Christianity in Ephesus


Early Christianity was significantly an urban movement. This might sound surprising if you’re used to thinking of Christians continuing the mode of Jesus, whose ministry happened largely (but not only) in rural Galilee. Yet, when we pay close attention to the facts of Christianity in the first century A.D., we see the prominence of cities, including Jerusalem, Antioch (in Syria), Corinth, Rome, and Ephesus.

Arguably, Ephesus was the most important city for Christians at the end of the first century. Jerusalem had pride of place at first. Rome was growing in influence in the early second century. Yet, not only was Ephesus situated rather in the center of an area in which

Christianity was thriving, but also it was an important city in its own right. Moreover, it was associated with several prominent Christians, including Paul, Timothy, John, and perhaps even the Virgin Mary. (People who live near Ephesus today, along with many Roman Catholics throughout the world, believe that Mary lived just outside of Ephesus during her last days on earth.

The fact that Christianity was primarily an urban movement helps to explain its rapid spread throughout the Roman world. Cities were the hubs of travel, trade, and culture. If one influenced a major city in a region, then one would also be able to influence the whole region. Thus, for example, if Paul were to establish a vital Christian presence in Ephesus, then this would spill over to other cities throughout Asia Minor.

When we think of Ephesus and the New Testament, most of us would at first remember the letter of Paul called “The Letter to the Ephesians” or, simply, “Ephesians.” But it turns out that the connection between this letter and Ephesus is rather tenuous. Some of the earliest manuscripts of the letter do not contain the words “in Ephesus” (en Epheso in Greek). For example, Papyrus 46, one of the oldest and most reliable manuscripts of Paul’s letters, does not mention Ephesus. Many scholars believe that the so-called Letter to the Ephesians was originally a circular letter intended for several churches, including the church in Ephesus. This may also explain why the letter has so little in it that is uniquely Ephesian (no mention of the Temple of Artemis, for example).

The oldest references to Ephesus in the New Testament are found in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. There, he writes:

If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it?

(1 Cor 15:32)

I do not want to see you now just in passing, for I hope to spend some time with you if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.

(1 Cor 16:7-9)

Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what Paul means by fighting wild animals at Ephesus. The Ephesians were enthusiastic for games in which African animals fought against animals or people. But it seems most likely that Paul is speaking metaphorically, referring to some conflict that he had in Ephesus. Nevertheless, it does seem obvious that

Paul was writing the letter we know as 1 Corinthians from Ephesus, where he was engaged in missionary work for an extended period of time. It was during this time that he must have “fought with wild animals.” Perhaps Paul was referring to the conflict we read about in Acts 19.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians which he wrote;

“But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries”

(1 Cor 16:8-9)

This fits perfectly with the picture painted of Paul’s Ephesian ministry in Acts of the Apostles.

In Acts 18, Paul visited Ephesus briefly on his trip from Corinth back to Jerusalem (18:18-22). Verse 24 introduces a Jewish teacher named Apollos, who taught in the synagogue in Ephesus. This synagogue hasn’t been located by archeologists. Apollos accurately passed on some truths about Jesus but didn’t know the whole story. So a leading Christian couple, Priscilla and Aquila, taught Apollos what he had been missing. More fully informed, Apollos journeyed on to Corinth.

Acts 19 begins with Paul’s appearance at Ephesus. First, he laid hands on some disciples who received the Holy Spirit with power (19:1-7). Next, he presented the message of the kingdom of God in the Jewish synagogue, arguing persuasively. But when most of the Jews were closed to Paul’s message, he moved to the lecture hall of Tyrannus, where he continued preaching for two years. Today, we do not know exactly the location of this lecture hall. In all likelihood, it was a place where the men of Ephesus gathered for lectures on various subjects, including philosophy and religion.

Paul’s ministry flourished, in part because of the power of God that brought healing and deliverance from demonic oppression. Many Ephesians who had been enamored with magical practices (what we’d call dark magic, not stage magic) renounced these practices and publicly burned their books of magic.

This sounds innocuous enough to us, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to see how the success of Paul’s ministry led to trouble. Magic and superstition permeated the Ephesian culture so that the burning of magic books would have seemed antisocial. It would be rather like if a whole bunch of people in my city got together and burned their Christian books. Moreover, the people who wrote bought, and sold books of magic would rightly have perceived an economic threat from Paul and those influenced by him. This latter issue, the economic danger posed by Paul, in fact, led to a major uproar in Ephesus.

