Acts 19 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Resources » Commentaries » Acts » Chapter 19 » exegesis

Witness at Ephesus: Facing Opposition

An anthropologist studying the effects of Christianity on an Amazonian tribe may ask, "Does Christianity kill culture?" Demetrius, the Ephesian craftsman in silver, his colleagues and the Ephesian populace would say "Yes!" But just what effects does Christianity have when introduced into a culture? Luke wants Theophilus, his contemporaries and us to find answers in the account of the riot at Ephesus.A Craftsman's Complaint (19:23-27)

With an indefinite time marker (compare 12:1) and by way of general statement, Luke introduces the last recorded episode of the Christian Gentile mission in the book of Acts. The incident is probably near the end of Paul's ministry at Ephesus (see 20:1). A great disturbance arises concerning the Way (12:18; 17:6-8, 13). The gospel's continued spread throughout Asia, not just Paul's witness, is at issue here (19:10, 20). Christianity is a way of life, a new belief system with a new Lord at the center, and a new set of mores and behavior patterns--in short, a new culture. Because every culture survives through the dynamic of coercive conformity, the presence of a new way, which claims to be "the Way," will by definition create a disturbance.

The catalyst for the disturbance is Demetrius, a manufacturer of silver shrines of Artemis. These were plaques, silver reliefs of the goddess within her temple. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has a second/first-century B.C. bronze matrix of Artemis in her temple (Reeder 1987). It is the form into which a sheet of silver or bronze was pressed to make such a plaque. Once dedicated in the Great Temple of Artemis, these would serve local worshipers and pilgrims as votive offerings, family worship centers, amulets or just souvenirs.

The Anatolian "Great Mother" was identified by Greek settlers with the Greek Artemis--virgin huntress, goddess of wild animals, wild nature, chastity and childbirth. It is difficult to discern which of her three roles--mother goddess, fertility goddess or nature goddess--was primary in the minds of first-century devotees (LaSor 1979b:306; Arnold 1989:26). Details of her statue, however, do reveal the powers attributed to her. The multiple bulbous objects on her chest have been variously interpreted: are they "breasts, bee eggs, ostrich eggs, steer testicles, grapes, nuts, acorns"? They point to her role as a goddess of fertility (Arnold 1989:25). The dreadful animals on her skirt show she has the power over them and is able to deliver from fear, since she is the supreme "ghost goddess." The signs of the zodiac around her neck show she can mediate between her followers and the cruel fate that dogs them. Indeed, she possesses authority and power superior to astrological fate (Arnold 1989:25, 21). In sum, Artemis had unsurpassed cosmic power. She was called Savior, Lord, Queen of the Cosmos and heavenly goddess. Each year in March or April, Ephesus hosted the monthlong festival Artemisa, a time of carnival and religious celebration. Pilgrims flocked from all over the Empire to participate in the impressive ceremonies to Artemis, including offerings at her sacred grove, to enjoy athletics, plays and concerts, and to partake of great banquets and revelry.

Demetrius's product, an important item in the Artemis cult, brought in no little business (better, "profit") for the craftsmen. Possibly as president of the guild of silversmiths, Demetrius assembles his fellow craftsmen along with workmen in related trades, workers in lead, marble, and semiprecious stones (religious objects of the Artemis cult have been discovered made of those materials [Crocker 1987:77]).

Demetrius reviews two facts from their current situation: their good income from the "silver shrine" trade and the effect of Paul's polemic against polytheistic idolatry. As with the Jews (17:4; 18:4; 19:8), with the Gentiles Paul has engaged in a rhetoric of persuasion. The result has been that the apostle has led astray large numbers of people . . . in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia (19:26; compare 19:10). The basic meaning of led astray (methistemi) is "mentally and spiritually to bring to a different point of view, cause someone to change his position" (Bauer, Gingrich and Danker 1979:499). Since the Christian message is about repentance and conversion, could there be a play on words here as Demetrius speaks disparagingly of the transformation called for by Paul's Christian witness (Col 1:13; compare Acts 26:18)? The message that has caused such defection is that man-made (literally, "those coming into being through hands") gods are no gods at all (17:29; Is 44:9-20; 46:1-7; compare 1 Cor 8:4-6; 10:20).

At the very center of each culture is a religion, whether sacred or secular, expressed in a set of myths of origin, power and destiny. These in turn spawn the culture's worldview, which generates social structures and behavior patterns. Paul's message here shakes Ephesian, indeed Greco-Roman, culture to its very core by showing one of its religious power centers, the Artemis cult, for what it is: nothing. In that sense it does mean the death of the culture, as it does for any culture today with its gods, whether they be a traditional pantheon of tribal deities or the media and educational icons of secular humanism.

