Lystra was an important Roman colony, having been established by Augustus in 26 B.C. The location of the city was clearly established when an inscription was discovered in 1885 (including the full name of the city was Julia Felix Geminia Lustra.) Among the many inscriptions associated with Lystra is a dedication to Zeus of a statue of Hermes.
There are other inscriptions which mention priests of Zeus and an altar dedicated to the “hearer of prayer,” presumably Zeus (Witherington, Acts, 422. ). The local Zeus was known as Zeus Ampelites and was pictured as an elderly man with a beard, accompanied by Hermes, a young male assistant (The krater to the left depicts Zeus and Hermes in this way, although it dates to about 450 B.C.) Witherington suggests that we have a hint of the relative ages of Barnabas (called Zeus here) and Paul; Barnabas was the elder, Paul was likely no more than 40 by this time.
Paul heals a man who was crippled in the feet. When he heals the man he creates a sensation, and a crowd forms claiming that the gods have come in human form. Paul is called Hermes, (or Mercurias in the Latin, KJV, the Greek is Hermes). Hermes was the messenger of the gods, Paul is given this name because he was the chief spokesperson. Barnabas is called Zeus (or Jupiter, Latin, KJV), Zeus was the “father” of the gods. Why does the crowd make the connection between Paul and Hermes? There is a legend which may shed some light on this incident.
In Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.626ff there is a legend that Zeus and Hermes had visited the towns and villages of the region in human form, but did not receive any hospitality. When they came to the home of the poor and elderly Baucis and Philemon they were invited in, the couple gave them the last of their food and the best comfort they could. As Baucis prepared the meal, there was plenty of food and the wine kept “welling up of itself.” The couple became greatly afraid because of the miracle, so the gods revealed themselves and told them that they were the only people to welcome them; they would be blessed while the whole region was destroyed. The couple asked only to be priests in the temple of Zeus and that they die at the same time, so that neither had to see the tomb of the other.
Paul spoke Greek, but the crowd spoke in the Lycaonian language. As a result, Paul and Barnabas do not know what is going on! The crowd swells and preparations for sacrifices are made by the Priest of Zeus. The Temple of Zeus was just outside, the city, perhaps on the main road into the city. Bulls and wreaths are brought for the sacrifices (the wreaths were flowery decorations for the bulls). Notice that in the Ahenobarbus altar relief (right, click to enlarge), pigs are shown. Pigs were sacrifices to Ares / Mars, so it is unlikely a pig was in this procession. If there is any connection between this story and the legend from Ovid mentioned above, then it is quite likely that the crowd was not going to allow Zeus to visit them again without proper worship.
What is the point of this story in Acts? As far as we know in Acts, this is the first time Paul has preached the gospel to an entirely pagan audience. The miracle generates a crowd which thinks Paul is a god. There are priests there as well as people about to honor Paul and Barnabas as a pagan god. This is not a comfortable synagogue where people are ready to discuss what the scripture might say about the Christ. These people are as unprepared for the gospel as could be imagined! Paul’s sermon will therefore need to be much different than what we read in Acts 13. Here, he must contextualize the gospel for a pagan world.
This is another opportunity to think about applying the book of Acts – should Paul’s sermon in Acts 14 be used as a model for contextualizing the preaching of the Gospel today?