Lystra: Human Nature on Display (Pic Of The Day, 12 May 2019)

A follow-up to my previous Pic of The (special) Day post is in order. Last week, I held forth on the “Genesis of the Accepting Church” using the Apostle Paul’s first visit to the city Antioch of Pisidia, as narrated by Acts 13. This was occasioned by my use of the passage for a special combined Sunday School session on the 60th anniversary of University Baptist Church’s own Genesis. As it happens, the Narrative Lectionary used by UBC covers Paul’s continued work on the same journey in the cities of Lystra and Derbe, also in the Roman province of Galatia. If you haven’t read the one about Antioch of Pisidia, it might be helpful and can be found here.

The mound, or Hüyük of Lystra, with random students distributed for scale (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Immediately after Antioch of Pisidia, the same sequence of events is reported at Iconium but with far less detail: Paul going to the synagogue, having an opportunity to preach there because of his status, resistance by unbelieving synagogue Jews, and eventual persecution and departure (Acts 14:1-7). From Iconium, they moved on to nearby Lystra. Today Lystra remains a largely un-investigated and non-descript ruin in the Lycaonian plain. The site is dominated by a large hüyük; a mound of ruins built up over centuries or millennia of human occupation (more familiar by the Arabic word tell). The active agricultural fields surrounding the mound are devoid of architectural features, but abound in those indicators of an ancient site: sherds of broken pottery and small stone objects turned up by the plow. It is a prototypical example of an unpreserved and unexcavated ancient site.  

View from the crest of the mound at Lystra with not-so-ancient-Daniel and worked fields below (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-05-21)

At Lystra the biblical narrative focuses on Paul’s healing of a cripple—very possibly at the synagogue where Paul was speaking (Acts 14:8-10)—and the aftermath of that miraculous event. Some of the locals, amazed by what Paul had done, declared him and Barnabas to be “the gods” in human form. Paul, “since he was the chief speaker,” was called Hermes (the messenger of the Olympian Greek gods) and Barnabas—apparently more quietly dignified and stately(?)—was deemed to be Zeus! The priest of Zeus brought out “oxen and garlands” to offer a sacrifice, but Paul and Barnabas declaimed that they were mere men and scarcely managed to avert the sacrifice (Acts 14:11-18). Then, with no indication of time passed after the previous scene, the reader of Acts is told that Jews from Antioch (of Pisidia) and Iconium came and “persuaded the people,” so that “they stoned Paul dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead” (v. 19). How could the same people declare Paul and Barnabas to be gods worthy of sacrifice and in the next verse stone Paul and leave him for dead? The answer, I sadly conclude, is human nature.

A modern recreation of the stoning of Paul just outside of Lystra; note the stone in flight at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17) [NOTE: no Charlies were injured in the creation of this picture]

We, as most mammals do, have something of a pack mentality which causes us to readily accept a potential leader who demonstrates (or sometimes only claims) an ability to “save” us from whatever we may fear. This desire leads to irrational beliefs and actions. We see as much in this story; but also throughout history, in politics, in sports, and even entertainment. In the Roman world, the practice of worshiping the emperor as divine may strike us as “ignorant,” but it operated on the same psychology. And it worked! —as seen in the impressive temple to Augustus at Antioch of Pisidia (pictured in my previous post) complete with an entablature featuring bulls decorated with garlands, the very items brought out for sacrifice in our story.

Antiochia Pisidia: one of the many bull and garland fragments from the Temple of Augustus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Apparently refusing the role of physical/political savior, failing to provide what the crowds demand, or not being what people first hoped, is a dangerous business. This is the human side of what physically happened to Jesus; and Paul’s experience is an echo. The Lycaonians of Lystra demonstrate, in the extremes of their actions, the foibles of human temperament.

Happily, we don’t have to leave Lystra (or this blog) completely depressed about humanity. Paul returned to the city on the so-called “Second Missionary Journey” (Acts 16:1-3) and found the good side of people and their instincts. In Lystra Paul met a disciple named “Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek.” This Timothy was the product of a mixed marriage, which may have been a social burden and certainly created the potential for theological discrimination (Acts 16:3). It might be argued that Timothy’s mother is only mentioned because of her contribution to his mixed heritage, but note that only she is cited as a believer. And, assuming we can take it as authentic (many do not), 2 Timothy 1:5 has Paul remarking to Timothy about his faith: “a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” Timothy clearly received much more than Jewishness from his mother and his grandmother.

Lystra with a bouquet of wildflowers
Lystra in full Spring bloom; the hüyük rising in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-21)

The love and nurture of a mother reveals and passes on the best part of human nature. We see it at Lystra in this story, and I feel it in my own life and in the lives of my children. As Tim[othy] might have said, “God bless[ed] us, every one!”

Happy Mother’s Day!

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