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November 13, 2014

Did Christians Destroy the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus?

This pillar marks what remains of the Temple of Artemis.

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World but almost nothing is left of it today. So, the question of who destroyed it is an interesting one. Luckily, we have an explicit historical source that tells us the answer. It is in Jordanes’ History of the Goths composed around 550AD. He tells us (20:107), that in about 259AD, “Respa, Veduc and Thuruar, leaders of the Goths, took ship and sailed across the strait of the Hellespont to Asia. There they laid waste many populous cities and set fire to the renowned temple of Diana at Ephesus, which, as we said before, the Amazons built.” Jordanes’ work comes with a healthy warning because the beginning is pure legend (not to mention his claim that the Amazons built the Temple). However, it is generally felt to be reliable when it deals with encounters between the Goths and Romans from the third century AD.

After the Goths destroyed the Temple of Artemis, it was quarried by the local inhabitants for its valuable marble and very little is left today. Bits of it have been found in local buildings and Justinian took much of the statuary that survived to his time back to Constantinople.

So why is the destruction of this Temple blamed on Christians? John Romer said as much in his television series in 1994 on the Seven Wonders and Charles Freeman continues to peddle the myth today. Let’s look at where it comes from.

The source of this legend is the Acts of John. This is a very late and inauthentic apocryphal book that claims to tell the life story of St John the Apostle after the end of the New Testament. Among many fantastic episodes is one in chapters 22 to 24 where St John converts the people of Ephesus to Christianity and they march off to tear down the Temple of Artemis. The Acts of John is normally dated to the third century and the inclusion of this episode in all likelihood means that it was written after the Temple had actually been burnt down by the Goths (who were, at this stage, still pagans). But the Acts do provide further evidence that the Temple really was destroyed during the third century. We can be absolutely certain it was not pulled down on the orders of St John around 100AD as the Acts pretends.

But there is another snippet in the sources that might illuminate how Christians got the blame. In his twentieth Oration, delivered in the early fifth century, Proclus of Constantinople is busy praising St John Chrysostom. Proclus, listing his achievements, says “In Ephesus, he despoiled the art of Midas.” This might be a reference to the cult objects of Artemis (the Temple was originally founded by the Lydian kings of which Midas was one) since even after the Temple was razed you would expect the cult to have soldiered on. Then again, it might not. That this was not a large scale operation is confirmed by Book 14 of Palladius’s Life of Chrysostom that covers his visit to Ephesus but makes no mention of the Temple.

Christians certainly destroyed several pagan temples and converted many others into churches. But not, it appears, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.