Who was “Theophilus,” that New Testament man of mystery?

Who was “Theophilus,” that New Testament man of mystery? December 22, 2015



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. This was a personal name in use in those times, as the prior paragraph indicates. And O’Toole reports that such formal dedications in other literature from that era usually referred to real persons.

The only clue about him is that “most excellent” phrase. Joseph Tyson of Southern Methodist University notes that “Hellenistic authors sometimes dedicated their books to patrons, benefactors, or persons who had an interest in the subject matter.” Many suppose he was the patron who paid to have the Gospel copied by scribes and distributed. If so he’s a V.I.P. in Christian history.

The formal and exalted form of address implies Theophilus was “socially respected, and probably well off,” says Georgetown University’s Joseph Fitzmyer. The late F.F. Bruce of the University of Manchester thought “most excellent” may “denote a member of the equestrian order (possibly in some official position) or may be a courtesy title,” possibly for “a representative of that class of Roman society which Luke wished to influence in favor of the gospel.”

Was Theophilus a Christian?  Some see a hint that he was merely a seeker or friend of the faith, figuring that a devout Christian wouldn’t have wanted to lift himself above spiritual brothers and sisters with such a grand title. Fitzmyer  thinks he “may have been a catechumen or Christian neophyte.” The late Raymond Brown of Union Theological Seminary saw an addressee “who believed in Jesus or was attracted to what was preached about him.”

And that’s pretty much everything the experts have to tell us.

Sidelight: The New Testament records the same honorific for two procurators who governed Judea, and whose dates help fix early Christian chronology. Lysian addressed “his excellency” Felix (Acts 23:26), who ruled in A.D. 53 – 60. Paul called Felix’s successor the “most excellent” Festus (in office A.D. 60 – 62, see Acts 26:25). The florid title is especially bizarre for Felix, who illicitly wed a neighboring king’s wife (per Josephus), took bribes, hated religious Jews, and practiced crucifixion and “all manner of cruelties and excesses” (per Tacitus). Felix was so odious the Emperor Nero recalled him to Rome and he only escaped severe punishment for his misconduct through family connections.

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