October 18th, Feast of St. Luke
“In Bithynia, the birthday of St. Luke the Evangelist, who suffered much for the name of Christ and died filled with the Holy Spirit. His bones were translated to Constantinople and thence taken to Padua.” (from the Roman Martyrology)
It is well known that St. Luke is an Evangelist and also that he wrote the Acts of the Apostles. He was a disciple of St. Paul and accompanied the Apostle on several journeys.
Additionally, most know that St. Luke had been a physician before his conversion. Beyond this, we may wonder: Who was St. Luke? Moreover, why is he pictured by the symbol of an ox?
St. Luke, before his conversion
It is held, on the authority of Eusebius, that St. Luke had been a native of Antioch. This is confirmed by the special care and attention he gives to the Church in Antioch in this Acts of the Apostles. We know that St. Luke was not a Jew, as he is distinguished by St. Paul from those of the circumcision.
St. Luke was a physician, and most certainly very learned. His Gospel and Acts bear witness to his mastery of the Greek language – our Evangelist manifests a felicity in writing which is not equaled by any other of the New Testament writers.
Further, contrary to the opinion of St. Epiphanius, St. Luke could not have been among the seventy (or seventy-two) disciples of Luke 10:1-9, as it is clear from the opening of his Gospel that he had never seen the Lord in person (cf. Luke 1:1-4). Thus, it is quite odd that the Church gives us the sending of the seventy-two as the Gospel for this feast (in both the recent and more ancient forms of the Roman Rite).
Rather, it is better to maintain that St. Luke was not converted by our Savior during his life on earth, but rather was converted by St. Paul after the Ascension.
St. Luke as a follower of St. Paul
We know that St. Luke had been a physician and it is likely that he studied in Tarsus, which school rivaled those of Alexandria and Athens as the greatest medical school of ancient Greece. It is possible that St. Luke first met St. Paul at this time.
Whether St. Luke had been a Jewish proselyte or had converted directly to Christianity is unclear – but we do know that he had a great and profound knowledge of the Old Testament. Moreover, it is clear that St. Luke knew not only St. Paul, but also many of the Apostles and earliest disciples. The Evangelist himself testifies that, when composing his Gospel, he had spoken with those eyewitnesses of Christ’s life – hence, it is clear that he knew not only St. Paul (who was not an eyewitness) but also others.
What is more, St. Paul regularly associates St. Luke with St. Mark. We know that St. Mark was close with St. Peter (so much so that the Gospel according to St. Mark is truly the Gospel of St. Peter), and therefore we can conclude that St. Luke was well acquainted with St. Peter and the other Apostles as well.
St. Luke, Evangelist and New Testament writer
The Gospel according to St. Luke is significantly longer than the other Gospels – even though St. Matthew’s has more chapters, St. Luke’s contains many more verses and words (we refer to the Greek text, of course). In addition to his Gospel, there is the Acts of the Apostles which is also of considerable length. The Gospel is the longest book of the New Testament (with 19,482 words) and Acts is the second longest (with 18,451 words)!
These two books are about the length of all of St. Paul’s Letters – in fact, they contain about 5,000 more words (not counting Hebrews, or only 500 more counting the Letter to the Hebrews as St. Paul’s). However, we add additionally that St. Luke very like was the author to the Letter to the Hebrews, insofar as he translated the Letter (which was original written by St. Paul in Hebrew) into Greek. Thus, this Letter (while certainly Pauline and most likely written by St. Paul himself) can also be ascribed to St. Luke insofar as the inspired text is the Greek translation accomplished by the Evangelist.
Additionally, it is likely that St. Luke assisted St. Peter in the writing of his First Epistle – as the style is very elevated and manifests a command of the Greek language which only St. Luke (among the New Testament writers) possessed.
Therefore, if we consider the works written directly by St. Luke – that is, the Gospel and Acts – we see that the Evangelist wrote about 38,000 words of the New Testament. If, furthermore, we consider the Letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews and also the First Letter of St. Peter – which were composed with the assistance of St. Luke – this adds an additional nearly 7,000 words to the Evangelist’s credit.
Thus, St. Luke wrote (or assisted in writing) about 44,500 words of the New Testament, which is about 138,000 words in total. Hence, this one man is responsible (either in whole or in part) for about one-third of the New Testament (32%, to be precise).
The rest of the story, and his holy death
St. Luke was of great assistance to St. Paul in his ministry. It is well known that the St. Paul trusted the Evangelist in particular on account of the fact that, in a time of great peril and persecution (when he was imprisoned in Rome) the Apostle could state, Only Luke is with me (2 Timothy 4:11).
It is believed that, after the death of St. Paul, St. Luke preached the Gospel in Italy, Gaul (or Galatia), Dalmatia, and Macedon. He may have preached even in Egypt.
The nature of his death is disputed. Some of the Fathers maintain that St. Luke was martyred, perhaps even crucified on an olive tree at Elaea in Peloponnesus near Achaia – this tradition comes especially from St. Hippolytus. Sts. Gregory Nazianzen, Paulinus, and Gaudentius of Grescia all state that he was martyred.
On the other hand, many others (including St. Bede and many of the martyrologies) state only that St. Luke suffered much for the faith and died at a very old age in Bithynia.
The Evangelist’s body was brought to Constantinople to be housed in the Church of the Apostles which was built by Constantine. His head was transferred to Rome, to the monastery of St. Andrew. Others of his relics are at the Grecian monastery at Mount Athos.
The body of St. Luke was transferred to the Cathedral of Padua after the Crusades, and its authenticity has recently been bolstered by scientific studies made in 1992. A rib, that closest to the heart, has been transferred back to Greece and is kept in Thebes.
Moreover, there is a strong tradition that St. Luke was a painter – indeed, he is rightly called the first iconist of the Church, at least insofar as he paints with his words.
St. Luke wrote the first icons of our Lady, of Jesus, and also of Sts. Peter and Paul. Some hold that the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir (as well as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa) are based on icons which had been written by St. Luke himself.
St. Luke is also credited with painting one of the “acheiropoieta” (i.e. one of the “Icons made without hands”). The image of our Savior, which is kept in a special chapel at the top of the Holy Stairs near the Lateran Cathedral in Rome, is also called the Uronica. The tradition is that St. Luke began the icon, but that angels came and finished it.
Why is St. Luke given the symbol of an ox?
Of course, the symbolism of the four evangelists by the four living creatures – a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle – comes both from Ezekiel and Revelation. St. Luke is represented by the ox, according to the Church Fathers, on two accounts.
First, St. Luke begins his Gospel with the priest Zechariah and the account of the conception of St. John the Baptist. Since the Gospel starts with the worship in the Temple and because the primary sacrifice offered in the Temple was of the calf or ox, it is fitting that St. Luke be represented by this animal.
Further, we add that St. Luke presents Christ’s priesthood most clearly of all the Evangelists (and this is another reason why it is probably that St. Luke was chosen by St. Paul to translate the Letter to the Hebrews into Greek, since that Letter contains the greatest explanation of our Savior as High Priest) – therefore, the use of the ox recalls the sacrifices offered by the priests of the Old Law who prefigured the eternal priesthood of our Lord.
The second reason why St. Luke is represented by an ox is that the labor of the ox in treading out the grain is symbolic of the work of the preacher of the Gospel (cf. Deuteronomy 25:4 and 1 Timothy 5:18). Now, St. Luke was most laborious in his preaching of the Gospel and, especially, in his assistance of St. Paul. Therefore, he is represented by the ox as having underwent the labors of an ox in the Gospel and bearing out in his own body great sufferings for the honor of Christ.
St. Luke, Pray for us!