Saint Luke, also known as Luke the Evangelist, is widely regarded as the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. He wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else—even the Apostle Paul.
Luke wasn’t an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, but he lived during the first century, and according to his own writings, he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:1–4). As a traveling companion of Paul, he also likely had direct access to the apostles and other accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry (such as the Gospel of Mark).
While he was presumably educated as a physician (Colossians 4:14), today Luke is celebrated as one of the church’s earliest historians. His methodical, detailed writings give us the only thorough record of what happened after Jesus ascended to heaven. Without his account in Acts, it would be hard to imagine how Christianity grew from a small, fragile movement within Judaism to what would eventually become the largest religion in the world.
So who was “Luke the Evangelist”? What do we really know about him? Can we trust him? In this guide, we’ll explore what the Bible says about him and how we know what he wrote, and we’ll answer important questions about his authority and reliability.
First, here are some quick facts about Luke.
Who was Luke?
Most of what we know about Luke comes from his own writings and a handful of mentions in Paul’s letters. Some details of his life are ambiguous, and scholars debate what we can really gather from the limited evidence we have.
Not an eyewitness
Luke makes it clear that he was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry (Luke 1:1–4). He never includes himself in the gospel narrative.
A companion of Paul
From the Book of Acts and Paul’s writings, we know that Luke was one of Paul’s companions.
In Acts 16:10, Luke suddenly inserts himself into the narrative, including himself among Paul’s companions.
In Colossians 4:14, Paul refers to a man named Luke as a “dear friend.”
In Philemon 1:24, Paul refers to a man named Luke as one of “my fellow workers.”
In 2 Timothy 4:11, he says “only Luke is with me.”
It has always been assumed that these are references to the same Luke, and many of the earliest Christian writers point to this man as the author of both Luke and Acts.
Paul mentions Luke in passing in Colossians 4:14, but from that mention, we learn that he was a doctor:
“Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings.”
This certainly would’ve come in handy for Paul, since he was constantly getting beat up (Acts 14:19, Acts 16:22, 2 Corinthians 11:24, 2 Timothy 3:11).
An early prologue to the Gospel of Luke (possibly as early as the second century), also records that Luke “was born in Antioch, by profession, was a physician. He had become a disciple of the apostle Paul and later followed Paul until his [Paul’s] martyrdom. He died at the age of 84 years” (Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of Luke, emphasis added).
In his own writings, Luke often uses common medical terminology to describe illnesses and afflictions. In Luke 14:2, Jesus encounters a man with dropsy, or “abnormal swelling of his body,” and Luke uses the word hudropikos—a common term in Greek medical literature that’s found nowhere else in the Bible.
Luke’s precise terminology draws from his experience as a physician and sets him apart from the other biblical authors.
Luke’s title, “The Evangelist,” comes from the fact that he wrote one of the four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are regarded as the Four Evangelists because their writings proclaim the “good news” (or gospel) of Jesus Christ.
Many people argue that Luke was a Gentile, which would make him the only Gentile author of the New Testament. Like many beliefs about Luke, the evidence for this claim is ambiguous, and far from definitive.
The idea comes from Colossians 4:11–14, where Paul separates Luke from “the only ones of the circumcision group,” which some scholars interpret as “the only Jews”:
“Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings.”
And while Luke likely was from Troas or Antioch, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been a Jew. It’s entirely possible that Luke was a Hellenic Jew: biologically Jewish, but culturally Greek. Hellenic Jews adopted the customs of Greek culture, and didn’t follow all the Jewish practices such as circumcision.
Since circumcision was a central issue in many of Paul’s writings, it wouldn’t be surprising if he intended for “the only ones of the circumcision group” to simply refer to the Jewish Christians who strictly followed the Law of Moses and believed circumcision was required for Christians.
That said, many scholars still hold the position that Luke was a Gentile.
One of the seventy-two?
In the fourth century, a bishop known as Epiphanius of Salamis claimed Luke was one of the 70 (or 72) disciples Jesus sent out in Luke 10:
“He too was one of the seventy-two who had been scattered because of the Savior’s say-ing. But he was brought back to the Lord by St. Paul and told to issue his Gospel.” —Panarion
This is the earliest claim that Luke was part of this group, and while interesting, it’s probably not true. Especially since Luke appears to exclude himself as an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry in the opening passage of his gospel:
“ . . . just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” —Luke 1:2
Not to mention, Luke never speaks in first person in the Gospel of Luke. As one of the 72 disciples, he surely would’ve witnessed some of the events recorded in his gospel, but he never once refers to himself in any of the events he records (like he does in Acts). Presumably, this is because his gospel is entirely based on other accounts (like Mark, and possibly the mysterious Q document).
