The author of the book of Acts describes the founding of the Christian community in Philippi in Acts 16:11-40. The story begins with Paul in Troas, a town on the western coast of modern Turkey, where he dreams of a man from Macedonia pleading with him to cross the Aegean Sea and help the people there (Acts 16:8-9). After describing their ship’s route to Macedonia in Acts 16:10-11, the author says they arrived in Philippi, which he notes is “a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony” (Acts 16:12). The status of leading city is unclear: Thessalonica, not Philippi, had been the capital of Macedonia since around 168 B.C.E., but Philippi had been a Roman colony since Octavian and Marc Anthony defeated Caesar’s assassins there in 42 B.C.E.
The first clue about the religious community that gave birth to the Christian church in Philippi comes in Acts 16:13. On the Sabbath, Paul and his companions “went outside the gate by the river, where [they] supposed there was a place of prayer.” Whether this “place of prayer” was a proper synagogue or not is unclear, but the majority of commentators maintain that the presence and role of the women here suggests there were not enough Jewish males (10) to constitute a proper synagogue. With little or no Jewish presence in the city, Philippi’s citizens were devoted primarily to the traditional Greek and Roman gods and goddesses.
The author notes that the group speaks to the woman there, and one in particular, Lydia, listens and responds (Acts 16:14-15). Lydia is described as a “worshiper of God” (probably synonymous with “God-fearer,” used elsewhere in Acts) “from the city of Thyatira” (located in Western Asia Minor) and “a dealer in purple cloth” (a luxury item in the ancient Mediterranean). She and her household are soon baptized and offer hospitality to the traveling preachers. Lydia’s house becomes the site for the church in Philippi, with her as its host and perhaps leader.
The church in Philippi grows as the result of a conflict between the Philippian residents and Paul’s entourage when the latter exorcises a demon from a fortune-telling slave girl (Acts 16:16-18), who had brought profit to her owners. Upset about their loss of an important source of income, the owners of the slave girl bring Paul and his companion Silas before the authorities, arguing that “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe” (Acts 16:20-21). While the exact nature of this charge is unclear, it was clearly enough to move the assembly into action. Paul and Silas are arrested, flogged, and imprisoned. This provides the context for the miraculous prison break, during which a sudden and violent earthquake shakes free the prison gates and chains. In its wake, the awed jailer asks Paul to baptize him and his household (Acts 16:19-39). As Paul and his associates prepare to leave the city, they stop briefly by Lydia’s house to encourage the members of the new Christian community there.
According to the book of Acts, Paul and his associates founded the church in Phillipi when Lydia and her household were baptized. One might conjecture that several of the women from the “place of prayer” were among those who joined with Lydia in this new movement. Additionally, the jailer and his household are baptized, but it is not clear whether or not this family joined the group already established at Lydia’s house. Does Acts tell of the founding of one Christian community in Philippi, or two?