Luke Primacy
Validation of Special Luke: Semitisms

Validation of Special Luke: Semitisms

Validation of Luke’s Special Material – Semitisms in the Gospel of Luke

A primary reason for holding Luke to be the most reliable of the Synoptics is that double and triple tradition material in Luke, material shared by Luke with Mark or Matthew, is more primitive in Luke than in Mark and Matthew. However, there is further evidence that Luke is based on the earliest gospel traditions. This is seen by evaluating the material that is unique to Luke with no parallel in Mark or Matthew, known as Special Luke (Luke’s Special Material unique to Luke in comparison to the other Synoptic Gospels). This special Material, not shared with Matthew or Mark, constitutes approximately 50% of the Gospel of Luke. 

The key point to consider is that Luke’s Special material is highly Semitic in syntax and vocabulary. Numerous scholars, in addition to Robert Lindsey of the Jerusalem school, have made a study of the strong Semitic influence exhibited in Luke. Below is a list of Scholarly works in English:

James Edwards, in the introduction of the seminal book The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition, likens the ability to identify the Semitic character of the Gospel of Luke as to seeing faint Hebrew characters underling the Greek text of an ancient document:
In the ancient world, a scribe or author would often rub the writing off an old parchment in order to reclaim the surface for a new text. The result was called a palimpsest. A complete erasure of the first hand would practically destroy a parchment, so palimpsests were treated more kindly and invariably variably retain the faint but visible ligatures of the original lettering beneath neath the most recent text. Reading the Greek NT with a knowledge of biblical Hebrew is like reading a palimpsest. The Hebrew thought world, like a subtext, often lies faintly beneath the Greek surface. But in the Gospel of Luke – or at least in parts of it – the subtext became much more visible. The Hebrew words seem to have been erased less completely than elsewhere in the Gospels. They are more evident, intrusive, and inescapable. Like rocks and coral reefs, they lay barely submerged beneath Luke’s Greek. Nor did Luke seem to make an effort to tame or camouflage the Hebraisms. Their primitive and alien dignity seem to be consciously retained without Hellenizing or harmonizing to Lukan style. They give every appearance of coming from a source that the author valued and attempted to preserve. (James R. Edwards, The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition, p. xx)
Edwards found that in the half of Luke that is “Special Luke,” Luke exhibits approximately a 400% increase in Semitic character. This bears witness that Luke did not attempt to diminish the Semitism in his Hebraic source material by altering them to conventional Koine Greek standards. Luke is faithful to the extrinsic literary standards of his source material.
However, in pericopes (scenes) that Luke shares with Matthew and mark, Semitic influence decreases or disappears altogether. The half of Luke’s gospel shared with Matthew and Mark exhibits a Koine Greek style, relatively free of Semitisms and not particularly dissimilar from the Greek of Matthew and Mark (Luke being the least embellished of the three).  
The evidence that Luke utilized a Hebrew source in the composition of his Gospel is the focus of this article. Scholars have long noted that Luke contains an abnormally high number of Semitisms in comparison with Matthew and Mark. An example is Gustav Dalman who wrote:

“Hebraisms proper are special characteristics of Luke. There is reason, therefore, for a closer scrutiny of the style of this evangelist with its wealth of Hebraisms.” (G. Dalman, The Words of Jesus, 38.)

This fact can be attributed to the theory that Semitisms derive from an original Hebrew Gospel authored by an apostolic witness. James Edward tested this very hypothesis in his extensive book, The Hebrew Gospel & The Development of the Synoptic Tradition. His approach was to chart the individual Semitisms of Luke verse by verse, to see if they occurred in statistically greater numbers in passages unique to Luke. For example, if Luke utilized the Hebrew Gospel as a source, we should expect to see traces of it in those parts of Luke not dependent on Mark.

Edward presented the data necessary to test his thesis in Appendix II of his book. This appendix lists by chronological chapter and verse every Semitism. He identified some 700 for which there is reasonable certainty in Luke while passing over many more that weren’t quite as certain. The Appendix clearly demonstrates that when Lukan material parallels Matthew and/or Mark, it shows on the whole no greater Semitic influence than Matthew or Mark. The result, consistent with Edward’s hypothesis, is the overwhelming bulk of Luke’s Semitisms occurs rather in material unique to Luke. Correspondingly, semitisms occur nearly four times more often in Special Luke than in material shared in common with Matthew or Mark.

The case for Semitic influence is further strengthened when clusters of Semitisms occur in portions of a document that otherwise and in other portions is drafted in conventional Koine Greek. Davila noted, “If we found blocks of text containing a high density of Semitisms alongside blocks of good Greek… we could conclude that the writer was either incorporating translated Greek passages into the work or translating passages from a Semitic source in some places while writing in his or her normal style in others. This appears to be the case with Acts.” (Davila, “How Can We Tell If a Greek Apocryphon or Pseudepigraphon Has Been Translated from Hebrew or Aramaic?”38-39.) 

