In Acts 19, Luke describes a frenzied riot at Ephesus, a city in the Roman province of Asia in modern-day Turkey….According to Acts, the riot would have occurred at the end of the missionary visit of Paul at Ephesus (around 55 or 56 C.E.). How accurate is Luke’s description of Ephesus at this time? In “Archaeology Gives New Reality to Paul’s Ephesus Riot” in the July/August 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, James R. Edwards, the Bruner-Welch Professor Emeritus of Theology at Whitworth University, describes how archaeological evidence fills in the historical context for Luke’s account of the riot at Ephesus (James R. Edwards, “Archaeology Gives New Reality to Paul’s Ephesus Riot,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August).
In the Roman period, Ephesus was an important commercial center. Excavations conducted by the Austrian Archaeological Institute since 1895 have shown that the ancient city—which rivaled Antioch as the third-largest city of the Roman world—boasted a harbor, various civic structures, bath complexes, a theater and the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Four times the size of the Athenian Parthenon, the famous Temple of Artemis had 127 gleaming marble columns that stood 60 feet tall and were topped with Ionic capitals. It was the Temple of Artemis, the silversmith Demetrius argued in Acts 19, that was being threatened by “the Way” (the early Christian movement) and Paul’s missionary effort. In saying that “gods made with hands are not gods” (Acts:19:27), Demetrius alleged, Paul was harming the silversmith industry that made little shrines used as dedicatory offerings to Artemis and tarnishing the reputation of the Artemis cult at Ephesus. However, a 16-line Greek inscription discovered during excavations showed that a century after the mission of Paul at Ephesus, in the late second or early third century, the silversmith trade and the cult of Artemis were still thriving.
When the anger that Demetrius incited reached a fever pitch, the rioters were said to have rushed into the city’s theater, dragging in Paul’s travel companions Gaius and Aristarchus. Excavations have uncovered the theater, which is set into a steep hillside at Ephesus. Massive in scale, the semicircular Roman theater held 25,000 seats and was one of the largest in the ancient world.
According to BAR author James R. Edwards, Luke’s account of the riot at Ephesus in Acts “contains a wealth of historical detail, some of which—proconsuls, standing courts and a city secretary—were common throughout the Roman Empire. But many more details—the immense temple commemorating the Artemis cult, the Artemis figure peculiar to Ephesus who was believed to have ‘fallen from heaven’ (Acts:19:35), guilds of silversmiths, Asiarchs and the city of Ephesus itself: its greatness, its theater and its honor as neōkoros, ‘temple guardian’—all are unique to Ephesus and the Roman province of Asia.”