Lydia of Thyatira: The foreign woman who became the foundation member of the Philippian Church


Paul was on his second missionary journey when he had a vision of a man who pleaded with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” The apostle responded to the vision by gathering his team and quickly setting off across the Aegean Sea for Macedonia, the northern region of modern-day Greece. When they arrived, Paul and his fellow missionaries passed through the port of Neapolis and headed straight for Philippi, “a city of Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony” (Acts 16:14 CEB).

Luke, the author of Acts, records that Paul’s first ministry encounter in Philippi was not with a Macedonian man,[1] but with a group of women. The group included Lydia, a woman originally from Thyatira. This article looks at Lydia who is mentioned in just a few verses in the New Testament. These verses, all in Acts chapter 16, tell us quite a bit about her and the important part she played in the Philippian church.

PAUL AT THE PROSEUCHE IN PHILIPPI

According to Acts, Paul typically began a new mission in each new city by connecting with the local Jewish population. His mission in Philippi was no exception. Paul and his team had already spent a few days in the city (probably organising accommodation and work), when, on the Sabbath day, they went outside the city gates in search of a Jewish place of prayer by a river.

It seems that Philippi did not have a recognised synagogue—perhaps they did not have enough Jewish men to form a quorum necessary for a synagogue[2]—but they did have a proseuchē, a prayer-house.[3] Like many Jewish places of worship, this prayer-house was located by a water source. Many synagogues and prayer-houses were built near water sources, such as rivers, to facilitate ritual washings.[4]

Paul and his companions may have been surprised to see a group made up of only, or mainly, women at the prayer-house. If they were, the narrator gives no hint of this. [5] Instead, the story continues with the statement, “We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered.”[6]

And then we are introduced to Lydia.

LUKE’S DESCRIPTIONS OF LYDIA

In Acts 16:14a, we are given several pieces of information about Lydia. We are told her name, that she was a dealer in purple cloth, that she was originally from the city of Thyatira, and that she was a “God-worshipper.” Considering Luke’s descriptions of other people who Paul meets on his missions, an appreciable amount of information is given about Lydia.[7] I suggest we are given this information because Luke uses her as an example of a significant woman. Women in the first-century Roman world, like Lydia, “were entering the public sphere in business and as patrons, and they impacted the early church in those roles as well.”[8]

Let’s take a closer look at the descriptions in Acts 16:14.

LYDIA’S NAME AND PROMINENCE

Lydia’s name was not an uncommon one, and it may not provide any real insight into her status or identity. Nevertheless, because slaves were sometimes named after their place of origin, it has been thought Lydia’s name signifies she had once been a slave.[9] Richard Ascough writes:

Some scholars suggest that the name “Lydia” may be an ethnic appellation that designates her place of origin, as Luke indicates she was originally from Thyatira, a city in a place called Lydia. [10] If it is an ethnic appellation it would indicate that at one time Lydia was a slave who had been freed. . . . However, two first- or second century inscriptions attest to women of status who used the name Lydia,[11] making the assumption of former servile status somewhat conjectural.[12]

“Lydia” may have been just one of her names, and there is some speculation that either Euodia or Syntyche—two female coworkers of Paul named in Philippians 4:2-3—might be Lydia.[13]

Even though her name tells us nothing concrete, the fact that Lydia is named at all is significant. Luke does not tell us the names of other Philippians, such as the slave girl or the jailer, even though he does tell us some of their stories in Acts 16:16-20 and 22ff. Luke’s naming of Lydia suggests she was a woman who became prominent in the church at Philippi. [14] LYDIA’S OCCUPATION AND WEALTH

Lydia was a seller of purple, that is, she was a business woman who sold luxury textiles dyed purple. It was only the wealthy elite who wore garments dyed purple or trimmed with purple, or had soft furnishings in their homes, such as couch covers, dyed purple. Tyrian purple, a dye derived from marine molluscs, was especially costly.[15] A relatively less expensive and more reddish dye, known today as Turkey red, was extracted from the root of the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum). Thyatira, Lydia’s home town, was well-known for the production of dye from madder roots. However, since she is described literally in Acts 16:14 as a “purple-seller” (porphyropōlis), Lydia probably dealt with Tyrian purple. The expenses involved in her occupation as a merchant of luxury textiles indicates she was a woman of some wealth.

Lydia’s wealth is also indicated by the fact that she seems to have been the owner and mistress of her own home. Acts 16:15—which begins with, “When she and her household (ho oikos autēs) were baptised . . .”—makes it clear that it was her household. Furthermore, Lydia uses her own initiative, and doesn’t consult a male relative, when she offers the missionaries hospitality, which they accept.[16] There is no mention of a husband or a father in her story. This is unusual as women in Bible times were often identified by their relationship to a man: a father, a husband, an adult son, or even a brother. It is likely Lydia had no surviving adult male relatives. She was probably widowed or perhaps divorced. Divorce was easy under Roman law and it was common, and in most cases it did not result in any sense of scandal or stigma.

Whatever her marital status, Lydia’s home was relatively spacious. It was large enough to accommodate Paul and his fellow missionaries (who included Silas, Timothy, and possibly Luke and others) as well as her own household.[17] Her home was also large enough to hold church meetings. It was in Lydia’s home that the church at Philippi first gathered (cf. Acts 16:40).[18]

Lydia’s hospitality and her benefaction of Paul and his ministry required courage. Having a group of foreign men stay in her house might potentially cause scandal. Hosting meetings where they worshipped a new Jewish messiah, and not an emperor or any of the ancient and socially-respectable pagan gods, could have ruined her reputation and her business. Receiving Paul and Silas into her home after they were released from prison and asked to leave town was brave.

