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The Politics of Scripture

Women Prevailing Against Limited Vision

Lydia does not need a man or any other figure of authority to speak for her or to dictate her life. She is her own agent and even Luke-Acts’ Paul has to respect that. She cares for her own, commits to seeking justice, and makes her own choices.

9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ 10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

Acts 16:9–15

The vision in Acts 16:9–15 is a bit perplexing. Paul sees in his vision a man beckoning him to “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” On the one hand, the vision moves the plot of Acts forward as Paul and other members of the messiah movement are now prompted to head further to the west. On the other hand, the vision does not accurately portray what they encounter when they reach the Roman colony of Macedonia. 

They do not meet a man, they encounter women. Amongst those women is a particularly powerful woman named Lydia. Scenes like this one are precious since Acts most frequently tends to the male protagonists. Even in a story with a dynamic woman like Lydia, she is not in Paul’s vision.  

Lydia is both a literary character in Luke-Acts and a representative of the role women played in the early movement that celebrated Jesus as messiah. Lydia wields autonomy, agency, and advocacy. She prevails against the movement’s limited vision that saw a man instead of her and her household. She serves as a model to resist patriarchy, which is especially important as women’s rights are under attack in the United States.

Lydia as a literary character functions within the larger rhetorical strategy of the two-part volume Luke-Acts. Luke-Acts, in some places, proclaims an elevated status for women as in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55). But in other places, Luke-Acts demonstrates that it is a product of its Roman imperial context, which valued particular performances of masculinity at the expense of other humans, especially women. This manifests narratively in how women are not even considered to fill the vacant apostle position (Acts 1:21).

Luke-Acts also demonstrates the ubiquity of class distinctions, even amongst women. Across Acts, there are elite women like Lydia who support the messiah movement’s message. At the same time, often enslaved women and other low status women are invisibilized or relegated to a comedic trope as is the case with the enslaved woman, Rhoda, in Acts 12:12–17. 

In light of these challenges, readers who value Scripture and the importance of women’s historical leadership must search for a new vision. I suggest that readers engage what Prof. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza refers to as the hermeneutics of (the interpretive practices that tend to) domination, re-membering, and imagination. The hermeneutics of domination investigates how power is symbolized and distributed within a text and its context. 

The interpretive practice of re-membering works to put back together (re-member) stories of marginalized humans like women that have been intentionally ignored, muted, and severed from dominant historical narratives. Then, the hermeneutic of imagination invites interpreters to imagine justice in conversation with historical reconstructions and in opposition to those reconstructions, if necessary. 

Applying the hermeneutics of domination, re-membering, and imagination to the Lydia scene helps to imagine early Christian traditions that envision strong women in leadership within the movement and within the empire more broadly.

Lydia is autonomous. She is her own woman. Lydia is a dealer of purple cloth, which suggests that she is a successful entrepreneur. Of even more significance is the fact that Lydia is the leader of a household. 

No one makes decisions for Lydia. She is the decider both for herself and for a community of presumably, although not necessarily, women. In a context where male domination permeates every aspect of the culture, it is significant that Luke-Acts incorporates a powerful, financially secure woman. 

This very well could indicate that women like Lydia were not rare, especially within early Jesus following communities. It could be that Luke-Acts could not reliably narrate a story about the early Jesus followers without at least mentioning in passing the importance of women.

Lydia’s presence in the text allows interpreters of Acts to re-member women who had from the beginning of the Jesus movement carried it (e.g. Mary literally does so). Lydia also represents the independent women that continued to be key stakeholders and supporters of the movement. Lydia demonstrates continued support for the movement even after this initial encounter with Paul. After Paul and other messiah movement members are arrested, beaten, and imprisoned in Acts 16, they return to Lydia’s house for respite. This woman’s autonomy provides a foundation for the movement even within a Roman colony. 

Lydia is also not afraid to be her own agent and ask for what she wants. She asks for Paul and the other messiah movement members to stay at her house. The language of the text suggests that they did not accept her invitation without challenge. 

