Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My – A Brief Look at Gladiator Sports

If, in the manner of men, I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantage is it to me?  If the dead do not rise, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
(I Corinthians 15:32)

Gladiators, 1

Gladiators fight animals in this scene from the Zliten mosaic,
c. A.D. 200, artist unknown.  The mosaic is a Roman floor mosaic found in the town of Zliten, Libya.  It is on display at the Archeological Museum in Tripoli.


Paul’s comment here may be the only mention in the Bible of gladiator sports.  Comparing the date of this writing with the date of Paul’s timely revelation in Acts 22 that he was Roman, we find that Paul was probably not a condemned criminal at the time he wrote this letter (Reese, 1977).  Historically speaking then, it’s unlikely that he fought for his life against fierce animals in the Ephesus arena since it was against Roman law for a Roman citizen to do so (The Broadman Bible Commentary, 1970).[i]  More on this in a minute.

About this same period of time, Nero ordered gladiatorial contests between men and animals not to be fought to the death (Scullard, 1982).  But the arena was still a popular attraction for social gatherings, even with death and bloodshed subject to the fickle permission of any given ruler.[ii]  Some arenas were designed to be flooded so mock naval battles could be fought (Wallbank, et. al., 1967).  Many arenas featured a display of a variety of animals including camels, wild boar, rhinoceroses, pythons, hippopotami, elephants, lions, tigers, and even a polar bear!

So what did Paul mean in this scripture?  In Helping Your Church Stay On Course, Malcolm Yarnell overviewed Paul’s series of questions regarding the apostle’s passionate defense of the resurrection.  In reality, Paul’s question in I Corinthians 15:32 might have indeed indicated his real combat with animals at Ephesus under Nero’s not-to-the-death edict and before Paul revealed his Roman citizenship.  It is certain he faced danger from wicked men, animals in their own right.  The point here is that “Paul would not have dared risk preaching the gospel if it were false” (Yarnell).

There is another lesser known fact about Paul’s reference to this blood-sport.  Gladiatorial contests were common and elaborate events that were held as part of a funeral rite.  The Romans called these contests muna, that is, a duty paid by the descendants to keep alive the memory of a dead ancestor (Dunkle, 2002).  It was common for munera (plural) to feature the slaughter of hundreds of animals and men, the spilling of blood being closely associated with the essence of life even in non-Christian beliefs.  In fact, around 55 AD,[iii] 500 lions and 17 elephants were killed in a blood-fest before thousands of spectators (Scullard).  So much public opinion was stirred against such barbarity that it might have played some role in Nero’s temporary halt to festive death.

With these public spectacles well known to the people, Paul painted a picture that vividly addressed his question, “If I have fought with beasts, what good does it do?”  His comment likely brought to mind the gladiator contests by which animals and men died in gruesome combat.  Perhaps some thought of the punishment of condemned criminals during which beasts and men ripped each other apart.  There was revelry in death.  Still, the dead did not rise.  Nothing could be done to raise the dead then, now, or ever.  Not enough blood could be spilt to move a soul from the darkness of death to the luxury of light.  Death can be exploited and even flirted with, but it cannot be conquered.  At least in the manner of men.

For tomorrow, those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus do not die.  There will be physical death, of course, but eternal life with Jesus in heaven is promised to those who believe in Him.  Tomorrow is full hope because the right blood has been spilt.  Paul was willing to die daily because of it (I Corinthians 15:31).

Without Christ, eating and drinking doesn’t make tomorrow go away nor does it make the future any less real.  Eating and drinking only distracts from the inevitable death coming to every person.  It is a welcome, although temporary, distraction for those who do not know the Savior, a distraction that mimics the unfulfilling purpose of gladiator sports.  It is Nero’s distraction:  let’s celebrate, eat, and drink – death can wait.  But it doesn’t.

The word gladiator means “one who wields the sword” (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1996). [iv]  That’s a fitting definition for the Christian who wields the Sword of the Lord.  We have the power to defeat the evil and dark things of this world.  Our outlook should be positive.  Our training should never end.  Our hearts should never fail.  GOD OWNS THE ARENA.  Lions, tigers, and bears, men, fleets, or movements cannot win that fight.

For the Lord your God is He who goes with you,
to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.
(Deuteronomy 20:4)


References

Reese, Edward.  (1977).  The Reese chronological Bible.  Bloomington, MN:  Bethany House Publishers.
Scullard, H. H.  (1982).  From the Gracchi to Nero:  A history of Rome from 133 B. C. to A. D. 68.  New York:  Routledge.
The Broadman Bible commentary.  (1970).  Nashville, TN:  Broadman Press.
Wallbank, T. Walter; Taylor, Alastair M.;  Bailkey, Nels M.  (1967).  Civilization past and present.  Third edition.  Glenview, IL:  Scott, Foresman and Company.
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
Yarnell, Malcolm.  (2002).  Helping your church stay on course:  studies in I Corinthians.  Nashville, TN:  LifeWay Press.

Endnotes

[i] Condemned criminals fought wild animals without any form of armament.  Dunkle says that this “ranked alongside crucifixion as the most disgraceful of all penalties…  It was deemed appropriate for slave and lower class (Roman) citizens.  (C)onvicted upper class citizens were usually beheaded.”
[ii] Dunkle reports that the historian Cassius Dio wrote of Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD):  “Marcus’ disgust with bloodshed resulted in his view that gladiators in Rome should be like athletes fighting without risk of deadly harm; for he never allowed any one of them to wield an iron sword, and the tips of the weapons they used had a blunt tip.”  Gladiator contests were generally accepted as a cultural norm, even by many Christian apologists, until outlawed by Honorius in 399 AD.
[iii] 55 AD – a year or so prior to Paul’s writing of I Corinthians.
[iv] The dictionary also clarifies a gladiator as one who was “originally, a sword-player; hence, one who fought with weapons in public, either on the occasion of a funeral ceremony, or in the arena, for public amusement.”

 

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