Around the eighth century, a tradition emerged that Luke was an artist, and that he’d painted Mary, Paul, and Peter, as well as produced an illustrated gospel. A few centuries later, several paintings were falsely attributed to him.
Scholars largely consider this aspect of Luke’s character to be legend, as no record of it exists in the early church, but some churches today still embrace this as part of Luke’s identity and even claim to have work he created. As a result of this legend, he became the patron saint of artists.
Where is Luke from?
Most scholars believe that Luke was born in Antioch (as the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of Luke and early Christian writers claim). Acts doesn’t tell us this, either, but Antioch does get quite a bit of attention in the book.
But there’s another theory about where Luke is from. In Acts 16, Luke suddenly appears to join Paul and his companions after they reach Troas:
“When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” —Acts 16:7-10 (emphasis added)
However, Luke never claims to be from Troas, and while that clearly appears to be where he joined Paul, the evidence is ambiguous. (After all, we first meet Paul in Jerusalem, even though he’s from Tarsus.)
Was Luke one of Jesus’ twelve disciples?
Luke was not part of Jesus’ group of disciples called “the Twelve.” There are four passages that give the names of all 12 disciples (also called “apostles”), and Luke isn’t in any of them (Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:13-19, Luke 6:12-19, and Acts 1:12-26). Their names are:
- Peter (also called Simon or Simon Peter)
- James son of Zebedee
- John son of Zebedee
- James son of Alphaeus
- Simon the Zealot
- Thaddeus (Judas son of James in Luke and Acts)
- Judas Iscariot
While Luke wasn’t an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, he certainly had access to at least the accounts of those who were (Luke 1:1–4), including the Gospel of Mark (believed to be Peter’s account, handed down to John Mark).
Was Luke an apostle?
Whether or not Luke was technically an apostle depends on how you define it—but most Bible scholars would say he was not an apostle. (We agree.)
Some argue that “apostle” is a title reserved for the original 12 disciples, with perhaps an exception for Paul (“the apostle to the Gentiles”). Others use it more broadly to include the 72 disciples or important early Christian teachers. But apóstolos, the Greek word we translate as apostle, literally means “one who is sent off,” and some use this as a basis for using the title for all Christians—or at least including people like Luke.
But from its earliest days, the church has always gauged the authority and reliability of teachings based on how clearly they can be traced back to the original apostles—those who directly witnessed Jesus’ life and ministry. Describing something as “apostolic” associates it with the 12. Church historians even use a special title—Apostolic Father—for important leaders like Clement of Rome, who knew the apostles personally. So the distinction matters.
Here’s what we know about how the Bible uses the title apostle, and how the early church described Luke.
The Bible refers to more than 12 apostles
The Bible uses the title “apostle” for some people who weren’t among Jesus’ 12 original disciples. Acts 14:4 refers to Paul and Barnabas as apostles:
“The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles.”
1 Corinthians 15:7 appears to use apostle to refer to a group beyond the 12:
“Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles . . .”
Romans 16:7 refers Andronicus and Junia (who was likely a woman) as apostles:
“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”
Paul refers to himself as “the apostle to the Gentiles” in Romans 11:13:
“I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry . . .”
Passages like these make it possible that Luke could’ve been considered an apostle, but in the three times Paul mentions him in his letters, Luke is never referred to as an apostle.
Luke probably wouldn’t say he was an apostle
Luke didn’t play fast and loose with titles like “apostle.” The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament notes that Luke barely even used the Greek word we translate as apostle to refer to Paul (if he really did at all):
“Luke restricts the title ἀπόστολος to twelve disciples and, accordingly, never calls Paul apostle (except in Acts 14:4, 14, and there one suspects that a pre-Lukan source is speaking; see also H. Conzelmann, Acts [Hermeneia] ad loc.). Luke uses the expression ‘the twelve apostles,’ ‘the twelve,’ and (most often) ‘the apostles’ without differentiation.”
And don’t forget: Luke wrote more than one quarter of the entire New Testament—including the only canonical account of the early church’s history. He had plenty of opportunities to use this title for other believers who were “sent,” including himself, but he didn’t.
Tertullian called him “apostolic”
Tertullian was an important Christian writer who lived in the second and third centuries. In Against Marcion, he separated the gospel writers into apostles and apostolic men, distinguishing between John and Matthew (who were both “of the 12”) and Luke and John Mark, who were companions of apostles and presumably knew them well:
“Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instil faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards.”
Scholars are generally cautious to use the term apostle, and wouldn’t use it for Luke. However, in a non-academic setting, nobody would bat an eye if you called Luke an apostle. People often use the term to describe any prominent Christian who was there in the earliest days of the church.
