The city of Ephesus is located on the western coast of what is now modern-day Turkey, not far from the Aegean Sea. In ancient times, it was positioned on the coastline, boasting a great harbor welcoming trade traffic from the Aegean. However, silt from the rivers feeding the harbor eventually turned the harbor and coastline into marshlands, leaving the archaeological site of today about five miles inland. The city is firmly attested to by the time of the sixth century BC. At that time, the Ionian league was a loose affiliation of twelve settlements, including Ephesus, sharing some ethnic and religious commonalities. However, its origins may go back as far as the eleventh century BC.
Over the following centuries, Ephesus would change hands several times, including being under the rule of both Athens and Sparta. When Alexander the Great passed through Ephesus in 330 BC, he freed the city from Persian rule and brought it under his rapidly expanding empire. Ephesus would again change hands to the Attalids of Pergamum. But when Attalus, the last in a line of rulers of Pergamum, died childless in 133 BC, he left his domain directly to Rome. The region was reorganized as the Roman province of Asia, and Ephesus became its capital city.
Ephesus would thrive during this period under the pax romana, and it is recorded that several notables from Roman history visited the city, including Sulla, Pompey, Mark Antony, Arsinoe, and Herod the Great. By the time the Apostle Paul visited the city around 52 AD on his second missionary journey, it was one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, with population estimates between 180,000 to 225,000. At the heart of the city’s identity was the Temple of Artemis, which would be recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Artemis was the goddess of the city, serving as its protector, and her temple was one of the largest temples of the ancient world.
By all accounts, Ephesus was a vast, thriving, cosmopolitan city with many of the amenities of the great cities of today.
Ephesus In The Bible
Paul indeed returned to Ephesus on his third missionary journey. The entire nineteenth chapter of Acts recounts what amounted to a two- or three-year extended stay in the city. It was from Ephesus that Paul began teaching daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. His time in Ephesus concluded with the riot in the city’s great amphitheater. At the conclusion of the matter, he stayed in the city a little longer, then set out for the region of Macedonia.
While it might be tempting to picture Paul working in solitary conditions, with perhaps a faithful companion around to provide him with some company, the picture that emerges from his time in Ephesus is quite different. Paul had entire teams working alongside him, working in his absence, delivering letters around the region, and being trained to carry on the work when he moved on to the next city. There is evidence that even though Paul never visited the Lycus Valley, it was from Ephesus that he trained Epaphras, who would bring the good news to Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Ephesus served as the center of Paul’s missionary efforts for several years.
Take A Photo Tour
In March of 2013, I (David) was able to travel to Greece and Turkey with my brother, JR. What follows are our observations after spending time at the archaeological site of Ephesus.
After spending about four days in Greece, we hopped a plane to Istanbul, Turkey and caught a connecting flight to Izmir. From the Izmir airport, we took a train about an hour south to the town of Selçuk. Unfortunately, the sun had already set, so there was not much to see. Arriving in Selçuk, we found our hotel and were warmly greeted with some tea and good conversation with a man named Lucky. I liked this place already! Selçuk is a nice little town where shop owners want to sit and talk with you. There are good places to eat, coffee shops, and sweet shops as well. Right outside of the town, sits the site of Ephesus. Many tourists come from the cruise ship port not far from Ephesus, but increasingly travelers are discovering that Selçuk is a great place to spend a couple of days away from the tourist town of Kusadasi.
Neither my brother or I are big on guided tours – they are always moving you on to the next stop before having adequate time to explore the present stop and the lunch buffets are usually pretty bad – but about the only way to see the ancient sites of Priene, Miletus, and Didyma was via guided tour. Priene is the home to the Temple of Athena, which rests at the base of an imposing cliff face. The site was abandoned when the shoreline receded. The remote nature of the site means that much of the building material is still there, resembling a jigsaw puzzle dumped out over the site. It is not mentioned in Scripture, but its proximity to Miletus suggests that the early church nearby would have had contact with Priene.
Temple of Apollo – Didyma
Across what used to be a bay, sits the site of Miletus. Miletus boasted three harbors in its day, along with a 25,000-seat amphitheater, much of which is still intact. The rest of the site was unfortunately flooded for the most part, but a large Roman bath complex is still there. It must have been impressive in its day. Miletus is mentioned in Acts 20: On Paul’s Third Journey, he sailed into Miletus where he met the elders from Ephesus, wanting to avoid getting delayed on his way to Jerusalem. Today Miletus is about five miles inland from the coast and suffered the same fate as Ephesus and Priene when the river silted up, cutting the city off from the coastline.
