Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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8. Luke


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say about the historical circumstances underlying Luke’s Gospel, including what can be known of the book’s author, audience, sources, and date of composition.
  • identify distinctive literary features and theological perspectives that mark Luke’s Gospel as different from the other New Testament Gospels.
  • explicate the significance of the emphatic attention given in Luke’s Gospel to such matters as worship, prayer, food, women, Samaritans, and the poor.
  • explain how the author of Luke’s Gospel draws upon various Jewish and Greco-Roman models in order to present an image of Jesus as one who fulfills diverse expectations.
  • describe Luke’s understanding of salvation and indicate how this affects his presentation of the Jesus story.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. The Birth Narrative

Have students outline the events and characters in Luke chapters 1–4 taking special note of the characters’ roles. Additionally, students may use a small map (handout) to trace the journey of Mary and Joseph. Students may then write their observations about Luke’s telling of the birth narrative. What strikes them? Can they detect a tone in the story? Do the images or trajectories remind them of anything?

Next, have students outline the events and characters in Matthew chapters 1–3. Using the same map but a different color pen, have students trace the journey of Mary and Joseph and Jesus. Where do they start? Where do they complete their journey? How long does it take?

Finally, as a class, list the differences and similarities of Matthew and Luke on the board. Are there particular themes that arise as distinct to each Gospel (e.g., the roles of women, the use of scripture-fulfillment motifs, the role of prophets, the spotlighting of the marginalized)?


Christianity and popular culture (especially Christmas traditions) conflate the four Gospel stories. In this exercise, students begin to look at the unique perspectives each Gospel story offers. In Luke, students find sheep and shepherds but not wise men or Herod. By comparing the two birth narratives in Luke and Matthew, students can see the ways in which each evangelist conveys particular themes through different emphases in the story line. For example, Luke emphasizes God’s lifting up of the marginalized (Mary, shepherds, barren Elizabeth); Matthew emphasizes Jesus’s role as God’s king on earth. Both authors use traditions of David (the shepherd turned king) to interpret Jesus.

2. The Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts

Another way to introduce the purpose of Luke is to compare the opening passages of Luke and Acts. Have students read about Jesus’s baptism (Luke 3:7–22) and the baptism of the first disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–36). What parallels do students notice in the two texts? What happens to Jesus and to the disciples at this opening event? What is the role of the Holy Spirit? How has Luke tied the two narratives together through repeated language and/or themes? What might this inauguration event by the Holy Spirit say about the experience and purpose of the early church?


One of the characteristics of Luke-Acts is its conception as a two-volume work. By looking at the parallel stories, and the consistency of the Holy Spirit’s activities in each volume, students can see the relationship between Jesus and the Church that Luke was laying out.

3. Salvation

For homework, have students identify and bring in examples of the way we talk about or present “salvation” in contemporary culture: advertisements, political campaigns, art, drama, exams, families, public drug awareness campaigns, Alcoholics Anonymous. How do we conceptualize and imagine salvation? From what are we saved in our modern culture (thirst, illness, obesity, addiction, loss, failure, foreclosure)? To what are we saved (a bigger house, better job, beauty, youth, romantic love, health, mobility)?

In class, have students work on specific passages in Luke to examine the ways Luke describes, conceptualizes, and imagines salvation. Hand out a concordance page that lists the occurrences of “salvation” or “saved” in Luke and let students work through these passages, looking up the reference, analyzing the passage and the use of salvation in its Gospel context. They may also want to refer to text pages 166–70 and box 8.6.

What do we learn about Luke’s perspective on the world through this analysis of his use of salvation? How has our society changed from Luke’s time and place?


In this exercise students practice using a concordance. They also work with language in a narrative context to discern the use and definition of terms. These are basic tools in the study of biblical literature. Furthermore, students learn to carefully examine the concept of “salvation” in a different historical and literary context. They can test Luke’s meaning of salvation against the evidence for modern uses of “salvation.” You may want to help students see that the word “salvation” has a different meaning depending on the social, economic, or political sphere in which it is used.

Discussion Prompts

  1. Using Rembrandt’s painting of the parable of the prodigal son, initiate a discussion of the interpretation of this parable (Luke 15:11–32). What is Jesus communicating to his audience, and who is his audience? How does Rembrandt interpret the parable? Which moment does he choose to depict, and how does he depict each of the characters from the parable? To add another dimension to this discussion, secure an excerpt from Henri Nouwen’s essay on Rembrandt’s depiction of the prodigal son (The Return of the Prodigal Son [New York: Doubleday], 1992) and use this a supplemental reading.
  2. What is the purpose of Luke’s writings? As a class, read Luke 1:1–4 and Acts 1:1–5 together. How does Luke present his project? Who might Theophilus be? What is it Luke wants his listeners to take away from the Gospel reading?
  3. Reread text pages 162–64 about the themes of worship and prayer and of meals. What do these two themes have in common? How do the themes work together to teach Luke’s audience about Jesus and about themselves?
  4. How does Luke analyze and present social class, poverty, and riches in his Gospel? How is Luke’s view of poverty and riches similar or different from your own contemporary view of class and money? How might Luke look at our society today compared with his idealized view of class and financial status? Specifically, who are the poor, marginalized, or disadvantaged in Luke’s Gospel?
  5. How are we to understand the favorable emphasis on women’s roles in Luke’s Gospel? (Consider Luke 1:26–66; 2:36–38; 7:11–17, 36–50; 8:1–3, 42–48; 10:38–42; 11:27–28; 21:1–4; 23:27–31; 23:55–24:11.) How does Luke weave other themes such as worship and prayer, food, and ministry to the excluded into his mention and use of women as characters in the story?

Explore Readings

These readings provide a chance for your students to explore the New Testament in more depth. The boxes from the text are included here, as well as bibliographies and outlines for the books of the New Testament.

All the Explore readings can also be downloaded as PDFs here.