If you want an accurate picture of life in the first century AD, archaeology shows us that you can’t do much better than the book of Acts.
Acts 19 starts with Paul leaving Apollos in charge of the church in Corinth while he continues his missionary journey. It ends with Paul’s encounter with an angry mob.
And, as a recent article in Biblical Archaeological Review tells us, it’s a very reliable depiction of life in the Roman world.
Upon his arrival in Ephesus, Paul meets some believers whose instruction was incomplete. He teaches them about the Holy Spirit and baptizes them in the name of the Lord Jesus. But then things get interesting.
Paul’s message offends both the Jewish and Gentile establishments in what was either the second or third largest city in the Roman Empire. The response of some people in the synagogue was the usual: obstinacy, disbelief, and disparagement.
But for the Gentiles, the problem was literally closer to home: their pocketbooks. What Acts calls “a serious disturbance” broke out when a silversmith named Demetrius told his fellow silversmiths that Paul’s monotheism was bad for business.
To understand why, it helps to understand what made Ephesus famous: a shrine to Artemis, also known as “Diana,” the goddess associated with, among other things, childbirth, children, virginity and the hunt.
Actually calling the temple to Artemis in Ephesus a “shrine” is a gross understatement. The temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. At 425 feet long by 200 feet wide, it was four times the size of the Parthenon. The structure was held by 127 columns that were 60 feet tall and 7 feet in diameter.
That meant anything—including Paul and his gospel of the risen Jesus—calling into question the cult of Artemis not only threatened their livelihood, it also threatened Ephesus’s stature within the Empire.
So the good people of Ephesus rioted, yelling “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.”
As the article shows, the account of Paul’s adventures in Ephesus is filled with details that demonstrate intimate knowledge about Ephesus and its way of life. For instance, the reference to silversmiths. In 1984, a monument was discovered that corroborated Luke’s account of their prominence in Ephesus. The inscription stated that the monument had been paid for by the silversmiths and called their city the “greatest metropolis of Asia, [and] the thrice-honored temple guardian of the venerable Ephesians.”
In others words, theirs was a status quo worth rioting to preserve. Note that both the inscription and Acts 19 uses the same Greek word, neokoros, “guardian,” in describing Ephesus’s relationship to the temple cult.
Then there’s the seemingly-obscure reference to “the great Artemis and of her image that fell from the sky.” As Biblical Archaeological Review tells readers, “The origin of Ephesian Artemis is traditionally associated with a meteorite that was worshiped in early Ephesus.”
As the article concludes, “Luke knew what he was talking about in recording the riot in the theater. His claim at the outset of the two-part work (Luke and Acts) to have ‘investigated everything accurately and reported them orderly’ is substantiated in Acts 19.”
As the brilliant comic actor Kenneth Mars said in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, “A riot is an ugly thing.” But a riot that substantiates the historicity of the Acts of the Apostles? Well, that’s a beautiful thing.
Eric Metaxas is the bestselling author of “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy.” He is the radio host of “The Eric Metaxas Show” and the co-host of “BreakPoint.”
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.