Luke Primacy
The Concept of Proto-Luke

The Concept of Proto-Luke

What is Proto-Luke?

The version of Luke we have today was heavily based on an earlier source (version of Luke) which is a Proto-Narrative we call Proto-Luke (also known sometimes as “UrMarkus” or “Proto-Mark”. We believe that the term Proto-Luke is more appropriate because the proto-Narrative used by Paul and other documents, can be demonstrated to be more similar to Luke than the other canonical Gospels. Proto-Luke exhibits the same characteristics as the Luke we have yet, and appears to precede the other Synoptic Gospels in accuracy and priority. 

Modern Embodiments of Lukan Priority include Proto-Luke

In the early 20th century, theories of Lukan priority (Luke was the first of the gospels written) and of Proto-Luke were advocated by various scholars. According to Burnett Streeter, as well as Vincent Taylor, there are many hints in the Gospel of Luke that its writer must have written a gospel earlier than the present one and later added additional passages from Mark. Taylor indicated that several German scholars have held similar theories, naming P. Feine, G. H. Müller, B. Weiss, J. Weiss, P. Ewald, J. Wellhausen, A. Jülicher, K. L. Schmidt and R. Bultmann. (Burnett Hillman Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, 202-203; Vincent Taylor, The Passion Narrative of St Luke: A Critical and Historical Investigation, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, no. 19 (ed. Owen E. Evans; Cambridge: University Press, 1972), 3.)

During this period as well as a century beforehand, the theory of Matthean Posteriority (that Matthew was written last of the Synoptics) was also argued. All of these various approaches to the Synoptic problem are emblematic of a move of critical scholarship in the direction of Luke Primacy, toward placing greater regard in the “Third Gospel.” These are an admission that the content exhibited in the Gospel of Luke is based on an earlier, more primitive tradition of a closer connection to the historical Jesus. Several publications by William Lockton in the 1920’s led the way to the ultimate solution of Lukan Priority, which was further demonstrated by the Jerusalem School and elaborated by the Jerusalem School Hypothesis. Lockton substantiated the conclusion that the order of writing of the Synoptic Gospels was St. Luke, St. Mark, St. Matthew, and that it “could be illustrated over and over again that the development of thought to be found in this sequence.” (William Lockton, ‘The Origin of the Gospels (CQR94 1922) p.222) Lockton’s work provided key reasons for viewing Matthew as the last Synoptic Gospel to have been written and Luke to be the first:

  • Differences in the Synoptic Gospels are often best explained by an order of development in traditions that goes from Luke to Mark to Matthew (W Lockton, The Three Traditions of the Gospels (London: Longmans, Green, 1926) pp. 3-4, 32-7; The Origin of the Gospels, CQR 94 (July 1922), p. 222)
  • Matthew appears to have the most developed and artificial structure of the three Synoptics (Lockton, The Three Traditions of the Gospels, pp. 3-4, 32-7)
  • Matthew’s and Luke’s Infancy Narratives contain such ‘considerable agreement that they ‘can scarcely be independent’ (Lockton, ‘Resurrection and other Gospel Narratives‘, pp. 131-3)
  • The vocabulary of the double tradition (DT) is more characteristic of Luke than of Matthew, suggesting to him that Luke was Matthew’s source for his material. (W. Lockton, ‘The Origin of the Gospels‘, CQR 94 (July 1922) p. 222)

In this period of critical scholarship, directed at solving the Synoptic problem, the predominant view that emerged in the 20th century was the two-source hypothesis that held to the view of Marcan priority and dependence of both Luke and Matthew. What also emerged within the paradigm of scholars holding on to Marcan priority was the concept of Proto-Luke, being an earlier source, very similar to Luke, predating one or more of the synoptic Gospels (including Luke). 

