems dry and insufficiently conclusive, it is interesting that:

  • Colossians most closely resembles the style of Paul's Epistle to Philemon.
  • Philemon is the only undisputed Pauline epistle to mention Luke
  • Philemon and Colossians both contain salutations by Epaphras and Aristarchus, but Colossians strangely reverses their roles, possibly as a result of confusion by the author:

Philemon 1:23: There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus
Philemon 1:24: Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.

Colossians 1:7: As ye also learned of Epaphras our dear fellowservant ...
Colossians 4:12: Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you
Colossians 4:10: Aristarchus my fellowprisoner saluteth you

What is the present consensus regarding authorship of Luke-Acts?

Uta Ranke-Heinemann says, in Putting Away Childish Things, pages219-220, that Protestant theologians in particular stress that Pauline theology is completely alien to Luke and especially to Acts. For this reason “Luke the beloved physician” and “co-worker” of Paul can not be the author of the Gospel according to Luke.

John Shelby Spong says, in Born of a Woman, page 109, the author of Acts would not have been Paul’s travelling companion because of the large number of discrepancies between Acts and Paul’s epistles.

The broad consensus of scholars is that Luke-Acts was written no earlier than the 90s of the first century, with a growing consensus that Acts belongs to the second century - much too late for Luke the physician.

In the light of the foregoing how should we interpret Luke-Acts?

First, even if Luke was the author of Luke-Acts, the profession of physician rests on the shaky ground of a disputed epistle. We therefore can not conscientiously use this information in reading and interpreting Luke-Acts.

Second, it is considered highly unlikely that Luke was the author of Luke-Acts. This means we should read these works independent of our understanding of Paul's theology, which in any case appears different from that found in Luke and Acts. Once we recognise that the author never met Paul, it becomes easier to understand the discrepancies between Paul's epistles and Acts. David Ravens (Luke and the Restoration of Israel, pages 174-5) discusses the views of some scholars that the author of Luke-Acts knew Paul's epistles but would have treated the letters no less creatively than he treated his other sources.

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    Protestant theologians in particular stress that Pauline theology is completely alien to Luke and Acts. For this reason, Luke can not be the author of the Gospel. - Or perhaps Protestants have misunderstood Paul.
    – Lucian
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 20:44

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