by Matthew W. Bassford
In Luke 1:1-4, Luke claims to be engaged in the practice of inspired history. He hasn’t accumulated his knowledge of Jesus via direct download from the Holy Spirit, nor is he an eyewitness to the events of the gospels. Instead, he has consulted those who were eyewitnesses and pieced their stories together into his narrative.
Luke most likely carried out his investigative work between 57 and 59 AD. So far as we can tell, he was neither a Jew nor a native of Palestine. Instead, he appears to have joined Paul when the apostle passed through Troas toward the beginning of the second missionary journey (note the shift between “they” and “we” in Acts 16:8-10), stayed in Philippi when Paul left (“they” again in Acts 16:40), left Philippi with him toward the end of the third missionary journey (“we” in Acts 20:6), and remained with him through the end of the book.
Unless Luke had other travels we don’t know about, then, the only significant chunk of time he spent in Palestine was when Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea during those years in Acts 24. If he had circulated through the Galilean and Judean churches at that time, he would have had no trouble finding disciples who remembered the momentous events of Jesus’ ministry, 30 years before.
Scholars, most notably Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, have argued that Luke cited his sources by naming them in his narrative. This explains, for instance, why we know the identity of one of the disciples whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus (Cleopas) and not the other. Cleopas was the disciple whom Luke interviewed. Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7 is probably another source.
However, this pattern breaks down during the birth and childhood narratives of Luke 1 and 2. All the named characters are fairly major (and so would be named whether witnesses or not), and most of them (Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna) are surely dead by the time of Luke’s inquiries. Where, then, is Luke getting his information?
Our best clue appears in Luke 2:19 and Luke 2:51. Even though there is no particular narrative reason for Luke to do so, he pauses twice to note that Mary, Jesus’ mother, treasured up these events in her heart. Of all the characters in the story, Mary is the most plausible (and sometimes the only possible) eyewitness. If, as is commonly believed, she was a teenager when Jesus was born, she would have been in her seventies during Paul’s Caesarea imprisonment—a long life for someone in that time, but certainly not impossibly so.
Indeed, if Mary was still available at the time of his search, Luke would have sought her out above almost all other eyewitnesses—precisely because her testimony was unique. If Mary is Luke’s source in Luke 1-2, his statement that she stored these things up in her heart shifts from being irrelevant to being vitally important. Like an ancient veteran who still remembers battles from World War II, Mary would have remembered the events surrounding her Son’s birth all her life, and she would have been happy to share her testimony with the Gentile historian.
Skeptics like to dismiss the early events of Luke as a pastiche of myth. However, we have good reason to believe otherwise. Luke’s words imply that rather than being sourceless speculation, his account comes from the best source of all—the young virgin who spent nine months carrying the Son of God under her heart.