Lydia: A Dyer of Purple who Tints a City with her Faith

Defined by her work and her past, Lydia nevertheless overcomes societal biases and makes a huge impact of the establishment of Christian faith in the city of Philippi. While most commentators define Lydia as a wealthy merchant, this may not be the case.[1] Lydia is from Thyatira in the region of Lydia, for which she is named. Her name signifies that she was most likely a slave in Thyatira and was employed in a dye house, where she learned her trade of making dyed purple cloth. Once freed Lydia would have been able to go to Philippi and establish her own dye house with the help of other women. She was no longer a slave and living in a new place, but she still is still identified by what she used to be. She is residing in Philippi when she is mentioned in Acts 16:11-15, which is the narrative account of her encounter with Paul.

Having her own dye house would not make Lydia a wealthy woman. She and those women who worked with her would have done the difficult and dirty work of dying cloth purple and then selling it themselves. In addition to being difficult work, dyeing cloth produced an awful odor.[2] Dye houses would have to be established on the outskirts of cities because of the smell. Working as a dyer of cloth may have provided independence for Lydia and the women she housed, but it was a job that was done by those of the lower class. Reimer writes, “Work with purple was normally done in workshops. According to Cicero, this was dirty work, so we may suppose that the workers were looked down upon.”[3] This is precisely why the account of Lydia as the first convert in Europe and her house has the first established church house is so significant. Not only was she a woman, but she was marginalized in society by being poor, and because she was an outsider in the community at Philippi, as were the women who were part of her household.

In addition to being defined as a dyer of purple from Thyatira, Lydia is also said to be a “worshiper of God” or a God fearer. This means that she was a Gentile who followed a Jewish faith though not considered a proselyte; she would have worshiped in a synagogue.[4] Therefore, Lydia, though not Jewish, did have a true faith in God, who she actively worshiped. It was then, a woman of faith, despite her social circumstances that first accepted the gospel message that Paul preached in Philippi. Lydia then opens her house as a place of worship and “prevails” upon Paul and his companions to stay at her house (Acts 16:15).

Paul encounters Lydia and a group of women outside the city gates by the river on the Sabbath as they were worshipping God (Acts 16:13). Paul and his companions teach the gospel to the women; Lydia responds to Paul’s preaching and she and her household are baptized (Acts 16:13-15). It is likely that Lydia’s household are the women that are gathered near the river, and it is also likely that these are Gentile women, who like Lydia, are working with her in purple dye. Lydia and these women were ordinary women who depended upon one another to survive. They worked together, lived together, and worshiped together; they were a community of women that were living life contrary to the Roman custom of dominance, and instead embraced a community of mutuality.[5]

Just as Jesus proclaimed good news for the poor, here we see that Paul has begun his evangelizing work in Philippi with those on the outskirts of society—both figuratively and literally. It is initially through the freed woman, Lydia, that the freeing message of the gospel is spread through the city of Philippi. A female freed slave is the catalyst for the freeing of people in Christ Jesus! Freeing them from dominant patriarchal structures so that they can embrace the freedom of living in mutuality, despite gender, class, race, or ethnicity. In the smelly workplace of a dyer of purple, the fragrant aroma of faith begins to spread through Philippi. The dyer of purple begins to tint the city of Philippi with the color of faith in Christ.

[1] Luise Schottroff, “Lydia: A New Quality of Power,” in Let the Oppressed Go Free: Feminist Perspectives on the New Testament (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 131-37; Ivoni Richter Reimer, “Lydia and Her House,” in Women in the Acts of the Apostles: A Feminist Liberation Perspective, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), 71-149.

[2] Schottroff, 132.

[3] Reimer, 106-7.

[4] Reimer, 93-98.

[5] Reimer, 126-27.

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