Biblical Riot at Ephesus: The Archaeological Context

Archaeology shines light on the riot against Paul at Ephesus


This Roman theater played an important role in the riot at Ephesus against Paul and the early Christians, according to Luke’s account in Acts 19. Photo: Jordan Pickett.

In Acts 19, Luke describes a frenzied riot at Ephesus, a city in the Roman province of Asia in modern-day Turkey:

About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way. A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. These he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said, “Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business. You also see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.”

When they heard this, they were enraged and shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The city was filled with the confusion; and people rushed together to the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s travel companions. Paul wished to go into the crowd, but the disciples would not let him; even some officials of the province of Asia, who were friendly to him, sent him a message urging him not to venture into the theater. (Acts 19:23–31)


The so-called Beautiful Artemis statue was one of four statues of Artemis excavated at Ephesus in 1956. Measuring 5.7 feet tall, the statue dates to the Hadrianic–early Antonine periods (c. 117–150 C.E.). On either side of Artemis are female deer, and the zodiac signs appear on her upper chest. Rows of oval pendants—possibly representing bulls’ scrota—hang from her chest. These attributes, according to BAR author James R. Edwards, may represent “Artemis’s ultimate trophies in taming and subjugating the quintessential symbols of virility.” According to the silversmith Demetrius in Acts 19, the mission of Paul at Ephesus threatened the reputation of Artemis’s cult. Photo: Jordan Pickett.

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.

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.

In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.

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.”


To the right, one can see the single column that remains from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the massive temple was the largest building in the Hellenistic world. Photo: Jordan Pickett.

Explore more of the archaeology that shines new light on Luke’s account—from statues of the goddess Artemis to inscriptions and monumental building remains—by reading the full article “Archaeology Gives New Reality to Paul’s Ephesus Riot” by James R. Edwards in the July/August 2016 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Archaeology Gives New Reality to Paul’s Ephesus Riot” by James R. Edwards in the July/August 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Destroying a Temple: The burning of the Ephesian Temple of Artemis by Herostratus by Mark Wilson

Paul’s First Missionary Journey through Perga and Pisidian Antioch

Galatians 3:28—Neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male and Female by Karin Neutel

The Quest for the Historical Paul by James Tabor

Barnabas: An Encouraging Early Church Leader by Robin Gallaher Branch

Visiting Turkey: Museums of Archaeology Dazzle by Mark Wilson

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on July 14, 2016.


9 Responses

  1. Kevin says:

    Re: archaeological evidence for the riot .
    There is none .
    No archaeological excavations could prove such a thing happened.
    As for descriptions of theatre matching whats written, all of them were very similar throughout the empire.

  2. Rob Palmer says:

    Our largest building is the Boeing Assembly plant at Everett Washington, where I used to be a real estate salesman. (Note: Do not take a client out there on Tuesday morning when a new 747 was rolled out and all four engines were started for the first time. Client: “Oh, gracious, am I going to have to listen to that all the time?”) Undesputably our building is more practical, however, since it leads to the cashier’s check for the plane before it leaves the country. At that time Boeing was the major exporter.

  3. robis says:

    Interesting article

  4. Ruth Bard says:

    One of the “seven wonders of the ancient world,” and look at it now. Sic transit gloria mundi. Only eternity matters.

  5. Gil T says:

    The focus of Acts 19 hardly seems to be the great theater. The focus continues to be as obscure and lost to the saints in Christ like what the silt from the Cayster river buried for centuries.

    The truth is that Yahweh was to the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea what Artemis was to the Gentiles at Ephesus and Asia. Artemis was not a casual, curious novelty which the Holy Spirit saw fit to introduce to us in Acts 19. Yet, the Sunday morning Bible class presenter never has much more for the saints than some low grade porn about pagan temples and sexual immorality.

    Paul wrote five letters, six if Titus, who was in Crete off the southwestern coast of Asia, is included, to individuals and churches in Asia. Just one belief which was common about Asia was that she was the savior of women through childbirthing.

    It may be true that the “indiscriminate” use of the term “savior” to the emperor cult are more in number than references to Jesus as savior in the New Testament. However, what the scriptures contain and teach is not valued or gauged by where or how many times it appears in the scriptures. Paul asserted that Jesus is the savior, not just of men or of women, but of mankind. (I Timothy 2) (note: The references by Paul to creation/childbirth are similarly related to Artemis and her own birth.)

  6. ibiok fortune says:

    May the religious criminals and mutilators never bring themselves here to cause confusions/douts to them that share with us the deep truths of decades past through archeology.

  7. DavicC says:

    Archeology is constantly proving the Biblical accounts are true.

  8. Kathleen Dixon says:

    Before you mention the obvious, I do recognize the difference between a Roman church and a temple dedicated to Artemis.

  9. Kathleen Dixon says:

    Personally I wish his disciples had let him enter the crowd. I would have welcomed, and wish I could have witnessed, his interaction with those gathered. Further I wonder what Paul would have to say about our churches, full of statues, including a huge cross with the “corpus” displayed on many of them? Admittedly, as a woman, I have never been a fan of Paul.

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