Acts 19 – New American Commentary

  1. Paul’s Witness to the Disciples of John (Acts 19:1–7)

1While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. 4Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7There were about twelve men in all.

19:1 Verse 1 completes the travel narrative begun in 18:23. From Phrygia the most natural route to Ephesus would have led Paul through the Lycus Valley. Here Pauline churches were later established at Colosse, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. At this point Paul did not seem to have stopped for any witness. Judging from Col 1:7, the churches were established by Paul’s coworker Epaphras, probably during the course of Paul’s Ephesian ministry. When Paul arrived at Ephesus, he encountered “some disciples.” We learn from v. 7 that there were “about twelve” of them. Evidently they were not at this point strictly Christian disciples but rather disciples of John the Baptist. Elsewhere Luke used the term “disciples” for followers of John the Baptist (cf. Luke 5:33; 7:18f.).12 He might have found a fine distinction between Baptist and Christian disciples strained. For him a true disciple of John, a completed disciple of John, was a Christian. That is the whole point of the present narrative.


19:2 Paul’s interrogation of the disciples revealed that at no point had they advanced beyond John the Baptist’s initial preaching of repentance in preparation for the coming Messiah. The NIV translation of their reply to Paul’s question “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” (v. 2) is literal, “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” John’s disciples would surely have been acquainted with the Spirit and especially with his teaching that with the coming of the Messiah the Spirit would be poured out (cf. Luke 3:16). What they would not be aware of, if they had not heard of Jesus’ death and resurrection and of the event at Pentecost, was that this proclamation of John had been fulfilled in Christ. Evidently that was the case with this group.13 They had not heard that the Spirit had been poured out. They were unaware of Pentecost.


19:3 Their reply to Paul’s second question only confirms the impression that their understanding had not progressed beyond John’s ministry. The only baptism they were aware of was John’s baptism. They knew nothing of baptism in the name of Jesus.


19:4 Paul’s statement in v. 4 is the critical point. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, preparatory to the coming of the Messiah. John’s entire role as forerunner was to prepare the people for the Messiah’s coming. The Messiah had indeed come, and he is Jesus. Thus, to be a true disciple of John was to confess Jesus, for he is the one whom John had heralded. The real deficiency of these twelve or so was not their baptism. It was much more serious. They failed to recognize Jesus as the one whom John had proclaimed, as the promised Messiah.14


19:5–6 Unlike Apollos, who had already been instructed in “the way” and who accurately taught about Jesus, this group was totally unacquainted with the gospel. They knew only John’s preparatory message. But John had prepared them well, and they immediately responded to Paul’s good news that Christ the Messiah had come; they were baptized in his name (v. 5). Paul then laid his hands on them, and they received the Spirit.


Some argue on the basis of this text that the gesture of hand-laying accompanied early Christian baptism. This, however, is the only instance in Acts where hand-laying directly follows baptism; and there is no evidence it was associated with baptism as a regular practice before a.d. 200.15 In this instance the gesture is closely associated with the disciples’ receiving the Spirit, much as with the case of the Samaritan disciples in 8:15–17. In both instances the reality of their experience was demonstrated in an ecstatic manifestation, with this group speaking in tongues and prophesying. As throughout Acts, there is no set pattern. The Spirit came at various times and in various ways. What is consistent is that the Spirit is always a vital part of one’s initial commitment to Christ and a mark of every believer.


19:7 Luke ended the narrative with the note that there were “about twelve” of these disciples (v. 7). One could be tempted to see a symbolism here, such as that they were the apostolic nucleus of the Ephesian church. It is unlikely that any special sense should be attached to their number. Luke certainly made nothing of it.

  1. Paul’s Preaching in Ephesus (19:8–12)

8Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. 11God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

This section gives a brief summary of Paul’s long period of ministry in Ephesus, covering both his testimony to Christ (vv. 8–10) and the miracles accomplished through him (vv. 11–12).


19:8 According to his customary pattern, his witness began in the synagogue. He had already made a preliminary appearance in the Ephesian synagogue and had been asked to stay (cf. 18:19f.). Now he fulfilled the invitation, returning for a longer presentation of Christ, speaking “boldly” there as Apollos had before him (cf. 18:26). The Ephesian Jews seem to have been open to his witness because he was able to debate with them about the kingdom of God for a period of three months before opposition arose.


