It was the New York City of Asia Minor in the New Testament era. Pliny once called it, lumen Asiae, the light of Asia.1 In the first century, only Rome, Alexandria and Antioch of Syria surpassed Ephesus in importance. It is no wonder that the apostle Paul made it the center of his ministry for three years (Acts 20:31). In fact, outside of the church in Jerusalem, one could argue that the church in Ephesus was the most prominent congregation in the first forty years of church history. From its beginnings in Acts 19 circa 52 AD, to Rev. 2, as late as 90 AD, the church in Ephesus figures prominently in Scripture as the setting for the books of Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and possibly the epistles of John. It also enjoyed some of the greatest Bible teachers of its day, including Paul, Apollos, Aquila and Priscilla, Timothy and John. Given the number of verses written to Ephesus or from Ephesus (ie. 1 Corinthians), we know more about it than almost any other city mentioned in the New Testament.
Today 200 archaeological specialists from over 20 countries spend time excavating at Ephesus. For the past 150 years, the ancient city that Paul, Timothy and John knew has slowly been unearthed. Indeed, Ephesus is one of the most excavated ancient cities with some of the best preserved ruins. This gives us an excellent opportunity to test the reliability of Scripture. When we compare the Ephesus of Scripture with the Ephesus that is being uncovered, we find that the Bible and archaeology tell the same story.2
The City of Ancient Ephesus
When one studies the book of Acts, it does not read as mythology or as allegory. Rather, it is clear that Luke intends his readers to understand that he is writing about actual historical events. Furthermore, it is evident in his details that he possessed a first-hand knowledge of the places he tells about. In describing the general geography of Ephesus, and in naming places within the city, the Bible is both accurate and specific.
Scripture describes Paul’s journey from Corinth to Ephesus this way: “While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus.” (Acts 19:1). This rather mundane detail provides a geographical marker and actually allows the reader to follow Paul’s journey along known routes. Instead of taking the lower, direct route down the Lycus and Meander Valleys, Paul took the upper, Phrygian route, entering Ephesus from a more northerly direction.3
Upon arriving in Ephesus, Paul and his companions visited specific places. Paul began teaching in the synagogue before moving to the Lecture Hall of Tyrannus. The silversmiths who sold their wares, likely in their shops in the commercial agora, saw their profits drop off as so many people responded to the gospel. One of them, Demetrius, rallied his fellow craftsmen saying, “You see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” (Acts 19:26-27) This resulted in the infamous riot which took place in the theatre.
Archaeological excavations in Ephesus began in 1863 by J.T. Wood, whose goal was to find the temple of Artemis. He worked for six years without success, until one day, while excavating the Great Theater, he unearthed an inscription that described how the idol of the goddess Artemis was carried to the theater once a year and how the procession entered the city by the Magnesian Gate and left by the Coressian Gate. When he located these gates, he was able to uncover the street which led him to the temple he had long searched for.4
In the midst of the city the commercial Agora was also discovered. It was a square-shaped marketplace, 360 feet in length, and surrounded on three sides by a portico with pillars and numerous shops. The Agora had three gates: one on the northeast side from the theater, one on the west from the harbor, and one from the Celsus Library. In the middle of the Agora was a sundial and water-clock.5
The lecture hall of Tyrannus has not yet been discovered, (only about 20% of the ancient city has been excavated), but there is inscriptional evidence that Tyrannus was a name common in Ephesus at that time. Several inscriptions have been found in the city, dating from approximately 54-93 AD (I.Eph. 20B.40 and I.Eph. 1012.4)6, including one on a stone pillar. 7
In 1 Corinthians 15:32, the Apostle Paul says, “If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained?” Whether or not Paul is making a rhetorical argument here, he is basing it on the fact that there were public battles against wild beasts in Ephesus. The ancient stadium of Ephesus, where games, gladiatorial combats, and contests with wild animals were held, was discovered north of the Great Theater, near the Coressian Gate.8
Time and again, the specific places in Ephesus described in the Bible have been unearthed and/or confirmed through extra-biblical inscriptions. The evidence shows that the biblical record is historically accurate in its description of the geography of the ancient city of Ephesus.
