…I have fought with the beasts at Ephesus… (1 Corinthians 15:32, N.K.J.V.)
In 1 Corinthians 15:32, the apostle Paul says that he fought with beasts at Ephesus. Some translations add the adjective “wild” to describe the beasts. But is Paul describing literal creatures from the animal kingdom or is he using the word metaphorically to describe men who violently opposed his ministry in Ephesus? Well, now you’re on a subject.
The Greek word for the beasts is a variation of therion, a word that almost always refers to some type of literal creature. For example, therion is used in Acts 28:4 to describe the venomous snake that bit Paul when he was shipwrecked on the island of Malta. It is also used in Mark 1:13 to describe the beasts that surrounded Jesus when He was being tempted in the Judean wilderness, as well as in Acts 10:12 to describe the beasts Peter saw as part of his God-induced trance.
This leads some commentators to conclude that Paul fought actual animals in Ephesus. Perhaps it was an arena fight akin to a Roman Damnatio Ad Bestias (Condemnation to Beasts). Perhaps it was part of the public games that were held in honor of Diana, the fabled goddess of the Ephesians. Perhaps it was a fight in which Paul fought with bulls. As Marvin Vincent mentions in his Word Studies in the New Testament, the young men of Ephesus were famous for their bull-fighting.
There are, however, a couple of significant problems with interpreting Paul’s beasts as literal animals. One, Paul was an official Roman citizen who, as such, could not have been forced (at least legally) to engage in some type of arena fight with wild animals. Two, the account given in Acts 19:1-41 of Paul’s two years at Ephesus makes no mention of him being arrested, let alone him being condemned to an arena fight with a man-eating beast.
What the account does say is that after two years of Paul’s relatively peaceful and highly fruitful ministry in Ephesus, a silversmith named Demetrius got the local silversmiths stirred up against Paul and Paul’s traveling companions (19:23-28). The problem was that Paul and his ministry team were costing Demetrius and his fellow silversmiths money. Every Ephesian won to Jesus was one less Ephesian to buy a silver shine to use in the worship of the false goddess Diana.
The efforts of Demetrius and the other silversmiths resulted in two of Paul’s companions — Gaius and Aristarchus — being seized and taken to the amphitheater in Ephesus (19:29). Paul tried to get into the site to defend his friends, but some of the local Christians, fearing that Paul might be killed, refused to allow him to get involved (19:30-31). Fortunately, the city clerk spoke words of reasoning and logic to the mob, and in so doing defused the whole situation (19:35-41). Afterward, everyone went home and Gaius and Aristarchus were released. But the incident did prompt Paul to leave Ephesus and head for Macedonia (Acts 20:1). Even before the riot, he had decided to leave Ephesus and start making his way to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21)
This, then, circles us back around to the question: When Paul talks about fighting with beasts at Ephesus, is he talking about literal beasts or metaphorical ones? The fact that either type of beast would have been dangerous enough to have caused physical death to Paul only makes the interpretation harder. One thing is for sure, Paul fully expected to one day be killed. He frequently wrote about the hardships of his ministry and the physical death that constantly loomed over him (2 Corinthians 1:8-9; 4:8-16; 5:1-8; 6:4-5; and 11:22-28). This seems to be the meaning of his famous words “I die daily” in our text’s preceding verse, 1 Corinthians 15:31. Again, though, was his close encounter at Ephesus due to animals or people?
After consulting a slew of commentators, I find that the majority of them take the beasts to be people who opposed Paul’s ministry. Perhaps the reference really is to Demetrius, his fellow silversmiths, and that mob. I will say, though, that there is not complete agreement on the matter, and even many of the commentators who favor the metaphorical interpretation allow for the fact that a literal one, such as an arena fight with some type of animal, isn’t completely out of the question.
As for me, I tend to go with the metaphorical interpretation as well. I’m reminded of something I once heard a pastor friend of mine say. In reference to one of his former churches, he said, “I fought with the beasts at ………. church.” That was a funny line, but the emotion of his voice left no doubt that there was a harpoon of truth in his words. He was talking about real issues he had had with real people. Truth be told, I myself have had a few fights with a few beasts in various situations throughout the course of my life and ministry. I guess such fights are part and parcel to the job of serving Jesus. This is something that Paul knew all too well, and it’s something that you’ll learn too if your efforts for Christ ever get you into the wheelhouse of a Demetrius.