Yoder-Short: Was Lydia black?

Sep 12, 2016 by

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Images become stuck in our heads. Of course Lydia was white. And Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor.
Lydia is frequently cited as the first European convert. Most children’s Bible storybooks confirm Lydia’s pale skin.

Jane Yoder-Short


British Vicar Rosalyn Murphy wants to change our image of Lydia. Writing in the journal Black Theology, Murphy advocates for Lydia being a woman of color.

Reimaging Lydia should not be that shocking. It has happened before. Someone we imagined looking white, ends up needing to be reimagined. A Jewish friend once described how “black is beautiful” has its roots in Jewish history. He explained how the Hebrew people were uneasy with Moses’ wife being a Cushite (Num. 12:1). According to this friend, the issue was settled by deciding black was beautiful. Reimagining Moses with a beautiful black wife required an image shift.

The fascinating story of Lydia is all of 3 verses, Acts 16:13-15. She is mentioned again in verse 40 when she hosts an after-prison gathering for Paul and Silas. From these few verses, we can put together an intriguing image of Lydia. Brief clues open a world of surmises.

We know Lydia was a seller of purple dye, or fabric dyed purple. If someone sold Lamborghinis, we’d know they weren’t Amish. As a seller of purple, we can surmise that Lydia was prevented from becoming a full-fledged Jew. The purple dye came from sea snails. According to Leviticus, only fish with fins and scales are clean. Snails made her unclean. We presume she worshiped God from the margins of the Jewish faith community.

We know Lydia was an independent woman. She has a name, and there is no mention of men in her life. She was confident enough to speak openly to men in public, which not all women of her time would have done. Ideal Roman women were not associated with business dealings. If they did own property or a business, they did so behind the cover of a man.

We know Lydia had a house big enough to entertain guests. Later, it appears her home was the gathering place for the Philippian believers. From the size of her home, we can surmise she was wealthy.

We still haven’t surmised her ethnic identity. We know she is from the city of Thyatira. If I tell you I’m originally from rural Ohio, you can surmise that my ancestry is white European. You might be wrong, but it would be a good guess. If I said I was from Chicago, you would have a hard time surmising my ethnicity.

Murphy unpacks what it means to be from Thyatira. Thyatira was a cosmopolitan city with a considerable number of Numidians. Numidians were physically indistinguishable from early northwest African inhabitants. It is compelling to surmise Lydia was a descendent of the Numidian caste of skilled artisans. Numidians established trade relations and later oversaw some Roman trade interests. They were allowed to travel to Roman provinces in Asia Minor, such as Lydia’s hometown of Thyatira. This points to the probability that Lydia was Numidian or of mixed race.

Gone is the image of a pale-skinned Lydia surrounded by polyester purple fabric. Arriving is a less cookie-cutter Lydia who can encourage woman to move beyond society’s confining expectations.

Bible stories are rich with amazing clues. When we look beyond the limits of images stuck in our minds, our heads dance with powerful new images that challenge our thinking and our lives.

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.

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