19:9 Not all the Jews resisted Paul but only a group within the synagogue who became hardened in their disbelief, maligning the message of Jesus the Messiah as the true “Way” for God’s people. Some of the Jews had become Christian believers, and Paul took them with him and moved to another location for presenting his testimony. The new site was the lecture hall of Tyrannus. We know nothing of Tyrannus, whether he was the owner of the building or a teacher who taught there. If the latter, one wonders if his students saw him as living up to his name, “the Tyrant.” The Western text adds to v. 9 that Paul taught there between the fifth and the tenth hour, i.e., between eleven a.m. and four p.m. This is altogether plausible since these hours would constitute the heat of the day when most Asians took an extensive siesta. The hall would likely have been vacant at such a time, and Paul would have taken a break from his own trade during this period (cf. 20:34).


19:10 Since it was a public setting, the new site offered the opportunity to reach Greeks as well as Jews, thus affording all the inhabitants of Asia the chance to hear the gospel. Luke said that the witness in the hall of Tyrannus continued for a period of two years. When this is added to the initial three months in the synagogue plus the “little longer” of v. 22, one arrives at the three years or so Paul later gave as the length of his Ephesian ministry (20:31).


That Paul made no definitive statement to the Ephesian synagogue about turning exclusively to the Gentiles is noteworthy. A number of the Ephesian Jews did become disciples, and Paul seems to have continued his witness to the Jews there after moving from the synagogue (v. 10; cf. 20:21). The Jews of Ephesus were evidently seriously divided over Christ. On the one hand, there were those who became believers. On the other, there were those who strongly opposed Paul. It would indeed be some of these “Asian Jews” who would provoke mob action against Paul in Jerusalem (cf. 21:27f.).16


19:11–12 The other aspect of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus involved the miracles God worked through him. Luke described these as being “extraordinary,” which is something of an understatement. The people would take cloths Paul had touched and carry them to the sick for healing. The words used for the cloths are both Latin loan-words, and their meaning is not absolutely clear. One is soudaria, which could refer either to handkerchiefs (as the NIV) or to “sweat bands” tied around the head. The other, simikinthia, are variously seen as aprons tied around the waist or towels used for wiping off perspiration. Whichever translation is followed, the basic idea is the same. The people believed that even the cloths that had touched the apostle’s body had healing efficacy, and Luke indicated that such was indeed the case.


This practice often strikes the modern mind as too close to the relic worship that plagued the medieval church. It is, however, present in other New Testament miracle traditions—the healing hem of Jesus’ garment (Mark 5:27–34; 6:56) and the healing shadow of Peter (Acts 5:15). Perhaps it is to be viewed as God’s accommodation to the mind-set of the people of that age. In any event, the miracles wrought by the apostles are never presented as ends in themselves but always as opportunities, assistance to faith and commitment. That is true in the present instance. The power of God manifest in Paul’s miracles ultimately led to the Ephesians’ overcoming their magic and superstition (cf. 19:17–20).


There was a final aspect to Paul’s Ephesian ministry which Luke did not elaborate but which can be gleaned from Paul’s letters. It was a period of extensive interaction with his churches elsewhere. This is particularly true of Corinth. First Corinthians was written from Ephesus, and during this period Paul seems to have made a brief, unpleasant visit to Corinth to deal with the troubles in that congregation (2 Cor 2:1). A number of scholars would date Paul’s Prison Epistles from his Ephesian ministry, but this is predicated upon Paul’s having been imprisoned in Ephesus, a matter that is open to serious question.17 Many scholars would see Galatians as being written during the course of Paul’s Ephesian ministry. This was also the period during which Paul began to organize his collection for Jerusalem (cf. 1 Cor 16:1–4).18 In all it was a period of extensive activity, not just in the city of Ephesus itself but throughout Paul’s mission in the Greek world.

  1. Paul’s Encounter with False Religion in Ephesus (19:13–20)

The example of Paul’s genuine miracle-working is followed by two episodes that involve false attempts to accomplish the miraculous. The first relates the unsuccessful attempt of a group of Jewish exorcists to use the name of Jesus in their practice (vv. 13–16). The second shows the triumph of the gospel over magic and the occult (vv. 17–20).

(1) Jewish Exorcists (19:13–16)

13Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” 14Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15[One day] the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” 16Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.

19:13 Paul’s miracles had an impact on the wrong element as well as those genuinely seeking his help. Much as Simon Magus had been enamored with Philip’s miracle-working, a group of itinerant Jewish exorcists had observed how Paul drove out evil spirits by invoking the name of Jesus and undertook to do the same themselves. In the Greco-Roman world, Jewish exorcists were held in high esteem for the venerability of their religion and the strangeness of their Hebrew incantations. Magicians and charlatans were omnipresent in the culture, offering various cures and blessings by their spells and incantations, all for a financial consideration. The more exotic the incantation, the more effective it was deemed to be.


