Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Luke the Evangelist

Article

The great apostle of the Gentiles, or rather the Holy Ghost by his pen, is the panegyrist of this glorious evangelist, and his own inspired writings are the highest, standing, and most authentic commendation of his sanctity, and of those eminent graces which are a just subject of our admiration, but which human praises can only extenuate. Saint Luke was a native of Antioch, the metropolis of Syria, a city famous for the agreeableness of its situation, the riches of its traffic, its extent, the number of its inhabitants, the politeness of their manners, and their learning and wisdom. Its schools were the most renowned in all Asia, and produced the ablest masters in all arts and sciences. Saint Luke acquired a stock of learning in his younger years, which, we are told, he improved by his travels in some parts of Greece and Egypt. He became particularly well skilled in physic, which he made his profession. They who from hence infer the quality of his birth and fortune, do not take notice that this art was at that time often managed by slaves who were trained up to it, as Grotius proves, who conceives that Saint Luke perhaps had lived servant in some noble family in quality of physician, till he obtained his freedom; after which he continued to follow his profession. This he seems to have done after his conversion to the faith, and even to the end of his life; the occasional practice of physic without being drawn aside by it from spiritual functions, being a charity very consistent with the ministry of the gospel. Saint Jerom assures us he was very eminent in his profession, and Saint Paul, by calling him his most dear physician, seems to indicate that he had not laid it aside. Besides his abilities in physic, he is said to have been very skilful in painting. The Menology of the emperor Basil, compiled in 980, Nicephorus, 2 Metaphrastes, and other modern Greeks quoted by F. Gretzer, in his dissertation on this subject, speak much of his excelling in this art, and of his leaving many pictures of Christ and the B. Virgin. Though neither the antiquity nor the credit of these authors is of great weight, it must be acknowledged, with a very judicious critic, that some curious anecdotes are found in their writings. In this particular, what they tell us is supported by the authority of Theodorus Lector, who lived in 518, and relates 3 that a picture of the B. Virgin painted by Saint Luke was sent from Jerusalem to the empress Pulcheria, who placed it in the church of Hodegorum which she built in her honour at Constantinople. Moreover, a very ancient inscription was found in a vault near the church of Saint Mary in viâ latâ in Rome, in which it is said of a picture of the B. Virgin Mary, discovered there, “One of the seven painted by Saint Luke.” 4 Three or four such pictures are still in being; the principal is that placed by Paul V. in the Burghesian chapel in Saint Mary Major.

Saint Luke was a proselyte to the Christian religion, but whether from Paganism or rather from Judaism is uncertain; for many Jews were settled at Antioch, but chiefly such as were called Hellenists, who read the Bible in the Greek translation of the Septuagint. Saint Jerom observes from his writings, that he was more skilled in Greek than in Hebrew, and that therefore he not only always makes use of the Septuagint translation, as the other authors of the New Testament who wrote in Greek do, but he refrains sometimes from translating words when the propriety of the Greek tongue would not bear it. Some think he was converted to the faith by Saint Paul at Antioch: others judge this improbable, because that apostle no where calls him his son, as he frequently does his converts. Saint Epiphanius makes him to have been a disciple of our Lord; which might be for some short time before the death of Christ, though this evangelist says, he wrote his gospel from the relations of those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word. 5 Nevertheless, from these words, many conclude that he became a Christian at Antioch only after Christ’s ascension. Tertullian positively affirms that he never was a disciple of Christ whilst he lived on earth. 6 No sooner was he enlightened by the Holy Ghost, and initiated in the school of Christ, but he set himself heartily to learn the spirit of his faith, and to practise its lessons. For this purpose he studied perfectly to die to himself, and, as the Church says of him, “He always carried about in his body the mortification of the cross for the honour of the divine name.” He was already a great proficient in the habits of a perfect mastery of himself, and of all virtues, when he became Saint Paul’s companion in his travels, and fellow-labourer in the ministry of the gospel. The first time that in his history of the missions of Saint Paul 7 he speaks in his own name in the first person, is when that apostle sailed from Troas into Macedon, in the year 51, soon after Saint Barnabas had left him, and Saint Irenæus begins from that time the voyages which Saint Luke made with Saint Paul. 8 Before this he had doubtless been for some time an assiduous disciple of that great apostle; but from this time he seems never to have left him unless by his order upon commissions for the service of the churches he had planted. It was the height of his ambition to share with that great apostle all his toils, fatigues, dangers, and sufferings. In his company he made some stay at Philippi in Macedon; then he travelled with him through all the cities of Greece, where the harvest every day grew upon their hands. Saint Paul mentions him more than once as the companion of his travels; he calls him Luke the beloved physician, 9 his fellow-labourer. 10 Interpreters usually take Lucius, whom Saint Paul calls his kinsman, 11 to be Saint Luke, as the same apostle sometimes gives a latin termination to Silas, calling him Sylvanus. Many with Origen, Eusebius, and Saint Jerom say, that when Saint Paul speaks of his own gospel, 12 he means that of Saint Luke, though the passage may be understood simply of the gospel which Saint Paul preached. He wrote this epistle in the year 57, four years before his first arrival at Rome.

