This entry in the series, “Paul’s Social Network: Brothers and Sisters in Faith,” edited by Bruce Malina, provides a detailed profile of the little known woman, Lydia, identified in Acts 16 as “a worshiper of God” and “a dealer in purple cloth.” As Ascough notes, she appears nowhere else in the New Testament (not even in Paul’s letters), and, unlike other Biblical women, there are few later traditions about her. To Ascough, though, Lydia is the driving force of the church at Philippi, so he uses other sources to extrapolate her role in this Christian community.
Five brief and meticulously researched chapters tell Lydia’s story through an examination of the social structures of Philippi under 1st century Roman rule -- the colony, the household, the marketplace, the workplace and ritual space. Using what is generally known about these civic roles, Ascough postulates the particular circumstances of Lydia and imagines her as a “Romanized immigrant living in Philippi, well-off but not elite, involved in ritual piety and expressing all the typical patterns of householder hospitality one would expect in antiquity.” He describes his method as a combination of social-scientific modeling, classical historical exegesis, and “no small part of [his] own historic imagination.” Some scholars will be critical of his imaginative portrayal of Lydia, which Ascough acknowledges, but I would suggest that there is already quite a bit of “projection” in our understanding of early Christianity simply because the sources are incomplete. Furthermore, his portrayal of Lydia is crafted from a careful study of the cultural, religious, and political circumstances of life in the Roman Empire and this is why I would use this book in a course on The Early Church. The person of Lydia will give undergraduates an avenue into the social, political, and historical context for first-century Christianity and help them understand how these factors worked with and upon the theological distinctiveness of the Jesus Movement.
The book includes five figures consisting of photos, graphs, and drawings, a generous bibliography, and two indices, one of Greco-Roman documents that would be useful in selecting primary source readings, and the other of Persons and Subjects.