LYDIA’S FAITH AND MINISTRY

Lydia is identified as a “God-worshipper” (sebomenē ton theon), sometimes translated as “God-fearer”.[19] This description is an idiom that tells us Lydia was a Gentile adherent to Judaism rather than a full convert.[20] In the first decades of the church’s existence, almost all Christian converts were either Jews or they were Gentiles with some kind of affiliation or sympathy with Judaism. It is well documented that some Gentiles were attracted to the monotheism and the morality of Judaism. In some parts of the Roman Empire, women could play prominent roles in their Jewish communities, especially in places where women already had some social freedoms.[21] Ancient inscriptions survive that show a few women were even called leaders of synagogues.[22] Other women were patrons of synagogues and were prominent and influential in their Jewish communities. Lydia may have been a patron of the Jewish community at Philippi. It is likely she became both a patron and a leader of the church in Philippi.[23]

Paul and his party may have spent several weeks staying with Lydia (cf. Luke 10:5-7). During that time, she would have received (directly and indirectly) a theological and pastoral education from the apostle so that she was equipped to care for the church when Paul moved on to bring the gospel to other Macedonian cities. Furthermore, she seems to have been a spiritually receptive person. We know “the Lord opened Lydia’s heart” (Acts 16:14b NIV), and so it is probable the Spirit gave her spiritual gifts and abilities to help her in ministry (cf. Acts 2:18; 1 Cor. 12:4ff).

If Lydia didn’t lead the fledgling church in Philippi, who did? Another member of her household? The unnamed jailer mentioned in Acts 16:22ff? Or a member of his household? Lydia is the only Philippian convert who is named in Acts, and we know that the Philippian church met in her home. So, she is the most likely person to have led and cared for the first congregation at Philippi.

LYDIA AND THE SAMARITAN WOMAN IN JOHN 4

The story of Paul’s meeting with Lydia near a river reminds me of the story of Jesus taking the unusual journey through Samaria and his meeting with a woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar.

~ Both Paul and Jesus were supernaturally guided to Philippi and Sychar, respectively: Paul through a vision, Jesus through some kind of compulsion.[24] ~ They providentially met with women who were quasi-Jews: a “God-fearer” and a Samaritan.[25] ~ The women became believers in Jesus as Messiah and then told others about their experience. Lydia presumably told members of her household, who followed her lead and were baptised with her. We can assume she also told business contacts, clients, and neighbours. The Samaritan woman told people in her village. These women played a pioneering role in the spreading of the gospel.

Jesus and Paul did not hesitate to minister to people of both sexes, from all stations of life. And they ministered in an empowering way. The women were equipped and empowered with faith, knowledge, and personal experience to tell others. Jesus and Paul had no difficulty in teaching theology to women, and they allowed women to minister according to their abilities and their situations without artificial restrictions.

CONCLUSION

Women such as Lydia were not at the margins in the first decades of the Jesus’ movement. They were not silent in the churches or ineffective in evangelism. They cared for local congregations and were vital and strategic players at the forefront of the expanding Christian mission. A church was established in Philippi because of Lydia’s open heart and her open home, and it grew because of her patronage, her initiative, her courage, her ministry.

[1] The Greek noun used for “man” in Acts 16:9 (anēr) is typically used for an adult male.

[2] It is not known if the rule found in the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 23b—that a synagogue needed to have a quorum of at least ten adult male members, known as a minyan—was universally observed in the mid-first century CE.

[3] The word proseuchē occurs in Greek literature and in Greek inscriptions where it refers to a building belonging to, or being used by, the Jews of the Diaspora (i.e. Jews who lived outside of Judea and Galilee). For more information on proseuchē as a Jewish prayer-house, see http://margmowczko.com/lydia-and-the-place-of-prayer-at-philippi/

[4] “Several first-century literary sources make it quite clear that many Diaspora Jewish communities actually preferred having their synagogues outside the city and near a body of water such as the proseuchē at Philippi in Macedonia.” Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years, Second Edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 316.

[5] Beginning at Acts 16:10, the story of Lydia is narrated in the first-person (e.g., “we did xyz”) whereas much of Acts is narrated in the third-person (“they did xyz”). This may be an indication that whoever recorded her story was with Paul in Philippi, was an eye witness, and met Lydia personally. The narrator may be Luke himself, or Luke using a first-person source. See Richard S. Ascough, Lydia, Paul’s Cosmopolitan Hostess (Paul’s Social Network: Brothers and Sisters in the Faith) (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 2-3; and especially Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2014), 3:2350-74. online source.

[6] The word “gathered” is translated from a feminine participle of the Greek verb synerchomai, a word which is frequently used in the New Testament with “the idea of a deliberate, purposeful gathering that also implies community.” Ivoni Richter Reimer, Women in the Acts of the Apostles: A Feminist Liberation Perspective, Linda M. Maloney, trans. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), 74.

[7] Compare, for example, the lack of descriptive information about the unnamed men and women in the Macedonian cities of Thessalonica and Berea, mentioned in the following chapter (in Acts 14:4 and 12), or even about Jason, mentioned in Acts 17:5-9.