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Audience and Purpose August 13, 2009

Posted by Lee in 0c: Audience and Purpose.

Luke’s purpose in writing to “Most Excellent Theophilus” was to confirm those things about which Theophilus had been informed concerning Jesus and his followers. Most agree that Luke is not merely interested in presenting historical information. J. A. Fitzmyer writes, “The ‘assurance’ (asphaleia) that is involved has often been assumed to be historical assurance…. But it amost certainly involves more than that, for the Lucan historical perspective transcends the mere question of historicity” (Luke, 1.9).

However, there is some disagreement as to Luke’s full purpose. Fitzmyer suggests it is “mainly doctrinal or didactic: to explain how God’s salvation, first sent to Israel in the mission and person of Jesus of Nazareth, has spread as the Word of God… to the Gentiles and to the end of the earth” (Luke, 1.9). J. Green sees it as “primarily ecclesiological – concerned with the practices that define and the criteria for legitimating the community of God’s people, and centered on the invitation to participate in God’s project” (Luke, 22). I. H. Marshall asserts, “Thus [Luke’s] work was probably intended for members of the church, but it could at the same time be used evangelistically, and its outward form (in the manner of a historical and literary work) strongly suggests that such a wider audience was in view” (Luke, 35).

B. Witherington III asks appropriately, “What sort of person would have needed, and could have understood and appreciated, this two-volume work?” He answers briefly, “This is not a defense for a pure outsider’s ears where nothing in common could be presumed or presupposed. Rather, it is a reassurance or confirmation for someone who may have had doubts or was insufficiently socialized into ‘The Way’ at the time of Acts’s composition” (Acts, 63).

This is surely right. There were indeed shared presumptions and presuppositions between Luke and Theophilus. But who was Luke’s recipient? Can we know?

There is no consensus as to the identity of “Most Excellent Theophilus”. Some claim the name “Theophilus” refers not to an individual, but to a communal “lover of God”, as the moniker means. Such a claim, however, does not account for the title “Most Excellent”, nor for absence of any such known communal addressee by a single proper name in the period in question. That said, identifying this individual is a difficult task. Any proposition is not without problems, due to the sheer lack of external evidence, and is dependent almost entirely on what we find in Luke’s texts.

A working thesis of this commentary is that Luke’s addressee Theophilus was the high priest of 37-41CE. This Theophilus was the son of Annas, high priest of 6-15CE. He was brother to four other first-century high priests: Eleazar, Jonathan, Matthias, and Ananus. His brother-in-law was Caiaphas, high priest of 18-36CE. This family filled the office for 35 years between 6 and 43CE.

Identifying Luke’s Theophilus as the high priestly son of Annas sheds great light on Luke’s story of Jesus and his followers. Many of Jesus’ parables take on new significances. Luke’s citations and allusions to OT passages are found to color his narrative in very specific, unique ways. Pericopae cohere with one another, eliminating any seeming randomness or wooden-ness of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ and his followers’ actions and teachings. Definition of Luke’s purpose in writing Acts emerges.

This thesis accords nicely with Luke’s numerous references to priestly individuals in both volumes. This Theophilus had (at least) two sons: Matthias, who served as high priest just before the fall of the Temple (see below); and John, evidenced in an ossuary found approximately 7 miles from Jerusalem (cf. Barag and Flusser: “Ossuary”). The ossuary also names Theophilus’ granddaughter, Joanna. Luke twice mentions a Joanna in his Gospel (8.3; 24.10). She bears the place of prominence in Luke’s resurrection account: “[8] And they remembered his words, [9] and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. [10] Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; [11] but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24.8-11). Her prominence is evident in a chaistic rendering of this text:

A They remembered his words (rhematon).

B and returning from the tomb, they told all these things (tauta panta)

C to the eleven

D and to all the rest (loipois).

