The Basis for Luke Primacy
Proto-Luke and Lukan Priority
Proto-Luke and Lukan Priority

Proto-Luke and Lukan Priority

What is Proto-Luke?

Several notable scholars believe the version of Luke we have today was heavily based on an earlier version of Luke. Proto-Luke, a hypothetical primitive version of Luke, is largely equivalent to the Luke we know and appears to precede the other Synoptic Gospels in accuracy and priority. 

The predominant view that emerged in the 20th century for resolving the Synoptic problem was the two-source hypothesis that held to the view of Markan priority and dependence of both Luke and Matthew. What also emerged within the paradigm of scholars holding on to Markan priority was the concept of Proto-Luke, being an earlier source, very similar to Luke, being more primitive than Mark. 

Streeter Endorses the Concept of Proto-Luke

In 1924, Burnett H. Streeter presented the most comprehensive and endorsed argument for the Two-Source Hypothesis in his book The Four Gospels. Streeter’s work remains the classic representation of the prevalent perspective on the origins of the Gospels. Streeter’s work, The Four Gospels: A study of Origins, published in eleven “Impressions” (editions) between 1924 and 1964, became the pivotal work that swayed scholarship toward the modern “consensus” of Markan priority and The Two-Source hypothesis of Mark and a hypothetical sayings source (Q) being sources for Matthew and Luke. 

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Streeter actually enlarged the Two-Source hypothesis to include four sources. In addition to Mark and Q, he argued that Luke was based on a source unique to Luke, “L” which he called proto-Luke, and that Matthew used an additional source “M” to account for its unique material.

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. (B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (1925) p. 208)

Although Streeter maintained the faulty position of Marcan priority, he observed that in cases where there is a parallel between Luke and Mark, Luke exhibited an earlier tradition. His work-around was to speculate about a proto-Luke that predates Mark, but that also derives from a Q source. In doing so, Streeter was essentially advocating Lukan priority, while also maintaining the status quo of Markan priority. 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” (Streeter, p. 222).

Streeter’s Further Admission of Lukan Priority

Streeter, in the preface to the Fourth Impression of The Four Gospels, includes an additional argument for the theory of Proto-Luke:

In oral tradition it is very easy for details which properly belong to one story to get connected with another. In the passages I am about to quote, it will be noticed that the Lucan account combines details from events which in Mark are quite separate in a way most naturally explicable on this hypothesis [proto-Luke]. They are not equally explicable as arbitrary recombinations by Luke of material in Mark; for there is no obvious motive for the rearrangement, as there is for the bringing together by Matthew (and to a less extent by Luke) of sayings of Christ which deal with the same topics.


(1) Luke’s account of the Call of Peter (Luke 5:1 ff., cf. Mk. 1:16 ff.) embodies the incident of Christ teaching from a boat, which in Mark 4:1 is the occasion of the Parable of the Sower, and which Luke omits when he reproduces that parable at the same point as in Mark’s narrative. It also includes an account of a miraculous draught of fishes, similar to that in John 21`, along with a protest by Peter, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.’ This protest would gain much in force if we suppose that the story in which it occurs was originally told as an event subsequent to Peter’s denial of his Master, and is, in fact, another version of the “second call of Peter” appropriately connected in John 21. with a post-Resurrection Appearance. I argue below (cf. p. 355 f.) that John 21. is based on a tradition substantially identical with that embodied in the lost endings of the Gospel of Mark and of the Apocryphal Gospel of Peter.

(2) In Luke’s version of the Anointing (Luke 7:36 ff., cf. Mk. 14:3 ff.) there is included a pronouncement by our Lord of forgiveness, which evokes from His opponents the protest,” Who is this that forgives sins?” which Mark connects with the healing of the paralytic (Mk. 2:5 ff.). There is also included-though this is less significant-the saying which occurs elsewhere in Mark: Thy faith hath saved thee, go in peace” (in Mk. 5:34 addressed to the woman with an issue of blood)-though the Greek word used for “go is not the same. The words, “Go, thy faith hath saved,” occur also (addressed to Bartimaeus), Mk. 10:52. 


