As part and parcel of following Jesus and conforming to the Way that was early Christianity, the holy and peculiar living of believers cost them. Jesus had urged that those who followed Him consider the cost (Luke 14:28–33). Many lost their families (cf. Luke 14:26), some their possessions (cf. Hebrews 10:34), and others their lives (e.g. Stephen). If that wasn’t enough, there were also social and political consequences of being a Christian. Some even forfeited lucrative futures (cf. Galatians 1:14). Why? Because they had faith that Jesus was God’s Son, that He had been crucified and rose, and that He was seated at the right hand of God. Moreover, He is coming again in righteous judgment. While the cost for some was great, it was a price they were willing to pay. What they would not pay, however, was their devotion to Christ.
We read in Acts 16:14 about a woman named Lydia who was a seller of purple from Thyatira. She’s noted as having worshipped God. This short description is packed with a lot of information about Lydia, and the significance goes unknown to modern readers of the Scriptures, so let’s unpack who she was. We’ll begin with the fact that she’s referred to as worshiping God. This moniker informs us that she was likely a Gentile who, like Cornelius in Acts 10, was not a full convert to Judaism, but who participated in Jewish acts of faith. She’s noted as having been present at a Sabbath meeting where prayer was a central part of the meeting. Since there were so few, or no, men present—Paul is only noted as having spoken with women—we can only speculate as to all that the meeting by the riverside entailed. The absence of men account for the absence of a synagogue to which Paul would have normally gone, because ten men were required to constitute a synagogue in the first century.
Her Jewish influence could have arisen from Thyatira where a Jewish population existed, because the absence of a synagogue in Philippi at this time makes us wonder why Jewish women were there if anyhwere at all. It could be that those who kept the Sabbath were from elsewhere. It could also be that Gentile women, like Lydia, had taken a liking to the Jewish faith. Yet, another possibility is that the “women” referred to as present at the Sabbath meeting were Lydia and her household only, and they were trying to have a time of devotion while away from Thyatira transacting business.
As a seller of purple from Thyatira, Lydia was likely well-to-do. After all, she was able to house Paul and his companions without turning her household out after they were baptized. It’s also likely that servants made up some of those under her roof. While she may have been a woman of means, she was not upper class or a part of the aristocracy. The upper class disdained trades and labor because they were independently wealthy and were able to devote themselves to leisure or politics. If Lydia was an actual dyer of garments, in addition to being a seller, she would have handled animal urine which was used in the dying process. This would have been a rather unsanitary sort of woman in the sense of what she did to dye garments. Paul’s association with her reminds us of Peter’s association with Simon the tanner from Acts 10 in this sense.
Thyatira was a city known for its trade guilds in the ancient world. A trade guild was an association of like-minded people who shared profession. It was a social club of sorts where dues had to be paid. The patron deity over each guild was often worshiped as a part of the organizational meetings, and when a member of the guild passed away, the organization would bury them. The guilds were often seen as burial societies, but they always included an element of worship where they’d honor their patron deity, whoever it might have been. Often, the patron deity of certain guilds was a deified emperor of Rome. In the case of Lydia, she was likely a member of a Jewish guild and did not have to compromise her guild membership or worship of Israel’s God (1).
In Revelation 2:20, however, the situation appears to have been different. It may have been that the Thyatiran Christians who were eating food sacrificed to idols and committing sexual immorality were participating in the pagan guilds of the city. The false prophetess whom Christ named as Jezebel here may have justified belonging to the guild, which in turn led to the sins Christ pointed out. Given the description of Jesus in Revelation 2:18 as having feet like fine brass, the implication was likely aimed at the particular trade guild that dealt with metals. The prominence of the metal trade guild likely increased when in AD 50–54 the city began issuing new coins again after a period of having not done so.
Hephaestus, who was the Greek god of blacksmiths and metal working, was the likely patron deity of this metal guild. Coins have been found in this area with his likeness on them. He’s particularly linked with bronze because, according to mythology, Hephaestus was married to the goddess, Aphrodite who was goddess of beauty, love, pleasure, and reproduction. Aphrodite had an affair with Ares, god of war. When Hephaestus learned of this, he laid a trap for them where they were caught and exposed by a bronze net that he’d fashioned, so the significance of bronze, or brass, relative to Christ’s feet would not have been lost on the ancient audience.
If this is in fact the case, then it was necessary for some sort of change in profession upon becoming a Christian. Guilds had monopolies over certain trades, and this would have meant economic despair unless the particular Christian(s) could have found other work to provide for themselves. Yet, they were not to compromise their faith in Christ for the sake of financial security (Luke 9:25). This did, however, pose a significant threat to the economy of the ancient world, and those whose professions and livelihoods were threatened, would have been so moved to act in ways against Christianity that it was seen as persecution. Cities having patron deities, as well as guilds, would have been met with resistance from Christians because the idol makers would have been threatened, as would have been the herders who sold their livestock for sacrifice, and on and on it went.
