Ephesus - A Historical background

Historical Background

The continent of Asia Minor, which is now called Turkey, rests between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. It is considered the continent where the East meets the West, linking the continents of Europe with the Far East.


Within Asia Minor were several provinces that were separated by high steep mountain ranges with narrow passes that connects its interior. The far west end of Asia Minor was the Province of Asia, or often called Phyrgia in the New Testament. At the very lowest sea level area was a valley once called the Lycos Valley. Within that valley were several cities – the main one being the coastal city of Ephesus. (Many of these cities can be read about in the Book of Revelation.) From the top of the interior mountains came deep ravines that were formed by rivers flowing down, in which cities were build wherever there were plateaus. These cities became vital for trade and commerce to the people in these mountains ranges and valleys.

The main river that flowed down from the mountains was called the Cayster River, often called the Meander, because it meandered and broke off into several rivers as the ravines of the mountains multiplied. The main trunk of the river flowed all the way to the coastline of Ephesus and then out through its port into the Aegean Sea, which was a bay of the Mediterranean Sea.

The port city of Ephesus

In the 1st century, the Roman government designated Ephesus as the capital of Asia Minor. Part of the reason was its protected harbor, and it was an excellent stopover for trading on route to many parts of the world.

Ships traveled back and forth from Italy, Greece, and other parts of the known world bringing goods to supply the local cities throughout the Lycos Valley and up into the mountains cities of Phyrgia. They also collected goods to bring to other parts of the world as well. As a port city, Ephesus was an excellent city of trade.

Understanding culture through Jewish roots

To understand the culture of the people during the period of time when the Apostle Paul preached and wrote the letter to the churches at Ephesus, we need to do deeper into Jewish history to discover the religious culture of earlier times.

In 722 B.C. the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the brutal Assyrians - their eastern neighbors. As Assyria set out to conquer the known world of that time, and becomes its power, the surviving Jews in the Northern Kingdom were taken into captivity into Assyria. There they were brutally treated as slaves of the Assyrian nation. The Assyrians were polytheistic in their religious beliefs – in other words, they served many gods. The concept of “one God,” like that of the Jewish religion, was foreign to the Assyrians, and it was becoming foreign to many Jews. God had warned His people through the prophets that if they continued to follow after other gods, not serving the God and Him only, they would lose their land of promise. That is exactly what happened. They lost their temple for sacrifice and worship, and they ended up in a foreign land, under foreign rulership, and the God of the fathers had all seemingly disappeared. Only a remnant remained faithful, even during captivity.

In 583 B.C., the Babylonians captured over the Assyrian territory and became the world power. Judah (the southern end of Israel) was captured by the Babylonians, and its survivors were taken to Babylonia as captives. Only the poor and destitute were allowed to wander in Jerusalem, which had turned into a war-zoned city of destruction. God had warned Judah through His prophets, just like He had with the northern kingdom, that if they followed after other gods, they would lose their land and be destroyed.

Like the Assyrians, the Babylonians were polytheistic in their religious beliefs, and the Jews became exiled into a foreign land, under foreign rule, surrounded by foreign gods. Only a remnant remained faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They, however, no longer had their temple where they could worship and sacrifice to the “one true God.” That was destroyed. The Babylonians allowed the Jews to live in their own Jewish communities throughout Babylonia while in exile. There small pockets of faithful Jews gathered to worship their God. It was during this time where synagogues were established.

In 538 B.C. the Persians conquered over the Babylonians. The realm of world power kept growing as the Persians conquered more territory. Like the Assyrians and the Babylonians before them, the Persians were also polytheistic in their beliefs. They, however, were more tolerant of other religious beliefs. As a result, the Jewish exile ended, and the Jews were allowed to go back home to their homeland. They, however, were allowed to go in groups – three groups in all. They could go home and worship as they desired; however, their control would still be under Persia. Since many generations had passed since their time of exile, many had blended themselves in the culture of the captors, and most of them chose not to go back to Israel. Many either stayed in Babylon or Assyria or migrated over the centuries to other known parts of the world, looking for a new start in life – better living conditions, religious freedom, and a place to call home.

The road to Ephesus

A royal road had been built by the Persians to run from Susa (Persia’s capital) to the coastal city of Ephesus. It had become a gateway to and from the interior of Asia Minor. Small pockets of Jewish immigrants traveled across Asia Minor and either over the mountains on the royal road through the passes, which was also the trade route, even as far as Ephesus, or around the seacoast of the Black Sea to the Aegean coastline and then down looking for better opportunities for living.

