St Luke the Physician
Today (18th October) is St Luke’s day. Christian tradition associates the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles with Paul’s companion, Luke, referred to in the letter to the Colossians as, “Luke, the beloved physician” (Col 4.14).
Medicine in the ancient world was, of course, very different from what it is today. The physicians of Luke’s day didn’t have our understanding of chemistry and physiology, and without the advantage of the microscope, had no means of seeing and identifying the microorganisms that cause infection. Ancient medicine was, it’s probably fair to say, largely a matter of trial and error (sadly for many patients of the time, quite a lot of error). But there are some similarities between the physicians of the ancient world and those of today – they had to be able to make observations, ask questions and know how to interpret the evidence that their observations and the answers to their questions provided. Still today, doctors use observations of a patient’s condition and ask questions about the symptoms he or she is experiencing to help them make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment.
If we accept that Luke the physician mentioned in the letter to the Colossians is the same Luke who wrote the gospel, then it seems that he brought his medical training and experience to his faith and the record that he made of the early days of the Church. Luke’s Gospel begins with the words:
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1.1-4, NRSV).
Luke notes the material that is already in existence, and then sets about doing his own investigation, so as to see the evidence first-hand, check the facts, present them in an orderly manner and thereby share the truth of what he has learned. It’s a very systematic and scientific way of going about it.
The idea that Christians are asked to accept the claims of the faith and simply believe without questioning or investigating the facts on which our beliefs are based couldn’t be further from the truth. Right from the beginning, Christianity has involved testing the claims of faith, checking the facts, asking questions and searching for evidence. St Luke, physician and evangelist, gives us a clear example of this in the way he goes about researching his gospel. That alone is reason to celebrate him and his contribution to Christianity.