As Paul’s ministry began to thrive in Ephesus, a certain Demetrius became concerned. He was a silversmith who made little pieces of jewelry in the image of the goddess Artemis or, as most scholars think, of her temple. These were not souvenirs that worshipers took home with them, but rather small offerings given to the goddess when devotees visited her temple. Demetrius, noting the growing impact of Paul’s ministry, gathered the other silversmiths together and presented his case:

“Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business. You also see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away from a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of the majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.” (Acts 19:25-27)

Notice that Demetrius was worried, first of all, about the potential loss of income if too many people were to become Christians. Second, he was worried about the loss of glory for Artemis.

Demetrius understood something essential about Christianity, something that reflected accurate insight. He knew that when people become Christians, they stop worshiping pagan gods. While we might assume this to be true, nobody in Ephesus would have done so (besides the Jews, who were vigorous monotheists). It was very common in the ancient world for people to add new gods to their personal pantheon. It was uncommon for them to insist that there was only one true God. If Paul had offered up Jesus, not as the only Savior of the world, but simply as one more savior among many, then the Ephesians would probably have built a temple to Jesus and included him in their pagan celebrations. But Christianity was distinctive, unsettling so, from an Ephesian point of view, in that it claimed the total allegiance of followers. Thus Demetrius rightly concluded that the success of Christianity would lead to the demise of Artemis worship. (That this very thing ultimately happened in the Roman Empire is celebrated on one of the ceiling frescoes in the Vatican. Tommaso Laureti, painting in the late 16th century, represented the “Triumph of Christianity” with a shattered statue of a god before the cross of Christ.)

Though Acts doesn’t tell us exactly where Demetrius made his speech, it most likely happened within the commercial agora (or marketplace), that is adjacent to the Library of Celsus. This large space is quite open today, but once would have been surrounded by colonnades, under which merchants and craftsmen sold their goods. It was a central gathering place in Ephesus, one that would be filled with people. Plus, it was near the theater, which figures prominently in the story of Paul and Ephesus.

Demetrius’s effort was successful. The enraged silversmiths began shouting praises to Artemis. They grabbed some of Paul’s companions and dragged them to the theater. This theater, much of which is still intact, is an impressive structure even today. It could contain up to 25,000 people. Folks sitting in the “cheap seats” would have had an impressive view of the harbor (now just a marshy area). According to Acts, Paul wanted to go to the theater, no doubt to defend his friends. But some Christians and even some of the city officials convinced Paul that this would not be wise.

A gang of silversmiths, at the instigation of a certain Demetrius, was rioting, dragging several of Paul’s colleagues to the theater. When Paul tried to go to the theater, he was dissuaded by some other Christians and even some civic officials. It simply wasn’t safe for Paul to show up in such a chaotic and dangerous environment.

The description in Acts 19 of the mob in the theater is ironic, though in a way not immediately recognizable in English. It reads: “Meanwhile, some were shouting one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together” (v. 32). Even in English, one can see the humor in that most in the mob didn’t even know why they were there. But the word translated here as “assembly” is, in Greek, ekklesia. As you may know, this word is usually translated as “church” in the New Testament. In secular Greek, ekklesia meant “assembly of people,” but usually stood for the orderly gathering of citizens of a given city. So ekklesia in Acts 19:32 is doubly ironic, in that the mob surely isn’t a church, and it surely isn’t orderly.

At some point during the fracas, a Jew named Alexander tried to speak. Though we don’t know why he did this, it’s most likely he was going to put some distance between the Jews of Ephesus and Paul. But Alexander was shouted down while the mob chanted: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for a couple of hours.

Finally, the town clerk (more like the mayor than the office manager), got the people quiet. He made a diplomatic speech, reassuring the crowd that Paul and company were “neither temple robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess” (v. 37). If Demetrius had a complaint, he should bring that up in an orderly way, through the courts or the proconsuls. The clerk closed by saying, “If there is anything further you want to know, it must be settled in the regular assembly” (v. 39). Here, once again, we find the use of ekklesia, now in the Greek expression en tei ennomoi ekklesiai (“in the lawful assembly”).

Why would the clerk have spoken in Paul’s defense, especially since it seems likely that he was a worshiper of Artemis? The answer comes in verse 40: “For we are in danger of being charged with rioting today since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” Who would charge the Ephesians with rioting? The Romans. And the Romans didn’t ignore civic unrest because they knew it could easily turn against them. If the Ephesians were to allow a riot, Rome might very well clamp down on Ephesian freedoms and authority. No matter what the clerk actually thought of Paul and the Christians, he was eager to keep the peace. And, according to Acts 19, in this, he was ultimately successful. What Demetrius feared ultimately came to pass, though not only because of the growth of Christianity. In time, the worship of Artemis began to fade and her famed temple lost its glory.