This is the first post in a series of posts offering imaginary letters from the ancient world, only recently “discovered”. The letters, we might imagine, could reflect what the recipient of the “orderly account of the things that have come to fulfilment ” (what we know as the Gospel of Luke), the man named Theophilus, wrote to the author of that work, as he received sections of the “orderly account” in sequence.
Theophilus is away on a business trip. He writes home to Luke, telling of what happens as he reads Luke’s narrative and shares it with others. You will need to be prepared to engage in an act of imagination, which will transport you across the centuries into another time and place.
And so, imagine …
Theophilus to Luke, greetings. Before all else, I wish that you are well, and that you are applying yourself to the tasks of writing that are before you.
I make prayers on your behalf to our Lord God, praying that you may continue to enjoy good health. Now that I have arrived in Antioch, and have found someone who is travelling back to Achaia, I have entrusted this letter to him. I hope that you will be able to write back to me, about your health, and about the health of our brothers and sisters in Achaia.
I am writing to you to report that I have now, at last, been able to find time to read the narrative which you delivered to me just before my departure from Achaia. After sailing across the Aegean to Ephesus, I have travelled along the common way to Laodicea, and now to Antioch, where I have lodged in the house of Themistocles whilst I conduct my business in this city.
In fact, whilst we were reclining at table just two nights ago, some matters arose in conversation which reminded me of the task which I had promised you that I would undertake whilst on this journey.
Our table talk covered many matters. The price of grain was, as usual, the matter to which the company first turned its attention. Then, one of the group spoke of the new trade opportunities that have been reported from a merchant who has just returned here from an eastern trip. Quite some time was spent in hearing the details of a scandal which has just erupted, concerning two of the servants of a local merchant here in Antioch.
The rather appalling state of the produce seen in the marketplace each day was also canvassed, as was the welcome news that the maritime trade season has just now begun, having been delayed some two weeks because of the unseasonable winds on the Aegean Sea. We all agreed that this should lead to an improvement in the marketplace produce within the week.
Incidentally, you must remind me to tell you of the scandal surrounding the two servants; I do not wish to be distracted by it at the moment, but I am certain that you will find it to be entertaining when I recount it to you face to face. I recall with fondness your own ability when it comes to storytelling, and I can only hope that I will live up to your best expectations when I have the opportunity to tell you this rather sordid tale. I know that you have an ear for tales of striking dramatic effect, and so I would be pleased to add this to your collection.
At any rate, as you might imagine, it was only a matter of time before our conversation happened to venture onto a more elevated plane. The opportunity for good table talk, such as was valued by a number of our company, was too valuable to be squandered on boring business details spiced with licentious scandal mongering, for the whole of the evening. And so we found ourselves engaged in a discussion concerning some of the great men from before our times.
One of my companions spoke about the virtues of Romulus, famed for his role in the founding of the city of Rome. None dare speak ill of the Romans at this time, of course; but at the time when the city was founded, it was, so it seems, a little place of no repute. Romulus is rightly honoured for his great deeds: he is the father of a widespread, if not widely-loved, empire.
Another at table with me spoke of the great Alexander, whose soldiers once marched not far from here, so I am told, as they ventured east to conquer many new lands. Rightly is Alexander endowed with the title ‘great’, for such were his deeds.
And yet another who was present with us spoke in exalted tones of Pythagoras, the famous teacher and philosopher, who performed no great deeds save that he taught of the mysteries of numbers, sounds, and ideas. It may perhaps be that his impact will be far greater than that of the other two, although it would have been a brave man to declare that in the company of those at table with me two nights back.
However, such conversation did embolden me to speak, for just a short while, of the man Jesus, about whom you have written so eloquently in your narrative which you have vouchsafed to me. If the truth be told, it was this moment in the discussion that reminded me of your work, of which I had read but two or three portions some days before the meal, but which now I have determined to read through consecutively, until I arrive at the ending. And so it was that I spoke about Jesus to my dinner companions.
As I did so, I recalled what you had written about the birth of Jesus: how strange, portentous happenings took place before and immediately after he was born. For I recall that you wrote about how the man Zechariah was struck dumb (Luke 1:19–22); and how Elizabeth conceived when everyone expected that she was well past her time (1:24–25); and then how Zechariah was able to speak (1:59–66). And you wrote also about how Mary conceived in strange, inexplicable circumstances, which you described as the spirit of holiness which overshadowed Mary (1:35).
And I recalled more clearly your words about how the angel spoke to Zechariah (1:8–20), and then to Mary (1:27–38), and still later to the shepherds (2:8–14). Indeed, these things reminded me of what I once read concerning the great Alexander—how his conception in the womb of Olympias had been announced to her in a dream in which a thunderbolt struck her womb, and then how Philip, the boy’s father, dreamed of how he sealed up the womb.
And I also recall reading how the priestess of the oracle at Delphi predicted how invincible the boy would be once he was born, and how the temple of Artemis was burnt to the ground on the very day that the child was born. Such amazing events took place in association with his birth!
This recollection gave me courage, then, to speak of Jesus during the table talk; for surely similar amazing things took place in association with his birth. But one of my companions objected in the strongest terms—what great things did this Jesus do? he asked. I recall now that you wrote about the prophecy that ‘he would be called great’ (Luke 1:32); I lament the fact that I was not quick-witted enough to speak of this at the meal itself.
At any rate, I told the company of how he spoke great things—like Pythagoras, like Epicurus, like Socrates even—things which help us to know how to live life and what choices to make when confronted with dilemmas in life.
As I spoke, it became clear to me that I had not remembered very well the things which you had told me, when we were speaking about your writing project at the time when I was with still you. And so, I was especially glad that I had brought your manuscript with me, and I have determined to make good use of my time away, so that I might read and understand the things which have been fulfilled amongst us, as you so eloquently describe them.
Give my greetings to the members of my household, and please assure my beloved wife that the requests she made for goods that I was to bring back with me have not been forgotten. I believe that it will be some time before my business here is concluded, and so I will write directly to her in good time; but it will please the gods if you are able to convey this message to her. Give greetings also to Staphys, and to the household of Nikias, and those who lodge with him.
I pray that you may keep well.
Questions for discussion: do you think that it is reasonable to interpret the “signs and wonders” of Luke 1–2 not as historical occurrences, but as symbols which are pointers to the significance of Jesus? Are such ‘miracles’ (paradoxa) and ‘portents’ (to which Theophilus refers in this letter) something that we expect in histories today?
This and the following “letters” were part of my presentation at a conference held at St Hilda’s College, University of Melbourne, in November 2000. The conference was entitled “Preaching and Teaching in the Year of Luke: a national conference on preaching, teaching and learning”. It was sponsored by the national Uniting Church agency, Uniting Education, in association with Otira, the Continuing Education agency of the Synod of Victoria. The keynote addresses were subsequently published as AT TABLE WITH LUKE (UTC Publications; UTC Bible Studies 2, 2000) ©John T. Squires 2000