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The following was originally an academic paper. I encourage you to incorporate this rich information in your study of Acts, Ephesians, 1&2 Timothy, and the Johannine writings. It is longer than most posts you read, but it won’t disappoint—promise!
The apostle Paul assigned his young protégé Timothy to Ephesus to oversee the affairs of the church there (1 Tim. 1:3). Paul was aware of threats opposing the gospel, and he sent Timothy to fight against an onslaught of heretical teachings. His primary concern was that Timothy guard the church by maintaining the truth of God’s word. He was to do this by carefully concentrating on its internal affairs.
Throughout the Pastoral Epistles (1&2 Timothy, Titus), Paul affirms the church’s presence in a spiritually dark world. If Timothy’s war within the church was difficult, the thought of confronting the sin and mindset outside the church was more daunting. Paul himself had spent three years in Ephesus (Acts 20:31) and knew that the spiritual climate there was rife with paganism, immorality, and relativism. This was the field of evangelism for the Ephesus church.
City of Culture and Pleasure
In the mid-first century, when Paul and Timothy ministered, Ephesus was the first and greatest metropolis of the Roman province Asia Minor. Little is known about its exact origin or the origin of its name. Grave relics place the founding of the city between 1400 B.C. and 1300 B.C. The story of Ephesus’ founding is legendary, its roots being traced back to the mythical Amazons, a race of female warriors. The city grew to become the premiere commercial, political, and religious center of Western Asia. The population ultimately rose to 250,000 by the third century, placing it third in size in the Roman Empire behind Rome (800,000 to 1 million) and Alexandria (300,000).
Ephesus was located on the western coast of Asia Minor on the Aegean Sea, and, as a leading seaport and the resulting trade, it swelled into a cosmopolitan metropolis. The city was the capital of the slave trade—the backbone of the Roman economy—from 100 B.C. to A.D. 100. The slave trade made Ephesus wealthy.
The city was also the meeting place for ideas from both the Eastern and Western cultural traditions of the empire. The scholarship of Ephesus was vast. Richard Oster and Markus Barth say, “It was well-known for its philosophers, artists, poets, historians, and rhetoricians. Ephesus made distinctive contributions to intellectual and religious history from the pre-Socratic period down to the philosophical revivals of the later Roman Empire.”
Ephesus was a city of culture where the people were distinguished by their amiableness, refinement of manners, luxury, music and dancing, and seductive arts that lead to vicious indulgences. The city hosted numerous festivals that attracted participants from other cities. Additionally, there was located there the world-renown Temple of Artemis, the library of Celsus, a 25,000-seat theater, temples dedicated to deities and cults, and numerous gymnasia and baths.
At the city’s center was the agora, or marketplace, a rectangular area 360 feet long surrounded by pillared halls, shops, and rooms. A sun and water clock was set in the open space. This environment entertained a multitude of hedonistic pleasures and philosophical ideologies that served to corrupt the moral consciences of the people.
Paul and Timothy’s Challenge
The ministry of Timothy and the Ephesian church cannot be perceived as anything other than doubly difficult. Paul and Timothy fought a battle on two fronts. One was definitely outside the church but the other was inside. Paul writes the two epistles to Timothy because he was well aware of the trouble Timothy faced at Ephesus having Judaism-loyal Jews right within the church (Acts 20:19).
Persecution by the Jews was prevalent at the time as well. Kenneth Scott Latourette says, “At the outset…the main persecutors of the Christians were those who held to Judaism and were antagonized by the fashion in which what superficially appeared to be a sect of Judaism was undermining institutions and convictions cherished by that religion.” This persecution was fueled by the church’s success in converting Jews and did not dissipate until there was further separation between the two religions.
O.P. and Barbara Reid provide an image of Paul and Timothy’s ministry in Ephesus. They explain that it is generally an unquestioned assumption that Paul was everywhere successful in ministry. Yet he must have found Ephesus challenging. Any success that he did have was most probably among ethnic Jews rather than the pagans of Ephesus.
What did the spiritual landscape look like then? Ephesus was home to the flagrant worship of more than seventeen deities and other cults. Dr. James Jackson explains what made this so difficult for the Ephesian church and other churches like it. He says that most pagan religions in Ephesus were either Greek or Roman, and Greco-Roman religion was without dogma. Any practicing priest at that time functioning in such a polytheistic setting would never make a claim to a unique validity of one set of rites or beliefs.
In addition, there was no religious prosecution. Just as there was no dogma, there would have been no need for heretics or martyrs. Religion was personal and unorganized, and there was no thought of denying the cults of other gods. The Greco-Romans viewed foreign gods as being like their own gods, although with other names. It would have been ill-mannered for one to assert the supremacy of his god above a neighbor’s “false” god. Such religious relativism provided the seedbed for a niche teeming with myriad forms of religion, cult, and superstition.
Artemis and Her Worship
The greatest of the Ephesian deities was undeniably Artemis Ephesia (of the Ephesians). She was first identified with the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele who was worshiped prior to the arrival of the Greeks in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Her worship was great, being called by Eugene Peterson “a pastiche of stories, superstitions, and systems of thought endemic to the ancient East that served Ephesus’ religious need.”
Artemis (Diana, her Roman name) functioned mainly as a city or local goddess, like most other gods and goddesses of the time. She undoubtedly contributed to the high feminism of the city, after all, a city founded by female warriors. Artemis served to protect (as a tutelary goddess) the safety and wealth of the people and their social institutions of justice and democracy. The wealth and security of Ephesus so attested to the power of Artemis Ephesia that other cities adopted her as their goddess. In fact, artifacts from her cult have been found as far east in the empire as Palestine and as far west as Spain.
