Notes for a Lecture given by the Very Rev Tony Bridge
Ladies and Gentlemen. I know how dangerous it is to raise people’s hopes and expectations before visiting some archaelogical sites, so I will simply say of Ephesus that -anyway for me - visiting it is one of the highlights of the Cruise. It is one of the largest and most splendid Roman sites in Asia, and I can’t imagine that it will disappoint anyone; but you never know. So - what’s so special about it? How old is it?- is it probable that there was a city there as early as 1500 BC and maybe earlier; and the ansesr to ‘why did theybuild one there in the first place’ is rooted in geography and also in religion.
Nowadays the sea is several miles away from Ephesis, but in the days of its prime it was situated on the sea at the mouth of the River Cayster with a natural port. It formed a perfect outlet for overland trade down the Maeander valley from Mesopotamia with its successive cultures of Sumerian people, followed by Babylonians, Persians, and so on who traded with the West by way of Ephesus. So the city prospered. In later days the Greek historian and georgrapher, Strabo, said of it that - and I quote - ‘The city grew richer every day, ships sailing to and arriving from Spain and Sicily, Greece, Egypt, and the Black Sea.’ In other words it was a thriving port, and its first inhabitants settled there in order to exploit its commercial possibilities.
But it was also a deeply religious site, which had been sacred to the old Anatolian Mother Goddess, Kybele, for longer than anyone could remember. Down the years she was worshipped under a number of different names; for instance, when Greek colonists from Athens arrived in about 1000 BC and took over the city, they called her Artemis, after their own Mother Goddess of fertility; and when, centuries later, the Romans arrived, they called her Diana, ‘Diana of the Ephesians, whom all in Asia and the world worship’ - and incidentally of whose priests St Paul fell foul when he stayed there in the late fifties AD. I’ll come back to Paul later. But whether she was worshipped as Kybele or Artemis or Diana of the Ephesians, she was virtually the same Mother Goddess of fertility, on whom the welfare and fecundity of her worshippers was believed to depend, as did the annual miracle of the Spring with its rebirth of the crops and the autumnal bounty of the harvest, which followed.
Thus she was enormously important to people’s lives, and they built a whole series of temples to her at Ephesus, each more glorious than the last, none of which - alas! -have survived. The sacred site on which all of them were built - now about a kilometer away from the Roman city which you will see tomorrow - was a piece of flat and potentially marshy ground, and when the sea began to recede from the city, and the port area was silted up by the River Cayster, the last of the Temples - the greeat marble Artemesion and one of the Seven Wonders of the World - sank into the mud and was lost without trace for centuries. It was built in the mid-sixth century BC partly with money presented to the city by Croesus of “as-rich-as-Croesus” fame, who was King of Lydia at the time and though this was a generous religious gesture, it may also have been a partly commercial motive, for the various Temples of Artemis at Ephesus were used by Kings, Princes, and the rich of this world as banks in whose sanctity they could trust, and therefore as places where they could deposit their treasures - money, gold, jewelry and what-have-you - without worrying about security; and of course this too tended to spread the fame of the city, as well, bringing it riches.
But all this did not happen at once. For many years, Ephesus remained just one of many Ionian cities eventually taken over by the Greeks during their great sea-borne expansion around 1,000 BC. History was destined to treat them all differently, but while some fared better than others, most had their difficulties. At first, the Ephesians were ruled by Kings, then by an oligarchy of aristocrats, later by tyrants, and later still by their neighbours, the Lydians - and so I cold go on -but the early history of the city is not wildly interesting, and all I need say about it, to bring you up to the Roman period is that, like everywhere else in this part of the world, Alexander the Great passed this way in 334 BC en route to India; and after his death Ephesus passed into the hands of one of his heirs, a man named Lysimachus, and become a part of the Hellenistic world, from 133 BC. The city you will see tomorrow is the city as it looked at the height of its prosperity and Roman splendour a couple of centuries later still in early Christian days.
I have described it as one of the biggest and most splendid Roman sites in Asia, and so it is; but that doesn’s mean that it is composed of nothing but huge and grandiose buildings, half the city’s charm is in its wealth of ordinary everyday buildings, its streets, its market places, its public baths, its public lavatory near the centre of the town, a brothel near the theatre, and its residential area on the slopes of mount Coressus with its houses, some with running water and rooms with frescos on the walls. But all this does not mean there were were no great and splendid buildings in the city.
