The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman audience interpretation. Pt 10

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by Neil Godfrey

(continuation of the series)

ii. Lydia, Lydia and Lydians
The first convert of Paul is a woman who has gained much wealth from selling “purple”. Purple is, of course, a colour that was indicative of rulership and worn by a select few, mostly Romans of authority.


The name Lydia was well-known to Romans as the ancestral kingdom of the Etruscans, the first inhabitants (and kings) of Rome. Virgil in the first century could write meaningfully of the Rome’s Tiber as the ‘Lydian’ river (Aeneid II.780-781) and call the early Etruscan people of Italy ‘Lydians’ (Aeneid IX.11; VIII.479-480 uses Maeonia, the Homeric name for Lydia). The Etruscans were believed to have migrated from Lydia and become the foundation of the Roman culture and future power. Lydia was also renowned for its legendary wealth, and also for its purple dying industry, a craft associated with women. Thyatira, the home city of Lydia, was a city in the Asian province that replaced the Kingdom of Lydia when Rome expanded her power there. Is it coincidental that the first “Roman” convert — recall that the author singled out Philippi as a colony and hence Roman — should be named Lydia? What would we think of a modern author telling us that the first person to rent a house on Glasgow Street just across town was a Mrs Scott who made her living selling kilts and bagpipes. Possible of course, but some might also wonder if the thickness of the stereotypes was just a little too rich and sense the possibility of a cute but apocryphal tale.


We also know from the Book of Revelation that Rome was in the popular mind seen as notoriously wealthy (Rev.18). This first we-passage in Acts, on the contrary, makes positive associations of this first convert in this Roman colony with wealth.


We thus have in the story of the first conversion in Philippi associations (those of authority and wealth) that reinforce the idea that our setting is in under the umbrella of the Roman power and its Lydian ancestor. (Of course all cities in Acts are part of the Roman empire but they are elsewhere addressed as locales in their own right without comparable associative reminders that they represent Rome itself.)


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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “The We-Passages in Acts: a Roman audience interpretation. Pt 10”

  1. This seems a pretty tenuous argument to me. Paul tended to focus on major population centres and particularly those with strong Roman influence, such as Philippi and Corinth. The names of Paul’s associates (who are mentioned in the undisputed letters) show that many of them were Roman citizens (at least many of those who were prominent enough to be mentioned). For a demonstration of this see a relatively recent Tyndale Bulletin article be Judge.

    So, there is nothing surprising about the conversion of Lydia, a business woman and house owner. It was usual for a house owner to convert and welcome Paul into their home. This happened in Corinth, according to Acts, and Luke’s account here fits beautifully with what we know from Paul’s letters (see my web pages on Crispus-Sosthenes and Gaius Titius Justus Stephanas). In Thesalonika Jason took the same role.

    Also, it seems quite natural that Paul would associate with another outsider. Expatriates tend to stick together.

    Also, note that the first convert in Asia was Epaenetus, who went subsequently to Rome.

    I don’t see any evidence that Luke invented Lydia or was playing on some steriotype about Roman cities. Luke does not even mention the Roman character of Philippi. The difficulty with theories like yours is that they don’t explain how the original readers were suposed to make the connection that you suppose the author intended. Such literary devices would have been simply too subtle for anyone to spot. And if it was not, why has this connection not been made by commentators from ancient times until now?


  2. Fair enough, and thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate this sort of comment because I wrote this years ago in isolation and would have craved critique at the time as I did so.

    I do believe I can answer your challenge, however, and that I have done so in posts that will appear as follow ups. But till then, your comments show me that I need better organization of my material. I have felt that keenly from the beginning.

    Till future posts come this way, in brief, I can say that so many questions that surface in the scholarship re Acts seem to me to disappear if we see Acts as a Christian counterpart of the traditional Roman epic founding myth. If the audience was familiar with that, then I see far less problem with them picking up allusions to Lydia in a Roman colony etc. For us, sure, we need to spend time at school and beyond etc to pick these things up. But I doubt that a names like Aeneas and Lydia would be lost as allusions on an audience enculturated in the Roman founding myth.