E Now it was Mary Magdalene

F and Joanna

E’ and Mary the mother of James

D’ and the other women (loipai) with them

C’ who told to the apostles

B’ these things (tauta);

A’ but these words (rhemata tauta) seeemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

Joanna was a fairly common name among Jewish women of the given period. However, high-ranking officials named Theophilus were not so common. That both are named and given prominence by Luke in a text which (it shall be demonstrated in the commentary) criticizes the priesthood is indeed ironic. It is fairly obvious that Luke has singled-out Joanna among his eyewitnesses of the empty tomb. (On this chiasm and some effort to give it significance, see Bauckham: Women, 187; Nolland: Luke, 1191, n. 327; and Dussaut: “Triptych”, 168.) When Luke’s recipient is identified as Theophilus the high priest of 37-41CE, we can understand why Joanna was significant. The prominent (“Most Excellent”) individual named Theophilus and the significant eyewitness named Joanna appear only in Luke’s Gospel. Joanna’s prominence would have been immediately appreciated by Theophilus ben Annas.

Consider also the presence of a Matthias in Acts 1. Already mentioned above, Theophilus had a son named Matthias who served as the second-to-last high priest before the fall of the Temple. Matthias’ high priesthood was taken from him by the Romans by the casting of lots, the lot falling to Phannias. Josephus tells of this story (War 4.3.7-8 [151-7]). Is it possible that Matthias was chosen to be high priest in like fashion? Interestingly, Luke tells of a different Matthias who was chosen by the casting of lots, but with prayer and the subsequent intervention of God. Why should Luke relate such an event when his Matthias plays absolutely no role in the story of Acts? Perhaps it was Luke intention by way of contrast to demonstrate that, unlike the Roman-appointed Jewish priesthood, this Jesus movement had God’s sanction and blessing. As with Joanna, Matthias was a comon name of the period. But the above suggestion does not rely on statiscs, but on irony. Whether or not such an idea be accepted, one cannot dispute that the identity of Luke’s Theophilus as the high priest of 37-41CE makes some interesting sense of Luke’s story concerning Matthias.

Additionally, Acts 4.6 names four high-priestly individuals: “[5] On the morrow their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem, [6] with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.” Annas we know to be the high priest of 6-15CE. Caiaphas we likewise know to be the high priest during the period covered by Luke’s Gospel. But who are John and Alexander? John most probably refers to Theophilus’ brother, Jonathan. (Some MSS reflect a gloss reading the full name, Jonathan.) And Alexander may be a Graecized form of Eleazar. If this be the case, these known high priests would have already served in the office by the time of the events recorded in Acts 4. Taken with the broad stroke of “all who were of the high-priestly family”, we have here a tidy reference to the family of, and perhaps even an implicit reference to, Theophilus the high priest of 37-41CE.

Of course, these and other similar pericopae are taken up in the body of the commentary, as well as in various addenda.

Granted, this thesis needs to be tested by Synoptic studies proper, for it perhaps implies an early date for Luke’s Gospel. A full proper testing exceeds the present scope of this commentary. But, as a living document, there will be time devoted to this in the future. Nonetheless, at present the question of date begs to be addressed in light of the Theophilus Proposal.



1. Richard Fellows - August 15, 2009

Sorry, Lee, but it seems to me that the evidence that you have put forward for identifying Theophilus as the HP is very week.

As we have discussed before, Joanna was a very common name, but you make no mention of this fact. Also, the identification of Joanna as the grand-daughter of the HP is almost impossible chronologically, as you know.

I don’t think Joanna is given prominence in Luke 24:8-11. In the ancient world the most prominent person was invariable mentioned first in the list and here it is Mary Magdalene who is mentions first, as elsewhere.

Matthias was also a very common name, and we have to remember that common first century names in Palestine were much more common than common names today.

John and Jonathan were different names and both were common Jewish names in Palestine. There are no examples of people who held two common Hebrew/Aramaic Jewish names, so it is unlikely that John and Jonathan are the same person. It is much more likely that John is Theophilus. John would have been his Hebrew name and Theophilus his Greek name, but this identification too is speculative.

By the way, Tal Ilan’s new volume of the Lexicon of Jewish Personal names for the Western Diaspora is now published. She lists 11 men called Theophilus who were definitely, out of a total count of 2531 confirmed Jews in the lexicon. So, about one in 230 Diaspora Jews were called Theophilus. About the same proportion of Gentiles had the same name. The name was rarer in Palestine, it seems. Anyway, an important question is how many people in the right time period could be called “most excellent”.

