Scripture among the Apologists: Theophilus of Antioch

theophilus-of-antiochTheophilus of Antioch remains an underappreciated figure among the Christian writers of the second century. Born along the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria sometime in the early second century, Theophilus was raised in a pagan household and received a Greek education.[i] He converted to Christianity as an adult, became familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, and eventually became the sixth Bishop of Antioch, likely around 168-9 CE.[ii] The date of Theophilus’ death is unknown, although his successor Maximinus was made bishop in 188 CE.[iii]

Theophilus’s work as a heresiologist and firm opposition to Gnosticism,[iv] Marcion, and Tatian seem to have commended his works to later generations of Christians.[v] Such was the perspective of Jerome:

“Theophilus, sixth bishop of the church of Antioch, in the reign of the emperor Marcus Antoninus Verus composed a book Against Marcion, which is still extant, also three volumes To Autolycus and one Against the Heresy of Hermongenes and other short and elegant treatises, well fitted for the edification of the church. I have read, under his name, commentaries On the Gospel and On the Proverbs of Solomon, which do not appear to me to correspond in style and language with the elegance and expressiveness of the above works.”[vi]

Such high praise was rare for Jerome, who apparently found nothing in Theophilus’ writings worthy of critique. Recent scholars have not been quite so laudatory in their considerations of his work.[vii]

Garden of EdenOf Theophilus’ known works, only his three volumes Ad Autolycum remain extant. These treatises, composed during the reign of Commodus around 180 CE,[viii] were written to an otherwise unknown Autolycus, who was a pagan interested in Christianity whom Theophilus seems to have known personally.[ix] Through written to an individual, Theophilus obviously followed the literary procedures for distribution to a public audience.[x] These three treatises show a development of concern and shift in purpose over time, moving from an address to a hostile reader to addressing skepticism and finally turning to issues of morality.[xi] While the first and third books are primarily concerned with demonstrating the superiority of Christianity to Greek paganism, the second is noteworthy for its extensive commentary on the creation account in Genesis.[xii]

Though fairly basic in his argumentation—the writing is called “elementary” by Eusebius[xiii]—and rather unsystematic—especially when compared to his contemporary Irenaeus[xiv]—Theophilus’ literal exegesis of Genesis proved extremely influential on the later Antiochene school of scriptural interpretation.[xv] Ad Autolycum circulated widely in the ancient and early medieval church and was known by Irenaeus,[xvi] Tertullian,[xvii] Novatian,[xviii] Paul of Samosata,[xix] Lactantius,[xx] Eusebius,[xxi] Basil of Caesarea,[xxii] Cyril of Jerusalem,[xxiii] Epiphanius of Salamis,[xxiv] the fifth century Apostolic Constitutions,[xxv] and the School at Gaza and Procopius.[xxvi] Today, three manuscripts of Ad Autolycum survive, two of which are copies of a third, the Codex Marcianius, which is an eleventh century manuscript located in Venice.[xxvii] Theophilus stands as a significant witness to the use of scripture in the history of the Church; Grant calls him the “first Christian writer to reproduce pages of the Old Testament; he quotes extensively from the New Testament; and his theological outlook is based on the Bible.”[xxviii]

[i] Autolycum 2.24. Rick Rogers, “Theophilus of Antioch”, ET 120 (2009): 217. Massaux, 134, n4. [ii] Autolycum 1.14. Eccl. Hist. 4.20.1, 24.1. Massaux, 134. Robert M. Grant, Jesus After the Gospels: The Christ of the Second Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 68-82. Eusebius lists his episcopate as following that of Cornelius and Eros. [iii] Rogers, “Theophilus”, 217. [iv] Following the lead of Gregory Tuckett, “What is ‘New Testament Study?’ The New Testament and Early Christianity.” NTS 20, 2 (2014), 176 n68, I am well aware of the dangers associated with using the category of ‘G/gnostic.’ For some justification for continued use of the term, see Gregory Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary (Oxford Early Christian Studies Series; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 45-52. [v] William R. Schoedel, “Theophilus of Antioch: Jewish Christian?”, Illinois Classical Studies 18 (1993): 297. [vi] Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, trans. Ernest Cushing Richardson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 3, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892), 25. Compare Eccl. Hist. 4.24.1. [vii] Rogers, “Theophilus”, 214-16. Rogers identifies Theophilus as a “heterodox theologian within a conservative second-century Christianity.” Grant finds him to reflect a heretical Jewish-Christian background. [viii] Autolycum 3.27. Robert M. Grant, “The Textual Tradition of Theophilus of Antioch”, VC 6, 3 (1952): 146. [ix] Rogers, “Theophilus”, 216. David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1987), 200f. J. Bentivegna, “A Christianity Without Christ by Theophilus of Antioch”, SP 13 (1975): 107. Rogers writes, “This language throughout To Autolycus of specific encounters, of familiarity with intellectual development, and of commitment to personal growth, not to mention the conversational tone of all three books, seems an excessive contrivance if Autolycus were no more than a literary fiction.” [x] Robert M. Grant, “Introduction”, Ad Autolycum, Theophilus of Antioch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), ix. Rogers, “Theophilus”, 217. [xi] Rogers, “Theophilus”, 219-220. [xii] Robert M. Grant, “Theophilus of Antioch to Autolycus”, HTR 40 (1947): 229-34. See also O. Clausen, “Die Theologie des Theophilus von Antiochien”, ZWT 46 (1903): 99. [xiii] Rogers, “Theophilus”, 215. Robert M. Grant, Greek Apologists of the Second Century (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1988), 144. [xiv] Grant, “Theophilus”, 228. [xv] Autolycum 2.9-33. Grant, “Theophilus”, 235, n31. [xvi] Friedrich Loofs, Theophilus von Antiochien Adversus Marcionem und die anderen theologischen Quellen die Irenaeus (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1930), 44-80. [xvii] Cf. Adversus Marcionem 95.1. Gilles Quispel, De bronnen van Tertullianus’ Adversus Marcionem (Leiden: Burgersdijk and Niermans, 1943), 34-55. [xviii] Cf. De trinitate 2. Grant, “Textual Tradition”, 147. [xix] Loofs, 46-7. Grant, “Textual Tradition”, 147. [xx] Robert M. Grant, “The Bible of Theophilus of Antioch”, JBL 66, 2 (1947): 190. [xxi] Eccl. Hist. 4.24. [xxii] Stanislas Giet, Basile de Cesaree: Homilies sur l’Hexaemeron (Sources chretiennes 26; Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1950), 52-6. [xxiii] Cf. Catechetical Lectures 18.3 and Autolycum 1.5. [xxiv] Grant, “Textual Tradition”, 149. [xxv] Cf. Apostolic Constitutions 8, 12, 19 and Autolycum 2.27. See Grant, “Textual Tradition”, 148 n10. [xxvi] Grant, “Textual Tradition”, 150, n25-27. Other references have been noted in Gennadius of Marseilles; Exposito totius mundi; the work of 7th c. chronicler Johannes Malalas; and the Sacra parallela ascribed to John of Damascus. [xxvii] Grant, “Textual Tradition”, 151. Grant, “Introduction”, xix. Grant, “Theophilus”, 227. Notes that Codex Marcianius gr. 496 (folios 160v-185r) is a middle miniscule. [xxviii] Grant, “Bible of Theophilus”, 173.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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