Making sense of the Ephesian Riot in Acts

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from the previous post on the literary genre of Acts which left dangling some unusual problems with the Ephesian Riot scene in Acts 19, two of which are:

  • Paul is not involved in the riot at all, so what is the significance of this lengthy graphic narrative?
  • A previously unmentioned Jew is put forward to address the crowd but gets nowhere: what is the narrative point of this detail?
  • Who was leading the riot, how could they hold such sway, and why do they disappear in the heat of the moment, and why is the crowd so easily persuaded to disperse?

Pervo’s Profit with Delight discussion of the Ephesian Riot scene in Acts 19 is picked up and viewed from another angle in his Dating Acts (pp.179-183). Here Pervo draws heavily on Robert Stoops’ article, Riot and Assembly: The Social Context of Acts 19:23-41.

Stoops shows how Philo and especially Josephus deployed riot scenes to argue that because the enemies of the Jews riot, the rights of the Jews ought to be respected. The narrative loose-ends of the Ephesian riot scene in Acts are resolved if we read it as if it were written with a similar purpose.

The Ephesian riot in Acts is instigated by charlatan craftsman who are motivated by nothing more noble than loss of profits from selling images as if they were gods. Would crowds by their apparent hundreds really rush to the public and vocal support of these men? This seems to be the sort of scenario only a mid to upper class snob who despised “the mob” could imagine. The point of the author here is to demonstrate the low-class and ignoble origins of the riot.

The rioters are confused. Most of them had no idea what they were doing there. Yet they could all at a word commence to launch into a chant for two solid hours in honour of their goddess. The narrator even loses sight of the instigators of the riot once it gets under way until a reference is made to them at the end. The point of the author here is to make a mockery of paganism. The author is not trying to win pagans but to make them look laughably silly.

Paul is not present, but is well enough known and respected by the ruling elites so that their first concern is to ensure that he does not do anything rash that would risk his life. Some of Paul’s companions are taken to the theatre by the mob but the silly mob seems to have no idea what to do with them and they soon disappear from the scene while the everyone in the crowd is wondering what they are all doing there. A Jew is then put forward to address the crowd and he also quickly disappears from the narrative when the crowd responds by launching into their chanting. The city clerk belatedly steps in to assert the innocence of the Christians. The point of the author here is to portray Christians as being in the same position as Jews who are so often the innocent victims of irrational mob violence and false accusation. Christians are in fact the friends of the rational elite and rulers who maintain law and order. Paul only wanted to restore order but was restrained by his ruler-friends for his own safety.

In the Pauline correspondence we read that Paul was sentenced to fight wild beasts in Ephesus (1 Cor.15:32); that both he and his companions were all facing a situation where they faced what seemed certain death or a death sentence (2 Cor.1:8-9). This implies of course that Paul was not viewed so favourably by the authorities as the author of Acts wants his readers to think. The riot scene in Ephesus is certainly the dramatic highpoint for the author of Acts, but it comes not within a barge pole length of the sort of situation the correspondence tells us Paul was facing. The point of the author here appears to be to create a very colourful smoke and mirrors adventure to replace something far less reputable that his audiences may had reason to believe from his letters.

Source of the riot story?

While Pervo does not claim that the author of Acts copied a riot scene found in Josephus’s Wars, he does observe shared structural devices and motifs (p.182):

  1. an agitator, who, acting in his own interest, proclaims
  2. a threat to the community that is associated with lack of observance of the
  3. local cult(s). The agitator whips the crowd into
  4. a frenzy in the
  5. theater, leading to general
  6. confusion, and widespread
  7. disorder based upon
  8. false charges. Both accounts deal with the place of
  9. Jews in social life — Acts most darkly, but urban antipathy toward Jews in the light of the Revolt is definitely a Lukan them in the passage. Both affairs end with the intervention of
  10. an official. In Josephus it is the legate (Roman senatorial governor). The “Clerk” at Ephesus notes that such persons are close at hand.

The the beginning of account in Josephus (War, 7:46-62, 100-111) see the online Josephus and scroll to 3.3. — or the excerpt below:

The author of Acts shows how wildly mobs can pick out scapegoats from any and all quarters. But he also uses his more extended narrative to show that only the Christians are truly and completely innocent.