It might be surprising that Davila’s axiom is actually more true of Luke than of Acts. The Appendix that Edwards provides, exhibits the distinct concentrations of Semitisms that occur in various sections of Luke. This eliminates the idea that Luke was trying to deliberately create a Semitic style, to emulate the Septuagint, since Semitisms in Luke do not occur in consistent proportion throughout.

Rather, the ebbs and flows of Semitisms in Luke can be reasonably explained by the premise of a Semitic prototype for portions of Luke with high Semitic concentrations. We have reason to believe that because the unusual or awkward words, phrases, idioms, and expressions that can be identified as “Semitisms” appear with uncharacteristic frequency in an author who otherwise writes cultivated Greek, and because those linguistic abnormalities, ranging from the slightly unusual to the virtually impossible, that this is explained as the result of normal Hebraic linguistic conventions being incorporated into Luke form a principal source.

Overview of The Analysis

On the basis of the Semitic analysis provided by Edwards there are four conclusions that can clearly be evidenced. (Shown in Appendix II, James R. Edwards. In the Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition)

  1. Semitisms are not exclusive to the first two chapters of Luke, as is often supposed. Although there is a steady stream of Semitisms in Luke 1-2, concentrations Semitisms continue throughout other parts of the Third Gospel. Particularly strong concentrations of Semitisms occur in Luke 4:4-30; Luke 5:1-12; ch. 7; the end of ch. 9; the latter half of ch. 10; and throughout chapters 13-19 and 24. In Luke 24, the number and density of Semitisms exceed their number and density in any other chapter in the Gospel.
  2. The vast majority of Semitisms are unique to Luke and not shared in common with Matthew or Mark. In Appendix II of The Hebrew Gospel, there is a total of 703 Semitisms listed. Of this number, 653 are unique to Luke. They appear either in Special Luke or as Lukan additions to material shared in common with Matthew or Mark. That is, they do not appear in the other two Synoptics. 93% of the Semitisms in Luke are unique to Luke. Of all Luke’s Semitisms, only 2% (15) appear in common with both Matthew and Mark; 4% (26) appear in common with Matthew, and only 1% (9) appear in common with Mark. The comparatively high number of Semitisms in Luke demands an explanation.
  3. Appendix II of The Hebrew Gospel reveals that Semitisms occur in much higher frequency in content unique to Luke than in passages that Luke shares in common with Matthew or Mark. The Gospel of Luke contains a total of 1151 verses, exactly half of which (574 verses) are unique to Luke (Special Luke), having no parallel with Matthew or Mark. These 574 verses contain a total of 504 Semitisms that account for 72% Semitisms in Luke. They account for 77% of the 653 Semitisms unique to the Third Gospel. Again, 72% of the total number of Semitisms in Luke occur in material unique to Luke! This evidence indicates a highly Semitic source incorporated by Luke. Semitisms appear in Special Luke, appear nearly four times as often as they appear in those sections of Luke that are shared in common with Matthew or Mark.
  4. Appendix II of The Hebrew Gospel shows 10 verses that are completely Semitic and completely unique to Luke (Special Luke) including some verses with as many as 6 Semitisms or more (Luke 5:12a, Luke 5:17, Luke 9:51; Luke 17:11; and Luke 21:34, are entirely Semitic) According to Edwards, “They beg to be translated back into standard biblical Hebrew.” (p. 145) Of the hyper-Semitic verses, there are several observations to make, including that they are not limited to one particular section of Luke, as they are dispersed throughout the Gospel. Another noticeable observation is that all but Luke 21:24 stand at the beginning of Lukan pericopes. On 14 occasions, the hyper-Semitic verses occur to introduce pericopes that are exclusive to Luke (Special Luke). 

This is further evidence that validates the material unique to Luke (Special Luke) as deriving from a primitive Hebraic source. This suggests that a Semitic source played a substantive role in the composition of Luke’s Gospel. The source material, a prior Hebrew exemplar, is thus the primary basis for the twenty pericopes in Luke comprising hyper-Semitic introductory verses. This is especially true of the 14 instances of hyper-Semitic verses that introduce pericopes in material unique to Luke (Special Luke).  Luke follows the order and sequence of the Hebrew Gospel, where Mark departs from it. Edwards’ conclusion is as follows:

This Semitic source thus appears to have been a primary source, into which the author of Luke integrated supplementary elementary material.