Further details about Ephesus surface when one reads the biblical account, namely, that it was a place with significant wealth. The high value of the magical scrolls burned by Christian converts in Acts 19:19 (fifty thousand drachmas – a drachma being a silver coin worth about a day’s wage), is testimony to the riches of Ephesus. Acts 19:24 describes how “a silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there.” In the next verse, Demetrius himself admits, “we receive a good income from this business.” Later when Paul writes to Timothy at Ephesus he instructs him to “command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Tm 6:17). Is there evidence of this scale of wealth in ancient Ephesus?
The archaeological and inscriptional records show that it was a city of immense wealth, much of it tied to the cult of Artemis. The treasury in the temple of Artemis was essentially a bank where everyone from the average citizen to the many traders who conducted business in the port city deposited their money for safekeeping. It’s not surprising, given human nature, that there were abuses of fiscal responsibility by some of those in leadership at the temple. Gary Hoags, author of Wealth In Ancient Ephesus reports that around 44 AD, an edict of Paullus Fabius Persicus was issued to deal with the inappropriate conduct of priestesses and priests of Artemis who had been using the activities of the temple treasury for personal gain.9 The Artemisian “bank” eventually controlled the finances for much of that part of the world.10
In 1984, a monument was discovered that testified to the prominence of the silversmiths in Ephesus. The inscription declared that it had been paid for by the silversmiths and described the city as the “greatest metropolis of Asia, [and] the thrice-honored temple guardian of the venerable Ephesians.”11 The inscription uses the same Greek word, neokoros, as the Bible does to describe Ephesus as the “guardian” of the temple of Artemis.
Further evidence of the wealth of ancient Ephesus can be seen in Terrace Houses, discovered on a hill opposite Hadrian’s Temple. These “houses of the rich,” as they are also known, give a glimpse into the lifestyle of the wealthy in Ephesus during the Roman era. The oldest of these dates from 1 BC, and was used as a dwelling until 7 BC.12 The Terrace Houses are two storey homes, built in typical Roman style, with a courtyard in the middle. They even had indoor heating, using warm air in a system of clay pipes in the floors and walls to heat the house. Most impressive, however, are the mosaics and frescos that adorn the walls and floors of these homes, testimony to a significant upper class in Ephesus during the time of the Apostle Paul.
The biblical historian, Luke, uses specific terms to describe political leaders in Ephesus. Throughout the Roman empire of the first century there was a myriad of political titles and roles. Scholarship throughout the past 150 years has vindicated the good doctor of many of the accusations of inaccuracy (ie. Luke’s use of the term politarch to describe city officials in Thessalonica is now acknowledged to be correct given the mounting inscriptional evidence). The terms used to describe the Ephesian political situation in the first century demonstrate a familiarity with the city and are proving again to be historically accurate.
In Acts 19:31 we read that Paul had friends among “some of the officials of the province.” The transliteration of the Greek term for these officials is asiarchs. Critics used to see Luke’s use of this term as anachronistic, as the only other uses of the term previously known were from classical sources, such as Strabo.13 Asiarch inscriptions have since been found in over 40 cities throughout Asia, including numerous ones in Ephesus that date to within 50 years of the Apostle Paul. So far 106 individual asiarchs, both men and women, have been identified in Ephesus.14
Luke also describes how the city clerk calmed the riotous crowd at the theater in Acts 19:35. The word used of this man’s position is grammateus. The town clerk was one of the most important people in ancient cities and was responsible to care for the city archives, draw up official decrees and read them to the people in public assemblies.15 Several grammataeus inscriptions have been discovered in Ephesus, including one dating to the second century which names Laberius Amoenus as the town clerk.16
Finally, in addressing the crowd in the theater of Ephesus, the town clerk tells them that if the “craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls” (Acts 19:38). It is known from history that Ephesus was the capital of proconsular Asia and home to the Roman governor.17 An inscription on ancient Ephesian coins indicates the authority of the proconsul there during the reign of Nero, who became emperor of Rome in 54 AD.18 Furthermore, Pliny records that Ephesus was an assize-town in which regular court days were held, just as the Bible describes.19
The Religions Of Ancient Ephesus
The Worship of Artemis
Any discussion of the the religion of first-century Ephesus, must begin with the worship of the goddess Artemis. According to mythology, Artemis was the virgin daughter of Zeus and Leto, and was originally known as the hunting goddess, later becoming associated with virginity and protection. Because the legendary births of Artemis and her twin brother Apollo were said to have taken place near Ephesus, the city became the center of the Artemis cult.20 The temple of Artemis, built and rebuilt several times, became one of the seven wonders of the world. Antipater of Sidon said that it surpassed the other wonders, and that when he saw the house of Artemis “those other marvels lost their brilliancy.”21 Over time, Artemis of the Ephesians took on distinctly Ephesian qualities and eventually became know as simply “Artemis of the Ephesians.”
