by Matthew W. Bassford
Like the other historical books of the New Testament, neither Luke nor Acts explicitly identifies its author. However, it is evident from the introduction to each book and the style used throughout each that both were written by the same hand. The first identification of this writer that we still have comes from Irenaeus, who wrote during the second century AD and attributed both books to Luke, the companion of Paul.
Not surprisingly, generations of scholarly skeptics have challenged Luke’s authorship. After all, the later a work is, the less reliable it is as a record of the miraculous events of the New Testament era. In particular, people who want to challenge the historicity of the resurrection must insist on a late date for Luke and Acts.
However, a major problem exists in Acts for those who want to make this claim. Acts 16:10-17 and Acts 20:5-28:16 are written in first-person plural. Taken at face value, these passages are written by an eyewitness who traveled with Paul from Troas to Philippi, then from Philippi to Rome some years later. This is consistent with Irenaeus’ attribution of Acts to Luke, and even if Luke wasn’t actually the author, another first-century companion of Paul’s was. This pushes the composition date for both Luke and Acts much earlier than any Biblical skeptic wants it to be!
In reply, such skeptics make two counterarguments. Some claim that the “we” passages are an older narrative inserted into Acts by a later editor (“Luke”). However, this isn’t consistent with the way that “Luke” operates elsewhere. In Luke 1:1-4, he acknowledges that he uses eyewitness testimony from others in his narrative. However, nowhere else does he use first-person narrative without attribution.
In the gospel of Luke, at least, he seems to cite eyewitnesses by mentioning their names. For instance, in the Emmaus narrative of Luke 24:13-35, even though the two disciples who see Jesus are equally important, the only one whom “Luke” names is Cleopas. This implies that Cleopas is “Luke’s” source. Nonetheless, this eyewitness testimony is presented in the third person, along with most of Luke-Acts. To break this pattern, especially when doing so creates the false impression that “Luke” is an eyewitness, is utterly at odds with the skill and care with which he writes.
Others have suggested that the entirety of Acts is a forgery, and the “we” passages are inserted into it to lend verisimilitude. Though theoretically possible, this scenario is extremely implausible. For one thing, it’s not consistent with the way that forgers of the era operated. Others who wanted to add credibility to their false gospels inserted a major early-church figure (Peter, James, Thomas, etc.) to do it. They didn’t switch to first-person plural and hope somebody noticed.
Second, if a forger wanted to write himself into Luke-Acts, why do it there? The “we” passages are travel narratives with an occasional miracle sprinkled in. They are among the least doctrinally significant portions of both books. Why make yourself an eyewitness to the journey from Chios to Samos, but not an eyewitness to the empty tomb? Why put yourself on the Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy but not in the upper room? Even lying about having seen the Ascension would have been more meaningful!
By far the most reasonable explanation for the “we” passages is that they are what they seem to be: the travel diary of a first-century Christian who happened to be a companion of Paul during part of his travels and, consequently, happened to be kicking around in Palestine for two years a couple of decades after the crucifixion. None of this is terribly significant on its own, but it reveals Luke as an early historian of the most important events of human history.