Bible verses that mention Luke
There are only three verses that explicitly mention Luke (although a fourth-century church father argued that there could be a fourth). If we accept Luke as the author of Luke and Acts, then there are also technically the “we” passages, in which the author of Acts includes himself in the narrative. However, he’s not a character of consequence in that narrative.
In his concluding remarks, Paul basically tells Philemon “these people said to tell you hi.” Luke is one of them:
“Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.” —Philemon 1:23–24
This passage reinforces Luke’s position as one of Paul’s close companions.
Colossians 4:14 is the only passage that mentions Luke’s role as a physician.
“Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings.”
This verse is also part of the argument that Luke was a Gentile, since in the passage (Colossians 4:11-14) Paul distinguishes him and Demas from “the only ones of the circumcision group.”
2 Timothy 4:11
In a section of personal remarks before his final greetings to Timothy, Paul mentions Luke again (and appears to mention John Mark, the author of Mark):
“Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”
This verse is one of the tenuous pieces of “evidence” that Luke wrote some of Paul’s letters, including this one. More on this later.
2 Corinthians 8:18
In 2 Corinthians 8:18, Paul mentions someone who is coming to visit the Corinthians with Titus, and implies that this person is well-known for their contribution to the church:
“And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel.”
This certainly doesn’t mention Luke by name, but early Christian writers noted that Luke was celebrated within the church for writing Luke and Acts, and in the fourth century, Saint John Chrysostom suggested there were two main theories about this unnamed brother in 2 Corinthians 8:18:
“And who is this brother? Some indeed say, Luke, because of the history which he wrote, but some, Barnabas; for he calls the unwritten preaching also Gospel.” —Homily 18 on Second Corinthians
The “we” passages
Acts contains four passages where the author is suddenly included among Paul’s companions:
- Acts 16:10–17
- Acts 20:5–15
- Acts 21:1–18
- Acts 28:1–16
It’s generally believed that these passages either indicate the author was an eyewitness or that they used materials from someone who was. But some have also argued that it was simply a popular convention: ancient authors inserted themselves into historical narratives. Bart Ehrman—a famous secular Bible scholar—takes this a step further and argues that it was a deliberate fabrication to lend credibility to the account recorded in Acts.
However, if we accept Luke as the author of Acts, these are technically references to Luke.
How much of the Bible did Luke write?
The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are generally considered a two-volume set because they’re both addressed to Theophilus, appear to be written by the same person (even if it wasn’t Luke), and have common themes and language, so they’re often referred to as Luke–Acts.
Between these two books, Luke wrote a whopping 27.5 percent of the New Testament—that’s more than anyone else, including Paul.
But both Luke and Acts are technically anonymous. So how do we even know Luke wrote them?
There’s room for debate, and some scholars have argued against Luke’s authorship, but no serious alternative has ever been suggested, and there are still plenty of reasons to believe he wrote them.
Did Luke really write the Gospel of Luke?
The oldest surviving manuscript of this gospel—The Papyrus Bodmer XIV, from around 200 AD—ends with “The Gospel According to Luke.”
Irenaeus, a cleric who lived from around 130–202 AD recorded who wrote each of the gospels, including this one:
“Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.” —Against Heresies, Book III
C. Cliffton Black, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, notes that Irenaeus “was a pupil of Polycarp, who had known the apostle John. He writes, ‘Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the gospel preached by him.’ This testimony, coming from a pupil of a pupil of the apostle John, is important. Moreover, because of his many travels and intimate acquaintance with almost the entire church of his day, what this witness says about the authorship of the Third Gospel must be considered of great significance.”
As we mentioned earlier, Tertullian referred to Luke as “apostolic.” In this same passage of Against Marcion, Tertullian claims Luke was the author of the gospel that bears his name:
“Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instil faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards.”
In Paedagogues, Clement of Alexandria, who lived from about 150–215 AD, refers to passages in Luke as things Luke said.
And Origen of Alexandria, who lived around 184–253 AD, wrote about the origins of each gospel in his commentary on Matthew:
“And third, was that according to Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, which he composed for the converts from the Gentiles.”
Additionally, the Muratorian fragment—possibly the oldest surviving list of the biblical canon—lists Luke as the author.
Eusebius of Caesarea—the father of church history with access to countless ancient books—was arguably the best equipped to provide an alternative author, but he never suggested anyone other than Luke wrote this gospel.
And usually, if there was disagreement about something, Eusebius made note of that—even if only to scoff at people who disagreed with him. (If he’d lived to see the Internet, Eusebius might have made a good blogger.)
Did Luke really write the Book of Acts?
The opening sentence of Acts addresses the same person Luke was written to—Theophilus—and references “my former book,” which makes a pretty convincing case that Luke and Acts were written by the same person. Especially when you consider the similarities in style, language, and themes throughout the two.