She asks them (parekalesen) to stay at her house in the same way that the Macedonian man in Paul’s vision asks them (parakalōn) to come and help them. Furthermore, she prevails upon them (Acts 16:15, parebiasato), which indicates that she strongly compels them. The term can also suggest applying force.

Lydia prevails over them. Although the messiah movement members had found it logical (sumbibazontes) that God had called them to go into Macedonia, they are overpowered by Lydia to stay at her house. This is not to suggest that Lydia is more powerful than God or that she is overbearing. Rather, it is to demonstrate that she could even persuade one of Luke-Acts’ chief protagonists. 

Lydia is not a passive recipient of missionary activity; she is an active shaper of the tradition that would become Christianity. Lydia determines what she wants for herself and pursues it. Not even Paul can tell her what she cannot have or do.

Lydia does not only wield agency for herself, but she also advocates for her community. Upon her accepting Paul’s message, she and her household are baptized. She brings the message she heard at the prayer place of gathered women to her household.  This scene mirrors the Roman jailer who later in the chapter, upon hearing Paul’s message in prison, would get baptized along with his entire household (Acts 16:25–34).

Although Luke-Acts does not name her a preacher, as it does with Phillip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), Lydia ushers her entire household into the movement. The passage is not explicit about what she shares or what she had overheard Paul and the messiah movement discussing. 

Perhaps the discussion Lydia heard aligns with the last full sermon that Acts places in Paul’s mouth before this scene in Acts 13:16–41. One aspect of this sermon is that Jesus was unjustly executed by human judicial processes, but God responded to that injustice by raising Jesus from the dead. The ultimate act of the God whom Paul preached was God’s cosmic, apocalyptic response to injustice—resurrection. 

Lydia very well could have been compelled by the message of God’s justice and desired to be judged faithful to the Lord (Acts 16:15). And Lord (kyrios) here could either refer to the God who raised Jesus to correct injustice or to Jesus who was raised as a rebuttal to injustice. Lydia is already a worshiper of the God of Israel. It is clear both in how Acts describes her as a God-worshiper (sebomenē ton Theon) and in how she is a part of Sabbath day prayer group.   

Lydia becomes an advocate for justice along with her household. In this reconstruction, Lydia’s commitment to the message about God correcting injustice presents her as a part of a tradition of women Jesus followers who advocate for those whom they love and champion the causes that make for a more just world. 

One problem remains in this reconstruction of Lydia and her household. The ancient household was a site of domination. How much of an advocate for justice can the head of an ancient household be?

When one notes that the household was inherently kyriarchal (under the rule of a master), what agency did those in Lydia’s house have? Could they have rejected the message of the messiah movement against their mistress’ wishes? If there were enslaved people in the house, did their positions change because of their and Lydia’s baptism? 

In terms of Lydia’s household, the questions raised above by the hermeneutics of domination should be placed in tension with the following questions offered by the hermeneutics of re-membering and imagination: would Lydia or other women have kept the oppressive structure of the kyriarchal household, especially after hearing a message about God rectifying injustice? What if they did not? What if this passage attests to the beginning of a new world order that begins by re-ordering the household?

Perhaps Lydia rearranged and re-envisioned the household after this encounter. More importantly, perhaps other women who were the earliest followers of Jesus held Lydia’s values of autonomy and agency and advocated for the dismantling of imperially influenced households. Perhaps they understood injustice when certain segments of the movement prioritized men and were only looking for men. Perhaps Acts 16:9–15 presents a glimpse into strong women that speak up for themselves and others, the type of women that made and continue to make the movement possible.

Lydia as one who wields autonomy, agency, and advocacy is a worthwhile example of resistance even for today. As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to roll back the landmark Roe v. Wade decision and as states pass anti-abortion laws, Lydia serves as an ancient reminder that women should always be able to make decisions about their own bodies.

Lydia does not need a man or any other figure of authority to speak for her or to dictate her life. She is her own agent and even Luke-Acts’ Paul has to respect that. She cares for her own, commits to seeking justice, and makes her own choices. Although the messiah movement went looking for a man in Macedonia, it’s good that they found a woman instead.

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