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Acts 19:1-41 | Werner Bible Commentary

Acts 19:1-41

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While Apollos happened to be in Corinth, Paul traveled through “the inland” or “the upper parts” (tá anoteriká mére) of Asia Minor on his way to Ephesus. The expression tá anoteriká mére could refer to the “inland regions” (NRSV) or to the highlands (“the hill country,” CEV) of upper Galatia and Phrygia. On his arrival in Ephesus, Paul met about a dozen disciples. (19:1, 7) When he inquired whether they had received the holy spirit upon becoming believers, they replied that they had not even heard of the holy spirit. (19:2) Asked about the nature of their baptism, they responded that it had been “in John’s baptism.” (19:3)

Paul then explained that John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance” accompanied by his admonishing the people to believe in the one to come after him. The apostle’s identifying this coming one as Jesus could suggest that these disciples were unacquainted with the role of Jesus as the promised Messiah or Christ. They apparently learned what they did from persons who had become John’s disciples but had never associated with Jesus’ disciples after the outpouring of holy spirit on the day of Pentecost following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven. Paul’s words made it clear to them that the “baptism of repentance” had been preparatory, readying individuals to receive the promised Messiah or Christ as persons who had repented of their sins. (19:4) After hearing the explanation, these disciples “were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” or in recognition of Jesus as Lord, the promised Messiah and the unique Son of God. (19:5) Subsequent to their baptism, Paul laid his hands on them, and they received the holy spirit. This became evident when they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. Their prophesying likely involved expressions that focused on what God had done through Jesus Christ. (19:6) Instead of remaining as disciples of John and separate from the congregation of Jesus’ followers, the group of “about twelve men” thus came to be part of the one congregation or community of believers that has Jesus Christ as its head. (19:7)

For three months, Paul spoke boldly in the synagogue of Ephesus, with reasoning and persuasion conveying the message about “the kingdom of God.” He must have used the holy writings to make clear Jesus’ role as king by his Father’s appointment and how individuals could become part of the realm where the Father is recognized as sovereign. (19:8)

When some became obstinate and refused to believe, speaking abusively about “the way” (the way of belief and conduct based on Jesus’ example and teaching) “before the multitude,” Paul did not continue going to the synagogue. He withdrew, taking with him those who had become disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul then discoursed daily in the “school” or the lecture hall of Tyrannus. According to Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) and a number of other manuscripts, the apostle spoke from the “fifth hour to the tenth” (from about 11:00 a.m. to about 4:00 p.m.) If accurately reflecting the then-existing circumstances, this would mean that Paul utilized the location during the warmest part of the day when usually no activity would have taken place there. (19:9)

For two years, he continued to discourse in Ephesus, with the result that the “word of the Lord” (the message about the Lord Jesus Christ) came to be known extensively in the Roman province of Asia, both among the Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants (“Jews and Greeks”). (19:10) “Through the hands of Paul,” or by means of him, God did extraordinary miracles. (19:11) On account of witnessing the miracles, people appear to have taken the aprons Paul used when working at his trade and the cloths with which he wiped away his perspiration to the sick and afflicted, and they would be healed and freed from the distress perceived to have originated from demon possession. (19:12)

Observing Paul’s success in expelling evil spirits, certain itinerant Jews who engaged in the practice of exorcism decided to use the name of Jesus as part of their magical formula, saying, “I charge [‘we charge,’ according to another manuscript reading] you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” (19:13) “Seven sons” of a man named Sceva, “a Jewish chief priest [archiereús] did this.” (19:14) When making an attempt to expel the evil spirit from a man, the sons of Sceva were met with the response, “I recognize Jesus and know Paul. But who are you? (19:15) The man then jumped them, gained the mastery “of both” (amphotéron), and beat them up. Stripped of their garments and wounded, they fled out of the house. (19:16)

Besides referring to a chief priest, the word archiereús can designate the “high priest” who would have lived in Jerusalem. No Jewish high priest, however, is known to have been named Sceva. A number of manuscripts refer to him simply as a “priest” (hiereús). Nothing in the Acts account indicates where Sceva had his residence. Therefore, whether he was a “chief priest” or a “priest” is immaterial. That seven of his sons engaged in exorcism at Ephesus does seem out of the ordinary but (based on first-century evidence) is not improbable. The words of Jesus (Matthew 12:27) reveal that the practice of exorcism existed among the Jews, and the first-century Jewish historian Josephus also refers to it. (19:14)

In his Antiquities (VIII, ii, 5), Josephus attributed to Solomon the procedure for expelling demons. “And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return, and this method of cure is of great force unto this day; for I have seen a certain man of my own country whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers. The manner of the cure was this: He put a ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed. And when Eleazar would persuade and demonstrate to the spectators that he had such a power, he set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon, as he went out of the man, to overturn it, and thereby to let the spectators know that he had left the man.”