Additionally, the early church supports that Luke wrote this volume as well.
In Stromata, Clement of Alexandria writes:
“It remains that we understand, then, the Unknown, by divine grace, and by the word alone that proceeds from Him; as Luke in the Acts of the Apostles relates that Paul said, Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious. For in walking about, and beholding the objects of your worship, I found an altar on which was inscribed, To the Unknown God. Whom therefore you ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you.’” (Emphasis added.)
Argument against Luke’s authorship
Secular and Christian scholars agree that these books were both written by the same person, but not everyone believes it was Luke.
The biggest argument against Luke as the author of these two volumes is that there are perceived “inconsistencies” between his account of Paul’s missionary journeys and Paul’s own accounts as recorded in his letters. Some also argue that he misrepresents Paul’s theology. One would expect a close companion of Paul to get these things right.
For example, in Acts 9:19–30, we read that immediately after Paul’s conversion, he spent time with the believers in Damascus, preached for “many days,” and eventually came to Jerusalem.
But Paul says he didn’t go to Jerusalem right away (Galatians 1:15–17), and that he was “personally unknown” to the Christian churches of Judea (Galatians 1:22).
This certainly appears to be a contradiction, but the language is ambiguous. Acts doesn’t specify how much time passed before Paul went to Jerusalem, nor does Paul being “personally unknown” the the churches overall mean that he couldn’t have had private meetings with the apostles or that the churches had never heard of him.
Some also argue that Acts 15:1–35, which records the Council of Jerusalem (where the apostles determined that Gentile believers didn’t need to follow the Law of Moses), contradicts Paul’s account of the same event in Galatians 2:1–10.
However, others argue that these are two separate events.
There are a few instances like this where Paul and Luke appear to contradict one another, but where the language (and genre of Acts as an ancient historical narrative) is ambiguous enough that there is room for interpretation.
Did Luke write any of Paul’s letters?
Some believe that as a companion of Paul, Luke may have helped write some of his letters. Paul occasionally used an amanuensis—a professional writer who either wrote what Paul dictated or worked from his main points. (See for example Romans 16:22.)
None of Paul’s letters claim that Luke wrote them, but similarities in language and theology between Luke–Acts and the pastoral epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) have led some to argue that Luke was in fact one of Paul’s amanuensi.
However, this argument is purely conjecture. There’s simply not enough evidence to support (or necessarily refute) this claim.
Is Luke a reliable biblical author?
Luke has both been praised and criticized for his accuracy and attention to detail. Some hail his work as a marvel of ancient history, while others denounce it as a fabrication designed to push a theological agenda.
A lot of the conflict centers around those ambiguous passages that appear to conflict with Paul, but there are also occasional historical discrepancies, like in Acts 5:36–37. Luke records a speech given by a well-known Pharisee named Gamaliel (who was Paul’s teacher according to Acts 22:3):
“Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.”
The problem with this is that Judas actually led a rebellion before Theudas, and Theudas didn’t revolt until many years after the events recorded in Acts 5. (In other words, Gamaliel is talking about something that hadn’t happened yet.)
In spite of instances like this, many scholars find Luke remarkably reliable. In fact, some argue that these “errors” are simply conventions of the genre Luke was writing in.
“Luke’s account is selected and shaped to suit his apologetic interests, not in defiance of but in conformity to ancient standards of historiography.” —Luke Timothy Johnson, New Testament scholar
Luke’s approach—especially as evidenced by his opening statement in Luke 1:1-4—clearly imitates the historical method, leading some to place Luke alongside the father of the historical method, Thucydides (who lived from 472 BC to around 400 BC).
“For accuracy of detail, and for evocation of atmosphere, Luke stands, in fact, with Thucydides. The Acts of the Apostles is not shoddy product of pious imagining, but a trustworthy record . . .” —E.M. Blaiklock, professor of classics at Auckland University
Of course, there are also those who reject Luke’s reliability because he describes miracles and the divinity of Jesus. This argument simply comes down to what someone already believes about Jesus, because if you suppose Jesus really is the son of God, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he would be capable of doing things humans can’t—including empowering other humans to do those things.
Luke: Physician, evangelist, historian
For someone who wrote so much of the New Testament, we don’t know very much about Luke. But while the details of his life have largely been lost to history, Luke’s contribution to Christianity and the world live on in the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts.
Without this doctor-turned-historian, we would have massive gaps in our understanding about what happened after Jesus’ ascension. But thanks in no small part to his careful attention to detail and meticulous documentation, nearly 2,000 years after his death Christians around the world are still following in the footsteps of the original apostles.