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Theophi … what?

Rev. John M. Edgerton
May 17 2015


The Gospel of Luke is unrivaled for its beginning. Its beginning is what makes it totally unique among the Gospels. No, I am not talking about the shepherds and the angels and the heavenly choir singing triumph songs sung for an audience exclusively made up of poor farm workers and peasants, I mean before that. I am not talking about Mary and Elizabeth meeting, both poor Jewish women in a country run by rich Roman men, both inexplicably pregnant, both proclaiming defiance that God should choose those who are counted as lowly to be exalted. I mean before that, too. The beginning of the Gospel of Luke that is so unique it reads as follows:
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

Theophi … what? What is he doing here? What is the story with this opening? It is one continuous sentence with an elaborate internal grammatical structure, the only purpose of which seems to be to explain why the Gospel had been written in the first place and to give a shout out to somebody named Theophilus. Since when does the author of a gospel need to explain why they are writing it, and who is this Theophilus person anyway?

There are basically explanations of this dedication to Theophilus. One is that since the name Theophilus literally means “one who loves God”, this is just a fancy way of addressing the reader—whoever the reader might be.

The other explanation is that Theophilus was a real person, and this gigantic sprawling Greek sentence was a formal recognition of that person. The Gospel of Luke was dedicated to Theophilus because Theophilus was the financial patron who had made it possible to publish the book in the first place.

I tend to agree more with those who believe this is dedicated to a real financial patron because writing the Gospel of Luke would have been an expensive and time consuming task. First off, you have to understand that unlike Matthew, Mark or John, the Gospel of Luke is long, really long. It is composed of the Gospel according to Luke and the book commonly called Acts. Taken together, Luke and Acts tell the story of the life of Jesus from before Jesus was ever born, through the entirety of his ministry, as well as narrating the early history of the birth of the church and the spread of Christianity through the world. This is the two volume deluxe edition, and it is written in high style. The author was possessed of elegant prose written in the most stylish Greek of the time. The author is a scholar of some note as the author managed to get their hands on several very authoritative versions of not only the Hebrew Bible but also the most authentic earlier accounts of Jesus’ ministry. The writing of it would have been the work of at least a year by a highly educated and professional writer, plus the cost of reproducing would have been astronomical. Each copy would take a professional scribe months to meticulously copy out by hand, plus the work of copy editors who double and triple checked for errors by counting the total number of letters in the entire book. It is hard to give you a modern equivalent but it might be something like the cost associated with writing, directing, producing and distributing a new Star Wars movie. It is a huge project, and would need people with deep pockets to bankroll it.

So for no other reason than how monumental a task it would have been to accomplish, I believe this Theophilus person was probably whoever it was who financially supported the writing of Luke and Acts. This dedication to Theophilus was a way of immortalizing them for their generosity. But that brings us to the question most interestingly raised by the dedication itself. Why was the Gospel of Luke written in the first place? There were other gospels that had already been written-- the dedication itself makes that clear. Plus, Luke quotes extensively from the Gospel of Mark in addition to other well documented sayings of Jesus. So it is not as if this were the telling of a story never before told. Christianity was already an established religion. Heck, the second volume of the Gospel of Luke is about how Christianity got to be so popular in the first place. So why write this? Why go to the enormous trouble and expense of writing another gospel of Jesus Christ?

I think the dedication to Theophilus is endlessly interesting despite thinking Theophilus bankrolled the writing of the Gospel of Luke because that just explains how it got written, not why it needed to be written.

Well, remember how I said the beginning of Luke is amazing? While a bible nerd like me thinks that the dedication to Theophilus is completely fascinating, that is not why I need the Gospel of Luke. At Christmas when I need to be filled up with hope for something new coming to the world, I need to hear the angel say “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” When I am struggling to make the world a better place bit by bit, I need the Gospel of Luke. When I am deep in the weeds on how to find more addiction recovery beds or lockers for homeless people, I need to hear Mary say “God has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”. I need the Gospel of Luke when I see that women’s leadership is too often suppressed, then I need the Gospel of Luke. In Luke alone, I can hear Elizabeth and Mary give testimony in their own voices. In Luke alone, I can learn about Joanna, and Suzanna, and the Mary’s, and the countless women who from the beginning had always been among the leaders of the followers of Jesus.

I need the Gospel of Luke. The world needs the Gospel of Luke. That is why it was written. The world needed good news that could embrace those who had been outsiders and see in them beloved children of God. The world needed good news that could be heard and understood not only in the lands where Jesus walked, but also on the far side of the world, in places Jesus never even set foot. Places like Western Asia and Northern Italy and Spain and Ethiopia. The world needed good news that transcended race and class and gender and nationality and embraced the whole world under a new and radical love as seen in almighty God born in a lowly manger, to an ordinary woman engaged to an ordinary man. The world needed the Gospel of Luke, but someone had to write it, and someone had to believe in it enough to make it a reality.

It seems somehow almost sacrilegious, the idea that someone would sit down and write a brand new gospel. It seems presumptuous that the world would need new good news; is the old good news not good enough?

Take this from the dedication to Theophilus: it is our task today—as is the task for every generation of Christians—it is our task today to proclaim the good news in ways that the world needs to hear it today. We need to be the church in new ways for a new century. We must find ways to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to those who have been told they are of no worth. We must open the doors of leadership within the church to those whose gifts have not been recognized and to borrow a bit.

Since many have undertaken to live out the good news of Jesus Christ as it has been fulfilled among them embracing , just as that example had been handed on to them by those who from the earlier generations were witnesses and co-workers in the word, we too must, after considering everything carefully from the very first, live out a wider embrace amongst you, most excellent lovers of God, so that people who have never heard of the God who loves everyone may know the truth concerning the things about which you and I have already been instructed.

May it be so.