Acts 19:23-41 – The Riot in Ephesus

The riot in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41) is an important story in the developing plot-line of Acts, although Paul is not really a part of the story. We are told that the silversmiths fear the rise of Christianity in Ephesus, Paul’s companions are arrested, and the city manager calms the crowd. The reader does not know what happens to Paul during and after the riot.

Great is Artemis

For this reason, some speculate Paul was arrested and imprisoned in Ephesus, a time reflected in 1 Cor 15:32, “if I fought the wild beasts in Ephesus…” The implication is Paul was forced into some sort of gladiatorial punishment, although the text may refer to his opponents rather than literal animals. If Paul was in prison in Ephesus, then he may very well have written Philippians, Colossians and Philemon while under arrest, rather than from Rome. As a Roman citizen, it is doubtful Paul would have been sent into the gladiatorial games, and if he had, it is even less likely he would have survived. Although Paul’s imprisonment in Ephesus is an argument from silence and not particularly persuasive, it does solve some problems with those books.

The main point of the riot in Ephesus is that that Christianity has made such an impact on the culture of Ephesus that the culture begins to “fight back.” At the end of this attack on Paul’s mission in Ephesus, the city official concludes what Paul preaches is not against Rome nor is it illegal according to Roman Law. This seems to be a major sub-text in the book of Acts. Luke wants to inform us the Romans found Christianity compatible with Roman Law.

A second problem addressed by this section of Acts is the “parting of the ways.” When did Christianity become distinct from Judaism? As far as the Romans are concerned in Acts 19, Christianity is still the same thing as Judaism. In Acts 18 the Jews in Corinth argued that Paul was not one of them. In the riot at Ephesus the crowds do not make a distinction between Alexander (a Jew) and the Christians. At this point in the development of Christianity, any decision about the Christians may have had an indirect impact on the Jewish community.

Perhaps the most important theme of this incident is the fact Christianity challenged the greatest pagan cult in the ancient world and was seen as a serious threat to that cult. I think that this is the challenge of the story: how has contemporary Christianity impacted culture?

The answer is (sadly) either “not at all” or as something which secular society mocks and then promptly ignores.

16 thoughts on “Acts 19:23-41 – The Riot in Ephesus

  1. The riot in Ephesus, was undoubtably related to Christians presenting a challenge to the pagan culture of Ephesus, which I believe we as Christians now a days should present a similar challenge to our secular culture. The fact of the matter is that the people living in Ephesus were directly effected by the worship of their God’s and their temple. Consequently, these people were worried that Paul and his accusations about their God not being real was indeed going to endanger trade, the temple, and the divinity of Artemis (Acts 19:37). Furthermore it is easy to see how discrediting their God would have indeed effected numerous aspects of their life. Due to these accusations against these peoples God, a mob began to form and shout, “Great is Artemis” (Acts 19:28). Paul however did not back down from these accusations but instead, “Paul wanted to appear before the crowd” (Acts 19:30). So though the rejection of the Ephesus culture and their God’s was single handily the cause of the riot, Paul was not afraid to stand against them. This type of cultural impact is something that we as modern day Christians should seek to model. This is because like the post says, “Christianity has made such an impact on the culture of Ephesus that the culture attempts to fight back,” so the actions of these Christians should encourage us to make a similar cultural impact today. This is something that we should not fear but instead be confident in God that if we provoke our culture by speaking his word, he will in turn protect us, as he did the Christians in Ephesus. I too believe that Christianity has become stagnant and somewhat of a joke in our culture today. I think this can be attributed to the modern Christian not speaking or taking a stance against what is wrong, as the Christians did in Ephesus.

  2. Nick has some really good points. Going off from what he said, “…was indeed going to endanger trade, the temple and the divinity of Artemis,” I think it’s important to recognize that Christianity was valued more. They valued worshiping God more than what most Christians probably do today. So when someone criticizes their lifestyle, they fight back. I think that today, Christians don’t care to defend God and their beliefs. If someone says something negative about God, then our reaction can be very powerless. We might just say, it’s what I believe, you believe what you believe. I think this conversation can swing back to Christianity being a lifestyle. Whenever someone criticizes country music, I get defensive. Whenever someone criticizes what I like to do, what I like to watch (Nascar), then I get defensive. But if someone were to say that they are uncertain about my what I believe, would I react in a similar way? And not even in a similar way, but with even more fervor? This is what Christians need to ask themselves. Is this important to them, important enough to be powerful in defense of God.

