The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, vol. 1: The Gospel according to Luke

Written by Robert C. Tannehill Reviewed By Craig L. Blomberg

For the last decade a major paradigm shift in the academic study of Scripture has been in the making, especially in North America. Scholars are increasingly asking literary rather than historical questions of the text. OT criticism is now replete with such studies, which primarily examine the final form of a given book, asking questions about narrative unity, plot, character development, conflict, and the like. NT scholarship has just begun to show interest in this type of literary criticism, but the spate of studies which has appeared in the last few years suggests that many are trying to make up for lost time. Robert Tannehill, of the Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio, has already distinguished himself in this movement with several previous works; his current offering, still only half-complete, may just be the finest exemplar of this scholarly genre to date. And while relatively technical, it is eminently readable.

Partially paralleling the structure of Luke itself, Tannehill begins by considering the details of the gospel in chronological/narrative sequence but then shifts to a series of thematic studies. He begins by tracing how Luke sets the stage in his infancy narrative for the key themes which will recur throughout the two-volume work. The most significant of these is the offer of the Messianic kingdom to Israel which they will ultimately, though perhaps only temporarily, reject. The tone of Luke-Acts thus reflects increasing tragedy and irony in this development. Nevertheless God is not restricted by human opposition; he sovereignly establishes his church, to save both Jew and Gentile, not only in spite of but even by means of Israel’s antagonism.

While the stage is set for all of these themes in chs. 1–2, Lk. 3 proceeds to introduce the ministries of first John and then Jesus (as parallel prophets of the new covenant) with much optimism, as each receives widespread popular acclaim. As the gospel progresses, however, the seeds of conflict and rejection grow; by 11:14ff. key Jewish leaders are locked into positions of open combat. One of the crucial aspects of Jesus’ ministry which has triggered hostility is his openness to the oppressed and excluded of Jewish society. Jesus’ proclamation of release for such ‘captives’ appears as the programmatic manifesto of his mission (4:16–30); this release combines freedom from material deprivation (through the sharing of goods by the community of Christ’s followers), demonic bondage and the slavery of sin. So after taking us sequentially through the first five-plus chapters of Luke, Tannehill inserts a transitional survey of Jesus’ ministry to the outcast and then turns to a series of topical studies of the growing disillusionment of the crowds, the increasing conflict from the authorities, and the cycles of insight and misunderstanding by the disciples. A brief chapter on Lk. 24 demonstrates both the closure and open-endedness of the gospel, as both Luke and Tannehill prepare their second volumes.

A short review simply cannot do justice to the wealth of detail and breadth of coverage of secondary literature found here. For the Lucan specialist, there is little that is new, but it is impressively organized under one cover. For the less advanced student this is a ‘state-of-the-art’ report which needs little supplementation. Of course more traditional historical-critical investigations are not dead, and one will by definition find almost nothing of that nature here. But for this very reason many typical evangelical concerns do not arise with this kind of book. One might wish that Tannehill were committed to more than simply ‘helping modern readers comprehend the breadth and depth of this Lukan vision so that they can decide whether it is still attractive to them’ (p. 23), but one can fault very few of the interpretations of that vision actually presented. In fact on the crucial issue of the role of the Jews in Luke’s view of salvation, Tannehill is much more persuasive than either of the competing poles of Jervell and Conzelmann: neither Jew nor Gentile has priority in the church, and even by the end of Acts it is uncertain which direction the mission will take next.

Craig L. Blomberg

Craig L. Blomberg
Denver Seminary
Denver, Colorado, USA