In the city of Lystra, Paul heals a man. This causes a riot, during which the people shout in their native dialect that Paul and Barnabas are gods come to earth. They call Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes.
Historical evidence reveals that the lower classes of the interior of Asia Minor still spoke in their native tongues as late as the first century. This was in contrast to the more heavily populated areas along the Mediterranean coast, where native languages had largely disappeared in favor of Greek. Thus Luke’s reference to a native dialect in this inland city is accurate.
It is interesting that the crowd called Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes. The populace of every locality in the ancient world worshipped deities that were considered to be the patrons of their area. Archeological evidence reveals that the Zeus-Hermes combination was the local cult of the city of Lystra.
A number of inscriptions have been discovered that are dedications to the two gods, linked in a common worship. The Roman poet Ovid, writing in the first century, portrays, in his poem "Metamorphoses", an appearance of these two gods to an old couple living not far from Lystra.
Nor is it particularly unusual that the local population of Lystra should want to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods. When Apollonius of Tyana, a pagan miracle worker, was tried before the Emperor Domitian at the end of the first century, one of the charges against him was that he had allowed himself to be worshipped as a god. The Greek writer Lucian also tells of an incident, occurring early in the first century, when a provincial town worshipped a wonder worker as a god.
Paul is the central figure in Acts, so it may seem strange that the people of Lystra identified Barnabas as Zeus, who was the more important of the two gods. Luke does not tell us why this identification was made. However, historical evidence reveals that it was a common belief in the ancient world that when two gods came to earth, the lesser one did the talking. Since Paul did the preaching, the people probably concluded that Barnabas must be the greater god. This is a small historical point, but it underscores the authenticity of the narrative.
Hansen, G. W. "Galatia." In D. W. J. Gill and C. Gempf, eds., The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994, page 393-394.
Hemer, C. J. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990, pages 110 and 117.
Marshall, I. H. The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980, pages 236-237.