Who is Luke’s Theophilus

13 Jun
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The identity of Luke’s Theophilus (Acts 1:1; Luke 1:3) could be a very important matter. For example, if I were to address a letter to “Mr. President,” the weight of its content and some of its meaning would be determined by who my addressee happens to be. If it were the president of the Elks Club or the CEO of a large business or the President of the United States, knowing his identity would determine how the letter should be read. Similarly, the identification of Luke’s addressee could determine some of the meaning of the content of his works, especially matters of his Gospel that are peculiar only to Luke. Nevertheless, it seems that knowledge of who Theophilus is has been forgotten, and no one throughout the centuries (to my knowledge) has considered it important enough to engage in a real study to reclaim his identity until recently.[1]

Some believe the name is simply a title for all Christians. The name, “Theophilus” means lover or friend of God. I don’t know of any real reason to believe this, except that the meaning of the name infers that all Christians are friends of God. While this is so for a true Christian, why aren’t the other Gospel narratives addressed as such? Why aren’t any of the Epistles addressed so? Why don’t we see any of the letters of the early church fathers addressed in this manner? This conclusion is apparently based solely upon supposition and not related to anything within the text itself or anything outside the text that could be tied to either Luke or Acts.

Some have thought Theophilus refers to Paul’s lawyer and Luke and Acts represent his defense. However, in every case listed in the NT where Paul stood before heads of state, he defended himself. The fact is that the Scriptures tell us therein God would use us to testify for him (Mark 13:9-11) against our accusers and judges. If Paul didn’t consider his life dear to him (Acts 20:24), why would he entrust his testimony before Nero to an unconverted lawyer who had to be informed about Paul’s faith? Even if his lawyer were a Gentile Christian, why would Paul choose to let another testify of God and Paul’s own innocence? Paul knew the Jewish traditions and the reason for the unwarranted accusations brought against him better than any Gentile lawyer in Rome—Christian or not. Theophilus “the lawyer” doesn’t make sense.

Others have concluded that Theophilus was a Roman official to whom Luke writes in order to familiarize him with the Christian origin and beliefs. This arises out of the fact that both Felix and Festus, two Roman governors of Judea, are addressed as “most excellent” in the book of Acts (Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25). While this is so, does this mean that only Roman officials were addressed in this manner or were the high officials of other nations addressed similarly? Moreover, why does Luke address Theophilus as “most excellent” only in the Gospel narrative? He doesn’t address him so in Acts 1:1. Additionally, why would Luke simply state Jewish matters without any explanation? For example, it is clear that Luke refers to the twelve Apostles in Luke 1:2, but the indefinite pronoun “they” is used. Why would a Roman official be expected to know Luke is referring to the Twelve? This is inside knowledge. Another example is found in Luke 1:5 where Luke refers to the course of Abia and that Elizabeth was of the daughters of Aaron. Why would this be important to a Roman official, and how could he possibly understand its significance to Luke’s narrative without an explanation? A final example is “the time of incense” in the same verse. Why would a Roman official be expected to understand that this refers to the time of prayer in the Temple at Jerusalem?

There is absolutely no evidence that Luke’s Theophilus should refer to a Roman official. Luke expects his reader to know what he is talking about. There are too many things left unsaid, too many Jewish matters written without explanation etc. for Theophilus to be a Roman official or even a Gentile believer. Luke’s object in writing to Theophilus was to clarify matters, concerning which he had been informed (Luke 1:4). How can Luke clarify anything for someone who is unfamiliar with Jewish traditions, when Luke offers no explanation when mentioning Jewish matters? Therefore, Luke’s addressee must be Jewish. This is the only explanation that fits.

Who, then, is Theophilus? If Theophilus is a Jew and a “most excellent” high official, then he could be none other than Theophilus, the son of Ananus, the high priest. Josephus mentions no other high official named Theophilus who governed in the 1st century CE. Theophilus held the office of high priest from 36 to 41 CE, during a time when the Hellenist Messianic Jews were persecuted by the Jerusalem Jewish government. If Luke addresses him as “most excellent,” it probably means he is holding the office of high priest at the time of Luke’s writing. Acts was written much later when Paul was in prison at Rome, long after Theophilus held that office, and this may be the reason why he is addressed there merely as “Oh Theophilus.” One reason why Luke would address his Gospel to Theophilus, an unconverted and antagonistic unbeliever, is because prophets under the Old Testament had often addressed the king or sent letters to the king in the name of the Lord to testify against them. There are many similar reasons why Theophilus should be this Jewish high priest, but I offer the above for the reader’s consideration.

