Fleur celebrates Lydia of Thyatira, a successful businesswoman and Philippian convert, while reflecting on this painting by the artist Edward Irvine Halliday.

Lydia is mentioned just once in the Bible in Acts 16:13-15 but as Paul’s first convert she deserves serious consideration. Her name is taken from her place of origin, Thyatira in the province of Lydia (now Turkey) rather than denoting her birth name. So there is some speculation that either Euodia or Syntyche – two female co-workers of Paul named in Philippians 4:2-3 might actually be Lydia.

Luke calls her “a dealer in purple cloth” and a God fearer or worshipper of God. Lydia was a successful businesswoman who sold luxury textiles dyed purple. It was only the wealthy who wore garments dyed purple or had purple furnishings in their homes. Tyrian purple, a dye derived from marine molluscs, was costly compared with the less expensive and reddish local dye, known today as Turkey red. Thyatira was known for its thriving guilds and Lydia would have been an active local dealer with a network of customers and relationships from which both she and her employees would have benefitted.

In this painting by the artist Edward Irvine Halliday, there are several different encounters happening at the same time, but we are drawn to Lydia’s purple robe as she is converted while listening to St Paul preaching the good news. Various hues of purple, mauve, lilac and periwinkle illustrate Lydia’s clothing industry. As well as greens, pinks, blues, black and white presenting a tapestry of fabrics typical of the times and of the trading routes. This range of colours is mirrored in the landscape, creating harmony between land, sea and sky.

St Paul Meeting Lydia of Thyatira by Edward Irvine Halliday. (1902-84) Oil on canvas. Victoria Gallery & Museum, Liverpool, England.

Notice the diversity of people: we see a modern mother and child; a Buddhist meditating on the gathering; eastern philosophers wearing exotic hats holding dialogue. Bystanders are watching Lydia’s conversion and Roman soldiers play a board game. Another man abducts a prophetess on horseback who Paul has just freed from an oppressive Spirit; fishermen are busy on a pastel lake while crumbling imperial pillars lie abandoned in this coastal town. The old order is passing away, the new is coming ashore. The Roman Empire is receding with its triumphal arch and Doric columns set against the distant mountains. A new way opens up and is emerging as the missionary of Jesus works the crowds! In the midst of these changing times and emerging Christianity, stands a woman who has come to faith.

After listening to Paul, Lydia and her household were baptized. One of the few women in Luke’s writings to speak, she says to Paul and his companions, “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my home.” Luke adds that “she prevailed on us.” This patron saint of dyers could welcome guests at short notice since she seems to have been the owner and mistress of her own home. Acts 16:15 begins with, “When she and her household were baptised” makes it clear that it was her household.

Lydia uses her own initiative when she offers the missionaries hospitality, which they readily accept. There is no mention of a husband or a father in her story. This was unusual in Bible times as women were identified by their relationship to a man (father, husband, adult son, or brother). It is likely that Lydia had no surviving adult male relatives or that she was widowed or divorced. Divorce was easier under Roman law and in most cases, bore no stigma. Whatever her marital status, Lydia’s home was spacious. It was large enough to accommodate Paul and his fellow missionaries (who included Silas, probably Timothy, and perhaps Luke and others) as well as her own household. Her home was also large enough to hold church meetings. It was in Lydia’s home that the church at Philippi first gathered in Acts 16:40.

Lydia’s encounter with Paul and her hospitality showed courage. Having a group of foreign men stay in her house could have caused scandal. Hosting meetings where a new Jewish messiah was worshipped, rather than an emperor or an ancient pagan god, could have ruined her reputation and her business. She received Paul and Silas into her home in Philippi just after their release and as angry crowds sought their expulsion from the city as disruptors of the peace (Acts 16:19-21). Persecution emerged early against the young church as Jesus warned his disciples it would before his death. Paul describes his experiences of persecution in the city of Philippi in 1 Thessalonians 2:2 – being a Christian could be difficult for men and women (cf. Acts 8:3; 9:1; 22:4) and compare Junia’s imprisonment in Romans 16:7.

It seems likely that Lydia was a Gentile adherent to Judaism rather than a full convert. At the outset of Christianity almost all Christian converts were either Jews or Gentiles with an affiliation with Jewish monotheism and morality. In parts of the Roman Empire, women played prominent roles in their Jewish communities including leading women’s groups, especially where they already had some social freedoms. Lydia may have been a patron of the Jewish community at Philippi and it is possible on conversion that she became a patron and leader of the church in Philippi. Her own business required skills in management and relationship-building – skills transferable to the service and creation of a new house church.

Lydia is the only Philippian convert who is named in Acts, and we know that after Paul and his group spent several weeks staying with her (cf. Luke 10: 5-7) the Philippian church met in her home. We know “the Lord opened Lydia’s heart” (in Acts 16:14b) giving her spiritual gifts and abilities to help her in this radical new ministry to the newly community (cf. Acts 2:18; 1 Corinthians 12: 4). She is the most likely person to have led and cared for the first congregation at Philippi. She is yet another example of how the gospel freed people of either gender, regardless of their previous religious background or economic status.

Women like Lydia were at the centre of the Early Church. They had a variety of roles including caring for local groups of believers, evangelising and furthering the Christian mission. The church at Philippi existed because of Lydia’s generous heart and welcoming home. Her faith and intelligence, practical skills and initiative, courage and pastoral sensibilities continue to make her an ideal role model for women in the church today.

Other New Testament women, who were both homeowners and independent of husbands or fathers, were Martha of Bethany in Luke 10:38; Mary of Jerusalem in Acts 12:12; Chloe of Corinth in 1 Corinthians 1:11; Nympha of Laodicea in Colossians 4:15 and the Chosen Lady in 2 John 5. Other women in Luke 8: 2-3 are noted for their independent means such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many other Galilean women who accompanied Jesus and ministered to him out of their personal resources. Finally, there is the angel of the church in Thyatira mentioned in Revelation 2:18 which could indeed be Lydia.

The story of Lydia in Acts 16:10-17 is interesting for being narrated in the first-person plural. Much of Acts is narrated in the third-person plural so this may indicate that whoever recorded her story was with Paul in Philippi, an eyewitness, and met Lydia personally. The narrator may be Luke himself, or Luke wishing to use a first-person source.

Interesting facts.

The Feast of Lydia, patron saint of dyers is 3rd August. St. Lydia is honoured in the Orthodox Church more than in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, and this is shown by the number of icons depicting her.

The painting was one of two commissions in 1928 from Sir Benjamin Johnson, whose business is the now famous dry-cleaning company of that name. The company had been founded in Liverpool in 1817 as a silk dying business before moving into cleaning, so the theme is a tribute to the company’s origins.  The company was still heavily invested in the dyeing process when the painting was commissioned and two versions of the painting were created. A smaller version (H56cm x W81.3cm) hung in Sir Benjamin’s home in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton, and a larger version (H106cm x W147cm) was for the company’s main dye works in Bootle, near Liverpool. This painting is the large version.

Further reading:

Lydia: Paul’s Cosmopolitan Hostess (Pauls Social Network). Richard S. Ascough.
Liturgical Press; Illustrated edition. 1 Feb. 2009.

From Mary to Lydia: Letting New Testament Women Speak to Us. Nell W. Mohney.
Dimensions for Living. 1 Feb. 2002.