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The Writing of the New Testament - Luke and Acts

“In as much as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (Luke 1:1-4).

“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.” (Acts 1:1-2).

Who Was Theophilus?

The Gospel of Luke is addressed to Theophilus with the expression: “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3). This phrasing indicates that Theophilus was a Roman official, and not merely a friend or associate of Luke. Both the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles are addressed to this Theophilus. Yet he could not have been very high up in the Roman government because nothing is known about him from other historical evidence. Why then would Luke address two works of such length and importance (both the Gospel and Acts were fairly lengthy works for that time period) to 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. Where would Theophilus have received his initial information and instruction about the Christian 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.

Even so, Luke would only address both of these important works to a minor Roman official, if Luke were living in the area ruled by that official when he was writing. Since Acts of the Apostles was most likely written sometime during the two years after Paul arrived for his appeal to the emperor (see below), the Gospel of Luke was also written about that same time. At other times, Luke had been traveling with Paul and would not have been in one place, where Theophilus held office, for the length of time needed to write his Gospel. Thus the Gospel of Luke was written early in that two-year period of time and Acts of the Apostles was written in the latter part of those two years.

Luke's Gospel and Acts are both addressed to the same Roman official, Theophilus. Luke uses the formal term “most excellent” to address Theophilus in his Gospel (Lk 1:3). This language was commonly used in addressing Roman officials. Examples of this same expression are found in Acts, where it is used to address both Felix and Festus (Acts 24:2; 26:25). But, at the beginning of Acts, Luke no longer calls Theophilus “most excellent Theophilus,” instead he calls him “O Theophilus” (Lk 1:3; Acts 1:1). This indicates that Theophilus was no longer in office by the time that Luke was writing, or had completed writing, Acts. Yet Luke still addresses Acts to Theophilus. Luke must still have been living in the same area, where Theophilus still had continued respect and some unofficial authority. Minor Roman officials often held office for only a year. Theophilus could have been proconsul of Achaia, the region in which Saint Jerome tells us Luke was living when he wrote the Gospel, or he could have held some other office within the region of Achaia or Boeotia, (but there is no direct historical evidence as to where Theophilus held office).

Why would Almighty God allow two inspired works of Sacred Scripture to be addressed to a minor Roman official named Theophilus? From a spiritual point of view, the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles were both addressed to the name 'Theophilus' because of the meaning of that name, not because of the individual with that name. The name Theophilus means “one who loves God;” 'Theo' refers to God (as in 'Theology'), and 'philus' is from the Greek word 'philos' meaning 'to love.' So, Luke's Gospel is addressed, in the spiritual sense, not to one Roman official, but to all those who love God. Luke's Gospel was not written only or primarily for the Hebrews, who converted to Christ, but for all who love God, including the Gentiles.

Where Were Luke's Gospel and Acts Written?

In Acts of the Apostles, Luke records many events that he himself either witnessed or learned directly from Paul. Acts ends abruptly at a point in time two years after Paul had been in Rome, preaching the Gospel, but guarded by a Roman soldier (Acts 28:16, 30). If Luke were living in a major Christian community during those two years, such as in Rome, Jerusalem, or Antioch, he would likely have included events occurring within that community. Yet Luke has little to say about those two years. Perhaps, then, Luke spent those two years in relative isolation from the larger Christian community, not traveling from place to place as he formerly did with Paul. He could have been living in a small town, some distance from Rome and other major centers of Christianity, focusing on writing.

Acts describes nothing beyond Paul's two-year stay in Rome, even though a number of significant events occurred not long afterwards, including the martyrdoms of James the Less and Mark the Evangelist. Neither does Luke record the outcome of Paul's appeal before the emperor. Thus, we may reasonably conclude that Acts was completed about two years after Paul arrived in Rome, not at any later date. Luke may have spent much of those two years working on his Gospel and on Acts of the Apostles. He may have had some portion of Acts written in advance (notes he had taken along the way and the like). However, this two-year period of time is the most likely time frame for the writing of the bulk of Acts and for its completion.

Not much detail is given about Paul's activities in Rome during those two years (Acts 28:30-31). Luke gives us great detail and precision in the order and timing of the events in the latter part of Acts (e.g. Acts 28:11-15), but he has very little to say about the two years described by Acts 28:30-31; he uses only one sentence to describe two whole years. Luke was with Paul when he arrived in Rome (Acts 28:16), but Luke must have lived somewhere distant from Rome for the greater part of those two years. Otherwise, he would have had some communication with Paul and more information to give about Paul's first two years in Rome.

