At the end of Paul’s two years in Ephesus, an anti-Christian riot takes place. A man named Demetrius, who is a maker of silver shrines, is the instigator. Calling a meeting of shrine makers, he points out that they are losing business because so many people are converting to Christianity.
In the ancient world, Ephesus was known both as a center of magic and as a university town. However, the city was most famous because it possessed of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the temple of the goddess Artemis, or Diana.
One of the major businesses of Ephesus was the making of small shrines, which were sold to visiting pilgrims to place in the temple as offerings. Periodically, the temple priests would clear away the shrines to make room for yet more shrines to be deposited by worshippers.
Archeological excavations have uncovered great numbers of terra-cotta shrines in the vicinity of the temple, but no silver ones. But this is not surprising, since no silver artwork has come down to us from the first century. Anything made with precious metals was sooner or later melted down. An inscription has been discovered in Ephesus that refers to a wealthy Roman who presented a silver image of Diana to the city theater, and there are other local inscriptions that refer to silver statues of Artemis. So it is not improbable that silver shrines were also made.
Interestingly, an inscription has been found in Ephesus, from the first century, that refers to a shrine-maker by the name of Demetrius. Was this the individual named in Acts?
Unfortunately, the name Demetrius was extremely common in the ancient world, so the identification cannot be confirmed. However, historical records do reveal that guilds of craftsmen played a leading role in the cities of the period, and a disruptive role when their financial interests were at stake. From Ephesian inscriptions, we know that a guild of silversmiths existed in Ephesus at this time.
The complaint about a loss of business because of the large number of conversions to Christianity is echoed in another ancient document. Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia at the beginning of the second century, remarks in a letter that the business of supplying fodder for sacrificial animals was rapidly declining in his province, because of the spread of Christianity.
Cadbury, H. J. The Book of Acts in History. New York: Harper, 1955, pages 5-6.
Sherwin-White, A. N. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon, 1963, pages 90-92.
Trebelico, P. "Asia." In D. W. J. Gill and C. Gempf, eds., The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1994, 336-342.