Around 350 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered the known world of the Persians, which by now were primarily the countries that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea. Alexander did something other world conquerors had not done. He was not tolerant of any other culture or religion, so to unite his empire by forcing the Greek culture on all of his conquered. His conquered was primarily the territories that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea, and at that time was referred to as the known world. He “hellenized” his conquered territories with the Greek culture, which included its change in language to the Greek, a forced belief in the hundreds of Greek gods, and the taking on of the Greek philosophy way of life. Eventually, this hellenization became a way of life for the people of the known world. They became Greek in all aspects of life. The coastal area of the Province of Asia in Asia Minor, which was directly across the Aegean Sea from Greece was most definitely caught up in this cultural change.

Changing a culture to the Greek way of life – its language, gods, and philosophy of life.

In 67 B.C. the Romans conquered over the Greeks. The known world, now known as the Roman Empire, by this time, however, was so saturated in hellenization. Rome, as the now seat of power was no different. The Romans spoke Greek, carried the philosophy of the Greeks, and believed in many gods; however, they had different names for their gods. Thus, new names for the same gods came into being. Their hundreds, maybe even thousands of gods were the same – they just had Roman names instead of Greek. Thus began the Greco/Roman culture.

The City of Ephesus

It is now about 53 A.D. (about 100 years after the conquering of the Romans) in Asia Minor, along the seacoast port of Ephesus . The local population of this large port city was around 250,000 people when the Apostle Paul came on his 2nd and 3rd missionary journeys. The culture was a conglomerate of ethnic people; however, most were Gentiles of various cultures having a Greek heritage, ruled under Roman power.

Ephesus was a rich, pampered city steeped in Greek culture. Mystic worship of the gods, especially women goddesses and magic infiltrated the Lycos Valley of the Province of Asia. Each city, particularly the large cities, generally had their own patron deity of gods.

The Agoras

Ephesus had two main marketplaces which were called the “Agora.” The smaller one was in lower Ephesus down near the harbor mouth. The larger one, about the size of 4 football fields and similar to a town square, was in upper Ephesus at the end of Harbor Street through the gates into the city. In the Apostle Paul's day, this area was the center of civic life with government offices and imperial shrines surrounding the town square. Here small shops, inside and out, and goods were sold, and political and social issues were discussed. Often you could find the Apostle Paul preaching amongst the people at one of the Agora.

The world capital for slave labor

Slave labor was common place throughout Asia Minor, but especially in Ephesus. Slave owners came from across Asia Minor to buy and sell their slaves. This information becomes important when we learn how the Apostle Paul addressed slaves and their masters in his letters throughout the Lycos Valley.

The Island of Patmos

The Island of Patmos, where the Apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation, was only 60 miles west of Ephesus, out in the Aegean Sea. Patmos was a desolate rock island filled with rock quarries that was meant for exiled (and often abandoned) rebellious slaves or political rebellers. It was also a place for punishment for Christians who refused to bow down to the emperor, acknowledging him as a god. The Apostle John ended up on this rock island for one year around the year 90 A.D. for not bowing down to the emperor as a god. It wasn’t until a new emperor came into power was he released to go back home to Ephesus.

The Great Amphitheater

On the side of Mt. Pion, was the Great Theater . Built in 50 A.D. as an amphitheater, just 2 years before Paul’s first visit to Ephesus, it housed 25,000 spectators. Here is where plays, outdoor sport activities, including gladiator fighting, were done for the amusement of the people.

The acoustics were so good that one in the top row could easily hear the speaking that went on down in the arena.


Harbor Road and entrance into the city

All along both sides of Harbor Street were statues of the various Greek and Roman gods, as well as statues of the Roman emperors who considered themselves as gods. At the Harbor Gate were large Roman public baths and pools. Roman baths were public, and part of every Roman city, to provide places for not only bathing, but for socializing. Public communal bathrooms were “open air” latrines above the river that flowed out into the sea.

As one entered into the gates of the city, there were footprints molded into the stones on the road, directed men to the left and right to the various brothels in the city.

Religion in Ephesus

As was stated earlier, each large city throughout Asia Minor had a patron god or goddess. Ephesus was no different. Ephesus was steeped in goddess religion, having as its main goddess – the goddess of fertility. She was identified with the Greek goddess Artemis, the virgin huntress – except the Romans called her Diana – the fertility goddess.


Religion centered on the worship of Diana, of which was funded (and profited) by the state, meaning the Roman Empire. Grecian and Roman legend has it that Artemis was the daughter of Zeus (the #1 Greek god) and his mistress Leto. As the daughter of Zeus, Artemis was considered the mother of all gods and considered a goddess. She was a very popular in Greece, and at Ephesus, she took the Roman name of Diana. Archaeologists have discovered statues depicting her with many breasts. Other legends state that it was not breasts but bull testicles that were given to her for worship.