From Acts 27:1 to the end of Acts, Luke uses the first person plural, “we,” to describe events which he and Paul and perhaps others experienced together. But in the last sentence of Acts, the one describing the first two years that Paul spent in Rome, Luke changes from using “we” to using “he” (Paul) and also refers to Rome with the word “there.” Acts ends with this sentence: “And he lived there two whole years at his own expense….” (Acts 28:30). This choice of words implies that Luke was elsewhere at the time of those two years.

Luke wrote the Gospel and Acts while he was living in the same location. He addressed both his Gospel and Acts to Theophilus because he was living in the region where Theophilus was, at first, a Roman official with formal authority, and later, a former Roman official who still retained some degree of respect and unofficial authority. Luke was also writing for the group of Christians who influenced Theophilus to become interested in Christ.

According to Saint Jerome, Saint Luke wrote the Gospel while living in the region of Achaia. “He was himself a disciple of the Apostle Paul, and composed his book in Achaia and Boeotia.” (Jerome, The Commentaries, Matthew). Achaia is the ancient region roughly in the location of modern-day Greece. Boeotia is a region within Greece, just northeast of the Gulf of Corinth. It is still referred to as Boeotia today. This location makes sense in the context of the other information we have about Luke. He was not in Rome with Paul during those two years mentioned at the end of Acts. Luke gives very little information about that two-year period of time because Luke was living far from Rome. He also was not in the center of any large Christian community (he lived some distance from Corinth); otherwise he might have added events from that community to the two years described at the end of Acts of the Apostles. Theophilus must have been a Roman official with authority within the area of Boeotia, where Luke was living when he wrote his Gospel and Acts.

When Were Luke's Gospel and Acts Written?

In my book, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary, I conclude that those two whole years must have been early A.D. 44 to early A.D. 46, that is, until early in the 7th year of Nero. (Note that, in my revised chronology of Christ's life, He was born in 15 B.C. and crucified in A.D. 19.) As concluded above, the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles were both most likely written during these first two years that Paul spent in Rome, between early A.D. 44 and early A.D. 46.

Which Language Did Luke Use?

Luke wrote both his Gospel and Acts for Theophilus and the Christians who influenced him to take an interest in Christ. Theophilus is a Greek name. The ending “us” is a Latinization of the Greek word 'philos,' just as the “us” in Josephus is a Latinization of the name Joseph (a Hebrew name). But the words 'Theo' and 'philos' are Greek words. Therefore, Theophilus is a Latinized Greek name and Theophilus himself was of Greek decent. Though he was an official in the Roman empire, Theophilus was probably raised in Greek culture, learning first and foremost the Greek language. As a Roman official, he also must have known some Latin.

The Christians who influenced Theophilus were also most likely Greek. They lived in the same area as Theophilus, in Boeotia of Greece. Theophilus may have known some of these Christians through family, social, or cultural connections within Greek society. Most people at that time in history were illiterate or minimally-literate. Thus, most of the Christians around Theophilus could speak the Greek language, but they were less than fluent when reading or writing Greek. This adds to the explanation as to why Luke addressed his books to Theophilus; it was partly because Theophilus had a role of authority and leadership, but also partly because most other persons in that group were less literate than he was.

Luke was a well-educated Gentile Christian, who was a physician. As a Christian without a Hebrew or Jewish background, Luke would have had minimal literacy in the Hebrew language. He would have been able to speak Aramaic, as this was one of the most dominant spoken languages of his day (and he traveled extensively). But his most fluent written languages were Latin and Greek. These two languages were the languages of ancient scholarship; works in Latin and in Greek competed for the attention of scholars.

Clearly, Luke's Gospel and Acts had to be written in the Greek language. This conclusion is not based on the fact that the oldest extant manuscripts of those books are in Greek. Nor is it based on the (mostly unexamined) premise of many modernist scholars that all the books of the New Testament were written in Greek. This conclusion is based on the idea that an author of a book of the New Testament would write in a language which he knew well and which his intended audience would know well.

The Title of Luke's Gospel and Acts

Luke appears to have given neither his Gospel, nor Acts of the Apostles, a title. He wrote two short works, for Theophilus and the small group of Christians who influenced him; Luke did not expect these works to be “published” or widely circulated. In modern terms, the Gospel of Luke and Acts are each like a long personal letter, which was not originally intended by the author to be seen by many persons. Luke perhaps intended that only Theophilus and a few other persons in his circle of Christian friends would read and benefit from his works. That is why he never gave either work a title.

(Portions of this article were adapted from the author's book, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary.)

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
December 25, 2005

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