Theophilus of Antioch

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There is also a Theophilus of Alexandria (c. A.D. 412).

Theophilus, Patriarch of Antioch (Eusebius Ecclesiastical History iv. 20; Jerome Ep. ad Algas. quaest. 6), succeeded Eros c. 169, and was succeeded by Maximus I c.183, according to Clinton (Fasti Romani), but these dates are only approximations. His death probably occurred between 183 - 185 (Lightfoot, S. Ignatius, vol. ii. p. 166).

We gather from his writings that he was born a pagan, not far from the Tigris and Euphrates, and was led to embrace Christianity by studying the Holy Scriptures, especially the prophetical books (Apologia ad Autolycum i. 14, ii. 24). He makes no reference to his office in his existing writings, nor is any other fact in his life recorded. Eusebius, however, speaks of the zeal which he and the other chief shepherds displayed in driving away the heretics who were attacking Christ's flock, with special mention of his work against Marcion (Ecclesiastical History iv. 24). He made contributions to the departments of Christian literature, polemics, exegetics, and apologetics. Dr. Sanday describes him as "one of the precursors of that group of writers who, from Irenaeus to Cyprian, not only break the obscurity which rests on the earliest history of the Christian church, but alike in the East and in the West carry it to the front in literary eminence, and distance all their heathen contemporaries" (Studia Biblica, p. 90). Eusebius and Jerome mention numerous works of Theophilus existing in their time. They are:

  1. the existing Apologia addressed to Autolycus;
  2. a work against the heresy of Hermogenes;
  3. against that of Marcion;
  4. some catechetical writings;
  5. Jerome also mentions having read some commentaries on the gospel and on Proverbs, which bore Theophilus's name, but which he regarded as inconsistent with the elegance and style of his other works.

The Apologia ad Autolycum

The one undoubted extant work of Theophilus is his Apologia ad Autolycum, in three books. Its ostensible object is to convince a pagan friend, Autolycus, a man of great learning and an earnest seeker after truth, of the divine authority of the Christian religion, while at the same time he exhibits the falsehood and absurdity of paganism. His arguments, drawn almost entirely from the Old Testament, with but very scanty references to the New Testament, are largely chronological. He makes the truth of Christianity depend on his demonstration that the books of the Old Testament were long anterior to the writings of the Greeks and were divinely inspired. Whatever truth the pagan authors contain he regards as borrowed from Moses and the prophets, who alone declare God's revelation to man. He contrasts the perfect consistency of the divine oracles, which he regards as a convincing proof of their inspiration, with the inconsistencies of the pagan philosophers. He contrasts the account of the creation of the universe and of man, on which, together with the history contained in the earlier chapters of Genesis, he comments at great length but with singularly little intelligence, with the statements of Plato, "reputed the wisest of all the Greeks" (iii. 15, 16), of Aratus, who had the insight to assert that the earth was spherical (ii. 32, iii. 2), and other Greek writers on whom he pours contempt as mere ignorant retailers of stolen goods. He supplies a series of dates, beginning with Adam and ending with Marcus Aurelius, who had died shortly before he wrote, thus dating this work to the years of the reign of Commodus. Theophilus regards the Sibylline books that were still in Rome as authentic and inspired productions, quoting the Sibylline oracles (scholars dispute that these are the same) largely as declaring the same truths with the prophets. The omission by the Greeks of all mention of the Old Testament from which they draw all their wisdom, is ascribed to a self-chosen blindness in refusing to recognize the only God and in persecuting the followers of the only fountain of truth (iii. 30 and following). He can recognize in them no aspirations after the divine life, no earnest gropings after truth, no gleams of the all-illumining light. The pagan religion was a mere worship of idols, bearing the names of dead men. Almost the only point in which he will allow the pagan writers to be in harmony with revealed truth is in the doctrine of retribution and punishment after death for sins committed in life (ii. 37, 38). Henry Wace believes "the literary character of the Apologia deserves commendation. The style is characterized by dignity and refinement. It is clear and forcible. The diction is pure and well chosen. Theophilus also displays wide and multifarious though superficial reading, and a familiar acquaintance with the most celebrated Greek writers. His quotations are numerous and varied." However, Henry Chadwick in his The Early Church (London, 1967) describes the Apologia as "a rambling defence of Christianity". Donaldson is likewise harsh in his History of Christian Literature, pointing out Theophilus's many blunders, which include misquoting Plato several times (iii. 6, 16), ranking Zopyrus among the Greeks (iii. 26), and speaking of Pausanias as having only run a risk of starvation instead of being actually starved to death in the temple of Minerva.

