Like the Gospel of Luke, the book of Acts is explicitly addressed to a certain “Theophilus” (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Meaning “lover of God” or “friend of God,” this name has often been understood, especially among preachers, as a generic or symbolic reference to all Christians. For at least two reasons, though, it more likely refers to an actual person in Luke’s social circle. Not only is the name attested in Greek literature, it’s also qualified with the phrase “most excellent” or “most noble” (Greek kratistos) in Luke 1:3, an honorary title only appropriate for an individual of high social means. In fact, this appellation is only used for Roman governors elsewhere in the New Testament, including Felix (Acts 23:26; 24:3) and Festus (Acts 26:25).
Given the historical-cultural milieu of the first century, scholars are widely agreed that Theophilus was a patron of Luke-Acts, the sponsor who funded its production and circulation. As New Testament professor Mark Strauss writes, “In the ancient world, the time and expense necessary for producing volumes like Luke and Acts were enormous, and authors commonly dedicated their works to their sponsors.” Theophilus’s patronage would have been entirely fitting in light of his social status.
Closer inspection of Luke 1:3–4 also reveals that Theophilus was either a recent convert to Christianity or on the cusp of converting at the time of publication. The stated purpose of this Gospel—namely, “that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (v. 4)—makes no sense otherwise. Neither would Theophilus’s sponsorship. Accordingly, this wealthy investor may have been a former God-fearer, a Gentile who had worshiped Israel’s God without becoming a Jew.
Although Acts is addressed specifically to Theophilus, the time and effort required by such an extensive composition suggest that it was written for a wider audience as well. In fact, like the canonical Gospels, Acts was probably written first and foremost for a specific Christian community and then, after circulation, for the church at large. Exactly which community that is, however, is impossible to determine with any degree of certainty. Still, we can highlight a number of features that characterize Luke’s first readers:
- Like Theophilus, they most certainly would have been believers or seekers.
- Luke’s emphasis on the legitimacy of the Gentile mission indicates that they were predominantly Gentile, though perhaps with a Jewish minority.
- Given the original language of Luke-Acts, they were primarily Greek- rather than Aramaic- or Latin-speaking.
- Luke’s distinctive interest in material possessions and his portrayal of several fairly wealthy believers in Acts intimates that he was writing to “a slightly more well-to-do Christian community.”