This hypothesis has been anticipated and explained by several scholars. The earliest and also most precise is J. Vernon Bartlet, “The Sources of St. Luke’s Gospel;” who argued that a single source of unusual Semitic character (which he thought was a conflation of several earlier sources) played a primary role in the composition of Luke, both supplying the balance of material in the Third Gospel that was not found in Mark, and also influencing the form in which Marks material was represented in Luke. “All these phenomena suggest the presence in various parts of Luke of a source parallel with Mark even in sections which at first sight appear dependent on Mark alone: and this result will be found to prove the best working hypothesis in every part of his Gospel” (p. 323, emphasis in original). Also in the nineteenth century in Germany, R. Handmann, Das Hebrder-Evangelium, 130-42, rightly recognized that the Hebrew Gospel was not a later compilation of the Synoptics, but rather an earlier independent dependent Palestinian Christian Gospel, which, along with the Gospel of Mark, influenced the formation of Luke and Matthew. (James R. Edwards. The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition (2009) p. 146 and footnote 82)

Edwards makes the analogy of Luke being like a church that was reduced to rubble in the second world war and was rebuilt using the same stones salvaged from the rubble and reset in the new church in the exact places they occupied in the original—the old stones not having been altered to conform to a new configuration.  In a similar sense, Luke had not altered his source material or paraphrased it into his masterful Greek (such as exhibited in the prologue of Luke 1:1-4). Luke took his creditable sources “as found” and he incorporated them with fidelity and integrity to honor the legacy of the primitive tradition. (p. 148)

What further substantiates Luke as a creditable authority incorporating the eyewitness character of the Hebrew Gospel grounding special Luke, is the high proportion of named individuals in constructions that appear in Special Luke. Again regarding material unique to Luke (Special Luke), named individuals appear in an exceptionally high frequency, whereas anonymous individuals appear with relatively low frequency. Of the named 44 named individuals in the Gospel of Luke, 28 of them (64%) occur in Special Luke.  Of the 45 anonymous individuals in Luke, only 14 (31%) appear in Special Luke. 

Edwards, based on this evidence, states:

Material in Special Luke appears to be more directly linked to named, eyewitness testi, whereas material in the half of Luke shared in common with Matthew and Mark appears to derive more generally from anonymous tradition. The evidence of named individuals in Special Luke thus corroborates the evidence of Semitisms in Special Luke. If the earliest gospel traditions rest on greater eyewitness testimony, then probability argues that the many proper names in Special Luke, like the Semitisms, derive from the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. (James R. Edwards. The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition (2009) p 144) 

This corresponds to the observation of Richard Bauckman, who makes the case that individual names were remembered and preserved in the Gospels because they contributed, most often as eyewitnesses, to the gospel tradition. (Richard Bauckman, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 58-60.


The prologue of Luke informs us that his Gospel rests on the tradition of eyewitnesses and servants of the word (Luke 1:2), that is, apostolic testimony. The only written apostolic source known predating Luke is the Hebrew Gospel attributed to the apostle Matthew. This Gospel known as the Hebrew Gospel was frequently attested in the patristic era, and quotations from it show a higher correspondence with Luke than with Mark or Matthew. 

Birger Gerhardsson regards the prologue to the Gospel of Luke as the most important piece of evidence in the first century about the prehistory of the Gospels. (“The Gospel Tradition,” in The Interrelations of the Gospels: A Symposium Led by M.-E. Boismard, W. R. Farmer, F. Neirynck, Jerusalem 1984, ed. D. Dungan (BETL 95; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1990), 534-37.)

Luke is the only writer in the New Testament who offers a formal apologia for his Gospel. The prologue enables us to get a sense of providence of his work in maintaining fidelity with his source material, to the extent of maintaining its unusual Semitic flavor. Jerome stated in Epist. 2o, ad Dam. that,’ “Luke was the most erudite Greek author among the Evangelists. It makes no sense that an author would craft the prologue in the highest form of Greek and then adhere to a style that is highly Semitic in half of the Gospel and not so Semitic in the other half, unless he was doing his best to convey his sources in the truest way he was able to. 

Edwards believes this foundational source for Luke’s special material is the Hebrew Gospel… He closes Chapter 4, “Semitisms in the Gospel of Luke” in his book on the Hebrew Gospel as follows:  

This Semitic source apparently functioned as a primary source for Luke, into which other sources were integrated or to which they were supplemented according to Luke’s overall purpose. That Luke did not try to expunge and blend his sources, and particularly, his Semitic source, is indicated by stylistic differences in the Third Gospel, which are particularly evident in the high-caliber Greek of the prologue, the basic Koine in passages shared with Matthew and/or Mark, and the distinctly Semitically- flavored Greek of Special Luke. As suggested in the prologue, Luke endeavored to produce a full and final narrative while leaving vestiges of the sources that comprise it. (James R. Edwards. The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition, p153).