The German sociologist, Max Weber contended that “rational economic practice and the secure, regulated hegemony of sacred norms” were driven by a country’s gods in antiquity (2). So what happens when you threaten that source of income? Mayhem naturally ensues.
As Paul and Silas went to prayer, presumably after staying with Lydia for a night or more, a possessed girl met them who, Luke records, “brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling” (Acts 16:16). Unfortunately, our English Bibles do little justice to this passage and the weight it would have carried by an ancient audience who heard Acts in their setting. The English Bibles we have read that this slave girl had a spirit of “divination.” The passage literally reads that she had a spirit of “Python.” The Pythian spirit was the source of oracles and was viewed as an animating spirit in the ancient world (3). While “divination” isn’t altogether wrong, understanding the actual name of the spirit and its esteem in antiquity gives us a better picture of what Luke was communicating. He was notifying his audience that demonic forces were at work here, but that Christ was superior to them.
This possessed slave girl followed Paul and his companions while crying out that they were servants of “the Most High God.” However, to those who knew her and the spirit that possessed her, the Most High God would not have been understood as the God of Israel, but as Zeus. Luke writes that she did this for many days (Acts 16:18). When Paul became annoyed, it wasn’t because she was aiding in their proclamation of the God of Israel, but because she was subverting their labors for Christ. Therefore, Paul exorcised the demon in Jesus’ name, and this act showed that the God of whom Paul spoke was not Zeus, but Jesus.
Next, we see that her masters perceive that their economic advantage became non-existent (Acts 16:19). Their response was to physically drag them before the officials where they accused them of causing trouble and teaching disruptive customs to the Romans. This incited a mob to strip them of their clothing and have them beaten with rods before being imprisoned. In Acts 16:1, Paul had met Timothy and began taking him along with them. In Acts 16:11, Luke used a “we” statement to indicate that he was traveling along with Paul and Timothy at this time, but we also learn that Silas was among them in Acts 16:19. However, only Paul and Silas were taken to the officials because they were Jews (Acts 16:20).
Jews were already disdained among the Romans for many reasons. Because of the economic loss of their fortune-teller, and since the Jewish Paul was responsible for this loss, the local authorities would have had no trouble believing that Jews had once again caused a legitimate disturbance. After all, they’d been expelled from Rome on occasion. Alongside Paul was the Jewish Silas. However, the Gentile-looking Luke and Timothy were not treated as Paul and Silas were as far as this narrative informs us. Nevertheless, not only could faith in Christ cause one economic distress, but preaching the gospel seemed to cause it and warrant political and legal mistreatment.
Paul noted upon being released that he, a Roman citizen, had been beaten. According to Roman law, no Roman citizen was to have been treated as such. However, because Paul looked like a Jew, he was likely not thought to have been a Roman citizen.
Roman citizenship could be obtained through birth to citizen parents where a birth certificate was issued. If one liberated his slaves, they could gain citizenship as a part of their emancipation. Sometimes, though, one became a Roman citizen because of a special service rendered to the Empire, or on discharge from service in the military. The benefits of Roman citizenship included voting in Rome, freedom from degrading forms of punishment (Acts 22:25–29; cf. Eccl. Hist. 2.25.5), and the right of appeal to Rome and exemption from the jurisdiction of local authorities (Acts 25:10–12) (4).
Saul was “a man of Tarsus” (Acts 9:11)—a city Paul later called “no obscure city” (Acts 21:39)—who was reared in Jerusalem for the purpose of his training (Acts 22:3). Since Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:3)—a trade typically taught by a father to a son throughout generations—it may be that Paul’s dad, grandfather, or even great-grandfather rendered this service to the Romans for citizenship since tents could be useful to a fighting district. How he proved to these magistrates his Roman citizenship is unknown. He may have carried a copy of his birth certificate among his belongings, or he could have been born before AD 4 when the lex Aelia Sentia was enacted which was a law requiring the registration of citizens. Whatever the case is, we do not know how he proved his citizenship. That the magistrates scourged him and Silas could have warranted the official’s chastisement for betraying the rights of Roman citizens (5). Although, Paul would not avenge himself by requiring their punishment for perverting justice. He left vengeance in God’s hands. Paul “heaped coals of fire on their heads.”
In our relative comfort and ease here in America, I wonder if our faith ever costs us anything or if we’d even be willing to pay the price. Christians of today, it seems to me, are more concerned with superficial things including a faith that caters to them. Even in the absence of all out persecution, do we deny ourselves anything for the sake of Christ? Once Christian persecution practically ended, we see the acceleration of monasteries and spiritual disciplines. Because we have so much, are we unwilling to pay any price at all?
- Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2014), 2395–99.
- Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, trans., Ephraim Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 22.
- C. Kavin Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 24–25.
- Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 62–63.
- F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1977), 37–40.