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Paul and the riots in Ephesus through recent archaeological discoveries

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Amphitheater in Ephesus at Selcuk, Turkey, on Dec 5, 2015. Ephesus is an UNESCO World Heritage place of Roman Era.

Amphitheater in Ephesus at Selcuk, Turkey, on Dec 5, 2015. Ephesus is an UNESCO World Heritage place of Roman Era.

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According to Acts 19:8-10, the apostle Paul spent more than two years in Ephesus during the A.D. 50s. Situated near the coast of today’s Turkey, Ephesus was a significant seaport at the time. It was also the capital of Roman Asia, with a population of roughly 200,000 (which ranked it among the largest cities of the Roman Empire). Accordingly, it provided an excellent base of operations for Paul’s apostolic ministry.

Until the unfortunate recent disturbances in Turkey interfered, Ephesus was also a favorite destination for modern tourists and cruise ships. Systematic work over the past 121 years by the Austrian Archaeological Institute has made it the best-excavated archaeological site in Turkey (which boasts many spectacular sites); visitors can stroll through an entire ancient city, walking a main street once visited by emperors and early apostles. And one of the most notable features of Ephesus is its magnificent and well-preserved 25,000-seat Greco-Roman theater.

Ephesus is fascinating, in archaeological and touristic terms. Adding to its interest, however, is the fact that one of the most dramatic stories in the New Testament occurred there, and that the setting of that story is still clearly visible.

According to Acts 19:23-41, a wealthy silversmith in Ephesus named Demetrius conjured up a riot against Paul and some of his missionary associates. Their preaching, said Demetrius, attuning his rhetoric to traditional Ephesian values as well as to Ephesian fears and insecurities, was a threat to the wealth and prestige of the great temple of Diana or Artemis — which, according to most ancient lists, was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Not coincidentally, it was also a threat to the income of local silversmiths, who sold “silver shrines” of the goddess to the many pilgrims who visited that temple. Paul, though, dangerously taught that “they be no gods, which are made with hands” (see Acts 19:26).

“Enraged,” says the Western text of Acts (which is approximately 10 percent longer than the Alexandrian text that modern translations typically use), Demetrius’ audience “ran into the street.” Others, perhaps not even understanding what was afoot, joined the mob, which grabbed some of Paul’s companions and hauled them into the theater.

In this connection, an interesting article by James Edwards, titled “Archaeology Gives New Reality to Paul’s Ephesus Riot,” appears in the July/August issue of the excellent magazine Biblical Archaeology Review. I cite just a few of the article’s points:

In 1984, a 3.5-foot monument was discovered on the street that connects the theater of Ephesus with the city’s ancient stadium. Dating to the late second or early third century, the monument was dedicated to one Valerius Festus by the guild of Ephesian silversmiths — the very group that, slightly more than a century before, had played a central role in the riot described by Luke in Acts 19.

The inscription on the monument contains language that’s reminiscent of the account in Acts. When, for instance, in Acts 19:35, the “townclerk” (as the King James Version calls him) speaks of Ephesus as the “temple keeper” or “temple guardian” (King James: “worshiper”) of the goddess Artemis (King James: “Diana”), he uses a Greek term (“neokoros”), almost unique to Ephesus, that also appears in the silversmiths’ monument.

The King James phrase “certain of the chief of Asia” (Acts 19:31) translates an original Greek clause (“certain of the Asiarchs”) that uses a word (“Asiarkhoi”) found nowhere else in the New Testament but prominent in inscriptions throughout the ruins of Ephesus. One of the “Asiarchs” appearing in the inscriptional evidence is also called a “secretary” or “grammataeus,” which is the same word that Luke uses in Acts 19:35 for the “townclerk” (as the King James translation renders it) who manages to still the crowd and dismiss them from the theater.

This “grammateus” warns the mob against their unlawful assembly (19:32, 39, 40), using the word “ekklesia.” Everywhere else in the New Testament, “ekklesia” means “church.” Here, though, it conveys the classical Greek sense of a secular meeting, just as we might expect a pagan Roman official to use it.

In 1890, William Ramsay, a leading authority in his day on the history and geography of Asia Minor, argued (refuting a critic who dismissed Acts 19 as fiction) that Luke’s account of Paul’s riot is “vivid and true to the situation and surroundings.”

Today, says Edwards, Ramsay’s words are even more justified. And Luke’s claim to have thoroughly investigated what he recounts in Luke-Acts passes yet another test.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.