Discovering St. Paul's Greece - Part 3: St. Paul versus the goddess

The pagan city of Ephesus had fallen into confusion over Paul’s preaching. Would he and his companions make it out alive?

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By Julie Rattey


In Part 1, St. Paul made his first European convert to Christianity in the Grecian city of Philippi, establishing communities there as well as in Thessaloniki and Veria. In part 2, he traveled to Athens and Corinth before eventually making his way to Turkey.

On an average day, Ephesus — an important trading center in Turkey — was an exciting place, but on this particular day, St. Paul may very well have felt there was a little too much going on. It was about two years into Paul’s stay in the city, and once again his presence was causing a stir. Fearing their pagan ways were endangered by Paul’s religious views, a great crowd of people were shouting in the local theater, and they had forcibly put in their midst Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s two traveling companions from Macedonia. The disciples were ridiculously outnumbered. Paul was of a mind to go set things straight.

The Apostle was no longer a stranger to this wealthy jewel of Asia Minor which, since the second century B.C., had become one of the most powerful cities in the world. Paul was, perhaps, no longer stunned at marble colonnades and mosaic pavements, the torch-lit streets with their shops and elegant villas, the enormous theater seating 25,000 people, or the glittering loads of textiles, jewelry, handicrafts, and carpets arriving from foreign lands. Nor, perhaps, was he overwhelmed by the city’s teeming population (approximately 250,000 compared with an average city size of 20,000 to 30,000).

No, Paul was more likely stunned by the way God had worked through him during his past two years here. The fledgling Christian communities he had established in Greece had managed to survive, perhaps partly because of the letters of encouragement he was writing to them. Here in Ephesus, disciples he had baptized had spoken in tongues and prophesied. Those who had previously practiced magic burned their occult books. Sometimes, when Paul walked through the streets, people held out facecloths and aprons for him to touch; when these were applied to the sick, diseases and demons fled. Nevertheless, all this excitement had its downside. Sometimes Paul must have felt like a modern celebrity: gawked at and whispered about, scoffed at or envied, beloved or hated. There were good days and bad days, and today, when the citizens of Ephesus were shouting in the theater, was looking like a bad day.

Like many of the places in which Paul was preaching, Ephesus was primarily a pagan city. It was the home of the Temple of Artemis, which was originally built in 356 B.C. and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The temple’s statue of the goddess Artemis was particularly revered, as it was believed to have fallen from the sky. So a brisk business was to be made in all things Artemis, including the miniature silver shrines made by Demetrius, a local silversmith. One day Demetrius called a meeting of local craftsmen and workers in related trades and put his case before them. If people were to believe Paul’s claim that gods made by hand were not gods at all, he warned, “The danger grows, not only that our business will be discredited, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be of no account, and that she whom the whole province of Asia and all the world worship will be stripped of her magnificence” (Acts 19:24-27).

Demetrius’ speech stirred the crowd. The people were filled with anger and began to shout, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The city fell into confusion, and the people rushed into the giant theater, taking with them Gaius and Aristarchus. The theater echoed with the confused shouts of the Ephesians: some probably shouting against Paul, some probably shouting for Artemis, and some probably shouting because everyone else was. Paul wanted to venture into the theater to address the crowd, but his disciples and friends were urging him against it.

Fortunately, Paul did not have to take the risk. After the enraged (and apparently energetic) Ephesians had been shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for about two hours, the town clerk finally stepped in, chastised the crowd for making a big hoopla over nothing, and dismissed them (Acts 19:35-40). Nevertheless, Paul seems to have gotten the message that it was time to move on. When the disturbance was over, he summoned the disciples, bade them farewell, and set out for Macedonia and Greece.

