The example I have in mind is Luke's Gospel, but the question is not about that source in particular, I'm interested in the terms 'primary' and 'secondary' in the technical sense they would be used by a professional historian, not in any other context.

Luke was not written by an eye-witness to most of the events it records, and it is also thought to be partly based on another source (Mark). Do these factors alone disqualify Luke from being understood to be a primary source concerning the life of Jesus?

Of course there are related questions of authorship and the precise date it was written, and my question assumes the author was in contact with actual eyewitnesses, but I'm not interested in Luke-Acts per se, just in the historians definition of 'primary'.

By the definition I found here from princeton.edu, the question would seem to hinge on exactly what is meant by "during the time of study", and "interprets and analyzes":

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources.

Similarly by the definition in this article (in 7. Primary and Secondary Sources) by Marwick, again it seems to depend on the strictness with which "period" is regarded:

Primary sources, as it were, form the basic "raw material" of history; they are sources which came into existence within the period being investigated.

  • Well, "during the time under study" just means the time period you're studying. So if you assume that Luke-Acts was written by someone alive at the time of Jesus then you are assuming it is a primary source for studying the time of Jesus.
    – Semaphore
    Aug 28, 2015 at 3:52
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    Primary sources are central to the study of history; questions about the definition of a primary source ought to be on topic unless there is a strong contravening reason.
    – MCW
    Aug 28, 2015 at 14:00
  • The definition you list citing "during the time under study" is simply wrong and the result of muddled thinking and inexperience by whoever wrote it. There are many primary sources of information (for example the Bible and New Testament, just for starters, see my answer) that document events which occurred long before they were written. Dec 9, 2015 at 16:16
  • @TylerDurden your answer seems eminently sensible to me and I'd accept it in a flash if you'd agree to my request to back it up with references — if that is the way historians define the term, it shouldn't be too difficult to cite sources should it?
    – user2946
    Dec 9, 2015 at 17:50
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    @JackDouglas I am not sure I would characterize it as a lack of agreement, rather a lack of any attention at all. As I mention in my answer most books on historiography do not even have a glossary, considered a standard element by scientific non-fiction writers in other fields. The problem goes way beyond a "definition." Historians need to start looking at information the way intelligence analysts do and create a theory of historical information that has an objective scientific basis. Dec 10, 2015 at 14:54

2 Answers 2


A "primary" source is the first or original source of information about a fact. It has nothing to do with time. Even if an event occurred hundreds of years before, the source is still primary if it is the first or original source of information.

For example, let's imagine Henry Neville (1564 – 1615) wrote a letter in 1594 which said that George Neville (1440 – 1492), one of Henry's ancestors, killed John Beufort at the Battle of Tewksbury (1471). This letter would be a primary source for this fact even though the event occurred over 120 years before the letter was written. If a historian later wrote a book about the War of the Roses and included this fact, citing the letter as evidence, then the book would be a secondary source for the fact. Secondary sources cite primary sources as evidence. Primary sources do not cite any prior sources because they are the first source of information.

Since the New Testament, including the Gospel of Luke, records many facts for the first time, it is a primary source for those facts. In fact, the very name of the Gospels, the New TESTAMENT, indicates the role of the Gospels as a primary source. A testament is the account of a witness. Any account of a witness is a primary source, even if it is written down long after the event being witnessed occurred.

Additional Commentary

(I am writing this additional commentary because some people have been relunctant to accept my apparently novel definition of a primary source.)

First of all, there are very few books on historiography, and those I have read I have found to be universally ill-conceived and illogical. Many of them do not even have glossaries or any definitions of key terms at all. Most books on historiography currently in print have no definition of a primary source at all, and those that do define it only in an ill-considered offhand way as a "eyewitness testimony" or "a contemporary record" both of which are completely incorrect. Many just list "types" of primary sources (newspapers etc) without even defining the term.

Let's take a newspaper, for example. Is that an eyewitness testimony? No. Newspaper reporters arrive AFTER the fact, then question (supposed) eyewitnesses who then tell them all sorts of lies, half-truths and misapprehensions which the reporter then writes down. I have been interviewed many times by newspaper reporters and NEVER even once have these reports either reported my words verbatim or even according to their meaning. Nevertheless, newpaper accounts are considered "primary sources."

Furthermore, most sources of history are written long after the events in question. For example, the Saxon Chronicle, the most single important PRIMARY source of British history is the source for large numbers of events which occurred hundreds of years before the Chronicle was written. The entire fabric of history is written from such sources.

The best definition I have found published for a primary source is that of Aims Community College in Colorado:

A primary source is an original study, document, object, or eyewitness account. In other words, this is the source where any given information first appeared. For instance, if a scientific study is performed, the primary source is the initial report that is prepared by the scientist(s) who performed the research.

It is kind of a joke that a community college got the definition correct, but if you look at handbooks published by Harvard, Yale and Princeton they make incorrect definitions. Maybe some of their professors should take some courses at Aims and learn something.

The underlying problem here is that historians have a very haphazard and unanalytical approach to studying history (compared to intelligence analysts, e.g.) and consequently their own definitions and understanding of information analysis is lacking, something pointed out by von Ranke over 150 years ago, and Gibbon before that. A book needs to be written on information analysis that clearly spells out how to systematically analyze and assimilate information. Unfortunately, that book is not yet written.

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    Interesting. I was under the (possibly mistaken) belief that primary sources are sources of information that were created during the time under study.
    – CGCampbell
    Aug 29, 2015 at 3:29
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    @CGCampbell all the online definitions I've found suppport that belief, but this answer would certainly be a logical way of defining the terms too. If this is the (or a) usual technical use of the term it shouldn't be hard to back it up with a source or two, which I hope Tyler will do.
    – user2946
    Aug 29, 2015 at 10:34
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    Sorry downvote from me. This definition of primary (being original not derived) is not the usual one in history. Dec 9, 2015 at 12:03
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    @TheHonRose I didn't say that it was. Dec 10, 2015 at 8:50
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    @TylerDurden You seemed to imply that, because you were misquoted, the report should not be considered primary. Whether or not it is does not depend on its veracity. Fox News and the BBC would probably report the same event very differently - we use judgement to decide which version we "trust" most - if either.
    – TheHonRose
    Dec 10, 2015 at 16:34

assuming the author was in contact with actual eyewitnesses

This assumption makes the question dreck, as the question contains the answer within itself. Going then, from the question, assuming that Luke-Acts are a primary source, Luke-Acts are then a primary source.

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    It also depends on the context of what you are sourcing. The same work can be either a primary or a secondary source. For example, Luke-Acts may be a primary source in reference to what the attitudes of the authors of the New Testament are, but a secondary source in reference to events that it describes.
    – Comintern
    Aug 28, 2015 at 3:11
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    As a result of the change in the question (which I consider to be minor) and the bounce back from the hermeneutics stack exchange I'll be providing a different more extensive answer. Aug 29, 2015 at 12:59

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