A Roman writer once called Ephesus Lumen Asiae, The Light of Asia. Ephesus, with a population of 300,000, was the chief commercial city of the province and the center of the mother goddess worship of western Asia. In the New Testament era it was the fourth greatest city in the world, after Rome, Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch of Syria.
"Ephesus was the Gateway of Asia. One of its distinctions, laid down by statute, was that when the Roman proconsul came to take up office as governor of Asia, he must disembark at Ephesus and enter his province there. For all the travelers and the trade, from the Cayster and the Maeander Valleys, from Galatia, from the Euphrates and from Mesopotamia, Ephesus was the highway to Rome. In later times, when the Christians were brought from Asia to be flung to the lions in the arena in Rome, Ignatius called Ephesus the Highway of the Martyrs." (William Barclay, The Revelation Of John, Vol. 1, p. 58).
The apostle Paul first visited Ephesus on the return from his missionary journey where he "entered the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews" (Acts 18:19-21).
On his second journey, Paul came to Ephesus and taught the twelve disciples who knew only the baptism of John (Acts 19:1-7) and "went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God" (Acts 19:8). He later taught in the school of Tryannus for two years, and as a result, "all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks" (Acts 19:9-10).
Ephesus was full of wizards, sorcerers, witches, astrologers, diviners of the entrails of animals and people who could read one's fortune by the palm of the hand. And yet, after the preaching of Paul, the magicians publicly burned their books, "so the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed" (Acts 19:19-20). Timothy and Erastus were with Paul, but he sent them to Macedonia, while "he himself stayed in Asia for a time" (Acts 19:22).
At the end of his third missionary tour, in the spring of A.D. 57, Paul stopped briefly at Miletus, "for Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost" (Acts 20:16). Paul met with the elders of Ephesus at Miletus (Acts 20:17-38). In his final words to these elders he told them of his deep sorrow that they would see his face no more (Acts 20:38).
Ephesus once had a great harbor, but because of the lack of tides in the Mediterranean to clear out the debris, the harbor tended to silt up. It was probably from this harbor that Paul set sail for Macedonia after the Ephesian riot (Acts 20:1).
The main street of the city was the Arcadian Way which led from the harbor to the theater. The street was over 100 feet wide and paved with marble slabs. The street was often used for parades and ceremonies, and was flanked on either side by rows of columns 50 feet deep. The street was named in honor of the emperor Arcadius (A.D. 383-408) who enlarged and restored it. At night the street was lit by lanterns.
The great theater at Ephesus gives us some idea of the elegance of the ancient city in the time of Paul. The construction began during the reign of Claudies (A.D. 41-54) and was completed during the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98-117). This massive structure measured 495 feet in diameter and seated an estimated 25,000 people. The great uproar over Diana of the Ephesians took place here (Acts 19).
The Library of Celsus built in A.D. 135 by Julius Aguila in memory of his father, Celsus, who was a Roman senator and governor-general of the province of Asia. Here thousands of parchments and papyri were stored, protected from dampness and worms by a double wall. Estimates of the number of rolls that could be stored in the library vary from 9,500 to 12,000. Celsus was a lover of books and was given the honor of being buried, not only within the city, but in the vault of his own library among his books. On the first floor of its façade there stood four female statues representing wisdom, fortune, knowledge, and virtue.
Another important street was Curetes Street, which derived its name from the Curetes (priests), who guarded the sacred fire of the hestia (hearth) in the prytaneion. The Curetes were a college of priests attached to the service of Artemis. Many inscriptions and reliefs may be seen along the street, including a relief representing Nike, the goddess of victory, with a wreath in her left hand and a spike in the right. The most beautiful building on Curetes Street is the Temple of Hadrian (A.D. 117-138). The Fountain of Trajan (A.D. 98-117) is located on the northern end of the street -- it was dedicated to the Emperor Trajan at the end of the first century.
The Odeion in Ephesus had 22 tiers and accommodated over 1500 spectators. Here musicians played their flutes, lyres, and citharas, and poets recited from Homer.
The disturbance over Diana of the Ephesians is one of the most promintent stories in the book of Acts (Acts 19:23-41). There were 33 temples in the Greco-Roman world where Diana was worshiped. After Paul's preaching in Ephesus had harmed the local silversmiths who made stautes of Diana, Paul's companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, were dragged into the theater. The disciples would not allow Paul to go into the assembly.