A number of magical papyri from the ancient world have been discovered. These consist of various spells that often invoke the names of foreign gods and employ various kinds of gibberish. In the Paris collection of magical papyri, various Old Testament terms are found, such as Iao (for Yahweh), Abraham, and Sabaoth, terms which would have sounded exotic to Greeks and Romans. One spell reads, “I abjure thee by Jesus, the God of the Hebrews.” Another from the same papyrus reads, “Hail, God of Abraham, hail, God of Isaac, hail, God of Jacob, Jesus Chrestus, Holy Spirit, Son of the Father.”19 Ancient magicians were syncretists and would borrow terms from any religion that sounded sufficiently strange to be deemed effective. These Jewish exorcists of Ephesus were only plying their trade. Paul’s “spell” in Jesus’ name seemed effective for him, so they gave it a try.


19:14 The attempt backfired. The group that made it were seven in number and are described as the sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva (v. 14). The reference to Sceva’s high priesthood creates a problem. Josephus lists all the names of the Jewish high priests up to the fall of the temple, and none is named Sceva. Evidently the scribes of the Western text were the first to note this, for they altered the text to simply read “priest,” not “high priest.”20 More recent scholars have taken other routes to solve the problem, such as arguing that Sceva was not a Jewish but a pagan high priest.21 Now it is true that the same term, “high priest” (archiereus), was often used in pagan cults, indeed in the imperial cult at Ephesus; but Luke plainly described this high priest as Jewish. Perhaps the key is that Sceva belonged to one of the priestly families from whom the high priests were drawn, i.e., he belonged to the high priestly “circle.”22 Perhaps Sceva or those who claimed to be his sons made a false claim to a high priestly lineage in order to enhance their reputation. As high priest, the only one who could enter the holy of holies, he would have been deemed to have extraordinary powers among those who practiced the magical arts.


19:15–16 Whoever these would-be exorcists were, their attempt to invoke Jesus’ name failed. It is interesting that the targeted demon, not Paul, was responsible for their undoing. Luke must have enjoyed writing this episode. It is filled with humor. Upon their abjuration, the demon responded: “Jesus I know [ginōskō], and Paul I respect [epistamai], but who are you?” (author’s translation). As so often with the exorcisms performed by Jesus, the demon confessed Jesus and even acknowledged that the power of Jesus worked through Paul. He was, however, not about to yield any turf to these seven. They had no power over him whatever. He turned on them with a vengeance, overpowered them, and sent them running naked from the house.23 With the extreme sense of modesty characteristic of Judaism, the nakedness of the Jewish exorcists was almost symbolic of their total humiliation in the incident.


Two lessons emerge from the story. For one, Christianity has nothing to do with magic. The name of Jesus is no magical incantation. The power of Jesus drives out the demonic, and his Spirit only works through those who, like Paul, confess him and are committed to him. Second, the demon did confess the power of Jesus over him, “Jesus I know.” Compare Jas 2:19, “Even the demons believe and shudder.” The people of Ephesus recognized this and extolled the powerful name of Jesus as a result (v. 17). What was true for them is still true. In the name of Jesus is all the power needed to drive out the demonic forces in every age.

(2) Overcoming Magic (19:17–20)

17When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. 18Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. 19A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. 20In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

19:17–18 The demon’s acknowledgment of Jesus and the reversal of power on the unauthorized exorcists had its effect on the Ephesians. Obviously the name of Jesus was powerful and not to be toyed with. A reverent fear seized them, and they magnified the name of the Lord Jesus. For some it taught an even more profound lesson. These were Christians who had delved in the magical arts before their conversion who now came and openly confessed their former deeds (v. 18).24 On their part this was more than a confession of former ways. It was a commitment to forsake such practices altogether.


Ephesus was reputed as a center for magic. The famous statue of Artemis, the centerpiece of her temple, was noted for the mysterious terms engraved on the crown, girdle, and feet of the image. Referred to as the “Ephesian scripts,” this magical gibberish was considered to have great power.25 It was not by accident that Paul’s encounter with magic took place in Ephesus, nor is it a surprise that his converts there had been involved in such practices. Magic was part of Ephesian culture. Nor should one question the integrity of these Ephesian Christians who only now openly forsook such ways. Salvation involves a process of growth, of increasing sanctification. And after all, the Ephesian spells were not that remote from the horoscopes and board games that supposedly communicate telepathic messages with which many Christians dabble in our own day.