Streeter Introduces the Concept of Proto-Luke

B.H. Streeter, in the eighth chapter of The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (1925), enlarged the popular two-source theory (two-document hypothesis) to include four sources.  Based on a review of the Material unique to Mark as compared to the Lukan material common to Mark he concluded that the special Lukan material was derived from a single document, Proto-Luke, that he used as a framework (p.208). This Proto-Luke is understood to contain “Q” (sayings of Jesus common to Luke and Matthew) as well as “L” (material that is unique to the Gospel of Luke).  He states his hypothesis as follows:

I desire to interpolate a stage between Q and the editor of the Third Gospel. I conceive that what this editor had before him was, not Q in its original form… but Q + L, that is, Q embodied in a larger document, a kind of “Gospel” in fact, which I will call Proto-Luke. This Proto-Luke would have been slightly longer than Mark, and about one-third of its total contents consisted of materials derived from Q. (B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (1925) p. 208)

Streeter maintained the faulty position of Marcan priority, yet observed that in cases that have a parallel with Mark, Luke exhibited an earlier tradition. Under the theory that Luke’s Gospel is based on “Proto-Luke” itself, he stated additional rationale for the theory:

A further reason for supposing that Luke found the Q and the L elements in the non-Marcan sections already combined into a single written source [Proto-Luke] is to be derived from a consideration of the way in which he deals with incidents or sayings in Mark, which he rejects in favor of other versions contained either in the Q or the L elements of that source. (B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (1925) p. 209)

In summing up his observations on how Luke apparently deals with Mark (under the false presumption of Marcan priority) Streeter states the following:

It would look, then, as if Luke tends to prefer the non-Marcan to the Marcan version, and this is whether it be the longer or the shorter, and whether it belongs to that element in the source which we can further analyze as being ultimately derived from Q or from the element which we call L. But such a preference, especially where it is a preference in regard to the order of events, is much more explicable if Q and L were already combined into a single document. For the two combined together would make a book distinctly longer than Mark, and would form a complete Gospel. Such a work might well seem to Luke a more important and valuable authority than Mark. But this would not be true of either or L in separation. The Conclusion, then, that Q+L lay before the author of the Third Gospel as a single document [Proto-Luke] and that he regarded this as his principal source appears to be inevitable. (B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (1925) pp. 211-12)

Streeter further claimed that the existence of Proto-Luke is a “scientific hypothesis,” which to a considerable extent is capable of verification, and that his hypothesis had received the adhesion of “not a few” New Testament scholars (p.218).  On the first point, a demonstration of this can be evidenced by the article Statistical Validation of Lukan Priority. On the second point, Later German Scholars Joachim Jermias (1966) and Freidrick Rehkopf (1959) also attest to a special source like Proto-Luke (G. Strecker, History of New Testament Literature (1997), p 117). Moreover, many Scholars attest to Lukan Priority, essentially identifying Luke and Proto-Luke as the same document that preceded both Mark and Matthew. This includes William Lockton) The Origin of the Gospels, (CQR 94 1922), David Linsey, and other scholars associated with the Jerusalem Schools. See Lukan Priority and the Jerusalem School.

Regarding authorship, Streeter believes that the companion to Paul, Luke the physician, is the author of both Proto-Luke and Luke, in addition to the Acts of the Apostles:

I suggest that the author of Proto-Luke—the person, I mean, who combined together in one document Q and the bulk of the material peculiar to the Third Gospel—was no other than Luke the companion of Paul. And I suggest that this same Luke some years afterwards expanded his own early work by prefixing the stories of the Infancy and by inserting extracts from Mark—no doubt at the same time making certain minor alterations and additions. For reasons summarised in the last chapter of this volume, I hold that the author of the Third Gospel and the Acts was Luke the companion of Paul, who kept the diary which forms the basis of the so-called “we sections” or “travel document’’ in the latter part of Acts. But if Luke wrote the Acts twenty years or so later than the events with which it ends—and I cannot personally accept an earlier date—there were at least two periods of literary activity in his life. There was the period when, while in attendance on Paul, he wrote the “travel document,” and a later period when, years after the Apostle’s death, he embodied this early sketch into a larger and maturer history. The suggestion I make is that what is true of the Acts is also true of the Gospel. (B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (1925) p. 218)

