A Christian walking the streets of Ephesus in the mid-second century would have seen signs of material splendor and prosperity—the recently built Library of Celsus at the entrance to the commercial agora, the temples and other building projects initiated under the emperor Hadrian, the Roman remodeling of the great theater, the new Vedius Gymnasium and baths, and other amenities of a flourishing urban life. He could have conversed about current philosophical interests—Middle Platonic metaphysics, Stoic ethics, Aristotelian science. He may have been aware of flourishing literary activity from authors such as the clever satirist Lucian of Samosata.

The religious, political, economic, and cultural life of Ephesus was dominated by the cult of Artemis, whose magnificent temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, though other cults flourished as well. The association of the imperial cult with Artemis testified to the pervasive presence of the Roman Empire.

During the second century, the empire reached its height geographically (under Emperor Trajan) and economically (under Hadrian and the Antonines). Underneath this success, however, were reasons for uneasiness. Emperor Marcus Aurelius struggled mightily against barbarians on the frontiers. Books about history by Pausanias, Plutarch, Athenaeus, and others reflected a general feeling that the older customs were better and that something had been lost in the new Roman age. Movements such as the Neopythagoreans and Christian Encratites took a negative view of the material world. The question of the origin of evil troubled many, especially Jews and Christians who believed in a good Creator. Undercurrents pulled toward another, spiritual world.

Christians shared in this vibrant, ...

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