A Dead Sea scroll (11QAprocryphal Psalms) dated from before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE contains four psalms used for exorcism, one of which is Psalm 91. The other three are not found in the book of Psalms. Of these three, one is ascribed to Solomon and indicates that YHWH would send a powerful angel against the demons and that they would be sent into the great abyss or the deepest Sheol.

The attempt of the sons of Sceva to use the name of Jesus to exorcise a wicked spirit failed, as they were not his authorized representatives. This is revealed in the response, “Who are you?” (What authority do you have to expel me?) What the evil spirit is quoted as expressing indicated that Paul did have the authority to act in Jesus’ name and that a command given in Jesus’ name by one thus authorized had to be obeyed. (19:15)

Instead of the word amphotéron (“of both” [genitive case]), other manuscripts contain the third person plural pronoun in the genitive case autón (“of them”). If “both” is the original reading and the intended meaning, this could indicate that only two of the sons of Sceva were involved in the incident. At various other times, the “seven” (provided this is the original reading [which has been questioned]) may have used the name of Jesus when attempting to exorcise demons. (19:16)

The disastrous outcome for the sons of Sceva became common knowledge (“known to all”) in Ephesus, both to the Jewish and non-Jewish residents. (“Jews and Greeks”). “Fear fell upon all” who came to know about the incident, suggesting that they experienced a feeling of great awe and astonishment. As a consequence, “the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.” People in Ephesus came to recognize the great power that was associated with the “name” or person of Jesus and those who were his representatives. (19:17)

Many became believers, and numerous persons among them would confess and report the practices they were abandoning. In view of the context, these were magical or occult practices. (19:18)

A considerable number who had practiced “curious things” or things of a magical nature brought “their books and burned them before everyone.” These books likely were scrolls that contained incantations and instructions regarding the exercise of magical or occult arts. (19:19) Some have linked these “books” to the “Ephesian letters,” but the “Ephesian letters” were only six words used in magical formulas. Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, V, viii) wrote concerning these “letters,” “Androcydes the Pythagorean says that the so-called Ephesian letters (well-known among many) were of the order of symbols. And he said that askion [shadowless] is darkness, for this has no shadow; and kataskion [shaded] is light, since it casts a shadow with its rays; and lix is the earth, according to an ancient name; and tetrax is the year, according to the seasons; and damnameneus is the sun, the one that overpowers; and ta aisia is the true sound. And then the symbol signifies that divine things have been set in order: darkness to light, the sun to the year, and the earth to every kind of genesis of nature.”

The estimated cost of all the “books” that were burned came to 50,000 (“five myriads”) silver pieces. Considering that the daily wage of a common laborer was one denarius (a Roman silver coin), a huge amount of money had been spent on these “books.” For the new believers, they ceased to have any value and were, in fact, harmful. (19:19)

The meaning of verse 20 depends on which manuscript reading is followed. (See the Notes section.) When the word “might” (krátos) is followed by “of the Lord” (toú kyríou), the verse could be rendered, “Thus, with the might of the Lord, the word grew and prevailed” or “gained strength.” This may mean that, on account of the powerful backing of the Lord Jesus Christ as evident from the miracles that he enabled Paul to perform, the “word” or message continued to spread to a greater extent and had a powerful effect on those who heard it, prompting many to become believers. Other manuscripts, however, do not read “might of the Lord,” but indicate that it was with might that “the word of the Lord [the message about the Lord Jesus Christ] grew and prevailed” or “gained strength.” Numerous translations reflect this significance. “In this powerful way the word of the Lord kept spreading and growing stronger.” (GNT) “So the Lord’s message spread and became even more powerful.” (CEV) “In such ways the word of the Lord showed its power, spreading more and more widely and effectively.” (REB) “In this powerful way the word of the Lord spread more and more widely and successfully.” (NJB)

