In reading Luke, especially in sequence with the other Gospels, some features of his Greek stand out. There are some words and turns of phrases that are characteristic of Luke over against the other Gospels, like his use of ἐπιστάτης as a term the disciples routinely call Jesus (only in Luke: 5:5; 8:24, 45; 9:33, 49; 17:13). One noteworthy difference is that Luke betrays a degree of influence of “literary” language which is absent in the other Gospels. This is also true of Acts, the second work of Luke, only to an even higher degree. Comparing Acts and Gospel of Luke, Acts seems less septuagintal in style, which is not surprising given the difference in content—such as discourses on salvation, official letters, and oral defenses before heads of state. The style of Acts deserves its own treatment, and this brief examination will focus only on the Gospel of Luke.
Here I will briefly highlight four features of the Gospel of Luke which give it a more “literary” flavor: the introduction, the optative mood, the ποιεῖσθαι + accusative construction, and the use of the verbal adjective.[i]
1. The Introduction
Luke 1.1-4 is a well-styled complex sentence. The main verb of the sentence is the 24th word and is found at the beginning of v. 3. It is preceded by two robust subordinate clauses and followed by one more (v. 4). Stylized introductions of this sort were common features in Greek works of history.[ii] A stylized historical introduction is unique to Luke among the Gospels. In this introduction Luke displays a command of Greek which he quickly diverges from. Verse 5 begins with ἐγἐνετο, a characteristic way to begin passages in narratives in the LXX under the influence of Hebrew ויהי. Luke uses this feature regularly which, along with some other features, gives the impression that Luke is intentionally styling the Gospel of Luke after the narratives in the Old Testament, especially as conveyed in the LXX translation.
2. The Optative
The most distinctive literary feature of Luke, over and against the other Gospels, is Luke’s usage of the optative mood. The optative mood is used 13x total in the Gospels—11 of which are in Luke (Luke 1:29, 38, 62; 3:15; 6:11; 8:9; 9:46; 15:26; 18:36; 20:16; 22:23). The other two instances in the Gospels are Mark 11.14 and John 13.24:
Mark 11.14 Καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτῇ· μηκέτι εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ἐκ σοῦ μηδεὶς καρπὸν φάγοι. καὶ ἤκουον οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ.
John 13.24 νεύει οὖν τούτῳ Σίμων Πέτρος πυθέσθαι τίς ἂν εἴη περὶ οὗ λέγει.
Mark 11.14 uses the optative in a so-called optative of wish (aka, optative of obtainable wish, volitive optative) use to express an wish in the form of an oath, which is a common usage of the optative that still had currency in Koine.[iii] A similar usage can be found in Luke 1:38 and 20:16. The other 9 uses in Luke can be grouped together under the name oblique optative. Wallace’s explanation is helpful here:
The optative may be used in indirect questions after a secondary tense (i.e., one that takes the augment—aorist, imperfect, pluperfect). The optative substitutes for an indicative or subjunctive of the direct question.Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 483
What stands out about this usage is that it is a syntactically, rather than semantically driven. Assuming the optative’s basic meaning is “wish,” this usage does not participate in any meaningful way in the semantics of the optative. There is a limited set of syntactic situations where this usage is triggered as possible. Using the oblique optative is a choice to use the optative in a way that is not semantically driven and that appears to have largely disappeared from normal usage, as attested by it being largely absent from the papyri and restricted to Luke in the NT.[iv] This all suggests that Luke’s using the optative in this way is a product of learned literary writing.
3. ποιεῖσθαι + accusative
Another more literary feature which pops up in Gospel of Luke is the periphrastic idiom in which a middle form of the verb ποιεῖν appears with an accusative noun conveying the idea which a form of the related verb would convey. The explanation sounds far more confusing than the reality is. In the lexicon the meaning is given as to complete, bring into effect, carry out, perform, do “something”.[v]
This construction appears with notable frequency in more literary works such as 2 Maccabees and writers such as Lucian. Recently I noticed that Justin Martyr, in his Apology, makes use of this construction just about every time he gets the chance. He is certainly more literary than the writings in the NT. I don’t know the usage constraints of the construction (any specific verbs or verb classes) if there are any.
Luke uses of this construction twice (5.33 and 13.22):
5.33 Οἱ δὲ εἶπαν πρὸς αὐτόν· οἱ μαθηταὶ Ἰωάννου νηστεύουσιν πυκνὰ καὶ δεήσεις ποιοῦνται ὁμοίως καὶ οἱ τῶν Φαρισαίων, οἱ δὲ σοὶ ἐσθίουσιν καὶ πίνουσιν.
13.22 Καὶ διεπορεύετο κατὰ πόλεις καὶ κώμας διδάσκων καὶ πορείαν ποιούμενος εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα.
Both of these passages are unique to Luke’s Gospel. In 5.33 δεήσεις ποιοῦνται is equivalent to the verb δέονται, from the verb δέομαι “to ask, pray.” Likewise, the passage in 13.22 could have been written with πορευόμενος, from the verb πορεύομαι “to go, travel.” These two instances give further light attestation to a more literary ring in Luke than the other Gospels.
4. The verbal adjective
Lastly, Luke also avails himself of the verbal adjective in -τεος (not to be confused with the participle, which is usually described as a verbal adjective). The verbal adjective, more used in Classical times, is largely fossilized in Hellenistic Greek. It occurs only once in the NT, in a saying of Jesus:
Luke 5.38 ἀλλ’ οἶνον νέον εἰς ἀσκοὺς καινοὺς βλητέον[vi]
Yet again, Luke provides a lightly literary flavor by using a turn of phrase that has largely faded from the non-literary language.
Luke’s Gospel in general reads much like the other Gospels. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, there are traces of a more literary style which pop up here and there in the Gospel. By no means is the work “literary” as a whole, but it does bear some features which set it aside as more polished and more “educated” than the other Gospels.
[i] By no means am I implying that the Gospel of Luke is a literary text; it is not. Anyone who has tried to read literary Greek will easily see how wide a gulf there is between Gospel of Luke and literary texts. However, the Gospel of Luke does betray literary leanings which are not to be seen in the other Gospels.
[ii] A later and more extreme example of this can be found in Eusebius Church History. The first sentence is 166 words long and the main verb is the 154th word!
[iii] “This use of the mood is well attested in the Ptolemaic papyri, and continued to be marked in the Roman and Byzantine papyri” Basil G. Mandilaras, The Verb in the Greek Non-Literary Papyri (Athens: Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sciences, 1973), sec. 627.
[iv] Mandilaras, The Verb in the Greek Non-Literary Papyri, sec. 651.
[vi] Mark 2.22 has a well-attested variant with the same reading. Matthew 9.17 has the same variant but with extremely weak attestation.