Q: #505. Who was Theophilus (Lk 1:3)(Acts 1:1)?
A: Outside of these two verses in Luke and Acts, the name Theophilus is not mentioned in the Bible. Therefore, we know very little about him. What we do know is that the name “Theophilus” means “friend of God” (theos = God, philos = friend), and that Luke addressed him as “most excellent.” This phrase, “most excellent” (or “most noble”) (Gr: “kratistos“), is used 3 other times in Acts:
#1. When Claudius Lysias addressed Felix (Acts 23:26),
#2. When Tertullius addressed Felix (Acts 24:3),
#3. When Paul addressed Festus (Acts 26:25).
Strong’s defines “kratistos” as “mightiest, noblest, best: used as a title of honor and respect.” Since this word was used to address both Felix and Festus, who were Roman governors, as well as Theophilus, this has lead some scholars to believe that Theophilus also a Roman governor. However, at the very least, it seems likely that he was an important official of some kind.
(Lk 1:4) is also interesting. It says, “That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.” The Greek word “katecheo” is used for the word “instructed” in this verse (and also in Acts 18:25, Rom 2:18). Katecheo means “oral instruction.” It is from this word that we get the word “catechism.” In other words, it appears that Theophilus had received some “oral” instruction on the Gospel, and now Luke was writing this to give Theophilus a “written” account which was more detailed and “orderly.”
This brings some speculation. Had Theophilus heard the Gospel “orally” and accepted it? In other words, was he a Christian? If so, then perhaps this “written account” was to help Theophilus to better understand what he had been taught, and to strengthen his faith. Or, perhaps, Theophilus had heard the Gospel, but wanted to know more before accepting it, therefore Luke wrote Luke and Acts to help him with this.
In addition, we wonder whether Theophilus was a Gentile, or a Jew. Since both Luke and Acts were written to the Greeks (Gentiles) (as well as to Theophilus), it seems likely that Theophilus was a Gentile. (Luke was also a Gentile: “not of the circumcision:” compare Col 4:11 with Col 4:14. Luke = Loukas in Greek.) Since Luke and Paul were so closely tied together, and Paul was “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15)(Acts 22:21)(Gal 1:16), some theorize that Paul may have lead Theophilus to the Lord.
Tradition says that Luke was from Antioch, so perhaps Theophilus was as well, or at least lived near there (maybe he was a governor in that area).
Unfortunately, there aren’t really any writings outside of the Bible which tell us anything about Theophilus either. There are a few which mention a man named “Theophilus,” but the credibility of these writings is up for debate. In addition, “Theophilus” was apparently a fairly common name in New Testament times, so even though these writings use the name “Theophilus,” it is hard to know if they are referring to the Theophilus of Luke and Acts.
One last thing worth noting is that some scholars say that there were two different High Priests who served in the Temple around the same time that Luke wrote his Gospel: Matthias ben Theophilus and Theophilus ben Ananus. There is some speculation that perhaps one of these two men might have been the Theophilus that Luke was referring to. I can find very little on either of these men, or if they were even High Priests at all, but if indeed Theophilus was “a Roman official,” “a Greek,” and “a Gentile,” then obviously these men were not the Theophilus of Luke and Acts.