"The Temple of Artemis (or Diana, according to her Roman name) at Ephesus ranked as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. As the twin sister of Apollo and the daughter of Zeus, Artemis was known variously as the moon goddess, the goddess of hunting, and the patroness of young girls. The temple at Ephesus housed the multi-breasted image of Artemis which was reputed to have come directly from Zeus (Acts 19:35). The temple of Artemis in Paul's day was supported by 127 columns, each of them 60 meters (197 feet) high. The Ephesians took great pride in this grand edifice. During the Roman period, they promoted the worship of Artemis by minting coins with the inscription, 'Diana of Ephesus.'" (Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, pp. 345-346).
The temple was four times as large as the Parthenon. Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) said the temple was constructed on marshy soil to safeguard it against earthquakes.
"For over a thousand years this goddess with her temple provided a focal point for the rich religious, economic, and cultural life of her worshippers. Now hardly one stone can be seen of one of the most famous buildings in the world, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Built on marshy ground not far from the Cayster River, it arose on a site occupied from time to time by several temples of which at least one dates from pre-Greek days. It faced west, toward the sea and the setting sun. Pliny the Younger tells us that the columns in front of the temple were carved with notable events in the life of the Greeks and that the statue of Artemis stood in the inner sanctuary. Some of the statuary from this temple is displayed in the New Hofburg Museum in Vienna. This temple was the first in the world to be constructed entirely of marble." (Everett Blake and Anna Edmonds, Biblical Sites In Turkey, p. 119).
"After years of archeological research the ruins of the temple were discovered in 1877 by J. T. Wood. The platform on which the temple stood was 418 by 239 feet, and the temple itself was 342 by 163 feet and had over one hundred columns supporting its roof." (Homer Hailey, Revelation, An Introduction And Commentary, p. 120).
The Hellenistic temple which Paul saw was destroyed in A.D. 262.
"The original temple of Diana crumbled into the dust many centuries ago. It was rebuilt and became one of the seven wonders of the world. It was to this temple Alexander came. The Macedonian wanted his name carved on one of the 127 pillars. He offered all the riches of his eastern campaign for the privilege. The city fathers turned down the offer. But nobody refused Alexander. The Ephesians did. They talked him into a calm acceptance by saying 'If we put the name of another god on her temple it will upset her.' So the mightiest mortal on earth couldn't even buy the privilege to have his name on a pillar in the temple of a god. Years later Paul wrote to a group of Ephesians telling them they were the temple (not of a god) but of the Almighty God." (Jim McGuiggan, The Book Of Revelation, p. 44).
"The goddess who had largely given Ephesus its wealth and importance -- so that it was a kind of Lourdes of the ancient world -- was at the core of so much human thinking. She derived from those early manifestations of religious belief, the mother-goddess figures to be found from Asia Minor to the Cyclades, and westward to Sicily. The embodiment of the female principle, she represented not only fertility but resurrection in the shape of new birth, the eternal return of life to the earth and, as found in a number of early carvings, the 'Tree of Life'. As Isis she bore the divine son, Horus; and as Artemis she was the Mother of Wild Things, the goddess of all animals. The Isis-Artemis conception embraced everything. It could be taken at any level; from the simple peasant's conception of the divinity who would ensure that his beasts and land were fruitful, to the intellectual idea of an all-creating mother who sustained the whole universe." (Ernle Bradford, Paul The Traveler, pp. 194-195).
Although Luke does not mention Paul being imprisoned while in Ephesus, Paul himself told the church at Corinth, "For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves..." (2 Cor. 1:8-9). On another occasion he spoke of his fight "with beasts at Ephesus" (1 Cor. 15:32).
Near the end of the first century our Lord said of the Christians in Ephesus, "I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars" (Rev. 2:2).
"A city of such prominence as Ephesus, located on a world thoroughfare, was bound to get its share of false teachers, even men claiming to be apostles. In an age when we pride ourselves in tolerance and compromise, this attitude might appear bigoted and intolerant. Bigoted, no; intolerant, yes, but an intolerance commended by the Lord. Churches would do well today to follow such a course with their intellectually oriented teachers and leaders who pervert truth and make boastful claims for their own human wisdom. John approved the practice of proving all spirits (I John 4:1)." (Hailey, Revelation, An Introduction And Commentary, p. 121).