EARLY CHRISTIANITY: Theophilus—Loved by God; Friend of God

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Theophilus [Θεόφιλος Theophilos (Loved by God; Friend of God) (Lk. 1:3; Acts 1:1)]. The one to whom both volumes of the work Luke-Acts are addressed.

Theophilus is the person that Luke addressed both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. (Lu 1:3, 4; Ac 1:1) His being addressed as (κράτιστος kratistos) “most excellent” may suggest that he held some kind of high position, or it may merely be that he was a person admired, highly regarded, and respected. Theophilus seemingly was a Christian, orally taught about Jesus Christ and his ministry. Luke’s written account helped confirm that he could be certain of what he had learned earlier by word of mouth.—Edward D. Andrews.

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The meaning of the name has led some to argue that Theophilus was not a specific individual, but any “friend of God” who might have occasion to read the two accounts. According to this understanding, Luke and Acts would have been written to Christian men and women who desired to have a more detailed and orderly account (cf. Lk. 1:3) about Jesus Christ and the origin of the Church. The application of the honorific “most excellent” (Lk. 1:3) to Theophilus, however, makes it more likely that the author is addressing a particular person.

Luke’s use of “most excellent” in Acts (applied to the procurator Felix in 23:26 and 24:2; to his successor Festus in 26:25) suggests that Theophilus was a Roman official, or at least a person of some significant social standing. There is evidence that Luke composed his work partially to prove that neither Jesus nor his followers were politically dangerous to the Roman government (see Külmmel, pp. 162f; Martin, II, pp. 60f). Some have concluded from this evidence that Theophilus was the magistrate who heard Paul’s case in Rome, and that Acts was a legal brief in Paul’s defense. B. H. Streeter (pp. 535–39) argued that Theophilus was the pseudonym for Titus Flavius Clemens, the cousin of the emperor Domitian, who was a likely inquirer into Christianity and who might have been especially concerned about rumors that this new faith was subversive. These last two views go well beyond the evidence, however, and are best left aside.

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The question of whether Theophilus was a Christian continues to be disputed. To some degree, the resolution of this question depends upon the proper translation of Lk. 1:4, specifically the verb katēchḗth̄es, which may refer to false information (as in Acts 21:21, 24) or to religious instruction (as in Acts 18:25). The verse may mean either “so that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (RSV) or “so that you may learn how well-founded the teaching is that you have received” (cf. JB).

The former translation is consistent with an understanding of Theophilus as a non-Christian Roman official concerned about the political effects of the new faith. According to this view, Theophilus would have gotten some information about Jesus and His followers (“the things of which you have been informed”), perhaps not all of it positive. Luke’s purpose in such a case would have been to win him over to a more favorable view of Christianity (“that you may know the truth”), perhaps even to faith.

Developing Healthy Churches

The latter translation of Lk. 1:4 assumes that Theophilus was a Christian who had received some instruction in the faith (“the teaching”). Luke’s purpose in this case would have been to offer more extensive and detailed catechetical instruction. In this scenario, Theophilus might have been a Roman official who had already embraced the Christian message or even simply a Christian middle-class Roman citizen who gave Luke the oportunity to write a complete account of Jesus and the early Church.

The Epistle to the Hebrews PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine which understanding is more likely, since the evidence makes good sense from either perspective. It must be enough to say that Theophilus was probably a Roman citizen of some stature who was interested in the events surrounding the beginning of the Church. Such interest, whether that of a Christian or curious pagan, was enough to motivate Luke to pen his two-volume work.

By T. E. Provence

Bibliography.—E. Haenchen, Acts of the Apostles (Eng. tr. 1971), p. 136; W. G. Kümmel, intro to the (Eng. tr. 1975), pp. 162f; R. P. Martin, Foundations (1975, 1978), I, 245f, II 60f; I. H. Marshall, Gospel of Luke (NIGTC, 1978), pp. 43f; B. H. Streeter, Four Gospels (1924), pp. 535–39; TDNT, III, s.v. χατηεω (Beyer).

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