Luke’s journeys in this life and beyond

Posted in Blog, Christianity

Since 2 June, the Common Worship Lectionary has included a reading from the Gospel of Luke on every Sunday. I have loved this because I am a fan of the way Luke tells the story of Jesus, often using journeys as a device to highlight his message, and intrigued by what he tells us at the beginning of his Gospel about the research he undertook to write his two-volume history. I was also fascinated to hear, in October 2001, about a discovery made by Professor Guido Barbujani which made headlines around the world. The Professor worked at the University of Ferrara in Italy and, after years of research, he decided that the remains contained in an ornate lead coffin in the Basilica of Santa Giustina, in Padua, Italy, were likely to be those of the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts (and fellow-traveller with the Apostle Paul).

Proof that the bones in the coffin were likely to be those of Luke only came about when the Greek Orthodox Church demanded his body back, insisting that although it was probably brought to Padua during the Crusades, Luke died in Thebes, Greece. The coffin had been in Padua since 1172, when it was placed in a marble sarcophagus and kept in the town’s church. It was previously opened in 1562 but remained largely forgotten until 1992, when the bishop of Padua, received the request for its return. He called together a team of experts – among them Prof Barbujani – to work on carbon dating the bones and attempting to verify their authenticity.

In 1998 the 400-year-old seals were cut from the lead coffin and, inside, they found a skeleton without a skull. The skeleton was that of a man of between 70 and 85, about 5ft 4in tall, of a stocky build. The discovery that the remains fitted, anatomically, with a skull in Prague which was said to be that of Luke, aroused the first inklings of hope that the bones were authentic. Prof Barbujani said ‘Radiocarbon dating … indicated that it belonged to someone who died between AD72 and 416BC. We knew that the evangelist, according to ancient sources, was born in Antioch, worked as a doctor and died at 84 in Thebes. The coffin with his remains was taken to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, around 338 and was later moved to Padua.’

Prof Barbujani believes that the coffin was probably taken out of Constantinople for safe keeping, either during the reign of the Emperor Julian, who tried to restore paganism, or during the iconoclast period of the eighth century, when many religious images and objects were destroyed. ‘We were now seriously excited,’ he said. Further analysis indicated Syrian rather than Greek DNA – further evidence that the remains were of Luke.

Carsten Thiede, a professor of New Testament history in Basel, Switzerland, who has conducted extensive work on Christian artefacts, described the discovery as ‘extremely exciting’. He said: ‘We can never prove definitely that this is St Luke. There are just too many elements missing, but the evidence is very encouraging.’

In his 2 volume history Luke seems to have thought of the life of faith as a journey with the Lord Jesus during which he made known the qualities of character he expected from his followers. So Luke often gives important teaching about discipleship in the context of travel narratives: the risen Lord appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus; the Ethiopian eunuch is converted on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza; Paul is converted on the road to Damascus and so on. I feel sure that Dr Luke would approve of the careful research into his own posthumous journeys which Prof Barbujani’s investigations generated!