Steeler provides the main reason for supporting the author of the Third Gospel and the Acts to be the same person as the author of Proto-Luke is that the interest and point of view of the author are consistent between the two works; “being exactly the same throughout.” (p.219) He notes that the special testes, sympathies, and characteristics of the author are equally conspicuous in the parts of the Gospel derived from Proto-Luke, to those which we must attribute to the editor of Luke as a whole. These characteristics are consistent with the first part of Acts, in the “we sections” of Acts, and in the final editing of Acts (p. 219) Steeler gives a synopsis as follows:

Again, there is throughout the Lucan writing an atmosphere of extraordinary tenderness, somehow made quite compatible with the sternest call to righteousness, sacrifice, and effort— an atmosphere which can be felt rather than demonstrated—and finding expression in a unique sympathy for the poor, for women, for sinners, and for all whom men despise. But this attitude can be felt equally in the Infancy stories, in Proto-Luke, and in the Acts; it is also what determines many of those omissions from Mark ! which can only be due to the final editor of the Gospel… a subtle individuality which reflects, not a Church tradition, but a personality of a very exceptional kind. (B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (1925) p. 221)

Steeler follows up that regardless of whether the compiler of Proto-Luke was Luke or not, “the historical importance of the identification of a source of the Third Gospel entirely independent of Mark is obvious.” (p.221) He concludes that “far more weight will have to be given by the historian in the future to the Third gospel, and in particular to those portions of it which are peculiar to itself” (p. 222). 

Harmonizing the Jerusalem School with a view of Proto-Luke and Lukan Posteriority

The diagram below shows the Farrer Hypothesis, the Jerusalem School Hypothesis, and a Proto-Luke Priority hypothesis that accounts for a dual placement of Luke. Both the Jerusalem school and those who affirm the two-source hypothesis and those who advocate the Farrer hypothesis affirm Mark preceded Matthew and that Matthew is largely a reconstruction of Mark adopting Marcan language. They differ in terms of where they place Luke and the dependencies between Luke and Mark. The Jerusalem school argues Luke preceded Mark, and advocates of the Farrer Hypothesis argue that Luke was the last of the Synoptics and that it is written in consideration of Matthew. The Proto-Luke Priority solution is a postulation that an earlier version of Luke (Proto-Luke) preceded Mark and the canonical Luke that was written last in view of Matthew, but that Luke and Proto-Luke are nearly identical with only minor changes.  Thus, the Proto-Luke Priority solution harmonizes some aspects of the Jerusalem school, the two-source hypothesis, and the Farrer Hypothesis. 

When it comes to theories of synoptic sources, Young provides us with a nice disclaimer:

Any explanation of the formation of the gospel tradition or of the sources employed by the evangelists in the compilation of their gospels is necessarily based to a greater or lesser degree upon conjecture. Conjecture can be very helpful when it is based on evidence and when it allows the researcher to conceptualize and to understand the creative processes involved in the compilation of the gospel text. (Brad H. Young, Jesus and his Jewish Parables, Paulist Press (1989) p. 138

Lindsey Identified Proto-Luke as an Alternative Explanation

In his groundbreaking book, Robert Lindsey of the Jerusalem School admits that “Matthew is dependent on a text like Luke (if not Luke) but is also so influenced by Mark that the Hebraic sentence of the other text has been lost.” (Robert Lindsey, A Hebrew translation of the Gospel of Mark, (1973) p.17) This admission clarifies that the claims of the Jerusalem School are not so rigid as to insist that the Lukan source material for Mark and Matthew is the same document as the canonical version of Luke. Thus, we have indicated Proto-Luke in place of Luke designated by the Jerusalem School. Correspondingly, Luke can be said to have come before as well in some sense after the other Synoptic Gospels. Regardless of whether one affirms the Farrer Hypothesis, the Jerusalem School Hypothesis, or the Proto-Luke Priority harmonization of the two, these solutions to the Synoptic problem all attest (in one way or another) that Luke is a superior authority. That being said, the evidence for Lukan Priority (Luke coming first) and Matthean Posteriority (Matthew coming last) is strongest. For more on this, see Matthean Posteriority & Matthew’s use of Luke.