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I've always wondered if there's any persuasive evidence either way for Theophilus whom Luke addresses in Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1 being an actual person or an allegorical personification? I mean my command of Greek isn't great but doesn't Theophilus mean "Friend of God"? However I'm sure it could also be a given name in Luke's time. So is there any strong evidence of an actual human being named Theophilus?

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The name “Theophilus” may indicate a primarily Gentile audience, perhaps in Rome, given its decidedly Greek nature and that Luke’s account ends with Paul’s arrival in Rome. However, Theophilus could have just as easily been a diaspora Jew living in Rome. Heinz Joachim Held takes this perspective further by hypothesizing that Luke’s intent was to reach the wealthy lost, and not to berate wealthy Christians.

Against this, Theophilus could also have been the wealthy patron who funded Luke’s work and was probably a Christian. Luke would have, in turn, perceived Theophilus as a representative of his intended readers which is why he has such an interest in developing the theme of appropriate use of wealth, especially in the face of poverty. As a (relatively new) Christian, Theophilus would have been interested in aligning his values with those of God and the Christian community. This, in turn, would mean that Luke’s intended audience included wealthy Gentile Christians who had some familiarity with Christian beliefs, rooted in Old Testament understanding. Once again, this may serve to explain the author’s preoccupation with highlighting those Gentiles who acted in accordance with Old Testament principles as “God-fearers.” Regardless of the identity of Theophilus, the presence of his name in both prologues is a key, unifying factor for Luke and Acts.

Esler believes that Luke writes to “legitimate” the decision to convert to this belief system and that the lifestyle change associated with it was correct. Esler notes that legitimation necessarily occurs after the institution’s establishment, in the cycle of group dynamics, as a means of justifying itself to its members. This perspective would include both the wealthy and the poor since both classes were included in the earliest Christian community, which would have needed encouragement as to the legitimacy of their allegiance in the face of mounting opposition. Esler also eliminates the probability of an audience consisting of “outright pagans” based on the almost immediate presence of Old Testament Judaism (in Luke’s Gospel) that persists until the end of Acts. This comports well with the perspective that Theophilus could have been not only the sponsor of the work, but also the representative of the audience that Luke envisions.

Dibelius understands the purview of Luke's writing to include Christian audiences, and the libraries of those who specialized in literary education. He follows the argument that Theophilus, as patron, would be responsible for distribution of the volumes to their intended outlets. These outlets, Dibelius argues, would be different than those of most historians given Luke’s divergence from the practice of his contemporaries, whose rhetorical style drew attention to themselves. It is because of this that Dibelius can claim that Luke never really fully engaged the historiographical process, but remained an evangelist.

Dibelius chooses to differentiate the intended audience along a line of social sophistication rather than finances. Instead of the more traditional poor and wealthy divisions, Dibelius sees the audience falling into either the category of “humble circumstances” or those of “higher social understanding.” It should be noted, however, that Dibelius only holds this distinction for Acts, since Luke’s Gospel doesn’t fit his understanding of what constitutes a literary piece.

Though there are many suggested purposes for Luke’s writings, God’s role in salvation and the ongoing impact that he has on the community of believers is the most overarching description of Luke’s intent. Because of this, any minor themes should be read through the lens of this primary agenda that Luke has. Within this agenda, though, there may be room for Luke addressing any person feeling the tension of interacting with a largely Jewish belief system (for Gentile God-fearers), or the lack of Jewish response to the gospel (for Jews and Jewish Christians).

Schottroff and Stegemann view Luke’s perspectives as reflections on an ideal from a past era. As such, they serve as motivators for a primarily wealthy audience to follow suit with the characters and divest themselves of wealth and possessions in some regard. To this end, they see Luke as a critic of the wealthy, but one who still holds out hope for their salvation. Pilgrim also sees Luke as a critic of the wealthy. However, he views Luke as relatively unconcerned with presenting a moral framework within which his audience should operate, preferring to challenge the wealthy to come to grips with appropriate use of their possessions, especially since the rich in the Roman Empire did not hold charity to the poor as a high value.