Demetrius sees the gospel as a threat to economic prosperity, national pride and religious fervor. Our trade (literally, "this branch of the business") will come into disrepute among those who have shunned idolatry, so that orders and sales will dry up. The temple of the great goddess Artemis, the pride of Ephesus and Asia, will be reckoned as nothing. It may be hard for Demetrius's hearers to imagine that this structure could totally lose its value in the eyes of the world. After all, Antipater deemed it one of the seven wonders of the world. Its precincts covered an area 425 225 feet, four times the size of the Parthenon, with 127 sixty-foot columns. It was the foremost worship center of Asia and a world-renowned bank (Pausanias Description of Greece 7.5.4; Dio Chrysostom Orations 31.54). But if the image for which it was built were judged no goddess by all, it would indeed be discredited.

If the Christian witness succeeds, the divine majesty of Artemis literally "will be torn down" (Lk 12:18). Demetrius's claims for the extent of the worship of Artemis are quite accurate. Thirty-three worship sites have been located across the Roman Empire from Spain to Syria (Strabo Geography 4.1.5). According to Pausanias this cult received the most extensive and highest worship in the ancient world (Description of Greece 4.31.8). In Rome the Aventine temple of Diana (Roman equivalent of Artemis) had a statue modeled on the Ephesian type, and on the occasion of the marriage of Emperor Claudius to Agrippina, commemorative coins were struck at Ephesus with the profiles of the newlyweds on one side and a figure of the statue with the legend "Diana Ephesia" on the other (Kreitzer 1987:61). To have such divine majesty torn down would be quite a feat. Yet from what Demetrius has seen of the mighty advance of a gospel of repentance from vain idols, it is "a clear and present danger."

Demetrius's appeal to economic, patriotic and religious motives for a defense of paganism against the gospel shows how interrelated are these cultural aspects. Any Christianity worth its salt will be a challenge to the pocketbook, the flag and the shrine.A Crowd's Confusion (19:28-34)

Demetrius's audience reacts in angry defiance, with a cultic chant of adoration: Great is Artemis of the Ephesians! (compare Bel and the Dragon 18, 41). This throws the whole city into confusion. The craftsmen and workers become the core of a mob that rushes violently into the theater, having laid hold of two of Paul's traveling companions, Gaius and Aristarchus (Gaius is otherwise unknown; Aristarchus is mentioned at Acts 20:4; 27:2; Col 4:10; Philem 24).

The theater (capacity twenty-four thousand) was the largest and most impressive of all structures in ancient Ephesus. Built into the steep western slope of Mount Pion with a view of the city and the broad street to the sea, it was used for large gatherings of inhabitants, as well as the citizens' assembly (Finegan 1981:162). This gathering is probably an unofficial meeting of the city assembly in which Demetrius hopes to put pressure on civic authorities to take action against the apostolic group (Sherwin-White 1963:83). The declaration of the truth has wounded religious and ethnic pride, which reacts with a destructive mixture of mindless zeal and fury (compare Lk 4:28; 8:33; Acts 5:17; 7:57; 13:45). Today the same reaction to the gospel from zealots of the world's great religions or of antireligious ideologies should be no surprise.

Whether to witness or to show solidarity with his arrested fellow workers, Paul wanted to appear before the crowd (literally, "purposed to go into the demos" [popular assembly]), probably emboldened by the way his Roman citizenship and the Empire's authorities have protected him (Acts 16:37-40; 18:12-16). But his fellow disciples shield him this time by not permitting him to go to the theater (9:24-25, 30; 14:5; 17:10, 14). Further, some of the officials of the province, "Asiarchs" by title, beg him not to go. An Asiarch was an aristocrat, a member of the provincial council. Made up of representatives from the major cities, this council had particular responsibility for the work of the temples devoted to the imperial cult. For such men to be Paul's friends and take such an interest in him shows not only the high levels of society to which the gospel had penetrated but also that Christianity evidently was not yet viewed as a threat to the imperial cult. In fact, the educated classes seemed to treat it with greater tolerance than did the masses.

Paul again balances prudence and bravery, and so should all witnesses for Christ. When the church body functions with Spirit-endowed wisdom, there is a good source of guidance. There may be times when Spirit-directed personal conviction will override the church's counsel (Acts 21:13-14), but the church's word must always be received gratefully.