19:19 The Ephesian abandonment of magic was not without some personal sacrifice. Their magical books must have been much like the papyrus collections that have been unearthed and are now on display in museums in Paris, Berlin, Rome, and London. All ancient books were expensive, but magical collections brought a considerable premium. Luke estimated the value of those burned in Ephesus at 50,000 pieces of silver. If the piece of silver concerned is the drachma, the most common Greek silver coin, that would come to about $35,000 in current silver value.26 Translated into terms of living standards, however, the sum was greater still, since the drachma was an average day’s wage.


19:20 Verse 20 provides a summary of Paul’s Ephesian ministry, much like the summaries at 6:7 and 12:24, which also refer to the growth of the word.27 The word bore fruit as more and more people responded in faith to the preaching of Paul and to the witness of the Ephesian Christians through such examples as their personal sacrifice in the public burning of their magical books. As a summary v. 20 provides a closure to Luke’s treatment of Paul’s Ephesian witness. Now, toward the end of his Ephesian period, two matters remain to be related: a major decision regarding Paul’s future (vv. 21–22) and a final tumultuous episode involving the temple of Artemis (vv. 23–41).

  1. Paul’s Determination to Go to Jerusalem (19:21–22)

21After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. “After I have been there,” he said, “I must visit Rome also.” 22He sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he stayed in the province of Asia a little longer.

19:21 While in Ephesus, toward the end of his ministry there, Paul made a major decision. He determined to conclude his mission in the east and to move farther westward to Rome. The best commentary on this passage is Paul’s own discussion of his plans in Rom 15, which was written from Corinth probably within a year or so of this point in the Ephesian ministry. There Paul spoke of his desire to carry on a mission in Spain and the western portion of the empire, probably hoping that Rome would sponsor him in the undertaking (Rom 15:24, 28). As in Acts 19:21, he explained that his route must first take him to Jerusalem. Acts is silent about the reason for going first to Jerusalem, but Paul explained to the Romans that a collection for the Jerusalem Christians necessitated his going there before proceeding to Rome (Rom 15:25–31).28 This also explains the reference to his visiting Macedonia and Achaia in Acts 19:21. Paul made it a point to revisit and strengthen his congregations, but in this particular instance his epistles reveal that he was particularly preoccupied with the collection on this final visit to Macedonia and Achaia.


Paul’s decision to go to Rome marks a major transition in the story line of Acts. From this point on, the narrative will continually drive toward Rome as Paul’s final destination. For the more immediate context of Acts, his determination to go to Jerusalem begins an additional emphasis, his journey to Jerusalem, which occupies Acts 20:1–21:16. In many ways it parallels Jesus, “who resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Throughout Acts 20:1–21:16 is an ominous note concerning what awaited Paul in Jerusalem, just as there was for Jesus in the city that “kills the prophets” (Luke 13:33f.).


19:22 Paul sent two of his coworkers ahead into Macedonia to prepare for his own coming. Timothy was last mentioned in 18:5, where he had joined Paul at Corinth. It is quite possible that he accompanied Paul with Priscilla and Aquilla to Ephesus (18:18) and remained there. Erastus was a Corinthian and is mentioned in Paul’s greetings in both Rom 16:23 and 2 Tim 4:20. Whether or not this is the same Erastus referred to on a paving stone excavated at Corinth is open to question.29 The primary mission of these two in Macedonia likely was in connection with Paul’s collection for Jerusalem.30

  1. Opposition to Paul by the Craftsmen of Ephesus (19:23–41)

In direct opposition to the Ephesian Christians, who were willing to make a monetary sacrifice for their faith, were the pagan craftsmen of Ephesus, who found Paul’s witness to be damaging their financial interests. They succeeded in provoking a considerable public demonstration against Paul. The remainder of chap. 19 is devoted to this incident, which consists of three scenes: the instigation of the riot by Demetrius (vv. 23–27), the uproar in the theater (vv. 28–34), and the pacification of the crowd by the city clerk (vv. 35–41).31

(1) Instigation of a Riot by Demetrius (19:23–27)

23About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in no little business for the craftsmen. 25He called them together, along with the workmen in related trades, and said: “Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. 26And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that man-made gods are no gods at all. 27There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited, and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”

19:23–24 Throughout the Ephesian narrative, Luke referred to Christianity as “the Way.” In 18:26 Priscilla and Aquilla explained “the Way” more fully to the somewhat deficient Christian Apollos (cf. v. 25). In 19:9 some of the Jews in the Ephesian synagogue opposed Paul’s message as being a valid “way” for them. Here in v. 23 a new resistance to the Way arises, this time from the pagan worshipers of Artemis. The whole incident was instigated by one of the silversmiths of Ephesus named Demetrius. His own trade consisted of fabricating silver shrines of Artemis, i.e., silver replicas of the temple of Artemis for which Ephesus was renowned. The manufacture of such shrines was a common practice. Pilgrims would purchase them for use in their own home altars or as a votive offering to be presented to the temple. Replicas of the Ephesian temple of Artemis have been unearthed; they usually were made of terra cotta.32 None has yet been found in silver, though silver images of the goddess Artemis have been discovered as well as numerous silver coins bearing an image of the temple.33 That no silver shrines have been located is likely because their considerable metallic value would have made them a prime target for the melting pots of looters through the centuries.


