July 18, 2018


Mike Willis

Leaving Iconium, we traveled about twenty-four miles southwest to the tel at Lystra. The site was identified by J. R. S. Sterrett in 1885, as certified by an inscribed Roman altar still standing erect in its original position (Thompson, Archaeology and the New Testament, 197). Known in the modern era as Zoldera, mear Hatun Saray, Lystra was moderately important in first century times, lying in the region of Lycaonia. In the years of Roman rule over Asia Minor, Lycaonia owed its importance to its situation on a main road from the west-central coast through the Cilician Gates to the broad plain of Cilicia. It lay on the road via Sebaste. The city was a Roman colony founded by Augustus in 26 B.C. and it was situation on a low hill rising out of the valley. Its original settlers were veterans in the Roman army and their Italian background left its influence for several centuries. Evidence of the Roman influence is seen in use of Latin rather than Greek for public inscriptions and coin inscriptions, the town’s constitution as a Roman colony, and city offices resembling Italian rather than Grecian influence.

Augustus chose the site for Lystra based on military considerations. After the death of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony controlled the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Antony abolished the Roman Province of Cilicia, of which Lystra had been a part, and placed local government under local dynasts who could keep control better than Romans (similar to the way Judea was managed under Herod the Great). The ruler was Amyntas until he died in 26 B.C. At this death, Augustus had no choice but to reinstate direct Roman government, so he made Lystra a part of the province of Galatia in 25 B.C. To safeguard the territory, Augustus established a number of veteran colonies at strategic points. Lystra was the southernmost of these colonies. Lystra was founded to protect Roman invasion routes into the Taurus and to protect the main road from invaders from the mountains. It was a pioneer town in the days of Paul.

The view from atop the tel illustrates why the site was chosen. Its view enables one to see an invading army for miles, giving the people time to prepare for battle.

One who visits this site and observes the area around it can easily see that one of the statements commonly taught about Paul’s missionary tactics is untrue. One usually reads that Paul visited the larger cities and started churches there which in turn took the gospel to the smaller villages round about. However, Lystra is in the heart of the agricultural region of Turkey. When Paul went through Lystra, Derbe, and Antioch of Pisidia, he was in rural regions, unlike Ephesus, Athens, Corinth, and Rome. Lystra was not an important trading or manufacturing center. These would have been farmers who made their living from the soil — common folks!

Luke records that Paul and Barnabas left Iconium after a violent attempt against them and came to Lystra, in the A.D. 40s. They met a man who was crippled from his mother’s womb and had never walked, whom Paul healed. When the people saw what Paul had done, they spoke in the Lycaonian languge, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Ironically and though this is not the meaning they intended, God has come down to us in the likeness of man in Jesus of Nazareth.) They called Barnabas, Zeus (the chief deity in the Roman pantheon) and Paul, Hermes (the messenger god). Paul and Barnabas were barely able to restrain them from offering sacrifices to them. Soon Jews from Antioch and Iconium came to Lystra and persuaded the multitudes against Paul and Barnabas. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city supposing that he was death. Paul left Lystra and then proceeded to Derbe.

D. S. Potter writes about Paul’s experience in Lystra as follows:

The nature of the place is best illustrated by Luke’s account of the visit to Lystra that Paul and Barnabas made in the A.D. 40s. Affter Paul healed the cripple, according to the account in Acts (14:8-18), they were greeted by the local inhabitants who called out to them in Lycaonian. These people identified them as the local gods who, through a form of local syncretisim, were identified with the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes. This is of some interest because the local Zeus, Zeus Ampelites, was portrayed on reliefs as an elderly bearded figure, and because he is sometimes depicted with a young male assistant. The identification by the people of Lystra of Barnabas as Zeus and Paul as Hermes “as he was the bringer of the word” suggests that they thought that the two men were functioning in the way that they envisaged their own gods as acting: the bearded Zeus was the initiator of the action and Hermes was his agent in carrying out the action. This further suggests that the people may have thought that Barnabas resembled their Zeus, while Paul resembled his helper. This passage is therefore of considerable importance as evidence for the physical appearance of Paul at this stage in his career as well as for the nature of life at Lystra in this period (Anchor Bible Dictionary, IV: 427).

Scholars also believe that Timothy was from Lystra based on Acts 16:1-2.