This is the second of two books (the first was on Corinth) that Murphy-O’Connor has written as guides to cities that were significant in St. Paul’s missionary career. Each book is a useful compendium of classical texts with references to the title city and an interpretive analysis of how these texts and recent archaeological research shed light on developments in the Christian community during Paul’s time. The texts, which constitute Part 1 of each book, cover a range of topics, including geographical descriptions of the cities and their environs, records of historical events that occurred there, comments on how the people lived, and physical descriptions of the buildings and places in the city. The archaeological research that the books draw on is very current as befits their author, a leading scholar on Paul and himself an active participant in much of the archaeological analysis.
The sub-title of the Ephesus volume, however, doesn’t capture the book’s scope and focus as closely as the same sub-title did for the Corinth volume. For Corinth, both the texts and the archaeology were more central to the analysis of such phenomena as Paul’s tent-making occupation, temple banquets and the issue of meat sacrificed to idols, and the structures of house churches as a clue to the issues surrounding the celebration of Eucharist in Corinth. In Ephesus, the connection of texts and archaeology to the analytical topics that Murphy-O’Connor treats is not as tight. Part 2, the book’s analytical section, contains two chapters. Chapter one draws on the texts and archaeological evidence to describe a brief walking tour of Ephesus as Paul might have taken, but Murphy-O’Connor himself points to the lack of a single coherent ancient source to support these observations for Ephesus in the way that Pausanias’ Description of Greece did in the Corinth volume. As a practical matter, I found this chapter in Ephesus a dry read and the maps small and difficult to connect with the narrative. Part 2, chapter two, the book’s major focus, is a vivid historical reconstruction of how Paul used Ephesus as a base for his missionary activity between 51 and 54 C.E.; but again this relies largely on the New Testament accounts in Acts and Paul’s letters with only occasional references to the twenty-six texts in Part 1.
Although the linkages between Part 1 and Part 2 of Ephesus may not be as strong as in the Corinth volume, Murphy-O’Connor’s reconstruction of Paul’s three crucial years in Ephesus is still an exciting and valuable presentation. Murphy-O’Connor is a fine story teller and he builds a strongly contextualized and plausible account of how Paul would have operated, starting with Paul’s missionary strategy of penetrating new territory by sending business people as representatives to lay the groundwork (e.g., Prisca and Aquila in Ephesus, Lydia in Philippi, Epaphras in Colossae), through Paul’s controversial relations with and letters to Corinth, Galatia, and Colossae, and finally to Paul’s own decision to leave Ephesus because of his diminished effectiveness there. The analysis is well argued and full of insights into a wide variety of interpretive and historical issues, not the least of which is how Paul developed the concept of the Christian community as “body” (Gal 3:28, 1 Cor 12, Col 1:18) and how he rephrased the hymns in Phil 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 to avoid what he viewed as theologically incorrect tendencies in the original versions that, according to Murphy-O’Connor’s exegesis, the communities in Philippi and Colossae brought to him.
Murphy-O’Connor’s narrative of Paul’s ministry is powerful, but the reader should be forewarned that it is frequently speculative. While any attempt at reconstructing an ancient period involves imagination and although Murphy-O’Connor clearly bases his judgments on extensive research and respected scholarship, at times he seems to overstate circumstances for colorful effect. Phrases like “It would be very surprising if…” or “He would have been less than human had he not…” or “We must assume that…” stretch the use of the subjunctive and make conditions that are in fact unknowable seem virtually assured. At times, Murphy-O’Connor comes close to crossing the line from imaginative reconstructive history to popular historical fiction: “Ministry in Ephesus, Paul mused, was going to be very different (p. 200).”
I would recommend the book for anyone interested in obtaining a strong, visceral sense of ancient Ephesus, of the critical role that Paul’s time there played in the development of the Church, and of the social context and circumstances in which Paul wrote most of his letters. In particular, chapter two of Part 2 would be a useful addition to the syllabus for an upper-level undergraduate course on Paul, or as collateral reading for a similar introductory graduate course. Part 1 is helpful in establishing a general context for Part 2, but will be of greatest value as a starting reference for more specialized studies.