The temple of Artemis was indeed a hub of Ephesian economic life. It was an impressive building, some 165 feet by 345 feet in dimension and built on a platform 240 by 420 feet. The entire edifice was elaborately adorned in brilliant colors and gold leaf. The altar area was 20 feet square and contained a massive image of the goddess with a veiled head, with animals and birds decorating her head and lower body and numerous breasts from her waist to her neck.34 The animals and breasts were symbolic of her status as the ancient Asian Mother Goddess, the goddess of nature who was believed to protect and preserve the fecundity of all living things.


In Ephesus the worship of the goddess centered around the Artemision, a week in the spring dedicated to the goddess. The highlight of the festivities was a solemn processional in which the image of the goddess was carried through the streets between the theater and the temple. Throughout the week there were numerous events, including ritual plays and dances. In former times the primary attendants of the goddess were self-emasculated priests, but there is some question whether the Romans allowed such practices in the cult of Paul’s day.35 Artemis worship was not confined to Ephesus. There was a sanctuary in Rome also and a similar festival there every April. All told there were at least thirty-three shrines to the mother goddess throughout the Roman Empire, and it was perhaps the most popular cult of all. Ephesus was considered to be the center of the cult, and pilgrims flocked from all over the empire to worship at its famous temple, especially during the spring Artemision. Economics and religion were closely bound. The temple received lavish votive offerings from the devotees of the mother goddess. In fact, so wealthy was it that it became the principal financial institution of Asia, receiving deposits and making loans.36


19:25 It was not by accident then that Demetrius mixed economics and religion in his appeal to his fellow craftsmen. In Ephesus the two were closely linked. Luke left no doubt that Demetrius’s real concern was the damage Paul’s preaching was doing to his economic interests. Still, as a skilled demagogue Demetrius was quick to bring religion and patriotism into the picture, which were much more prone to get the public attention. Note that he began by assembling all his fellow craftsmen and the workers who assisted them. To them he laid out the real issue: “We receive a good income from this business” (v. 25).37


19:26–27 He then presented the threat. “It is this fellow Paul,” probably said with a sneer, “who is causing all the trouble” (author’s paraphrase). Paul was said to be leading astray (literally, “seducing”) all the people in Ephesus and throughout Asia, denying that idols were real gods. One only needs to refer to Paul’s Areopagus speech (cf. 17:29) to realize that this was indeed the case. If the people took Paul’s message seriously, Demetrius’s sales would plummet. Knowing that this rational appeal probably would not suffice, Demetrius then appealed to their emotions. Paul was said to be endangering religion, discrediting the reputation of Artemis, robbing her of her greatness. In his reference to her cult being spread throughout the whole world there was an implicit appeal to civic pride: “The great temple of Artemis is here in Ephesus. Its reputation through all the world is based on the fame of this temple. To attack Artemis is to attack Ephesus” (author’s paraphrase).38


In all fairness to Demetrius, his argument was not without solid foundation. Paul did preach forcefully against idolatry and was indeed a threat to anyone who made a living from idols. He was likewise a genuine threat to the Artemis cult. He considered not only her images but the goddess herself as “no god at all.” But one should not miss the real point of Demetrius’s opposition. It was not his piety that was offended but his pocketbook. For Paul to hold his sessions in the hall of Tyrannus was one thing. People could listen to his teachings all they wanted. But when those teachings began to have ramifications for the town economy, that was quite another matter. It may well have been around the time of the spring Artemision that Paul’s attack on idolatry became most vehement.39 If so, the craftsmen’s ire is understandable. It would be equivalent to someone’s standing at the entrance of Churchill Downs in my own hometown during Derby week and preaching against horse racing. The gospel is always at its most controversial when it comes into conflict with economic interests.

