Settling Down in Ephesus
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
AWhen Paul left Antioch-on-the-Orontes for good in the late spring of AD 52 he had a clear objective in mind. He was going to rejoin Prisca and Aquila in Ephesus, which was to be his base for the foreseeable future.
On his way to Ephesus Paul made a long detour to visit the Galatians. It had been four years since he had seen them, and he was anxious to see how they had integrated Christianity into their lives. What he found was a disappointment. They had stagnated.
The Galatians believed that they were living in a moral minefield. The few indications regarding the Christian life that Paul had given them were only small flickering flames that did not show them where the dangers lay. Thus they did the minimum of which they could be sure. They took no risks.
To say that Paul was exasperated is an understatement. He boiled with frustration. Bombarded by questions ‘What must/should I do?’, he replied only, “You have been set free for freedom. Use it!” Galatians 5:1. With dismay he contrasted their petrified fear with the brisk initiative of the Corinthians.
When he left Pessinus Paul had to backtrack to the south-west to pick up the ‘Common Highway’ (the road to India) in the vicinity of Antioch-in-Pisidia. From Apamea (modern Dinar) it was a long but easy downhill walk to the upper reaches of the valley of the river Lycus (modern Çürük-su). It must have been a relief to Paul to leave the bleak uplands of Anatolia, and to come down into lush pasture land.
His eye long accustomed to unrelieved brown would have been caught by unexpected flashes of colour. The flocks of sheep that roamed the valley were of two unusual types. The wool of one was cyclamen purple while that of the other was a glossy black. From across the river came the gleam of a frozen waterfall. At Hierapolis mineral-saturated hot water had poured down the steep slope for millenia, gradually building up a frozen waterfall that shone a brilliant white in the sun.
Within a year or so there would be three churches in that valley (Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis). Not one was founded by Paul. He had realized that sending out missionaries into strange areas was wasteful. It was much more efficient to recruit travellers, who would return to homes, and jobs, and an audience of family and friends. Thus, while Epaphras of Colossae was on business in Ephesus, he encountered Paul and became a Christian. He became the apostle of the Lycus valley, even though his theological education was minimal.
Since two of the seven churches of the Apocalypse (Revelation 2:1-3:22) were Pauline foundations, namely Ephesus and Laodicea-on-the Lycus, and since a third, Thyatira, was probably founded by Lydia, a Pauline convert in Philippi, it seems logical to attribute the creation of communities at Smyrna, Pergamum, Sardis, and Philadelphia to the missionary initiative of Ephesus. To these cities we should probably add Magnesia and Tralles in the Maeander valley, which are known from the letters of Ignatius in the early second century AD. All were within a 120 mile radius of Ephesus and linked by excellent roads. Colossae, the furthest away, could be reached in a comfortable week’s walk. These were “the churches of Asia” 1 Corinthians 16:19, of which Paul was so proud.
Thus, even though Paul had selected Ephesus because it made it easy for him to keep in touch with his previous foundations, he continued to function as a missionary. He developed a more original approach, but it worked as well, if not better, than his original assumption that he had to do everything himself.
When Paul got to Ephesus, he moved in on what Prisca and Aquila had achieved in the year after he had deposited them there en route to Antioch and Jerusalem. The church of Ephesus was already a going concern. This was exactly what they had planned together, and Prisca and Aquila certainly did not resent being moved down a step. We can take it for granted they gave him a terrific build-up as the greatest of the apostles.
Nonetheless, some members of the community were affronted. They felt that Prisca and Aquila were no longer being given the credit for having founded the church. They could not do much about it, but their criticism (perhaps to a great extent unspoken) introduced an unpleasant dimension into the life of the community. It was to break out into the open when Paul was arrested.