Located on the western coast of Asia Minor, Ephesos was an important economic centre for the region and served as a capital (the seat of the Roman governor or “proconsul”) of the province of Asia for some time. The harbour, which is now silted over, would have received ships carrying goods of various kinds from as far as the western capital of Rome and from the east, goods carried by shippers and sold by merchants like those mentioned (and condemned) in John’s Revelation (chapter 18).

The religious profile of the city was quite typical in the sense that there was a variety of gods and goddesses worshipped, both formally and informally. The chief deity and ultimate protector of the civic community was the goddess Artemis, whose sanctuary was located outside the city walls and whose festivals were among the most important celebrations among inhabitants. There were also temples or shrines for revered emperors (the Sebastoi), including Augustus, Domitian (left), and Hadrian. Inscriptions attest to unofficial associations of various kinds at Ephesos. There were various guilds that frequented the so-called Vedius gymnasium (built in the second century), as the reserved latrines (toilets) for the bankers, hemp-workers, wool-dealers, linen-weavers, and others clearly implies (IEph 454). We also know about the association of fishermen and fish-dealers, who made donations to build the fishery toll-office in the mid-first century (IEph 20; see photo to the right below). This building had a special room for the worship of the “Great Gods” of the Samothracian mysteries; the mystery initiations that took place on the island of Samothrace (off the coast of north-western Asia Minor) were renowned in the ancient world (on a par with the Eleusinian mysteries for Demeter) and drew visitors from across the Mediterranean. It seems that some of the fishermen were initiates devoted to the Samothracian deities. Occupational associations, like other groups, were also concerned with honouring the gods and goddesses who protected them in their daily lives and at work.

Inscriptions reveal that the guild of physicians here, whose patron deity was Asklepios (the god of healing), held regular competitions in both medical theory and practice (IEph 1161-67). One grave-inscription reveals that a chief-physician named Julius (perhaps a Jew himself) also had close connections with the local group of Jews, who regularly took care of the family grave (CIJ 745 = IEph 1677). So there were also groups devoted to the Jewish God in Ephesos, including the early Christian congregations we know from the Pastoral epistles, Ephesians, and Acts.

Other associations were devoted to the mysteries of Dionysos and Demeter. One important inscription involves the worshippers of Demeter writing to the Roman governor (c. 88-89 CE) in connection with special celebrations they held in honour of both Demeter, the grain mother, and the emperors as gods:

To Lucius Mestrius Florus, proconsul, from Lucius Pompeius Apollonios of Ephesos. Mysteries and sacrifices are performed each year in Ephesos, lord, to Demeter Karpophoros and Thesmophoros and to the revered gods by initiates with great purity and lawful customs, together with the priestesses. In most years these practices were protected by kings and revered ones, as well as the proconsul of the period, as contained in their enclosed letters. Accordingly, as the mysteries are pressing upon us during your time of office, through my agency the ones obligated to accomplish the mysteries necessarily petition you, lord, in order that, acknowledging their rights . . . (lacuna) (IEph 213).

The author of the Acts of the Apostles vividly portrays an incident involving guilds within the theatre at Ephesos (Acts 19:23-41). Apparently in response to Paul’s preaching that gods made with hands were not gods at all, the prominent guild of silversmiths gathered together a crowd of craftsmen and others in defence of the city’s patron deity, chanting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for hours in the theater. Many monuments from Ephesus attest to this important guild of silversmiths (cf. IEph 425, 547, 585, 586, 636, 2212, 2441; NewDocs IV 1). We know that they had a place reserved for their activities on harbour street , near both the market-place and the theatre.

On one of these monuments the guild honours T. Claudius Aristion, an important imperial cult high-priest (in the temple for Domitian) who was also an important official of the city, the clerk or secretary (late first century). Another first century grave-inscription reveals that at least one member of the guild was also an important functionary (neopoios) in the temple of Artemis. Evidently, the silversmiths were active members and citizens of their home city whose civic pride, on this occasion, instigated a substantial civic disturbance. It is the fact that they are at home in the city and protective of its goddess that leads to this incident; the silversmiths’ behaviour here does not suggest any subversive intention. The author of Acts refers to the political institutions of the city in describing the gathering of silversmiths as an “assembly” (ekklêsia), and those who attempt to resolve the problem address the gathering as the “people” (dêmos). In this case, Acts relates, it was the town clerk whose speech successfully dispersed the crowd and avoided the potential for the intervention of the Roman governor of the province:

If . . . Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against any one, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls; let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly (ekklêsia). For we are in danger of being charged with rioting today, there being no cause that we can give to justify this commotion (Acts 19:38-40 [RSV]).

Guilds like this one could on occasion become involved in disturbances which might lead to the intervention of city functionaries or, if this failed, imperial officials. Associations were not thereby viewed as consistently subversive elements within society, however.