Saint Matthew and Saint Mark had written their gospels before Saint Luke. The devil, who always endeavours to obscure the truth by falsehood, stirred up several to obtrude upon the world fabulous relations concerning Christ, to obviate which Saint Luke published his gospel. In this undertaking some imagine he had also in view to supply some things which had been omitted by the two former; but it does not clearly appear that he had read them, as Calmet and others observe. Tertullian tells us, that this work of the disciple was often ascribed to Saint Paul, who was his master. 13 That apostle, doubtless, assisted him in the task, and approved and recommended it; but Saint Luke mentions others from whom he derived his accounts, who from the beginning had been eye-witnesses of Christ’s actions. He delivered nothing but what he received immediately from persons present at, and concerned in the things which he has left upon record, having a most authentic stock of credit and intelligence to proceed upon, as Tertullian speaks, and being under the direction and influence of the Holy Ghost, from whose express revelation he received whatever he has delivered concerning all divine mysteries, and without whose special assistance and inspiration he wrote not the least tittle, even in his historical narrative. What the ancients aver of the concurrence of Saint Paul in this work, seems to appear in the conformity of their expressions in mentioning the institution of the blessed eucharist, 14 also in relating the apparition of Christ to Saint Peter. 15 Saint Jerom and Saint Gregory Nazianzen tell us, 16 that Saint Luke wrote his gospel in Achaia when he attended Saint Paul preaching there and in the confines of Bœotia. He was twice in these parts with that apostle, in 53 and 58. He must have wrote his gospel in 53, if Saint Paul speaks of it in his epistle to the Romans, as the ancients assure us. Those titles in some Greek manuscripts, which say this gospel was written at Rome during Saint Paul’s first imprisonment, are modern, and seem to confound this book with the Acts of the Apostles.

Saint Luke mainly insists in his gospel upon what relates to Christ’s priestly office; for which reason the ancients, in accommodating the four symbolical representations, mentioned in Ezechiel, to the four evangelists, assigned the ox or calf, as an emblem of sacrifices, to Saint Luke. It is only in the gospel of Saint Luke that we have a full account of several particulars relating to the Annunciation of the mystery of the Incarnation to the Blessed Virgin, her visit to Saint Elizabeth, the parable of the prodigal son, and many other most remarkable points. The whole is written with great variety, elegance, and perspicuity. An incomparable sublimity of thought and diction is accompanied with that genuine simplicity which is the characteristic of the sacred penman; and by which the divine actions and doctrine of our Blessed Redeemer are set off in a manner which in every word conveys his holy spirit, and unfolds in every tittle the hidden mysteries and inexhausted riches of the divine love and of all virtues to those who with an humble and teachable disposition of mind make these sacred oracles the subject of their assiduous devout meditation. The dignity with which the most sublime mysteries, which transcend all the power of words, and even the conception and comprehension of all created beings, are set off without any pomp of expression, has in it something divine; and the energy with which the patience, meekness, charity, and beneficence of a God made man for us, are described, his divine lessons laid down, and the narrative of his life given, but especially the dispassionate manner in which his adorable sufferings and death are related, without the least exclamation or bestowing the least harsh epithet on his enemies, is a grander and more noble eloquence on such a theme, and a more affecting and tender manner of writing than the highest strains or the finest ornaments of speech could be. This simplicity makes the great actions speak themselves, which all borrowed eloquence must extenuate. The sacred penmen in these writings were only the instruments or organs of the Holy Ghost; but their style alone suffices to evince how perfectly free their souls were from the reign or influence of human passions, and in how perfect a degree they were replenished with all those divine virtues and that heavenly spirit which their words breathe.

