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​ Lydia: Leader
of the first house Church
in Philippi

· ​Paul and women ·

Sometime around ca. 49 CE, Paul sailed across the Aegean Sea from Troas, in Asia Minor, to the port of Neapolis in Greece, and from there moved inland to begin proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ on European soil for the first time. He evangelized throughout the Roman province of Macedonia, beginning in Philippi, before continuing southwest as far as Corinth, capitol of the Roman province of Achaea. Luke, the author of Acts of the Apostles, reports that as Paul travelled throughout the cities of Macedonia, women, notably prominent women, were especially receptive to his preaching. (cf. Acts 17:4, 12). One of these Macedonian women was Lydia, Paul’s first convert in Europe who partnered with him to ensure the success of his mission in this new territory.

Until recently, it was assumed that women were attracted to earliest Christianity because it provided a welcome escape from the misogynist and oppressive social worlds they inhabited, and afforded opportunities to exercise leadership roles previously denied them. Though this assumption was widespread, and continues to be espoused by some, it is at odds with a broad range of literary, epigraphical, and artifact evidence which attests that first century CE women, whether Greco-Roman or Jewish, married or widowed, enjoyed a fair amount of autonomy and authority both within, and beyond, their own households; some owned and managed businesses, were influential in the public sphere as benefactors and civic patrons, and exercised various leadership roles including cultic leadership roles. Moreover, such an assumption fails to do justice to women like Lydia. She was both a prosperous businesswoman and spiritual seeker who, apparently, had nothing to escape and much to offer earliest Christianity once her faith was awakened to Christ through Paul’s preaching.

Lydia is mentioned only in Acts 16:11-15, 40 where Luke reports that she was a native of Thyatira, a city situated in the western part of the Roman province of Asia, in today’s western Turkey. Its location at the juncture of major trade roads made Thyatira a prosperous commercial and industrial hub. The city was noted for its trade guilds. Many were devoted to the manufacture and dying of textiles, especially products dyed in purple for which Thyatira was well-known in antiquity. Purple dye, which was produced in varying shades and qualities depending on whether it was sourced from mollusks or plants, was a precious commodity. Premium-quality purple products and garments were luxury items which only the elite of imperial society could afford. Luke tells us that Lydia was a porphyropōlis, that is, a seller of purple goods. If shrewd business instincts account for Lydia’s migration to Philippi, an affluent Roman colony which was geographically well-situated for international trade both via land and sea routes, then her instincts paid off. Luke presents her as comfortably settled into Philippi by the time she met Paul. She not only had a home of her own but one large enough to accommodate a community of Christ-believers estimated to have numbered around 35. And she had a household large enough to look after both her property and her affairs. It is also reasonable to imagine that she moved in well-heeled circles. Given her trade in purple, it is probable that her clients were among the upper crust of Philippian society, perhaps even Roman officials and their entourage.

Though a successful businesswoman, Lydia apparently sought more than comfort and success. According to Acts, Paul’s custom upon arrival in a new city was to enter the local synagogue to address fellow Jews. Since Philippi apparently had no synagogue in Paul’s day —the existence of a synagogue is first mentioned in inscriptional evidence dating from ca. the 3rd or 4th century CE— he went in search of a proseuchē, or place for prayer, outside the city by the river. What he found was a prayer gathering of women, presumably members of the household of Lydia who is singled out as “a worshipper of God.” The term proseuchē could refer to any place of religious ritual activity, or specifically, to a place of prayer for Jews. Since this term occurs here in conjunction with “worshipper of God,” an expression used by Jews of gentiles who were sympathetic to Judaism, it is often assumed that Lydia was a Jewish proselyte. However, this is not at all certain. Moreover, it is quite possible that while acknowledging the God of Israel, Lydia may have also continued to pray to one, or more, pagan deities. Devotion to more than one god was certainly not uncommon in the first century Mediterranean world where multiple cults, some local, some imported, existed side by side. A number of these, e.g., the cult of the Diana and Isis, were especially attractive to women who served as priestesses and assumed other leadership roles. Based on the information in Acts, perhaps the most that can be stated, with a measure of certainty, is that Lydia was a pious woman whose heart was open to the stirrings of the one, true, God who rendered her receptive to Paul’s preaching. Once she and her household were baptized, Luke tells us Lydia extended hospitality to Paul. The verb Luke uses, which is usually translated “prevailed upon” or “urged,” literally means to “use force.” Luke’s word choice suggests that Lydia had a strong character and was not the kind of woman who took “no” for an answer. That characterization, along with a few other features of Lydia’s story, require further comment.

