“Write to the angel of the church in Ephesus … I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. I know that you have persevered and endured hardships for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” — Revelation 2:1-5
Ephesus stood at the center of commerce, travel, and religion for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the Aegean Region of Anatolia. The “modern” founding of Ephesus was in B.C.E. 1000 by the Ionians, but the region had been inhabited for at least a thousand years before then. At the center of Ephesian culture and life was the goddess Artemis and the temple dedicated to her. At the time of construction, the temple was the largest in the world and became known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Temple of Artemis owes its existence to the Amazon women of Greek mythology who dedicated a temple to the Anatolian mother goddess, Cybele, in the same region. Since Artemis was a similar female god figure, she was easily accepted by locals and superseded Cybele in the 8th century B.C.E. The Ephesians so revered their roles as guardians of Artemis that they refused Alexander the Great when he offered to pay to rebuild the temple after its destruction in 356 B.C.E. They did not want a foreign power’s influence over their beloved goddess.
"Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly over a period of three months, arguing and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became hardened and would not believe, slandering the Way in front of the crowd, he withdrew from them, taking the disciples, and conducted discussions every day in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord. — Acts 19:8-10
Ephesus maintained prominence during the first century as one of the five largest cities in the Mediterranean region. Cyrus of Persia built the Royal Road to connect Susa with Ephesus and nearby Sardis when he took control of the city in 546 B.C.E. Being the primary port on the Aegean Sea made Ephesus prosperous and desirable to conquering empires. At different points in history, Ephesus and its neighboring cities were controlled by the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Seleucids, Pergamene rulers, and finally the Roman Empire, at which point it became the Roman capital of Asia Minor. In 41 B.C.E. the Egyptian princess Arsinoe IV was murdered by her sister Cleopatra and her lover Marc Anthony while she was trying to seek refuge in the Temple of Artemis. In the third century A.D., the great city fell from prominence when sacked by the Goths, who destroyed its temple. However, like other neighboring cities, the final blow came not from a fierce army but from the wetlands and sedimentation that gradually distanced the city from the Aegean coast, eliminating the harbor and destroying the economy.
Today Ephesus is one of the most well-preserved sites of the ancient world. While only bits and pieces of the Temple of Artemis remain, the ancient amphitheater, impressive library, commercial agora, the nearby Basilica of the Apostle John, and terrace homes have all been unearthed and are on display for the public.
One of Ephesus’ own philosophers, Heraclitus, was known as the weeping philosopher, and he lamented over the immorality and wickedness of the city, saying that its citizens were “fit only to be drowned, and that the reason he could never laugh or smile was because he lived amidst such terrible uncleanness.” (Alan F. Johnson, Revelation)
Ephesus in Christian History
The city of Ephesus played a crucial role in the growth of the early Christian church. The Apostle Paul planted the first church there, Timothy was its pastor for a time, and the Apostle John spent his final years in and around the city. Though Paul visited other regions of Turkey, he spent more time in Ephesus than any other city on his three missionary journeys. He went to Ephesus with Priscilla and Aquila on his second journey (Acts 18:18-20). As was his custom, he engaged in a discussion in the synagogue before leaving the city abruptly. After Paul left, Apollos of Alexandria came to Ephesus to preach the Christian gospel, during which time Priscilla and Aquila took him aside to correct deficiencies in his theology (Acts 18:24-28).
Paul returned to Ephesus during his third journey and stayed three years (Acts 20:31). After teaching in the synagogue for three months, Paul spent two years teaching and preaching in the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:8-10). Based on their customs of discipleship and church-planting, we can assume the Christians sent out Epaphras and others to evangelize so that “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 19:10) During this time, a great disturbance arose in the city because of the message of Christ. As Ephesians converted to Christianity and left behind the cult worship of Artemis, they no longer purchased the shrines or artifacts produced by the local artisans. Seeing his business dwindling, the silversmith Demetrius stirred up other tradesmen against Paul and his colleagues, accusing them of attacking their religious and economic fidelity. The riot reached its peak in the 25,000-seat amphitheater where the crowd chanted slogans in honor of their goddess. Despite such opposition, the church in Ephesus thrived and became a hub for Christianity throughout Asia Minor. After Paul, Timothy spent considerable time pastoring in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3; 2 Timothy 1:18, 4:12), and the Apostle John spent his last days serving in and around the city.
About that time there was a major disturbance about the Way. For a person named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, provided a great deal of business for the craftsmen. When he had assembled them, as well as the workers engaged in this type of business, he said: “Men, you know that our prosperity is derived from this business. You see and hear that not only in Ephesus, but in almost all of Asia, this man Paul has persuaded and misled a considerable number of people by saying that gods made by hand are not gods. Not only do we run a risk that our business may be discredited, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be despised, and her magnificence come to the verge of ruin—the very one all of Asia and the world worship.” — Acts 19:23-27
In his apocalyptic New Testament letter Revelation, the Apostle John warned the church in Ephesus they had “abandoned the love [they] had at first.” The apostle’s supposed burial site is on a hill outside the ancient city in the ruins of the basilica that bears his name. Despite the Ephesians’ waning devotion to the faith, we can assume that Christianity continued to thrive among them. In the early second century, the Bishop of Antioch Ignatius requested delegates from Ephesus to meet with him in Smyrna on his way to martyrdom in Rome. In 431 A.D. the Third Ecumenical Church Council was held in Ephesus. It was at this council that Nestorius (who rejected that Mary was the “God-bearer”), Pelagius (who taught that a sinless life was attainable without the assistance of divine grace), and their followers were denounced as heretics, and the doctrines of original sin and the divine nature of Christ were reaffirmed.
Christianity in the Aegean Region of Anatolia traces its roots to Ephesus. From here we go on to Smyrna—the ancient rival of Ephesus—according to the order of churches addressed in Revelation.