There are only a few short verses about Lydia in the scriptures, but recently I was treated to a lecture all about her by Dr Rosemary Canavan of Catholic Theological College.1 It also gave us some great insights into the life and missionary work of Paul. By the way, Paul used the word diakonoi to describe himself and Apollos (1 Cor 3:5).
To begin with, we are looking at the chapter of Acts 16, where Paul, Silas and Timothy (and possibly Luke) take a long preaching journey from Lystra to Philippi. For some perspective, Rosemary explained that to travel on foot from Lystra to the port of Troas would take about 31 days! These were no simple journeys according to today’s standards.
Paul and his companions travel by boat and land to arrive in Philippi, a leading city of Macedonia, and a Roman city at that. Excavations have shown that there was no synagogue in the town, where Paul would usually have gone to talk to the men. However, on the Sabbath, they go instead to a place of prayer by the river where the women are. This setting was actually not uncommon, and reminds me of the outside liturgies we sometimes celebrate today.
Here, Paul meets Lydia, our protagonist. She seems to be an established, successful tradeswoman, a dealer in purple cloth. This is quite authentic, as Thyatira, her hometown, was known as a place of dyeing (the colouring kind!) We can only speculate more about her without evidence, but her status could have come from being a freed slave or the last in the line of businesspeople. In any case, she has money, position and influence. She also has faith, and received Paul’s proclamation of Christ with joy. She has her whole household baptised, which shows her influence in a patriarchal society. Lydia presses Paul to stay at her house.
Later in the chapter, Paul and Silas are arrested in Philippi and put into prison. Through a miraculous intervention, they are freed, and return to Lydia’s home. This little detail shows that she was their main contact in the town, and her home was significant. We might guess that she was a leader of a household church following their departure. In the books of Luke/Acts, many women appear, but few speak themselves. Lydia is an exception. Unfortunately, that is all we ever hear of her. She is never mentioned in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians or elsewhere in the scriptures. We are left thanking God for her leadership, and for Paul’s openness to women and the ministry they offer.
For a bit more about the place of prayer by the river, visit Robin Cohn’s post.
1 Rosemary Canavan, lecture given on Zoom for Catholic Theological College, 15 September 2021.