“Theophilus” sounds very much like a Christian new name (Compare Ignatius Theophorus, and AKEPOUS H Philotheos of the recently discovered Megiddo mosaic), so he could be just about anyone.

Lee - August 16, 2009


Thank you for your comments. I’ll try to keep my response brief here.

To include every relevant detail regarding Theophilus’ identity in a single blog post is difficult. I chose to include the data I did because that data does not depend so much on Luke’s texts. I intend to address the textual data relevant to Theophilus’ identity in the body of the commentary, as each text comes into view. And some time ago, I sent you a chronology which allowed for Luke’s Joanna to be the high priest’s granddaughter. It was not the only one, but it was one nonetheless.

Regarding the frequency of names, I am not exactly sure how to navigate the waters. What I mean is this: at what point should the (known) statistics deter or encourage one’s efforts? While the name Joanna may indeed be common (a fact which I do not deny, though i didn’t mention it in the post), high ranking officials named Theophilus were not. We know Theophilius ben Annas, the high priest of 37-41CE, had a granddaughter named Joanna, evidenced in the ossuary. What is the likelihood, from a statistical standpoint, that both of these names would show up in a single document – especially when, as you have agreed at varying points in the past, Luke is offering a harsh critique of the priestly establishment? (Recall our discussion on the rich man and Lazarus.)

Regarding Joanna’s prominence in the chaistic structure of Luke 24.10, I have two comments. First, I am not the first to suggest that Joanna bears the prominent place here, as my references noted. Those I am following note the prominence of Joanna, but do not offer any real reason for Luke to do this. I have at least made some sense of the matter. Second, if “[i]n the ancient world the most prominent person was invariable [sic] mentioned first in the list”, and Mary Magdalene is the prominent person in the pericope, does it follow that the second-named person bears a more prominent place than the third, and so forth? If so, are you suggesting that Joanna was more prominent for Luke’s purposes than Mary the mother of James?

Regarding Matthias, the commonality of his name is irrelevant to my argument (which may have originally been made by Richard Anderson, though I cannot recall if that is the case). I am demonstrating the irony (and perhaps I should have articulated that better) that Luke’s Matthias was chosen by the casting of lots with a specific mention of God’s intervention, while Theophilus’ son Matthias was deposed as high priest by the zealots’ casting of lots without God’s intervention (so, Josephus). Not only this, but about the time Luke was writing Acts, the very event of Matthias’ demise was taking, or had just taken, place. This irony also explains why Luke devotes the time to tell of the twelfth apostles’ choosing without any further word. If his point was to show a reconstitution of the Twelve, as many commentators suggest, it becomes puzzling why the Twelve are not prominently referred to throughout Acts, representing the reconstituted Israel. In fact, it becomes quite puzzling that only three of the Twelve (Peter, James and John) are specifically referred to, and only in the early chapters of Acts, while Philip, Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila, etc., play such prominent roles in the majority of the work. All this to say, the argument regarding Matthias doesn’t rely on statistics. It relies on irony.

I have considered that the John of Acts 4.6 might be Theophilus. But, as you note, that proposition too is speculative. You and I have gone round a few times on that issue. It’s difficult to know. But, I notice that you did not bring up the Alexander/Eleazar suggestion. Are you in agreement with me on this?

I just don’t see Theophilus being a new name, in the manner you mean. What is your evidence for such a proposition in this case?


2. Richard Fellows - August 16, 2009


in answer to your questions, yes Joanna would be more prominent than Mary mother of James.

Yes, I would tend to equate Alexander with Eleazar.

The evidence that Theophilus is a new name is rather indirect. The hypothesis depends on the theory that re-naming was common among Christian benefactors, and it is supported by parallel cases of new names with similar meanings. See my web page here:

Lee - August 16, 2009


Thanks for the follow-up. I’m glad to see that you agree with the Alexander=Eleazar proposition.

I’m also glad you included your website. I lost it some time ago, and my computer crashed. I just got a Mac, and am loving it. But my bookmarks are gone. Slowly adding them back.

I will look at your site, and the material you’ve written on Theophilus.


