Understanding the Ephesian Culture
The Temple of Artemis in the First Century AD
Ancient Ephesus was the largest city of Asia Minor and, in the first century AD, may have had a population of around one hundred thousand. The city had a busy port, and was situated at a junction of two major roads that led to the interior of Asia Minor. “Owing to its strategic geographical position, Ephesus served the Roman senatorial province of Asia as the center for commerce and communication.” (Arnold 1989:13)
Miniature model of the Artemis temple without the decorative gilding. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Ephesians were well known across the Greco-Roman world for their enthusiastic devotion to the goddess Artemis, and for their magnificent temple dedicated to her. The temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It “was the largest building in the Greek world, about four times larger than the Athenian Parthenon.” (Baugh 2005:19) Made of solid marble, the dimensions of this monumental building were 115 metres by 55 metres. The temple’s 127 Ionic columns were 18 metres tall and decorated with ornate friezes, brilliantly gilded in silver and gold. The altar was large enough to sacrifice hundreds of cattle simultaneously. (LiDonnici 1999:85)
As well as being a place where religious rituals were performed, the temple served as one of the largest banks of the ancient world. And it was “internationally recognized as the place of refuge” for those seeking protection and asylum. (Murphy-O’Connor 2008:44) Furthermore, the temple was “filled with great works of art” (Rogers 2012:7), and it attracted many thousands of visitors each year, bringing wealth into the city. (See endnote 1 for more information on the Ephesian temple.)
Artemis of Ephesus
Several statues stood in the temple, including a large cult statue of the goddess Artemis. Approximately four hundred statues and figurines of her still survive today. These statues show the goddess wearing an elaborate costume which features a crown resembling her temple, various real and mythical animals on her skirt (lions, griffins, horses, bulls, and bees), garlands around her neck (one which includes symbols of the zodiac), and numerous bumps on her midriff. These bumps are interpreted differently by scholars. Some have previously thought they were breasts, but others suggest they may be bull’s testicles or bee’s eggs. (More on the costume of Artemis here.)
The Ephesian Artemis (also called Diana) should not be confused with the Greek Artemis (or Diana.) The Greek Artemis/Diana was a hunter. The Ephesian Artemis/Diana, however, was unlike the Greek gods and goddesses. She probably originated as a tree spirit, but later took on some attributes of the goddesses of the ancient Near East. After the Ionians settled in Ephesus in around 1100 BC, they named the indigenous goddess after their Greek goddess Artemis.
The Ephesian Artemis was believed to have the power to bring new life into the world and to take life away. There is also no real evidence that she was a mother goddess, but several ancient documents reveal Artemis was a “midwife”. It was thought she helped women and animals in labour. Ephesian women would call on Artemis during childbirth to speed up the labour and ease the pain, or, in dire circumstances, they would call on her to bring about a quick death to end their suffering. Artemis was also the champion and protector of virgins, both male and female. Artemis was considered to be a virgin and, unlike the mother goddesses, she was not associated with any male consort or god.
During the syncretistic Hellenistic period, Artemis Ephesia and her cult took on some Greek features and she was increasingly conflated with the Greek Artemis. Like the Greek Artemis, the Ephesian Artemis was seen as the daughter of Zeus and Leto, as well as the twin sister of Apollo (whom she delivered despite being only a few days older than her brother) The Ephesians celebrated her birthday on the same day as the Greek Artemis, the 6th of May, with a procession, rituals, and celebrations. During the Roman period, the goddess and her cult took on some Roman features. Most noticeably, she was increasingly called “Diana”, “Diana” being the Roman name for both the Ephesian and Greek Artemises.
Despite continuing changes and developments, the Ephesians regarded their goddess with deep devotion and warm affection, and she influenced many aspects of Ephesian life in ways that are difficult for us to imagine. “There was no other Greco-Roman metropolis in the Empire whose ‘body, soul and spirit’ could so belong to a particular deity as did Ephesus to her patron goddess Artemis.” (Oster 1990:1728)
Paul in Ephesus
Paul visited Ephesus several times. In around 57–58 AD, he stayed there for over two years as part of his third missionary journey. (See Acts chapter 19.) Paul’s effectiveness and success in spreading the gospel in Ephesus meant that some people were turning away from the cult of Artemis and converting to Christianity. Some Ephesians were also turning away from magic: “A number who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins (Acts 19:19).
This defection from Artemis threatened the businesses of the people who made shrines and statues of Artemis. One of these business proprietors was a wealthy silversmith named Demetrius. Ephesus was famous for its silversmiths who, as well as making shrines of Artemis, made miniature replicas of the temple and amulets inscribed with magic words. Concerned that he would lose his livelihood, Demetrius addressed his fellow artisans. Part of his address shows the widespread regard for Artemis Ephesia: he said, “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” (Acts 19:27).
Demetrius incited a furious uprising, and for two hours the angry crowd shouted in unison: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:34). The town clerk then quieted the crowd and spoke to them drawing attention to unique relationship the Ephesians had with their own unique goddess: “Citizens of Ephesus, who is there that does not know that the city of the Ephesians is the temple keeper of the great Artemis and of the statue that fell from heaven? Since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash” (Acts 19:35).
