Ephesus was a truly exceptional city by almost any measure. The very name 'Ephesos' means 'desirable'. It had a harbor and road system that made it the most accessible city in Asia. The climate was exceptionally fine and the soil was exceptionally fertile. Under Roman rule it shared governance of Asia with Pergamos and although Pergamos was theoretically the true center of power the natural advantages of Ephesus tended to make it the greater city. However, despite its' geographical, geological, political, social and climatic advantages the true strength of Ephesus lay in its' religion. It was the home of the Temple of Diana; one of the eight wonders of the world.
In addition to the exceptional nature of its' secular heritage Ephesus appears to have been the place where Paul chose to focus the largest single portion of his ministry. He labored there longer than any other and he appears to go to some length to communicate with the people there; even summoning the elders when passing nearby. In later years other key church leaders and most notably John appear to have felt Ephesus was the place where they should focus their efforts.
In order to fully understand the nature of Paul's ministry at Ephesus we need to have some understanding of the conditions he labored under their and the people he labored to and with. The aim of this paper is therefore to dig a little into the nature of Ephesus in and around the time that Paul labored there in the middle of the first century AD. My primary resource is the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia although I shall also dig into Albert Barnes and the American Tract Society Dictionary when appropriate.
One other point to note for anyone embarking upon an understanding of Ephesus is that some of the earlier worthies formed an opinion of it that was based upon an incomplete or erroneous understanding of some of the changes in the region. In particular Albert Barnes comments that Ephesus did not have the commercial advantages of a place such as Smyrna which result in it languishing into disrepair. In fact older sources focus heavily upon the meager state to which the city had fallen by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The fact is that Ephesus had had a magnificent deep water harbor; however it was an artificial harbor formed by dredging. As time progressed the Ephesians stopped dredging and the harbor silted up. This effectively destroyed one of Ephesus' two major commercial advantages.
The other primary commercial advantage of Ephesus was also destroyed by a slow process of attrition but on this occasion it was almost certainly Christianity rather than sand that led to the cities demise. Ancient Ephesus was built upon the cult and temple of Diana, sometimes called Artemis. This magnificent wonder dominated the skyline and was one of the principle financial cornerstones that made the city great. It was also the home of a licentious pagan religion and as such it was entirely incompatible with the Christian faith that blossomed in Ephesus. Praise Be to God that Christianity won. When the temple burned to the ground for the seventh time in 262AD no-one cared enough to have it rebuilt. By 341AD Ephesus had become the home of a Christian council.
Notwithstanding its' eventual demise the Temple that Paul approached and near which the addressees of Ephesians dwelt was formidable structure. Its' predecessor had been burnt on the night when Alexander the Great was born in 356BC. He offered to replace it but the Ephesians chose to do so themselves. In total it took 220 years to build with assistance from many of the Greek states. The result was a building some 425ft by 220ft and 60 feet in height and containing 127 pillars.
However it was not just the direct physical presence of the Temple itself that made it formidable. It was also believed to be an incredibly sturdy building; so much so that the vaults of it were used to store the wealth of the surrounding peoples. This led to it becoming the banking center of Asia and it grew to acquire much valuable land and controlled the fishing industry of the area. Much as London is able to thrive as the financial center of the World the temple of Diana was the center of religious and financial life and thus wealth naturally flowed into it.
The temple was also a center for the fine arts, essentially a museum where some of the finest statuary and paintings could be seen. It was also home to a thriving 'religious industry' catering to the needs to those visiting the temple but also providing images and shrines of Diana that could be purchased and taken away. It was the silversmiths of this group that first raised the alarm as to the damage that the new idolatry opposed Christian religion was doing to the cult of Diana.
The other significant effect of the temple was on the lawlessness of Ephesus. The Temple of Diana was a sanctuary. No-one could be taken for any crime whatsoever within a bow-shot of the temple. The surrounding districts therefore became a haven for criminals of every shape and form. We should also assume that as Diana was a fertility goddess that the temple also had a rich trade in prostitution although it was probably of a more refined and less obvious character than the trade promulgated by places such as Corinth.
Moving from the tangible it is interesting to reflect a little upon the nature of the people in Ephesus. The position of Albert Barnes and it appears reasonable is that the fineness of the climate and geography, the wealth and the tendency of the temple towards refinement produced a type of person that was adapted towards ease, indulgence and possibly even effeminacy. It was not quite the ribald debauchery of Corinth or the bloody viciousness of Rome but in its' own way it was still utterly antithetic to the Christian gospel. That said Paul does state he fought wild beasts there and whilst there is a tendency to 'metaphor' that notation away Ephesus did have a 25,000 seat amphitheatre that was used for that form of blood sport. It is quite possible that Roman refinement was a little gorier than we might consider today.
In considering the Book of the Ephesians we should thus be looking for a rich, ancient and proud people. A people that are used to refinement and ease, not overly philosophical as much Asian as Greek. Not a particularly militaristic state but one which was used to diplomacy and negotiation to rise to the top. Above all we are looking at a people whose prior religion had been state endorsed and sponsored and extremely profitable. These were people that had to leave behind what they had if they were to follow the new religion. We know that they did this, at least initially and the letter should show us how they progressed and continued.