This is the second post in a series offering a number of imaginary letters from the ancient world, only recently “discovered”. The letters, we might imagine, 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, might have written to the author of that work, as he received sections of the “orderly account” in sequence.
Theophilus to Luke, greetings.
I have continued to make mention of you in my prayers, and I trust that you are likewise remembering me.
I rejoice in the gift of writing which God has bestowed on you, for as I indicated to you in my earlier letter, I have been reading your narrative concerning Jesus. Once more I have dined in the house of Themistocles, and once more our discussion ranged over many matters concerning business and pleasure.
When we came, as I had anticipated, to the topic of ‘great men’ once more, I felt that I was better prepared. For I had read your narrative about Jesus—or, at least, I have read a goodly amount of it.
So I spoke a little more about Jesus. However, one of the company retorted that he had never heard of this Jesus, and that he was probably a figure made up by a clever author. At this point, I was able to reply that you had explicitly described your account of Jesus as a diegesin (Luke 1:3)—that is, as a narrative which has the appearance of being in historical form.
Indeed, as I have read your work, I have come to understand how you have presented your story about Jesus in the fashion familiar to us from those who have written accounts of the lives of great men in a history-like fashion, so lifelike and understandable was the character of Jesus whom you had depicted.
Hegestratus said that one should not presume that simply because a work was described as a diegesin, that it could be accounted worthy of belief, since there were often too many paradoxa, too many strange things, which strained credulity in such works.
Another diner, Apollonius, disagreed, arguing that the inclusion of such sections performed the good function of forcing the hearers to decide for themselves just what they thought about it.
Indeed, this is precisely the effect that your work has had on me. It is fair to say that I did know the basic story of Jesus. You had talked with me about it, and of course I had been present at gatherings where one or another had spoken about the deeds of Jesus, or repeated and explained some of his words, while we met, as we often did, at table in the house of Nikias, as well as with my own household from time to time.
But I have to say, with admiration, that your account has provided me with many more details, some of which I suppose I might have heard, but most of which I have clearly not remembered.
You have also presented the particular incidents in an overall framework which I assume you have supplied in the course of your writing. As you yourself wrote, you knew various incidents and happenings relating to Jesus from those who had previously written about them, but you have cast them into a narrative of ‘an orderly account’ (Luke 1:3). For this, I am most grateful.
I now sense that what you have done is to provide me with a collection of stories about Jesus which I myself can learn and retell. They form a basis for my own thinking and talking about issues, using the stories about Jesus, but allowing me to appropriate them for myself, in relation to my own needs.
I trust that this is what I may be able to do, should there be occasion in future gatherings with my host and the highly enjoyable company which he always seems able to draw together for the meals in his house.
I hope also that I might be able to keep a clear head, for after many hours of talking, interspersed with drinking from the amphoras of good wine which he provides us, it is sometimes difficult to think with precision!
Give my greetings to Staphys, and Nikia, and to my own household. I intend not to be away too long this time! I hope to hear from you, as you are able to put pen to papyrus in reply.
I pray that you may keep well.
Question for discussion: What do you think that Theophilus meant, in this letter, by ‘history’? Is it the same as what you mean by this term? If not, how might it be different?
This and the other “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