Lydia of Thyatira
Lydia flourished c. AD 50 (3810–3811 in the Hebrew calendar) in the Roman province of Asia. In the epic travel narrative we know as the Acts of the Apostles, Luke of Antioch called her "a worshiper of God . . . she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth" (Acts 16:14). Paul of Tarsus met Lydia in Philippi, a Roman colony in the otherwise Greek region of Macedonia. Because she dealt in purple fabric, most biblical scholars consider Lydia to have been a wealthy matron and the leader of her household—an oddity in any part of the Roman Empire. Whereas we take synthetic colors for granted in our day, the ancients had to use natural resources to make dyes for their clothing. Purple, dark red, and blue dyes were extremely rare because they required as many as 250,000 sea mollusks for processing. Today, archaeologists refer to the dye as Tyrian purple, since the coastal city of Tyre—mentioned in many places throughout the Bible (see here)—was a major center of its manufacture. Because it was so hard to come by, only the wealthy and the powerful wore purple clothing. Yet, the common madder (Rubia peregrina) native to Thyatira and Philippi afforded a cheaper alternative for the middle class. Lydia probably worked in a dyers guild and had many business connections, to include Jews who used blue sea mollusk colorants for their sacred fringes (tzitzit, H6734; cf. Deut. 22:12; Num. 15:38-39).
The Historical Lydia
Luke was careful to describe Lydia as a "dealer of purple" (porphuropōlis; G4211) rather than a mere worker. She was most likely a businesswoman, named for the Asia Minor region of the same name. Lydia was a gentile God-fearer (sebomenē; G4576), considering Luke and Paul met her on the sabbath when they "went outside the gate by the river, where [they] supposed there was a place of prayer; and [they] sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there" (Acts 16:13). The Greek noun proseuchēn (G4335), which the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates as "place of prayer," most likely alludes to a designated area for Jews to pray to God in the absence of a formal synagogue. In Jewish tradition, a synagogue must include a minyan, which is a quorum of ten adult members. This means Philippi's Jewish population was too small to host a synagogue, thus requiring a "place of prayer" instead. Paul's normal custom was to preach at the local synagogue whenever he first visited a new place (Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:1, 10; 18:19; 19:8). He was looking for the Jewish congregation in Philippi, as Luke implies in these verses: "We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer" (Acts 16:12b-13a). Simply put, Paul waited until Saturday so he could address some Jewish worshipers on the sabbath. What does this all say about Lydia? She was most likely an influential community leader, presiding over a routine prayer service for the women.
Lydia's influence extended to both the Jews and gentiles in her Philippi. Luke implied this when he wrote, "When [Lydia] and her household were baptized . . ." (Acts 16:15). The Greek word for "house" or "household" is oikos (G3624), and it could refer to a literal building or the symbolic residence of a family. In this case, oikos is metaphorical, which means Lydia was the leader of her estate. Keep in mind, the Roman household code more often than not held the man as the leader of the home with the wife, children, and slaves making up the rest of the hierarchy. We see this Roman household code most in passages such as Eph. 5:22-6:9 and Col. 3:18-4:1. For Luke to say Lydia had her household meant two things in context: 1) She was a landowner, and 2) The members of her household believed in whatever religion she did. Although female landowners in the Roman Empire were rare, they were not unheard of. Furthermore, it was customary for members of the household to adopt their master's religion. That said, it may be offensive to our modern ears to hear that Lydia's household members were baptized out of obligation rather than conviction, but God's sovereignty triumphs over the faults of human culture.
An Open Heart
About God's sovereignty, Luke pointed out, "The Lord opened [Lydia's] heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul" (Acts 16:14c). This, too, may bother our modern sensibilities of consent and individual agency, but only because the implication is that God does not open the hearts of all people. However, the text shows us that Lydia was already a "worshiper of God," meaning she was already devoted to him. What she lacked was the saving knowledge of Jesus, to which she reacted with joy and was baptized in his name. The possibility that Lydia was the leader of a prayer group is further developed by her invitation to Luke and Paul: "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home" (Acts 16:15). Luke continued the narrative, "And she prevailed upon us." By the time Paul and Silas escaped the prison, Lydia's household had already become a church (v. 40). It was this new church in Philippi in which they took refuge and the one Paul would later write his letter to the Philippians. Coincidentally, John mentioned a church in Thyatira, which may have been launched by one other than Lydia (Rev. 2:18-21). In this context, the idolatry of Jezebel contrasts with the faith of Lydia.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, pour out upon us the spirit of knowledge and love of you, with which you filled your servant Lydia, so that, serving you sincerely in imitation of her, we may be pleasing to you by our faith; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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