(3) Luke’s account of the Great Commandment (Luke 10:25 ff.) would seem to be derived from a tradition independent of Mark 12:28 ff., in that the formulation of the summary, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God . . . and thy neighbour as thyself,” is made by the lawyer and approved by Christ, not vice versa. The point, however, to which I would call attention is that it is introduced not, as in Mark, by the question, “What commandment is the first of all?” but by the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” which occurs in Mark, but in connection with a different incident (cf. Mk. 10:17).


(4) Luke’s account of the Last Supper-if, with WH, we accept the shorter text in Lk. 22:19-20-reflects a tradition (found also in the Didache) which reverses the order of the Bread and the Cup. The saying in Lk. 22:15-16 implies that the Last Supper was not the Passover, in which case it derives from a tradition which supports John against Mark in regard to the date of the Passion. Obviously, then, Luke got this incident (wholly, or in part) from a source other than Mark. Luke also appends to his account of the Last Supper a saying (about the Kings of the Gentiles and the greater acting as servant) which in substance corresponds to the reply given by Christ in Mark’s story of the ambitious request of James and John 10:42 ff.)-an incident which Luke omits. Where actual sayings of Christ are concerned, Luke usually reproduces fairly closely the wording of Mark; hence, the verbal differences being here very great, it is more probable that his version in this case comes from another source than that it is a rewriting of that in Mark.


In each of the four passages discussed above the combination of fragments from different incidents is of a kind more likely to have originated in oral tradition rather than in editorial ingenuity on the part of Luke-the more so because Luke in general avoids conflation even when it is the obvious thing to do. Thus, when- ever Mark and Q give parallel versions of the same item, Matthew conflates the versions; Luke hardly ever does so (cf. p. 186 f.). In the first three passages discussed above Luke gives the story in a context far removed from that of the parallel in Mark (the fourth, the Last Supper, could only stand at one point in the story); he does the same thing with the three other considerable items of which he gives a version notably different from that of Mark, viz. the Rejection at Nazareth, the Beelzebub Controversy and the Parable of the Mustard-seed. As regards the last two we have positive evidence that the version which Luke gives is not obtained by a free editing of Mark; for comparison with the parallels in Matthew (cf. p. 246 f.) enables us to see that what he gives is the version which stood in Q. This evidence creates a presumption that in other cases, where Luke’s version differs strikingly from Mark’s and also occurs in a context remote from Mark’s, he is not rewriting Mark but drawing from another source. Moreover, the most reasonable explanation of his desertion of Mark’s order (to which elsewhere he closely adheres) is that he reproduces these items in the order and context in which they stood in the source in which he found them.


This preference of the non-Marcan to the Marcan context is found both where the item is traceable to Q and where it is peculiar to himself; again, this preference would be unnatural unless the source from which he drew was a substantial document comparable to Mark in scale and importance. Thus it would seem probable that the Q material and the material peculiar to Luke (or most of it) lay before the author of the Gospel already combined into a single document.


Luke gives an account of the Resurrection which places the Appearances in Jerusalem, and therefore cannot have been derived from the lost end of Mark, which seems to have placed them in Galilee; we have already seen that he had an account of the Last Supper other and different from that in Mark. The pre- sumption is strong, then, that the deviation from Mark in his account of the intervening events-which include no less than twelve changes of order is due to the influence of an account of the Passion in the same source as that used for the Last Supper and the Resurrection. In this part of his Gospel Marcan and non-Marcan elements are inextricably blended, and the departures from the Marcan order would be explained if he were conflating a non-Marcan account with that of Mark; usually he avoids conflation, but in this case it would have been impossible to keep the two strands apart. Of course, Luke may have found the account of the Last Supper, Passion and Resurrection in one source, and the bulk of his other non-Marcan material in another; no one can deny this possibility. Nevertheless, Luke’s general preference of his non-Marcan source, both as regards context and version, as well as the considerable omissions which he makes from Mark, are more readily explicable if all (or practically all) of his non-Marcan material stood in a single work, which in that case would be so substantial that he would naturally regard it as an authority of equal or greater value than Mark…