The final stop of the day was Didyma, which wasn’t so much a town in Paul’s day as it was a temple complex to Apollo. Today it is odd to see a town built up around the site, with kids and dogs running around and ruins lying in people’s backyards. The Temple of Apollo was the third largest Greek temple of its time and would provide some perspective to the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, given that little remains of what would have been the largest temple. Walking among the ruins, we felt like we were on a movie set constructed for giants. Didyma was linked to Miletus via a 12-mile sacred processional way.
The next day we walked through the site of Ephesus. Having walked through many archaeological sites at this point, the prominent feature of Ephesus is just how large an area the site is. From the upper entrance, you can walk through a marketplace, small temples, archways, an Odeon, only to realize you have not yet reached the main road through the city. Curetes street leads you past several structures to the terrace houses (which are worth the extra admission price) and finally leaves you facing the Library of Celsus. The main agora itself covers the area of two football fields, then you are awed at the 25,000-seat theater. The theater overlooks Harbor Street that would have led to the docks.
There are many areas that remain unexcavated or have not been kept up. Ephesus had a population of 250,000, by some accounts the third largest city in the Roman Empire behind Rome and Alexandria. Walking through the city, the surrounding hills – now just grassy hillsides – must have been covered with houses and shops. Paul had truly entered the big city!
And you still would not have come upon the primary identity of the city: the Temple of Artemis, the largest temple in the empire. We made our way through an orchard back to the main road and found the site of the temple. There is little that remains, only its enormous footprint in the earth and a single reconstructed column. I am glad we were able to visit Didyma to appreciate what it must have looked like.
Library of Celsus
Harbor from Theater
There are many insights that can be gained by walking through these sites. Here are just some of our impressions:
Insight #1 – Pagan temples dominated the landscape of Asia Minor. While pagan temples were an important part of every ancient city, the identities of the cities in Asia Minor were forged by their temples. I admit that this is just my impression, but I got the sense that cities like Rome, Alexandria, and Athens would have continued if you removed their temples. But in Asia Minor, if you removed the temples, you would be stripping places like Miletus, Priene, and Ephesus of their very identity. Ephesus and Miletus (Didyma) were rivals primarily because of their rival temples. So when Paul strolls through town and announces that “in [Jesus] the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple” (Ephesians 2:21), that announcement was challenging the very power structures and the livelihood of these cities. This is especially true in Ephesus…
Insight #2 – The Temple of Artemis and its influence on Ephesus. It is difficult to overstate how much the identity of Ephesus was inextricably tied to the Temple of Artemis. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World for a reason. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor notes that, “Artemis was part of the fabric of Ephesus, and the city was unthinkable without her. Ministry in Ephesus, Paul mused, was going to be very different.” In Athens when Paul announced that God does not live in your magnificent temples, the philosophers perhaps raised an eyebrow. In Ephesus, that sentiment morphed its citizens into a violent mob. This led to the uproar in the Great Theater.
Insight #3 – The scene at the Great Theater. The Temple of Artemis contributed greatly to the economy of Ephesus. Just as a modern-day sports team would draw fans throughout the region on game day contributing to the local economy, Artemis drew pilgrims from the region on a continual basis. An entire industry sprang up around the production of small shrines of the temple and Artemis (available in the gift shop, no doubt) of which several have been unearthed in the region. So Paul’s message was not just perceived as a religious threat to paganism, but also an economic threat to the livelihood of the city.
This is what sparks the riot in Ephesus that spills into the Great Theater. Acts 19 records that as the mob filled the theater, “they all shouted in unison for about two hours: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’” Order was eventually restored but Paul was clearly shaken by the event. Writing from Ephesus to the church at Corinth, Paul notes, “If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained?” Later, Paul would write,
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.
There is little doubt that seeing his colleagues being dragged into the Great Theater and he, himself being threatened, this event left an indelible mark on Paul’s psyche.
NONE CURRENTLY AVAILABLE
Stay In The Know!
Sign up to receive our email newsletter with the latest articles and discussions from Navigating An Ancient Faith!