Gladiator for Christ

In the Year of St. Paul, Christian pilgrims would do well to visit Ephesus, Turkey, where the Apostle of the Gentiles preached in the still-standing amphitheater.

Muscular, indeed athletic, with a spring in his taut, bandy legs, the middle-aged man who jumped from the boat into the bustling harbor town was the picture of boldness and self-confidence. 

Jauntily walking up the broad, marbled avenue, which led like an arrow to the mammoth amphitheater some quarter mile away, Paul of Tarsus would have entered the astoundingly rich, boisterous and busy city of Ephesus. Between parallel rows of merchants of every spice, cloth, gem and manufacture known to Asia Minor, each stall separated by pillars and statuary, he would pass through a roiling mass of humanity offering him the luxuries, delicacies, temptations and vices which such sailing ports are known for.

Yet, Paul was there for a quite different reason. He came to tell the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul’s mission was nothing less than to herald his faith in salvation, the cause of his assuredness, with “boldness and confidence.”

So I imagined the arrival of St. Paul to that ancient city some 2,000 years ago. I stood transfixed at the location of the former harbor docks of Ephesus, located in modern-day Turkey. Now the long ago silted harbor is part of a farmer’s field, spreading far beyond the still prominent Arcadian Way, the wondrous marble road of yesteryear. There, at the other end of that road, I could also see the titanic amphitheater that seated 25,000 people, wholly one in 10 of the entire population of the ancient city. Little wonder, then, that he would reference this place in his Letter to the Ephesians, which he wrote some years later while incarcerated, perhaps in Caesarea, but more likely in Rome.

The amphitheater was, after all, the site of his greatest opportunity. No one with a mission would fail to see the centrality of that giant place of public entertainment. Even today, visitors are amazed to see the acoustically balanced half dome cut into a natural hillside, filled with excellent seating to view and hear the words of the actors or debaters who came to entertain the people of Ephesus. There, Paul challenged the prevailing thought of the time with his new proclamations of Christ crucified and risen from the dead. The acoustics are perfect even today, with even the slightest word carrying to the farthest seat as if spoken personally and privately. Paul used this pagan stadium to spread the word of God. 

He is said to have lived among the Ephesians for more than three years, always encouraging them to join him until “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” (Ephesians 4:13-14).

A Stage for the Gospel

But Paul was not blind to the other uses of the amphitheater. Ghastly and horrific gladiatorial combat, encouraged to sate a benighted pagan public without Christian hope, became more and more the norm for the theater’s use. Thus an empire bereft of virtue and dignity dragged on in spiritual aimlessness. We learned last May that the only known gladiator cemetery of the ancient world was discovered in Ephesus. 

To counter this dark, grim, pagan reality, Paul offered another way: the way of life and light. 

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil,” he says in Ephesians 6. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 

Ephesus was also the site of one of the wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of Diana. Diana, goddess of the hunt and protector of slaves, was worshiped in dark forests and enshrined in her gigantic temple in Ephesus, a place known throughout the world. Significantly, Paul noted the dozens of statues, votive offerings and other commemorations that led the way up another broad avenue to her temple. 

Many of the ruins are still there, leading one’s imagination to see the world as Paul did. As a resident of Ephesus, Paul would surely have known that Alexander the Great completed the temple but did not have his name enshrined on the cornerstone “for one god should not be worshiped where another dwelled.” 

Paul used this historical awareness to his advantage when he wrote, “For through Christ we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:17-22).

Everyone who heard Paul’s words was home, no longer a lonely, aimless wanderer on a road with no signs. Those who once sought safety — as was true of the slaves who could escape to Diana’s temple — found it quite literally: They now found Christ in her stead.  His name was the cornerstone that even the great Alexander and the goddess Diana could not claim, and all roads led to him.

Ephesus is also home to several other sites of interest to the Christian pilgrim: the Basilica of St. John, built over the traditional tomb of St. John the Evangelist, the Church of Mary, which was the site of the Council of Ephesus in 431, and the House of the Virgin, believed to be where the Blessed Mother lived during her last years.

In this Year of St. Paul, the pilgrim would do well to visit Ephesus. Imagining that Paul lived here, in the city he later wrote to, is quite simple. Take a copy of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians with you. It will come quite alive, and never, ever be the same in your mind again.

John Davis writes from

Athens, Alabama.