How did books like the gospels come to be? Luke actually gives us considerable information about how he composed his gospel. Kenneth Bailey, in Interpreting the Bible, invites us to look at the opening verses of Luke. There are four key points that Bailey abstracts from these verses and places in a timeline. Here is the passage with the key points in bold:
1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants [huperetes] of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
Bailey takes these four points places them along a timeline that is by no means precise but rather gives a sense of the approximate flow of events.
- 30 A.D. – “…events that have been fulfilled among us…”
- 45 A.D. – “…eyewitnesses and servants [huperetes] of the word….”
- 60 A.D. – “…many have undertaken to set down an orderly account…”
- 75 A.D. – “…write an orderly account…”
Bailey first draws our attention the “eyewitnesses and servants [huperetes] of the word.” He notes that there is only one definite article on those two titles, likely indicating that “eyewitness” and “servant of the word” are dual traits of single individual. So who were these eyewitness servants of the word?
Huperetes means servant, officer, or minister. In Greek speaking synagogues there were “servants of synagogue.” In Heberew speaking synagogues they were called the hazan. These folks were the keeper of the keys to the cupboard in which the scrolls were kept. Additionally, they were responsible for the school that taught young students Hebrew and they lead the worship service. They were not head of the synagogue, which was a separate role.
When Jesus reads the scroll in Nazareth we see mention of the huperetes. Jesus reads the scroll and when he is finished, Luke 4:20 records: “And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant [huperetes], and sat down.”
But note that Luke says he consulted the eyewitness servants/ministers of the word not of the synagogue. What word? The Old Testament? No. That was the scripture. Bailey concludes that these were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ teaching who recited Jesus teaching to the worshiping communities. They were the watchdogs of the oral tradition and they were the ones to recite the oral tradition to the worshiping communities. The Church created an office that would die out within a generation.
What language were they speaking in? Was it Greek or Aramaic? What were these collections of writings that Luke had access to? Who wrote them and what language were they written in? Was the Q source one of them? Were one or more gospels among the writings Luke investigated? We don’t know.
One interesting point of speculation is pinning down when Luke might have had access to these huperetes of the word and the written documents. In another resource, Bailey notes that when Paul returned to Jerusalem in Acts 21 and was arrested, Luke was along with him. This was likely in the late 50s C.E., or about thirty years after Jesus. While Paul was doing at least two years in prison (Acts 24:27) Luke would have access to the local huperetes and whatever documents had emerged from within the Church. He may not have compiled his gospel in final form at that time but he certainly had access to first rate sources.
Bailey’s central point of emphasis is that the Bible was not dictated by angels as illustrated on the front of ancient manuscripts. Rather, God moved through a community to create the written word that became scripture. By looking at Luke we can get an imperfect glimpse of some of the process involved.
These three posts give us some sense of the nature of the book we are dealing with when we come to the Bible. It should inform our understanding as we read scripture. But as we interpret the Bible there are any number of errors we can make. Bailey has identified seven sins of biblical interpretation. We will turn to those next.