The introductory phrase (“now after these things were fulfilled”) probably refers to everything which had occurred up to that point in Ephesus. It was then that Paul made up his mind (literally, “in the spirit”) to go through Macedonia and Achaia and then travel to Jerusalem. His desire thereafter to go to Rome is expressed in strong terms, “After I arrive there [at Jerusalem], I must also see Rome.” (19:21) A number of translations represent Paul as making his decision on account of the guidance of God’s spirit. “Paul resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia, and then to go on to Jerusalem.” (NRSV) “Paul was led by the Holy Spirit to visit Macedonia and Achaia on his way to Jerusalem.” (CEV, footnote)

A major reason for his visiting communities of believers in Macedonia and Achaia was to accept contributions for needy Jewish believers, which he would then take to Jerusalem. (24:17; Romans 15:25, 26; 2 Corinthians 8:1-7, 10-20; 9:1-5) In his letter to the Romans, Paul explained why he wanted to go to Rome. His desire was to impart a spiritual gift to the believers there, a gift that would serve to strengthen their faith. At the same time, he looked forward to the mutual encouragement or comfort that would result from their interaction with one another on the basis of his faith and theirs. Moreover, the apostle wanted some “fruit” among them as he had among the Gentiles in other regions, where he felt that he had completed his labors. This “fruit” would be persons who responded or would yet respond in faith to the message about the Son of God. (Romans 1:11-13; 15:23, 24)

Based on what Paul wrote in his letters, a prime purpose in sending Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia apparently related to getting the contribution ready for the poor believers in Jerusalem. Timothy and Erastus are referred to as “serving” or “ministering to” Paul, that is, they assisted him in advancing the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ. (19:22) It is uncertain whether Erastus is the same person referred to in Acts 19:22, Romans 16:23, 2 Timothy 4:20, and on a Latin inscription discovered at Corinth in 1929. In Romans 16:23, the Greek expression oikonómos tés póleos identifies him as an official or former official of Corinth. The Greek designation has been understood to mean either the “treasurer of the city” or the “steward of the city.” (See http://bibleplaces.com/corinth.htm for a picture of the fragmentary Latin inscription.)

After sending Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia, Paul remained a while longer in the Roman province of Asia. (19:22) About this time a considerable disturbance occurred respecting “the way” (the way of life focused on faith in Jesus Christ and following his example and teaching). (19:23)

The disturbance resulted from the inflammatory words of Demetrius, a silversmith. In the business of fashioning silver shrines of the goddess Artemis, he provided artisans with “no little profit.” (19:24) The Artemis of Ephesus, however, differed considerably from the virgin huntress, the Greek goddess of classical mythology. Representations of the Ephesian Artemis reveal her to be a fertility goddess. The shrines may have resembled the temple with the deity seen on ancient coins.

Demetrius addressed the assembled artisans, “Men, you know that we [owe] our prosperity to this work. [19:25] And you see and hear that, not only in Ephesus but in nearly all of Asia [the Roman province of Asia in the western part of Asia Minor], this Paul persuaded and turned a considerable crowd [to another view], saying that the [representations] fashioned by hands are not gods. [19:26] Not only then does the danger exist that our [trade] will come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be accounted as nothing, and she is about to be stripped of her majesty, which the whole of Asia and the world adores.” (19:27) The perceived threat to their livelihood and the thought that both the temple of Artemis and the goddess herself would be scorned made the artisans furious. They began to shout, “Great [is] Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:28)

It appears that Demetrius stirred up the artisans in a public area, causing the populous of the city to be thrown into a state of riotous confusion. As a mob, they rushed to the theater, seizing the Macedonian Gaius and Aristarchus (Paul’s travel companions) and taking them with them. This theater consisted of 66 rows for spectator seating and formed a half circle that was located within the hollow of Mount Pion. The marble seats could accommodate about 25,000 people. (19:29; see http://bibleplaces.com/ephesus.htm for a picture of what still exists of the ancient theater.)

Paul was willing to enter the theater, probably with the intent of addressing the people, “but the disciples [fellow believers] did not permit him” to do so. (19:30)

A number of officials (Asiarchs) who were favorably inclined toward Paul (literally, “his friends”) conveyed a message to him, entreating him not enter the theater. There is uncertainty about the identity of the Asiarchs. They may have been influential wealthy individuals who supported the Roman imperial cult or provincial dignitaries or authorities. (19:31)

Inside the theater, some people shouted out one thing and others something else. The whole assembly was in a state of confusion, with the majority not even “knowing why they had come together.” (19:32)