Artemis and her cult were a pervasive and formidable force in Ephesus. Nevertheless, a strong church was established in Ephesus, but it was difficult for some Ephesian Christians to completely let go of their pagan beliefs as we will see in Part Three.
 The Temple of Artemis was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The first shrine to the Goddess Artemis was probably built around 800 BC, and may have contained a sacred stone—possibly a meteorite (cf. Acts 19:35).
The next temple took 120 years to build and was partially funded by the proverbially wealthy King Croesus of Lydia, who conquered Ephesus in 550 BC. This temple was destroyed on July 21, 356 BC in an act of arson. It was rebuilt in 323 BC with no expense spared. Writing in about 140 BC, Antipater of Sidon included the temple of Artemis Ephesia in his famous list of the Seven Wonders of World and spoke enthusiastically about its splendour:
I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand. (Antipater of Sidon, Greek Anthology 9.58).
The last temple was destroyed in 262/63 AD “by a marauding band of Goths, from which Ephesus never fully recovered.” (S.M. Baugh 2005:14)
These bulls’ testicles in a butcher’s shop closely resemble the oval-shaped objects on Artemis’s midriff.
 Most scholars today do not think that these bumps are the goddess’s breasts. Robert Fleischer (1973) has shown that the bumps are not part of the goddess’s body, but represent removeable parts of her clothing or adornments. One suggestion accepted by some scholars is that the bumps are testicles from sacrificed bulls. The size and shape of the bumps closely match the size and shape of bull’s testicles.
Another suggestion is that the bumps are bees’ eggs. Artemis was associated with bees. She has bees on her skirt. “The bee was famous for purity and abstinence. Greeks thought that bees reproduced asexually; therefore they associated the insect with chastity.” (Sarah Pomeroy 1999:37) Perhaps the bees are symbolic of the goddess’s virginal and chaste status. Furthermore, the bee is a symbol of Ephesus and this symbol appears on some Ephesian coins. However, bees’ eggs are relatively smaller than the objects on Artemis’s outfit. (More about Artemis’s clothing and its symbolism here.)
The illustration below depicts an above ground nest of the common bumble bee Bombus terrestris. It shows adults, larvae, eggs, and honeypots made from wax, all in a nest surrounded by leaves, grass and moss. The shape of the eggs matches the shape of the bumps on Artemis’s chest. (Engraving by William Home Lizars (1840) after a drawing probably by James Hope Stewart.) Source: Wikimedia Commons
 Both the Greek and the Ephesian Artemis are also named Diana (the Roman name), which complicates easy identification. Jerome makes the distinction between the Greek Artemis/Diana, and the Ephesian Artemis/Diana. In his Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, he writes:
He [Paul] wrote to the Ephesians who worshipped Diana. Not the huntress who holds the bow and is girded, but that multi-breasted Diana which the Greeks call πōλυμαστις [many breasts], so that, of course, on the basis of the statue itself they might also falsely assert that she is the nurse of all beasts and living beings. (Translated by Heine 2002:77)
Nevertheless, it seems that by the first century AD, the Ephesian Artemis or Diana, had some association with hunting. In book one of Ephesiaca, Xenophon of Ephesus describes a procession as part of the annual festival for Diana (i.e. Artemis). As part of the procession there were horses, hunting dogs and hunting equipment. (1.2.4) The beautiful fourteen-year-old heroine of the novel, Anthea, led the procession and wore, as part of her costume, a fawn skin from which hung a quiver of arrows. She also carried bows and javelins, and her hunting dogs followed. (1.2.6-7) (A fawn skin was also part of the dress of Bacchus and the Bacchantes.) Until recently, most scholars thought that Xenophon lived and wrote in the second or third centuries AD, but more recent scholarship places Xenophon in the first century AD. If so, this makes him a contemporary of Paul.
 There are many goddesses called Artemis associated with different ancient cities. Each of these goddesses has an individual identity and distinct cult, but a few may have had some connection with Artemis Ephesia. Clement of Alexandria identifies some of these other goddesses (with odd sounding epithets):
An Artemis, named “the Strangled”, is worshipped by the Arcadians, as Callimachus says in his Book of Causes; and at Methymna another Artemis had divine honours paid her, namely, Artemis Condylitis. There is also the temple of another Artemis, Artemis Podagra or “the Gout”, in Laconica . . . The Argives and Spartans reverence Artemis Chelytis, or “the Cougher”, from keluttein, which in their speech signifies to cough.
From Chapter 2 of “Exhortation to the Heathen” by Clement of Alexandria.
Clement also identifies a Tauric Artemis in chapter 3 and the Ephesian Artemis in chapter 4. The Ephesian Artemis is by far the most well known of these goddesses, and should not be confused or conflated with other “copycat” goddesses called Artemis. Furthermore, there was an Artemis worshipped by the Macedonians well before the Hellenistic period (320-20 BC). The Seleucid kings introduced this goddess to the lands they controlled.
