Lydia – Seller of Purple: 'Cultural Insights for Apostolic Mission'

Lydia - Seller of Purple

Lydia – Seller of Purple

Acts 16:14 speaks of a woman named Lydia who was a “seller of purple” who responded to Paul’s preaching and offered to host Paul and his team in her home. Lydia’s gender, her being a “seller of purple,” and her means to be able to accommodate Paul and his band are significant to understanding the implications of this passage.

Seller of Purple

The dye used to create the color purple was greatly prized in antiquity. The source of the dye came from either snails/shellfish found near Tyre, or mollusks found near Thessalonica. They were available in large quantities only at certain seasons and the process of procuring the secretion for the dye was particularly onerous. The snails/mollusks were collected in large vats and left to decompose, producing a horrific stench.

Because the color did not easily fade, but rather became brighter with weathering and sunlight it was highly sought after. Its significance is such that the name Phoenicia means “land of purple.” It came in various shades the most prized being that of blackish clotted blood. These details made the dye, and the fabrics colored with it, so costly as to be available only to the wealthy upper classes, thus the color purple becoming associated, even to this day, with royalty.

Her Gender

Often times when the scriptures specifically identify a woman without an accompanying mention of her husband, or if she is mentioned first in preference to her husband, a significant point is being made. Space prohibits me from fully unpacking here the implications of gender protocols in their culture. However, generally speaking, mentioning a woman in preference over, in priority over, or without a husband would mean she was either a prostitute, a widow, or of such social status as to be prominently significant in the community in either honor, wealth, or both.

We know Lydia was not a prostitute. She may have been a widow, though that’s unlikely as Roman law allowed widows to only inherit 10% of her husband’s estate–likely not enough for a lifetime of financial independence. It is not unreasonable, based on the trade she in which she was engaged and her support of an entire household, that she was a woman of significant means. She may have been a “freewoman” who was an entrepreneur, or a broker of purple for her former master.

The Invitation

The invitation to house Paul and his team tends to support Lydia being a woman of considerable economic means. The invitation may seem to us a rather insignificant social politeness. However, that was not the case in their world.

That a man (Paul) would sit down to address women unaccompanied by their husbands would have been a culturally and socially provocative act. That a potentially single woman would invite a man, and his company into her home, would also have violated social taboos. Her invitation would have raised eyebrows, unless there were mitigating circumstances in the story (such as being a wealthy patroness). The “community” would “understand” that she was not a loose woman, but doing what honorable wealthy women do, that is, offer hospitality. The latter would not have shocked anyone.

The responsibility for hospitality among Mediterranean people, especially Jews, is hard for us to understand. It took on covenantal and moral overtones. If Lydia was Jewish (as seems likely[i]) she would be honor-bound to offer accommodations and absorb the cost of sustaining Paul and his band of travelers as a matter of covenantal obligation. If she was not Jewish, there would still be the same social obligation, but without the covenantal overtones.

Space prohibits me from explaining fully here the implications among Jews of the “threshold covenant.” I will simply say that when guests crossed the threshold of your home, you were covenantally responsible for their welfare, safety, and physical sustenance for as long as they were in your home. This was to be in preference to, and priority over, your obligations to care for your own flesh and blood.[ii] That includes absorbing the financial cost of the same.

To be able to host multiple people (Paul’s company) also points to Lydia being a woman of significant financial means (especially if a widow). While there was no “middle class” in their society, as we know it, an “average” first century home would consist of two and half rooms. There was only one main room where the entire family did everything: live, cook, eat, and sleep. On one end of that room there would be a “half room” on a lower level where the animals would be kept at night (Yes, they slept with their livestock in the house!). On the other end, if a prosperous or semi-prosperous family, there would be a guest room. These types of homes can still be seen in the Mideast today.

At the very least, Lydia had to have had a middle class guest room like above, but based on the clientele for her product, it is not a stretch to think she may have had an upper class home of perhaps 2-3 stories (very rare, reserved for the very wealthy) or, at longer odds, a Roman villa.


The point in all this is to erase the notion that Lydia was some poor rag merchant and that Paul and his companions traveled as some band of beggars, as if poverty was a prerequisite of sanctified ministry. That is simply not the case.

Paul’s apostolic ministry was supported not only by the labor of his own hands, and the offerings of the saints[iii] but also through the patronage of the wealthy. This is in concord with the long tradition within Israel of the wealthy sustaining itinerant prophetic ministry[iv]. It is also in concord with the overall economic system of first century Rome. It was neither a capitalist nor socialist/communist economy, but an economy based on patronage (and institutionalized corruption!) It was common, expected, that “philosophers” (in the broadest sense) would be supported by wealthy patrons.

It is an unfortunate reality in the day in which we live, that the topic of money and ministry is controversial and loaded with charged emotions. It is an understandable reaction to decades of abuse on the subject. Extortive tithing and pyramid giving schemes have simply exhausted the saints.

People of wealth, usually professionals or business people, are tired of being played by pastors and leaders who only value them and talk to them when their leaders want their money for some project: “Please help me fund the ‘vision’ God has given me,” is too often code for: “Fund my carnal ambition for greatness and don’t ask questions!” On the other hand,  ministry leaders are tired of the threats and choke-hold that controlling and domineering “church members” or “board members” have on the flow of finances for ministry. Controllers often feel some perverted sense of obligation to “keep the man/woman of God poor” to teach him/her to live humbly by faith.”Of course, these controllers never practice what they preach.

There is abuse and pain on both sides.

In the era of living “de-churched” and relationally one with another, the matter of how apostolic ministry is to be funded must be addressed. Without mutual forgiveness, healing and the re-establishment of trust in transparency and accountability, the best we can expect is an eternal standoff of mutual suspicion and recriminations. With God’s help, we simply must get past this.

It’s my hope that these insights from Lydia’s life might serve as a springboard for some respectful dialogue that can bring the body of Christ into a relationally healthier, and missionally funded place.

For the interested, I present alternative values for the topic of money, ministry, and giving in my book: Money and the Church—A Better Way to Live and Give. It’s available at



[i] The arena of “religion” was one of the few areas in the Roman world in which women were allowed some degree of independent expression. Jewish law required a minimum of ten men to establish a synagogue. If there was no physical synagogue, or not enough men in the community to establish one, gathering at a river for prayer would have been a very typical activity for Jewish women as the presence of water for the various ritual washings would have been abundant.

[ii] Understanding the threshold covenant goes a long way to help understanding the troublesome story of Lot offering his daughters to be violated by the mob in Sodom.

[iii] See 1 Corinthians 8 and 9.

[iv] See 2 Kings.


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