While there are many images of Artemis in antiquity, statues of the Ephesian Artemis are markedly different from her Greek counterpart. Rather than the typical huntress in a short skirt beside a deer, the Ephesian version stood stiff and straight, with her legs appearing to be wrapped together and with bulbous appendages, which some identify as breasts, on her neck and chest. The second-century geographer, Pausanias, records that statues of the Ephesian Artemis were found in cities other than Ephesus, including Corinth, some 770 miles away.22 In fact, the most common surname of the goddess in Pausanias’s works is “Artemis of the Ephesians.23 A third-century BC inscription refers to “the Lady of Ephesus, the light-bearer.”24 The Ephesians, believing that Artemis had descended from the heavens and favoured them, were extremely proud of their goddess and became her protector.
The Bible’s description of the worship of Artemis in Ephesus is striking in its similarity when compared with these historical sources. In the book of Acts, Luke records how the complaint of the silversmiths turned into a riot, and a crowd of Ephesians rushed to the theater chanting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:34). He uses the exact phrase the goddess of Ephesus was known by at that time. In the next verse, the city clerk of Ephesus declares, “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven?” When one considers the belief of the Ephesians that Artemis had descended from the heavens as the light-bearer to dwell among them, the words of Jesus to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2 become all the more poignant: “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.” Jesus lays claim to the title, “Light-bearer,” who came down from on high to walk among us; he is intentionally setting himself above the most devoutly worshiped goddess in Ephesus.
During the Apostle Paul’s three years of ministry in Ephesus many people left their pagan beliefs to follow Jesus. Not only did this affect the worship of Artemis, it affected the many people who were involved more generally in sorcery. In Acts 19:19 we read, “A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas.”
Sorcery flourished in the first century, and not just in Ephesus. Suetonius writes that Augustus ordered that 2000 magical scrolls be burned in 13 BC.25 A collection of nearly 250 magical papyri were discovered in Egypt, some dating to the first and second century. They contain spells, curses and recipes for amulets, the sort of incantations that typified Roman-era magical practices.26 Given that Ephesus was the chief port city of Asia Minor, and that there was frequent trade with Alexandria, it is not a stretch to believe that magical papyri from Egypt would have reached Ephesus. Furthermore, Ephesian sorcery was widely known through the “Ephesian Letters,” six magical words used in charms and on amulets, that were said to be able to ward off demonic spirits.27 It’s hardly surprising then, to read the biblical account of fifty thousand drachma’s worth of magical scrolls being burned, given the level of sorcery in both Ephesus and the Roman world at that time.
The Bible describes a significant Jewish population in Ephesus during the first century. When the Apostle Paul first visited the city he spoke in their synagogue for three months (Acts 19:8). The book of Acts also describes how “all the Jews…in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10), that some Jews, including the seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest tried to invoke the name of Jesus to cast out demons (Acts 19:14), how there were Jews involved in the riot (Acts 19:33) and that Paul was severely tested by plots of the Jews in Ephesus (Acts 20:19).
