Inscriptions from the first two centuries CE describe Ephesus as the capital of Asia, its “first and greatest metropolis” (IEph 7.2.647, 1541, 1543). Situated in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) on the Mediterranean Sea, Ephesus was a key port that connected trade among North Africa, Asia Minor, and Europe. Paul lived in Ephesus from approximately 52-55 CE when he wrote or cowrote several letters, which were later collected in the New Testament. Most scholars identify these letters from Ephesus as 1 Corinthians and parts of 2 Corinthians; other scholars include Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon. The Ephesian assembly received a message from heaven in Rev 2:1-7.
Ephesus’s fortunes declined in late antiquity after its harbor silted. Today the site of Ephesus is several miles from the Turkish coast. Ephesus has been excavated by the Austrian Archaeological Institute since 1895. Previously, the site was excavated by the British Museum from 1863-1874.
Who was part of the earliest Christian communities in Ephesus?
Paul, an itinerant preacher in the mid-first century, wrote letters that allow a glimpse at his social network in Ephesus. These letters were later collected as part of the Christian origin story in the New Testament.
This archive mentions an assembly (ekklesia) of Ephesians in Christ hosted in the home of a couple named Prisca and Aquila (1Cor 16:19). Paul’s colleague Timothy cowrote and couriered some of his letters while he was in Ephesus (1Cor 16:10; Phil 2:19). Some scholars believe that the Letter to Philemon was written while Paul was in Ephesus; if so, a slave named Onesimus may have visited Paul there. The Acts of the Apostles, a later text that fleshes out the world of Paul through a blend of history, oral tradition, and embellishment, populates Paul’s Ephesian network with an array of other missionaries, competitors, and antagonists (Acts 19 – Acts 21). First and Second Timothy were written after Paul’s death, but these deutero-Pauline texts mention Ephesus as a node for Paul’s community, suggesting it remained a key location in the Christian memory of Paul.
There were also scores of anonymous people who collaborated with Paul in Ephesus. These people discussed teachings and ethics, supported itinerant preachers with money and provisions, and maintained a community in Ephesus when their teachers were gone. Among them were certainly women, enslaved people, and formerly enslaved people (called freedpersons, or apeleutheroi in Greek). Material evidence of enslaved people and freedpersons is particularly vibrant in Ephesus, where inscriptions record the monetary donations and priestly service rendered by enslaved people and freedpersons to building projects and the Artemis cult (see below). Likewise, the texts of the New Testament bear frequent witness to the activity of women, enslaved people, and freedpersons in early Christian communities. Based on this and other evidence, Katherine Shaner demonstrates that women and enslaved people likely influenced and even led the earliest Christian communities in Ephesus, even as they constantly negotiated their social status and freedoms.
What role did worship of Artemis play in the development of Christianity in Ephesus?
Ephesus was a religiously plural city. The imperial cult and the imported Egyptian cults of Isis and Serapis are well-attested through temples, inscriptions, and fine objects. Some scattered evidence of a Jewish population exists in Josephus’s Antiquities and in late antique Ephesian material culture. Surpassing all these was the cult of Artemis.
Artemis of the Ephesians was renowned throughout the Roman Empire, and her massive temple in Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. An annual processional for her birthday (the Artemisia) wound through the city streets and crossed just over a mile to her temple. The image of her cult statue and her emblems (a stag and a bee) appear on Ephesian coinage as early as the fifth century BCE.
The early second-century Acts of the Apostles stages a dramatic conflict between Paul’s contingent and the silversmith Demetrius (Acts 19:23-41). Since Paul opposed the worship of Artemis, the silversmiths could lose money on the devotional objects they made for the Artemis cult, and the worship owed by Ephesus to Artemis would be diminished. Although Acts is not a historical account, the story displays how religious change can affect economy, civic pride, and social clout.
Later accounts and artifacts also describe conflict between the worship of Christ and that of Artemis in Ephesus. The second-century noncanonical Acts of John presents a show-stopping battle between the apostle John and the priests at the temple of Artemis, rendering the temple and its (historically inaccurate) destruction in cinematic detail. In the fifth century, a Christian named Demeas erects an inscription in the city center: “Having destroyed a deceitful image of demonic Artemis, Demeas set up this sign of truth, honoring both God the driver-away of idols, and the cross, that victory-bringing, immortal symbol of Christ.” For the first few centuries after the worship of Christ took root in Ephesus, some Ephesians considered a conflict between Christ and Artemis foundational to their story.
- Koester, Helmut, ed. Ephesos, Metropolis of Asia: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Its Archaeology, Religion, and Culture. HTS 41. Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1997.
- Shaner, Katherine. Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
- Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. St. Paul’s Ephesus: Texts and Archaeology. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008.