[1] Awhile back I wrote a blog on who Theophilus might be. It can be found HERE, and my understanding then  and most likely now, even more than I realize, has been drawn from two other blogs, Lee Dahn’s “Most Excellent Theophilus” and Richard Anderson’s “dokeo kago grapho soi kratistos Theophilos” (translate: It seems good to me to write unto you most excellent Theophilus [Luke 1:3]), both of which can be found in my blogroll. I don’t believe I fully understand how captivated I have become with the idea I first read in their blogs, namely, that Theophilus was the Jewish high priest and son of Annas who reigned 4 years (cir. 37-41 CE) in Jerusalem. This idea has greatly changed how I perceive many of the events in Acts and even how I read some of the parables in Luke. I just wish to clarify how much I appreciate the works of these two men and how dependent upon this idea I have become.

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Posted by on June 13, 2010 in New Testament History, Religion


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6 responses to “Who is Luke’s Theophilus

  1. Eddie

    April 3, 2016 at 08:01

    The whole mount isn’t a Sabbath day’s walk. Part of the mount is further. Luke may have been pointing to an exact place upon the mount.

  2. librarygeek

    April 2, 2016 at 17:30

    Hi. Do you have any explanation why Luke would inform the High Priest in Acts 1:12 that the Mount of Olives is a Sabbath day’s walk from Jerusalem? Sort of like giving someone a tour of their own backyard. The only idea I have that would still agree with this theory, is that when the original letter was used to teach believers, some explanatory notes were added for their benefit.

  3. Eddie

    September 18, 2013 at 21:22

    Your welcome, Mike and thanks for reading. While I don’t have a problem with late dates for the finished form of any of the Gospel narratives, I do have a problem with the presumption of Biblical critics who claim that none of the Gospel narratives were written at all prior to 60, 70 or even 80 AD. I believe modern students of the word of God have a poor understanding of what it meant to live in an ‘oral’ culture. An oral culture did not preclude a written document. It only meant that writing implements were not as readily available to the average person (as in modern times) so much of the New Testament was memorized by believers. The written forms were complete very early — I believe within the first decade after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and Matthew and Luke within the first five years after Jesus’ resurrection. Some minor corrections or even additions may have been made later by the Apostles for the finished documents, but by and large everything was complete very early. It doesn’t make sense not to do so. I’m not trying to cause you to read everything I write, but, if you are interested in textual criticism, you may find one or two of my studies interesting HERE.

  4. Mark Meinecke

    September 18, 2013 at 15:11

    Thank you, Ed, for your response to my first comment on your blog post, ‘When Was Stephan Stoned?’ and thank you for answering so quickly. As you probably noticed, I honored your suggestion to also read this blog. One quick question: I have a Humble Creek book, ‘The Everyday Guide to the Bible’ written by Carol Smith, and it dates the writing of Luke at 60 A.D., and most Theologians agree, to my knowledge, that the gospels were written after the Epistles of Paul were written. If this is true, then Luke (according to the priest hypothesis) addressed Theophilus as ‘most excellent’ out of respect, even though he didn’t hold that title at the time of Luke’s letter. Do you agree with this assumption?

  5. Ed Bromfield

    July 6, 2011 at 02:15

    Hi AMG, and thank you for your interest in my blog. Thank you, as well, for taking the time to comment. It is always good for me to read what others have to say and at times enter into a little discussion.

    We probably agree on the main Christian truths, so who Theophilus is shouldn’t be a big problem. As for me, his identity as the officiating high priest works really well for the context of Acts and the persecution endured mainly by the Grecian Jewish believers. My thoughts are not original, however, I read a couple of blogs that were already identifying him as Luke’s addressee. I studied it a bit and found I agree. It shouldn’t be a big surprise, however, that Luke would write to an individual. Some of the prophets of the Old Testament were sent specifically to kings. The high priests of the 1st century were the rulers of the people.

    Lord bless,


  6. AMG

    July 5, 2011 at 19:08

    I enjoyed your study of Theophilus. However, I still have a little problem with believing that Luke was addressing his written account to any one person, let alone Theophilus the high priest. Before reading your article, I had previously just thought that Luke was mentioning the name of a “most excellent” book that he had written named “Theophilus.” What do you think of that idea? Probably not as off as people saying Theophilus is a name for all Christians?

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