The Theater at Ephesus

In the world of the early believers, the theater was a significant institution for communicating the Hellenistic view of the world. Every major city in the Roman world had a theater, and the theater in Ephesus was spectacular. The Greek king Lysimachus originally built the theater in Ephesus during the third century BC. Emperor Claudias (AD 41-54) enlarged it, and Emperor Nero (AD 54-68) continued renovations.

The ruins remaining demonstrate how impressive the theater in Ephesus was. It had three tiers of seats and could hold an estimated twenty-five thousand people. The stage was 130 feet wide and 80 feet deep. Imagine how the theater must have roared when thousands of devotees of the goddess Artemis became angry at Paul and shouted praises to their goddess for two hours!

Although the stage building is mostly gone, it's interesting to note that the audience in Ephesus preferred no backdrop to the stage. They wanted to see life in the city beyond. The drama that took place on the stage portrayed the way the Ephesians viewed themselves; it was a reflection of their lives. In another sense, the drama portrayed the goal for which the culture was striving-who the people wanted to be. So, the people preferred to look beyond the stage to what was happening in their community.

Theaters such as the one in Ephesus were used for both entertainment and religious festivals. Regular plays, dramas (often portraying the myths of the gods), comedies, and satires typically began with sacrifices to Dionysus (the god of theater) and other deities in order to dedicate the presentation to the gods.

During a festival honoring a particular god or goddess, a procession would begin at the god's temple and parade through Ephesus. Led by priests, priestesses, and cult members, the celebrants and pilgrims would carry the symbols and statues of their deity. Passerby would honor the god with gifts or by placing incense on altars placed along the route. The procession typically ended at the theater, where the statues were placed on pedestals and worshiped. People then gave speeches, sacrificed animals, and offered the meat on altars in the stage area. Faithful devotees would then eat the roasted or boiled meat, symbolizing their communion with the deity.

Thus, it became difficult, if not impossible, for Christians in Ephesus to frequent the theater. They would not participate in sacrifices before dramatic presentations, were offended by stories of gods that the human imagination had created, and refused to eat meat sacrificed to gods that represented demonic powers. No doubt the citizens of Ephesus hated the Christians-not so much for their beliefs but for their refusal to compromise and honor the deities that other people worshiped. As emperor worship became more prevalent, Christians risked their lives to avoid such celebrations.