Behind even the earliest of Christian writings lay the tradition of the first eye-witnesses and ministers of the word, and it was on their memory and teaching that St Luke had finally to rely for his knowledge of Our Lord's life. Unlike John and Matthew, he could not write a gospel whose central thread was personal reminiscence; unlike Mark, he was not the secretary of any one apostle. In many ways Luke's has the character of a last gospel; he is a second-generation writer, in close touch with first-hand authorities but standing somewhat apart; his account is consequently less vivid but traces better than the others the general scheme of events. Though a 'follower and disciple of the apostle', as St Irenaeus called him,his gospel is the least clearly apostolic, in that it gives less than the others the direct witness of the apostles, and draws more on non-apostolic sources of information. For all his personal initiative and original view-point Luke remains essentially dependent on his sources—on the eye-witnesses and ministers of the word whom he mentions in his gospel preface; who were they ?
The word Luke uses here for eye-witness (αὐτόπτης) does not appear elsewhere in the New Testament. But the complex and developing idea of a witness (μάρτης) is one of essential importance for early Christian thought, as also for the personal theology of St Luke, and it will provide one of the themes of this book. When Jesus was condemned by the Sanhedrin it was for claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God, with all that these titles implied. He was condemned for blasphemy, after false witnesses had given testimony against him. When he rose from the dead, he proved that the sentence had been unjust and his claim true: he was the Messiah, Lord and Son of God. The proof lay in his Resurrection, and so when the apostles began preaching to their fellow Jews they witnessed to the risen Jesus, they were the true witnesses producing the essential evidence to substantiate Jesus' claim and prove his judges wrong. They were enabled to do this by the power of the Spirit:' You will receive the power of the Spirit and you will be my witnesses', Jesus had told them (Acts 1:8). To the Jews of Jerusalem there was no need to preach on Our Lord's life—they knew about it already. One only had to bear witness to the fact of the Resurrection. So Peter said to the twelve,' There are men who have walked in our company all through the time when the Lord Jesus came and went among us, from the time when John used to baptize to the day when he, Jesus, was taken from us. One of these ought to be added to our number as a witness of his Resurrection' (Acts 1:21-2). And again it is said, 'Great was the power with which the apostles testified to the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ' (4:33). However, Christian preaching clearly did not for long limit itself to the Resurrection alone; it naturally tended to cover ever more of Jesus' life and preaching, and so the witness came to be extended to all. The Christian witnessed to Jesus' life ' from the time when John used to baptize to the day when he, Jesus, was taken from us'. But it was personal witness given by men who had been eye-witnesses, and these men were preeminently the apostles. When Peter looks for someone to take Judas' place, he looks for someone who can witness, who not only believed in Jesus but had personal knowledge of his life. So we arrive at a more fully developed idea of Christian witness, given for instance by St Peter when speaking to the centurion Cornelius.' We are witnesses of all he [Jesus] did in the country of the Jews, and in Jerusalem. And they killed him, hanging him on a gibbet; but on the third day God raised him up again, and granted the clear sight of him, not to the people at large, but to us, the witnesses whom God had appointed beforehand; we ate and drank in his company after his rising from the dead. And he gave us a commission to preach to the people, and to bear witness that he, and none other, has been chosen by God to judge the living and the dead' (Acts 10:39-42).
At first the Christian witness (μαρτύτιον) was rather different from the preaching (κήρυγμα): the former meant testifying to the Jews of Jerusalem as to the fact of the Resurrection; the latter included the publication of the whole Jewish-Christian message of salvation to the world beyond the city. The former was especially the work of the apostles, the latter of every accredited Christian minister. However, these distinctions fairly rapidly blurred; by the time St Luke himself wrote witness and kerygma had come to have much the same meaning.
The word 'witness' (μάρτυς) implied not only first-hand knowledge but also a theological and ecclesiastical position. A 'witness' was one of 'those whom God had appointed beforehand pre-eminently an apostle. But St Luke's appeal in his preface is simply to the de facto eye-witnesses (αὐτόπται) and while these certainly included the apostles, they were not limited to them; they could even include those who did not come at all into the second category of' ministers of the word'.
This expression too had a somewhat general sense; Luke seems to mean the accredited preachers of the gospel message, men on whose word one could rely; doubtless they were largely the same as the first group of eye-witnesses, and for both groups the most notable members were the apostles; it was the memory of the apostles, the truly authoritative witnesses, which controlled the whole development of the gospel tradition and ensured that the special preoccupations of individual teachers did not cause perversions but only enrichments of the original message. The ' ministers of the word' implied a far larger group than the Twelve. The word used here for minister does not, it is true, appear often in the New Testament,but St Paul speaks of the 'ministers of Christ' in 1 Corinthians 4:1 and in the context the title would seem to refer at least to himself, Cephas and Apollo. John Mark is called a minister in Acts 13:5 but he is evidently one of an inferior kind, a minister of Paul and Barnabas rather than of Christ. Only Paul is clearly given the title of minister, in Acts 26:16, in a phrase somewhat reminiscent of the Gospel preface : 'To this end have I appeared to thee, that I may make thee a minister and a witness of those things which thou hast seen and of those things wherein I will appear to thee.' Paul then was a minister and a witness, and so, strangely enough, it is he who seems to be most clearly referred to in the preface; but the point should not be pressed, especially as Paul was much more a witness than an eye-witness. Anyway 'minister' would seem to be a fairly general title; probably the evangelists, shepherds and doctors of Ephesians 4:11 could all be included in it, besides the apostles and prophets.
We do not know where the majority of the apostles were at the time that St Luke was collecting material for his gospel, but it is very probable that he was unable to consult them. However, among them, there were three who stood out as privileged with special knowledge and authority; they were Peter, James and John. If there were many events in Jesus' life which all the Twelve, but only they, had witnessed, there were others, such as the Transfiguration and the Agony in the garden, of which only this privileged inner group had first-hand knowledge. Luke may have spoken with all three, but most of what he owed to Peter he received through Mark, while James' contribution may be seen in the Jerusalem document. Luke's relations with John present us with a puzzle not easy to be solved. The somewhat 'Joannine' character of parts of the third gospel, such as its references to Satan, is coming to be more and more recognized. There are numerous resemblances between Luke's and John's accounts of the Passion and Resurrection; again John is a very likely source of Luke's special knowledge of the Transfiguration, which John himself does not speak of explicitly in his gospel. Luke's statement that the apostles 'saw his glory' (9:32) reminds us at once of the prologue of St John and its words 'we saw his glory' (Jn. 1:14). What was a single event for St Luke has apparently become a characteristic of Jesus' whole life for St John. Again, there is a close connection in the Resurrection accounts between Luke 24:12 and John 20:3-10. As it is not disputed that John wrote long after Luke, the general question is whether Luke was a literary source for John, or whether the similarities can be better explained—as I believe they can—by supposing that John was a factual and theological source for Luke.Whatever the explanation, Luke appears as a sort of half-way house between Matthew and Mark on the one side and John on the other, and many typically ' Joannine' themes are already making their appearance in the third gospel. John was one of the most obvious people for Luke to approach for information and advice, as he was not only in Luke's eyes the most important of the Twelve apart from St Peter, but he was also in a very special way a witness of the gospel events: 'He who saw it has borne his witness; and his witness is worthy of trust.'
If part of Luke's material is Joannine, another part is doubtless Pauline. Tradition makes Luke the interpreter of Paul, and this only confirms the evidence of the Acts and St Paul's epistles. We know that Luke was in Paul's company much of the time that he was preparing and writing his gospel, and his account of the Eucharistic institutionis very close to the Apostle's description of the same event in 1 Corinthians 11:24-5 and notably different from the Last Supper accounts of Matthew and Mark. Luke's general approach to Christianity with his stress on mercy and universality is, of course, akin to the Pauline view; but this means that he learnt his theology rather than his facts from St Paul. When we consider individual pieces of Gospel information, it does not help to name Paul as Luke's source as we have at once to ask who was Paul's source; it seems improbable that Paul had lesser details of the Lord's life directly revealed to him; more likely he too had to learn from others: from James, from St Matthew's gospel, but above all from the communities of Damascus, Jerusalem, Tarsus and Antioch, in which he moved during his first years as a Christian.