    Others may well disagree, and that’s fine. I’d welcome the reasons.

  3. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Aeneas.

    A couple more things on Lydia. Firstly, some commentators have seen a Thracian link between Philippi and Thyatira. Secondly, it seems likely that Lydia was named after the region that she or her family came from. A parallel case to that of Lydia of Lydia is that of Achaicus of Achaia. You do not argue that Paul invented Achaicus, so why argue that Acts invented “Lydia”. If Acts had an over-abundance of cases of people taking the name of a region than you might have a case, but it does not. The case of Lydia seems historical in every respect. She was probably called “Lydia” as a nickname in much the same way as St Francis was named Francisco in his youth because his father traded with France.

    You seem determined to see Acts as a literary fiction.


  4. > You seem determined to see Acts as a literary fiction.

    Well I am building on Marianne Bonz’s “The Past as Legacy” probably more often than I realize at the time, and works of other scholars who have seen episodes in Acts modelled around other ancient fictional works which I will reference as I come to them. And a bit of Pervo too. Not discounting the odd Josephan trace element.

    How are you disposed to see books that are filled with miracle stories before, by and upon the main actors and illustrate a raft of Hellenistic novel tropes, while not reading like anything at all even half way close to a Thucydides or a Livy?


  5. Neil,

    The presence of “miracle” stories in Acts cannot be used to argue for its fictional character, not least because Paul himself speaks of his “signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Cor 12:12).

    The question of whether Acts is fictional or factual cannot be answered except by looking at the evidence. What would you say are the major discrepancies between what Acts tells us and what we learn from other sources (e.g. from Paul)? I find Acts to be in good agreement with the other sources, and the discrepancies are few, minor, and questionable.

    I am skeptical of studies of genre, as I think they are subjective and prone to circular argument. It is better to focus on the hard facts. What specific inaccuracies do you think Acts makes?

    Concerning Lydia and your suggestion that Acts invented names, how do you account for the fact that there is such good agreement between the names of Paul’s associates recorded in Acts and those recorded in the letters? Your case requires too much special pleading, I think.


  6. Do you reject “genre studies” absolutely? I don’t think you’re suggesting Paul did perform real miracles and that I should read the miracle stories as historical, are you? What do we make of literature where the miracles are central to the advancing of the plot and roles of the key characters? On what grounds do you treat Paul’s letters as “historical”–to what extent and which “redaction” of them? How would agreement between the names and places etc in Paul’s letters and Acts advance the argument for the historicity of Acts?


  7. Neil,

    you wrote: “How would agreement between the names and places etc in Paul’s letters and Acts advance the argument for the historicity of Acts?”

    We are concerned here with Lydia, whom you suggested was an invention of Acts. I would think it is obvious that the agreement between the names in Paul’s letters and Acts counts strongly against your hypothesis. It also supports the general historicity of Acts, though less strongly since you could (with special pleading) propose that Acts is historical in its names, but unhistorical in some other aspect.

    You mentioned that you had some thoughts on Aeneas. I would be interested to read them. Could you post them here, or give me a link. Thanks,


  8. This is completely re-written from my original reply. Something zapped my original reply after about a day.

    Your concern with Lydia in relation to the argument for or against the historicity of Acts misunderstands my original post. I discuss Lydia from the perspective of how she works as a literary allusion or metaphor and not as a point to be scored for or against the historicity argument. I am not using Lydia to argue against historicity. I am assuming — not arguing — that the text as we have it is nonhistorical.

    If I were to make an argument for the nonhistoricity of Acts I would not be discussing Lydia. Lydia is not my interest but merely a small part of something much more. I am increasingly wishing I had started out with more discussion of the broader reasons I see Acts as something of a mini-epic founding myth of Christianity so that we can see more easily how micro bytes like Lydia are fitting in to the larger backdrop. Ditto with Aeneas.

    Agreement between names in different works tells us nothing at all about historicity — unless one is assuming that the respective authors are dedicated to writing truthful history, which of course is begging the question.

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