For many years the letter to the Ephesians has been regarded as a general epistle or letter, addressed to wide variety of churches and therefore containing very general instruction with no specific historical context or church issue in mind. This general nature was believed to have set Ephesians apart from the other New Testament letters for which it is plain that some or other issue in the church caused or facilitated the letter being written. For example, in Corinth there was sexual immorality in the church, lawsuits amongst believers, and a wrong understanding of what it meant to be spiritual that caused Paul to write 1 Corinthians. In Galatia it was the Judaizers promoting a false gospel of faith and circumcision, and so on.
Ephesians seemed to have no such particular issue, save perhaps the general challenge of Jewish and Gentile relations in Ephesians chapter 2.
A general epistle?
However, more and more evangelical scholars are arguing that the letter to the Ephesians did indeed have a very specific (and important) context and issue in mind. In fact the challenge facing the Ephesian Christians was exactly the same issue facing many Christians today in Africa: the challenge of a deep-seated fear and uneasiness with the former supernatural powers that had previously held them spiritually captive.
First clue: Acts 19 and the birth of Alexander the Great
Acts 19 tells us of how the church is Ephesus was established. The apostle Paul preached the gospel and many people were converted, including devotees of the goddess Artemis. The cult of Artemis was no doubt the most prominent and significant cult in Ephesus during the first three centuries of the Roman Empire. Artemis was believed to be the sister of Apollo and was perhaps the most popular of the Hellenic deities. Her original temple in Ephesus was the biggest in Antiquity and was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Interestingly, the date of destruction of the first temple in 356 BC coincided with the birth of Alexander the Great. Popular opinion held that Artemis was away that day bringing Alexander into the world and had she been at home the disaster would not have happened.
The goddess’ influence was evident in the city’s political, civic, cultural, educational and economic activities. In Acts 19:21-41 Luke records the account of Paul’s economic conflict with the silversmiths’ association because of reduced sales of silver shrines of Artemis. Artemis was considered to be a supremely powerful deity, even “πρωτοθρονια” (“first throne”) and so could use her power for the benefit of her followers in the face of other opposing “powers” and spirits. She could be deadly and remorseless towards those who threatened her chastity or offended her, as demonstrated in the many legends written about her. In Ephesus it was primarily Artemis who was believed to give protection and blessing, with parents even dedicating their children to her.
Second clue: The magical papyri
The recovery of large quantities of papyri from the arid sands of Egypt, where the dry climate had preserved these documents, has massively helped New Testament scholars. The so-called “magical papyri” has been of particular use in understanding and appreciating the religious worldview of the typical first century Greco-Roman person.
The magical papyri (PGM ) , which include incantations, rituals, formulas, spells, recipes, curse tablets, amulets, and so on, are a collection of documents from Greco-Roman antiquity that illustrate the beliefs and practises of the common people of the New Testament era. Betz, in his introduction to The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, states that “Magical beliefs and practises can hardly be overestimated in their importance for the daily life of people” (Betz 1996:xli) and that “the underworld deities, the demons and the spirits of the dead, are constantly and unscrupulously exploited as the most important means for achieving the goals of human life” (Betz 1996:xlvii).
Interestingly, Luke also recorded several incidents indicating that Ephesus was a hotbed of the spiritual, exorcistic and magical activity alluded to in the magical papyri. For example, in Acts 19:19 Luke described how the recent converts to Christianity who had previously been involved in sorcery came to burn their magic scrolls.
PGM LXX.4-24 (in the magical papyri) contains a prayer/chant to Hekate, who is identifiable as Artemis, for protection from underworld punishment (Betz 1996:332). Artemis also heard prayers for safety and salvation and was able to heal. The main role of Artemis was therefore protectress and saviour. Yamauchi sums it up well when he says, “There can be no doubt that both the Old Testament and the New Testament were born in environments permeated with magical beliefs and practises” (Yamauchi 1983:169).
Ancient Ephesus, we can conclude, was a hotbed of spirit realm belief and veneration.
A word on magic
Clinton Arnold defines “magic” as the belief that supernatural powers could be harnessed and used by appropriating the correct technique. Magic was very definitely widespread and commonplace in Ephesus and ordinary men and women practised its various forms in order to secure help and favours from the gods. Among the practises there were: love potions, love charms, curses, the evil eye, spells for protection, incantations to spirit guides and apotropaic formulas against hostile powers. The entire Roman-Greco world, particularly western Asia Minor including Ephesus, was steeped in mystery religions, magic and astrology. (Today we might call this the occult or black magic).
Third clue: The Ephesian letter itself
It seems very probable and logical that this religious worldview and the widespread belief in supernatural “powers” influencing human life exerted a significant pressure on the Paul’s choice of words, concepts and terms as he wrote his letter to the Ephesian Christians.
The apostle Paul seemingly wrote his letter to instruct and comfort believers who were perhaps unsure of the implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ on their old religious worldview. “Paul’s converts had disposed of their magical charms, leaving themselves unprotected and vulnerable to their enemies (both celestial and terrestrial)” and needed to be reassured and instructed. The Jesus that Paul preached was crucified like a common criminal and was treated with contempt by the religious and civil authorities. Paul himself, Jesus Christ’s apostle, was locked up in prison (Ephesians 4:1, 6:20). How then could Paul’s redefined monotheism (thanks N.T. Wright!) of Jesus Christ as Lord and King compete in the religious arena of the contemporary multi-theism? In authoring Ephesians, Paul sought, among other things, to deal with these concerns.
We will see that, according to Paul, the “powers” are not in control and the believers were not in any way in bondage to them, nor did they need to placate them. The Ephesian believers were not to live in fear of magic, demonic reprisals or the dreaded evil eye because Christ Jesus is superior to all other “powers” and the power of God that was at work in Christ Jesus was now being wielded for their benefit.
Jesus in Africa
The letter to the Ephesians will thus be of great help to Christian people in Africa who too are dealing with conflicting pressures and varying degrees of cultural tension concerning their previous beliefs of African Tradition Religion.
If my child falls seriously ill should I visit the sangoma (witchdoctor) in case of a curse? Can Jesus protect my family or should I ask the ancestors just in case? Do I need the blessing of the ancestors for my new marriage? Is Jesus powerful enough to protect me from the tokoloshe (a mischievous evil spirit in African mythology)? Ephesians leaves us in no doubt.
We will continue to look at Paul’s teachings in Ephesians in the next blog.