Metzger’s analysis of the history of interpretation of Luke finds two general positions. The first finds no imperative for the wealthy to “completely divest” themselves as either a means or expression of salvation. This would essentially allow for the wealthy to retain their possessions as long as they act in accordance with the behavioral norms of the group. Though the second perspective still sees no mandate to the wealthy to completely give away their wealth, it does sees “encouragement” to generously practice almsgiving in some capacity. Almsgiving is further divided into the dual categories of either an extension of the Jewish custom of almsgiving, or a more extravagant form of charity specifically designed to upset the contemporary patron-client system. Within this second perspective there is also another subdivision with regards to the purpose of almsgiving. One perspective focuses on Luke’s intent to portray Jesus’ particular concern for the poor and dispossessed. This is achieved either by meeting their immediate practical needs or through redistribution of resources and wealth. The other perspective has the spiritual health of the wealthy in view and sees Luke’s concern primarily focused on their eternal destiny by encouraging them to secure eternal riches through almsgiving, demonstrating an acute sense of trust in God. Metzger wisely notes that these perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, finding concern for the poor as a primary motivation, yet recognizing the transformational benefit for the wealthy’s newfound trust and reliance upon God.

Metzger is critical of the methods used by many of the authors whom he cites in his overview of past works. Though he finds worthy and beneficial contributions from them, he also sees ways in which they have used texts out of context in order to create conceptual links throughout the text. The overall focus of his study is to evaluate four parables which he views as the core of Jesus’ teaching throughout Luke’s “Travel Narrative” (Luke 12:13-21; 15:11-32; 16:1-13; 16:19-31) concluding that Jesus was particularly critical of overconsumption. His criticisms and research fertilize the ground for a study in Luke’s specific intent for including the strong theme of wealth and possessions in both Luke’s Gospel and Acts.

A mediating view of Luke’s intent can be derived from his wealth ethics. Instead of seeking an explicit, overarching response from his readers, Luke is more likely contextualizing his wealth ethics to provide an application across socio-economic statuses. In Luke, instead of explicitly demanding divestment from the wealthy alone, disciples from each class were expected to divest themselves according to their means and ongoing vocation. As we will see, this perspective nicely complements the texts in question, as well as the historical context of the emerging Christian community.

Community in Luke’s Gospel is also colored by the introduction in which Theophilus (“loved by God”) was called “most excellent” (κράτιστε). This term was commonly used to refer to the Roman equestrian class who were members of the wealthy aristocracy below the patricians, but above the populace. Perkins argues that Luke’s intention is to counter any negative reports that Theophilus has heard. Luke, then, is appealing to the upper middle class to demonstrate that Christianity is not as subversive as it may appear, and perhaps gaining an influential ear in the social elite. This is a different (and older) perspective than the one that sees Theophilus as a wealthy publisher of Luke’s content for the spread of the gospel. That Luke never mentions his own name is the basis for Perkins’ rejection of the benefactor/publisher hypothesis as it indicates that he wasn’t close enough to Theophilus to request such a service.

If Theophilus is a member of a wealthy, upper-middle class who has heard negative reports of Christians, Luke’s purpose would be both apologetic and corrective. This helps explain what appear to be idealized presentations of the community, as well as the ethic enjoined upon its members by Jesus.

note: These are excerpts from the first chapter of my thesis. Some of it may flow and some of it may not; I copied and pasted what appeared to be significant portions related to Theophilus. This represents significant research compiled over many months with many sources. I'd be happy to get a list for anyone interested.

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Thank you for that excellent and thorough response. I had always wondered about "most excellent". I assumed it had some special meaning and wasn't just flattery. –  Onorio Catenacci Jan 31 '13 at 1:24
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Theophilus was certainly used as a given name by people in the right era: there was a High Priest in the early first century named Theophilus and a bishop of Antioch in the late 2nd century named Theophilus. Unfortunately, neither of these Theophilus's (nor any other known Theophilus) lived during the time frame that most scholars think that Luke was written in (80s AD). As far as I know, there's no known examples of people in the 1st or 2nd century using Theophilus as an honorary title, but everyone seems to grant that it's a reasonable possibility. So, sadly, there's just not much conclusive evidence either way. We really don't know whether Theophilus was a title or a name.

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Good to know, at least, that it's not a dumb question. :-) –  Onorio Catenacci Feb 1 '13 at 3:15
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