Paul and the Talking Lion© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (July, 2005)
If it were not for an extraordinary episode in the Acts of Paul - another of the Apocrypha - there would be no difficulty in arguing that it is a genuine historical account, detailing Paul's actual visits to established centres.
According to the story, Paul made himself unpopular in Ephesus by his preaching, and on an order of the governor he was thrown to the beasts. A fierce lion was let loose against him, but when he came up to Paul, Paul recognised that it was a lion that he had baptised. Paul asked the lion if it was the one he had baptised, and it replied "Yes". Paul then asked how it had been captured, and the lion answered, "Even as you, Paul". The governor sent further beasts to kill Paul, and at that moment "a violent and exceedingly heavy hail-storm fell from heaven, although the sky was clear, so that many died and all the rest took to flight. But it did not touch Paul or the lion." Paul went out of the stadium and continued on his way.
In a related fragment from a Coptic papyrus, the story of Paul's baptising the lion is given. (Hennecke vol 2 pp. 263-265)
When Paul was walking towards Jericho, "There came a great and terrible lion out of the valley of the burying-ground... But when I finished praying, the beast had cast himself at my feet. I was filled with the Spirit and looked upon him, and said to him, 'Lion, what do you want?' But he said, 'I wish to be baptised'. I glorified God, who had given speech to the beast and salvation to his servant. Now there was a great river in that place, and I went down into it." (He offered a prayer referring to Daniel in the lions' den.) "When I had prayed thus, I took the lion by his mane and in the name of Jesus Christ immersed him three times. But when he came up out of the water he shook out his mane and said to me, 'Grace be with you!' And I said to him, 'And likewise with you.' The lion ran off to the country rejoicing... A lioness met him, and he did not yield himself to her, but ran off..."
On the surface, such stories discredit any claim to historicity. For the usual critical view, it is fiction developed from 1 Corinthians 15:32, where Paul says "I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus." But in the light of so much evidence that these apocryphal histories preserve more of the original history of the Jewish-Christian ascetic movement than does the New Testament, the lion story needs to be looked at closely. It belongs to the same kind of literature as the gospels and Acts, a historical form containing many incredible miracle stories, which are written in such a way as to convey natural events to those who had the knowledge to discover the pesher.
The lion baptised and converted to celibacy sounds remarkably human, and indeed he was.
The pesher on Nahum shows that the leaders of Gentiles who occupied Jerusalem were likened to lions. In Josephus, Ant 18,228 , in AD 37, Agrippa and his informant spoke of the death of the emperor Tiberius in Hebrew and in code, the only kind of language they dared use in the heart of Rome. Agrippa was told, "The Lion is dead!" Tiberius' death opened the way for Caligula, who had plotted with Agrippa, to become emperor.
In 2 Timothy 4:16-17 Paul in Rome wrote that he had had his first trial, that the Lord had stood by him (Jesus also was in Rome), and he had been acquitted. "So I was rescued from the lion's mouth." The "lion" again means the Roman emperor, this time Nero.
Following this established code for the Roman power, it is to be understood that the "lion" whom Paul had baptised was a representative of the Roman emperor. Paul had succeeded in baptising him to the form of the ascetic religion that was proving very attractive to Gentiles, practiced as a secret mystery, one of the many new cults of the times. When the "lion's" influence turned the tables for Paul, it was a political event worth noting. The cults attracted both simple people, who believed miracle stories, and philosophers who used reason to penetrate mysteries. For simple people, animals were used as a disguise for humans, as in Lucius Apuleius' story of the Golden Ass (See Section 5- Pagan neighbors of the early Christians), which also concerned a mystery religion.
The story would have been written up in this way as part of the popular literature used as propaganda by Christians. Miracles and code concealed their political activities, preserving for their followers the image of an innocent and powerless people directly protected by God.
In the Acts of Peter there is a story of a talking dog, which is even more transparent as a disguise for a human. See our next sub-entry.