Who was Theophilus? Part 2: Ben Ananus

I wrote a recent blog about the identity of Theophilus, the original recipient of Luke’s gospel and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. I suggested he was a wealthy and powerful Roman. A gentleman who attends our Thursday night bible study offered an alternative. When I first heard it I dismissed it but the more I think it through the more attractive the theory seems.

Bill Cooper in his book The Authenticity of the New Testament (Creation Science Movement, 2013), proposes, with great certainty, that the recipient was Theophilus Ben Ananus, a leading Sadducee and priestly aristocrat. He was the brother in law of the infamous Caiaphas, Christ’s judge at His trial. He himself served as high priest AD 37-41, hence Luke addresses him as Most Excellent. This honorary title is absent when Luke writes Acts, as his stint as High Priest was by that time over.

An Ossuary found in the 1980s bears his name and talks about his granddaughter Joanna. Cooper asserts this is the Joanna mentioned in the New Testament, but I cannot see any other evidence for this, especially as the biblical Joanna was from Galilee. Theophilus is in fact a fairly common name (there was at least one other High Priest who shared it). I cannot therefore be as certain about Theophilus’ identity as Cooper, but it’s certainly a tantalising solution.

Would Luke go to such great trouble to write so detailed an account for a High Priest? Certainly. As one of the most powerful men in the nation, his conversion would assist others coming to Christ. Theophilus would have been a real trophy of grace. It’s also true that James, the first apostolic martyr, was executed a few years after Theophilus’ high priesthood, suggesting a period of tolerance and protection had come to an end.

There is however a problem. How could a Christian serve as High Priest? When Christ died, the temple veil was rent in two; access to God was no longer obtained through a temple and human priesthood but through Christ’s shed blood. His death paid for sin; animal sacrifice, which was only ever a picture, was rendered redundant. Yet a Jewish high priest’s role, office, career and reason-for-being was based upon the temple and its sacrificial system. How could Theophilus, if he were trusting in Christ for his salvation, preside over pointless sacrifices in good conscience? Perhaps he was converted during his high priesthood and resigned from it. We know that he was still living when Luke wrote Acts around AD 64; his faith may well have cost him his office. And rightly so; there’s no need for a high priest when we have a Great High Priest.