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Who was Theophilus? – Thoughts on the Preface of the Gospel of Luke

In the excellent work of historical fiction, The Lost Letters of Pergamum, Prof. Bruce Longenecker has Luke, a companion of Paul, engaging in correspondence with Antipas, a nobleman of the city of Pergamum. Sometime in the early 90s, Luke happens to make Antipas’ acquaintance as he is caring for the household of the traveling Calpurnius – a nobleman of Ephesus. Calpunius, as it turns out, is the son of Theophilus – the nobleman of Ephesus who commissioned and supported Luke’s literary efforts.

Though obviously fictional, that Theophilus was a man of standing and associate of Luke is quite plausible. Luke says as much in his preface:


Luke 1:3: It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus....

Because the name “Theophilus” roughly means “beloved of God,” some have argued that there really was no Theophilus – that the term is meant to symbolize all Christians. Origen concluded this. But Origen concluded a lot of strange things and is famous for his highly metaphoric approach to the scriptures. More importantly, however, “the address to [Theophilus] with the vocative 'most excellent' seems to indicate a specific person of high social standing." Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9.50, page 63. The phrase “most excellent” need not denote nobility, but it certainly indicates a person of high social standing (something most Christians were not).

Further, the literary characteristics of the preface indicate that Theophilus is a real person. “[I]n view of the formal character of the preface and the conventional practice of ascribing treatises to notable people, it is much more natural to regard Theophilus as a real person." Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, page 109. In other words, when writers wrote such prefaces they referred to real people. Josephus – perhaps Luke’s closest literary colleague – did so for Antiquities and Against Apion. Given the similar genres and prefaces, the most reasonable conclusion is that Luke – like Josephus and others – was referring to a real person in his preface.

Finally, we should not make too much of the name “Theophilus” meaning “beloved of God.” Most names have some sort of "deeper" meaning. To take a modern day example, my name is Christopher. It means follower of Christ. And I also happen to be a real-life follower of Christ. Of course this is not entirely coincidental. My parents – fine Christian people – picked the name at least in part because of its meaning. Similarly, if – as seems likely – Gentile associates of Luke were god-fearers, the name Theophilus makes perfect sense. And, in fact, “Theophilus occurs as a personal name from the third century B.C. onward." F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, page 98.

In conclusion, the evidence of history leaves little reason to doubt that the author of the Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles dedicated his two works to a Gentile of high social standing.

1 comments:

Who was Theophilus? – Thoughts on the Preface of the Gospel of Luke

That Theophilus was a man of standing is quite plausible.
Darrell Bock concludes that the “the address to [Theophilus] with the vocative 'most excellent' seems to indicate a specific person of high social standing." Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9.50, page 63. The phrase “most excellent” need not denote nobility, but it certainly indicates a person of high social standing (something most Christians were not).

Further, the literary characteristics of the preface indicate that Theophilus is a real person. “[I]n view of the formal character of the preface and the conventional practice of ascribing treatises to notable people, it is much more natural to regard Theophilus as a real person." Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, page 109. In other words, when writers wrote such prefaces they referred to real people. Josephus – perhaps Luke’s closest literary colleague – did so for Antiquities and Against Apion. Given the similar genres and prefaces, the most reasonable conclusion is that Luke – like Josephus and others – was referring to a real person in his preface.

“Theophilus occurs as a personal name from the third century B.C. onward." F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, page 98.
I accept the above conclusions expressed by layman. I do not think the evidence supports the further conclusions made.
Instead I would suggest that Luke wrote to a Jewish person of high social standing but I am going to present my argument in reverse order. [citations omitted]
I offer as an hypothesis that the "Theophilus" mentioned twice in Luke-Acts is the same as the one mentioned by Josephus and thus is the Jew who served as high priest from 37 - 41 C.E. I believe that the evidence that I have assembled demonstrate the truth of this assertion. As you will observe, Johanna, a relatively unknown person in the Gospel of Luke is the key to understanding the identity of most excellent Theophilus.

[My initial “Theophilus: A Proposal” published in 1997 did not include this new evidence but instead relied upon Josephus & the internal evidence of Luke-Acts.]