Theophilus's critical powers were not above his age. He adopts Herodotus's derivation (ii. 52) of qeus from tiqhmi, since God set all things in order, comparing with it that of Plato (Crataeus 397C) from qeein, because the Deity is ever in motion (Apologia i. 4). He asserts that Satan is called the dragon (Greek drakon) on account of his having revolted apodedrakenai from God (ii. 28), and traces the Bacchanalian cry "Evoe" to the name of Eve as the first sinner (ibid.). His physical theories are equally embarrassing. He ridicules those who maintain the spherical form of the earth (ii. 32) and asserts that it is a flat surface covered by the heavens as by a domical vault (ii. 13). His exegesis is based on allegories usually of the most arbitrary character. He makes no attempt to determine the real meaning of a passage, but seeks to find some recondite spiritual truth, a method which often leads him to great absurdities. He discovers the reason of blood coagulating on the surface of the ground in the divine word to Cain (Genesis 4:10-12), the earth struck with terror refusing to drink it in.

Theophilus's testimony to the Old Testament is copious. He quotes very largely from the Pentateuch and to a smaller extent from the other historical books. His references to Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, and Jerome are copious, and he quotes from Ezekiel, Hosea and other minor prophets. His direct evidence respecting the canon of the New Testament does not go much beyond a few precepts from the Sermon on the Mount (iii. 13, 14), a possible quotation from Luke 18:27 (ii. 13), and quotations from Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy. More important is a distinct citation from the opening of the Gospel of St. John (1:1-3), mentioning the evangelist by name, as one of the inspired men by whom the Holy Scriptures were written (ii. 22). The use of a metaphor found in 2 Peter 1:19 bears on the date of that epistle. According to Eusebius, Theophilus quoted the Book of Revelation in his work against Hermogenes; a very precarious allusion has been seen in ii. 28, cf. Revelation 12:3, 7, etc. A full index of these and other possible references to the Old and New Testament is given by Otto (Corp. Apol. Christ. ii. 353-355). Theophilus transcribes a considerable portion of Genesis chapters 1-3 with his own allegorizing comments upon the successive work of the creation week. The sun is the image of God; the moon of man, whose death and resurrection are prefigured by the monthly changes of that luminary. The first three days before the creation of the heavenly bodies are types of the Trinity -- the first place in Christian writings where that terminology is known to occur (ii. 15): i.e. "God, His Word and His Wisdom."

The silence regarding his Apology in the East is remarkable; we fail to find the work mentioned or quoted by Greek writers before the time of Eusebius. Several passages in the works of Irenaeus show an undoubted relationship to passages in one small section of the Apologia (Iren. v. 23, 1; Autol. ii. 25 init.: Iren. iv. 38, 1, iii. 23, 6; Autol. ii. 25: Iren. iii. 23, 6; Autol. ii. 25, 26), but Harnack thinks it probable that the quotations, limited to two chapters, are not taken from the Apologia, but from Theophilus's work against Marcion (cf. Möhler, Patr. p. 286; Otto, Corp. Apol. II. viii. p. 357; Donaldson, History of Christian Literature iii, 66). In the West there are a few references to the Autolycus. It is quoted by Lactantius (Div. Inst. i. 23) under the title Liber de Temporibus ad Autolycum. There is a passage first cited by Maranus in Novatian (de Trin. c. 2) which shows great similarity to the language of Theophilus (ad Autol. i. 3). In the next century the book is mentioned by Gennadius (c. 34) as "tres libelli de fide." He found them attributed to Theophilus of Alexandria, but the disparity of style caused him to question the authorship. The notice of Theophilus by Jerome has been already referred to. Dodwell found internal evidence, in the reference to existing persecutions and a supposed reference to Origen and his followers, for assigning the work to a younger Theophilus who perished in the reign of Septimius Severus (Dissert. ad Irenaeus §§ 44, 50, pp. 170 ff. ed. 1689). His arguments have been carefully examined by Tillemont (Mém. eccl. iii. 612 notes), Cave (Hist. Lit. i. 70), Donaldson (ii. 65), and Harnack (p. 287), and the received authorship fully established. Compare W. Sanday in Stud. Bibl. (Oxford, 1885), p. 89.


Migne's Patr. Gk. (t. vi. col. 1023-1168), and a small edition (Cambridge 1852) by W. G. Humphry. Otto's edition in the Corpus Apologet. Christ. Saec. Secund. vol. ii. (Jena, 1861) is by far the most complete and useful. English translation by Belty (Oxford 1722), Flower (London, 1860), and Marcus Dods (Clark's Ante-Nicene Library).

This article uses text from A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies by Henry Wace


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