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.