 More recent scholars regard Artemis as a saviour goddess (e.g. Rogers 2012:7). It was previously thought, however, that Artemis of Ephesus had some similarities with ancient “mother” goddesses. The mother goddess is one of the oldest and most pervasive religious concepts of the ancient Near and Middle East, and she was regarded as the universal mother of all life. In Phrygia the mother goddess was called Cybele. The Ephesian Artemis is sometimes too closely compared with the Phrygian Cybele. However the cult of Artemis Ephesia in the first century AD was distinct from the cult of Cybele. Cybele was just one of many gods and goddesses worshipped in Ephesus.
In Syria the mother goddess was called Atargatis. In Babylon and Assyria she was called Ishtar. In Phoenicia she was called Astarte. In archaic Canaan she was called Asherah, a name that appears too frequently in the Old Testament. (The ancient Israelites worshipped Asherah and her consort Baal when they fell into pagan idolatry.) This Canaanite goddess embodied fertility, and some scholars believe sacred sexual intercourse was a ritual in which divine propagation of life was portrayed. In the Old Testament, pagan practises meshed with orthodox worship practises in which shrine prostitutes became involved. (See 2 Kings 23:7; also 1 Kings 14:22-24; Gen. 38, esp. 38:21; 1 Sam. 2:22 cf. Deut. 23:17-18.)
Scholars have debated whether ritual prostitution was part of the Artemis cult, but there is simply no evidence for such a practice. S. M. Baugh (1999:449) notes that “Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Dio Chrysostom, Pausanias, Xenophon of Ephesus, Achilles Tatius, nor any other ancient author speaks explicitly or even hints at cult prostitution in either the narrow or broad sense in Ephesus of any period.”
 On July 21, 356 BC, the temple of Artemis was destroyed by fire. The reason given for this catastrophe was that Artemis was away from her city and acting as midwife in the delivery of Alexander the Great who was born on the same night. In his Life of Alexander 3.6, Plutarch records someone as saying, “It was no wonder that the temple of Artemis was burned down, since the goddess was busy bringing Alexander into the world.”
 “A lengthy record of a second-century AD oracle gives Artemis Ephesia’s epithets in classic Homeric form and terms. She is “the virgin” (παρθένον, line 14), the “renowned, vigilant maiden” (line 12), and “Artemis the pure” (line 16). As the goddess who watches over childbirth, she is the “midwife of birth and grower of mortals” and the “giver of fruit” (lines 3–4).” (Baugh 2005:25) In lines 11 and 12 of this oracle, Artemis is described as a huntress indicating that by the second century AD she shared some traits with, and had been conflated with, the Greco-Roman Artemis/Diana. (In endnote 3 is possibly earlier evidence of this conflation.)
 Christine Thomas (1998:85) has calculated that of all the references to Ephesus in ancient Greek literature, “fully one-third of the passages referring to Ephesus or things Ephesian refer to the goddess, her sanctuary, or her cult personnel”. Devotion and affection for Artemis is portrayed especially in the Ephesus-centred novels by Xenophon and Achilles Tatius. It is also attested to in the numerous devotional inscriptions. Ephesus has been well studied, and there is a wealth of ancient documents and inscriptions concerning the city that survive to the present day. Paul Trebilco (2004:11) has estimated that over 4000 inscriptions have been discovered on the site of ancient Ephesus. Writing a few years later, S.M. Baugh (2016) estimates that we have approximately 6000 inscriptions from Ephesus.
 See especially Acts 19:24-28, 35-37. As well as Paul, many well-known New Testament figures ministered at Ephesus. Priscilla and Aquila had a house church there. Apollos and Timothy ministered there. Towards the end of their lives, the apostle John and perhaps Mary the mother of Jesus lived at Ephesus. Tradition holds that both were buried there. It is believed that John wrote his gospel from Ephesus.
 The Ephesia Grammata (literally ‘Ephesian letters of the alphabet’) were six “magic” words. The name “Ephesia Grammata” comes from the fact that they were engraved on the statue of Artemis of Ephesus (Pausanias, ap. Eust. Od. 19,247). The six words are provided by Clement of Alexandria in his Stromateis 5.42: askion, kataskion, lix, tetrax, damnameneus, aisia. Because there was no apparent meaning to the words, even in antiquity, they fostered intense speculation. Yet they were used both orally and in written form to ward off evil, and to bring protection and safety or salvation. For example, they were spoken in exorcism (Plutarch’s Moralia 706 de), and for the protection of a bridal couple which was ritually encircled (Men. Fr. 313).” (Fritz Graf; Murphy-O’Connor 2008:51) Arnold (1989:24) writes that the Ephesia Grammata were sometimes used as a love spell to help seduce unwilling lovers, and he states that Ephesus was a centre for magic arts. Strelan (1996:86ff), however, disputes that Ephesus was a centre of the magic arts.
© 8th of December 2009, revised April 2016, Margaret Mowczko
« Part One: Introduction: Using 1 Timothy 2:12 as a Proof Text
» Part Three: The Heresy in the Ephesian Church