When studying the Scriptures, knowledge of the original historical-cultural context will help greatly illuminate some of the nuances of a particular text that may be overlooked by the modern reader. For example, having an elementary understanding of who the Pharisees and Sadducees are helps a reader to perceive more clearly how and why Jesus reacts to them in the specific ways that he does. One instance of this can be seen in John 3 when Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night. Familiarity with the historical-cultural background lends to several important pieces of information about this interaction: Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, is a teacher of the law and should know these things about which Jesus is speaking; and approaching Jesus at night might lead to the conclusion that Nicodemus does not want to be seen by the large crowds following Jesus. While these are just a few simple examples, it is clear that knowing the original historical-cultural background helps to clarify the meaning of the text. For this particular essay, an analysis of Acts 16:11-15 will follow in order to show some of the subtle historical details which will help the modern reader understand the text more plainly.
Traveling details permeate verse 11. Favorable winds probably allowed for the short two-day journey from Troas to Philippi (cf. Witherington III, p 488). Luke, the author of Acts, includes an interesting note about Philippi, calling it “a leading city of the district of Macedonia” (Acts 16:12). Bock notes, “The area was rich with copper, silver, and gold deposits and was part of the fertile plain, tucked as it was against the hills of the area. So it was a wealthy city” (p 533). This may lead to the conclusion that there were some powerful businesspeople present inside the city. Another commentator argues that Luke includes this special note because he “is proud of his hometown” (Witherington III, p 489). While this may or may not be a conclusive case is not of importance here. What is interesting, however, is that Philippi was “a Roman colony” (Acts 16:12). This would mean that it would have the “highest status a provincial city could have” (Bock, p 533). Rome was the most powerful government in the world at that time, so being a provincial city of the Roman Empire would have afforded Philippi numerous benefits solely on this basis. So not only was it a wealthy city, it was also a very privileged, honored city.
Verse 13 notes that they “went outside the gate to the riverside” on the Sabbath. This seemingly bland information actually provides great context for the city of Philippi in general if one understands the historical-cultural background of Jewish religious practices during the first century. One commentator suggests that various cults who did not receive cultural recognition were not allowed to meet within the city walls, thus Paul’s search for them outside the walls (cf. Witherington III, p 490). This could mean that there were very few Jews in and around Philippi at that time, which would have given them even less social recognition. It is also important to note that Jewish adherents would frequently meet close to bodies of water in order to fulfill ritual purity requirements (cf. Bock, p 533). So this particular group may have been viewed as social outcasts, but more likely they were meeting outside the city walls for two reasons: 1) to fulfill ritual purity requirements, and 2) a lack of ten Jewish men in the entire city meant that there would be no synagogue inside the city walls (cf. Bock, p 533; Keener, p 369).
The words “place of prayer” in verse 13 have a rather ambiguous meaning. One commentator states that this may have been a synagogue (Bock, p 533), while another believes it to have simply been a meeting area without a building (Keener, p 369). Regardless of whether it was in a synagogue or not, Paul then assumes the role of teacher by sitting down with women that are present (cf. Witherington III, p 491). That there is no mention of men in the place of prayer leads this author to conclude that the meeting did not take place in a synagogue. Lydia, “a seller of purple goods” (Acts 16:14) is one of the women present. “That she is mentioned by name may be quite significant” (Witherington III, p 491), and that she is “a seller of purple goods” probably means she has significant social status. Luke also mentions that she is “a worshiper of God,” (Acts 16:14) which most likely means that she is “a Gentile who worships the biblical God” (Witherington III, p 493; cf. Bock, p 534). However, it might be that she is a Gentile who is simply interested in the biblical God, for the next clause states, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). This obviously refers to her conversion, initiated by God’s sovereign grace, because “she was baptized” along with her household in verse 15.
While an examination of the method of baptism is beyond the scope of this essay, it is important to note that this particular text sheds little light on the subject overall. Grudem notes that there is no mention of the method here, and there is no mention either for or against paedobaptism (p 978). There may well have been infants who were baptized, but this text does not speak one way or another on that particular subject. So it is best to consider other texts to formulate one’s view. The text ends with Lydia’s appeal to have the group stay with them at her house. In the cultural context, it would have “a serious breach of etiquette” (Witherington III, p 493) to refuse to stay with her. This would have also been compounded by the fact that Lydia has asked them to judge her to see if she is faithful. If they had refused, not only would they have been violating cultural norms, but they also would have been declaring that her “conversion and faithfulness were less than genuine” (Witherington III, p 493)!
To close, understanding some of the historical-cultural background to a particular text will help illuminate the meaning therein. In Acts 16:11-15 the reader sees the conversion of Lydia. The location is Philippi, a wealthy and well-off Roman colony that surely would have had prominent persons residing inside its walls. That Paul found Lydia outside the city gates speaks to the lack of Jewish presence in the city. That only women are mentioned also speaks to this fact, even though it is said that Lydia is a worshiper of God. Her conversion is one that speaks to God saving all types of people (in Acts 16:16-18, a slave girl is rescued from demonic possession, and in Acts 16:25-33, a Philippian jailer is saved). Inviting them into her home speaks to the display of her faith, something that might be missed by a modern reader. Overall, these details and a knowledge of the historical-cultural background of the situation really helps a reader to understand the minute details of a passage, giving the text a richness that an average reader simply would not be able to comprehend.
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