(2) Uproar in the Theater (19:28–34)

28When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and rushed as one man into the theater. 30Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. 32The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 33The Jews pushed Alexander to the front, and some of the crowd shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. 34But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

19:28–31 Demetrius’s appeal had the desired effect, with all the craftsmen running forth and shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Note that it was his appeal to religious and civic pride that was picked up. They were not shouting “our business is in danger,” even if that was the real issue. A crowd quickly formed and joined in the chant. Two of Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia were seized. One was Aristarchus, from Thessalonica according to Acts 20:4. Gaius, a common name, is likely not the one mentioned in Acts 20:4, who is said to have come from Derbe, which was not in Macedonia.40

The two probably were seized in lieu of Paul, who was not present. Although he would have liked to have addressed the crowd, his fellow Christians realized the extreme danger and held him back. Likewise, the Asiarchs sent Paul an urgent message not to venture into the mob (v. 31). The exact role of the Asiarchs is not entirely clear, but their existence is well documented on numerous inscriptions found throughout Asia. Their primary role seems to have been connected with the maintenance of the imperial cult in Asia.41 Significantly, they are described as Paul’s “friends,” indicating that Paul was well-respected by his fellow Roman citizens in high places. Their gesture in this instance was entirely friendly because they were concerned for Paul’s personal safety.


The mob rushed into the theater, the largest public building in Ephesus (v. 29). It was an open-air amphitheater, 495 feet in diameter, built onto the western slope of Mt. Pion. Its seating capacity has been estimated at 24,500. Town meetings were held there, and since the technical term for town meeting (dēmos) occurs in vv. 30, 33, it could be that this was considered a sort of emergency meeting of the popular assembly. The term dēmos is often used, however, in the general sense of “the populace”; and since this occasion was so unruly, the NIV probably is correct in translating it “crowd.” The same applies to the term assembly (ekklēsia), which occurs in v. 32.42 Although this is the usual term for a gathering of the populace, a town meeting, the picture here is of an unruly gathering, not a formally constituted assembly.


19:32–34 The scene was one of utter confusion, some shouting one thing, some another. The majority had merely succumbed to mob mentality and did not know what was going on (v. 32). The scene with Alexander the Jew only added to the confusion. What was his role, and why did the Jews push him forward to address the crowd?43 Very likely it was to disassociate the Jews from the Christians. The Jews wanted the crowd to know that they had done nothing to impugn Artemis, that they were no threat to the Ephesian cult. Whatever his purpose in getting before the crowd, Alexander had no opportunity to speak. His voice was drowned out by the din of the incessant chant “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.” This went on for two hours. Only the city clerk prevented the rally from developing into a full riot.

(3) Pacification by the City Clerk (19:35–41)

35The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Men of Ephesus, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? 36Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to be quiet and not do anything rash. 37You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. 38If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. 39If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. 40As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of today’s events. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” 41After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

19:35–36 Alexander may not have been able to seize the crowd’s attention. The town clerk, however, had no difficulty quieting the commotion. He was the chief administrative officer of the city. He presided over both the council of city magistrates and the public assembly and was the liaison officer between the city and the Roman provincial administration.44 His main concern was that the disturbance would make an adverse impression on the Roman officials, possibly leading to restrictions on their self-governing privileges. In order to pacify the crowd, he began by assuring them that Artemis was under no real threat (v. 35). “Doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven?”45 What earthly power could threaten her? The clerk’s reference to an “image … from heaven” probably meant a meteorite. Meteorites were often associated with the worship of the Mother Goddess. The most famous of these was the sacred stone taken from Pessinus to Rome in 204 b.c. A meteorite also seems to have been associated with the cult of the Taurian Artemis.46 Although there is no evidence beyond this text for such a sacred stone being connected with the Ephesian cult, it is altogether likely that one existed, given this common association of the mother goddess with a “stone from heaven.”


19:37 Having assured the Ephesians that their cult was in no real danger, the clerk then dealt with the legal ramifications of the riot. He first pointed out that the two Christians whom they had seized were not guilty of any crime. They had not blasphemed the goddess or robbed the temple (v. 37). Probably by the latter was meant that they had not robbed the temple of the respect due it. If there was any illegality involved, it was not on the part of the Christians but rather of the Ephesians. They were running the risk of being charged with unlawful assembly.


19:38–39 The clerk then outlined the two primary legal avenues Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen could follow if they had any grievances against the Christians. There was the provincial court conducted by the Roman proconsul on set days (v. 38). There was also the regular town assembly (ekklēsia, v. 39). This mob might represent more than the usual turnout for a regular meeting of the dēmos in the theater, but this was not a regular day for the town meeting and was certainly not being conducted in an orderly fashion.47


19:40–41 The clerk then clinched his argument. The Ephesians were running the danger of being charged with insurrection, since they really had no legally valid basis for their unruly behavior (v. 40). A subtlety occurs in the text at this point. A rather rare word occurs in vv. 27, 40, the verb meaning to be in danger, to be running a risk (kindyneuō). In v. 27 Demetrius argued that Paul was a danger to Ephesus. In v. 40 the clerk clarified where the real danger lay—not from Paul but from the unruly Ephesians. The clerk’s counsel carried the day. He dismissed the gathering, and the crowd dispersed.