  3. The riot in Ephesus was first of all motivated by Demetrius and other craftsmen who were losing money because the Christian message turned people away from worshiping Artemis. Their job was to make shrines for Artemis and if the people stopped worshiping Artemis, the craftsmen’s business would have decline significantly. But in his speech, Demetrius adds in political and religious reasons to cause an uproar against Paul and his companions. “There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess herself will be discredited and the goddess herself…will be robbed of her divine majesty” (Acts 19:27). Upon hearing this, the people started a riot. So I would agree that the gospel challenged the the greatest cult of that time. However, I think that the current U.S. culture is a bit different. The difference I see is that Ephesus was primarily run by a pagan cult before the gospel was widely preached there. The U.S. began with the Christian message already being preached, and over time has begun to lose steam. But I think the point remains the same that Christianity needs to be impacting culture more. I think to an extent it already has been, as there have been so much focus on homosexual marriage and abortion. I think Christians have been trying to hold on to the Biblical views, but have seen the culture slip away from that. So the challenge I think is for us to present Christianity and the gospel in a new and fresh way. I suggest we focus on how the gospel impacts relationships. But as we do that, we must do so with confidence that God’s Word is powerful and what He has done for us is life changing.

  4. I believe that nothing in this world happens by accident. I believe that the Lord has a hand in all things. How interesting that I would come across your blog. I usually don’t respond to blogs, but today I feel compelled to do so.
    You stated that ” the important theme of this incident is the fact that Christianity challenged the greatest pagan cult in the ancient world and was seen as a serious threat to that cult.” Truer words were never spoken!!

    As a former Catholic, I use to believe that apparitions and miracles associated with “Our Lady” (which Catholics worship as the Blessed Virgin) were divinely inspired. Not anymore.

    In studying Acts, I came across a verse that has me curious and apprehensive. In Acts 19:23-41, Paul visits Ephesus and attempts to introduce Christianity to them. As we all know, Acts was written for the time following Pentecost and those early years of the Church, around 40 A.D.

    After a run in with Demetrius, a silversmith whose business was making idols to the goddess Artemis, a riot broke out, as we see in the following passage:

    “And when the town clerk had appeased the people, he said, Ye men of Ephesus, what man is there that knoweth not how that the city of the Ephesians is a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter?”
    Acts 19:35

    According to Spanish tradition, on January 2, 40 A.D., in the apparition of “Our Lady of the Pillar”, the Virgin Mother gives a statue of herself to James the Greater and requests a temple be built in her honor. Incidentally, Biblical Mary was still alive at the time.

    In Acts, the people of Ephesus worshiped at the temple to the goddess Artemis/Diana and of her image (idol), which fell from heaven.

    The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, in Turkey, is listed as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” Incidentally, the House of The Virgin Mary is located in Ephesus. Which, coincidentally, is the first church ever dedicated to the honor of “Our Lady.” (25)

    Doesn’t it seem odd that it was here, in Ephesus, that the Christian Council of Ephesus, in A.D. 431, proclaimed Mary “Mother of God”, which, by the way, was formerly a title given the great goddesses? It seems unlikely that divine providence brought Biblical Mary and one of the most revered goddesses, of her time, together in one place, for one purpose. It’s more likely that Satan had a hand in what would become one of the most blatant forms of idol worship to occur in the modern world and in such a way that to renounce it would appear to renounce Christ himself.

    Brigitte Romankiewicz reports that, at the time of the Council, many shrines to Isis and Cybele had been abandoned by decree of the Roman Empire. Now the Council decided to christen 48 of them into shrines to the Virgin Mary. (26) “Die Schwarze Madonna: Hintergruende einer Symbolgestalt”, Patmos Verlag, 2004, p. 50)

    I think that the Bible may, in fact, be describing what I believe is a reference to “Our Lady of the Pillar” which was actually the worship of Artemis.

    Could it be that the Catholic Church took a pagan event and somehow merged it into the beginning of a “Marian” tradition?

    Throughout history, there are numerous accounts of “Our Lady” appearing to devout Christians. These apparitions all have one thing in common. Every one of them requests homage to her, in one form or another. Why would Jesus’ mother focus attention on herself, when her Son is the source of our salvation? As a devoted mother and being totally obedient to God, I can tell you, she would never do that!!!

  5. The book of Ephesians was written around 60 AD. When did these riots of Acts 19 take place? I wonder if Paul was thinking of them when he wrote Ephesians 6:12 : For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

    • Paul was in Ephesus 54-57, although we do not know when the riots happened in that three year range. So about maybe three to five years before he wrote Ephesus, which is traditionally dated sometime in the Roman imprisonment, 60-62.

      Ephesus in the first century had a major Temple of Artemis with a wide range of sacred days and festivals dedicated to her. There was likely some imperial cult activity as well as gods everywhere.The city was well0known for magical practices, as seen in Acts 19.

      There was plenty of dark forces in Ephesus for Paul to wrestle with!

  6. Society often reacts poorly to change, at least at first. Take COVID-19 as an example. When the pandemic first started, it seemed like a passing event that may last a few weeks but as time went on, we realized the severity of the virus and understood that it was a serious threat to our way of life. This is similar to how the Ephesians, and particularly Demetrius and the craftsmen, reacted to Paul’s teachings of Jesus in Acts 19:23-41. Most likely, they had heard of Paul and thought nothing of him, but when they realized what he was teaching was against the worship of Arteritis and could affect their businesses they began to riot and work against the mission of Paul. This supports Long’s statement when he says, “Christianity has made such an impact on the culture of Ephesus that the culture begins to ‘fight back’” (pp. 3). I think this is important to realize and address within the narrative of Acts because the conclusion of this story proves to the readers of Acts that Christianity does not threaten authority in itself, but rather navigates it. Polhill points to this by saying “Luke shows here that the Christian gospel was not contrary to the Roman rule of Law and was not disruptive of public order” (p. 2128). If we were to examine how contemporary Christianity has impacted culture today, we would not find many riots or upheavals relating to Christianity. I believe as Christians, we are called to share the Gospel gently and lovingly (Colossians 4:5-6) and after doing so, the reaction of others is not within our control. Today the reaction seems to result in nothing, or of mockery as Long points out (pp. 6). Though this is discouraging, all we can do as Christians who are passionate about sharing the Gospel is to do so in the way God calls us.

  7. In Acts 19:23-41, a riot in Ephesus occurred following the silversmith’s fear of Christianity increasing in popularity and recognition. While Paul is not a significant factor in the story, this plotline illustrates is important because it helps illuminate the reader of the resistance that Paul and his companions encountered. As Long notes, it is unknown what circumstances befell Paul during the events of the riot, leading to some scholars speculating that he was arrested. As texts such as 1 Corinthians 15:32 could be referred to, this acknowledgment of Paul’s imprisonment might imply that he was involved in gladiatorial games. However, this would be unlikely to occur, since Paul was a Roman citizen, let alone Paul would most likely not survive such an encounter with wild beasts. Therefore, it is the favored position to assume the “wild beasts” alluded to are not actual animals, rather, a reference to his opponents.
    Regardless of Paul’s involvement in the story, the purpose of the riots in Ephesus is to display the impact of Christianity within the Ephesian culture. The influence of Christianity has become so widespread that an Ephesian backlash in support of traditional culture occurred. When the attack on Paul’s mission in Ephesus concluded, the city officials determine that Paul’s teachings do not conflict with Roman law or any ideals of Rome itself. This information was most likely provided by Luke to indicate to the reader that Christianity was not incompatible with Roman law. The question of whether the growing Church of Christ was in opposition to Roman law was a notable subtext of the Narrative of Acts. This culminates in passages and events such as the riot of Ephesus, yet is resolved promptly because, while persecution continues, officials and elders of these regional communities do not perceive Paul’s message as a threat to the Roman empire.

  8. Whenever there is a culture shift, one thing begins to rock the boat so to speak, I do find it really interesting how people react. I think for a while I had never really understood riot culture, simply because I had not experienced anything close to it on a personal level. That has changed over the past year greatly, as rioting has played a huge role in the American culture this past year, it is easier to understand the situation in Ephesus. We as a country have experienced a big culture shift, and in response people begin to act out, prove a point, or express frustration at a system or culture. This may be for just or unjust reasons; I am not the one to say. We see this is Ephesus, as Polhill states, “Civic and religious pride were the decisive factors provoking the riot” (2128). As Long puts it, “The main point of the riot in Ephesus is that Christianity has made such an impact on the culture of Ephesus that the culture begins to “fight back.” (2013). With the rise in Christianity, the production of silver idols to Artemis had begun to decrease, making less and less profit for the Silversmiths and temple workers. This was the impact of Christianly in that culture. Looking at the modern day impact of Christianity in today’s culture we can see a surprisingly small amount. Looking over the riots that happened in the US over the past year, was not necessarily due to the economic impact of the gospel, or really any impact of the gospel infiltrating into culture. It was more under the ground of civil and political injustice and unrest. To think of having such an impact in today’s modern American culture would lead to astronomical results.

