jump to navigation

Audience and Purpose August 13, 2009

Posted by Lee in 0c: Audience and Purpose.
10 comments

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.

Advertisements