Scripture Sketches.

15. "Religio Medici."

1894 47 The Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, are unique in this: — that they are books of important historical events, in many of which the writer took part; vet the writer never once alludes to himself as having done or witnessed anything whatever — does not even mention his own name or existence; and the only way in which he allows us to hear of his presence is where he changes the pronoun occasionally from "they" to "we." (Acts xvi. 8-10.) This is a kind of modesty altogether unexampled in literature, and indeed is only to be accounted for on the ground of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Of course, when we admit a writing to be inspired, we cannot very well either praise or blame the human writer for the nature of it. He is merely an instrument in the hand of the divine Author, Who is absolutely responsible. Yet it is very beautiful to see with what delicacy and propriety the inspired scriptures have been written by their human authors. Each has his different style too: that of Luke is admired by scholars for its "classic and flexible Greek."

One sign of the essential brutality of the Roman rule was the low place they assigned to those who sought to cure, in contrast with the high honours paid to those whose mission was to slay. With the Greeks it was not so, but with all the western nations to the present time we observe the same principle. Earldoms, Dukedoms, Blenheims, Apsley Houses, and thousands on thousands a year are heaped upon successful naval and military men; whilst Harveys, Hunters, Simpsons, and Jenners, who have done more to alleviate human suffering than even those have done to inflict it, die unnobled, — sometimes in poverty and obscurity. But this anomaly was very much greater in ancient Rome, where anyone above the plebeians considered it beneath his dignity to be a physician and consequently had one of his slaves, often a Greek or Egyptian, trained to doctoring, and would sometimes set him free if his treatment were successful.

This however could not have been very often, except by accident, if we may judge by the prescriptions which have come down to us. Even in comparatively recent times (I quote a distinguished physician), "sick people were made to swallow burnt toads, and powdered earth-worms, and the expressed juice of wood-lice." We read in history that, when Charles II. was dying, they dosed him with "a loathsome volatile salt extracted from human skulls. Hot irons were applied to his head. Fourteen doctors tortured him for some hours like an Indian at a stake." Such considerations as these help us to understand the otherwise surprising fact that when Paul, speaking in the period of the iron Roman rule, mentions that Luke was a physician, the beloved physician, scholars instantly surmise that he may have been a freed slave. Though he belonged to an honourable profession, it was then by no means an honoured one. And here again, we find the dignity of Christianity which ignores and rises far above local prejudices, narrow caste-hatreds, and class antipathies. Matthew is a tax collector; Zenas a lawyer; Luke a physician: Philemon a "capitalist," and Onesimus a slave.

Luke had been with the disciples from the very first, an eye-witness and minister of the Word;* and he wrote two long important canonical scriptures. Yet had it not been that the apostle Paul in his Epistles makes honourable and affectionate mention of his services, we should not have known of his existence: so completely had he kept his own name and personality out of the record of a long series of the most important events in the world's history, in the whole of which events he had been more or less personally concerned. Let us consider this fact for a moment. Competent judges have said that the finest biography in the world was Boswell's Life of Johnson, and that it was so chiefly because the writer had so completely merged his own individuality in that of the sage whom he was so faithfully portraying that he never places himself but always his leader in a favourable light, and only makes himself a foil to reveal the wisdom and capacity of the subject of his biography. Boswell often stands in so humiliating an aspect that his son was ashamed of the book and would have prevented its being reprinted had he been able. Yet it is certain that Boswell had no thought that he had made any ridiculous appearance in the pages where his vanity urged him to obtrude himself so frequently.

* Luke i. 2, 3. [Luke does not say that he was either, but that such delivered the facts to us; and that he had traced up all things from the outset or origin. Ed.]

Now contrast this with a memoir like that of Luke's Gospel and Acts, where the writer never suggests his own existence at all, except where he changes the pronoun. But contrast Luke's record especially with the records of writers belonging to his own time. Take for instance Josephus, who commences his Jewish histories by telling us what a highly respectable family he himself came from, and how exceedingly clever and good-looking he was when he was a boy. It is an essential of Paley's great argument on the evidences of Christianity that the first disciples were not fanatical men nor enthusiasts. And certainly their writings stand out as the most sober and modestly constructed that are in the world.

But the fact of chief interest concerning Luke is contained in the last letter which Paul wrote just before being put to death. (2 Tim. iv. 11.) He had written to the Colossians a short time previously an epistle in which he incidentally mentions that he is in prison at Rome and that "Luke, the beloved physician," Demas, Aristarchus, and one or two others were with him. "These only are my fellow-workers, unto the kingdom of God," he says, "which have been a comfort unto me." These circumstances were terribly low for them, to be in in the centre of civilisation after thirty years of incessant labours and sufferings to promulgate Christianity. But after a time even these last few fellow-workers were scattered. Some had been called away by duty or by death, and others like Demas had fallen away from the truth. The assemblies which still existed were getting either lukewarm like the Laodiceans, or legal and contentious like the Galatians, where they spent their time adjusting, in the method of angry theologians the respective rights of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Every thing was discouraging to the last degree. It is nothing to be in a small minority at the beginning of a testimony: for every true principle "begins in a minority of one," and carries with it hope, which is the birthright of youth. But when a testimony has been proclaimed and in a measure accepted; next neglected, discredited, and deserted by its own advocates; then all is discouragement, dragged down by disappointment which is the weary burden of age.

In that day of disastrous failure, and horrible despondency, Luke in his quiet and modest obscurity, "true as the dial to the sun, although it be not shined upon," still faithfully kept his ground, like that nameless sentinel of Pompeii who refused to leave his post when the ruins of his city were falling around him. Paul writes in his last lines, "only Luke is with me." And these are indeed affecting words, bringing before our minds the two old scholars, in the centre of the vast world-empire standing alone for the testimony of God and truth, with their bodies battered and withered by sufferings and labours, and their souls filled with the love of Christ.

We read of one who when the whole creation is collapsing shall lift up his head, and "the darkening universe defy to quench his immortality, or shake his trust in God." After Varro's disastrous defeat, the Roman senate showed the mettle of their stern and resolute spirit, by voting to him (though he was their political enemy) their thanks, "because he had not despaired of the commonwealth." And now there was one standing amongst them, whose nature they might have appreciated, had he not been too obscure for them to have known. Though we can think indeed of no defiant attitude in connection with Luke, we can see him there to the very last in his quiet, patient, dogged fidelity, "too kind for bitter word to grieve, too firm for clamour to dismay"; — going on, as the French General Foy's men went to their great defeat, "with little hope, but with no fear."