Review of Marshall on Luke

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 42/2 (spring 1980): 438-440. Used with permission.]

I. Howard Marshall: The Gospel of Luke. A Commentary on the Greek Text. (The New International Greek Testament Commentary) Exeter: Paternoster Press; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978. 928. $24.95.


Marshall’s masterful commentary on the Greek text of Luke, the first of a projected series of exegetical critical commentaries by evangelicals, sets a high standard of scholarship for the whole series, and indeed for the world of New Testament studies at large. Here is a worthy successor for the International Critical Commentary series. Within the limits that Marshall has chosen for himself, he has produced a work of outstanding excellence.

But the limits need to be borne in mind by those who are buying or using the commentary. One major limitation concerns the amount of space devoted to various topics. The book concentrates on grammatical questions, historical background, source critical and form critical reconstruction of traditions behind Luke, text criticism, questions concerning the historicity of the events recounted, and the attempts to account for redactional changes in Luke’s use of Mark and other sources. Thus, as is usual with an exegetical critical commentary on the Greek text, only limited space is devoted to theological motifs and implications. The preacher may find himself frustrated. Yet such information as Marshall does provide in this area is of good quality. For one thing, he alerts the reader to higher level grouping and organization of material in Luke. He notes the theological interpretive suggestions of redaction critics while consistently avoiding their excesses. Over and over again the book presents sane, careful interpretations and evaluations, accompanied by wide-ranging cross-references to the scholarly literature. I could have wished for a more venturesome, suggestive handling of parables and


p. 439

miracle stories; but those who have been more venturesome have not escaped excesses. In a commentary of this foundational type, cautious, minimal interpretation is perhaps for the best.

A second type of limitation occurs in the area of source criticism. Marshall operates in agreement with the consensus that Luke used Mark, Q (sometimes in a variant different from that used by Matthew), and his own special sources. Something like a full third of the contents of the commentary depends heavily on the assumption that Luke used our canonical Mark. A good deal of material has to be worked through again by anyone who is suspicious of this assumption. Even the person who agrees with the assumption will find that the source critical and historico-critical reflection produces no fruit at all in terms of helping us to understand what Luke actually saysto his readers.

In the source critical area, it is refreshing to see Marshall reject dogmatic pronouncements in favor of weighing probabilities and reaching tentative conclusions. But I for one am even more doubtful and tentative than he is about such things. For instance, Marshall pronounces that certain Greek words are or are not “Lucan,” and on that basis draws conclusions about underlying sources. Sometimes, this is a valid argument. But at some points we know too little about Luke as a writer (the corpus is too small) and too little about the linguistic parameters of lexical stylistics for us to be confident about this type of procedure. Stylistic lexical preferences and grammatical preferences are frequently a statistical matter, not an absolute matter. And who knows what kinds of contextual conditioning may have influenced a writer to deviate from his own highest-frequency pattern?

A final limitation of the commentary is in its judgments concerning the “historicity” of the various pericopes and verses. Marshall spends considerable space trying to assess matters of historicity incident by incident. His own judgments appear to me to be based on two postulates. (a) Historical method involves treating on a completely naturalistic plane the transmission of information to Luke, and the product in the form of Luke’s Gospel. (b) Historical method does not a priori eliminate the supernatural or miraculous from the life of Christ (e.g., pp. 50, 151, 381, 883). Thus, whether the reader thinks Jesus’ miracles probable “depends on the reader’s general understanding of the person of Jesus” (p. 333). Using these two principles in conjunction, Marshall again and again upholds the basic historicity of the accounts. Moreover, he does so on grounds acceptable to wide circle of New Testament scholars. The transmission of tradition from the time of Jesus to Luke was, according


p. 440

to Marshall’s view, a sober, fairly straightforward affair. Neither Luke nor his predecessors is likely to have fabricated incidents, though they introduced a certain amount of editorial shaping and editorial comment. Occasionally, some details might get mixed up in transmission; but even here the Gospel accounts are to be judged innocent until proven guilty.

Using this type of outlook, Marshall presents solid evidence for historicity to those not antecedently convinced of Luke’s divine authority. This by itself is a useful achievement. But those who are convinced of Luke’s divine authority and consequent inerrancy will find Marshall conceding too much to “probabilities.” Is it not true that, as believing historians, we can be sure in cases where God bears witness to the matter? There is nevertheless some basis for what Marshall is doing. (1) It is necessary to talk to those who do not accept the inerrancy of Luke. (2) Luke 1:1–4 gives the impression that the transmission of tradition to Luke was, generally speaking, a rather “natural” process in comparison to Jesus’ miracles. (3) We ought not to assume too quickly that divine authorship is inconsistent with many of the chronological rearrangements, omissions of detail, and “theological shaping” (p. 63) that Marshall finds here and there in Luke. When all these qualifications are taken into account, it must still be said that Marshall’s work is methodologically faulty because of its inconsistency in admitting the supernatural into the life of Jesus but not into the warp and woof of the Gospel writings which Jesus superintended as the risen Lord.

In spite of this methodological problem, Marshall’s book will long serve as a standard for Lucan study. I commend it enthusiastically to the serious student of Luke.

Vern S. Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary

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