Why I’m convinced that St Peter never saw a lion up close

A lion at Bristol Zoo: parts of Europe once had a sizeable lion population (PA)

Before the internet was invented, cats never really got the coverage they deserved. And now television has caught up. There was an agreeably dotty programme about cats on ITV last night, entitled The Story of Cats, detailing, among other things, how lions and domestic cats have more in common than you might imagine. It had a lot of really boring stuff about domestic cats, but it also had some wonderful shots of the African savannah, and it reminded me of my time in Africa, and the various people I met there who spent time studying lions.

Of particular interest was one lion-fancier who lived with some white lions in South Africa. There are very few of these creatures left, which seems a pity, and the lion-fancier told us that several species of lion were already extinct, mentioning the Barbary lions that once lived in Morocco, in the Atlas mountains, but are now no more.

But it is not only North Africa that has been denuded of its lion population. What about the Holy Land? The lion is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament, particularly in the psalms, as a cursory glance at any concordance will tell you. There is a rather strange story in I Kings, chapter 13, about a prophet being eaten by a lion, a story which is set in the reign of King Jeroboam, the son of Solomon. This would place the story at about 931-910 BC, and is perhaps an indication that the people of Israel were accustomed to the idea of there being lions in the land at that date. Thus by the time of Our Lord, lions would have been a distant, but nevertheless real, memory; the various references in the New Testament would be to Barbary lions which would have been a common sight in the Roman amphitheatre, rather than in the wild.

But what about the European lion? Alexander of Macedon hunted lions in his native land, and wore a lion skin. The mountains of the southern Balkans once boasted, one assumes, a considerable lion population, and Aristotle does seem to have encountered them during his time in Macedonia, but when they became extinct is not clear. As far as I know, there are no Roman sources that hint at the existence of European lions.

Some years ago there was a rather strange idea put forward of introducing lions and other creatures to the great plains of North America. There’s no reason why lions could not live there quite happily, but the idea was not followed up. Given that the lion is a biblical animal, and there are so many biblical Christians in America, this seems like a missed opportunity. After all, one of the best lion quotations in the whole Bible is this:

Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for (someone) to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith, knowing that your fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings.” (1 Peter 5:8-9)

It is good advice that the Apostle gives, though it has to be said that lions rarely hunt, leaving that to lionesses, and the female of the species leaves the roaring to the males. This leads me to conclude that St Peter perhaps never observed lions at close quarters, though he had certainly heard of them, living in Rome, where the wild beast hunts in the amphitheatre were the favourite entertainment of the mob.