Encountering Luke’s Portrait of Jesus: A Review of John T. Carroll’s Commentary on the Third Gospel

“Luke,” Richard Hays remarks in one of his books, “is above all a storyteller” (2016, 275). This characterization, brief as it is, highlights what might be the most important dimension of the lens that Union Presbyterian Seminary professor John T. Carroll brings to the table in his book, Luke: A Commentarywhich was published in 2012.

A number of New Testament scholars—maybe most prominent among them James Dunn—have highlighted the importance of remembering that the materials we read in the Gospels were in all likelihood first passed on as oral traditions by the earliest communities of Jesus followers. This insight is important at the very least because it prevents contemporary readers from making anachronistic assumptions about how the canonical Gospel texts were formed, but it doesn’t take away from the fruits that can be gathered by also exploring their literary shape and texture. Recognizing the predominantly oral origins of the Gospels and studying the narrative dynamics of their final forms aren’t mutually exclusive tasks. After all, the Gospel writers, in their own distinctive ways, were creative theologians in their own right, not merely haphazard compilers of community traditions.

This gives us one helpful way of framing how Carroll’s commentary fits into the ongoing stream of scholarship on Luke: while some commentaries devote most of their pages to reconstructing the historical world behind the text, and others delve most deeply into the twists and turns of interpretation history that have developed in front of the text, Carroll focuses his critical efforts on narrative analysis on the nuances of meaning in the text itself (9).

Social Critique and the Empire in Luke

In Carroll’s reading, matters of money, possessions, and social inclusion emerge as prominent concerns in Luke. Over and over throughout the commentary’s pages, Carroll points out the many occasions where encounters with Jesus and his teachings lead to unexpected reversals of social and economic structures (10). A bit further on, Carroll expands on this point and makes clear that, in his eyes, this vision of God’s commitment to justice, faithfulness, and mercy isn’t a novel addition to Israel’s testimony:

Honor, wealth, and power all undergo radical redefinition… in this Gospel. Yet Jesus, in carrying out his ministry—with its vision of a radical social transformation that elevates the poor and powerless and demotes the wealthy and powerful—will not be an innovator, a point that Mary’s Song already makes clear. The social revolution of God’s realm continues an ancient story. It is about a God who remembers mercy and keeps covenant with God’s people. (52)

Carroll is far from alone when he says this. Other writers have also made note of the emphasis on social critique, reversal, and concern for the vulnerable in Luke’s Gospel, including the Protestant theologian Joel Green in The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (1995) and the Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmeyer in his series of lectures, Luke the Theologian (1989). But Carroll writes on this aspect with both clarity and nuance, making him a useful companion for those using this commentary to become familiar with Luke’s Gospel for the first time.

On a not entirely unrelated note, Carroll also delves into Luke’s portrayal of the relationship between the early communities of Jesus followers and the Roman Empire. As Carroll shows, there is actually no small amount of disagreement about how to best characterize Luke’s portrayal of the empire in both the Gospel and Acts (398-399). It is, for example, true that imperial figures aren’t portrayed in a uniformly negative light by him in the narrative. The centurion in Luke 7 is actually praised for his faith and benefaction (402). Nevertheless, it is fairly clear that for Luke, Caesar’s claim to lordship is relativized and undercut by Jesus’s ultimate identity as Lord. As Carroll puts it, “Loyal service of God trumps all other claims, even Caesar’s” (403). For Carroll, the early Jesus movement’s relation to the Roman Empire shouldn’t be reduced to either resigned submission or open rebellion (400). Rather, it engaged in something more akin to indirect criticism while seeking to embody a peaceful, alternative possibility for life that avoided overt rebellion:

Luke’s audience is introduced to, and invited to participate in, a counterreign defined by alternative practices and a fundamentally different notion of power and status… the alternative political community and discourse and alternative social practices that come into being around Jesus, symbolically enacted in inclusive, status-blending, boundary-crossing meals, are deeply countercultural. (402-403)

In some ways, I think it may be that Luke’s overarching approach reflects a strategy for persuading the surrounding Roman world that early Christians didn’t need to be persecuted or vilified as a dangerous threat. It may also be part of Luke’s relative openness to Gentile inclusion in the young Christian movement. To once again complicate things, though, we do well to keep in mind that all of Luke-Acts takes place under the shadow of the Empire, with first Jesus in the Gospel and then Paul in Acts coming into grave conflict with the authorities (399-400). Clearly this is a complex interpretive question.

While Carroll provides no easy answers, he does orient readers to the various ways contemporary scholars have approached these questions, and I think he does help his audience begin to notice the ways in which Luke seemingly critiques the exploitative socioeconomic aspects of the Empire in his narrative without stepping into open confrontation with it. These are just a few of the interpretive topics Carroll explores, but hopefully they demonstrate his way of using a literary approach and keeping an eye out for social dimensions of Luke’s Gospel to bring out layers in the text that may otherwise be missed.

Conclusion

Luke’s Gospel can arguably be seen as the most linguistically crafted of the canonical gospel accounts. And his attentiveness to the stories Jesus told while on the way to Jerusalem is also distinctive. It is Luke, Eugene Peterson suggests, who “immerses us in the way Jesus uses language as he deals with the ordinary and the occasional” (2008, 17). For a Gospel of this sort, there is much to be gained by paying attention to its literary contours, and with a satisfying amount of scholarly rigor, Carroll takes on this task, and his commentary comes out the better for it. By shedding light on Luke’s use of language and story, Carroll deepens the experience of those who use his commentary as a reading companion, and for this I am certainly grateful.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Westminster John Knox Press for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

Other Works Cited

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. Luke the Theologian: Aspects of his Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989.

Green, Joel B. The Theology of the Gospel of Luke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016.

Peterson, Eugene. Tell it Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in his Stories and Prayers. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.

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