Although, technically, it was not the capital of the Roman Province of Asia, the Romans themselves recognised its importance by housing the Provincial Governor, the Proconsul of Asia, in the city; and where the Proconsul of a Roman Province lived, splendid civic buildings tended to spring up like mushrooms in the autumn. The theatre, still in virtually perfect condition, was the largest in the world at that time, seating 24,000 people; and the libary of Celsus beautifully restored by the Austrians, is no less splendid in its way, while the crowning glory of the city, as always, was the Artemesion - the Temple of Diana - one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Turkish guides will tell you more tomorrow - they are excellent, by the way - but even with their excellent help, I doubt if you will see everything. There is simply too much to see in one day.
But if that was what the city was like, what was the life of the place like, when St Paul arrived there in AD 53? It is easy enough to paint an attractive picture of that life; wars were virtually things of the past, as the Pax Romana held sway over the multiracial jumble of people within its enormous grasp; most people were more prosperous than they had ever been before; business in Ephesus was booming, and pilgrims to the shrine of the goddess Diana also brought wealth to the city; so that life was enjoyable enough. But that is to ignore a number of more fundamental aspects of being alive. Life expectancy was very much shorter than it is today; most people died in their thirties - that is to say, those who had survived their childhood when the incidence of infant mortality was enormous. In our own age of vaccination, antibiotics, anaesthetics, and spare-part surgery, it is easy to forget how many things killed you in the past, and how suddenly some of them could do so; you could wake up one morning feeling on top of the world and be dead the next day.
In spite of their affluence and comfortable way of life, the citizens of Ephesus lived with death as their next-door neighbour. It is also easy to forget that Roman society was based on slavery, so that the affluence of the many was made possible by the misery and the labour of
the few. Meanwhile, the old official Roman religion with its worship of the Emperors as gods was virftually dead by this time - no one believe it any more. nevertheless, the belief which had always lain behind and underpinned it was as lively as it had ever been - the belief in power - military and economic power. The whole vast Roman Imperium had been fixed upon the world by power and was maintained by powerl indeed, to be powerful was to be glorious, admirable, divine, while to be weak, poor, and powerless was to be contemptible and useless. The poor and the weak had manifestly been abandoned by the gods, and therefore were of no value. So when Paul came along and talked about a man called Jesus, who had siad that the poor, the meek, and the merciful were those who basked in God’s favour, the Ephesians thought that he musst be mad; and when he also talked of the resurrection of the dead they knew that he was mad - or most of them dide so on first hearing him preach.
On arrival in the city, Paul did what he always did on his missionary journeys - he sought out the synagogue. The dispersion of the Jews - the Diaspora - had begun as early as the sixth century BC, when Nebuchadnezzar had dragged the Jews off into captivity in Babylon, and by Paul ‘s day there was hardly a city in the civilised world which did not have its little community of Jews.
Since their whole existence as Jews depended upon the maintenance of the faith of their ancestors in their status as the chosen people of God, few would countenance change; so that when Paul began speaking of Jesus as the Messiah and the birth of a new people of God not limited to Jews, most rejected him with horror. But some of the Jews in Ephesus, who had already heard a version of the Christian faith from an Alexandrian Jew named Apollos and had been impressed by it, became Paul’s first converts. It was a small beginning and when most of the rest of the Jews proved inflexible to change, Paul switched his attention to the ordinary Ephesians.
At the time, the city seems to have been infested by religious cranks - magicians, astrologers, exorcists, self-styled prophets, and the like - whom Paul accused of been crooks and liars. There is a story of some itinerant exorcists who wished to ingratiate themselves to Paul by commanding the evil spirit in a man, who they believed to be possessed, to come out ‘in the name of Jesus’. I adjure you in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, to come out’ they cried; but according to the story, instead of obligingly doing so, the spirit answered them by crying in its turn “Jesus I know and Paul I know, but who are you?” Whereupon the man in whom the spirit dwelt leapt on them and forced them to flee naked and wounded” - end of story. Whatever may have happened in hard fact, I’ve no doubt that dangerous psychopaths and schizophrenics may have attacked their would-be healers from time to time, and it is possible that Paul and his small following of Christian converts may have made the best of such stories to further their own cause and confound their opponents. What is certain is that, as the years passed and his fame spread, more and more people began to come and listen to what he had to say; and this is hardly surprising when one remembers how many peole there must have been in Ephesus, and the even greater number of people suffering from the universal human anxiety about death, who heard Paul speak of Christ’s resurrection.
