Who Was Theophilus of Antioch?
“YOU call me a Christian, as if this were a damning name to bear, I, for my part, avow that I am a Christian, and bear this name beloved of God, hoping to be serviceable to God.”
Theophilus thus introduces his three-part work entitled Theophilus to Autolycus. It is the beginning of his defense against second-century apostasy. Theophilus boldly identifies himself as a follower of Christ. He appears determined to conduct his affairs so as to become one “beloved of God,” in harmony with the Greek-language meaning of his name. Just who was Theophilus? When did he live? And what did he accomplish?
Little is known of Theophilus’ personal history. He was raised by non-Christian parents. Theophilus later converted to Christianity but only after a careful study of the Scriptures. He became bishop of the congregation in Syrian Antioch, known today as Antakya, in Turkey.
In harmony with Jesus’ command, first-century Christians preached among the Antiochian populace. Luke recorded their success, saying: “The hand of Jehovah was with them, and a great number that became believers turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:20, 21) As divinely directed, Jesus Christ’s followers became known as Christians. This term was first applied in Syrian Antioch. (Acts 11:26) In the first century C.E., the apostle Paul journeyed to Syrian Antioch, and it became his home base. Barnabas and Paul, accompanied by John Mark, embarked on their first missionary tour from Antioch.
Early Christians of Antioch must have been greatly encouraged by apostolic visits to their city. Their enthusiastic response to the truth of God’s Word was undoubtedly due in part to the faith-strengthening visits of the first-century representatives of the governing body. (Acts 11:22, 23) How encouraging it must have been for them to see so many residents of Antioch dedicate their lives to Jehovah God! However, it was more than 100 years later that Theophilus lived in Antioch.
The historian Eusebius stated that Theophilus was the sixth bishop of Antioch, counting from the time of the apostles of Christ. Theophilus put into writing a considerable number of oral discussions and refutations against heresy. He is included among the dozen or so Christian apologists of his day.
A Look at His Writings
Responding to earlier dialogue, Theophilus writes to pagan Autolycus with these opening words: “A fluent tongue and an elegant style afford pleasure and such praise as vainglory delights in, to wretched men who have been corrupted in mind.” Theophilus elucidates, saying: “The lover of truth does not give heed to ornamented speeches, but examines the real matter of the speech . . . You have assailed me with empty words, boasting of your gods of wood and stone, hammered and cast, carved and graven, which neither see nor hear, for they are idols, and the works of men’s hands.”—Compare Psalm 115:4-8.
Theophilus exposes the fallacy of idolatry. In his typical style of writing, he eloquently, although redundantly, endeavors to state the real nature of the true God. He expounds: “The appearance of God is ineffable and indescribable, and cannot be seen by eyes of flesh. For in glory He is incomprehensible, in greatness unfathomable, in height inconceivable, in power incomparable, in wisdom unrivalled, in goodness inimitable, in kindness unutterable.”
Adding to this description of God, Theophilus continues: “But he is Lord, because He rules over the universe; Father, because he is before all things; Fashioner and Maker, because He is creator and maker of the universe; the Highest, because of His being above all; and Almighty, because He Himself rules and embraces all.”
Next, focusing on specific accomplishments of God, Theophilus proceeds in a manner typical of his thorough and somewhat repetitious style, saying: “For the heavens are His work, the earth is His creation, the sea is His handiwork; man is His formation and His image; sun, moon, and stars are His elements, made for signs, and seasons, and days, and years, that they may serve and be slaves to man; and all things God has made out of things that were not into things that are, in order that through His works His greatness may be known and understood.”
A further sampling of Theophilus’ attack on the false gods of his day is observable in the following words to Autolycus: “The names of those whom you say you worship, are the names of dead men. . . . And what kind of men were they? Is not Saturn found to be a cannibal, destroying and devouring his own children? And if you name his son Jupiter, . . . how he was suckled by a goat . . . And his other deeds,—his incest, and adultery, and lust.”
Broadening his scope, Theophilus reinforces his stand in opposition to pagan idolatry. He writes: “Should I further recount the multitude of animals worshipped by the Egyptians, both reptiles, and cattle, and wild beasts, and birds, and river-fishes . . . The Greeks and the other nations, they worship stones and wood, and other kinds of material substances.” “But God, the living and true God, I worship,” declares Theophilus.—Compare 2 Samuel 22:47; Acts 14:15; Romans 1:22, 23.
The admonitions and exhortations in Theophilus’ three-part work refuting Autolycus are multifaceted and detailed. Other writings of Theophilus were directed against Hermogenes and Marcion. He also penned books of instruction and edification, adding commentaries on the Gospels. However, only the three books to Autolycus, a single manuscript, have been preserved.
The first book is an apology written to Autolycus in defense of the Christian religion. The second book to Autolycus argues against popular heathen religion, speculation, philosophers, and poets. Heathen literature is compared with the Scriptures in Theophilus’ third book.
At the inception of Theophilus’ third book, Autolycus was apparently still of the opinion that the Word of truth was an idle tale. Theophilus indicts Autolycus, claiming: “You endure fools gladly. Otherwise you would not have been moved by senseless men to yield yourself to empty words, and to give credit to the prevalent rumor.”
What was that “prevalent rumor”? Theophilus reveals the source. Slanderous ones “with godless lips falsely accuse us, [we] who are worshippers of God, and are called Christians, alleging that the wives of us all are held in common and made promiscuous use of; and that we even commit incest with our own sisters, and, what is most impious and barbarous of all, that we eat human flesh.” Theophilus labored to combat this grossly inaccurate pagan view of professed second-century Christians. He used the light of truth contained in God’s inspired Word.—Matthew 5:11, 12.
Testifying to Theophilus’ familiarity with God’s Word is his frequent use of and reference to both Hebrew and Greek Bible texts. He was one of the earliest commentators on the Gospels. Theophilus’ many references to the Scriptures provide a wealth of insight into the thinking prevalent in his time. He used his acquaintance with the inspired writings to exhibit their immense superiority over pagan philosophy.
The arrangement of Theophilus’ material, his didactic tone and repetitive style may leave something to be desired in the minds of some. To what extent the foretold apostasy may have affected the accuracy of his views, we cannot presently say. (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12) Nevertheless, by the time of his death, about 182 C.E., Theophilus had apparently become a tireless apologist, whose writings are of interest to genuine Christians of our modern age.
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Theophilus boldly refuted arguments of Autolycus
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Illustrations on pages 28 and 30 reproduced from Illustrirte Pracht - Bibel/Heilige Schrift des Alten und Neuen Testaments, nach der deutschen Uebersetzung D. Martin Luther’s