In connection with the initial action toward Alexander, manuscripts read differently. Numerous manuscripts contain a form of the word probibázo (“cause to come forward”). This would mean that Alexander was made to come out from the crowd. There is limited manuscript support for the reading katabibázo, which could refer to Alexander's being brought down from among the crowd to the lower stage level. The oldest extant manuscripts have a form of the verb symbibázo, which, in certain contexts, can mean “advise.” This significance is reflected in the renderings of modern translations. “Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, as the Jews pushed him forward.” (NAB) “Some of the crowd gave instructions to Alexander, whom the Jews had pushed forward.” (NRSV) “Some of the crowd explained the trouble to Alexander, whom the Jews had pushed to the front.” (REB) “Several of the Jewish leaders pushed a man named Alexander to the front of the crowd and started telling him what to say.” (CEV) As the Jews are represented as pushing Alexander forward, they must also have been the ones from the crowd who spoke to him. Possibly instead of telling him what to say, they simply tried to persuade him to be their spokesman. The objective of the Jews appears to have been to make it clear that Paul was not representing them. (19:33)

Probably from the stage where he faced the crowd, Alexander motioned with his hand, indicating that he wanted to speak. He, however, was unable to give his explanation. (19:33)

Apparently from his grooming and attire that complied with the provisions of the Mosaic law (Leviticus 19:27; Numbers 15:38, 39; Deuteronomy 22:12), the crowd would have recognized Alexander as a Jew. Once they perceived this and probably also because they knew that Jews did not worship their goddess, they began to shout for about two hours, “Great [is] Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:34)

The responsible city official (grammateús, “secretary” or “town clerk”) finally succeeded in quieting the crowd and then addressed the people, “Men of Ephesus, who of the people does not know that the city of Ephesus is the temple keeper of the great Artemis and of the [image] that fell from heaven [literally, ‘fallen from’ or ‘sent by Zeus’]? [19:35] Therefore, because these things are indisputable, you should stay calm and not act rashly. [19:36] For you have brought these men [here] who are neither temple robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess. [19:37; see the Notes section.] If indeed then Demetrius and his fellow artisans have a case against anyone, [there are] court [sessions] and proconsuls [for handling such matters]. Let them present accusations against one another. [19:38] If, however, you are seeking anything beyond [this], it must be decided in the statutory assembly.” [19:39] The official then stressed the precarious situation in which the people had placed themselves. They risked being charged with sedition or having started a riot. They could not even present one reason to justify the uprising. (19:40) After he had said this, the town clerk disbanded the assembly. (19:41)

The acoustics of the ancient theater (based on what still remains) are outstanding. Words spoken where the stage was located can readily be heard even by persons sitting on the topmost row. So, once the commotion had ended, the crowd would have been able to hear the words of the town clerk. With his rhetorical question, he indicated that the cult of the goddess Artemis was known throughout the Greco-Roman world. As a “temple keeper,” Ephesus had official recognition for the temple of the goddess. Perhaps a meteoric stone resembled the shape of Artemis. Another possibility is that an ancient image had been roughly fashioned from such a stone. Likely because the stone had fallen to the earth, it was regarded as having come from Zeus. (19:35)

There was no basis for any controversy about the temple of Artemis, the role of Ephesus in the official cult, and the ancient image of Artemis. For this reason, as the official pointed out, the people of Ephesus had no reason to get riled up and rashly form a screaming mob. (19:36)

The town clerk apparently had come to know that the accusation was directed against Paul and his associates (“these men”), but he acknowledged that no valid charges existed against them. They were not guilty of robbing temples, which was a serious crime in the Greco-Roman world, and they had not reviled the goddess Artemis. (19:37)

If Demetrius and his fellow artisans truly had a legitimate case, they should use the existing legal means to settle the matter. Thus the town clerk censured them for having acted contrary to Roman law. (19:38)

Matters that required more than the existing court arrangement and the decisions of proconsuls needed to be handled in accordance with Roman law by a statutory assembly and not by a disorderly gathering. (19:39, 40)

Apparently the words of the town clerk were heeded, and the people left the theater. The uproar Demetrius and his fellow artisans had initiated ended without adversely affecting Paul’s ministry. (19:41; see the Notes section.)

Notes:

A number of manuscripts (instead of “word of the Lord” in verse 20) read “word of God.” Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) contains an expanded text (“and the faith of God grew and gained strength”).

In verse 37, manuscripts vary in identifying Artemis either as “our goddess” or “your goddess.”

A number of translations combine verses 40 and 41, ending chapter 19 with verse 40.