Question: "Who was Theophilus at the beginning of Luke and Acts?"
Answer: The fact is that we really do not know who Theophilus was, which is why there are several different theories as to who he might be. No matter how much evidence there may or may not be for each theory, the simple fact is we do not who Theophilus was because the Bible does not identify who he was.
The name “Theophilus” literally means “loved by God,” but carries the idea of “friend of God.” This has led some to believe that “Theophilus” is just a generic title that applies to all Christians. However, from the context of Luke and Acts, it seems clear that Luke is writing to a specific individual, even though his message is also intended for all Christians in all centuries. While both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts have applications for all Christians, they were probably written to a specific individual whom Luke addresses as “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3).
Since it seems clear that Theophilus was an actual person, we will look at what we do know about him from the Bible and then discuss a few of the many theories as to who he might have been. First, it is important to note that Luke addresses him as “most excellent,” a title often used when referring to someone of honor or rank, such as a Roman official. Paul used the same term when addressing Felix (Acts 23:26; Acts 24:3) and Festus (Acts 26:25). Therefore, one of the most common theories is that Theophilus was possibly a Roman officer or high-ranking official in the Roman government.
Another possibility is that Theophilus was a wealthy and influential man in the city of Antioch. There are second-century references to a man named Theophilus who was “a great lord” and a leader in the city of Antioch during the time of Luke. Such a man would fit the description, as many scholars believe that Theophilus could have been a wealthy benefactor who supported Paul and Luke on their missionary journeys. That would account for Luke’s wanting to provide an orderly and detailed account of what had happened.
Another theory about who Theophilus was is that he was the Jewish high priest named Theophilus ben Ananus. Theophilus ben Ananus was high priest in Jerusalem in A.D. 37-41. He was the son of Annas and the brother–in-law of Caiaphus. While less popular, this theory seems to be gaining popularity among some groups. Still another theory is that the Theophilus Luke was writing to was a later high priest named Mattathias ben Theophilus, who served in Jerusalem in A.D. 65-66.
Yet another theory about the identity of Theophilus is that he was the Roman lawyer who defended Paul during his trial in Rome. Those who hold this theory believe that Luke’s purpose in writing Luke and Acts was to write a defense of Christianity, somewhat akin to a legal brief. If this theory is correct, Luke’s writings were designed to defend Paul in court against charges of insurrection and, at the same time, to defend Christianity against the charge that it was an illegal, anti-Roman religion.
While each of these theories holds possibilities, it seems most likely that Theophilus was a high-ranking or influential Gentile for whom Luke wanted to provide a detailed, historical account of Christ and the spread of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. Whether this Theophilus was a wealthy relative of Caesar, an influential government official, a wealthy benefactor who supported Paul or Paul’s Roman lawyer does not really matter. We cannot know for sure who Theophilus was, but we can know what Luke’s intentions for writing were. His stated reason for writing to Theophilus was “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). Luke wrote an historical account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and detailed the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. His intention was to give Theophilus certainty that the “things he had been taught” were indeed true and trustworthy.