One finds in this episode a theme that will continue to recur in the subsequent narrative of Acts—the innocence of the Christians with respect to the civil law. Paul was never found guilty by any Roman official. On the contrary, even if only implicitly, they pled his case, as with the friendly Asiarchs and the town clerk in this instance.


End Notes


12 Dunn (Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 83–88) notes that this is the only time in Acts that the word “disciples” occurs without a definite article and argues that this is Luke’s way of distinguishing them from Christians.

13 There is evidence for groups well into the fourth century who claimed John the Baptist as their founder. See C. H. H. Scobie, John the Baptist (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), 187–202; H. Lichtenberger, “Taufergemeinden und frühchristliche Tauferpolemik im letzen Drittel des l. Jahrhunderts,” ZTK 84 (1987): 36–57.

14 J. K. Parratt, “The Rebaptism of the Ephesian Disciples,” ExpTim 79 (1967–68): 182f.

15 See R. P. C. Hanson, The Acts, NCB (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 190f.

16 See R. C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 2:234f.

17 See G. S. Duncan, “Were Paul’s Imprisonment Epistles Written from Ephesus?” ExpTim 67 (1955–56): 163–66. Certain references in Paul’s letters indicate the possibility of an Ephesian imprisonment: the “wild beasts” he fought with in Ephesus (1 Cor 15:32), the “deadly peril” he faced in Ephesus (2 Cor 1:8–10), and the “far more imprisonments” (RSV) of 2 Cor 11:23. T. W. Manson does not agree with the hypothesis of an Ephesian imprisonment but sees Philippians as written in the course of Paul’s Ephesian ministry. He argues that Philippians was not written from prison (“St. Paul in Ephesus: The Date of the Epistle to the Philippians,” BJRL 23 [1939]: 182–200).

18 See comments on 20:3–4 for a discussion of Paul’s collection and Luke’s strange silence on the matter.

19 Both from the Paris papyrus 574, cited in K. Lake and H. J. Cadbury, eds., The Beginnings of Christianity, Part 1: The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 4: English Translation and Commentary (London: Macmillan, 1933), 241.

20 See E. Delebecque, “La Mésaventure des fils de Scévas selon ses deux Versions (Actes 19, 13–20),” RSPT 66 (1982): 225–32. W. A. Strange even argues for the Western text as having the original reading at this point (“The Sons of Sceva and the Text of Acts 19:14,” JTS 38 [1987]: 97–106).

21 See B. E. Taylor, “Acts xix.14,” ExpTim 57 (1945–46): 222.

22 See B. A. Mastin, “Scaeva the Chief Priest,” JTS 27 (1976): 405–12.

23 In v. 16 the Greek text literally has the demon overpowering them “both” (ἀμφοτέρων). This has led to various attempted solutions: that only two sons did the exorcism—G. M. Lee, “The Seven Sons of Sceva (Acts 19:13–16),” Bib 51 (1970): 237—or that “both” refers to the names of Jesus and Paul—C. Lattey, “A Suggestion on Acts xix.16,” ExpTim 36 (1924–25): 381f. The simplest solution is the observation that in koine Greek, ἀμφοτέρων is often used with the meaning all—not just two (H. G. Meechan, “Acts xix.16,” ExpTim 36 [1924–25]: 477f.).

24 Those concerned in v. 18 were evidently already confessing Christians, as the perfect tense πεπιστευκότων would indicate. That the “evil deeds” (πράξεις) were magical arts is indicated both by the context (cf. v. 19) and by the fact that πράξεις was a technical term for magic spells. Likewise, in v. 19, περίεργα was a technical term for magic arts/sorcery. See A. Deissmann, Bible Studies (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1901), 323, n. 5.

25 See B. M. Metzger, “St. Paul and the Magicians,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 38 (1944): 27–30.

26 The Attic drachma contained 67.5 grains of silver, or approximately 14 percent of a troy ounce. With silver at $5 a troy ounce, the drachma would contain about 70 cents in silver value.

27 It might also be noted that the recurrence of the phrase “word of the Lord” in vv. 10, 20 form a bracket, with vv. 10–20 exemplifying this two-year portion of his Ephesian ministry.