  9. When I just read the section in Acts on this story, I did not think about Paul being imprisoned during the riot that was going on. However, this would make sense. This would have been a reasonable time for when Paul wrote Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. I think that it was a good choice for Paul not to get involved in the riots going on in the theater. A lot of the people that were in there were confused as to what was going on and things could have been made worse if Paul had tried to calm them down. However, the opposite also could have happened, but things settled down without Paul having to be there when the city manager talked with the people. A lot of bad things could have happened to Paul if he had gone there, but I can see why he would have wanted to. He may have been able to talk some sense into the people that were getting upset, but it may not have worked. I also think that it is very interesting that Christianity became such a threat to the other religions and cultures of the world. Some of the Christian beliefs and practices were fairly new, but many people were realizing the truth behind it and were converting from their old religions to Christianity, which may have been frightening to people, such as the Romans, who wanted people to follow their culture and beliefs that they were sharing with the people.

  10. Paul being in Ephesus was definitely a challenge to the Pagan gods and the culture that was there at the time. With most of the Roman culture worshipping the Goddess Artemis and Paul spreading the gospel, there was a riot bound to happen. Paul was changing the culture in the city of Ephesus which would affect the trade there. Demetrius was a silversmith that made shrines of Artemis and with this new way of thinking he felt threatened. With this relating to today, Paul was not afraid to fight against the culture there which I believe we should do as modern Christians. We as believers today are very closed off to spreading the gospel because of the fear of the backlash that we will experience from some of our loved ones. “Paul wanted to appear before the crowd” (Acts 19:30). We can simply take this verse as a form of encouragement because Paul would likely be beaten if he walked into the theater. Nowadays we would not even come close to this form of punishment which should give us even more reason to stand against the crowd and stand up for what we believe in. The American culture will be everchanging but we as believers must stand up against that and make an impact in society.

  11. This would not be the first time that people of other nations were referred to as animals in the book of Acts. We see this theme when Peter is shown the vision of all the animals and told to “rise, kill, and eat” (Acts 10:11-13). We also know that in Daniel, the wild beasts are not necessarily wild beasts but an apocalyptic imagery of the Gentile nations. So here in Acts 19, when Paul is talking about “fighting the wild beasts” could he be simply talking about the people of Ephesus? The account does not explain a miraculous saving from the mouth of wild beasts in the arena, which would certainly have been a miracle. Without a miracle he would not have survived against lions and tigers and other wild animals. Earlier in Acts we talked about “turning the world upside down” and I think that is exactly what the Ephesians are trying to avoid by fighting back. They like they are gods, they are statues, and their traditions. The Ephesians may not have like it, but they could not do much ore because the Romans were alright with it. This attitude of the Romans is relatively short lived as the persecution of the Christians potentially started not ten years later. I would agree that the attitude of the world is much the same as it was back then. Americans are not persecuted in the same at all, but there is a push back to Christian morals versus secular morals.

  12. The riot in Ephesus shows us that Paul’s preaching is not something that is widely or easily accepted. People rejected what he was saying and did not agree with it. The people did not have a life-changing epiphany of Jesus being the Son of God and everything they were worshipping prior was meaningless. They felt the need to be defensive and argue against what they were being told. “The main point of the riot in Ephesus is that that Christianity has made such an impact on the culture of Ephesus that the culture begins to ‘fight back’” (Long 2013). They wanted to make a case that what they were being told was “illegal” in some way, but the town clerk said otherwise. He found that nothing went against their law and that the spread of Christianity was acceptable in a legal manner. When reading, I did not consider that Paul would have been imprisoned in some way. I just assumed he was in a safer place away from the riot for his own protection. The idea of imprisonment does make sense with other relating passages. Overall, this passage shows that Paul’s missionary journeys were not easy. He encountered opposition and persecution. It also showed that not everyone who hears the Gospel believes it and changes their ways.

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