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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Theophilus (2)

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THEOPHILUS.—The name of an early Christian to whom a couple of NT documents, the Third (canonical) Gospel and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, are addressed (Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1). This does not, of course, imply that the writer had no wider audience in view. The two books in question are far too carefully composed to be mere private communications. In modern parlance they are ‘dedicated’ rather than addressed to Theophilus; that is, if we suppose the name to be a genuine proper name. On this point, however, there has been some difference of opinion. Conceivably Theophilus (= OT Jedidiah, ‘God’s friend’) might be no more than a conventional title for the average Christian reader, an imaginary nom de guerre for the typical catechumen. This symbolic sense of the word was conjectured by Origen. At the same time, instances of Theophilus as a proper name are not uncommon, and it seems simpler, on the whole, to regard it as such in the NT. A modification of the above theory has also been proposed (e.g. by Ramsay and Bartlet), which would make Theophilus a baptismal name given to a Roman official, and employed here for the sake of safety. This is possible, but rather unlikely.

The name, then, is to be taken as denoting some contemporary of Luke (or of whoever wrote the Third Gospel and Acts). Otherwise he is unknown to history. Later tradition naturally busied itself with fanciful conjectures upon his personality, turning him eventually into the bishop of Antioch or of Caesarea (cf. Zahn’s Einleitung, § 58. 5). But this is the region of guesswork, though modern critics have often been tempted to stray back into it. As, for example, Beck, who, in his Prolog des Lk.-Evangeliums (1900), deduces from ἐν ἡμῖν (1:3) the fact that the author was one of the two Emmaus disciples, while Theophilus must have been a wealthy Antiochene tax-collector, an acquaintance of Chuza and Herod, who accompanied Herod and Bernice to Caesarea, where he fell in with St. Paul and St. Luke. Godet opines that Luke was a freedman of Theophilus. The latter, at any rate, may have been the patronus libri, expected to be responsible for the publication and circulation of the Gospel and its sequel. Whether he was of Greek extraction or a Roman, possibly of equestrian rank, it is impossible to say; but one may cheerfully set aside the theories which identify him with Philo or Seneca.

We are thus reduced to an examination of the internal evidence for any knowledge of the position and character of the man. (1) Plainly, to begin with, he was a Christian when the Third Gospel was composed. He had been ‘instructed’ in the faith by some Christian teachers as a catechumen. But either he or his friend, the author, felt that some fuller acquaintance with the historic basis of the Christian religion (not of the Pauline gospel, as Hilgenfeld argues in Ztschr. für Wiss. Theologie, 1901, pp. 1–11) was advisable, and it was with this end in view that the Third Gospel and its sequel were addressed to him, in order to remove uncertainties caused by diversity, inexactness, lack of thoroughness, and absence of order, in the current accounts of Christ’s life on earth. Some critics still hold that Theophilus was simply a pagan interested in Christianity. But the term κατηχήθης (Luke 1:4, cf. Acts 18:25; Acts 21:21), especially in the light of its context, seems to preclude this hypothesis. St. Luke’s preface implies that he was more than merely an interested inquirer. It suggests, as Wright says (Composition of the Four Gospels, p. 55), that ‘busy men like Theophilus had been catechized in their youth, but later occupations had driven out many of the lessons, and unless a man could secure the same catechist whom he had attended as a boy, the frequent discrepancies in the ever-changing tradition would jar on the precision of youthful memory, and produce a general sense of disappointment and uncertainty.’ Oral tradition had its merits. It was vital and free from any danger of codifying the Christian spirit. But among its defects were liability to discrepancies (cf. Josephus c. [Note: circa, about.] Apion. i. 2) and absence of uniformity. Furthermore, if there is no other instance of one Christian hailing another by a secular title in the NT, on the other hand there is no case of a Christian writing for the benefit of any save fellow-Christians. Besides, such a title need not have been incongruous with Christianity. If Theophilus was of high rank, the faith which bade Christians honour all men would not preclude a Christian author from employing such a title once in a semi-formal prologue to his work. (2) That Theophilus was a man of rank is suggested by the term κράτιστε = ‘most excellent’ or ‘your excellency’ (Acts 23:26; Acts 24:3; Acts 26:25), which may be almost semi-technical, and in any case implies respect for exalted position and high authority, though the idea of intimacy and affection need not be excluded (cf. Josephus Ant. vi. 8, etc.). He may have been on the proconsular staff, or an official of some kind in the Imperial service. And this would tally with the special emphasis laid by St. Luke upon the relation of the Church to the Empire, and the repeated connexions which he suggests between the political affairs of the age and the progress of Christianity (cf. e.g. Ramsay, Was Christ born at Bethlehem? ch. iii.), especially in Acts. His social position is further suggested by the internal evidence of the Third Gospel, which, as has been often pointed out (cf. e.g. Encyc. Bibl. 1792), is specially concerned with the hindrances thrown up by money and rank in the path of a consistent Christian character. ‘Lk. seems to see, as the main obstacles to the Faith, not hypocrisies, nor Jewish backsliding, but the temptations of wealth and social position acting upon half-hearted converts; and his sayings about building the tower, putting the hand to the plough, renouncing all one’s possessions, and hating father and mother, are pathetic indications of what must have been going on in the divided household of many a young Theophilus.’ In the case of Theophilus, however, wealth and dignity did not form an obstacle to faith. It says something for this well-to-do Christian that he was willing to be instructed, and evidently keen to learn the historic principles of his faith. To his open-mindedness we owe, in one sense, two of the most important historical documents in early Christian literature. For it is plain that this man’s need stirred his friend to write. Behind Theophilus he probably saw many a likeminded inquirer. This catechumen’s case was in some ways typical and characteristic, and thus St. Luke was led to write his Gospel narrative, an instance of the ‘first and noblest use’ of the human imagination, ‘that is to say, of the power of perceiving things which cannot be perceived by the senses,’ viz. ‘to call up the scenes and facts in which we are commanded to believe, and be present, as if in the body, at every recorded event of the history of the ‘Redeemer’ (Ruskin, Frondes Agrestes, § 9). The writer’s aim was personal, as well as modest and religious. Early Christian literature sprang from no literary ambition. Even in its historic form it was practical and didactic. But in this case the writer, like Burke, who originally drew up his Reflections on the French Revolution for the benefit of a puzzled young friend, has gained a wider reach and range for his pen’s products than perhaps he contemplated when he began.

The omission of the semi-formal adjective κράτιστε in Acts 1:1 is not unnatural. It is needless to see anything subtle or significant in the change from Luke 1:3. No doubt the excessive use of the term was one feature of ancient servility (Theophrastus, Char. 5). But St. Luke might well have used it twice in two volumes without any fear of incurring the charge of obsequiousness, and we cannot suppose he dropped the adjective lest he should be guilty of bad taste. Still less probable is the conjecture that the absence of the title in Acts 1:1 denotes the conversion of Theophilus to Christianity since Luke 1:3 had been written. For this there is no evidence whatsoever, and we have already seen that there was no necessary incongruity in applying such a title of honour, pagan though it was, to a fellow-Christian.

Literature.—In addition to the articles in Bible Dictionaries. s.v., and to the critical editors on Luke 1:1-4, see the monographs on that passage already referred to, and add Blass, Philology of Gospels, pp. 7–20, with Zahn’s Einleitung in das NT, § 60.

J. Moffatt.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Theophilus (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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