About the year 56 Saint Paul sent Saint Luke with Saint Titus to Corinth, with this high commendation, that his praise in the gospel resounded throughout all the churches. 17 Saint Luke attended him to Rome, whither he was sent prisoner from Jerusalem in 61. The apostle remained there two years in chains: but was permitted to live in a house which he hired, though under the custody of a constant guard; and there he preached to those who daily resorted to hear him. From ancient writings and monuments belonging to the church of Saint Mary in viâ latâ, which is an ancient title of a cardinal deacon, Baronius 18 and Aringhi 19 tell us, that this church was built upon the spot where Saint Paul then lodged, and where Saint Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles. On this account Sixtus V. caused a statue of Saint Paul to be placed, with a new inscription, upon the famous pillar of Antoninus, in that neighbourhood. Saint Luke was the apostle’s faithful assistant and attendant during his confinement, and had the comfort to see him set at liberty in 63, the year in which this evangelist finished his Acts of the Apostles. This sacred history he compiled at Rome, 20 by divine inspiration, as an appendix to his gospel, to prevent the false relations of those transactions which some published, and to leave an authentic account of the wonderful works of God in planting his church, and some of the miracles by which he confirmed it, and which were an invincible proof of the truth of Christ’s resurrection, and of his holy religion. Having in the first twelve chapters related the chief general transactions of the principal apostles in the first establishment of the church, beginning at our Lord’s ascension, he from the thirteenth chapter, almost confines himself to the actions and miracles of Saint Paul, to most of which he had been privy and an eye-witness, and concerning which false reports were spread. Saint Luke dedicated both this book and his gospel to one Theophilus, who, by the title of Most Excellent, which he gives him, according to the style of those times, must have been a person of the first distinction, and a public magistrate, probably of Antioch, who perhaps was a convert of this evangelist. These books were not intended only for his use, but also for the instruction of all churches, and all succeeding ages. As amongst the ancient prophets the style of Isaias was most elegant and polite, and that of Amos, who had been a shepherd, rough; so that of Saint Luke, by its accuracy and elegance, and the purity of the Greek language, shows the politeness of his education at Antioch: yet it is not wholly free from Hebraisms and Syriacisms. It flows with an easy and natural grace and sweetness, and is admirably accommodated to an historical design.

Saint Luke did not forsake his master after he was released from his confinement. That apostle in his last imprisonment at Rome writes, that the rest had all left him, and that Saint Luke alone was with him. 21 Saint Epiphanius says, 22 that after the martyrdom of Saint Paul, Saint Luke preached in Italy, Gaul, Dalmatia, and Macedon. By Gaul some understand Cisalpine Gaul, others Galatia. Fortunatus and Metaphrastes say he passed into Egypt, and preached in Thebais. Nicephorus says he died at Thebes in Bœotia, and that his tomb was shown near that place in his time; but seems to confound the evangelist with Saint Luke Stiriote, a hermit of that country. Saint Hippolytus says, 23 Saint Luke was crucified at Elæa in Peloponnesus near Achaia. The modern Greeks tell us, he was crucified on an olive tree. The ancient African Martyrology of the fifth age 24 gives him the title of evangelist and martyr. Saint Gregory Nazianzen, 25 Saint Paulinus, 26 and Saint Gaudentius of Brescia, 27 assure us that he went to God by martyrdom. Bede, Ado, Usuard, and Baronius in the Martyrologies only say he suffered much for the faith, and died very old in Bithynia. That he crossed the straits to preach in Bithynia is most probable, but then he returned and finished his course in Achaia; under which name Peloponnesus was then comprised. The modern Greeks say he lived four score and four years: which assertion had crept into Saint Jerom’s account of Saint Luke, 28 but is expunged by Martianay, who found those words wanting in all old manuscripts. The bones of Saint Luke were translated from Patras in Achaia in 357, by order of the emperor Constantius, and deposited in the church of the apostles at Constantinople, 29 together with those of Saint Andrew and Saint Timothy. On the occasion of this translation some distribution was made of the relics of Saint Luke: Saint Gaudentius procured a part for his church at Brescia. 30 Saint Paulinus possessed a portion in Saint Felix’s church at Nola, and with a part enriched a church which he built at Fondi. 31 The magnificent church of the apostles at Constantinople was built by Constantine the Great, 32 whose body was deposited in the porch in a chest of gold, the twelve apostles standing round his tomb. 33 When this church was repaired by an order of Justinian, the masons found three wooden chests, or coffins, in which, as the inscriptions proved, the bodies of Saint Luke, Saint Andrew, and Saint Timothy were interred. 34 Baronius mentions that the head of Saint Luke was brought by Saint Gregory from Constantinople to Rome, and laid in the church of his monastery of Saint Andrew. 35 The ancient picture of Saint Luke, together with all the instruments used formerly in writing, is copied by Montfaucon from old manuscript books of his gospel. 36 Some of his relics are kept in the great Grecian monastery on Mount Athos in Greece.

Christ, our divine Legislator, came not only to be our Model by his example, and our Redeemer by the sacrifice of his adorable blood, but also to be our doctor and teacher by his heavenly doctrine. He who, from the beginning of the world, had inspired and opened the mouths of so many prophets, vouchsafed to become himself our instructor, teaching us what we are to believe, and what we are to do, that through his redemption we may escape eternal torments and attain to everlasting life. With what earnestness and diligence, with what awful respect ought we to listen to, and assiduously meditate upon his divine lessons, which we read in his gospels, or hear from the mouths of his ministers, who announce to us his word, and in his name, or by his authority and commission! As by often iterating the same action the nail is driven into the wood, and not a stroke of the hammer is lost or superfluous; so it is by repeated meditation, that the divine word sinks deep into our hearts. What fatigues and sufferings did it cost the Son of God to announce it to us! How many prophets! how many apostles, evangelists, and holy ministers has he sent to preach the same for the sake of our souls! How intolerable is our contempt of it! our sloth and carelessness in receiving it!

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Luke the Evangelist”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 17 October 2013. Web. 22 September 2014. <>