The identity of Theophilus is a mystery to Bible students. The name appears only two times in Scripture and both times in the writings of Luke (Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1). It is uncertain what role in the early church he played but he is noteworthy in the thinking of Luke for he directs both the Gospel account and the Acts account to Theophilus.
Various suggestions have been offered as to the identity of Theophilus. It is suggested that he is an actual person, perhaps a patron, of Luke and his work. Some have wondered if Luke was commissioned by Theophilus to prepare a record of both Jesus and the beginnings the church that bears Christ’s name (Romans 16:16). Cadbury notes that Theophilus was a common name for Jews and dates to at least the third century BC. ((via Pöllmann in Balz, H. R., & Schneider, G. (1990-). Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.)) So it is unlikely we can determine much from the name itself.
There was a Jewish High Priest named Theophilus who served from 37-41 AD. He was the son of Annas and the brother-in-law of Caiaphas before whom Jesus was tried. The date of service was likely completed before Luke’s writings and therefore he probably should be discounted as the intended recipient.
Another High Priest named Mattathias ben Theophilus served from 65-66 AD and was overthrown in the time immediately before the destruction of Jerusalem. In his case, Theophilus is actually the name of his father, the aforementioned priest. His service also appears to come too late to have been the recipient.
Theophilus may have been a name given to the earliest believers in Jesus. The name is actually a joining of two Greek words, theos and phileo, which mean God and love respectively. Thus the combination would be Theophilus or “lover of God.” If this is true it could refer to either an individual or a group of people who loved God.
This seems an unsatisfactory conclusion for such naming conventions are generally foreign to the New Testament. But perhaps even more difficult is the context of Luke 1:3 where the reference is to “most excellent Theophilus.” In every other New Testament usage, the phrase, excellent or most excellent, is used toward an individual. ((Claudius Lysias to Felix (Acts 23:26, Tertullius to Felix (Acts 24:2) and Paul to Festus (Acts 26:5) )).
Bock ((Darrell L. Bock, Luke, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 1 (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI), pg. 64)) suggests that Theophilus was actually a Gentile. He reasons that his apparent high station in life and the degree to which Luke defends the Gentile mention in Acts, suggests that he was not Jewish. As with other suggestions it is little more than speculation.
In the end, almost all we can say about Theophilus is skillful speculation. But we do know that Theophilus was at least curious about Jesus and his followers. It would seem unlikely that Luke would address two manuscripts to Theophilus if there were not some interest. We may perhaps add that Theophilus was probably not hostile to the gospel message. At least for that, Theophilus could be commended.
Our conclusion? Theophilus was an individual interested in the gospel. His importance lies in the fact that he was the original recipient of two magnificent pieces of inspired literature. How poor would we be without Luke and Acts!