Is Luke underrated? This historian thinks so

by Michelle A. Gonzalez

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By Justo L. González
Published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., $14

The Story Luke Tells offers a broad overview of Luke's writings, emphasizing his historical contributions to Christian identity and life. González opens his slim volume on the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles with the claim that its author is the most undervalued in the New Testament.

This assertion sets the stage for his analysis of these texts, arguing their vital importance for Christianity today. A central goal of this book is to remind us of the significance of Luke's theology, which González fears is often overlooked by contemporary Christians.

I will admit that I was at first shocked by this claim. When I introduce Christianity to my undergraduate students, Luke is the only Gospel they read. Luke's particular presentation of Jesus' life, teachings and ministry resonates with the manner in which I teach first-century Christianity.

However, upon completion of González's text, I understand his point. Too often, Christians turn to Paul as the authoritative norm for understanding the early church. Acts is given secondary status.

Eight themes frame González's analysis of Luke's writings:

  • History of humankind;
  • History of Israel;
  • The great reversal;
  • Gender;
  • Salvation;
  • Food and drink;
  • Worship;
  • The Holy Spirit.

Each theme is explored in a chapter-length analysis of its presence in Luke and its impact for Christianity today.

The first theme explores the manner in which Luke presents Jesus in light of human history, not just the history of Israel. González does not, however, downplay the role that Luke's Jesus has in Jewish history. He highlights the typologies that contextualize Jesus within the history of Israel.

The third chapter explores the religious and social role reversals central to Jesus' life and message, where the last come first. This chapter is seamlessly followed by González's focus on gender, highlighting the manner in which women's roles and contributions are foregrounded in Luke's writings.

Chapter 5 examines the language of salvation, which González notes is heavily emphasized in Luke's theology.

The following chapter highlights food and drink. I found this chapter to be particularly engaging, especially in the manner in which González connects eating to other themes in his book. Chapter 7 explores the manner in which Lucan theology has influenced worship within Christianity.

The book's final theme is the Holy Spirit. Given the growth of Pentecostalism, charismatic Catholicism, and other Spirit-focused expressions of Christianity, this chapter resonates strongly with the current Christian landscape. González boldly claims that the Acts of the Apostles should be better understood as the "Acts of the Holy Spirit," since the Spirit is the true main character of Acts.

This book is accessible to a wide audience. The text is not overladen with academic citations or jargon. This appeal is also a weakness, for at times the author makes some very broad claims about early Christianity, its academic study and the Lucan tradition.

González is not a biblical scholar, but a historian. Readers who want a more literary approach or closer read of Luke's writings will be disappointed with this book. Similarly, questions of Luke's intended audience and the historical context that frames his texts are not explored.

However, González offers some key insights into the church's first historian. This solid introductory text will appeal to a broad readership. Readers looking for a companion text to the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles will find many insights in González's guide to this key, and apparently underrated, New Testament author.

[Michelle A. Gonzalez is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami.]

A version of this story appeared in the April 24-May 7, 2015 print issue under the headline: Is Luke underrated? Historian thinks so.

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