Evidence from numerous inscriptions also confirms the presence of a group of Jews who lived and worshiped in Ephesus throughout the first century. Several documents recorded by Josephus deal with the Jewish people in Ephesus and range in dates from 49 BC to 3 AD. One exempts Jews in Ephesus who were Roman citizens from military service. Another allowed them to keep their rites and offer sacrifices, while a third allowed the Jews in Ephesus to keep the sabbath and live according to their customs.28 While no synagogue has yet been unearthed in Ephesus, there is evidence outside of the Bible that one existed there at that time. Paul Trebilco, in Early Christians In Ephesus From Paul To Ignatius, writes: “No synagogue has yet been found in the city of Ephesus. However, the existence of a synagogue in
Ephesus seems to be implied in Ant. 14:227, to be dated to 43 BCE, where Jews are given
permission to ‘come together for sacred and holy rites in accordance with their law.’…An inscription of the Imperial period mentions archisynagogoi and presbyters…It seems very likely this was from a synagogue.”29
In addition to this, the carving of a menorah on the step of the Celsus library provides tangible archaeological evidence of a Jewish population after the time of the Apostle Paul. The evidence clearly points to a thriving and organized Jewish population in Ephesus for well over 100 years, and certainly at the time the Apostle Paul ministered there, just as it is described in the Bible.
When the Apostle Paul arrived in Ephesus, circa 52AD he found a dozen disciples who had not yet received the Holy Spirit. For the next three years, he ministered throughout the city seeing many people come to faith in Christ, and a church planted. John’s letter to the church in Ephesus in the book of Revelation records that near the end of the first century, this church had endured hardships for the name of Christ and was committed to truth, but had forgotten their first love (Rv 2:1-7). History records that the Ephesian church lasted for several centuries after that. What evidence is there for Christianity in Ephesus outside of the Bible?
The church historian, Eusebius, quotes second century sources (Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandrea), saying that John lived in Ephesus until the end of his life, sometime during the reign of Trajan. He also records that Timothy was appointed the first bishop there.30 Ignatius (c. 35-108 AD), wrote a famous epistle to the Ephesian church. This inscriptional evidence bears witness to a Christian presence in Ephesus during the first and second centuries.
Archaeologically, the Grotto of St. Paul was discovered in 1906 by the Austrian Archaeological Institute in a hillside cave. It displays evidence of use as a sacred site from the first and second centuries. Under the plaster on the walls they found frescos of Paul and Mary, the mother of Jesus, some of which date to the sixth century.31
The tomb of the Apostle John is also reported to be in Ephesus, and was known in Eusebius’s day. Today, the remains of the Basilica St. John stands over the believed tomb of the apostle. It was once a beautiful church, constructed by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Recent excavations have revealed a baptistery and frescoes depicting the saints.32 Whether or not this is the actual resting place of the Beloved Apostle, there is a history of his ministry in Ephesus dating back almost to the first century. This, along with the other inscriptional and archaeological evidence points to a rich Christian presence in Ephesus, beginning at the time the Bible describes and lasting for several centuries.
Bible Scholar, Ben Witherington III, has said, “The Ephesos of the mid-first century A.D. was a thriving place, and religiously pluralistic in character, though certainly the Temple of Artemis dominated the religious landscape.”33 Indeed this is the testimony of the New Testament; it is also the testimony of the archaeological record. Not only does the known pluralistic religious situation of first-century Ephesus line up with Scripture, but the biblical descriptions of Ephesian geography, economy, and politics are also shown to be historically accurate. When it comes to ancient Ephesus, the Bible and archaeology do tell the same story.
1 “Ephesus” n.p. [cited 15 Aug 2016]. Online: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/historians/notes/ephesus.html
2 The phrase, “The Bible and archaeology tell the same story” is from a personal email from Gary Byers. It is a great summary on the reliability of Scripture.
3 Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., and Duane Garrett. “Acts” in the Archaeological Study Bible: New International Version. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005. Pg. 1807.
4 G. Frederick Owen. “Archaeological Supplement: Ephesus” in The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, KJV. B. B. Kirkwood Bible Co. Inc., Indianapolis, IN, 1964. Pg. 332
5 “Commercial Agora” n.p. [cited 14 Sept 2016] Online: http://www.ephesus.us/ephesus/agora.htm
6 McDonald, Lee Martin. Acts. The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Acts – Philemon, Vol. 2., edited by Craig Evans. Victor, Colorado Springs, CO, 2004. Pg. 133
7 Jospeh M. Holden and Norman Gesiler, The Popular Handbook Of Archaeology And The Bible, Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon. 2013. Pg. 360.