3. Cale Clarke - August 31, 2009

Hi Lee,

Thanks for your recent message about this blog. It’s great to see it up and running.

Regarding Matthias/the casting of lots in Acts 1, there is, of course, a parallel with Zechariah in Luke 1 (a fact you no doubt are planning on pointing out in discussing that chapter). Zechariah, too, was chosen by lot to offer incense while on Temple duty when the “annunciation” of John the Baptist occurred. In both cases, Luke’s mention of the casting of lots has obvious priestly connotations.

It also seems obvious from Luke’s description of the selection of Matthias in Acts that Jesus intended to found a priesthood of his own – a New Covenant priesthood which supersedes the Old. This is something which is often passed over (no pun intended) by many scholars, perhaps for confessional reasons. But, if this is the case, we would then have a new sacrifice (Eucharist), a new temple (the Church), and a new priesthood – the picture is complete.

BTW, last year I switched to Mac as well – welcome to the brotherhood of the redeemed!


Lee - August 31, 2009


Thanks for stopping by. I apreciate the comment.

This project is going to take some time. I’m really working to get all of my ‘ducks in a row’ before I post them. it’s tough, because I need to be thorough, but not so thorough as to repeat what’s already been said elsewhere.

I have read of your ‘complete’ idea of the new priesthood, new sacrifice, etc., on your blog. I think there is something to it, though I’m not seeing Luke make it an explicit part of his argument. It seems better to me to ask an overall question, taking the Synoptics together, What was Jesus doing? The answer may indeed lead to your conclusions. If it’s Luke’s purpose to demonstrate those conclusions, he’s being very cryptic about it.

On the other hand, I wholly agree that Jesus is acting like a priest: healing and forgiving without sacrifice, though he does send some of those healed to the temple, usually presumed to sacrifice (so, e.g., Friedrichsen). However, I believe Jesus was behaving counter-temple, and hoping to show the temple establishment that he does what priests do. Thus, he sends those healed and forgiven to the temple as testimony. But, I’ll address that, and like issues, when the texts come along in the commentary.

I did read of Zechariahs’ election via lots in Protoevangelium of James. I’m currently working on the first comment on the body of Luke’s work. The text is Luke 2, the episode of twelve-year-old Jesus’ visit to the temple. It’s very rich, and I may even include that tidbit concerning Zechariahs’ election via lots as found in Prot. James.

Mac rules.


4. Cale Clarke - August 31, 2009

One more thing I forgot to mention – I don’t see any problem with an early date for Luke’s gospel. I’m one of those who believes that all the NT writings antedate 70 AD, because none of them mention the destruction of the temple – an argument that would have played right into Luke’s hands vis-a-vis Jesus’ establishment of a new high priesthood, temple, etc. It’s hard to imagine Luke not making mention of this if he wrote later than 70.

We might also cite the fact that Acts ends with Paul still alive, and most peg his martyrdom to be about AD 64. again, it’s hard to imagine Luke not mentioning something as huge as Paul’s martyrdom, especially given Paul’s prominence in the work. This would suggest the entire, two-volume set was done prior to 64!

Lee - August 31, 2009


Yes, I believe GLuke was early. The fact that Luke employs the title “Most Excellent” when referring to Theophilus in his Gospel and not in Acts is a clue, in my opinion. I believe Luke wrote Acts around 65 or 66CE, due to the information he includes about a Matthias while Theophilus’ son Matthias would have been reigning as high priest – who, BTW, may have been chosen by lots by the Romans, without sanction from God, contrasting Luke’s Matthias story.


5. Cale Clarke - August 31, 2009


I posted the last one before I saw your reply to my first comment. Great point about Jesus and his sending healed and forgiven people to the priests vis-a-vis his own priesthood.

I actually hadn’t thought of Zechariah and lots with regard to the Protoevangelium – I was only thinking about Luke 1:9!

Can’t wait to hear what you have to say about Jesus as a 12 year-old in the temple, teaching the teachers.



Lee - August 31, 2009


Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t think Prot. James refers to Zechariah’s election via lots, but rather to Joseph’s election as husband for Mary via lots. I’ll have to reread the text. Disregard what I said about Zech. and Prot. James, as I’ll have to confirm it first.



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