Ephesus was the site of the world-famous Artemision, or Temple of Artemis, deemed one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. It was the largest Greek temple in antiquity, and the apostle Paul and Timothy would have seen it regularly. It was constructed on a huge concrete platform 238′ x 418′ (l) upon which sat the marble temple itself, 163′ x 342′. The roof was supported by 127 Ionic columns six feet in diameter and an astonishing sixty feet high. It is believed that the women of Ephesus sold their jewelry to help fund the project and that kings presented gold and furnishings to the temple. In 356 B.C., however, it was burned to the ground by an arsonist leaving only the four walls and a few columns. It was later rebuilt (completed in 323 B.C.) to match the splendor it had previously known.
The Artemision was Ephesus’ symbol of wealth. It served as a safe deposit of people’s personal wealth and offered loans to the public at a profitable rate of interest. The temple also boasted its own band of priests who were automatically and simultaneously officials of Ephesus and the sanctuary. Their job, however, was accompanied with ceremonial prostitution and other indecencies streaming forth from the temple center.
Artemis was depicted by an idol that supposedly fell from heaven. The upper part of the image’s front body was covered with rows of what appeared to be breasts that labeled Artemis as a fertility goddess, although this is uncertain. Coins that have been found bear this image of her, and it is with regard to this that Paul experienced the frenzied loyalty with which the Ephesians protected their goddess. Acts 19:23-41 is called the “revolt of the silversmiths” passage and refers to the trade derived from Artemis. Paul’s troubles come when silversmiths become alarmed that their trade is being diminished on account of the apostle’s preaching.
Other Deities of the Ephesians
Artemis was the main deity of Ephesus, yet there were a few other notable gods and goddesses there as well. Aphrodite (Venus) was the goddess of love. She was associated with phallic mysteries that usually resulted in the loss of virginity. Prostitution was common in her cult, including festivals honoring prostitutes and sacred prostitution. She was also celebrated as the goddess of hermaphrodites. In fact, there were several divinities that symbolized Aphrodite’s powers and were revered together. These included Eros (Love), Himeros (Longing), Posthos (Desire), Peithos (Persuasion), and the Horai (Seasons, Youths, Beauties). The personifications together contribute to a picture of erotic seduction all around Aphrodite.
Apollo, the Sun god, was the most famous and celebrated of all the Greek gods. Prophetic powers were associated with him, and his oracle at Delphi was world-renown for the counsel it produced on commercial ventures and political issues. Apollo represented order and discourse. Dionysus was Apollo’s opposite. Dionysus (Bacchus) was the god of lust and debauchery. His worship was associated with great festivals of wine, wild dancing and music, ecstatic revelry, and orgiastic excess, all too common in Ephesus.
Cabiri, a Phrygian god, was another ecstatic religion that had its roots in the primitive religion of the mother goddess from whom derived Artemis. It was also orgiastic in nature and involved scandalous obscenities. The cult of Asclepius was known for its miraculous powers of healing. As the Christian message of Jesus’s miraculous healings spread, his virtues were paralleled with the powers and wonders of Asclepius.
Other gods and goddesses worshipped in Ephesus included: Zeus (king of the gods and god of the sky), Gaea (goddess of earth), Hestia (Vesta, goddess of the hearth), Hecate (goddess of horror, witchcraft, and darkness), Hephaestus (Vulcan, god of destructive fire), Athena (Minerva, goddess of war), Demeter (Ceres, goddess of harvest and fertility); and the Egyptian gods and goddesses: Serapis (wonder-worker and protector), Anubis (Anpu, god of the dead), and Isis (goddess of family and motherhood). The Egyptian gods arrived in Asia Minor with Egypt’s merchant and military presence.
Then, there was always the imperial cult of Caesar and hero veneration. Hero veneration happened in Greek cities when certain individuals were worshiped for reasons that might have included benefactions, miraculous interventions, extraordinary civic or political contributions, or unique roles in the founding and history of the city.
This was Timothy’s field.
The city of Ephesus was a bastion of paganism, magic, and religious tolerance. The people gave themselves over to pleasures, revelry, and unimaginable sexual grossness. The authoritative words of Paul were challenged at every point, and even demon counterfeits seemed to rival any true spiritual manifestation of the Spirit. Timothy had to refute damnable teachings within the church, then look into the culture and preach the exclusivity of an inclusive God and kingdom. How was he to bear the task?
A Gospel Legacy
It is proper to think of the ministry of the Ephesian church as difficult but not impossible. The words of Paul to the Ephesian church the last time he would ever see them are befitting:
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on alert remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:28-32).
Paul knew that after his departure teachers would attack the fledgling church from all directions. Any other person looking at the situation might have questioned the survival of the church. Nonetheless, Paul trusted the power of the grace of God, and it is with those hallmark words, that benedictory blessing, that he could count on the survival of God’s work in Ephesus.
John Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs, relates that Timothy died in Ephesus in A.D. 97 at the hands of pagans celebrating the Feast of Catagogion. This feast was held annually in Ephesus on January 22. Men would run about the streets in a frenzy dressed in outrageous costumes with clubs in-hand carrying images of their gods. They would rape women they encountered and beat or kill the men. Foxe says that Timothy met the procession and rebuked them for their “ridiculous idolatry” so enraging them that they beat him severely with their clubs. He died two days later of his wounds.