We do not know much about Luke’s patron, Theophilus, but we can easily imagine the kind of person he might have been. Perhaps his home was Alexandria, the pearl of Hellenistic culture at the mouth of the Nile, chief city of Roman Egypt. On this morning Theophilus left his city house early and rode out to the plantations he owned along the Nile delta. It was time for his monthly inspection visit. He was greeted at his country villa by his chief administrator (oikonomos) Patroclus and ushered in under the villa’s shaded colonnade for the review of the plantation’s books. Patroclus was himself a slave, of course, bought in the market in Alexandria. But over 23 years the two men had formed a bond of affection and respect that approached friendship. After reviewing Patrolus’ records of purchases and shipments the pair strolled around the fields, watching the slaves at their labour and savoring the wide, flat vista of the flood plains. When they passed close by a group of slaves Theophilus had Patroclus stop the team’s work. The plantation owner stepped over to inspect his property. He checked their teeth and gums for signs of malnutrition and squeezed their limbs to make sure they were not weakening. These were native Egyptians, of course. Though the descendants of Alexander’s Macedonian army had ruled Egypt for three centuries, that Greek-speaking elite had not lost its contempt for the country’s “barbaric” people. As Patrolus set the slaves to work again the two continued their circuit of the field, laughing once more at the foolishness of this race. Here they were, the most ancient civilization in the known world, and they worshiped monstrosities. Their gods had human bodies but were deformed with the heads of animals. To the Hellenized mind, for which humanity was the pinnacle of the mortal cosmos, this was bizarre. How could the Egyptians, with all their ancient learning in divination and astrology, think that the rational human being was fashioned and ruled by a jackal or an ibex? By the time they reached the villa again the conversation had shifted back to details of the slaves’ diet, problems with the shipping schedule, and whether they should sell any of the workers’ children this year.
Later that afternoon Theophilus arrived back in his city dwelling to find a ship owner waiting to speak with him in the spacious atrium of the house. He frowned as his daughter Hypatia hurried through to the inner courtyard, her eyes lowered and her shawl (himation) held modestly across her lower face. He would have to speak with her again about showing herself when men were present. By the time Theophilus had finished his business, though, his rebuke was long forgotten. He found Luke seated on a bench under the inner colonnade, his pen tracing elegant letters across the fresh papyrus. The sun had dipped below the roof-line of the house and Theophilus called to Luke, waving him over to the dining room for the evening meal. They reclined, stretched out on couches around a common table, as the house slaves shuffled in and out to fetch more wine or light the lamps. It was just the two men that evening. The women, of course, ate elsewhere in the house, but it was not uncommon to see more of Alexandria’s leading men enjoying Theophilus’ hospitality. This time, though, just the two men talked late into the night, so that the slaves had to replenish the lamps with oil. Theophilus wanted to hear the latest piece of Luke’s work, the history he had commissioned on this Jesus from Nazareth. He listened to Luke’s elegant words and savored their archaic, foreign lilt. Though the ink was hardly dry on the page, he could sense in this history the antiquity that made the Jews’ sacred traditions so intriguing. Their scriptures dated back (so they said) past even the Egyptian holy books.
After the reading, Theophilus was full of questions. He had been frequenting the Christians’ meetings for some months now, and a large part of his mind was convinced that this Jew really was a god. Or, rather, he was the same God the Jews worshiped as creator, a far more sensible doctrine than anything one found in Homer. Still, it was a lot to swallow. Could it really be that this God had bypassed the world’s great centres and shown himself through a Jew in their pitiful little province on the empire’s fringe? The Judeans had, after all, been crushed by Titus’ legions, and the temple of their God had been leveled. The “elders” of the Christian family were pious men, to be sure, but for the most part half-educated or illiterate. Hardly a reliable source. So Theophilus wanted a history of the events. He wanted to know what had actually taken place in Judea during Tiberius’ reign. Luke was a natural choice to write it, one of the few among the Christians who had a training in rhetoric and even a little philosophy. And so they talked in the lamplight, under the watchful eye of the slaves, and Theophilus felt his whole cosmos shifting around this crucified Jew, this unlikely God.