Lydia: Paul's Cosmopolitan Hostess

By Richard S. Ascough
Collegeville, Minn. : Liturgical (2009). 127 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Irv Busenitz
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 246-247

This book is another in the series entitled Paul’s Social Network: Brothers & Sisters in the Faith, edited by Bruce J. Malina. The series focuses on the interconnectedness of early church converts across western Asia, Greece, and Italy and their impact on the ministry of the apostle to the Gentiles.

In this brief treatise, Richard Ascough, Associate Professor of New Testament at Queen’s Theological College in Kingston, Ontario, turns his spotlight solely on Lydia, the businesswoman from Philippi. He begins by rehearsing her prominent role in the establishment of the first church in Europe, noting that “She was a key player in Paul’s social network—one of the pivotal sisters in the faith” (1).

Ascough introduces this remarkable woman by recounting the data, both explicit and implicit, that is given in Luke’s narrative. And, though the information in the Acts 16 account is brief, there are a number of elements of her life that can be gleaned. Among other things, he observes that her name may be an ethnic appellation that speaks of her place of origin, as the city of Thyatira in Asia Minor was located in an area called Lydia; that she now resides and heads a household in Philippi; that she is a business woman, dealing in purple fabrics and/or the purple dye itself; and that she, after responding to the gospel, is baptized and opens her home to Paul and his traveling companions, both before and after their imprisonment. In each of these, the author delves into the background of such activities, providing a treasure-trove of historical information on her identity, the city of Thyatira, the Philippian assembly of believers, her household, the nature and role of women in first-century business, and much more.

Occasionally, the writer slips into a more “historical novel” mode, seeking to construct “an image of Lydia based on what is known about the political, commercial, social, and religious norms of the first-century world” (back cover). At times, these historical facts carry one beyond what can be corroborated by the biblical text. Nevertheless, when read with discernment, they can open up interesting vistas into the background of Lydia, highlighting the personal, business, religious, and social milieu of Lydia’s day. The author’s Markan priority perspective and higher critical remarks notwithstanding, the historical data provides a rich repository of information about life in that part of the world during the latter half of the first century. Anyone preaching through the journeys of Paul will find it a helpful resource.