Monday, May 19, 2008

Theophilus, Most Honored Theophilus

While I was always designated a great reader in school I didn’t always comprehend what I read. It was always the small, seemingly insignificant things I would gloss over and miss.

Often those things are the most interesting.

For example, here’s the text from the first chapter of Luke, verses 1 through 4:

Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed.

Glossing over the text Luke explains that he knows he isn’t the first one to recount the events from the Earthly life of Jesus, isn’t the first to use eyewitness accounts, and explains he has been careful in his research to provide the best account

Notice, however, Luke is writing to someone in particular……someone named Theophilus. Well, after numerous times of reading Luke I’m finally ready to clue in on the character of Theophilus.
Who is Luke writing to?

There are many theories that seem plausible, but there is no definitive answer.

First of all when you study any passage of the Bible the meaning behind someone’s name can explain a lot. Depending on the source you use Theophilus means “lover of God”, “loved by God”, or “friend of God”. Since all scholars pretty much agree that Luke and Acts were written in Koine Greek there is no argument regarding what the name signifies.

A quick look at a concordance reveals that Luke also referred to Theophilus at the beginning of the Book of Acts as well: I wrote the first narrative, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day He was taken up, after He had given orders through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom He had chosen (Acts 1: 1-2).

It would seem that Theophilus is not a pagan because the fourth verse states he has already received basic instruction. The word used in the original Greek is katechethes, and it means that Theophilus received the basic instruction given by the Christian Church in those days. Apollos is another person mentioned in the New Testament that received religious instruction (Acts 18: 24-25)

So, was Luke merely attempting to give Theophilus more background knowledge?

Other sources state the name Theophilus was often used as an honorary title in the Jewish and Roman world. Many state Luke would not have have used the title “most honorable” for a Jew, but would have used the titles for a wealthy realtive of Ceasar, a wealthy benefactor, or some important Roman official (see the reference to Titus Flavius Sabinus II below). Other sources conjecture the name was made up in order to keep the identity of the person Luke was writing to a secret.

From Wikipedia we learn that:

*Coptic tradition asserts that Theophilus was a person and not an honorary title, and he is identified as being a Jew of Alexandria

*Some believe the name was a simple honorary title in academia…..anyone fits the description if they are reading Luke or Acts…..I’m Theophilus and so are you.

*Other believe Theophilus was Paul’s lawyer during his trial period in Rome.

* Others point to Theophilus ben Ananus, High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem from 37-41 A.D. In this tradition Theophilus would have been both a kohen and a Sadducee. Adherents claim that Luke, unlike Acts, was targeted at Sadducee readers. That would make him the son of Annas and brother-in-law of Caiaphas, raised in the Jewish Temple This might explain a few features of Luke. He begins the story with an account of Zacharias the righteous priest who had a Temple vision of an angel (
Luke 1: 5-25). Luke quickly moves to account Mary's purification (niddah), Jesus' Temple redemption (pidyon ha-ben) rituals (Luke 2: 21-39), and then to Jesus Temple teaching when he was twelve (2: 46). He makes no mention of Caiaphas' role in Jesus' crucifixion and emphasizes Jesus' literal resurrection (Luke 24: 39). (Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.)

*Another tradition claims the Theophilus was a converted Roman official, possibly Titus Flavius Sabinus II, a former Prefect of Rome and older brother of future Roman Emperor Vespasian, owing to the honorific, “most excellent” (
Luke 1:3). As Titus Flavius Sabinus, Theophilus is given a crucial role in the historical novel The Flames of Rome by Paul Maier, where is is given the dedication of the “Gospel of Luke” and “Acts of the Apostles” by Luke the Evangelist. Maier’s extensive research into Biblical and archaeological intertextuality lend credence to this theory, as evidenced in the footnotes of the book. He also ties Titus Flavius Sabinus to Aulus Pautius and his wife Omponia Graecina by marriage, the latter of whom is by scholars presumed to have converted to Christianity, and who possibly used her son-in-law’s status as Lord Mayor of Rome to try to protect Paul while he was under house arrest during his first stay in Rome. As the Apostle Luke was believed to be with Paul at the time, it is indeed plausible that in gratitude to Sainus for the kindness shown to Paul during his imprisonment, Luke considered Sabinus to be a friend of God, based on Christ’s words that “Verily I say to you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it until me.” (Matthew 24:40) To honor Sabinus while protecting him from the prosecution of Christians and those who sympathized with them under the tyrannical rule of the Emperor Nero, it is postulated that Luke encoded the dedication in Acts.

I firmly believe that the Bible has hidden messages for each of us that are revealed only when we need them most. This means I didn’t notice the name Theophilus until I was meant to…..After becoming a bit intrigued with the name and conducting a little research does it really matter who Theophilus was?

As a historian exploring who Theophilus was is an interesting journey. As a child of God what matters is how I relate Luke’s account….an account clearly written for Theophilus, to my own life.

4 comments: said...

i have been researching the identity of theophilus for sometime now and have come to my own conclusions about the identity of theophilus. I do believe, whether it was an actual person in the time of luke or not, that we all have to be searchers in the TRUTH. make physical and mental sacrifices, and in Luke's case be un-relenting in our search. Luke was possibly the greatest historian and investigative reporter to ever walk the planet.

Joanne McCulloch said...

I share your belief that Theophilus, which means "lover of God" as you explain, is a code name for anyone who is a true lover of God. And since that is who I am, I, like you, am the feminine. Thank you for your web site and wonderful research and information.

Anonymous said...

What if Theophilus exists today? would you be surprised?

Anonymous said...

After looking at Luke 23:43, this is a clue as to who Theophilus is, for Luke did leave a clue, when speaking about the two robbers being crucified with Jesus Christ, when Jesus replied to the robber ye shall be with me in paradise,the word paradise is only use for those of the Islamic religion, so we see that other religions were there during this time.

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