Christian History Mary (as) Rome

Euphesus – Turning Points for Christianity

Introduction The town of Ephesus (modern Efes) is on the western coastline of Turkey. Nowadays, there is a small local town called Selçuk nearby, but Ephesus is now a popular tourist destination with so much of its Roman heritage still visible. Probably the most striking structures are the theatres (O d e i o n) and the impressive Library of Celsus, which at one time held 12,000 volumes. At the dawn of Christianity, Ephesus was the capital of Asia Minor (having been given that honour by the Roman Emperor Augustus in place of Pergamon) and was the meeting point of the east and west, both for trade and ideas. It had a population of some 250,000 people (mainly Greeks) at the time and there was a large community of Jews in the city. Ephesus was at that time one of the major centres of the Roman world alongside cities such as Corinth, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. It was the major seaport of Asia. Its people also had a strong interest in pagan religion and were soon to build an industry around the worship of a goddess. Pagan Beliefs Ephesus was subject to a wide range of religious influences due to its strategic location between Europe and Asia, just as Istanbul would centuries later. 34 The Review of Religions – August 2003 Ephesus – Turning Points for Christianity By Fazal Ahmad– UK On the South-West coast of Turkey is the town of Efes, historically known as Ephesus. It is known for its historical Roman ruins – a theatre, palaces, temples – but more crucially, this town seems to have played a major role in the history and shaping of modern Christianity. In this article, we take a look at the different influences that the people and background of the town provided. From the 6th century BC, Ephesus hosted the grand Temple of Artemis; Artemis being the ancient Roman mother goddess, and the temple became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The worship of such a mother goddess was not unusual among the pagans of the time with similar cults springing up elsewhere around Diana, Cybele, Isis in Egypt, and the goddess of Çatalhöyük. The significant position of a mother goddess in Ephesus was to have a dramatic effect on Christianity centuries later. Ephesus came under Persian influence when it was seized by Cyrus the Great in 546 BC. Two centuries later while still part of the Persian Empire, the Temple of Artemis actually burned to the ground in 356 BC. A few years later in 334 BC, the city was captured by Alexander the Great as part of the Macedonian Greek world, and under his influence the temple began to be re-built 35 Ephesus – Turning Points for Christianity The Review of Religions – August 2003 Paul’s Missionary Journeys but was not complete until 250 BC. From 133 BC, Ephesus came under the direct control of Rome and the Romans built up Ephesus as a major trading port. It was at this point that the city gained its great power and status. Near the ancient Roman ruins of Ephesus is the Church of the Vi rgin Mary built in the 2nd century, and the first such church dedicated to Mary. This was the venue for the major Church Council of Ephesus in 431 CE, which will be discussed later. The Church was originally a Roman Business Centre housing many shops, but was later converted into a Basilica in the 4th century. The Romans still held on to their pagan beliefs and by now had started to treat their Emperors as gods just as the Egyptians had done centuries earlier with their Pharaohs. Emperors such as Nero and Domitian used the city to boost their own egos and to ‘encourage’ the locals to worship them and pay their dues. The remains of a huge statue of Domitian was discovered years ago that adds weight to this. The Temple of Artemis was now devoted to Diana; again the city was the centre for the worship of the mother goddess. Other foreign deities such as Isis from Egypt had also been imported to Ephesus and were worshipped here just as we saw at Pompeii in Italy. A temple to the Egyptian goddess Serapis still stands and dates from the 2nd century CE. There are also shrines and temples dedicated to Zeus, Demeter, Pluto, Apollo, Poseidon and a host of other pagan deities inherited from the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. Paul’s Visit Paul(also known as St. Paul) had a great influence in taking the message of Jesus(as) to the non- Jews. On his third missionary j o u r n e y, Acts describes his numerous visits to Ephesus around 53 CE: When they reached Ephesus, he (Paul) left them there, but first he himself went into the 36 Ephesus – Turning Points for Christianity The Review of Religions – August 2003 synagogue and had a discussion with the Jews. (Acts 18:19) Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm, and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John … he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus. (Acts 18:24-28) When Paul visited Ephesus over the course of three years, not only was there a