This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Friday, December 26, 2014

New evidence that Theophilus was from Philippi

Acts 16:11-12 reads
11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is
a leading city of the district of Macedonia (πρώτη τῆς μερίδος Μακεδονίας πόλις)and a Roman colony.
I suggest that 16:12 is explicable if Theophilus was from Philippi and Luke wrote this verse to honour him.

πρώτη means "first", but in what sense? Luke is not saying that Philippi was the first city that Paul came to, because Neapolis was the first. Luke must mean "first" in the sense of "most prominent/leading". This presents a problem. Why would Luke honour Philippi in this way, but not other cities? Only Tarsus is similarly honoured (in Acts 21:39, where Paul says "I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city"). The problem is particularly acute because 16:12 seems to exaggerate the importance of Philippi. Thessalonica, not Philippi, was the capital of Macedonia, which was divided into four districts. Amphipolis was the largest city in Philippi's district, and Philippi had only 5,000 to 15,000 residents (Keener p 2380). Why would Luke proclaim the importance of Philippi, a relatively minor city, but not do the same for major cities, such as Antioch, Ephesus, Thessalonica, and Corinth? Some have tried to solve the problem by suggesting a reading that is unattested in any Greek manuscript, but Witherington rightly dismisses this as a "step of desperation". Ramsay, however, attempted to answer the question by suggesting that Luke here is boasting of his own hometown (St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen p206-7):
The description of the dignity and rank of Philippi is unique in Acts; nor can it be explained as strictly requisite for the historian’s proper purpose. Here again the explanation lies in the character of the author, who was specially interested in Philippi, and had the true Greek pride in his own city. Perhaps he even exaggerates a little the dignity of Philippi, which was still only in process of growth, to become at a later date the great city of its division. Of old Amphipolis had been the chief city of the division, to which both belonged. Afterwards Philippi quite outstripped its rival; but it was at that time in such a position, that Amphipolis was ranked first by general consent, Philippi first by its own consent. These cases of rivalry between two or even three cities for the dignity and title of “First” are familiar to every student of the history of the Greek cities; and though no other evidence is known to show that Philippi had as yet began to claim the title, yet this single passage is conclusive. The descriptive phrase is like a lightning flash amid the darkness of local history, revealing in startling clearness the whole situation to those whose eyes are trained to catch the character of Greek city-history and city-jealousies.
It is an interesting fact that Luke, who hides himself so completely in his history, cannot hide his local feeling;
This idea was taken up (in slightly different ways) by Witherington (1998 p489),  Keener (2014 p2383), and Ascough ("Civic Pride at Philippi: the Text-Critical Problem of Acts 16.12" NTS 44 1998). There are three problems with the idea:
1. Philippi was not the author's hometown, for "we" occurs in 16:10, well before the group arrived in Philippi. Keener avoids this problem by suggesting that Luke is boasting of the town where he settled, not of the town of his birth. However, I doubt that people would boast of an adopted town, and Ascough's paper gives no examples of of such.
2. Luke was not interested in honouring himself. His work is anonymous and he refers to himself sparingly. On the occasions when he does use the first person, he generally uses the plural. Keener (p2373) writes that the use of the plural "allows Luke to avoid entirely the risk of self-commendation". Luke was keen to avoid drawing attention to himself. See my last post, here. Furthermore, the name "Luke" was a hypocoristic form of "Lucius", which was a Latin praenomen. It is testement to Luke's humility that he did not insist that others use his nomen or cognomen. See here.
3. Acts was not written exclusively for the church of Philippi, for other Aegean cities receive just as much attention in the narrative. Acts was probably written for churches in multiple cities, as Keener shows (p431-2). It would be undiplomatic for Luke to express civic pride in Philippi, for the purposes of honouring either himself or ordinary members of the Philippian church, if (as is likely) his audience also included believers from other cities, such as Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus. It seems unlikely that Luke would take sides in inter-city rivalries in this way.

It therefore seems to me that it is Theophilus whom Luke is honouring in 16:12. We know that Luke wanted to honour Theophilus, for he calls him "most excellent" (Luke 1:3). Luke's use of a dedicatee (Theophilus) works only if the intended audience knew Theophilus, so it is likely that most of them knew which town he came from. Theophilus was of high status and had probably performed benefactions for the churches, for example by paying for the production of copies of Luke-Acts. Luke's hearers would expect Luke to honour Theophilus, in accordance with ancient conventions concerning the honouring of benefactors. The audience of Luke-Acts were beneficiaries of Theophilus, assuming that he had indeed payed for the publication of the work, so they would not have resented Luke's rather exaggerated emphasis on the status of Philippi. Even today it is common to use hyperbole when thanking sponsors and other contributors to events, books, and films. It is not surprising that Luke describes Theophilus as "most excellent", and his city, Philippi, as first in rank. When a text is inexplicable to us, it is usually because the original audience knew something that we do not. I suggest that they knew that the sponsor of the text was from Philippi.

It seems, then, that Theophilus was from Philippi, and that he may have payed for the distribution of Luke-Acts among the churches of the Aegean, where he was known. This, of course, fits nicely with my view that Acts was written for the Aegean churches, where people such as Jason, Crispus-Sosthenes, Alexander, Tyrannus, and perhaps Pyrrhus, were already known (see here). It also fits with  the data that connect Luke with Macedonia and with Philippi in particular. The author of Acts travelled to Macedonia with Paul, Silas and Timothy, but he did not proceed to Corinth, for his name is absent from 2 Cor 1:19 and 1 Thess 1:1. He may have stayed in Macedonia. He probably next appears in 2 Cor 8:18-19 (see here), where he is probably the collection representative of the church of Philippi, for there is no named Philippian in Acts 20:4, and there is every chance that 2 Corinthians was written from Philippi as subscriptions indicate. Finally, he travels through Philippi in Acts 20:6.
Luke spent time in Philippi and the church there came to trust him with their money, and one of them, Theophilus, trusted him to write a history of the church.


  1. Hi Richard:

    I think that Acts 16:12 could be an evidence that Theophilus is not from Philippi.

    It can be argued that Theophilus knows about Thessalonica, Antioch, Corinth and Ephesus but doesn't know about Philippi and needs an explanation.


  2. I had the same thought, but I don't think it works. Acts was not written to teach geography to Theophilus and the intended audience was more than just Theophilus. Also, those who knew Jason and Sosthenes and the hall of Tyrannus etc. would likely know Philippi already.