Book Reviews

The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius

Paul Trebilco Tubingen 2007-10-17

Trebilco has produced an unusually detailed study of early Christianity in the city of Ephesus. Although he discusses the early history of the city, this massive volume focuses on Christianity in the city during the middle of the first and the early second centuries A.D. Fortunately there are significant sources for the task. Trebilco’s main sources are 1 Corinthians (written from Ephesus), sections of Acts, 1 and 2 Timothy (considered not written by Paul and dated A.D. 80–100), 1, 2, 3 John, Revelation 2:1–7, and Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians. In addition the book makes consistent use of other sources such as non-Christian writers and inscriptions.

Omitted from Trebilco’s main sources are the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Ephesians. John is omitted because Trebilco maintains that the Gospel was written to all believers and thus will yield little unique evidence concerning Ephesian Christians. Trebilco seeks to use sources with the most direct and certain connections to the Christians in the city. This minimalist approach to the sources is a safe way to study the subject. However, there is a danger in focusing so closely on the unique aspects of the Ephesian Christians that shared elements with other communities, especially in Asia Minor, will be lost, resulting in a skewed picture of his subject. Concerning the Book of Ephesians, Trebilco is correct in noting that most likely the original letter did not have explicit addressees (i.e., the Ephesians). But the early association of the city with the letter suggests that Ephesians may reflect more Ephesian Christianity than Trebilco permits. The early addition of “in Ephesus” to Ephesians 1:1 may reveal some relationship to that city. Even if it is a circular letter (which it probably is), given the importance of the city to Paul’s ministry and the early association through the title, it is likely that the Ephesian church played some role in Paul’s composition and possibly in its distribution.

Trebilco describes the city in depth, Paul’s ministry, and numerous other issues that arise from primary sources. Often Trebilco’s discussions are insightful and challenging. For example he feels that the Nicolaitans mentioned in Revelation 2:6 are similar to those labeled “strong” in 1 Corinthians 1:27 (p. 334). In discussing women in Ephesus he says women deacons are addressed in 1 Timothy 3:11 (pp. 520–23). And he says some women were following opponents (2:8–15); Paul, he says, restricts all women from speaking in the assembly (pp. 508–20). These and many other examples serve as a commentary on Trebilco’s primary sources.

This volume is saturated with both nonliterary (e.g., inscriptions) and literary works, and Trebilco demonstrates an excellent grasp of contemporary scholarship on a wide range of issues. For example his view of the emperor Domitian is in line with recent correctives to the past portrait of the emperor as a megalomaniac (pp. 343–44). His discussion of imperial religion in Ephesus utilizes the best and most recent works on the subject (pp. 30–37). His interaction with the biblical text demonstrates a familiarity with important manners.

In addition to Trebilco’s description of Ephesian Christianity, he argues that there was never a single Christian community in Ephesus. Instead, he suggests, there were at least two groups. The Pastoral Epistles  (specifically 1 and 2 Timothy) and the Johannine Epistles were addressed to different communities. The Book of Revelation and Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians, however, have both groups in view. Some of the differences between the two groups included the authority structures of the churches. In the early second century Ignatius wrote to both groups, encouraging them to acknowledge the bishop and one eucharist. However, theological issues do not seem to be at stake. Though Trebilco’s case is fairly strong, such reconstructions are difficult to prove. Also since the Pastoral Epistles were written by Paul (and thus earlier than the Johannine Epistles), Trebilco’s arguments based on the contrasts between these two groups of epistles are weakened. Such differences could be the result of changes over time or other possibilities.

One may not agree with all of Trebilco’s conclusions; nevertheless this volume is a helpful source of first-century information on “all things Ephesian.” His description of the city and its history is excellent, and the discussions of the biblical texts are insightful.

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Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God's Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ's love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. His research interests include the prison epistles, the first-century world, Greek, linguistics, and relevance theory. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.
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