Today the great city of Ephesus is silent. No masked performers or furious silversmiths fill the immense theater with resonant voices; no torches blaze in the darkness; no sailors travel along the street leading from the harbor with the salt sea still fresh on their tongues. The downfall of this powerful city began when it was destroyed by the Goths in 263; by the 12th century, it was nothing but a small village. Its glorious past would remain largely forgotten until 1863, when the English archaeologist J.T. Wood began excavations to discover — with eventual success — if there really had been a Temple of Artemis.

Since then, only about 15 percent of the city has been excavated, of which, according to a local guide, 95 percent dates back to the first to the fourth century. Today, just about all that can be seen of the temple are its foundations. But other ruins in the city provide visitors with an impressive outline of what once was. Majestic even in ruin, the city can easily fill visitors with awe and delight, and its array of sights both impressive and amusing — from elaborate villas to public latrines to what is possibly the world’s first advertisement, popularly (although probably erroneously) associated with a brothel, invite them to conjure up the sights and sounds of the great city in its days of glory.

In the uptown portion of the ancient site, one can see ruins of the political heart of the city, including the first-century parliament building and Roman baths, ruins of an Egyptian temple, the town hall, and the Temple of Hestia, which once had an eternal flame guarded by vestal virgins. Traveling into midtown past the Heracles (Hercules) Gate and down Curetes Street, one of the main streets of the city, so many pillars and ruins remain that it is easy to imagine how bustling and full of life the street must have been in ancient times.

This is a street through which some of the most famous figures in all of history passed — Cleopatra, Marc Antony, St. John the Apostle, even the Virgin Mary herself. The houses, monuments, fountains, statues, and shops that are now only partially standing or have disappeared altogether, were once alive with the sounds of laughter and discussion, the smell of delicious meals being prepared, the spill and slap of running water, the gleam of the sun off smooth stone. Religious processions in honor of Artemis passed through here, as did horse-drawn chariots carrying their passengers to any number of the impressive buildings in the city. Wealthy Ephesians lived above the city shops in spacious, richly decorated terrace houses that boasted cold and hot running water (brought into the city by aqueducts), central heating (clay pipes beneath the floors and behind the walls carried hot air through the houses), and open-air courtyards. Today several of these beautiful villas have been excavated and may be viewed by the public.

In Paul’s time, traveling down one of the mosaic sidewalks of Curetes Street (which are still visible today) would have afforded him a view of the harbor and the bay. Over time, the harbor was lost to the silting of the nearby river, so today such a view no longer exists. What now arrests the visitor is the sight of the two-story stone façade of the Celsus Library, built in the second century and named for the Roman governor buried beneath it. The interior of the library is no more, but its riches were ranked among the greatest libraries of the age.

Traveling from Celsus Square along Marble Road, visitors approach another impressive sight — the city theater. A giant swath of stone seats set on the slope of a hill opposite Harbor Street, it was originally constructed in the third century B.C. and expanded during the Roman period. The structure is 100 feet high (above orchestra level) and seated 25,000 people who would attend plays, concerts, discussions, and gladiator and animal fights held there. On the day of the silversmith disturbance, how small Paul’s companions must have felt in such a gargantuan space, surrounded by rows of shouting, angry people. Perhaps, wanting to be anywhere but there, they looked out longingly toward Harbor Street, which led past more shops and buildings down to the harbor, the bay, and other adventures.

After the silversmith disturbance, Paul would have traveled down this street on his way back to Greece. He would never return to Ephesus; his journeys would ultimately lead to his execution in Rome under Emperor Nero. But what Paul had left behind in this city, as in many others he visited during his missionary journeys, was an inestimable legacy of faith.  CD

It is believed that the Virgin Mary lived out her final days in a small brick house in Ephesus. Read more about the house believed to be Mary's in the Catholic Digest web exclusive "A Visit to the Virgin Mary's House".


This trip was coordinated by the Catholic tour company Regina Tours and the Greek National Tourism Organization. For more information about Regina Tours, visit regina-tours.com or call 800-CATHOLIC. For more information about visiting Greece, visit gnto.gr.

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.