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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Lystra

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(Λύστρα, which is fem. sing in Acts 14:6; Acts 21; Acts 16:1, and neut. pl. [Note: plural.] in Acts 14:8; Acts 16:2, 2 Timothy 3:11)

Lystra was a Roman garrison town of southern Galatia, built on an isolated hill in a secluded valley at the S. edge of the vast upland plain of Lycaonia, about 18 miles S.S.W. of Iconium. Itself 3,780 ft. above sea-level, it had behind it the gigantic Taurus range, whose fastnesses were the haunts of wild mountaineers living on plunder and blackmail. It was the necessity of stamping out this social pest that raised the obscure town of Lystra into temporary importance. In 6 b.c. Augustus made it an outpost of civilization, one of ‘a series of colonies of Roman veterans evidently intended to acquire this district for peaceful settlement’ (T. Mommsen, The Provinces of the Roman Empire, Eng. translation , 1909, i. 337). The others were Antioch, Parlais, Cremna, Comama, and Olbasa. In all these cities the military coloni formed an aristocracy among the incolae or native inhabitants. Latin was the official language, and Greek that of culture, but the Lystrans used among themselves ‘the speech of Lycaonia’ (Acts 14:11), of which no trace is left, except that ‘Lystra’-which the Romans liked to write ‘Lustra,’ on account of its resemblance to lustrum-is, like ‘Ilistra’ and ‘Kilistra,’ which are also found in the country, doubtless a native place-name. The site and colonial rank of Lystra were alike unknown till 1885, when J.R.S. Sterrett’s discovery of a pedestal in situ, with an inscription containing the words Colonia Iulia Felix Gemina Lustra, settled both these points. Coins bearing the same legend have since been found.

Lying some distance westward from the great trade-route which went through Derbe and Iconium, Lystra can never have been an important seat of commerce. Still it was prosperous enough to attract some civilians as well as soldiers to its pleasant valley. Its blending of Greek and Jewish elements is strikingly illustrated by the mixed parentage of Timothy, whom St. Paul circumcised ‘because of the Jews that were in those parts’ (Acts 16:1; Acts 16:4). No mention, however, is made of a synagogue in Lystra, and probably the Jewish colony was small. Some measure of Greek culture among the Lystran natives is prima facie suggested by the existence of a temple of Zeus ‘before the city’ (πρὸ τῆς πόλεως, Acts 14:13)-cf. S. Paolo fuori le Mura at Rome-as well as by the naïve identification of Barnabas and St. Paul with Zeus and Hermes. But these facts prove nothing as to the real character of the Lystran worship, for the arbitrary bestowal of classical names upon Anatolian gods-an act of homage to the dominant civilization-had but little effect upon the deep-rooted native religious feeling. The motive of the priest who wished to sacrifice to the supposed celestial visitants (v. 13) does not lie on the surface. That he acted in good faith, being thrilled with awe before superhuman miracle-workers, is more probable than that, knowing better, he cleverly used a wave of religious excitement to serve his own base ends. All the Lystrans were probably familiar with the legend-told by Ovid, Met. viii. 626ff.-that Zeus and Hermes once visited Phrygia in the disguise of mortals, and found no one willing to give them hospitality, till they came to the hut of an aged couple, Philemon and Baucis, whose kindness Zeus rewarded by taking them to a place of safety before all the neighbourhood was suddenly flooded, and thereafter metamorphosing their cottage into a magnificent temple, of which they became the priests.

It is stated (Acts 14:19) that, during St. Paul’s sojourn in Lystra, Jews came thither from Antioch (130 miles) and Iconium (18 miles), but whether in the ordinary course of trade, or on set purpose to persecute the Apostle, is not made quite clear. The close connexion between Antioch and Lystra is proved by a Greek inscription on the base of a statue which Lystra presented in the 2nd cent.: ‘The very brilliant sister Colonia of the Antiochians is honoured by the very brilliant colony of the Lystrans with the Statue of Concord’ (J. R. S. Sterrett, Wolfe Expedition in Asia Minor, 1888, p. 352). Lystra was more closely associated with its Phrygian neighbour Iconium than with the more distant Derbe, though the latter was, like itself, Lycaonian (Acts 16:2). At Lystra the apostles had experience of the swift changes of the native popular feeling, as well as of the malice of their own race. First they were worshipped as gods come down to bring healing and blessing; then St. Paul was stoned as a criminal not fit to live (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:25). Timothy was an eye-witness of the cruel assault of the rabble (2 Timothy 3:11). The Apostle re-visited Lystra in the homeward part of his first missionary tour (Acts 14:21); again in his second journey (Acts 16:1); and, if the South-Galatian theory is correct, once more during the third journey (Acts 18:23). Little is known of the later secular or sacred history of Lystra. The veterans whom Augustus planted there ‘notably restricted the field of the free inhabitants of the mountains, and general peace must at length have made its triumphal entrance also here’ (Mommsen, op. cit.). Having thus completed the work of a border fortress, the colony of Lystra lost its raison d’être, and the town sank back into its original insignificance.

James Strahan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Lystra'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/l/lystra.html. 1906-1918.

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