The assembly was confused, divided (some were shouting one thing, some another) and ignorant of its purpose (most of the people did not even know why they were there). Here is an apt picture of the disorienting nature of misguided religious fervor. We find it today not only in the frenzied rituals of traditional religions but also in the verbal pounding that combatants in the postmodern "culture wars" inflict on each other.

In the end, the Artemis cult's opposition to the gospel proves futile. The Jews in the crowd push forward Alexander to determine the cause of the tumult. When some from the crowd tell him it is the Christian "Way," he seeks to speak to the assembly to make a defense for the Jewish community, presumably to distance it from "the Way," if not also to provide ammunition to the Gentiles in their persecution of this "self-excommunicated" group. But the crowd will have none of it. They draw no distinction between Jews and Christians, for both groups are monotheistic and oppose idolatry. Recognizing that Alexander is a Jew, they drown out his attempted defense with a two-hour chant: Great is Artemis of the Ephesians! (compare 19:28). And today we know that a culture's religious lies are asserting themselves against the truth when in response to the calm and clear proclamation of the gospel, all the culture's proponents can do is shout louder. Does Christianity kill culture? It exposes what is not true in order to cleanse and transform culture.A Clerk's Clear Thinking (19:35-41)

The city clerk quieted the crowd. He is the head of the city executive, the annually elected chief administrative assistant to the magistrates. He also serves as liaison to the Roman authorities. Three assertions by the clerk show that the assembly is unnecessary, a fourth that it is positively dangerous to this free city's well-being: (1) The Ephesians' reputation as guardians of the temple and image of Artemis is safe (vv. 35-36). (2) These Christians' reputations are unsullied (v. 37). (3) The crowd can have recourse before regular courts and legislature (vv. 38-39). (4) The crowd is in danger of coming under the charge of rioting without cause (vv. 40-41).

The clerk declares as "undeniable facts" the universal reputation of Ephesus as guardian (neokoros, a title later used of cities responsible for a temple devoted to the imperial cult [Sherwin-White 1963:88]) of the temple and the image, which fell from heaven (diopetes). While a meteorite at Taurus was worshiped as an image of Artemis (Euripides Iphigenia in Taurica 87-88; 1384), no extrabiblical source reports such at Ephesus. The clerk may be speaking of the ancient age of the image, which was so old that it was viewed as fashioned in heaven (Longenecker [1981:502] takes the reference literally). Such an affirmation speaks to both Demetrius's anxiety and Paul's polemic about gods made with human hands (vv. 26-27). The clerk announces that Artemis's reputation is safe and she does not fall into the category of idols that Paul is critiquing.

A temple's roles as a bank and a worship center were interdependent. Fear of the god deterred robbers. The wealth of the bank enhanced the prestige of the god. Thus "to commit sacrilege" literally was "to rob temples" (noun hierosylos). This the Christians have not done. Further, their challenges to polytheism and idolatry have not involved the crime of public blasphemy. Either the clerk views the "heaven-fashioned" image as beyond Paul's charges. Or, if Paul's approach has been the same as at Athens, Paul's polemic involves reasoning on a generic level: the nature of deity and the worship appropriate to it from human beings, who are its offspring. No direct attack on Artemis, a concrete case, is necessary. Paul's tactics have much to teach us about effective "speaking the truth in love" to devotees of non-Christian religions.

The clerk suggests two legitimate means of redress: the court system and the legislature--the citizens' assembly meeting at its duly constituted times (one regular and two extra sessions per month, per Sherwin-White [1963:87], using the inscription of Salutaris and Chrysostom Homilies 42). The courts could handle private financial disputes, while the citizens' assembly could deal with any alleged attack on the city's prestige.

The real danger (contrast v. 27) is to be charged with rioting without cause; the city could lose status as a free city if it failed to maintain law and order through its own local authorities. With this caution the clerk exercises his authority by dismissing the assembly.

Luke teaches us through this clerk that so long as Christians do not strain the social fabric of a culture through "public blasphemy of the gods," fair-minded government officials should protect Christians from rash, illegal acts of persecutors. This is one of the means by which law-abiding witness to the gospel, which transforms culture, may advance unhindered.

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

Bible Gateway Recommendations

Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible
Retail: $39.95
Our Price: $19.99
Save: $19.96 (50%)
4.0 of 5.0 stars
The Secret of Communion with God
Retail: $12.99
Our Price: $11.69
Save: $1.30 (10%)
View more titles