It is important to note that there is an ossuary (bone box) with an inscription thereon identifying the bones as those of Johanna, granddaughter of Theophilus, the High Priest, details of which were published in IEJ. Secondly the names, Johanna and Theophilus, only appears in the Gospel of Luke. Thirdly, the second mention in Luke 24:8-11 appears in a chiastic structure. Without this additional information there would be no way to demonstrate the connection between the Theophilus and Johanna of Luke and the Theophilus mentioned by Josephus with the ossuary.

What role did chiastic structures play with respect to an author such as Luke? It permitted Luke to access very early tradition which was structured in such a way as to facilitate accurate transmission. This is particularly true of the material contained in the early chapters of Luke. In considering whether or not Jesus is the creator of the parables it is important to remember what Matthew Black said: 'Jesus did not commit anything to writing, but by His use of poetic form and language He ensured that His sayings would not be forgotten.' Likewise, the use of chiastic structures permitted Luke to organize his material consistent with the thought process of the first recipient.

With this background, one can now understand the significance of the chiastic structure of Luke 24:8-11 and 24:13-35. The importance of Johanna is revealed through a literary device, the chiasmus. Lee Dahn, my research assistant, not only noted that Luke 24:8-11 is a chiasmus but also that Johanna is the center and climax of the chiasmus. This point is highlighted by the chiastic pattern of the text itself. Recall that a chiasmus is a literary device that arranges words and ideas into two parallel and inverted passages, with an odd member placed at the vertex, where the two passages intersect (ABCB'A'). Consider verses 8-11 in this light:

A they remembered his words

B the Eleven

C the others/rest (same Greek as C')

D Mary Magdalene

X Joanna

D' Mary, mother of James

C' the other/rest of the women (see Greek of C)

B' the Apostles

A' they did not believe these words

Johanna was previously identified in Lk 8:3 as the wife of Chuza, a steward of Herod's. Johanna is also the center of Lk. 8:3 and is provided "the most specific description, the content of which seems particularly important." Of course, most excellent Theophilus, the High Priest knows that Johanna is his granddaughter. Luke has made Johanna one of his eyewitnesses to the resurrection. Professor Fred Long, who reviewed this proposed chiasmus, has pointed out the seeming odd or repetitive narrative material included by the author to create the chiasmus: "and the other women with them." The significance of this proclamation is further heightened by the chiastic structure contained in Luke 24:13-35 that immediately follows this one.

A That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem (13), and talking with each other about all these things that had happened (14).

B While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them (15).

C But their eyes were kept from recognizing him (16).

D And he said to them, "What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?" And they stood still, looking sad (17).

E Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" And he said to them, "What things?" (18-19a)

F And they said to him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. (19b-21)

G Moreover, some women of our company amazed us.(22a)

X They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. (b-23)

G' Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see." (24)

F' And he said to them, "O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" (25-26)

E' And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (27)

D' So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, "Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. (28-30)

C' And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. (31)

B' They said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?" (32)

A' And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, "The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread. (33-35)

This second chiasmus detailing the experiences of the Two Men on the Road to Emmaus is like an example provided by Kenneth Bailey in that the women and in particular Johanna are at the climax of the chiasmus in the first stanza and featured prominently in G, X and G' of the second stanza.

Luke 24:8-11 forms a chiasmus that when read in conjunction with Luke 24:13-35, another chiasmus, makes Johanna a witness to the resurrection with Johanna at the vertex of the first stanza and together with the woman are treated prominently in the second stanza of the two part chiasmus. This is additional evidence that Johanna is someone important to Theophilus if an otherwise unknown person is the vertex of a chiasmus.

The proposed chiastic structure has not been previously recognized by scholars because two of the criteria set forth by Blomberg would be violated. The proposed chiasmus must solve a literary problem and the center of the chiasmus must be worthy of that position. Danker notes that "Luke rugged syntax in v. 9 troubled copyists . . . ."

In this instance certain facts not known to scholars precluded the identification of Luke 24:8-11 as a chiasmus. These facts have now been presented and these facts now demonstrate that the chiasmus created by Luke is intentional. As noted by Long, unnecessary words were added to create the structure. Furthermore Johanna, the granddaughter of most excellent Theophilus and a witness who proclaimed the resurrection is worthy of the vertex.

