32 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.”
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I would say that Paul could not have been referring to a fight against literal beasts, since there is no such event recorded in Acts, and (as I understand it) Paul's Roman citizenship would have protected him in any event from such treatment. Instead, Paul is likening the anti-Christian human opponents whom he faced at Ephesus in connection with his missionary work to wild beasts, due to the number of them (to which Paul referred in 1 Corinthians 16:9), and the ferocity of their opposition. (Other passages in Scripture (such as in Psalm 22) use the same imagery, and the pre-Christian Greek philosopher Heraclitus (who was from Ephesus) also referred to the inhabitants of the city as beasts in his writings (using the same Greek word that was later used by Paul.)
I think the answer comes later in the letter "I hope to stay a while with you, if the Lord permits. I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries." Paul is expecting trouble in Ephesus. He knows he may be thrown to the beasts of the arena. He earlier comment is therefore talking about this possible future event. i.e. "If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what will I have gained?"
I take it figuratively. Paul, as a Roman citizen, would not have been set to fight with beasts in the arena; and such an incident would not have been likely to be passed over by Luke in the Acts. Compare similar metaphors in 1 Corinthians 4:9, 2 Timothy 4:17; Titus 1:12; Psalm 22:12, Psalm 22:13, Psalm 22:20, Psalm 22:21. For proof of the figurative or metaphorical use of "fought with the wild beasts" I cite the line quoted by St. Paul in Titus 1:12, speaking of the Cretans as "evil wild beasts." So Epimenides called the Cretians (Tit 1:12). (Epimenides, in the line quoted by St. Paul in Titus 1:12, spoke of the Cretans as "evil wild beasts," and the pseudo-Heraclitus gives this same uncomplimentary title to these very Ephesians. Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die.) David often compares his enemies to wild beasts (Psalm 22:21, etc.-- see above).
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