The account in Acts of Paul’s daily life in Ephesus, though short, provides a picture of what life was like in the earliest church. Apparently, he preached and lectured daily in ‘the hall of Tyrannus’, whatever that may have been; he fostered those whom he won to the faith, and
encouraged them to share it with others; he kept in touch by letter with the infant churches which he had founded in such places as Corinth, writing to them and trying to help them sort out whateve troubles they might be encountering in his absence; and though he may not have realised it at the time, in fact he and his converts were founding a community of faith, which, in spite of persecution, was destined the grow and flourish so well that a hundred years later it was described by the author of the last book in the Bible as the greatest of the seven churches of Asia. In fact, long before that, towards the end of Paul’s time in the city, something very like proof of the effectiveness of his ministry was provided by the event which forced him to leave the city. Here is the story as it is related in Acts. You all know it, but it is worth reading again here.
‘About that time,’ it begins, ‘there arose no little stir concerning the Way’ - that is to say, the Christian faith as taughts by Paul - ‘for a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together with the workmen of like occupation, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only at Ephesus but almost throughout Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable company of people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only this trade of ours may come into disrepute, but also that the Temple of the great goddess Diana may count for nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”
When they heard this, they were enraged, and cried out, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with confusion, and they rushed together into the theatre, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, who were Paul’s companions in travel. Paul wished to go in among the crowd, but the disciples would not let him; and also certain of the chief officers of Asia, who were his friends, begged him not to venture into the theatre. Now some cried one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward; and Alexander gestured with his hand, wanting to make a defence to the people. But when they recognised that he was a Jew, for about two hours, they all with one voice cried out, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” And when the town clerk had quietened the crowd, he said, ‘Men of Ephesus, what man is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is Temple-keeper of the great Diana, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be gainsaid, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here, who are neither sacreligious nor blasphemous of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are preconsuls’ let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we are in danger of being accused of rioting today, there being no cause that we can give to justify this commotion”. And when he had said this, he dismissed the assembly. Paul then left Ephesus, and I too must move on.
After Paul’s visit, however, the history of the place is far less well documented, but, even so, we get occasional glimpses of what went on there. Fragments of otherwise lost records of the time have been found tucked away in monastic libraries; other bits of information are preserved in oral traditions of one kind or another; and legends sometimes turn out to be based on a genuinely historical nucleus.
Let me give you an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about. A very early bishop of Hierapolis - a city not all that far from Ephesus -whose name ws Papias, lived from about AD 60 to AD 130 or thereabouts, and wrote a large and rambling work in five volumes entitled ‘Oracles of the Lord’ Logion Kyriakou. The work itself no longer survives, but quotations from it in the works of such later historians as Irenaeus and Eusebius do, and apparently among other things it included personal reminiscences, including stories of his close friend and contemporary, St Polycarp, who was bishoo of Smyrna in the early years of the second century and martyred in 155. Polycarp had told Papias that, while he was still a small boy, his father had taken him to Ephesus, promising to take him to church there, where he would hear St John the beloved disciple preach.
Needless to say, the boy was immensely exited; to see one of the original disciples who had known Jesus was exciting enough, but to see John the brother of James ws even better; for the two brothers had been called the Sons of Thunder, and the idea of listening to a sermon from one of the sons of thunder was really exciting. Arriving in Ephesus, Polycarp and his father went to the house where the church was assembling for the Eucharist, but there was no sign of John. Then, after the Gospel had been read, a very frail little old man was carried in from another room on a sort of stretcher; and when everyone had fallen silent, in a quavery voice he repeated several times “Little children, love one another,” and was carried out again.
I don’t know what most of you will make of that story. As is their wont - indeed, its their job - Historians and Theologians have argued about its historicity, some thinking it is highly improbable that John could still have been alive as late as the boyhood of Polycarp, who was born in about AD 69, while others have suggested that the John in question may not have been the beloved disciple,. but another John - the author of the last book in the Bible for instance. But however all that may have been, it’s a moving little story and there is a sense in which it helps to confirm - or, - if not confirm, to back up - another very ancient tradition - namely, that St John came to Ephesus after the death of Christ, and eventually both died and was buried there. A church marking the place of his burial was built by Justinian and much frequented by pilgrims in the early days; its ruins still exist. At this point, however, we are getting into deep water; for the tradition that John came to Ephesus after the Crucifixion doesn’t stop there, but goes on to say that he brought the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus, to Ephesus with him, and that she, too, both lived and died here.
