Note: This portrait of Lydia is fictional, although it is based on the realities of ancient city life and depicts experiences that would have been common. Unlike most of my fictional portraits, this one uses the name of a real figure we know from Paul’s letter. The details of her story, though, are from my own historically informed imagination.
Lydia still felt strange when she heard the noises of a festival from a distance. She could still feel the warmth of the smiling faces that used to surround her in the sacred procession, faces she had known since before she could speak. She could see in her mind’s eye how the children and dogs would be chasing in and out among the adults’ legs. The joy was always infectious. For most in the procession outside it was the joy of finally having a day free from the endless grind of work. Even the lowest house slaves and field slaves would be walking with the rest, smelling a whiff of freedom for these few hours. Pressed in the midst of that crowd, with the whole city joined in one moving celebration, Lydia has always known that she was home. These were her people. She belonged to this city, to Philippi. And as the temple of Augustus loomed up majestic out above the surrounding shop stalls, Lydia had always shared in the people’s surge of pride. They were Romans! The other towns of the province would be celebrating the Emperor’s festival on the same day, walking up to their own temples, watching the priests slit the throats of bulls in the same climactic sacrifice in front of the sacred precincts. For Lydia and Philippi, though, it was different. Augustus was no foreign conqueror to the Philippians. They felt no hint of longing for the glory days of a Macedon that was long dead. No, Augustus was their own Emperor. He was their own protector and provider. He had given them this land, given them good fields to plow and a whole corner of Macedon to govern. Even as Lydia heard the long procession pass by in the street outside she could remember what it was like to know she stood in the family of a god.
It had been seventeen years, though, since Lydia had fallen in step with the festival processions. Seventeen years since she had offered her pinch of incense on the altar, though its smoky aroma hung heavy in the streets. Seventeen years, and still the shadows of her Atrium felt a little lonelier on these festival days. It was not that Lydia longed for a husband. She had given up that hope a long time ago. Besides, she had heard enough women scream their last exhausted pleas to the goddess Hestia as the midwife tried in vain to stanch the bleeding. No, it was better to be as she was–free to govern the house her father had left her. The hollowness Lydia still felt in these moments was not the space any man would fill. It was the gap left behind when she tore herself away from her people. It was the knowledge that she could never again be home in Philippi.
What had happened? Lydia had become a Jew. She had first met Aseneth and the others early one morning outside the west gate of the city. Lydia had joined a friend, a local trader, as he headed off along the Via Egnatia toward the big market in Thessalonica. As the two passed between the rows of graves that lined the highway, Lydia noticed a small group clustered on the riverbank. They stood near the bridge where the highway crossed over and seemed to have their hands raised in prayer to some deity. But Lydia did not know of any shrine at the river, and there was no sign of any portable altar. Curious, she had let her friend go on his way and sat down to watch the group in their prayers. Two days later Lydia noticed Aseneth shopping in the agora and her curiosity had driven her to strike up a conversation. Aseneth, too, was without husband or father in Philippi, though she had been married once and widowed. Lydia would have been hard pressed to say when their surprising friendship had given birth to her own devotion to Aseneth’s God. By the following spring, though, Lydia had become part of the small circle gathered each Sabbath on the riverbank, beside the graves.
They were a tiny group, usually only ten or twelve, and almost all women who had come from Syria or Asia for one reason or another. With so few Jews in the city, and too few men to form a quorum, they had no proper Synagogue. So they worshiped Israel’s God each Sabbath by the river, where they could purify their hands in the running water. Few of Lydia’s old friends understood why she would join the little band of foreigners with their odd cult. Even fewer could understand why she had become so antisocial, why she no longer came to the festivals or the temple banquets. Most of the time Lydia did not care. She had found in Israel’s God a joy and sense of purpose that even the divine Augustus had never provided. Still, on these festival days it was hard not to feel that she had become an exile, a woman without a people, not truly a Judean but no longer truly a citizen of Rome.
It was in the same spot, on the riverbank near the bridge, that Lydia met Paul of Tarsus seventeen years later. Some of her little circle were less than impressed by his teaching, but Lydia found herself drawn once more by a message that filled longings she did not know she had. It was not just that Israel’s Messiah had come, that God was finally beginning to establish his kingdom. This Paul said that God was welcoming the nations. This king had not come just for his own people, Israel. He was extending an invitation to Romans and Greeks and even Scythians as well. God was offering them all the rights of full citizens in God’s people. Lydia was no longer left without a people of her own. She was, Paul insisted, part of one new nation being gathered from around the world. She would still be an exile, until the Messiah’s return, living in a city that was not her own. She and her fellow exiles were now, though, the representatives of an Emperor whose power made Augustus seem pathetic in comparison. They were a colony of a heavenly empire that would one day out-shine Rome in its glory.
Soon Lydia’s small Atrium was filled with others who wanted to become part of this people of God, giving worship to the one king who really was “saviour” for the world. They had no towering edifice of marble. They offered no bulls. What they had, though, was a living king who was always present among them, making his Spirit felt in amazing signs. When she was alone, especially on festival days, Lydia sometimes still felt small and alone. She sometimes longed to melt back into the city’s life, to belong again to the body of its citizens. Now she knew, though, that she did belong to another heavenly city, and that her king would soon come in triumph to re-make the world.