Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Theophilus the High Priest

The Theophilus Proposal identifies most excellent Theophilus as the High Priest and the person to whom Luke addressed what we now call the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.[i] Luke does not connect forgiveness of sins with the death of Jesus because such a notion would have offended the High Priest and destroy any chance that the irenical presentation Luke was making would be effective.

This identification of “most excellent Theophilus” as the High Priest offers a possible explanation for Luke's lack of atoning view of the cross. Luke is thoroughly Jewish and the earliest Christians considered themselves to be Jews. Clearly such a lack of atoning view represents primitive Christianity.[ii] More importantly, Luke, in my opinion, rejected and/or did not develop an atoning significance for the death of Jesus because Luke did not want to equate Jesus with the High Priest. Luke, ever the diplomat, was very careful in his Gospel not to describe Jesus as a prophet greater than Moses. Such a notion would have been very offensive to the High Priest. Three examples should illustrate this point. In describing the Transfiguration only Luke indicates that Jesus, Moses and Elijah appeared together in glory.[iii] The Lucan Jesus does not walk on water nor does he curse the fig tree causing it to wilt and die. Luke, as part of his irenical presentation certainly, did not want to offend the High Priest. For this reason, Luke does not develop the substitutionary importance of the cross. The Jews believed that the death of the High Priest had atoning significance. Persons charged with accidental homicide who had fled to a city of refuge were permitted to return home after the death of the High Priest without facing prosecution.[iv] The death of the High Priest was regarded as atonement for the innocent blood that had been shed.[v]

Jacob Milgrom in his JPS Torah Commentary on Numbers with respect to Num 35:25 states 'As the High Priest atones for Israel's sins through his cultic service in his lifetime (Exod. 28:36; Lev. 16:16,21), so he atones for homicide through his death. Since the blood of the slain, although spilled accidentally, cannot be avenged through the death of the slayer, it is ransomed through the death of the High Priest which releases all homicides from their cities of refuge. That it is not the exile of the manslaughter but the death of the High Priest that expiates his crime is confirmed by the Mishnah: "If, after the slayer has been sentenced as an accidental homicide, the High Priest dies, he need not go into exile." The Talmud, in turn comments thereon "But it is not the exile that expiates? It is not the exile that expiates, but the death of the high priest."' [footnotes omitted].

The doctrine of the theology of the cross replaced both the High Priest and the Day of Atonement.

[i] Theophilus: A Proposal, Evangelical Quarterly, 69:3 (1997), 195-215; available at my website.
[ii] W. Heitmuller, 'Hellenistic Christianity before Paul,' Writings of St. Paul, ed. by Wayne Meeks (New York London, 1972), 314, ET of 'Zum Problem Paulus und Jesus,' Zeitschrift fur die neutestamentliche Wissenscraft 13 (1912) 320-37.
[iii]. Lk. 9:28-36; cf. Mt. 17:1-8 and Mk. 9:2-13.
[iv]. Num. 35: 11, 25, 28, 32.
[v]. According to Philo, the High Priest is the expiator of sins and the mediator and advocate for men. See internet article on “The pneumatology of Philo” at


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