The temple of Artemis

The temple of Artemis was made of marble -regarded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. A statue of Diana was supposed to have stood in the center of the temple. It was destroyed at least seven times and rebuilt just as many. It stood outside the city of Ephesus and attracted visitors from all over the world. Male eunich priests took care of the needs and practical things of the temple.


The ritual of the temple services consisted of sacrifices and ceremonial prostitution – a practice which was common to many religions of ancient Asia. Ceremonial prostitution was common in the temple as young maidens were required to sell their virginity and give the profits to the temple. In addition, temple prostitutes were seen throughout who supplied sex to whomever paid the money to give to the temple. It was believed that the gods required their sacrifices of sex and other observances; otherwise, they would be angry and take their wrath out on the people as a whole. It was also believed that their sacrifices to this goddess Diana would bring fertility and what they considered would develop into “good sex.”

Travelers from all over came – across land and from the sea. As a result, prostitution was rampant throughout the city, especially in the temple and down at the brothels at the harbor gate. Adultery was common and homosexuality was openly accepted. Ephesus was a hotbed for sexual immorality.

This made Ephesus a targeted place for the Apostle Paul to evangelize the Gospel of Christ.

Temple marketing and banking

Along with temple worship through sex pleasures, the temple also served as a marketplace and bank facility. People came from all over to purchase portable idols and shrines of Diana to take with them wherever they went. The temple priests (or eunuchs) served as bankers to issue receipts for the travelers’ purchases. Gold and silver were also deposited at the temple as a bank from merchants and tourists.

The main industry in Ephesus

Ephesus’ main industry was silversmithing, and their main product was the casting of the goddess Diana and other gods or goddesses. The locals had large statues of Diana displayed in their gardens and in their homes. Images of her were also worn as jewelry. In addition, travelers purchased little statuettes of her to carry in their travel bag.

Archeological excavations have even reveals earrings, bracelets, and necklaces of little statues of the goddess.

The ministry of the Apostle Paul

Amongst all of this immorality in the valley, resided a few small pockets of Jewish communities. Judaism, having a belief in one god and behavior of Godly moral and values were certainly different from that of the Gentile population of Ephesus and the surrounding cities. As protection, and a feeling of belongedness, the Jews found themselves sticking closely to one another.

Christianity first entered Ephesus through the ministry of Apollos

The Apostle Paul met Apollos on his second missionary journey just prior to 52 A.D. - according to the Book of Acts (18:19-21). It was, however, just a stopover on his way to Antioch, Syria to visit churches he had established in Galatia and Phrygia. On Paul’s 3rd missionary journey he returned to Ephesus and there he and his traveling companions settled down for the next 2 ½ years to conduct ministry (Acts 18).

The first place the Apostle Paul always went to in every city that he and his co-workers who traveled with him was at the Jewish synagogues. With Christianity having its roots in Judaism, it was only natural that he would find a place of commonality at the synagogues. There, at least, the people believed in one god – not hundreds or thousands of gods like the Gentiles. Here the apostle met up again with Apollos who had been faithfully witnessing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Jewish community and the pagan Gentiles of Ephesus. Here Paul also met a native of Ephesus by the name of Timothy who became a believer and close companion to him throughout the rest of his life.

The School of the Way

Paul preached in the synagogues for 3 months until he and his co-workers were thrown out of the synagogue by the Jewish leaders for preaching Jesus. Paul then established a Christian school called “The Way” at the hall of Tyrannus. The school of Tyrannus, a Gentile school, always closed its doors at 11:00 A.M. because of the heat. The people throughout the city generally slept away the heat until the evening hours. It was during the heat of the day (from 11:00 – 4:00 P.M.) that Paul was able to rent the hall to teach the Word of God to those who would come to listen and receive. In spite of the heat, he still drew crowds of people while he preached the Word of God. After 4:00 in the afternoon, Paul went from house to house to minister to the believers of Ephesus or witness in the marketplace down at the Agora. In the evenings and up to 11:00 P.M. Paul went about his business as a tentmaker and leather worker to earn support for himself and his companions and get money to pay the rent for the hall while the city went about its business and religious practices to the goddess Diana.

The establishment of house churches

The Apostle Paul established several house churches in Ephesus that often congregated as one church together in a larger building for worship and celebration together from time to time. With Ephesus as their base of operation, Paul and his co-workers in Christ spread the Christian Gospel into the adjacent cities and regions throughout the valley. When the apostle left the valley, he put Timothy in charge over the Church (house churches). There Timothy continued the ministry in Ephesus.

