Lydia, a successful woman leader of the church at Philippi, has a complicated identity. Appearing briefly in the book of Acts, Lydia is traditionally regarded as the first European convert, but her background is mostly a mystery. Digging deeper into the possibilities of Lydia’s racial and ethnic origins, however, could change how we see conversion and the idea of Christianity as a monolithic faith.
What are the ethnic possibilities of Thyatira?
According to Acts 16:14, Lydia was born in Thyatira, a city in southern Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Thyatira was situated along a major Roman trade route that linked Africa and Europe. It had a strong military presence and was probably a place of diverse ethnicities. Although the definition of ethnicity was very fluid during the Roman Empire, Lydia could possibly be understood in modern terms as multiethnic. In 25 BCE soldiers from Numidia, Mauritania, and Carthage settled in Thyatira, and intermarriages commonly occurred. While there is no clear evidence of Lydia’s race and ethnicity, there is a good possibility that Lydia was a product of one of these marriages and was therefore not a white European.
Was Lydia the God worshiper also practicing paganism?
At some point, according to Acts 16, Lydia relocated to Philippi. That is where Paul finds her leading women in prayer on the Sabbath by a local river. Why were the women gathered at the river? Lydia is described as “a worshiper of God” (Acts 16:14), and the dominant assumption is that she is Jewish. It is uncertain whether the “place of prayer” (mentioned in Acts 16:13) is just a gathering place or Jewish synagogue. However, if it is a Jewish synagogue, why were there only women gathered there? And why assume that this prayer gathering is Jewish in the first place? Lydia could be practicing a hybrid faith. Many early Christians incorporated aspects of Greek and Roman polytheistic beliefs into their daily life, and Lydia may have done the same. We should not assume a singular path in her conversion.
At the time the new Jesus movement was spreading, Greco-Roman goddess worship still thrived. Paul would likely have encountered worshippers of these goddesses when he came to Phillipi to initiate a Jesus group. The popular goddesses in Philippi were Artemis, Diana, Bendis, and Isis. Isis in particular was popular around the Mediterranean, where she was known as the “Queen of Heaven,” a title she shared with Mary of Nazareth. It would have been easy for a new Christian to connect Isis with Mary and thereby assimilate their new beliefs with their old. Assimilation of Mary could also be connected with the goddess of Artemis, who was popular around Asia Minor. Mary and Artemis were depicted similarly in art, making it easy to connect the two. Connections between goddesses and early Christianity can also be seen in the concept of the triple goddess, a Greco-Roman deity associated with fertility and motherhood, and the eventual development of the doctrine of the Trinity.
It is possible that Lydia reflects this hybrid identity. Lydia was a woman of two cultures, Thyatira and Philippi. Like many women in the Bible, little is known about her. However, she lived during a time where independent women of the elite social classes sometimes had more freedom. As the Jesus movement groups grew and she became one of the leaders of the church at Philippi, Lydia could have also retained the practices of goddess worship. Descendants of the church at her house might have merged the goddesses with the concept of Sophia, the biblical personification of wisdom, creating a Christianity that focused on the divine feminine. The hybrid possibilities of Lydia’s racial/ethnic and religious background challenges the idea that early Christianity was a monolithic entity and opens up the possibility that there were matriarchal alternatives to the patriarchal framework of early Christianity.
Image Credit: Lydia of Thyatira, Greek icon, Lindon wood, 14 x 17 cm. Wikimedia Commons.
- Abrahamsen, Valerie. Goddess and God: A Holy Tension in the First Christian Centuries. Warren Center, PA: Shangri-La, 2006.
- Ascough, Richard S. Lydia: Paul’s Cosmopolitan Hostess. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2009.
- Byron, Gay L. Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature. New York: Routledge, 2002.