The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text

Written by I. Howard Marshall Reviewed By Max Turner

I. H. Marshall’s long awaited volume is the first adequately full English commentary on the Greek text of Luke to be written this century. It inaugurates a new series (of which Marshall and W. Ward Gasque will be editors)—the New International Greek Testament Commentary—the purposes of which are several: to encourage students to grapple with the text in the original language; to help them towards a theological understanding of the NT books based on historical-critical-linguistic exegesis; to interact fully with modern scholarship, and to make a contribution to it, while nevertheless offering something less daunting and technical than a full-scale critical commentary.

This first contribution to the series opens (like the commentaries on Luke by Schürmann and Schneider) with only the briefest introduction; students being referred both to M’s own earlier monograph on Luke, and to the more substantial introduction to E. Ellis’ The Gospel of Luke (NCB) for further details. The text is then analysed into major divisions (1:1–4; 1:5–2:52; 3:1–4:13; 4:14–9:50; 9:51–19:10; 19:11–21:38; 22:1–24:53), further subdivided into sections made up of varying numbers of pericopae. Each division, section and pericope is introduced with its own judicious critical discussion which is followed by relevant bibliography and (in the case of the individual pericopae) by detailed exegetical notes.

Three features of this commentary particularly commend it: (1) Marshall’s work evinces a most detailed awareness of the secondary literature written in English, French and German. Over 600 authors are cited in the index and each page witnesses generously to the breadth and depth of his reading and to his grasp of the major issues concerned. His debt to the masters (e.g. Schürmann and Jeremias) is acknowledged; but he is never their slave. For its usefulness as an introduction to the significant literature on a gospel, M’s work is comparable only to R. E. Brown’s commentary on the Fourth Gospel—few are the important works that are not represented in it.

(2) Marshall gives a relatively thorough and even coverage of all the dimensions of study of the gospel traditions. He is actively aware that the tradition about Jesus may have been modified both in the pre-synoptic period and by the evangelist, in order to re-express its significance for new, situations. He therefore has to face historical questions and he must give an adequate tradition-historical and source-critical account. But he is also concerned to know what any tradition meant to Luke; why he has included it in his gospel; why he has included it where he has, and why (if at all) he has reworded the tradition. Marshall is, in other words, keenly interested in redaction criticism, and fully recognizes the important light that the structure of the gospel can shed on the significance of some of its contents, and on its purpose as a whole. (It is only unfortunate that he has not been able to deal with the architectonic studies of Talbert and Radl, which were probably published too late to receive attention.)

(3) The commentary is marked by the scrupulous intellectual honesty that we have come to expect of the author. Problems are met head on; the argument is clean, crisp and fair. Throughout, judgement is judicious and Marshall generally shows a masterly unwillingness to go beyond the evidence. This means he naturally trades more often in probabilities than in certainties (to the annoyance, no doubt, of some: both conservative and ‘liberal’; cf., for example, his handling of the census under Quirinius).

Marshall does not present a startling reappraisal of Luke’s work; in many ways he sounds slightly old-fashioned. For example, he accepts a modified form of the two document hypothesis (allowing for several recensions of Q and for the impact of other strands of oral tradition on the evangelist). He also thinks that Luke is concerned with history as well as theology (and is not merely writing midrash), that ‘redactional’ material does not necessarily mean ‘created’ material; that Luke is not nearly so interested in salvation-history (or with the so-called delay of the parousia) as some would propose, and that Luke quite possibly is the companion of Paul—hardly fashionable views. But M. has every right to share in the comfort Professor Barrett draws from the Durham don who used only to correct his watch on the first of January each year and who, when told that his watch was five hours slow, was wont to reply ‘No. It is not slow; it is seven hours fast’. Dr Marshall’s commentary is liable to prove much more enduring than many of the works his own study has taken to task.

The reviewer’s only fear for this volume is that it might prove too difficult for the very people it was most intended to help—a fear which the writer shares (p. 16). The style and the argument are sometimes so compressed as to be almost indigestible unless the reader is already acquainted with the issues involved. The situation is very seriously aggravated by the decision not to use footnotes. The result is often a most demanding text strewn with parentheses (contrast sharply with The Epistles of John published recently by the same writer!). Setting and proof-reading of this work could not have been easy and we must be grateful that there are not more mistakes—there are, however, a number of these, the most amusing of which (and the most intriguing to explain) is to be found on p. 610. Here we are solemnly informed, in the middle of the parable of the Prodigal Son, ‘the verb ἀπόλλυμι … expresses the heart of the story: the father’s feeling precedes any confession of repentance by the son.… ‘The required verb was, of course, σπλαγχνιζομαι which speaks of a quite different emotion! Perhaps Marshall had too recently read the famous suggestions that in reality a Palestinian father would have slain not the fatted calf, but the prodigal son himself?

On the whole, however, this is a quite excellent work and, if subsequent volumes maintain the standard, this will be a very impressive series indeed; evangelical scholarship at its best.

Max Turner

London Bible College