In our last essay we studied Acts 18:23-19:22. The latter part of that study dealt with Paul mission to Ephesus. In this essay we are studying Acts 19:23-41, which concludes Paul’s mission to Ephesus on his third missionary journey. Paul intended to leave Ephesus to complete his third missionary journey, but before he left a significant incident took place.
In the last essay we talked a bit about the goddess Artemis and the magnificent temple erected in Ephesus for her worship. The goddess, whom the Romans called Diana, no longer was the chaste huntress of Greek mythology. Ideas from the culture of Asia Minor had overwhelmed the Greek ideas. Now Artemis was a many-breasted goddess, which symbolized her nurturing role as the mother of all gods and men. In many places she was known as Cybele.
The cult of Artemis was deeply entrenched in the culture of Ephesus. The silversmith’s guild there believed themselves to be under the special patronage of Artemis, because much of their business consisted of manufacturing and selling “silver shrines” (v. 24) of Artemis that were purchased to honor the goddess. The shrines would have been box-like, with niches built into them. Then silver images of the many-breasted Artemis would have been placed in the niches. Sometimes lions would be placed beside her. Worshippers would purchase the shrines, take them to the temple of Artemis to dedicate them, and then take them home where they would give them a place of honor. Although Luke does not mention it, the silversmiths likely sold various sizes of shrines and images of Artemis, and perhaps of the temple as well. Like souvenir sellers of every age, they would have provided a wide range of items with an equally wide range of prices.
Since Paul was having considerable success converting people in Ephesus to Christ, the silversmiths, led by a man named Demetrius, saw their business declining. Therefore they saw Paul and Christianity, “the Way,” as threats to their economic well-being.
So Demetrius, who apparently headed the silversmith guild, organized a protest. It is interesting to me that many scholars, including both F.F. Bruce and John Stott, use the word “riot” to describe this incident stirred up by Demetrius. Even the NRSV editors, who translate the word in the text as a “disturbance,” which is accurate, inserted the heading, “The Riot in Ephesus.” It was “trouble;” it was a “disturbance;” but it was not a riot. In riots people get completely out of hand and destroy property, and injure, or even kill people. In this case those things never happened.
Now then, Luke tells us that Demetrius called the silversmiths together and delivered a speech that was intended to stir them up. First, he declared the economic threat, because he knew that the guild would respond positively to that. It was their livelihood (v. 25). He told them how Paul was spreading his teachings all around Asia that images made with hands are not gods (26). This was hurting business.
Second, Demetrius tied the economic issue in with the religious one. Not only was their trade in danger of coming into disrepute, so was “the temple of the great goddess Artemis.” Even today some televangelists have cleverly tied money and religion together for their own ends. Well, as you can see, it is nothing new.
It will help us to visualize this disturbance, seen in verses 28-32, by learning a bit about the layout of ancient Ephesus, which has been excavated by archeologists. According to one text of verse 28 [the Bezan], the silversmiths spilled out of their meeting place into the street. The street in question probably was the Arcadian Way, which was the main street of the city. It was eleven meters wide, paved with marble, and it had columns on both sides. The street ran from the harbor to the theater. The theater is fairly well preserved, and it is estimated that it seated 25,000 people.
So the silversmiths, who were enraged by Demetrius’ speech, spilled into the street shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.” I suspect they were saying much more than that, because their demonstration immediately stirred up and confused the people of the city. Apparently the silversmiths directed the people to the theater, because that’s where everyone went. Along the way they somehow found and picked up Gaius and Aristarchus, two of Paul’s traveling companions (v. 29).
The mention of Gaius and Aristarchus is interesting, because up to this point, we have had no word on who was traveling with Paul on this third journey. The only thing we are told about them here is that they were Macedonians. And we learn little more about them in other places in the New Testament. Both names are mentioned again chapter 20, verse 4. There we learn that Aristarchus and a Gaius accompanied Paul when he left Ephesus and went to Macedonia. However we are told that this Gaius was from Derbe. Since Derbe is not in Macedonia, some [e.g., Haenchen] say that this has to be a different Gaius. Personally, I suspect that is the case.
We are told in 20:4 that Aristarchus was from Thessalonica, and since Aristarchus was with Paul on his journey to Rome as a prisoner (27:2), it appears that he continued to travel with Paul from this point to the end of his ministry. In Col. 4:10, in a letter that Paul wrote from prison in Rome, Paul mentions that Aristarchus was his fellow prisoner.
Coming back to the story, verse 30 tells us that Paul wanted to go into the theater and speak to the aroused crowd, but certain unnamed officials of the city, who were Paul’s friends, advised him not to do that (vv. 30-31). And Paul apparently heeded their advice. By this time, the assembly was in total confusion, as people were shouting one thing and another. Luke tells us that many people in the crowd didn’t even know why they were there (v. 32).
In verses 33-41 we see that the Jews of the community apparently wanted to distinguish themselves from the Christians so that they wouldn’t be blamed for all that was going on. Therefore the Jews in the crowd pushed a fellow Jew named Alexander to the forefront to speak. Nothing beyond what is seen in this passage is known about this man. He tried to speak, but the non-Jews, upon recognizing him as a Jew, shouted him down. The rowdy crowd did not want to hear from a non-worshippers of Artemis. And for about two hours they shouted in unison, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.”
Finally, the town or city clerk quieted the crowd and gave a speech. This was the person who recorded and published the decrees of the city assembly. He also would have served as a liaison with the Romans. In his speech he made four points. First, he told them that they did not need to be alarmed about the honor of the great goddess. Everyone knew that Ephesus was the keeper of the temple and of the statue of the goddess that fell from heaven (vv. 35-36). Second, he reminded them that the two men they had brought to the theater, Gaius and Aristarchus, had not robbed the temple or blasphemed the goddess. In other words, they had done nothing wrong (v. 37). Third, the city clerk made the point that the city had courts to take care of disputes like that of Demetrius and his guild (vv. 38-39). And finally fourth, he reminded the crowd that their demonstration had brought them dangerously close to being accused of rioting by the Romans.