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Luke's Letter to Theophilus

Sep 21, 2013

Having finished my commentary on Deuteronomy, which ends with the death of Moses and the commissioning of Joshua, I have been led to begin a study of the Gospel of Luke.

Luke, being the 42nd book of the Bible, suggests a numeric connection to Joshua crossing the Jordan and setting up camp in the plains of Jericho. Israel established 41 camps in the wilderness under Moses prior to crossing the Jordan. The 42nd camp was in the plains of Jericho under Joshua, a type of Christ.

Luke: Healer of the Breach

I have long been fascinated by Luke, in that he was a Greek doctor who had a thorough knowledge of Hebrew thought patterns and the Judean way of life. He is the bridge between Jew and Greek. He is the doctor called to heal the breach between Judeans and the ethnos, binding up the wounds caused by Jewish exclusivism and Greek disdain for Jewish law.

He also writes to heal the breach between men and women, giving women a prominent place in his Gospel. But his most important focus was on the removal of the dividing wall that had elevated Jewish men above women and all “gentiles,” for this mindset stood in the way of the “one new man” that Christ was creating (Ephesians 2:15).

Luke merges the best of Greek philosophy (love of wisdom) with biblical law. Both Luke and Paul, though coming from different ethnicities, were well schooled in both ways of thinking. When we study Luke’s Gospel, we see Paul’s influence on every page. In fact, Luke and Paul were as one, personifying the “one new man” principle. As such, their legal focus was to correct the injustices and inequalities of the Judean system that were being practiced daily in the temple.

Here is where the Law of Victims’ Rights comes into play, because by the law of God there was to be one law for all men (Numbers 15:15, 16), and Israelites were to love foreigners as themselves (Leviticus 19:33, 34). However, the traditions of men had set aside this law, causing the Judeans to despise non-Jews and to treat even the converts as second-class citizens.

Hence, the Greeks and all other ethnic groups were victims of injustice, being daily injured by the unjust interpretation of the law of God. This injustice was anchored in Judean society by the dividing wall in the court of the temple, which forbade women and “gentiles” from drawing near to God. The sign on that wall was discovered by M. Ganneau in 1871. It read,

“No Gentile may enter beyond the dividing wall into the court around the Holy Place; whoever is caught will be to blame for his subsequent death.”

Paul wrote of this wall in Ephesians 2:14-18,

14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace… 18 for through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

Luke’s Gospel pours oil and wine into that open wound, healing the breach and restoring equal justice to all men. He shows that all men and women are equally welcome to come to God through Jesus Christ. This is the unique character and purpose of this Gospel, for the other gospels focus upon other important themes for different audiences.

Luke bridges the gap between Jew and Greek, writing to both audiences. He addresses the Jewish legal problem, while at the same time showing the wisdom of God through the life and teaching of Jesus. Wisdom, of course, deals with life’s application of the moral principles of God’s law. The Greeks valued wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:22), even as the Jews valued law.

The Jewish sect of the Sadducees had already attempted to add Greek philosophy and wisdom to their study of God’s law, but their carnal minds could not bring them to give equality to Greeks or any other ethnic groups. Further, it brought them to the conclusion that there were no angels, no spirit, and no resurrection (Acts 23:8). The Sadducees were greatly influenced by the wrong Greek philosophies, while the Pharisees were influenced by the wrong interpretations of the law.

Paul himself was schooled by Pharisees in his earlier life (Acts 26:5). He never repudiated his belief in angels, spirit, or the bodily resurrection of the dead, all of which were taught by the Pharisee sect. His main problem with the Pharisees was their belief in the dividing wall that kept non-Jews and women at a distance in the temple, and which kept them from enjoying a relationship with God that was equal to what men might have.

Who was Theophilus?

The Gospel of Luke is actually written in the form of a letter to Theophilus, a former high priest in Jerusalem from 37-41 A.D. Luke’s own introduction reads,

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word have handed them down to us, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

Luke calls him Kratistos, “most excellent,” because this is a title used in addressing men of prominent rank or office. It is the equivalent of “Your Excellency.” Luke uses the term again in Acts 23:26, when recording a letter that Lysias wrote to Felix, the governor:

26 Claudius Lysias, to the most excellent governor Felix, greetings.”

The same title is used again of Festus, who had replaced Felix as governor (Procurator) in 60 A.D. while Paul was yet being held prisoner in Caesarea. Acts 26:25 says,

25 But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth.”

Theophilus was from a Sadducee family, his father being Ananus (the biblical Annas), who had served as high priest from 6-15 A.D. Luke, then, attempts to persuade Theophilus of the Christian viewpoint, telling of an angelic appearance to Zecharias (Luke 1:11) and culminating with the resurrection of Christ, witnessed by Joanna (Luke 24:10), who was Theophilus’ own granddaughter.

Joanna had married Chuza, the steward of King Herod Antipas (Luke 8:3), and thus she had also witnessed the death of John the Baptist.

Joanna no doubt had told her grandfather of her belief in the resurrection of Christ, but Theophilus was skeptical, for it went directly contrary to Sadducee beliefs. Hence, Luke took upon himself the task of confirming her eyewitness account and proving that there really was a resurrection of the dead.

When Jesus confounded the experts in the temple at the age of 12, this Ananus was the high priest at the time. Ananus had five sons: Eleazar, Jonathan, Theophilus, Ananus, and Matthias, along with a son-in-law named Caiaphas, all of whom became high priests at some point in their lives.

Eleazar (16-17 A.D.)
Caiaphas (18-37 A.D.)
Jonathan (for a few months until Passover of 37; later restored in 44 for a few months)
Theophilus (37-41)
Matthias (43)
Ananus (63)

In addition to these, Theophilus’ son, Mattathias, was high priest from 65-66 A.D. during the turbulent early years of the Jewish revolt against Rome. Josephus tells us,

“And now Caesar, upon hearing of the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea as Procurator; but the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes, that this elder Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons, who had all performed the office of a high priest of God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests.” [Antiquities of the Jews, XX, ix, 1]

Caiphas, of course, was the high priest presiding over Jesus’ crucifixion in 33 A.D. His father-in-law, Ananus (or Annas), being the patriarch of the family, remained active and seems to have dominated his son-in-law in many ways, for Luke 3:2 dates the start of John’s ministry “in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” as if there were two high priests functioning at the same time.

Perhaps Luke was attempting to be diplomatic by honoring Theophilus’ father, though he had not been recognized as the official high priest since 15 A.D. Luke again treats Ananus as an unofficial high priest in Acts 4:6 shortly after the day of Pentecost, when Peter and John were arrested for healing the lame man. We read here,

5 And it came about on the next day, that their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem; 6 and Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas and John [i.e., Jonathan, son of Annas] and Alexander, and all who were of high-priestly descent.

Ananus’ son Jonathan was high priest for a 3-5 months in 37 A.D. until the Syrian governor Vitellius deposed him while passing through Jerusalem on his way to fight a war with Aretus, the king of Arabia Petrea. Josephus tells us:

“Whereupon he ordered the army to march along the great plain, while he himself, with Herod the tetrarch, and his friends, went up to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice to God, an ancient festival of the Jews being then just approaching; and when he had been there, and been honourably entertained by the multitude of Jews, he made a stay there for three days, within which time he deprived Jonathan of the high priesthood, and gave it to his brother Theophilus; but when the on the fourth day letters came to him, which informed him of the death of Tiberius, he obliged the multitude to take an oath of fidelity to Caius….” [Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, v, 3]

Tiberius Caesar, who was the emperor of Rome during the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, died on March 16, 37 A.D. He was succeeded by Caius, or Gaius Caligula, who ruled Rome from 37-41. It is interesting to note that Theophilus was high priest in Jerusalem during the same years that Caligula ruled Rome. Theophilus was given the high priesthood just as letters were arriving from Rome, telling the news of the death of Tiberius (age 77) and the installation of a new emperor.

Eventually, Theophilus’ son, Mattathias, became the high priest from 65-66 A.D. The revolt was brewing, but Mattathias advocated peace. He was soon killed for advocating peace, and his successor, Phannias ben Samuel, was high priest from 67-70, when the temple was destroyed.

This short history of the family of Ananus, and how his five sons each became high priests in the first century, gives us some context to help us understand Theophilus. He was apparently a righteous man, though a Sadducee, in a time of much corruption in the temple. His name means “lover of God,” and no doubt Luke believed that his name revealed his heart.

Perhaps also Joanna had appealed to Luke for help in convincing her grandfather of the resurrection of Jesus and that He was indeed the Messiah. It is likely that Luke had visited her and many others in the two years (58-60) that he was imprisoned in Caesarea before appealing to Caesar (Acts 25:11). This seems to have been the time when he gathered information from eyewitnesses in Judea to use in his Gospel.

The Codex Washingtonensis, which I wrote about in Lessons from Church History, Vol. 1, chapter 24, indicates that Luke was written in 74 A.D., shortly after the end of the Judean revolt against Rome. By this time Paul had been beheaded in Rome (67 A.D.), and Luke had time to write to Theophilus. Of course, he also wrote with a greater audience in mind, for it was his desire to heal the breach between Jew and Greek.


This is the introduction to a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Luke


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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