As we have seen in both the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, the author of both books addresses a being called Theophilus.
Luke 1:3-4 I, too, have carefully investigated everything from the beginning and have decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Acts 1:1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach
I’m sure I was not the only one, but I was curious to discover who this Theophilus character was. Before any research, I imagined Theophilus as an apprentice to Luke. The way Luke addresses him as ‘excellent’ and mentions things that have been taught led me to this conclusion. After further investigation, I found many other theories that explain who (or what) Theophilus is.
The first hypothesis I discovered in my research as to the identity of Theophilus turned out to be my personal favorite. It’s called the honorary title viewpoint. Theophilus literally means “dear to God”, or “loved by gods”. Using the literal definition of the name, some have entertained the thought that “Theophilus” is just a generic term for Christians or Christ’s followers. Luke would then be simply addressing a general population of people that are learning the works of Jesus Christ. I favor this idea because I love the use of symbolism in any form. Maybe Luke wanted to use this literary device to capture the attention of his intended audience.
Next, there is the theory that Theophilus was a Roman official responsible for the judicial investigation of Paul. To elaborate, I found a quote from John Mauck, author of Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity.
“I contend that Luke investigated, gathered facts, borrowed from other sources, and edited them for a different and definite purpose: He wrote a legal ‘brief’ to defend Paul against charges of fomenting civil insurrection and, by extension, to defend all of Christianity against the charge that it was an illegal religion. His original reader, Theophilus, was, the evidence will show, the Roman official responsible for the judicial investigation of trials to be conducted before the Emperor Nero. Luke, true to his reputation as an evangelist, crafted his brief to present the gospel so that even the very investigator would come to believe in Jesus.” -John Mauck, “Paul on Trial”
John Mauck is an attorney himself, so that could be why his conclusion of the identity of Theophilus was centered around the justice system. Still, he has done his research, and I believe he has a valid theory.
The next theory names Theophilus as the lawyer of Paul in his trials, rather than the Roman investigator. In contrast to the previous theory, this would mean that Luke wrote his stories for Theophilus’ to use in court as a defense strategy for Paul.
Yet another theory of his identity supposes that he is a Roman official. This one is a little different than the previous theory by Mauck. There is textual evidence that many Roman officials were addressed as ‘most excellent’, especially in the book of Acts.
Acts 24:2 And when he had been summoned, Tertullus began to accuse him, saying: “Since through you we enjoy much peace, and since by your foresight, most excellent Felix, reforms are being made for this nation,
Acts 25:26 But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.
I can surely see how this explanation would also be an acceptable one. Luke uses the same title when addressing known Roman officials as he does at the beginning of Luke and Acts to address Theophilus, so who is to say that Theophilus was not a Roman official?
The final hypothesis I found in search of Theophilus’ true identity was one that portrayed him as a Jewish high priest. This description suggests that Theophilus ben Ananus is the ‘Theophilus’ that Luke is referring to in his dedications. That would make Theophilus the son of Annas and the brother-in-law of Caiaphas. Scholars who support this explanation claim that the Sadducees were the target group for the Gospel of Luke, and that would explain Luke’s emphasis on the trials that were specific to Sadduccee principles.
There are many theories that attempt to verify the identity of the elusive Theophilus. The difficult part is that all of them have at least some portion of them that are supported by history or by text. How is one to decide the best explanation?? Like I mentioned earlier, I really liked the idea that Luke is speaking to a general group of people by using the literal meaning of the word Theophilus. It is equally likely, though, that Luke is addressing a real person. Either way, Luke does not give enough information to decide on the true identity of Theophilus.