Thus Johanna who appears only in the Gospel of Luke is the key.

If you have read this far, you are probably wondering what evidence is there, that the person to whom Luke wrote, whoever he may be is Jewish.

The story of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke resonates with Jewish beliefs concerning God's plan of salvation and the promised coming of the messianic deliverer. The text of the gospel is grounded in the rich diversity of Jewish messianic thought which characterizes the second Temple period. The key word in the two preceding sentences is Jewish.
Numerous biblical passages contain references to historic characters without any explanation. Luke mentions the division of Abijah and the daughters of Aaron. In 11.20, Jesus uses the phrase, “the finger of God.” In 17.32, Jesus says simply, “Remember Lot’s wife.” Luke relies upon the knowledge of Theophilus of the LXX. Roth has provided several examples demonstrating that the first audience would have to be familiar with the LXX. Acts 7:51 “uncircumcised in hearts and ears” is from the LXX: Lev. 26:41; Jer. 6:10; Ezek. 44:4,7. His second example is based upon a comparison of Josephus and Luke.
For an illustration of Septuagint language evident in Lukan vocabulary, consider batos. To read this as a unit of liquid (Lk. 16:6) and not as a fish or a bush requires LXX competence (2 Esdr. 7:22). Since our interest in constructing an authorial audience, it is worth noting how Luke and Josephus handle the word differently. Josephus also mention this word as a unit of liquid, but in contrast to Luke, Josephus then explains it in terms of Roman measure (Ant. 5:87). Luke assumes his audience will understand batos without explanation. Josephus’s handing of the word does not imply that he expects his audience to be familiar with the LXX. Luke’s handling does.

Woods explains the Jewish meaning of “the finger of God” in these words:
Behind the Beelzebub pericope (Lk. 11:14-26) remains the issue of whether Jesus is a ‘true or false prophet.’ The true test is found at Deut. 13:1-5. It is not an issue of ‘signs or wonders’ being performed, for Jesus’ exorcisms were not denied. The true test was a theological one. It related to the revelation of God at the Exodus. Against this background, Jesus’ reference to the ‘finger of God’ at Lk. 11:20 was very appropriate, because it also answered the charge of Deut. 13:1-5 by stating that his exorcisms were performed by none other than the God of the Exodus. This established him as the true prophet like Moses (Acts 3:22), mighty in word and deed (Lk. 24:19; Acts 7:22). At this point Luke engages a pesher ‘This is that’ argument before a Jewish audience. Such an audience would have regarded God as the true author of miracle (Acts 2:22), in a typical Jewish fashion.

Gerhardsson noted that "Luke is very much dependent upon Palestinian tradition." Adolf Schatter concluded that the text's character together with other indicators point to the author's provenance from the Jewish church. Johannes Weiss in 1892 made what was then considered a radical statement. Weiss recognized that ideas have to be expressed in terms that are intelligible to their audience. Consequently, we must infer that ideas were expressed in terms intelligible to most excellent Theophilus who was most certainly a Jewish man of rank and wealth. The establishment of this inference as a fact is one of the purposes of this chapter.
Luke-Acts has been shaped by the style and technique of the "Deuteronomistic School", historical works of the Old Testament and post Old Testament Jewish histories such as 1 and 2 Maccabees. "Luke adopted the language and themes of Scripture that are used in Jewish writings of the period. . . ." Trebilco also notes that Luke used "interpretative alterations or expansions within Old Testament quotations, which is a form of implicit midrash found in Jewish texts" citing Acts 4:11 as example. Thus Luke-Acts was written in a format familiar to the High Priest.
[Citations omitted]


I have published four articles discussing various aspects of my proposal:
1) Theophilus: A Proposal, Evangelical Quarterly, 69:3 (1997), 195-215 (I. Howard Marshall, editor);
2) The Cross and Atonement from Luke to Hebrews, Evangelical Quarterly, 71:2 (1999), 127-149;
3) Luke and the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, The Journal of Biblical Studies, Jan-Mar 2001, Vol. 1, No. 1;
4) A la recherche de Theophile, Dossiers d'Archeolgie, Dec 02-Jan 03.

Richard H. Anderson

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