During his more than two years of ministry in Ephesus, which is only briefly covered in Acts, Paul and his fellow Christians probably encountered numerous persecutions and attacks. As incredible as it sounds, it’s likely that Paul was even condemned to battle wild animals in the Ephesus arena.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul stated that he “fought wild beasts at Ephesus,” and that he and the disciples had been exhibited as men condemned to death, as a “spectacle” to the world. The Greek words Paul used specifically referred to beast fighting in the arena, not to any general fight with animals. In the Roman Empire, a bestiarius was a person who went into arena combat against a powerful wild animal, either as a form of execution or a combat competition similar to gladiators. The animals were typically lions or bears, which were hungry, angry, and ready to kill any human near them.
During times of persecution, many Christians in the Roman Empire were sentenced to death by beast as a spectacle in the arenas, probably beginning during the reign of Emperor Claudius. A 1st century oil lamp from the Ephesus region of Asia Province depicts a man, condemned ad bestias – “to beasts”-- being attacked by two lions. Similar artwork, including a marble relief, has also been discovered at Ephesus. Roman documents record stories of prisoners committing suicide rather than facing death by wild animals. Early Christians such as Tertullian and Cyprian described the practice as perverse, inhuman, and repulsive.
When a person was condemned to the beasts, as an enemy of the state, they were forced into the arena unarmed and often chained, with virtually no hope of survival. Based on New Testament accounts, it seems that Paul was forced into the arena as a bestiarius, but he survived and carried on his mission. In his letter to the Corinthians, which he wrote at Ephesus, he was explaining the crucial importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ when he said:
I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:31-32)