On Paul’s 4th missionary journey he stopped briefly in Ephesus to say goodbye. Scripture shows that the Apostle left was briefly in Ephesus and was later sent to Rome where he was eventually martyred.

Why did the Apostle Paul write the Epistle of Ephesians?

As Christianity grew in Ephesus, following the departure of the Apostle Paul in around 55-56 A.D., a form of cultic beliefs came into being – the first beings Docetism, which was the early form of Gnosticism, having its Greek meaning of Knowledge. It is almost a certainty that whenever you put two or more cultures together, the blending of religious beliefs happens. Christianity in Ephesus was no different. As a result, Christianity became distorted with the blending of the teachings of the Apostle Paul (who taught the Gospel of Christ) and the Gentile pagan religion of Ephesus, which was the belief that Diana was the mother goddess. Combined with all of the other thousands of gods, Christianity started to become distorted, and it was spreading throughout the valley in the Province of Asia.

No written record of truth

We must keep in mind that the people, including Timothy, who was given charge over the churches in Ephesus, did not have a Bible in hand like you and I have today to keep ourselves on track. These new believers may have had, to a small degree, the Hebrew Old Testament as a basis, but those were primarily in the hands of the Jews at their synagogues. The more time expanded, the greater the distance came between the Jews and Christians, so it was not hopeful that these new believers had any Scriptures at all in hand. We must also remember, that while some of the Gospels were written at this time, they were written to Jewish Christians, and those writings were probably not floating around the valley, way over in Asia Minor. What these people had were the memories of the teachings that the Apostle Paul taught them those 2 ½ years while he ministered there at the School of The Way and what Timothy could reiterate to them from his memory.

Warnings and exhortation of written truth

There is no record of Paul’s teaching to the School of the Way. Paul left those verbal teachings in the hands of Timothy who had become the pastor of the church(es) of Ephesus, who from his memory kept trying to instill deeper within the new believers what that truth was. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy in around 62 A.D. with warnings as a pastor to not talk about the endless genealogies like that of the cults, who were famous for making up (1 Tim 1:4). The Apostle Paul also warned Timothy in 1 Tim 6:20 that he was to counterattack the falsely beliefs of the so called knowledge (Gnosis in Greek) heresy that was so prevalent at Ephesus. Because cultism was beginning to overtake the valley, the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the churches in Ephesus in about 62 A.D. to help the people get back on track. The Book of Ephesus was mean to counteract the many beliefs of the Greek Gnostics and emphasize the truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We now have the basis of what brought the Apostle Paul to write to the Church at Ephesus. It was critical to him to warn them of the cultism that was overshadowing the truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ whom he had preached to them so faithfully just a few years prior. While in prison, Paul wrote to the various churches in the valley as warnings and exhortations, and these letters became circulation letters as a witness of truth. These circulation letters were exchanged with one another to keep them in truth. These letters became critical to the Church.

Sometime later, the Apostle John came to the valley to continue on with the ministry and give Timothy a hand in keeping to the truth. With him, he brought Mary, the mother of Jesus. There they both resided and lived out the rest of their lives.

The warning of Jesus to Ephesus

Most cults eventually end up tragically. The large metropolis of Ephesus was no different. Jesus warned the Church at Ephesus in the book of Revelation, chapter 3, that they would be destroyed IF they did not leave their wickedness. He said – “remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent” and do the things you did at first” – meaning following the true Gospel of Jesus Christ as was preached by the Apostle Paul. If not, Jesus stated, they would be destroyed. Sadly, the whole metropolis of Ephesus was destroyed, and today remains a marshy small Turkish fishing village.

Holding onto truth

Holding onto truth is critical to our foundation of Christianity. Truth can never be counteracted by a lie – even to the smallest degree. Whenever lies, even slight, enter into Christianity, eventually those lies build to create false doctrines.

False doctrines have become prevalent in the Church throughout history. We have, however, the Word of God to point us to truth. Truth is not something you learn once or twice and then it stays within you for the rest of your life. Truth is something that should be taught over and over again throughout one’s lifetime to become part of one's character.

The first three chapters of Ephesians is doctrinal – it gives us the truths of who Jesus was and what He has done for us, showing us the blessings that belong to the Church. The last three chapters are written to know how to conduct one’s life on a daily basis in light of the truths of the Gospel. These wonderful truths should be taught to our children as a way of life. It should be taught to adults over and over again to learn what is truth and what is a lie. The Book of Ephesians is a book of Scripture that helps one change bad habits into godly ones. The Book of Ephesians is a critical letter that is written to the Church.