Along with Matthew, Luke’s Gospel draws upon the older Gospel of Mark for some of its material. There is also likely an even older tradition that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all were familiar with, not to mention various oral traditions. This theory best explains why there is so much overlap between these three Gospels while at the same time there are so many significant differences. Because these three Gospels overlap in wording and content as often as they do, they are called the “synoptic Gospels” (Greek, syn, together with; optic, seeing). John’s Gospel presents Jesus in a different way, and there is likely very little, if any, connection between John and the other three Gospels.
The Gospel of Luke is anonymous, like the other three synoptic Gospels, but early church tradition assigned authorship to Luke the physician. Within the New Testament, Luke is mentioned in Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24. He may also be reflected in the “we” passages of Acts, which claim to have been written by a companion of Paul. The fact that the same person who wrote Acts also wrote Luke suggests that Luke the Physician may have been the author. Some also suggest that Luke’s account is very precise (see especially Luke 1:1-4), something befitting a man of medicine whose work depends on rational thought and precise language. Luke’s Gospel is also written in an educated Greek style. At the end, however, naming a specific author is speculative and unnecessary to understanding the Gospel’s message.
When read along with Acts, we see that Luke’s Gospel is the first part of a two-part story. The aim of Luke is to give an account of who Jesus was and what he did and then to continue that story into the earliest years of the church, especially focusing on the activity of Paul. If the author of Luke was the author of the “we” passages in Acts, this suggests that the author, traveling around the world in service of the gospel, was moved to give an account not only of his involvement in the events, but of the entire story of Jesus from the beginning. In so doing, he certainly researched the matter by investigating firsthand accounts. The finished product was for Theophilus, either a Roman official or someone of standing and wealth.
Luke was likely a Gentile, which explains his emphasis on Jesus’ acceptance of Gentiles as part of God’s plan from the beginning. Of the twenty-eight parables Luke records (which are more parables than those found in the other Gospels) fifteen are found only in Luke. Two of the best known and most loved parables, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, are among those fifteen. The first speaks of a Samaritan, hated by Jews, in glowing terms. The second stresses the love of a father for his son despite the son’s disobedience. The point is that God’s love for us is not rooted in obedience to law but to his grace.
Luke and Matthew are the only Gospels to give the story of Jesus’ birth. Matthew’s version includes the Magi and the flight to Egypt. However, Luke’s does not, focusing rather on the two stories of the births of Jesus and John the Baptist, and highlighting Mary’s role as Jesus’ mother. In Luke 1, Mary glorifies God in a prayer that is clearly modeled after the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 at the miraculous birth of her son Samuel. This song is referred to as the Magnificat, which is the first word of the Latin title taken from the Vulgate, and means “glorifies,” the first word of the prayer. Likewise, John the Baptist’s father utters his own prayer in Luke 1, which is often called Benidictus, the Latin for “praise be.” Both the Magnificat and Benidictus are saturated with Old Testament language describing the birth of Jesus. It is also clear that the hope expressed in these songs has a nationalistic flavor—the liberation of Jews from Roman oppression and not hopes for the entire world. That nationalistic zeal would later be challenged and reversed by Jesus’ own ministry.
Luke ends with a lengthy story of post-resurrection appearances by Jesus and then a brief reference to the ascension, which is picked up again in more detail in the first chapter of Acts.