Studying Acts 16 11-15, 40

We are studying the story of Lydia, recorded in Acts 16:11-15 and :40, for Sunday, February 28. We’re also studying 1 Corinthians 1:26-30, an entirely different text, which seems to have been chosen as the capstone of our five weeks of thinking about women in the New Testament. I’ll try to post some notes on that text separately. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here, however, are a few notes on the Acts text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are in Acts again, the second installment of Luke-Acts. That is, same author as the gospel of Luke, with many similar concerns: economics and economic justice; the activity of the Holy Spirit – and especially the Spirit’s connection with baptism; Gentiles and their response to the gospel and their potentially exemplary qualities; women and their role in the Jesus movement and the early Christian community. Also, “good Greek” writing style, including the use of lots of distinctive Greek words, and careful literary structure.

In this part of the text of Acts, the attention has shifted to Paul. Paul and his travelling companion Silas have begun Paul’s second missionary journey, after Paul’s disagreement with Barnabas about taking John Mark along. They have picked up Timothy and brought him along. Paul, responding to the guidance of the Holy Spirit through prohibitions and visionary calls, has directed his travelling group (the word “we” is now being used by the narrator) to Macedonia.

The missionaries have come by stages to Philippi, a strategically important city militarily and historically, and a Roman colony. That “Roman colony” status is important enough for Luke to mention in v12. This may have something to do with the way Roman citizenship is going to figure in the unfolding of Paul’s story in this place (see vv35-40).

[Here’s that interactive map of Paul’s missionary journeys from last week. It shows Philippi. Here’s a map of Paul’s third missionary journey that shows Thyatira, Lydia’s home town.]

Commentators talk like we know a lot about Philippi, and what the limited details of the story in Acts signify. “There was no synagogue in Philippi.” “Because there weren’t enough Jewish men to form a synagogue.” “So, instead, the women gathered for prayer by the river.” And “Lydia might have been a slave, because she is named after a place.” And “she was probably a widow because she could have her whole household baptized on her own say-so.” And she’s the first Christian in Europe. And on and on and on.

I’m probably a grouch and a spoilsport, but I feel we should take much of this with ample salt. Most of these statements seem to rest on romantic assumptions and wishful speculation rather than evidence.  

In particular, the things people say about “the synagogue in Philippi” seem to rest entirely on the assumption that whatever Luke doesn’t tell us didn’t exist or never happened. How safe do we suppose that assumption is?

True, Luke doesn’t mention Paul and his companions visiting the synagogue in Philippi. But from this, can we safely assume that there was no synagogue in Philippi – for whatever reason – so they couldn’t have visited it, and so didn’t? Should we assume that? I think this is called “making an argument from silence.” It’s notoriously weak, and here, the minimum conditions for making it are not even met.

[And here’s one alternative view from John Dominic Crossan that seems to make just as much sense of this story.]

So I am going to try to stick to what we seem to know from the text on this one.

We do, however, actually seem to know something about the purple trade in the ancient world.

This text is the lectionary’s gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C.
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CLOSER READING: After a couple of verses of itinerary, we learn that the missionaries either are staying, or perhaps are planning to stay, for some days in Philippi. The text doesn’t tell us how many days elapse until “the sabbath,” which is the setting-in-time of verse 13.

In v13, the verb translated “we supposed” comes from a Greek expression that connotes something like “normally” or “usually.” They seem to have supposed what they supposed because of what was usual.

The word translated “a place of prayer” seems to be translated simply “prayer” everywhere else in the New Testament. Why the translators think this particular instance of prayer needs to be designated a “place,” rather than simply “prayer,” like a prayer meeting, is unclear to me.

The missionaries “sat down and spoke to the women who were gathered there.” I am intensely curious about what this actually refers to. I wonder whether only women were gathered there. Or were there men and women praying, but separately [as happens all the time nowadays, for instance, at the western wall in Jerusalem]. I wondere what the reaction to the missionaries’ behavior would have been. How normal or abnormal, how intrusive or friendly, would this action have seemed?

I venture to suggest that we don’t actually know the answers to those questions. The scene we imagine in our heads, once again, seems to have more to do with what is already in our heads than what “probably was” or “must have been” happening in Philippi in the year 50 CE or so.

But here’s something the text actually tells us directly: “The Lord” – that is, Jesus – “opened the heart” of this certain woman, named Lydia, who was a dealer in purple and was a worshipper of God.

We are reasonably sure that “a worshipper of God” means she was one of the “God-fearers,” a Gentile who had come to worship the God of Israel.

Luke likes this word “opened.” In telling the story of Jesus’s resurrection appearances (Luke 24), Jesus opens the eyes of the disciples by breaking bread, after Jesus had opened the scriptures to them on the road, and then Jesus later opens the other disciples’ minds to understand scripture. Opening is the kind of thing the Lord does, although Paul also opens scripture (Acts 17:3).

This opening seems like something the author wants us to pay attention to.

In v15, all the translators seem to have decided that Lydia’s and her household’s baptism happens after Paul’s preaching, rather than thinking it had already happened. Although the language in the text seems to be less definite than that.

When exactly Lydia invites Paul and the others to come into her house, and to stay there, then, is not clear. Again, we could imagine more than one alternative: maybe she asks them to come home with her right after that prayer meeting, and then everyone is baptized (as happens at Cornelius’s house, it seems, back in Acts 10), and then she tells the missionaries to stay (imperatively). Or maybe she runs back home, drags everyone in the household down to the riverside, they all get baptized, and then they all go back to her place for lunch and lodging. Or, maybe some additional time elapses.

But once the missionaries are in Lydia’s house, she seems to “leave them no choice” [as we might say, after we’ve been urged and even pressured by someone] but to accept her invitation to stay. Paul and the others apparently stay at Lydia’s house in Philippi for the rest of their time in the city, however long that is.

From the fact that she has a house, and a household, it does seem reasonable to think she is not poor. And unlike the rich man in Luke 16 – who is also associated with purple, come to think of it – she shares.

The main event of the stay in Philippi, judging by the amount of text, is the exorcism of a demon from a slave girl, which provokes her owners to rile up a crowd and to have Paul and Silas thrown in prison. This is followed by a miraculous prisoner release, and some bureaucratic shenanigans.

The account in Acts 16 parallels the account of Peter’s miraculous prison break in Acts 12, with a couple of differences: in Acts 16, the prisoners do not leave the prison; instead, they convert the jailer, and he gets to live, and not die. They do, however, also go back to a Christian woman’s house, to travel onwards from there (Acts 16:40).

Lydia’s open-hearted response to Paul’s message of the gospel – which is explicitly a work of Christ’s – and then her response of generous hospitality in support of that work – seems to be what makes her an important Christian exemplar in this text.
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Image: “Seide purpur 03-10,” Inge Boesken Kanold, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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