8 G. Frederick Owen. “Archaeological Supplement: Ephesus” in The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, KJV. B. B. Kirkwood Bible Co. Inc., Indianapolis, IN, 1964. Pg. 332
9 Ben Witherington III. “Gary Hoags, Wealth In Ancient Ephesus – Part 4” n.p. [cited 20 Sept. 2016] Online: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/24/gary-hoags-wealth-in-ancient-ephesus-part-four/
10 John W. Cowart. “Ephesus: A Wonder of the World” n.p. [cited 20 Sept. 2016] Online: http://www.cowart.info/Ephesus/ephesus.html
11 Eric Metaxas, “Archaeological Evidence Supports Acts 19” n.p. [citied 19 Sept. 2016] Online: http://www.christianpost.com/news/archaeological-evidence-supports-acts-19-opinion-167027/#RH6DS1c4PjWHCwui.99
12 “Ephesus Terrace Houses” n.p. [cited 20 Sept. 2016]. Online: http://www.ephesus.us/ephesus/terracehouses.htm
13 Jospeh M. Holden and Norman Gesiler, The Popular Handbook Of Archaeology And The Bible, Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon. 2013. Pg. 353.
14 John McRay. “Archaeology and the Book of Acts” Criswell Theological Review, 5.1, 1990, Pg. 77.
15 George W. Clark. Harmonic Arrangement of the Acts of the Apostles. American Baptist Publication Society, Philadelphia, PA. 1884, Pg. 224.
16 John McRay. “Archaeology and the Book of Acts” Criswell Theological Review, 5.1, 1990, Pg. 76.
17 Merrill F. Unger. “Ephesus” in The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Moody Press, Chicago, IL. 1988. pg. 366.
18 George W. Clark. Harmonic Arrangement of the Acts of the Apostles. American Baptist Publication Society, Philadelphia, PA. 1884, Pg. 224.
19 “Ephesus” in McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia. [22 Sept. 2016] Online: http://www.biblicalcyclopedia.com/E/ephesus.html
20 Sandra Glahn, “The Identity Of Artemis In First-Century Ephes” [cited 06 Spet. 2016] Online: http://www.dts.edu/read/the-identity-of-artemis-in-first-century-ephesus-glahn-sandra/
21 Antipater, Greek Anthology IX.58.
22 Pausanias, Description of Greece, Volume 1, trans. W. H. S. Jones, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 93 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1918), 2.2.6.
23Sandra Glahn, “The Identity Of Artemis In First-Century Ephesus” [cited 06 Spet. 2016] Online: http://www.dts.edu/read/the-identity-of-artemis-in-first-century-ephesus-glahn-sandra/
24 Florence Mary Bennett, Religious Cults Associated with the Amazons (1912): Chapter III: Ephesian Artemis (on-line text) [Cited 06 Sept. 2016] Online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/wmn/rca/rca04.htm
25 Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians: Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians in Light of It’s Historical Setting, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1989. Pg. 17.
26 Clinton E. Arnold, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Ephesians, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2010. Pg. 34.
27 Ibid. Pg. 35.
28 Paul Tribilco, The Early Christians In Ephesus From Paul To Ignatius, Eerdmans, Grand Raids, 2007. Pg. 38-39.
29 Ibid. Pg. 43-44.
30 Eusebius. The Church History (trans. Paul L. Maier:,Kregel: Grand Rapids, 2007), Pg. 97.
31 “Grotto of St. Paul, Ephesus” n.p. [cited 23 Sept. 2016] Online: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/ephesus-grotto-of-st-paul
32 “Basilica of St. John, Ephesus” n.p. [cited 27 Sept. 2016] Online: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/ephesus-basilica-of-st-john
33 Ben Witherington III. “Gary Hoags, Wealth In Ancient Ephesus – Part 6” n.p. [cited 20 Sept. 2016] Online: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/04/06/gary-hoags/