Luke’s portrayal of Lydia, without mention of a husband, or other male authority upon whom she is dependent, able to decide on her own authority to open her home to Paul and his companions, stands apart from the normal portrait of first-century CE women whose lives were structured by patriarchy. Patriarchy was a hierarchical system in which all members of a household were subjected to the authority of the oldest living male, or “paterfamilias.” Through marriage, a woman usually passed from under the authority of her oldest male relative to the authority of her husband. However, along with this hierarchical social system, there existed a few legal provisions that afforded women a certain amount of independence. For example, a woman’s marriage could be contracted sine manu which meant she and her assets remained under the potestas, or authority, of her father, upon whose death, she could inherit property and retain sole possession of it in her own name. In sine manu marriages, the husband acquired no legal authority over his wife or her assets. Further, women who bore a certain number of sons —a number dependent on one’s social status—were permitted by Augustan legislation to manage their own financial and business affairs. Thus, even were Lydia married, she may have benefitted from these or other forms of legislation which would explain why she is presented as operating independently.

In noting that Lydia prevailed on Paul to become her guests, Luke casts Lydia in the role of patron to Paul. Patronage was a ubiquitous social institution in Paul’s day. Those with means and social standing (patrons) who sought to enhance their reputations and positions, provided financial, and other favors, to those of lesser standing (clients). Clients remained indebted to their patrons and in return for their generosity pledged loyalty, promoted the patron and did the patron’s bidding. Though first-century women were barred from holding public office, there is ample evidence that women, especially but not exclusively elite women, were involved in patronage. Like their male peers, they used their money and status to influence social and political affairs, to support the arts, various civic projects and causes, workers guilds, and to promote favored religious cults. For their benefactions they were regularly honored with commemorative statues, monuments and dedicatory inscriptions. Though no extra-textual evidence exists attesting to their patronage activities, it is possible that Lydia, and other named women in the New Testament such as Phoebe (cf. Rom 16:2), may have been benefactors and patrons to others before directing their support to Paul and his mission.

It is clear from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians that he was cautious to avoid the entanglements of the patronage system that had potential to compromise his freedom to preach the gospel as he saw fit, or his mobility. Nonetheless, he depended on the financial support of patrons such as Lydia who provided Paul with material support and a roof over his head. Even more importantly, socially well-connected patrons like Lydia, with networks of business associates and clients, would have provided Paul with access to people and places in Philippi and elsewhere who were essential to the advancing of his mission. Moreover, Lydia’s generosity extended beyond the offer of food and lodging to Paul and his missionary companions. Her house became the recognized seat of the nascent Christian community in Philippi over which, as head of the household, she would have exercised leadership.

The open-air chapel which commemorates the place where Lydia was baptized

The primacy of her house, and therefore her leadership role in the evolution of the church at Philippi, becomes clear as one reads to the end of Acts 16. After their miraculous liberation from prison, Paul and Silas were invited to the home of their jailor who had witnessed everything. They catechized and baptized him and his entire household thus forming a new cell of Christ-believers. When the local magistrates declared Paul and Silas free, and apologized to them for wrongful imprisonment, rather than remaining in the household of the jailer, they immediately returned to Lydia’s house. It was there in her house that the newly formed family of brothers and sisters in Christ were gathered and where Paul gave his final exhortation to the Christian community of Philippi before leaving (Acts 16:40).

A final aspect of this story which should not be overlooked is that the church in Philippi was born among women and it was to Lydia and her household that Paul entrusted the life and growth of the nascent community of Christ-believers. Certainly, men joined the community and assumed various roles of leadership as well (cf. Phil 1:1). However, women continued to play significant roles in the Philippian community. In his letter to this community, Paul mentions two of them, Evodia and Syntyche who are described as his closest collaborators in thework of the gospel (Phil 4:2). Though limited, there is clear inscriptional evidence that women continued in prominent roles at least until the 6th century CE.

Today scholars disagree about whether Lydia was an actual historical person, or simply a figure fashioned by Luke to represent the affluent, independent, ideal woman whose attraction to Christianity he wished to highlight in his narrative. Whether she existed or not, independent women with assets, like Lydia, were attracted to earliest Christianity and were influential in the growth and development of the first Christian cells of believers. The fact that Lydia is mentioned only here in the entire New Testament, coupled with the general inattention to women that characterized past biblical scholarship, probably explains why she had been passed over as a minor figure in the story of earliest Christianity. However, it is no exaggeration to say that without the partnership and resources of Lydia, or a woman like her, Paul’s initial evangelizing efforts may have never given rise to the flourishing community of Christ-believers at Philippi, who remained a source of encouragement and support to him throughout his ministry.

Maria Pascuzzi

The author

Maria Pascuzzi SCJ, is a Sister of St Joseph in Brentwood, New York. She completed her Licentiate in Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome and her doctorate in Sacred Theology at the Gregorian University, Rome. She has taught in both seminaries and Universities and is currently Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies at Seton Hall University School of Theology. Her published books and articles focus mainly on Paul’s letters, theology and social world. She is an active member of the Catholic Biblical Association of America and the Society of Biblical Literature.

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