Luke gets the greater part of his narrative material from Mark and he is writing a biography more or less according to Greco- Roman models; he is, therefore, bound to some extent to adopt the Marcan framework of events; but he does this in a way which suggests that Proto-Luke was the document with which he started, and which he preferred to Mark where they differed. For that reason I have styled Proto-Luke his “primary,” Mark his “secondary” source. Luke’s preference was, I imagine, mainly due to the relative poverty of Mark, and the incomparable richness of Proto-Luke, in regard to the teaching of our Lord.


B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels : a Study of Orgins, Macmillan and Co (1936) pp. xv-xx

Streeter’s attribution of Various Passages

Streeter provide a list of what passages of Luke he thought were to be assigned to Proto-Luke, from Mark, and which he had a lower level of confidence knowing what source it was derived from:

  • Passages Streeter believes are most probably to be assigned to Proto-Luke: 
    • Luke 3:1-4:30;
    • Luke 5:1-11;
    • Luke 6:14-16;
    • Luke 6:20-8:3;
    • Luke 9:51-18:14;
    • Luke 19:1-27;
    • Luke 19:37-44;
    • Luke 21:18, 34-36;
    • Luke 22:14 to end of the Gospel, 
  •  Verses Streeter believes are from Mark:
    1. Luke 22:18 (Mark 14:25)
    2. Luke 22:22 (Mark 14:21)
    3. Luke 22:42 (Mark 14:36)
    4. Luke 22:46 f. (Mark 14:37-38)
    5. Luke 22:52-62* (Mark 14:46-52, 66-72), Luke 22:62 likely a textual corruption
    6. Luke 22:71 (Mark 14:63-64)
    7. Luke 23:3 (Mark 15:2)
    8. Luke 23:22 (Mark 15:12-15)
    9. Luke 23:25 f. (Mark 15:7, 15)
    10. Luke 23:33-34b, (Mark 15:22-24, 27)
    11. Luke 23:38 (Mark 15:26)
    12. Luke 23:44-46 (Mark 15:33-37
    13. Luke 23:52 f. (Mark 15:43)
    14. Luke 24:6*, likely a textual corruption
  • Passages Streeter believes may be derived from Mark, or represent Proto-Luke partially assimilated to the Marcan parallel:
    • Luke 22:69;
    • Luke 23:35, 49, 51;
    • Luke 24:1-3, 9f*.
  • *Steeler further added in the footnotes that Luke 22:62 is probably not genuine, being an assimilation to Matthew omitted in the Old Latin. Similarly, Luke 24:6a and Luke 24:9 are omitted by D Old Lat. “It is notable that all three omissions reduce the extent of Luke’s dept to Mark.” (B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels : a Study of Origins, Macmillan and Co (1936) p. 222)

From the above, we can see that Steeler’s basis for believing in Markan priority with respect to Luke only hinges on a handful of verses (24 total). It is also telling that, according to this assessment, whatever influence Mark had on Luke it was extremely minor compared to Luke’s reliance on Proto-Luke. The above also supports the notion that Luke, by and Large, is proto-Luke. The implication is that Luke has priority over Mark, with a few minor exceptions.

Streeter’s observation is consistent with the pattern of observation that Mark is the middle term between Luke and Matthew, corresponding to the typical pattern of progressive embellishment from Luke to Mark to Matthew. See, Progressive Embellishment, Luke→Mark→Matthew.

Streeter’s basis for Markan priority is most fragile! Below is a chart showing his handful of claimed dependencies of Luke on Mark. 

