Book Review: David deSilva, A Week in the Life of Ephesus

deSilva, David A. A Week in the Life of Ephesus. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2020. 169 pp. Pb; $17.  Link to IVP Academic

The Week in the Life from IVP Academic asks New Testament scholars to imagine a story illustrating various aspects of Jewish or Greco-Roman culture. In this case, David deSilva sketches life in Ephesus in the final years of the first century. Domitian is the emperor and the city is building an imperial cult center dedicated to the emperor.

deSilva Week in EphesusdeSilva’s has a wide range of scholarly publications which form the background to this novel. For example, his 1991 Trinity Journal article on “The ‘Image of the Beast’ and the Christians in Asia Minor” examined the imperial cult as background for Revelation 13. His Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (IVP Academic, 2000) is a detailed study of the pursuit of honor (and avoidance of shame) which motivates the characters in this novel. In addition to these, deSilva published Introducing the Apocrypha (Second Edition; Baker 2008), New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (InterVaristy, 2004), Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation (WJKP, 2009) and commentaries on Hebrews (Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Eerdmans, 2000) and Galatians in the NICNT series (Eerdmans, 2018). Finally, he wrote a novel published by Kregel, Day of Atonement: A Novel of the Maccabean Revolt (2015).

Both John Byron’s A Week in the Life of a Slave and Holly Beers’s A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman featured Ephesus, but during Paul’s time in the city (Acts 19). James Papandrea’s A Week in the Life of Rome took place before Peter’s arrival in Rome. deSilva’s book focuses on the struggles Christians in Ephesus faces to remain loyal to the one God who sent his son Jesus in a culture thoroughly dedicated to other gods.

deSilva sets his story just prior to Ephesus receiving the title neokoros, temple warden. The city rulers are finalizing plans to dedicate a temple to Domitian. The artificial plateau for this temple is just inside the Magnesian gate, only the foundation and stairs remain at the site today. The base of the altar and parts of the colossal statue of Domitian are in the Ephesus museum. Although some suggest the massive head and arm is actually Titus, the image serves to illustrate the awe-inspiring architecture of an imperial cult center.

The story begins with Serapion, a priest of Artemis, leading a sacred procession through the streets of Ephesus on the holy birthday of the divine Caesar Augustus. To be the priest of Artemis was a great honor for Serapion and his family, an honor Serapion has paid well for. Christians absent from the procession, including Serapion’s slave (who later received a severe beating for shaming his master in this way) and Amyntas, Serapion’s neighbor.

Both Serapion and Amyntas both in the terrace houses. Visitors to Ephesus ought to pay the extra ticket to visit these restored and preserved homes in order to understand how the wealthy citizens of Ephesus lived. There are several photographs in the book illustrating the design of these townhouses. When I first visited Ephesus with Mark Wilson, he pointed out the closeness of the homes meant the activities of a Christian congregation would be known to the neighbors. He suggested this may explain Paul’s reaching on tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. In deSilva’s story, Serapion knows his neighbor Amyntas is hosting a church since the meeting could not be hidden from the neighbors.

Serapion’s hatred for Christians leads him to a plot to shame publicly Amyntas. Serapion nominates Amyntas to serve as a neopoioi, an official of the imperial cult responsible for the administration of the cult center. This is an exceptional opportunity for Amyntas and would result in additional wealth and honor for his family. Amyntas has a tough decision to make. If he turns down the offer, he would dishonor Ephesus, the emperor Domitian and the imperial cult, putting his life in danger. Could he accept this honor as a Christian, knowing the gods are nothing?

deSilva introduces Nicolaus of Pergamum, an elite citizen who serves in the imperial cult in that city. Although it is not explicit in this novel, perhaps deSilva wants us to think of Nicolaus as the target of John’s condemnation of the Nicolatians in Revelation 2:6 and 2:15. Nicolaus encourages Amyntas to accept the position since it would give him great opportunity to share the gospel with other wealthy people. However, when Nicolaus visits the church in Amyntas’s home he is soundly condemned by many in the gathering.

This conflict illustrates two ways of expressing one’s Christian faith in the late first century. On the one hand, a Christian could attend an Artemis festival or serve the imperial cult knowing full well that Artemis is not an actual god or that the imperial cult is propaganda for the empire. Others refused any participation in cult activities. The final line of 1 John tells the readers to keep themselves from idols. One character in the book refuses to honor the gods of his trade guild. The master of the agora publicly ostracizes him and forbids him to practice his trade in Ephesus. Amyntas’s son expresses his monotheism at his philosophy class in the gymnasium and is soundly beaten by his peers.

There is a subplot in the book concerning Zeuxis, a Jewish wealthy shipowner and his old friend Demetrius, a Christian merchant selling wool in the agora. This gives deSilva opportunity to illustrate the similarities and differences between Jews and Christians at the end of the first century. The rapaciousness of Roman merchants is a cause for the Christian to reflect on economic justice.

The climax of the book is the arrival of a messenger delivering what we call The Book of Revelation to the Christian community. After the church gathers and hears the worlds of the Apocalypse they are shaken, knowing they have indeed forgotten their first love. This is not overplayed in the novel and deSilva does not deal with any of the details of the apocalypse. The recipients of Revelation understand the great whore is Rome and that the book is a solid condemnation of Christians who take part in the imperial cult.

Does Amyntas accept the honor of service in the imperial cult like Nicolaus of Pergamum recommended? I will not spoil the plot here, read the book and consider how this applies to modern demands for loyalty to the empire.

Scattered throughout the novel are text boxes with historical details on various aspects of the story. For example, deSilva discusses musical instruments in the Roman period, the title neokoros, the Jewish community in Ephesus, the staff in an imperial cult center, Christian worship, and many others on Roman culture. The book is illustrated with black & white photographs. Perhaps the book could have included a glossary explaining Greek and Roman terms scattered throughout the book.

Conclusion. That three books in this series use Ephesus as a backdrop underscores the importance of Ephesus as an archaeological site. Like Pompeii, what has been excavated at Ephesus illustrates many aspects of life in the Greco-Roman world. I highly recommend this novel as a way to understand how Christian and Culture often clashed in the first century.

For reviews of other volumes in this series, see my reviews of:

Although not part of this series, these are books are also in the genre “scholarly novel.”

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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