Stories about what happened to Mary after the death of her Son abound, and they can’t all be historically true. But some are more obviously legendary than others. For instance, one such story relates how after Lazarus was raised from the dead, he went on to become bishop of Cyprus, and in his old age wrote to Mary, saying that he hadn’t seen her for ages, and would love to do so before he died for the second time, inviting her to come and stay with him on the isalnd. She replied that she would love to do so, embarked on a ship bound for Cyprus, and was blown off course by a terrible gale, and was wrecked on the Mount Athos peninsular in northern Greece, where she stepped ashore and announced, “Let this be my kingdom. No other woman shall ever dwell here!” And they never have. It is full of monasteries and monks.
But to return to Ephesus, the improbability of that story does not mean that the story of Mary accompanying John to Ephesus is equally improbable. In John’s Gospel, just before the death of Christ, there come these words: ‘Standing by the Cross of Jesus were his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and ary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, 2Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to
his own home. Those words have been enough to convince many people of the truth of the story that Mary accompanied John to Ephesus; and their belief was strengthened, when the existence and location of the house in which Mary had once lived was revealed in a dream to an Austrian woman. A very ancient house was duly discovered roughly where she said it would be found, and although some archaeologists said that it could not possibly be as old as the first century, others disagreed, and in 1967 Pope Paul VI lent his authority to those who believed that it was indeed Mary’s house by saying Mass there. Finally, there can be no proof that Mary lived there, and no proof that she didn’t; and that might seem to be the end of the story of Mary and Ephesus. But it isn’t.
For in AD 431, the third General Council of the Church took place in Ephesus, in order to settle once and for all some highly contentious points of theological doctrine, which were dividing the Christian world into factions, and which centred on Mary - or rther, on whetrher she should be called the Mother of God or not - the Theotokos. I don’t want to send you all screaming out of the room, tearing your hair out in great bunches, as I describe the theological arguments in detail, but if I don’t say anything about them at all, you won’t get a picture of the world of the day; and that would be a pity.
So what was wrong with calling Mary the Theotokos? The Mother of God? Everyone agreed that she had been the mother of Jesus, and everyone agreed, too, that Jesus had been both man and God. But this was where questions began. Were there two separate persons, one divine and the other human, in Jesus? Or was there only one person, at once both human and divine in what was called a hypostatic union in Jesus? If the latter was the case -and it was the orthodox view, which eventually triumphed - Mary could indeed by called the Mother of God; but if the former was the case, presumably Mary had given birth only to the human baby not to the pre-existent God, and could not be called the Mother of God.
It was all wildly Greek, and of course, it was much more subtle than that, both sides trying to analyse, define, and intellectually comprehend a mystery - a bit like putting some ravishingly beautiful work of art on a table and saying. ‘Now let us dissect this beautiful thing and discover exactly where the dried pigment and ancient canvas ends and the beauty begins!’ But it did not seem like that at the time - or to the Greek mind. Passions were roused, saintly bishops denounced holy patriarchs as abominable heretics and holy Patriarch accused saintly bishops of being lovers of evil, until, eventually, intellectual integrity satisfied, the orthodox view prevailed; a few losers were demoted and sent home to the monasteries to die, while most of the rest kissed each other and decided to live in peace and acknowledge that Mary was indeed the Theotokos, the Mother of God.
What fascinates me and what no one seems to have noticed - or did they? I don’t really know - was that all this happened in Ephesus, Ephesus of all places, which had been the home for thousands of years of the great Mother goddess, Diana of the Ephesians. For millennia people in that part of the world and all round the Mediterranean had worshipped the great Mother goddesses of the ancient world - Cybele, Artemis, Isis - before anyone had ever heard of Mary; and the conclusion seems to be inescapable that what was really happening was that, as the old mother goddesses slowly died - in fact, they were still very much alive in country districts for centuries to come -the gap they left in people’s lives and devotions was filled by Mary the Mother of God - the Theotokos - their heiress, who adopted and slowly transformed their worship, most people, I think, would say, for the greatly better.
I must stop. As far as I know, nothing much else of note happened in Ephesus after Mary had been confirmed as the Theotokos, until the harbour finally dried up; and on that rather sad note, I too, will dry up and and fall silent!