Saturday, November 11, 2006

Identifying Theophilus

December 10, 2006
Luke 1.1-4

Luke addresses his two-part story to a man named Theophilus. This name was relatively common among both Greeks and Jews in the first century. Because the title preceeding his name resembles those of other Roman officials' named in Luke's writings (Acts 23.26; 24.3; 26.25), "most excellent Theophilus" is generally assumed to have been a Roman official.

Consider this: Luke's Theophilus was the high priest of 37-41 A.D.. Some clues supporting this notion follow.

Josephus, a Jewish historian from the first century, catalogued the high priests of the second temple period (Wm. Whiston's editorial note in his translation of Josephus, War, n.635). Among them are Annas (8-15 A.D.); his five sons: Eleazar, Mattatthias, Annanas, Jonathan, and Theophilus (37-41 A.D.); his son-in-law (brother-in-law to Theophilus) Caiaphas (the high priest during Jesus' life); and his grandson (son of Theophilus) Matthias (65 A.D., the second-from-the-last high priest before the fall of the temple). An archaeological fact, this same Theophilus had a granddaughter named Yohannana, or Johanna (engraved on an ossuary, a bone box). Several of those named above are mentioned, whether overtly or by implication, in Luke-Acts. Among NT writers, only Luke mentions or alludes to Theophilus, Johanna, and Matthias. Annas is only elsewhere mentioned by John (18.13,24).

Johanna is mentioned in Luke 8.3 and 24.10. In fact, she holds a position shared by no other in Luke's writings: the key eyewitness in the climactic resurrection story. Luke makes certain his reader(s) recognizes Johanna's important eyewitness testimony by using a rhetorical device called a chiasmus. (A chiasmus is a rhetorical tool commonly used by ancient writers, and Hebrews especially. Sometimes there is a center-point for emphasis; other times it is used as a memory device, and there is no center point: for example, Matthew 6.24; 7.16-20.) Johanna is at the center (designated by the letter F) of Luke's chiasmus, a position normally reserved for key data:

A They remembered his words (rhematon).

B Having returned from the tomb, they reported all these things (tauta panta)

C to the Eleven

D and to all the rest/others (loipois).

E Now there were Mary Magdalene

F and Johanna

E' and Mary the mother of James

D' and the others (loipai) with them.

C' They were telling the Apostles

B' these things (tauta).

A' But these words (rhemata tauta) seeemed nonsense to them, and they did not believe them.

This construction is no accident. Because of her place at this crucial point in his story, Luke must have assumed that Johanna was an important eyewitness to his intial reader, Theophilus. Archaeologically verifiable, she was Theophilus' granddaughter.

For these reasons, and others which shall surface in time, it is safe to conclude that Luke's Theophilus was the high priest of 37-41 A.D., the son of Annas the high preist, the brother-in-law of Caiaphas, the grandfather of Johanna, and the father of one of the last high priests, Matthias.

Luke writes to Theophilus: "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to write an orderly account...that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed" (Luke 1.1-4). Theophilus was "informed" by his granddaughter Johanna, an "eyewitness...from the beginning". Apparently he was skeptical of her testimony. Luke therefore sought to confirm it, that Theophilus might come to believe it. This is why Luke wrote his Gospel.

Read Luke's prologue as a declaration of certitude and confidence pitched to a skeptic. Imagine how you might articulate the story of Jesus to those informed yet unbelieving. Consider why, or if, it is significant that Theophilus is identified, or identifiable. Would such an identification change your present understanding of Luke’s Gospel?


Some relevant details involving Acts:

Theophilus' son Matthias was the high priest in 65 A.D.. Phinneas followed him as the last high priest before the fall of Jerusalem. The priesthood was extremely corrupt in the first century. The Romans often appointed whomever they desired in official positions, such as high priest. Phinneas was chosen to be high priest by the casting of lots (Josephus, War 4.3.6 [147-8]; 4.3.7-8 [153-6]). While there is no evidence that Matthias was likewise chosen, it is ironic that Luke in Acts 1.21-26 briefly mentions the Eleven's selection of a man named Matthias via the casting of lots. This is not to say that Luke considers the newly selected apostle to be Theophilus' son. Rather, Luke shows that this new Jesus-movement is God-ordained, for in Acts they prayed to God and asked for his intervention - a detail lacking in Rome's selection process. Here, Luke is demonstrating the corruption of the priesthood and promoting the Jesus-movement to the high priest, Theophilus.

In Acts 4.6, Luke writes, "[gathered were] Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John[athan] and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family." Alexander aside and otherwise unknown (even in Josephus' list), everyone mentioned here is a member of Theophilus' family. The priesthood was seeking to condemn Peter and John for their healing of the lame man at the gate Beautiful (3.1-26), asking by what authority they performed this miracle (4.7). Peter's answer silences the high priestly assembly (4.13-17). Unable to find fault in the actions of Peter and John, the authorities release them with a mild warning (4.18-21). Here is another example of the priesthood's inferiority contrasted with to the work of God through the apostles' ministry. The apostles are victorious, the priesthood defeated. Theophilus would have taken notice here, no doubt recalling the story, received either through family tradition or as himself an eyewitness present in the events of Acts 4.

Luke makes much of Paul's persecution-mission as having been sactioned by the priesthood (Acts 9.1-2,14; 22.5; 26.12). Yet, Paul was converted to the cause which he persecuted. Again, here Luke demonstrates the corruption of the priesthood in contrast to God's victorious campaign through the apostles. What better way to make an example of this than by telling of Paul's conversion from the priesthood's cause to this new Jesus-movement, and in great detail, taking up more than half of Luke's story in Acts.


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