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The Apostle Paul in Ephesus

The following is an excerpt from the author's master's thesis on the religious history of ancient Ephesus, submitted in June 2007 at the University of Oxford. For publication here, I have done some minor editing of the original and added biblical quotations at the bottom for reference.

History of Paul in Ephesus

The Apostle Paul was active in Ephesus from the autumn of 52 to the spring of 55, after his missionary work in Macedonia, Corinth and Achaia.[1] In a paper written for the 1994 Harvard symposium on Ephesus,[2] Helmut Koester has provided a very useful summary of Paul’s activities in Ephesus based on current biblical scholarship; the following brief account draws heavily on Koester’s work.

Despite his important role there, it seems unlikely Paul was the first Christian missionary in Ephesus. The Gospel of Luke records that Paul sailed with Priscilla and Aquila from Corinth to Ephesus then left them there and sailed for Syria (Acts 18:20-21). This technically makes Paul the first preacher in Ephesus, but many commentators regard it as an insertion to that end by Luke.[3] In reality, Paul probably did not stop in Ephesus at all before the arrival of Priscilla, Aquila and also Apollos.[4] So when Paul arrived in Ephesus in the autumn of 52, a Christian community had already been founded under the leadership of these missionaries.

Over the next two years and three months, Paul had an eventful stay in Ephesus. He struggled against opposition, was imprisoned at least once, feared for his life, and wrote the bulk of his correspondence (1 Corinthians, most of 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Galatians and Philemon).[5]

In 1 Corinthians, Paul indicates that he was staying in the city for a prolonged period because ‘a great and effectual opportunity has opened to me and there are many adversaries’ (16:9). Paul also comments that he ‘fought with wild beasts in Ephesus’ (15:32), a statement that has been interpreted in a variety of ways. While a later tradition developed a story of Paul’s literal battle with wild beasts in Ephesus’ stadium,[6] it is more likely a metaphor for conflict with human opponents or perhaps within himself.[7] Still, in a letter written from Macedonia in the summer of 55, after Paul had left Ephesus,[8] Paul indicates he had been in serious danger. He writes:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, 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 even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. (2 Cor 1:8-10)

This strongly indicates that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus, probably in the winter of 54/55. Many scholars now believe that it was during this imprisonment, rather than one in Rome, that Paul wrote Philippians and Philemon.[9] If so, these two letters thus provide more information about the situation in Ephesus in the early 50s AD. In Philippians, Paul indicates that the palace guard and everyone else knows he is imprisoned for his faith in Christ and that his imprisonment have encouraged ‘most of the brothers’ to spread the Gospel more courageously (1:13-14). This provides interesting supplementary information to the ‘adversaries’ (1 Cor 16:9) and ‘wild beasts in Ephesus’ (1 Cor 15:32) he mentioned in an earlier letter. Philippians also provides a record of his struggle with the real possibility of death that he later recalled in 2 Cor 1:8-10, in which he hopes to act courageously whatever happens and remarks that ‘to live is Christ and to die is gain’ (1:21).

The most famous account of Paul’s opposition in Ephesus comes from the Book of Acts, with the riot of the silversmiths following a sermon Paul gave against polytheism in the Great Theater. Although the author of Acts appears to have been personally familiar with Ephesus and to have used earlier sources for his account[10], he also freely adapted and embellished his sources to fit with the themes of his composition. In addition, the book was written in approximately 100 AD and most likely reflects the situation in Luke’s time more than that in Paul’s.[11] But the account in Acts 20:14-17 is thought to be based on historical sources and indicates that Paul did not dare return to Ephesus after his departure.[12]

The clear picture of Paul’s activities in Ephesus, then, is one of frequent and sometimes violent opposition. Although enough converts were made to form a small Christian community, it seems there was a strong pagan resistance to the Christian message of Paul.

Paul Sites in Ephesus

In addition to the Great Theater, the other site associated with Paul in Ephesus is the Grotto of St. Paul in the northern slope of Mt. Bülbüldag, above the theater.

Biblical References

Below are biblical references related to Paul and Ephesus, from the NIV translation.

1 Corinthians

If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." (15:32)

But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me. (16:8)

2 Corinthians

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, 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 even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. (2 Cor 1:8-10)

Philippians

Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. (1:12-14)

Acts of the Apostles

When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. But as he left, he promised, "I will come back if it is God's will." Then he set sail from Ephesus. (18:20-21)

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. (18:24-26)

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" They answered, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." So Paul asked, "Then what baptism did you receive?" "John's baptism," they replied. Paul said, "John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus." On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:1-7)

Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, "In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out." Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. (One day) the evil spirit answered them, "Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?" Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. 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. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power. After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. "After I have been there," he said, "I must visit Rome also." He sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he stayed in the province of Asia a little longer. (19:8-22)

About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in no little business for the craftsmen. He called them together, along with the workmen in related trades, and said: "Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. And 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 man-made gods 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." When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul's traveling companions from Macedonia, and rushed as one man into the theater. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. The Jews pushed Alexander to the front, and some of the crowd shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: "Men of Ephesus, 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? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to be quiet and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of today's events. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it." After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly. (19:23-41)

Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost. From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: "You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me-the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace. Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone's silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship. (20:16-38)

Footnotes

1 Dating by Koester (‘Ephesos in Early Christian Literature’, 2004), 119, based on the general consensus of current scholarship.

2 Helmut Koester, ‘Ephesos in Early Christian Literature’ in Helmut Koester, ed. Ephesos Metropolis of Asia: An Interdisciplinary Approach to its Archaeology, Religion and Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Divinity School, 2004),119-140.

3 Ibid., 127-29.

4 Acts 18:24.

5 Ephesians is not generally considered a genuine letter of Paul’s and may not have even been directed to Ephesus (the best manuscripts lack the title ‘εν Εφέσώ’). Koester (2004a), 122, n. 14. But see also Oster (1997).

6 Acts of Paul 7.

7 Koester (2004a), 120.

8 Ibid., 122.

9 Duncan (1929), as cited in Koester (2004a), 122.

10 Koester (2004a), 126.

11 Ibid., 129.

12 Ibid., 131.

13 Ibid., 124.

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