Slave-Girl Soothsayer of Philippi

In A.D. 49 or 50, Paul and some companions, including Silas, Luke, and Timothy, entered the Macedonian city of Philippi. Paul encountered a slave girl who made money for her owner by telling people's fortunes and predicting the future. The Bible does not name the girl, but refers to her as “…a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination…” (Acts 16:16).

After having a vision in which a man appeared praying to him to go to Macedonia to help the people, Paul set out for Philippi. There, he and his companions planned to share the gospel with others. Philippi in those days had become a thriving Roman colony, vibrant with Greco-Roman traditions. Paul and his companions remained in Philippi for some time.

Just west of town, near a river where people gathered to pray on the Sabbath (mostly women, possibly Jewish and without a synagogue), Paul met Lydia, a wealthy businesswoman and seller of purple cloth, from Thyatira. The Bible says the Lord had opened her heart, which may have meant that she was already predisposed to receiving the gospel message from Paul. When she offered to open her home to Paul and his friends, they accepted her hospitality and stayed with her.

One day, the men encountered the young slave-girl soothsayer who, through possession by a spirit, made a lot of money for her owners using her occult powers. one source suggested that the girl might have been under the influence of a spirit of the cult of Apollo, whose devotees often had the powers of clairvoyance. She was a fortuneteller, according to the Acts of the Apostles. Many of the words for fortunetelling end in “mancy,” which derives from manteia, Greek for “divination.” In order to get her messages, she may have fallen into a trance, allowing the demon to take over and convey messages through her.

From the moment the girl first saw Paul, she followed him and his companions around, shouting, “These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). Day after day, she continued to follow Paul and shout her chant. Paul found it annoying and finally, could bear it no longer. Believing that the girl's psychic abilities stemmed from possession by a spirit, he ordered the demon to depart.

And this did she many days. But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he came out the same hour. (Acts 16:18)

The slave girl's owners soon realized that her powers were gone and, consequently, their economic future altered. Seething with anger, they went looking for Paul and his companion Silas. The girl's owners took Paul and Silas to the city's rulers and complained that the two were Jews who were making trouble in the city. Anti-Semitism had been intensifying in Philippi, and the slave masters must have thought that by calling Paul and Silas Jewish troublemakers they could bring the wrath of city officials upon them. The slave masters' supposition proved right, and the magistrates ordered Paul and Silas beaten. Savagely flogged and bearing many stripes upon their bodies, the men were then thrown into a dungeon. The jailer, a Roman civil servant, was charged with safeguarding them.

At midnight, while Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns of praise to God, a violent earthquake shook the land, causing the jail doors to fly open and the inmates' chains to come loose. The jailer, believing all of the prisoners had fled into the darkness, prepared to kill himself with a sword, “But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here” (Acts 16:28). The jailer called for a light and went to the dungeon where Paul and Silas were chained. He brought the men out of the dungeon and asked how he could be saved: He was told to believe in Jesus Christ. The jailer thanked them and took them to his home, where he washed their wounds and was baptized. The next day, Paul and Silas were released.

The text of Acts doesn't mention the slave girl again. Her story is important in the context of the ancients' belief in demonic possession as a way to explain the girl's extraordinary powers. But the power of God working through his holy emissary, Paul, showed a greater power — one that restored the girl to wholeness. Thanks to Paul, she was free of her demonic imprisonment. Although the Bible doesn't say that the exploited slave girl then became a Christian, it seems likely.

Philip II established Philippi in 356 B.C. Today, the Hellenic Ministry of Culture claims that in terms of important archaeological sites, Philippi ranks at the top of sites in eastern Macedonia. Christians consider the city holy, and make pilgrimages there because Paul did missionary work in Philippi, and later sent a letter to the Philippians (now part of the canon). See www.sacred-destinations.com/greece/philippi.htm.

Modern Christian ministers use the story of the slave girl of Philippi to illustrate how people of different socioeconomic backgrounds all became united through the gospel. Lydia was Turkish and wealthy, the slave girl may have been Greek, and certainly owned nothing, and the jailer was a Roman civil servant whose economic status was between that of the two women.

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