The story about Lydia and the founding of a congregation at Philippi in Acts 16 contains some easy to overlook details that speak volumes. A class I led at church just finished Kenneth Bailey’s series Women in the New Testament (A Middle Eastern Cultural View). Today, I thought I would highlight his observations about Lydia and the fledgling church at Philippi described in Acts 16:11-40.
Bailey notes that the Greco-Roman culture viewed the paterfamilias (head of the Roman household) as the authority over his entire household. Everyone, including his wife was said to be “under his hand.” Wives were almost property. Domosthenes (384-322 BCE) said that “We have courtezans for our pleasure, prostitutes for daily physical use and wives to bring up legitimate children.” There was a Jewish prayer prayed by men thanking God that he had not created them a gentile, woman or fool. (Fools and slaves were virtually synonymous in Greek culture.)
This oppressive arrangement was beginning to pass by the first century CE. Women were gaining more freedom. I know from other reading that slave manumission was becoming so common place that in 4 CE, Caesar Augustus prohibited emancipation before the age of thirty and limited the total number emancipations permitted in a year. There was a fear by many in power that the social order was coming unglued.
Prominent women with sufficient resources and freedom began to search for outlets to express their freedom. Some did so through religion. They founded religions like the cult of Isis, which was restricted to women. We know of the cult Artemis found at Ephesus. These religions gave women a sense of worth, control and independence. Women pressing for freedom and the anxiety they raised for authorities is the back drop for our discussion of Act 16.
Leading into the discussion of chapter 16, Bailey notes these two passages from chapter 17. While at Thessalonica Luke writes:
Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. (Acts 17:4, NRSV)
Then at Beroea:
Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. (Acts 17:12, NRSV)
Clearly there was something that leading Greek women found attractive about Paul’s message. That brings us Acts 16:11-40 and Paul’s visit to Philippi.
11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. (Acts 16:11-13, NRSV)
Rabbi’s taught it was not appropriate for man to speak to women in public, even his own wife. What can we conclude about what Paul thought about this custom from the Hellenized Rabbis? He apparently rejected it.
14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:14-15, NRSV)
Lydia was a merchant and a woman of means (dealer in purple cloth); she was one of the prominent Greek women that Paul attracted. It is unclear whether she was a widow or never married. She is clearly over her household but as a loan woman she likely was at a cultural disadvantage.
Upon her conversion, and the conversion of her household, a worshiping community develops at Philippi meeting in her home. Here is important to note the Romans had no freedom of assembly. Meetings were legally only as part of voluntary association. The four known types of associations were household, professional, religious (for sanctioned religions only) or burial (where the poor gathered to provide for each others burials.) Members of the associations were kept on record with the authorities. Most of the early congregations appear to have begun as household associations, particularly after Christians were no longer welcomed in synagogues. The head of the household was the leader of a household association. Lydia, as the head of the household, was the leader of this new congregation a Philippi. Paul and his team stayed with this community and nurtured their growth.
16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour.
19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. (Acts 16:16-24, NRSV)
There is something very curious about this passage. If you look up Acts 22:23-29, there is another instance where Paul is taken into custody and threatened with beatings:
23 And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air, 24 the tribune directed that he was to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him. 25 But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, "Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?" 26 When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, "What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen ." 27 The tribune came and asked Paul, "Tell me, are you a Roman citizen ?" And he said, "Yes." 28 The tribune answered, "It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship." Paul said, "But I was born a citizen ." 29 Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. (Acts 22:23-29, NRSV)
Did Paul forget that he was a Roman citizen at Philippi? Why did he not play the “Roman Citizen” card here in chapter 16?
Chapter 16, verses 25-34 tell us about the earthquake that opened doors to the prisoners yet they did not flee. The astonished jailer is converted. Then we read the following:
35 When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, "Let those men go." 36 And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, "The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace." 37 But Paul replied, "They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves." (Acts 16:35-37, NRSV)
Now again we ask, “Uh…Paul…why didn’t you raise that little issue yesterday before all this happened?”
38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens;
Just so you catch the full meaning of “afraid,” the penalty for this kind of injustice was crucifixion.
39 so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 After leaving the prison they went to Lydia's home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed. (Acts 16:38-40, NRSV )
The key issue in verse 40 is who is meant by “they” when “they went to Lydia’s home.” Kenneth Bailey believes that it refers to Paul and Silas, plus the jailer and the magistrates. This entourage left the prison to escort Paul and Silas out of town but they stopped by Lydia’s house on the way. The not so subtle message to the magistrates was that Lydia and her house church were Paul’s friends. Should anything happen to them, Paul just might feel compelled to report what had happened to him to the proper authorities. In other words, Paul took the beating to ensure that this fledgling worship community meeting under Lydia’s authority would be free from government interference.
We have Paul attracting leading Greek women to his message, the very women most disinclined to hear a message about subordination to men, not teaching, and keeping silent in worship. (All of the passages used to enjoin women to observe this behavior today give strong evidence of being instructions related to specific instances of congregations in the first century.) It is almost unthinkable that these women would have embraced this message. What seems more likely is that these women were hearing Paul teach a message that went something like:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28, NRSV)
As Bailey points out elsewhere in the DVD series, the use of “and” instead of “nor” in the “male and female” pairing is significant. This is an explicit reference to Genesis 1:27:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (NRSV)
So in what sense have we ceased to be male and female? We haven’t. What Bailey suggests Paul is referring to is the Rabbinic teaching built up about “male and female,” where woman is created to serve man and is inferior to man because of creation order.
Some try to relegate the Galatians passage to an observation about soteriology (method of salvation.) This is clearly not the case. Women were saved in Judaism prior to Christ. What changed was that they were now all one body, being “one in Christ Jesus.” It was about ecclesiology (church structure.) They were the new creation. Gordon Fee believes that 3:28 may have been a creedal statement intended to directly refute the type of prayer that Jewish men prayed, like the one I noted above.
If Paul was teaching this in Galatia, then he was no doubt teaching this in other areas where he traveled. That he directly challenged this mindset is evidenced by his actions in Acts 16:13 where he is found teaching a group of women. How would prominent Greek women likely have responded to his message? Is it not just as we find recorded in the Bible? They were drawn to his leveling of the power hierarchies of Greco-Roman culture and the introduction of an ethic of mutual submission.