While Paul was in prison at Caesarea Luke had plenty of time to get to know that interesting character Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven original deacons and the father of four prophetesses. He lived in Caesarea, and Luke had already made his acquaintance when going up to Jerusalem in Paul's company (Acts 21:8-9). If anyone deserved the title of a 'minister of the word' it would be an evangelist, especially such an evangelist as Philip is shown to be in Acts 8. The very graphic account of Philip's activities there given was doubtless obtained from the man himself, and it was probably not the only information Luke gained from him. We do not exactly know what the functions of an evangelist were, the title only appearing three times in the New Testament. Apart from the reference to Philip (Acts 21:8), there is a bare mention among the list of offices in Ephesians 4:11, and there is St Paul's injunction to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5 to ' do the work of an evangelist'. Maybe it was simply a title given to one noted for his evangelical preaching work. Philip evangelized Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch and afterwards continued the good work all the way to Caesarea (Acts 8:35 and 40) where he apparently settled down with his family. In Christian tradition 'evangelist' suggests not only missionary work but also specialized knowledge of the Lord's life, working on and interpreting a written gospel. This was the idea that Eusebius had of evangelists, and he gives us an example in Pantaenus, generally regarded as Clement's master in the early third-century school of Alexandria. He seems to have been a wandering teacher and exegete, perhaps hailing from Alexandria.However it is quite a long way from Philip to Pantaenus, and we can hardly explain the office of the first by our very obscure knowledge of the life of the second. Anyway, Philip had been in Samaria, and Luke may owe to him at least his Samaritan information (Lk. 9:52-6; 17:11-19). For the rest he was, like Luke himself, not an eye-witness but a second-hand source; he was a deacon not an apostle.
After Philip I wish to say something, perhaps surprisingly, of Simon of Cyrene. What better source could Luke have had for his Passion narrative ? Simon did not disappear from sight after the events of that day in which he had performed, perhaps reluctantly, a task which every Christian must for ever envy him. He remained well known in the Christian community—'Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus' (Mk. 15:21). After the Resurrection and Ascension he may even have been one of the 'hundred and twenty' who remained with the apostles and received the gift of the Spirit on the feast of Pentecost (Acts 1:15; 2:1). He was not the only Cyrenean in Jerusalem by any means—the Cyreneans even had a synagogue of their own'—and there were men from Cyrene who heard the apostles speaking in their own tongue on that day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). Among those converted one might number Lucius of Cyrene, perhaps a friend of Simon's. These too will have continued living with the Christian fellowship of Jerusalem, sharing in the prayer, the breaking of bread, the common life. Then came the episode of Stephen's preaching and martyrdom; the disciples dispersed and Simon and Lucius had to leave Jerusalem with the others (Acts 8:1). Where did they go ? To Antioch.
Meanwhile, those who had been dispersed owing to the persecution that was raised over Stephen had travelled as far away as Phoenice and Cyprus and Antioch, without preaching the word to anyone except the Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they found their way to Antioch, spoke to the Greeks as well, preaching the Lord Jesus to them. And the Lord's power went with them, so that a great number learned to believe, and turned to the Lord (Acts 11:19-21).
Of course we do not know that one of these Cyreneans was Simon, but when in 13 :1 we read that 'the Church of Antioch had as its prophets and teachers Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manahen, foster-brother of Herod the tetrach, and Saul', we may legitimately guess that Simeon the Black was Simon of Cyrene, called 'black' because of a skin darkened by the hot African sun of Cyrenaica and perhaps by a dose of negro blood as well.Was his dark skin the reason why he was singled out to suffer the indignity of bearing a criminal's cross?
