Lydia of Thyatira
Lydia of Thyatira (Greek: Λυδία) is a woman mentioned in the New Testament who is regarded as the first documented convert to Christianity in Europe. Several Christian denominations have designated her a saint.
The name, "Lydia", meaning "the Lydian woman", by which she was known indicates that she was from Lydia in Asia Minor. Though she is commonly known as “St. Lydia” or even more simply “The Woman of Purple,” Lydia is given other titles: “of Thyatira,” “Purpuraria,” and “of Philippi (‘Philippisia’ in Greek).” “[Lydia’s] name is an ethnicon, deriving from her place of origin”. The first refers to her place of birth, which is a city in the Greek region of Lydia. The second comes from the Latin word for purple and relates to her connection with purple dye. Philippi was the city in which Lydia was living when she met St. Paul and his companions. All of these titles expound upon this woman’s background.
New Testament narrative
Acts 16 describes Lydia as follows:
A certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, one who worshiped God, heard us; whose heart the Lord opened to listen to the things which were spoken by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and stay." So she persuaded us.— Acts 16:14-15 World English Bible
Lydia was most likely a Greek Macedonian even though she lived in a Roman settlement. She was evidently a well-to-do agent of a purple-dye firm in Thyatira, a city southeast of Pergamum and approximately 40 miles inland, across the Aegean Sea from Athens. Lydia insisted on giving hospitality to Apostle Paul and his companions in Philippi. They stayed with her until their departure, through Amphipolis and Apollonia, to Thessalonica (Acts 16:40-17:1).
Paul, Silas, and Timothy were traveling through the region of Philippi when they encounter “a reputable businesswoman and possibly a widow… [who] was a righteous Gentile or ‘God-fearer’ attracted to Judaism”. “[S]he was one of a large group [considered]…sympathizers with Judaism, believers in the one God, but who had not yet become ‘proselytes’ or taken the final step to conversion to Judaism”.
Because these encounters and events take place “in what is now Europe,” Lydia is considered “the first ‘European’ Christian convert”.
“Thyatira in the province of Lydia (located in what is now western Turkey) was famous for the red [variety of purple] dye”. Lydia of Thyatira is most known as a “seller” or merchant of purple cloth, which is the likely reason for the Catholic Church naming her “patroness of dyers.” It is unclear as to if Lydia simply dealt in the trade of purple dye or whether her business included textiles as well, though all known icons of the saint depict her with some form of purple cloth. Most portray this holy woman wearing a purple shawl or veil, which allows many historians and theologians to believe that she was a merchant of specifically purple cloth.
There is some speculation regarding Lydia’s social status. Theologians disagree as to whether Lydia was a free woman or servant. “There is no direct evidence that Lydia had once been a slave, but the fact that her name is her place of origin rather than a personal name suggests this as at least a possibility”. Ascough cites other examples of noble women named Lydia from the first or second centuries, so it is unlikely that she was actually a slave or servant.
Because women did not possess the same equality rights as modern women, it appears unusual that Lydia would be capable of inviting a group of foreign men to her house without a man’s consent. “The fact that there is no mention of a man has been used to deduce that she was a widow, but this has been challenged as a patriarchal interpretation”. Lydia’s evident social power exemplified by her control of a household and ownership of a house (which she offered to St. Paul and his companions) indicates that she was most likely a free woman and possibly a widow.
Many Christian denominations recognize Lydia of Thyatira as a saint, though her feast day varies greatly. In the Catholic Church, her feast day is August 3. The Episcopal Church honors St. Lydia along with Sts. Dorcas and Phoebe with a feast day in its liturgical calendar on January 27, the day after the remembrance of the early male missionaries Timothy, Titus and Silas, and two days after the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Therefore, she is honored on that date.
Eastern Orthodox Churches remember Lydia on various days, with some jurisdictions remembering her twice during a liturgical year. Many Eastern Orthodox churches, including the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, remember St. Lydia on May 20. However, some divisions of the Russian Orthodox Church (other than the Orthodox Church in America) observe both June 25 and March 27 as her feast days.
Devotion to St. Lydia is greater in the Orthodox Church than in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, and this is evident by the myriad of icons depicting this woman. The Orthodox Churches have given her the title of “Equal to the Apostles,” which signifies her importance and level of holiness. There is a church located in Philippi, which many consider to be built in St. Lydia’s honor. A modern baptistry is located on the traditional site where Lydia was baptized by St. Paul near Philippi as well.
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