Who is Theophilus?

Tonight I’m preparing for tomorrow’s Bible Study. We’re starting a new series on the gospel of Luke. It won’t surprise me if we’re still on it in six months’ time. The opening verses are intriguing. They read:

‘It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, having traced out carefully, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed’.

Who was Theophilus? This is what we can detect from the text:

He was a high-ranking person. Romans of senatorial and governor rank were addressed in this manner. This is how Paul addresses his gubernatorial judges when tried in Jerusalem in the latter parts of Acts. For Luke to spend so much time and effort writing to one person must mean that this person was very influential, and well worth the many hours invested.

He’s intelligent and reasonable. Luke writes an account for him that he may confirm what he has already heard. If he were a disbelieving cynic, Luke would not waste his time.

It’s unclear if he is a Christian. The New King James Version rendering ‘instructed’ implies an earlier explanation and acceptance of the gospel. I. Howard Marshall, in his commentary, says the same word can mean ‘reported or informed’. So he’s either a convert whose faith Luke seeks to support, or he’s yet to decide, and Luke wishes to persuade him.

It is, however, a strange name for a Roman official. For a start, it’s a Greek name, not a Latin one. Translated, it means ‘Lover of God’ or ‘Beloved of God’ or even ‘Friend of God’. There weren’t many Romans, high-ranking or otherwise, who’d be given such names by their parents. It may therefore be an assumed name- a new, non-pagan name that this convert took at his baptism or conversion. Or, it’s pseudonym- a code name. Perhaps Luke does not want to disclose his intended recipient’s real identity, to protect him from his hostile superiors. Emperor Nero, who used burning Christians as garden lights, might not take kindly to one of his own class joining this dangerous new cult.

I would also suggest that the ultimate author of this gospel- the Holy Spirit- beautifully and cleverly addresses it to every Christian, even those of us not yet born. I believe that Theophilus was a real person, but the Holy Spirit regards all those who accept the gospel as God’s Beloved, God’s Lovers, and God’s Friends. This gospel of Luke was in fact written for you, ‘that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.’