McWhirter Book Considers 'Agenda' for Luke, Acts

June 24, 2014 | By Jake Weber

Jocelyn McWhirter on a research trip to Athens, Greece, for Rejected Prophets

Jocelyn McWhirter in Athens, Greece, while researching Rejected Prophets. She has been teaching at Albion College since 2006. Read her faculty profile

Religious studies professor Jocelyn McWhirter brings new insights to some of the Bible's most studied texts with her new book, Rejected Prophets: Jesus and His Witnesses in Luke-Acts, published earlier this year by Fortress Press. Her argument that the author of Luke and Acts portrays Jesus and other main characters as prophets leads to some intriguing conclusions about the writer's identity and intent.

Although Luke and Acts are separated by the Gospel of John in the New Testament, McWhirter explains that they should be read as two volumes of a single work. The books are attributed to Luke, a companion of Paul, "but no one knows for sure who the author really was," McWhirter explains.

In examining Luke and Acts, McWhirter works with well-established scholarship that recognizes the Gospel of Mark, along with a lost text referred to as "Q," were used as source materials by the authors of Matthew and Luke. "It's clear that Matthew copied material from Mark, and so did Luke," says McWhirter.

Luke’s editing of his source materials, along with stories unique to his gospel, "are a strong indication of Luke’s agenda," says McWhirter. He states that agenda in Luke 1:4: “So that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." But what might make Luke’s readers question Christian teaching? In order to answer this question, McWhirter turns to Jewish history in Luke’s day, circa 80 CE.

"Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah, expected to re-establish his ancestors' kingdom in Roman-occupied Jerusalem," McWhirter explains, noting that this raised many questions for Luke's contemporaries. Why, then, did the Romans crucify Jesus? Why did so many Jews reject him? Why did so many non-Jews believe in him? And why had the Romans just destroyed Jerusalem, including the temple, putting down a Jewish rebellion and dashing all hopes for self-rule?

Using earlier prophets as precedents

In order to assure his audience that Jesus’ crucifixion, Jewish rejection, gentile inclusion, and the destruction of the temple are part of God’s plan, says McWhirter, "Luke focuses on John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul, Philip and Stephen. He portrays them as similar to Old Testament prophets, even changing his written sources in order to do that. The situation in the 80s may not look much like the messianic age, but it looks a lot like the age of the prophets."

As an example, McWhirter notes how Luke's account of the conception of John the Baptist parallels that of Old Testament prophet Samuel. "Both have elderly and childless parents, vows of abstinence made on behalf of the children, and mothers who sing similar songs after receiving the news of their pregnancies," McWhirter says. "It’s not that Luke copied-and-pasted the Samuel story. But if you examine them together, you can see the similarities."

Luke shows Jesus to be like Moses, a leader rejected by his followers. In comparing Jesus to Elijah, Luke tells stories of Jesus ministering to gentiles and raising a widow's only son. Jesus and Elijah also both ascend to heaven as their followers watch. McWhirter notes that Luke's change to the crucifixion scene underscores this parallel.

"In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ last words are, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Luke has Jesus say, 'Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit,'" McWhirter points out. "This sets up Jesus’ ascension to heaven, similar to Elijah's. Then, just as Elisha received the spirit of his teacher Elijah, the disciples receive the spirit of Jesus. They, too, become God’s prophets.”

As God’s prophets, Jesus and his followers predict the destruction of the temple. While transcribing Jesus’ temple prophecies from Mark and Q, Luke adds the language of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. In the Book of Acts, Stephen also speaks out against religious leaders in the temple.

While Luke's purposeful editing is an interesting study in itself, McWhirter's interpretation sheds new light on the author's identity. "Most scholars believe Luke is a gentile, writing to gentiles. But what if Luke is a Jewish Christian, writing to Jewish Christians?" McWhirter asks.

To support her thesis, McWhirter refers to the questions Luke seems to be answering—questions about Jewish rejection, gentile inclusion, and the destruction of the temple. "Those are questions that would concern Jews familiar with messianic prophecies, because Jesus did not do what they expected," McWhirter states. "I think Luke is showing Jewish Christians that their prophets set a precedent for what happened to Jesus. Jesus and his witnesses are doing exactly what the prophets have always done: being rejected by Jews, ministering to gentiles, and predicting the destruction of the temple."

"My contribution to scholarship is to collate prophetic parallels that others have seen, point out more parallels that others have missed, and show how they work for Jewish Christians," McWhirter concludes. “I hope that others will find it helpful to understand how Luke explains the unexpected by using the prophets as precedents.”