Simon's children, Alexander and Rufus, would seem to have gone later to Rome with their mother; it is why their names are mentioned in St Mark, the Roman gospel. Rufus was there when St Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans: 'My greetings to Rufus, a chosen servant of the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me' (Rom. 16:13). When did St Paul get to know Rufus, and where did Rufus' mother have the chance to mother St Paul ? Very probably during the year that Paul passed at Antioch among the prophets and teachers; Simon or Simeon and his wife were among the older members of the Christian community there, while Paul was still a young, unmarried preacher, on this supposition made welcome in Simon's household (Acts 11:26; 13 :1).
It is most probable, as we know, that Luke came himself from Antioch. Evidently he knew the elders of the Church there well, and obtained what information they could give, especially about the origins of their own Antiocene Church. The Passion of St Stephen (chapters 6 and 7 of Acts) most probably belongs to a document which Luke incorporated in his own narrative; it describes the events which caused the first Christian exodus from Jerusalem and the consequent founding of the Church of Antioch. Its attitude towards Judaism and the temple is not that of the community of Jerusalem, but is more consonant with that of Antioch, where it probably originated. The reference to the synagogue of the Cyreneans (6:9) together with our knowledge that it was Cyreneans from Jerusalem who first preached to the gentiles of Antioch and then occupied an important place in that Church, suggest that this account was written by a Cyrenean, possibly Simon or Lucius.
The mission of Barnabas and Saul to Cyprus and Pisidia left Simeon the Black first on the list of Antioch's teachers, an important position. On their return,
they called the Church together, and told the story of all God had done to aid them, and how, through faith, he had left a door open for the Gentiles. And they stayed there a considerable time with the disciples. But now some visitors came down from Judaea, who began to tell the brethren, You cannot be saved without being circumcised according to the tradition of Moses. Paul and Barnabas were drawn into a great controversy with them; and it was decided that Paul and Barnabas and certain of the rest should go up to see the apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem about this question (Acts 14:26-15:2).
Was Simeon among those who went up ? It seems quite likely. At Jerusalem Luke records first Peter's speech, then Barnabas' and Paul's account of the conversion of the Gentiles. What more natural than that following this description of somewhat controversial missionary work Simeon, respected both at Antioch and Jerusalem, should sum up the position in the whole Christian Church of Antioch and her daughters ? But did he? Luke next mentions James' speech: 'Listen, brethren, to what I have to say. Simeon has told us, how for the first time God has looked with favour on the Gentiles, and chosen from among them a people dedicated to his name' (Acts 15:14). It has been generally presumed that 'Simeon' means St Peter, but Professor Giet of Strasburg has recently brought forward various reasons for doubting this.He thinks that St Peter's words refer to the situation at Caesarea on the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10), Simeon's—as quoted by James—to that at Antioch. Moreover nowhere else in the New Testament is St Peter called 'Simeon'. The Simeon referred to by James would then be a delegate from Antioch, probably Simeon the Black. In fact, if I am right in my earlier surmises, Simeon would have been almost the first Christian to preach openly and successfully to the Gentiles, and no one could more fittingly have made the remarks quoted by St James.
Of course much of this is guess-work, but none of it is unlikely and it does fit well together. We can at least be fairly sure that Luke learnt much from the elders of the Church of Antioch, including most probably the story of St Stephen's passion, and that among those elders were Cyreneans in a particularly favourable position to provide him with such information.
Doubtless Luke had many other sources of whom I have not spoken: Cleophas, perhaps, for the events on the road to Emmaus, and others who will ever remain unnamed. Yet of some at least of that group of eye-witnesses and ministers of the word, who stood behind Luke in the writing of his gospel and receive that rather general acknowledgement in his first lines, we can feel fairly sure. Apart from the writings of Mark, Matthew and the unknown Jerusalem author, there were John and James, at once eye-witnesses and ministers; there was Paul, who was a supreme minister of the word, and a witness— if not perhaps in Luke's sense an eye-witness; there was Philip, again not an eye-witness, but a strenuous and respected evangelical minister; and others, among them the subject of the next chapter, who were eye-witnesses but hardly accredited word ministers. There they all are, contributing each his bit to the stuff of the third gospel: a patchwork indeed, but a patchwork rendered into a single coherent and highly exciting piece of work by the mind of its author.