National Catholic Register


In an Ancient City, Birth of a Living Message

Ephesus played a crucial and colorful role in Christianity's early years


August 09-15, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/9/98 at 1:00 PM


The Great Theater, the most spectacular building in Ephesus, is a horseshoe-shaped structure that once seated 25,000. It still has near-perfect acoustics and is so well preserved that Sting and Diana Ross held concerts here in recent years. The theater was built by Greeks in the third century before Christ and expanded by the Romans in the first century, but it was a Jew-turned-Christian who was its most significant orator.

Paul preached the Gospel in the theater before throngs of pagans who worshipped fertility gods and other ancient deities. The difficulties he encountered are vividly told in the Acts of the Apostles. A silversmith named Demetrius who sold statues of Artemis, a pagan god, took exception to the foreigner who proclaimed “that gods made by hand are not gods at all” (Ac 19:26). Demetrius provoked his fellow craftsmen to a public outcry against Paul. “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” a crowd chanted against Paul, before the town clerk reasoned with the mob and quieted their fury.

Ephesus, located near Kusadasi, Turkey, a few miles from the Aegean coast, is a sprawling archeological site that covers about three square miles. The city is remarkably intact. It lay undisturbed for centuries, buried by earth and dust until discovered in the 19th century. No modern structures are seen at or near Ephesus. Here is an entire ancient city — a main street where the ruts of cart wheels are visible and traces of a sophisticated drainage system are seen, a library with niches in the wall where the books were kept, a town hall, a market place, public baths, and even latrines.

A key port city in Hellenic times and then a stronghold of the Roman Empire, Ephesus holds great interest for history buffs, but the city also played an important role in the early history of Christianity. Paul spent more than two years here. His writings to the Ephesians are part of the New Testament. The Ephesians heard from Paul about the unity of the Church, the world mission of the Church, and admonitions on Christian conduct. It was the Ephesians who were told “by grace you have been saved through faith and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast” (Ep 2:8-9). It was the Ephesians who first heard “as the Church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands” (Ep 5:24).

Ephesus was such a key outpost of the early Church that Mary and St. John the Evangelist are believed to have traveled here. Mary supposedly spent the rest of her life in Ephesus, and a dwelling excavated in the 19th century is revered as Mary's house.

The association of Mary with Ephesus led Church leaders to select the city as the site of two ecclesiastical councils in the fifth century. The Church was split about whether Mary was the mother of God or only of Jesus the man. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared the “divine motherhood of Mary.”

The city was first formed as an Ionian colony around 1000 B.C. In 334 B.C. it fell to Alexander the Great. The Romans took control in 133 B.C. The city flourished under the Romans, becoming the capital of the province of Asia Minor. The city's protected harbor and the Royal Road out of town built by the Romans contributed to its growth.

The most breathtaking ruin is the Library of Celsus, built at the beginning of the second century in honor of a Roman government official by his son. The intricate two-story facade has three entrances, flanked by niches with statues representing the virtues of Celsus: Sophia (wisdom), Arete (valor), Ennoia (thought), and Episteme (knowledge). Inside are low Ionian pillars that supported the reading tables.

The Marble Road, also known as the Sacred Way, was a main street that stretched from the library to the Artemis Temple. The Odeon, a small amphitheater for 1,500 people, was built into the hillside. The Prytaneion, a town hall alongside the Odeon, dates from the third century. The restored Houses of the Slope feature mosaic floors. The magnificent Baths of Skolasticia contained a clever heating system that fed a swimming pool, a hot bath, and a warm bath. Not to be missed, too, are the Temple of Hadrian and the Fountain of Trajan, both imposing structures that reflect the city's imperial status.

The pagan culture of the city that Paul encountered is a prominent part of Ephesus. The Peripteros Temple was a shrine to Dionysus. The Artemis Temple was one of seven wonders of the ancient world. Artemis was worshipped as a mother goddess and goddess of fertility. The cult of Artemis, extremely popular, brought many pagan pilgrims to Ephesus.

Paul preached both among the Jews and pagans at Ephesus. He “entered the synagogue and for three months debated boldly with persuasive arguments about the kingdom of God. But when some in their obstinacy and disbelief disparaged the Way [of God] before the assembly, he withdrew and took his disciples with him and began to hold daily discussions in the lecture halls of Tyrannus. This continued for two years with the result that all the inhabitants of the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord, Jews and Greeks alike” (Ac 19, 8-10).

Mary's House is located amid olive and pine trees outside the tiny village of Selcuk, near Ephesus. Tradition says Mary came here sometime between 37 and 48 A.D. The home's foundation was discovered in 1891 after an invalid German nun who never left her country had a vision. She described in detail the hills of Ephesus and Mary's house. Further evidence of the house's authenticity was that the first basilica in the world dedicated to Mary was built in Ephesus. The houses of worship built by early Christians were dedicated only to those who had lived or died in the region.

Mary's House was validated as a shrine by the Church in 1896. Pope Paul VI visited in 1967 and Pope John Paul II in 1979. A major pilgrimage will be held on Aug. 15, 2000, the day of the Feast of the Assumption.

The present chapel built over the foundation of Mary's home was completed in 1954, though it incorporates the ruins of a chapel that dates from the seventh century. Outside the chapel is a sign erected by the American Society of Ephesus of Lima, Ohio. On the sign is the Gospel passage in which the crucified Jesus told John to take care of Mary: “Here is your mother.” The chapel itself is small and simple. A bronze statue of Mary is in a niche above the altar. Two springs outside the chapel are said to have healing powers.

In Selcuk are the impressive ruins of the Basilica of St. John, a huge structure built in the sixth century by the Emperor Justinian. Under the central dome was the grave of St. John. The basilica replaced a smaller church from the second century.

After the sixth century Ephesus saw its harbor silt over, hastening its decline into oblivion. But Paul's message to the Ephesians to put on Christ — “Put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Ep 4:24) — has endured, even if the city didn't.

Jay Copp writes from Chicago.