Knowing the identity of Theophilus (Luke 1:3), could be key to understanding important themes within the narrative. Is he a believer, as some suppose, who was already instructed in the truth whose faith Luke was hoping to strengthen (Luke 1:4)? Some suppose the name is simply a title for all Christians. The name, “Theophilus” means lover or friend of God. While this may be true concerning a Christian, no other New Testament book or epistle is addressed in this manner. Moreover, neither is any work or letter of the early church fathers addressed this way. Therefore, such a conclusion should be understood as based solely upon supposition, not related to anything within the text itself, or anything outside the text that could be tied to either Luke or Acts.
If Theophilus is a believer, why would he be singled out among all other believers? Certainly we know of no outstanding believer by this name that Luke’s Gospel should be addressed in his honor. Even if such a believer sponsored the expensive work of writing the Gospel of Luke, why are no other sponsors mentioned in any other New Testament work? Theophilus is given the title Most Excellent. Surely, if a believer was singled out in this manner, we should know such an important person whom Luke needed to address as Most Excellent, but no high authority who was a believer named, Theophilus, comes down to us in Christian tradition.
Was Theophilus a gentile or an unbelieving Jew? Some have theorized that Most Excellent refers to one of Paul’s lawyers defending him at Rome, but this isn’t believable on two counts. First, much of what Luke tells us in his Gospel narrative contains insider information that ordinary gentiles wouldn’t be expected to know, yet Luke merely mentions them without explanation. For example, in Luke 1:5 he introduces Zacharias as a priest of the course of Abia and introduces Elizabeth as his wife and the daughter of Aaron. Why would a gentile be expected to know what the course of Abia was or who Aaron was? There are many unexplained matters in Luke, if Theophilus is a gentile. Secondly, everywhere else in the New Testament Paul defends himself. Moreover, he uses his defense to witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Why would Paul want a lawyer to defend him and lose the opportunity to present the Gospel to Caesar, the ruler of the world?
What about Theophilus being a Roman official, and this is the reason for the address: Most Excellent (cf. Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25)? While it is true that such authorities were addressed as Most Excellent, why would they be expected to know the insider information without further explanation that Luke uses throughout his work? The fact is, Festus who was one of the Roman officials who was addressed in this manner, wanted King Agrippa to hear Paul’s testimony, because he (Festus) didn’t know the Jewish religion well enough to decide for Paul or for his Jewish accusers.
If Theophilus could not be the name of a believer or an uninformed high ranking gentile, the only explanation left is that he was a Jew. Josephus mentions only one Jewish official by this name who held a high office in the first century AD. This would be Theophilus, the high priest and son of Annas. Annas was the high priest before whom Jesus was taken in chains (John 18:13). Theophilus reigned as high priest after the crucifixion and death of Jesus, cir. 36 AD to 41 AD. If we would address such a one today, we might use Your Honor or Your Excellency. Certainly, one would address the Jewish high priest during the first century AD in some formal manner, such as Most Excellent.
During Theophilus’ reign, the Hellenistic Messianic believers were being persecuted by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. It would be logical to presume the early church at Jerusalem or, more probably, a leader in the persecuted group of Messianic Jews might address a formal complaint with Theophilus, the reigning high priest. Certainly, many prophets under the Old Testament either wrote to their leaders or testified before them in person, registering a formal witness against their behavior in an effort to call them to repent before the Lord. This may very well be what Luke’s thesis was all about—namely, “that you might know the certainty of those things wherein you have been informed.”
Luke is the only Gospel writer who claims the abomination of desolation in the Olivet Prophecy is an army (Luke 21:20; cf. Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14). During Theophilus’ reign the Jews and Rome were at the brink of war. Caligula had demanded that a statue of himself be placed in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Roman armies waited for additional clarification from Caesar at Ptolemais, just north of Caesarea and were ready to march on Jerusalem. Before they could receive further orders, word came from Rome that Caligula was assassinated, and war was averted. Nevertheless, about a year before Caesar’s death, the persecution was stopped (Acts 9:31). Why did Theophilus stop the persecution? Was it because Theophilus was presented with Luke’s first thesis, and he noticed the mention of armies and Jerusalem’s impending destruction in Luke 21? Knowing Roman armies were at that very time positioned to do exactly what Jesus claimed and waited further orders at Ptolemais, could have been the impetus for Theophilus to stop the persecution of the Hellenistic Messianic believers. Is this proposition so unbelievable?
Notice in Acts 1:1 that Theophilus is addressed differently. No longer was he addressed as Most Excellent but as O Theophilus. The ending of Acts is very abrupt, leaving Paul under house arrest but able to preach there for two years, cir. 62 AD to 64 AD. The reader might expect Luke to continue, but Nero’s persecution began cir. 64 AD. Could Annas have influenced Nero to conduct the first imperial persecution against believers in Jesus? We cannot say for certain, but Theophilus’ son, Matthias, was at this time reigning as high priest, and every other persecution executed against Christians was conducted by Jewish authorities when one of Annas’ sons reigned in this office. The implication, though not verifiable, is logical that Nero was influenced, and Luke again presented a thesis (his second) to Theophilus, whom history implies was influenced by Luke 30 years prior. Nevertheless, Theophilus either wouldn’t or couldn’t influence his son Matthias, the last legitimate high priest of the Jews, to stop the persecution of believers. Therefore, there followed in due course the Roman-Jewish War that left the Jews without a homeland—the fulfillment of Jesus’ Olivet Prophecy.