The riot in Josephus:

But about this time (καθ ον δε καιφον) when the present war began, and Vespasian was newly sailed to Syria, and all men had taken up a great hatred against the Jews, then it was that a certain person, whose name was Antiochus, being one of the Jewish nation, and greatly respected on account of his father, who was governor of the Jews at Antioch came upon the theater at a time when the people of Antioch were assembled together, and became an informer against his father, and accused both him and others that they had resolved to burn the whole city in one night; he also delivered up to them some Jews that were foreigners, as partners in their resolutions. When the people heard this, they could not refrain their passion, but commanded that those who were delivered up to them should have fire brought to burn them, who were accordingly all burnt upon the theater immediately. They did also fall violently upon the multitude of the Jews, as supposing that by punishing them suddenly they should save their own city. As for Antiochus, he aggravated the rage they were in, and thought to give them a demonstration of his own conversion, arm of his hatred of the Jewish customs, by sacrificing after the manner of the Greeks; he persuaded the rest also to compel them to do the same, because they would by that means discover who they were that had plotted against them, since they would not do so; and when the people of Antioch tried the experiment, some few complied, but those that would not do so were slain. As for Ailtiochus himself, he obtained soldiers from the Roman commander, and became a severe master over his own citizens, not permitting them to rest on the seventh day, but forcing them to do all that they usually did on other days; and to that degree of distress did he reduce them in this matter, that the rest of the seventh day was dissolved not only at Antioch, but the same thing which took thence its rise was done in other cities also, in like manner, for some small time.

Now, after these misfortunes had happened to the Jews at Antioch, a second calamity befell them, the description of which when we were going about we premised the account foregoing; for upon this accident, whereby the four-square market-place was burnt down, as well as the archives, and the place where the public records were preserved, and the royal palaces, (and it was not without difficulty that the fire was then put a stop to, which was likely, by the fury wherewith it was carried along, to have gone over the whole city,) Antiochus accused the Jews as the occasion of all the mischief that was done. Now this induced the people of Antioch, who were now under the immediate persuasion, by reason of the disorder they were in, that this calumny was true, and would have been under the same persuasion, even though they had not borne an ill-will at the Jews before, to believe this man’s accusation, especially when they considered what had been done before, and this to such a degree, that they all fell violently upon those that were accused, and this, like madmen, in a very furious rage also, even as if they had seen the Jews in a manner setting fire themselves to the city; nor was it without difficulty that one Cneius Collegas, the legate, could prevail with them to permit the affairs to be laid before Caesar

And Acts 19:23-38

And about that time (κατα τον καιφον εκεινον) there arose no small stir concerning the Way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no little business unto the craftsmen; whom he gathered together, with the workmen of like occupation, and said, Sirs, ye know that by this business we have our wealth. And ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they are no gods, that are made with hands: and not only is there danger that this our trade come into disrepute; but also that the temple of the great goddess Diana be made of no account, and that she should even be deposed from her magnificence whom all Asia and the world worshippeth. And when they heard this they were filled with wrath, and cried out, saying, Great is Diana of the Ephesus. And the city was filled with the confusion: and they rushed with one accord into the theatre, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, men of Macedonia, Paul’s companions in travel.

And when Paul was minded to enter in unto the people, the disciples suffered him not. And certain also of the Asiarchs, being his friends, sent unto him and besought him not to adventure himself into the theatre.

Some therefore cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was in confusion; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together. And they brought Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward. And Alexander beckoned with the hand, and would have made a defense unto the people. But when they perceived that he was a Jew, all with one voice about the space of two hours cried out, Great is Diana of the Ephesians.

And when the townclerk had quieted the multitude, he saith, Ye men of Ephesus, what man is there who knoweth not that the city of the Ephesians is temple-keeper of the great Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter? Seeing then that these things cannot be gainsaid, ye ought to be quiet, and to do nothing rash. For ye have brought hither these men, who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius, and the craftsmen that are with him, have a matter against any man, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls: let them accuse one another.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading