Winger, Thomas M. "Introduction: The City of Ephesus and Paul's Relationship to It." Ephesians. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2014, 97-122.
The city of Ephesus, or its approximate site, has been occupied since approximately 1400 B.C. It has a history of being severely damaged by conquests and earthquakes. Of greatest interest to New Testament studies is the history since it was reconstructed shortly after Alexander the Great took control in 334 B.C. (Winger 2014, 97). The city was declared the capital of Asia by Augustus in 27 B.C. This created a new prosperity. The harbor access and the city's location on a major roadway combined to give the city significant economic advantages (Winger 2014, 98). It was one of the largest cities in the empire when Paul lived there, though the number of people is unknown. Winger estimates it at perhaps about 100,000 (Winger 2014, 100).
Ephesus at the time of Paul had significant religious diversity. Winger notes a large Jewish population, which was relatively free to keep their customs, so tended to flourish (Winger 2014, 100). There were multiple pagan temples as well, and we have "documentary evidence of the worship of up to fifty gods, including Greek, Egyptian, and local gods" (Winger 2014, 101). The most noteworthy was the temple of Artemis Ephesia, one of the seven wonders of the world. The temple was ruined in 262 A.D. by "Gothic plunder and Christian looting" (Winger 2014, 102).
The cult of Artemis has been difficult to describe in detail. Winger notes there was a month of festivities, probably in the spring, which featured competitions and processions (Winger 2014, 103). Winger sees this as a likely association with Cybele, the mother-earth goddess in Anatolian tradition. In short, the Ephesian version of Artemis is not necessarily the same as a Greek mythological version (Winger 2014, 104). Artemis was understood as a protector of chastity, especially in everyday behavior. Yet Winger observes that, though there is no direct evidence for ritual prostitution at Ephesus, the practice was normal in other goddess cults so probably was active in Ephesus as well (Winger 2014, 105). Winger certainly finds evidence in statuary and other depictions of Artemis serving as a fertility goddess (Winger 2014, 106-107). The cult of Artemis was associated with healing, rescue from death, and other magical powers (Winger 2014, 108-109).
Winger strongly recommends a close reading of Acts 18-20 so as to prepare to read Ephesians (Winger 2014, 110). Paul was present in Ephesus longer than in any other place he ministered, watching the church grow and thrive. When Paul went to Ephesus in Acts 19, it was on the heels of the ill-informed efforts of Apollos. Paul's question to the Ephesians was whether they received the Holy Spirit and were baptized rightly (Winger 2014, 111). This cryptic passage has proven a difficulty in many church circles. Winger unpacks the challenges with a brief exegesis (Winger 2014, 112-114).
During Paul's time in Ephesus, the account in Acts 19 details numerous conflicts (Winger 2014, 114ff). The Jews, by and large, did not receive the Christian message. Acts 19:11-20 describes incidents involving exorcists and magicians. Winger observes that the demons were more powerful than the exorcists but that God showed himself to be the most powerful (Winger 2014, 115). Paul's work also disrupted the work of money changes and idol makers (Winger 2014, 116-117).
While in Ephesus, Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, which he sent to them with Timothy (Acts 19:22, 1 Corinthians 4:17). Winger also observes that the letters to Timothy address him as being in Ephesus (Winger 2014, 118). The church was apparently in a state of difficulty. In Acts 20:1, Paul left for Macedonia due to the civil unrest. 1 Timothy speaks of caution and dealing with false teachers (Winger 2014, 119). As Paul went from Corinth to Jerusalem, he bypassed Ephesus but did pause to visit with the elders (Winger 2014, 120). The sermon recorded in Acts 20:18-35 urges the pastors to remain faithful no matter what. Winger describes it as very much like an ordination sermon.
Winger notes that upon Paul's return to Jerusalem in Acts 21, the accusations made against him had a relation to the presence of Trophimus, from Ephesus (Winger 2014, 121). The negative attitude of Jews in Jerusalem toward Ephesus may have served as a cause of Paul's encouraging words in Ephesians 3:1 and 13. Winger emphasizes that Paul's imprisonment is not the Ephesians' fault, but is for their benefit (Winger 2014, 121).