There is no strong evidence that those verses Streeter attributes as coming from Mark are actually so, and Streeter lacks specific arguments of why these particular verses derive from Mark. Within these parallels, one can argue that the reverse is true, that Luke is more primitive than Mark. Here are a few examples:

Mark 14:21← Luke 17:1-2

In Luke 17:1-2 the woe pronounced for those who cause temptation is accompanied by an “it would be better” statement. This non-parallel context in Luke is the inspiration for Mark adding the “it would be better” statement in Mark 14:21. The parallel statement in Luke 22:22 lacks the “it would be better” statement. Here is another example of the author of Mark taking inspiration from non-parallel contexts in Luke-Acts. Mark 14:21 is clearly a later development in that Mark can be characterized by proliferating “be/been better” sayings. (Mark 9:42, 45, 47 + Mark 14:21)

Mark 14:46 ← Luke 21:12 + Acts 4:3; 5:18; 12:1; 21:27

Five times, Luke describes the arrest of Jesus’ later followers using “they laid hands on” (ἐπιβαλειν + χείρ) including Luke 21:12; Acts 4:3; 5:18; 12:1; 21:27. The phrase is not found in Luke’s description of the same story, where Mark 14:46 incorporates this terminology. This evidence suggests that the author of Mark wrote  “they laid hands on him” into his version of Jesus’ arrest, as influenced by Luke 21:12 and the stories of later believers as recorded in Acts. For more on Mark’s reliance on Acts, see the article Mark Borrows from Luke-Acts.

Mark 14:68 ← Acts 19:15

The verb “to know” (ἐπίστασθαι) occurs 7 times in Acts (Acts 10:28; 15:7; 18:25; 19:15, 25; 20:18; 22:19; 24:10; 26:26) and 14 times in the New Testament overall. The high frequency of use in Acts demonstrates that this is a Lukan term. Yet, Matthew 26:70 and Luke 22:57 mutually agree against Mark in omitting ἐπίστασθαι from their versions of Peter’s denial. Mark 14:68 exhibiting the embellishment demonstrates that this is another compelling case of the author of Mark, remixing his sources as he does, by utilizing Lukan vocabulary taken from another context to dramatize his version of Peter’s denial further. Likely, Acts 19:15 is the inspiration for Mark 14:68. 

If one comes to the realization that there is actually no literary dependence of Luke on Mark, the whole paradigm of modern scholars collapses.   If Luke and proto-Luke are one and the same, a more primitive tradition than Mark, with Mark also depending on Acts, the result is a revised solution of the Synoptic problem in the order Luke→Mark→Matthew. Accordingly, the Two-Document Hypothesis and Markan priority can be discarded in favor of Lukan Priority.

William R. Farmer in his book, The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis, did much to show a lack of objectivity and flaws in the consensus view of Markan Priority. He concludes his analysis of the history of the development of the “consensus” view with the following statement. 

“The only sound historical judgment that can be rendered in a critical review of the history of the Synoptic Problem is that “extra-scientific” or “nonscientific” factors exercised a deep influence in the development of a fundamentally misleading and false consensus.” (William R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis, (1964), p. 190)

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. In addition to Streeter, Vincent Taylor, Behind the Third Gospel:A Study of the Proto-Luke Hypothesis (1926) attested that 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. (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.)  Streeter also gives credit to E.R. Buckley for a theory similar to “Proto-Luke” in his 1912 book Introduction to the Synoptic Problem

Since the early 20th century various approaches to the Synoptic problem are emblematic of a move in the direction of Luke Primacy, toward placing greater regard in Luke 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. 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)
  • 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)
Numerous publications by William Lockton in the 1920’s led the way to the ultimate solution of Lukan Priority, which was further demonstrated by Robert Lindsey and the Jerusalem School, which developed the Jerusalem School Hypothesis of Lukan Priority. For more on this, see the article, Lukan Priority and the Jerusalem School.