28 The collection is discussed in the commentary on 20:4.

29 See commentary on Acts 18:5–8. See also H. J. Cadbury, “Erastus of Corinth,” JBL 50 (1931): 42–58; W. Miller, “Who Was Erastus?” BibSac 88 (1931): 342–46.

30 For the view that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus about this time, see W. Michaelis, “The Trial of St. Paul at Ephesus,” JTS 29 (1928): 368–75; G. S. Duncan, “Paul’s Ministry in Asia—the Last Phase,” NTS 3 (1957): 211–18.

31 For a slightly different outline, which sees the phrase “Great is Artemis” as the literary dividing mark, see E. S. Fiorenza, “Miracles, Mission, and Apologetics: An Introduction,” in Aspects of Religious Propaganda in Judaism and Early Christianity (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame Press, 1976), 16f.

32 E. C. Hicks argued that Demetrius was not a craftsman but a “vestryman” of the temple, the term νεωποίος (vestryman) being confused in the tradition for ναοὺς ποιῶν (temple-maker) (“Demetrius the Silversmith: An Ephesian Study,” The Expositor 41 [1890]: 401–22).

33 For an example of a bronze image of the mother goddess from the second or first century b.c., see E. D. Reeder, “The Mother of the Gods and a Hellenistic Bronze Matrix,” American Journal of Archaeology 91 (1987): 423–40. For the image of the Artemis temple on coins, see L. J. Kreitzer, “A Numismatic Clue to Acts 19:23–41. The Ephesian Cistophori of Claudius and Agrippina,” JSNT 30 (1987): 59–70.

34 For a full discussion of the archaeology of the temple, see Beginnings, vol. 5: Additional Notes (London: Macmillan, 1933), 251–56; R. Tonneau, “Ephèse au Temps de Saint Paul,” RB 38 (1929): 5–34.

35 For a full discussion of the Artemis cult, see Tonneau, “Ephèse,” 321–59.

36 For the economic dimensions of the Artemis cult see S. E. Johnson, “The Apostle Paul and the Riot in Ephesus,” LThQ 14 (1979): 79–88.

37 The Western text has Demetrius address the group as “my fellow craftsmen,” adding an additional nuance of group mentality (E. Delebecque, “La Revolte des Orfèvres à Ephèse et ses deux Versions [Actes des Apôtres xix, 24–40],” RevThom 83 [1983]: 419–29.

38 That Ephesus did not take threats to the Artemis cult lightly is evidenced by an inscription found there, dating from several centuries b.c., which pronounces death on forty-five people from Sardis who maltreated an Ephesian embassy from the temple of Artemis. See F. Sokolowski, “A New Testimony on the Cult of Artemis of Ephesus,” HTR 58 (1965): 427–31.

39 This is likely on the basis of the mention of Paul’s sending Timothy in v. 22. If that is the sending referred to in 1 Cor 16:10, then the time is the spring, as Paul’s reference to Pentecost in 1 Cor 16:8 would indicate.

40 The scribes evidently sought to make these the same, some ancient manuscripts having “Macedonia” in 19:29 in the singular, thus making only Aristarchus a Macedonian. Others alter Derbe in 20:4 to Doub(e)rios, a town in Macedonia.

41 Asiarchs were evidently elected for one-year terms, there being one for each city where there was an imperial shrine, which would make for three or four in Paul’s day. See Beginnings 5:256–62.

42 Ἐκκλησία is the term used throughout the NT for the Christian assembly, the church. Behind the NT usage, however, stands not the Greek town meeting but the LXX rendering of the Hebrew term qahal (the “called out” people of God) by the Greek ἐκκλησία.

43 The Western text has the crowd “pull down” Alexander in place of “prompting” him in v. 33. It is probably best not to attempt an identification of this Alexander with the coppersmith of the Pastorals (1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 4:14). Alexander was a common name. For the view that the Demetrius episode has as its purpose to identify with Judaism and its privileges within the Roman rule, see R. F. Stoops, Jr., “The Social Context of Acts 19:23–41,” JBL 108 (1989): 73–91.

44 See A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 86f.

45 The term “guardian of the temple” (νεωκόρος) was a term often used for a city renowned for its temple. Josephus, for instance, spoke of Israel as God’s temple keeper (War 5.378). See F. Filson, “Ephesus and the New Testament,” BA 8 (1945): 80. The terminology of θεός/θεά used in Acts 19:27, 37 for Artemis fits the known usage for the Ephesian cult. See S. M. Baugh, “Phraseology and the Reliability of Acts,” NTS 36 (1990): 290–94.

46 See F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, NIC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 397f.

47 According to Chrysostom (Hom. 42:2), the Ephesian ἐκκλησία met three times a month.

John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 398–414.


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