Who was 'Theophilus,' that New Testament man of mystery?


Luke addressed the books of Luke and Acts to Theophilus, but who is he?


Theophilus is a very important person in the New Testament, yet we know next to nothing about him.  If, that is, he was an actual person at all rather than some sort of symbol.  The only information 1st Century history has to offer comes in the introductions to two biblical books:

* “It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed . . .” (Luke 1:3-4)

This is the only one of the four Gospels with this sort of dedication.

* “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach . . . ” (Acts 1:1).

These two mentions of Theophilus are a major reason for experts’ consensus that Luke and Acts are linked as volumes 1 and 2 and almost certainly the work of the same author, a view supported by similarities of style and thought.  

Who was that writer? The third Gospel itself is anonymous. But 2nd Century texts preserve the tradition that he was Luke, a Gentile Christian perhaps from Syria.  He is called Paul’s “fellow worker” (Philemon 24) and companion (2 Timothy 4:11) and “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14). No author other than Luke has been proposed.

Now, turning to Theophilus, Luke and Acts are formally addressed to that one name but these books obviously were not private communications but intended for a wide audience. Analysts have proposed three options on identity:

Since Theophilus means “friend” or “lover” of God, some have theorized that this wasn’t the name of an actual person but a symbol for all God-lovers who wish to learn more about the history of Jesus (book 1) with added information about church origins (book 2). Henry Wansbrough, a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Biblical Commission, thought “we can never know whether there was a real person.”

Others propose that  this was a pseudonym, made up to shield the identity of some Roman or Jewish individual who would have been in trouble if his interest in Christian “things” became known.

Robert O’Toole of St. Louis University lists persons who’ve been suggested, all of them totally speculative: The brother-in-law of that name of Caiaphas, high priest during Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 3:2); an Athens official with that name who was convicted of perjury; Syria’s prominent Bishop Theophilus; Proconsul Sergius Paulus of Cyprus, mentioned in Acts 13; Proconsul Lucius Gallio of Corinth, from Acts 18; Titus Flavius Clemens, brother of the Emperor Vespasian who was probably beheaded due to his Christian faith; or King Herod Agrippa II (“almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian,” Acts 26:28).

Option three, by far the choice of scholarly consensus, is that Theophilus was the actual name of a man who is otherwise unknown to us.

Continue reading "Who was 'Theophilus,' that New Testament man of mystery?" by Richard Ostling.

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