well-established Jewish community present with their synagogue, but also the message about the imminent arrival of the Messiah had already reached here through John the Baptist (as) (Acts 19:1-7), although not many of the followers were aware that Jesus (as) had already arrived. Scholars also point to the fact that the version of Christianity that people in Ephesus were following was from the time of Jesus(as) and John the Baptist (as) up to 30 CE, and was not up to date with the changes which had taken place in the Church between 30 – 50 CE.3 Ephesus is the place where Paul probably stayed the longest during his travels. Interestingly, given the discussion earlier about the mother goddess, Paul’s preaching received a backlash from the local silversmiths led by Demetrius who feared a drop in their business of selling silver statues of Artemis. The locals came in hundreds to protest against Paul, but despite this, Christianity soon gained many followers in the city. John of Ephesus In early Christian history, there were two notable people in Ephesus by the name of John: the apostle John also known as John the Evangelist, and later John the Elder who was still alive at the time of the Church elder 37 Ephesus – Turning Points for Christianity The Review of Religions – August 2003 Papias(60 – 130 CE).2 There were two tombs of John in Ephesus also. John the Evangelist is thought to be the St. John of the Bible and had a Basilica dedicated to him at nearby Selçuk. He is thought to have lived the last few years of his life there according to local traditions. Some of these traditions even suggest that Mary accompanied St John here around 37 CE and spent here remaining years here. Indeed, there is even a house here called the Meryemana which still attracts pilgrims today, although there are many such legends across Turkey. John the Elder is thought to have been a senior priest living in Ephesus and responsible for the Second and Third Epistles of John found in the Bible. This may also be the person responsible for the book of Revelations in the Bible. Dabbous (1997) suggests that this was actually John the Baptist, who survived an attempt on his life, traveled west through Turkey to Ephesus, and then settled on the nearby Greek island of Patmos where he received his revelations as documented in the Bible.3 There is a Tomb dedicated to St John the Baptist in the fortress situated on the rock at Ephesus. Roman Persecution The Roman Empire did not know what to make of the new religious fervour of the Christians and Jews. The Jews had been troublesome for the Roman authorities as they were anticipating the advent of a Messiah, and since the Romans had annexed Palestine, the Jews had become increasingly militant expecting that Messiah to also free them from Roman rule. Even in the second century CE, the Roman Governor Pliny (69- 113 CE) wrote to Emperor Trajan the punishment meted out to Christians for resisting worship of the Emperor. One period of persecution recorded, is under the Roman Emperor Decius in the year 250 CE when the people were told to 38 Ephesus – Turning Points for Christianity The Review of Religions – August 2003 worship their Emperor. The many Christians who refused and were steadfast in their monotheistic beliefs were persecuted. There is a legend of Maximus who is said to have been stoned, and his fellow seven sleepers and their dog were forced into their caves (more about this later).5 The famous Church historian Eusebius recorded the persecution endured by Origen, a renowned Christian philosopher under Emperor Decius in the following words: As for Origen, the terrible sufferings that befell him in the persecution … chains and bodily torments, agony in iron and in the darkness of prison; how for days on end, his legs were pulled four paces apart in the torturers stocks. 7 This was followed by the harshest persecution under the Emperor Diocletian who prohibited Christian meetings, had Churches burnt down, and many Christians were arrested, tortured, exiled and even executed.8 There is no doubt that the cruelty of the persecution inflicted on Christians by the Roman Emperors was very severe, and that the Jews and Christians living in Ephesus suff e r e d similar consequences. Cave of the Seven Sleepers The eighteenth chapter of the Holy Qur’an is Al-Kahf which has an account of how a group of young men took to caves to flee from persecution for many years. The Qur’an begins to describe the men as follows: Dost thou think that the People of the Cave and the Inscription were a wonder among our Signs? When the young men betook themselves for refuge to the Cave and said, ‘Our Lord, bestow on us m e rcy from Thyself, and provide for us right guidance in our affair.’ So We sealed up their ears in the Cave for a number of years. (Ch.18: Vs.10 – 12) 39 Ephesus – Turning Points for Christianity The Review of Religions – August 2003 Some say ‘They were three, the fourth was their dog,’ and others say ‘They were five, the sixth was their dog’, guessing at random. … And they stayed in their Cave t h ree hundred years, and added nine more. (Ch.18: Vs.23 – 26) Not far from the old Roman ruins at Ephesus near Mount Pion is a l a rge cave structure known locally as the Caves of the Seven Sleepers. The cave is a network of catacombs and caves just a mile from the old city. The caves were discovered in 1928 by Franz Miltner, an Austrian archaeologist. The complex consists of four floors (possibly even as many as seven) and within it were two rock carved churches. Local legends speak of seven young Christians who fled from Roman persecution and refused to denounce their faith. The Imperial Guards mercilessly sealed up the caves to prevent the young men from escaping (some accounts suggest that this was done on the direct order of Emperor Decius who according to the legend had come to Ephesus to celebrate a pagan festival). According to most traditions, the boys fell asleep for 200 years, and then awoke and left the cave in search of food. They were surprised to see that Christianity had become the State religion. The duration of the stay of the group of young men has been a source of debate for many years. Some scholars argue that the meaning of verse 26 in the Holy Qur’an is that they stayed in the Cave for 300 solar years, which is approximately 309 lunar years (a lunar year is 11 days shorter than a solar year). Another interpretation is that out of a total period of 300 years, they resorted to the Caves to flee persecution for a total of 9 years. Whatever the truth of the legends, these caves are certainly more plausible than the series of burial chambers in Rome forming the great catacombs. The caves of Ephesus also show 40 Ephesus – Turning Points for Christianity The Review of Religions – August 2003 meeting rooms and places for worship whereas the complex in Rome was just for burials. The complex at Ephesus may not be the actual place of the seven sleepers, but is one of the more plausible candidates. There are other similar structures with their own legends elsewhere in Turkey in Akhisar, Sardes, Tarsus and Antakya among others. In Ephesus at the site of the caves, the story of the seven sleepers inspired the local population to the extent that they built a Church above the Grotto, and established a graveyard here with over a thousands tombs and graves placed here. Some inscriptions related to the seven sleepers have even been found here. Council of Ephesus In the year 431 CE, a hundred years after another Christian council at nearby Nicaea had created the concept of Trinity in 325 CE, another Church Council was held here in Ephesus. This time, the subject under debate was the status of Jesus’ mother, M a r y( s ). At the Council, a proposition was put forward that since Jesus(as) had been declared divine a century ago, Mary must be the Mother of god. This was opposed by Nestorius who argued that even if Jesus((9s0as) had been both human and divine as was now accepted in the Church, Mary could only have been the mother of his human nature, but even this was rejected as Nestorius was outnumbered at the Council, and thereafter, the cult of Mary was born. Modern Catholics sometimes seem to worship Mary more than anyone else, and there are tales of ‘weeping’ statues of Mary, which attract pilgrims from around the world. How ironic that the city, which for centuries was home to the pagan traditions of a mother goddess, had now hosted a conference at which Mary too had been turned into a mother goddess! Conclusions As we have seen, Ephesus has played a major role in some of the pivotal points of early 41 Ephesus – Turning Points for Christianity The Review of Religions – August 2003 Christianity. It is highly likely that John the Baptist(as) was in the vicinity and had a major influence on the local Jewish population. Later, Paul preached extensively to the pagans here. In the next few centuries, Christians suffered persecution at the hands of the Romans but survived, and as they became a force and their followers grew rapidly in number, Ephesus also hosted one of the most significant Church Councils, which was to change the status of Mary in Christianity forever. References 1. Perished Nations, Harun Yahya, Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd, London 1999. 2. John the Baptist – Part X, Maha Dabbous, Review of Religions, Vol.92, No.1, January 1997. 3. John the Baptist – Part XI, Maha Dabbous, Review of Religions, Vol.92, No.2, February 1997. 4. Jesus:the Evidence, Ian Wilson, London 1984. 5. Pagans and Christians, Robin Lane Fox, Penguin Books, London 1986. 6. Cities of the Biblical Wo r l d, Lamoine F. Devries, Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts 1997. 7. The History of the Church, Part 39, Eusebius, Penguin Books 1989. 8. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, Penguin Books 1985, p.326-327. 9. The Religions of the Roman Empire, John Ferguson, Thames & Hudson 1982. 42 Ephesus – Turning Points for Christianity The Review of Religions – August 2003