Was Acts Written to Israel's High Priest?
by Lonnie Lane
Luke wrote his account of Yeshua and Acts of the believers to a man named Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). It happens that there was a high priest of that name from 37-41 A.D. whose father and grandfather were involved in Yeshua’s crucifixion. If Luke was writing to that high priest, might that change the way we read the Book of Acts?
The question is, who is the man to whom Luke gives the honor of calling “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3)? One would think from his name, Theophilus, that he would be a Roman. Speculations as to who he may have been led to the expectation the audience for Luke’s writings were Romans or at any rate, Gentiles. This led to seeing the Gospel account and in particular, Acts, as carrying an erroneous anti-Hebrew or anti-Jewish bias. The emphasis on Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is seen as the major message of the story.
So who was this “excellent Theophilus” and what made him so excellent? To begin with, most of what we know about him comes from the noted Jewish historian Josephus Flavius who wrote extensively of Jewsih history. In digging around for some back up history, I came upon some facts that indicate Josephus himself was of priestly lineage of the Hasmoneans who are related to the priests of the Hanukkah story. Having won an incredible victory over the Syrians and reclaiming the Temple and their sovereignty, the victorious priests stepped across the tribal lines to assume joint offices of both priests and king. Torah provided for priests to come from the tribe of Levi while kings were to be of the tribe of Judah. We could say this is a kind of God-imposed separation of church and state. Note, however, that the intention of God, and subsequently Jefferson, was that government not impede or limit religion in any way, contrary to the inverted (mis)interpretation we are dealing with today.
With amalgamation of the priesthood and kingship all kinds of trouble arose resulting in the Romans being invited to help settle some in-house conflicts. Once there, they stayed and the rest, as they say, is history. So when noted historian Josephus writes about what took place in Israel’s history related to high priests and kings in the first century B.C. and A.D., he is writing from inside his own family history. He writes: “I am of the chief family of that first course also; nay, further, by my mother I am of the royal blood; for the children of Asamoneus (Hasmoneans), from whom that family was derived, had both the office of the high priesthood, and the dignity of king.” These then are Josephus’ credentials to be recording all that history.
Now back to Theophilus. According to Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews, Theophilus (which means God-lover in Greek, a good name for a priest even if it is Greek) was a member of one of the wealthiest and most influential Jewish families in Judea during the 1st century. This wealth enabled them to buy political favor with the Romans, whose Hellenistic ways they embraced, so it was not unusual for priests to have Greek (Hellenistic) names. This openness to Hellenism and infiltration of other cultures into Israel are the very things their ancestors, whom we know as the Maccabees, fought against. (See my article, “The Other Hanukkah Story” for more on this.)
Since the church from early on had little or no interest in Jewish history, they were unaware of the references to Theophilus in Josephus’ writings. As he had to be identified in some way, it has been taken for granted by Bible commentators for centuries that Theophilus was a Roman official of some kind, with a plethora of speculations being made about his status. For one, he is seen as a Roman Procurator (governor) of Judea, based on the fact that Luke addresses him as "most excellent" in Luke 1:3, which was used for Festus (Acts 26:25) and Felix (24:2), both Roman officials. Because later in Acts Luke addresses Theophilus only as, “O Theophilus,” with no “most excellent” attached, it is assumed that this indicated that Theophilus was demoted or removed from his Roman position as a result of his interest in Christianity.
It is also assumed Theophilus is asking for information because he is considering “converting to Christianity.” (There was no ‘Christianity” at that time.) Others may say, “converting to the faith.” It is also assumed that he couldn’t have been very high in the Roman government because no historical evidence exists about him. I’d like to suggest that’s because they were looking in the wrong place. He wasn’t a Roman or Gentile, he was a Jew, the high priest. The church since Constantine was anti-Jewish, so if they were to take the Book of Acts as relevant for the church, which they did, it was assumed to be anti-Jewish, as they were. It was construed as being the document that lifted faith in Yeshua out of Judaism, with nothing for any Jew to gain from it. It certainly would never have occurred to the “church fathers” that it was meant to be an apologetic to Israel’s high priest.
Both of Luke’s books were written before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. However, it is further assumed that Luke could not possibly have been writing to anyone in Jerusalem. I find it also interesting that commentators talk about Luke as writing specifically to a Roman audience, when it’s addresses only one person, Theophilus. It is also assumed that Luke was writing to readers somewhat removed from what was going on in Jerusalem at the time. One Roman Catholic commentary says about Theophilus, “This Roman official must have expressed an interest in learning about Christ and about the Apostles. He may have been in the process of converting to the Faith. The most likely answer is that a group of Christians living nearby had influenced and taught Theophilus. Luke was writing, not only to Theophilus, but also to those Christians who had given Theophilus his initial interest in Christianity.” (www.catholicplanet.com). This position is held by Protestant commentaries as well.
Of course, if you don’t know Theophilus was the high priest, why would you think he had any connection with Jews or Jerusalem? But now that we know who Theophilus was, he becomes part of the picture of the Messianic community’s impact upon Israel. We see why Luke addressed two works of such length and importance to Theophilus, since both the Gospel and Acts were lengthy works for that time period. He would not have written such important works to a minor Roman official.
Here’s where it gets more interesting. Are you ready for some family gossip? Now you get to see how Theophilus fits into the bigger picture and why he’s not some unrelated Gentile out there somewhere detached from the Jews or Jerusalem. Hebrew history tells us that Theophilus, high priest from 37-41 A.D. was the son of Annas who was high priest in the days when John the Baptist was preaching: “In the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness”(Luke 3:2). Now already there’s some hanky-panky going on because there was never supposed to be two high priests. When Aaron died, his son took over as high priest as was the pattern. No two high priests in the same time period. We do know that collaboration with the Romans had something to do with who got the post of high priest based on who paid the most for the position. But there were evidently family dynamics going on to maintain power in the family. When Yeshua was taken captive, they “led Him to Annas first; for he was father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year”(John 18:13), after which“Annas sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest” (18:24). John’s Gospel tells it this way: “The Roman cohort and the commander and the officers of the Jews, arrested Jesus and bound Him, and led Him to Annas first; for he was father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. Now Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was expedient for one man to die on behalf of the people” (John 18:12-14). A bit confusing, I know. “Dad” (Annas) seems to be carrying some serious authority as he sees Yeshua first even if he’s not high priest. The point to keep in mind here is that Theophilus’ father, (Annas), and his brother-in-law, (Caiahphas), were largely responsible for what happened to Yeshua. Was Theophilus privy to their plans and intentions? Was anything discussed within the family? I wonder, was he a part of it? What must he have witnessed?
Theophilus was, as we see, Caiaphas’ brother-in-law, and along with his four brothers, served as high priests. By name his brothers are Eleazar, Jonathan, Matthias and Ananus. All this changing of high priest makes one suspect there was a great deal of jockeying for position going on. (Again, see “The Other Hanukkah Story” for more on the hanky-panky. To round out the story, Theophilus’ son Matthias served as the next to the last high priest before the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.
one more generation to the family account. An ossuary, which is an engraved
bone box with inscriptions on it, was found that provides more family information
that may lead us to why Luke was writing to Theophilus. This same Theophilus
had a granddaughter who was named Yohanna (Joanna) who was possibly Matthias’
daughter. Do you remember there was a “Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's
steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support (to Yeshua and
his disciples) out of their private
means” (Luke 8:3)? Only Luke mentions Theophilus, Joanna, and Matthias
(Anna, another woman, is only mentioned elsewhere by John), leading us to
believe Luke had intimate knowledge of the family. Yohanna is mentioned in Luke
8:3 and more importantly in 24:10 where she is a key eye witness of the
resurrection: “Now they were Mary
Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with
them were telling these things to the apostles” (24:10). That her name is
in the middle between the two other women is significant of her position of
importance in the story. We know how important Miriam of Magdala (Mary
Magdalene) is in the Gospel; Yohanna comes next. There is archaeological
evidence that verifies that she was Theophilus’ granddaughter.
Theophilus undoubtedly would have known Paul. Paul was not the only apostle who was traveling and making disciples, but Luke focuses on Paul for a reason. He was a noted rabbi and Pharisee. Theoophilus would have known what had taken place with Paul from the priests’ side. Luke wants him to know the story from Paul’s side. He goes into detail about Paul’s persecution of believers and that it was sanctioned by the priesthood (Acts 9.1-2,14; 22.5; 26.12). Theophilus may remember that clearly. Then he tells the powerful story of Yeshua coming to Paul in a great light and speaking to him so Paul was entirely convinced of Yeshua being alive. Paul is a man of great authority and position in the eyes of the priests so this story would be very significant to Theophilus. That Paul was entirely committed to Yeshua from that moment forward was no incidental fact and Luke focuses a significant amount of the story on Paul purposely. His purpose was to bring Israel’s high priest to the Lord. This understanding of who Theophilus was serves to correct the erroneous idea the story is one of how “Christianity” is no longer Jewish once Paul took it to the Gentiles. Paul may have gone to the Gentiles, but he always went to synagogues first, kept all the holidays, observed the Sabbath and was a Torah-observant Jew his whole life. Theophilus would need to know that. Any Jew would need to know that to give credibility to Yeshua being the Jewish Messiah.
For whatever reason, be it a sense of responsibility as a leader, conviction, a great desire to know the truth, out of skepticism, curiosity, or genuine spiritual hunger, Theophilus evidently wanted a full account, and sought out Luke, whom he appears to know personally, to confirm it. Luke writes with the goal that Theophilus, the High Priest of Israel, might come to believe. Now that you are informed of this information, take a new read through the Book of Acts with this in mind and see if it doesn’t give you a new sense of meaning.
Reprint of this article is permitted as long as you use the following; Use by permission by Messianic Vision, www.sidroth.org, 2011.
Lonnie Lane comes from a family of four generations of Jewish believers, being the first one saved in 1975. Lonnie has been in church leadership for many years, and has planted two “one new man” house fellowships, one in Philadelphia suburbs and the other in Jacksonville, Florida, where she now lives near 6 of her 8 grandchildren. Lonnie is the author of “Because They Never Asked” and numerous articles on this website. She has been the Producer of Messianic Vision's radio and TV shows and the International Prayer Co-Coordinator for Messianic Vision's intercessors. Click Here to order Lonnie's book, "Because They Never Asked."
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. All rights reserved. Used by permission.