Ephesus was an ancient Greek city on the coast of Ionia, which is now part of modern-day turkey. It was built in around the 10thcentury BC, however, it is only mentioned in the New Testament. The city was famous as the location of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ephesus was also one of the Seven Churches of the Apocalypse, mentioned in the Book of Revelation. “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.” (Revelation 1:11)
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favour: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:1-7)
It is thought the Gospel of John may have been written in Ephesus, however, it is never mentioned in the book. The first time the city appears in the Bible is in the Book of Acts shortly after Paul has left Corinth. Paul was travelling with two people named Priscilla and Aquilla, who he left in Ephesus whilst he continued to Syria. “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.” (Acts 18:20-21)
As promised, Paul returned to Ephesus where he met up with some of the disciples and spoke to them about the Holy Spirit. The disciples, however, had never heard of the Holy Spirit and confessed they had only be baptised by John the Baptist, which Paul referred to as a “baptism of repentance.” Following this, the disciples, twelve men in total, were baptised in the name of Jesus and began to speak in tongues.
Whilst in Ephesus, Paul conducted many miracles, which put the fear of the Lord into the Jews and Greeks in the city, many of whom confessed of their sins and changed their wicked ways. Unfortunately, a man named Demetrius despised Paul and tried to convince the citizens to ignore his claims. Demetrius declared, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28) This sparked a riot amongst those who had heard Demetrius’ cry, which was quickly joined by hundreds of other people, many of whom had no idea what was going on but had been caught up in the moment.
Paul was frustrated with the stubbornness of the Jewish synagogue in Ephesus and decided to move on to Macedonia, leaving the disciples to attempt to spread the word in the city. It has been suggested Paul had stayed four years in Ephesus (53-57 AD) during which time he wrote the first letter to the Corinthians. Paul tells the Corinthians that he will come to them after visiting Macedonia “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.” (1 Corinthians 16:8-9) As Acts 19 states, however, the disciples discouraged Paul from challenging Demetrius’ beliefs and he left the city without having won over all the citizens.
Later, around 62 AD, Paul wrote to the Ephesians from where he was imprisoned in Rome. “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 1:1-2) Paul wrote specifically to those who he had successfully converted before he left the city. In his letter, Paul provided the Ephesians with instructions for Christian living and households.
Paul also wrote a couple of letters to his disciple Timothy, who he urged to “stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies.” (1 Timothy 1:3-4) According to the historian Eusebius of Caesarea, Timothy was the first bishop of Ephesus.
Whilst these accounts tell us about the challenge of spreading Christianity to Ephesus, they reveal little about the geography and history of the city. Recent excavations suggest the land was inhabited from as early as 6000 BC; however, the city of Ephesus was not founded until the 10th century BC by an Attic-Ionian colony. According to legend, a prince of Athens who had to leave his country after the death of his father founded the city. The prince drove out most of the natives and gave the land to his people. He was a successful warrior and the city began to flourish under his reign.
In 650 BC, Cimmerians, a nomadic tribe, attacked Ephesus, burning it to the ground. This attack also destroyed the temple of Artemis. The city was rebuilt but faced several invasions over the coming centuries until it became a part of the Roman Republic in 129 BC. The Romans temporarily lost Ephesus to the Mithridates but had regained the city by 86 BC. It is recorded that King Ptolemy XII Auletes of Egypt retired to Ephesus in 57 BC, where he spent most of his time at the newly built Temple of Artemis. Mark Anthony and Cleopatra were also welcomed to Ephesus in 33 BC.
When Augustus became the first Roman emperor in 27 BC, he made Ephesus the capital of proconsular Asia and the city entered a period of prosperity. Ephesus was second in importance and size to Rome. This was the state of the city when Paul visited in the 1st century AD. Unfortunately, the Goths destroyed the city in 263 AD and, although Constantine the Great rebuilt Ephesus, adding in new public baths, the city never regained its former splendour.
Ephesus remained a fairly important city during the 5thand 6thcentury and Justinian I erected the basilica of St John over the location they believed to be the burial place of John the Baptist. Yet, the city began to rapidly decline after an earthquake in 614 AD and sackings by the Arabs between 654 and 716 AD. By 1090 when Turks conquered Ephesus, it was little more than a village. By the 15th century, the place had been abandoned.
Today, Ephesus is one of the largest Roman archaeological sites in the eastern Mediterranean. Remains and foundations of buildings are still recognisable, including the Temple of Artemis, which once contained over 100 marble pillars. The façade of the Library of Celsus, which was built in 125 AD, has been carefully reconstructed from original pieces. It is believed nearly 12,000 scrolls were once kept in the building.
Just for fun, here is a list of notable people that once lived in Ephesus. We might not recognise many of their names but they have played a large part in history:
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon