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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

The word ‘games,’ which is not found in the Authorized Version, appears twice in the Revised Version, viz. in  1 Corinthians 9:25 and  2 Timothy 2:5. In the former passage ἀγωνιζόμενος, ‘striving,’ is the Greek term employed, and in the latter ἀθλῇ (and ἀθλήσῃ), ‘contend.’ It will be seen that in each case ‘in the games’ is supplied in accordance with the obvious sense of the verb. This provides a starting-point for the discussion of the numerous references to games that are found in the NT, the Gospels being left out of account.

1. Metaphors of St. Paul .-ἀγών, with derivatives, both simple and compound, supplies most of the material. This word is itself derived from ἄγω, ‘gather,’ which reveals the spectacular nature of the games of antiquity. While private games of many kinds were known and practised, either as simple pastimes, or for the exhibition of skill, or to satisfy the gambling instinct, games of a public order predominated, and this was more than ever the rule in the Apostolic Age. The difference remarked by Gibbon ( Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , ch. xl. § ii. [ed. Bury, vol. iv. 3, 1908, p. 218]) between the games of Greece and Rome was now very pronounced: ‘the most eminent of the Greeks were actors, the Romans were merely spectators.’ While the demand of the age was for spectacles, a supply of competitors had still to be found; which means that professional athletes existed, who in the case of Rome seem to have been mostly imported from Greece. It is perhaps significant of the spirit of the times that the strictly professional term (ἀθλέω) is but rarely used in the NT ( 2 Timothy 2:5; cf.  Philippians 1:27;  Philippians 4:3,  Hebrews 10:32). Degeneracy had set in, and the onlookers were out of all proportion to the trained athletes who provided the sport.

This being the case, it is all the more surprising to find that metaphors and similes drawn from the sphere of athletics should, enter so largely into the language of the NT, in particular into the letters of St. Paul. It has been customary to explain this feature of the Apostle’s writings as the outcome of his experience and from his actual presence at great athletic assemblies, but now the idea is gaining ground that he drew rather upon the word-treasury of past generations, and used such figures of speech because they had become stereotyped in language and arose naturally to the mind. The same fondness for the imagery of the athletic ground has been remarked in Philo ( Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) v. 206b; W. M. Ramsay, Luke the Physician , 1908, p. 294), and the opinion is widely entertained that St. Paul owed the particular metaphor of the race ( e.g.  1 Corinthians 9:24 ff.) to the stoics, with whom it was a favourite idea (C. Clemen, Primitive Christianity and its Non-Jewish Sources , Eng. translation, 1912, p. 67). Light-foot has called attention to the striking similarity in this respect, as in many others, between the language of St. Paul and that of Seneca ( Philippians 4, 1878, pp. 288 and 290).

Modern exegesis has brought to view the full scope of the imagery from games, obscured in the renderings of the Authorized Version, which are retained for the sake of euphony in the Revised Version( e.g.  1 Timothy 6:12 and  2 Timothy 4:7, literally, ‘strive the good strife,’ ‘I have striven the good strife’). It is not apparent that in  2 Timothy 4:7 the figure of speech in the first two clauses is uniform and drawn from the athletic ground (contrast  2 Timothy 2:3-5). An improved reading of  1 Timothy 4:10, incorporated in the Revised Version, gives ἀγωνιζόμεθα, ‘strive,’ instead of ὀνειδιζόμεθα, ‘suffer reproach’ (Authorized Version). The same idea of contest or striving, with the same basal form ἀγών, appears in  Romans 15:30,  1 Corinthians 9:25,  Philippians 1:30,  Colossians 1:29;  Colossians 2:1;  Colossians 4:12,  1 Thessalonians 2:2,  Hebrews 12:1;  Hebrews 12:4,  Judges 1:3. Specific features of the athletic contest are found in ‘course’ (δρόμος;  Acts 13:25;  Acts 20:24,  2 Timothy 4:7), ‘run’ (τρέχω;  Romans 9:16,  Galatians 2:2;  Galatians 5:7,  Philippians 2:16,  2 Thessalonians 3:1,  1 Peter 4:4), ‘press on’ (διώκω;  Philippians 3:12 ff.), ‘stretching forth’ (ἐπεκτεινόμενος;  Philippians 3:14), κατὰ σκοπόν (‘mark,’ Authorized Version, ‘goal,’ Revised Version;  Philippians 3:14), while relevant, is not technical to racing ( Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) iii. 244).

Thus far the language is suggestive of the stadium, particularly of the foot-race, although it is not forbidden to think of the hippodrome and of chariot-racing. Another event in the games is recalled by the expressive term πυκτεύω ( 1 Corinthians 9:26), rendered by ‘fight,’ ‘box’ (Revised Version margin), and the no less expressive δέρων ( 1 Corinthians 9:26), ‘beating,’ and ὑπωπιάξω ( 1 Corinthians 9:27), ‘buffet’ or ‘bruise’ (under the eye). ἡμῖν ἡ πάλη, ‘our wrestling’ ( Ephesians 6:12), seems like an intrusion of the imagery of the athletic ground into the metaphor of the complete warrior.

Not the least interesting part of the Pauline figures of speech now being considered is related to the laws and regulations governing the public games, both beforehand and during the actual contest ( 1 Corinthians 9:24 ff.), and the conditions attending the giving of the prize (στέφανος, ‘crown’ or ‘wreath’). The reward to the victor follows upon the decision of the umpires (βραβευταί), and the herald’s announcement (κηρύσσειν; cf.  1 Corinthians 9:27). βραβεῖον ( Philippians 3:14) is the word used for the prize bestowed according to the laws of the games (compare βραβευέτω,  Colossians 3:15, ‘rule,’ ‘arbitrate,’ Revised Version margin, and καταβραβευέτω,  Colossians 2:18, ‘rob you of your prize’). The immediate prize in the shape of a wreath suggests the idea of something better than itself, not only in connexion with the actual contest, where further honours were afterwards bestowed upon the victor, but also in the Christian thought of St. Paul ( 1 Corinthians 9:25,  Philippians 4:1,  1 Thessalonians 2:19,  2 Timothy 4:8) and other NT writers ( James 1:12,  1 Peter 5:4,  Revelation 2:10;  Revelation 3:11;  Revelation 4:4 etc.). Some reluctance has been felt to admit the use by Jewish writers of this figure drawn from the ceremonial of the heathen games (R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the NT , 1865, p. 76f.), but it is probable that they were indirectly indebted to this outstanding phase of ancient life ( HBB iv. 555b; cf. Ramsay, op. cit. , p. 290f.).

While we are willing to believe that the profitable aspect of bodily training ( 1 Timothy 4:8) was not altogether in abeyance during the Apostolic Age, we are chiefly impressed by the historical evidence for the gross degeneracy of the public games during the 1st cent. a.d. For this deterioration the Romans must be held responsible. It is not necessary to dwell on the details of the lust for blood, both human and animal, which disfigured the public displays of the Imperial city and to a less extent of the provinces. The motto of the age was ‘bread and races’ ( panis et circenses ), and coupled with this was the cry: ‘The Christians to the lions l’ ( Christiani ad leones ). The Christians thus had a tragic interest in the ludi circenses , especially in the cruel displays of the amphitheatre. St. Paul’s experience at Ephesus may be taken as typical. There he fought with beasts (ἐθηριομάχησα,  1 Corinthians 15:32), an expression which is generally understood figuratively (see articleBeast), but which is considered by McGiffert ( Apostolic Age 1897, p. 280) and von Weizsäcker ( Apostolic Age , i. 2 [1897] 385) as setting forth actual fact. In the same city the Apostle and his friends Gains and Aristarchus came near experiencing the violence of the mob in the theatre ( Acts 19:23 ff.), which was the recognized place of assembly, and even of execution following judgment (Jos. Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) vii. iii. 3). Originally designed for scenic exhibitions of a bloodless type, the theatre had developed, or rather had deteriorated, into the amphitheatre with its wholesale butcheries.

The theatre supplies NT writers with two similes: θέατρον = θέαμα, ‘a spectacle,’  1 Corinthians 4:9, and θεατριζόμενοι ( Hebrews 10:33), translated by ‘gazingstock.’ In addition to this the atrocities of the amphitheatre doubtless underlie many of the references to persecutions, being most patent in  1 Corinthians 15:32 and  2 Timothy 4:17 : ‘I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.’ It should be noted that this last-named experience has also been refined into a proverb (C. Clemen, op. cit. , p. 134; Encyclopaedia Biblica iv. 5090 n.[Note: . note.]). Considerable uncertainty attaches to the language of  Hebrews 12:4 : ‘Ye have not yet resisted unto blood,’ in which it is tempting to see a repetition of St. Paul’s metaphor from boxing ( 1 Corinthians 9:26 f.), or even a reference to the extreme penalty of martyrdom suffered by some, after the example of ‘the author and perfecter of our faith.’ The blood may have been shed in sight of the circle of spectators in the amphitheatre (cf. περικείμενον,  Hebrews 12:1).

2. History and archaeology .-The Jews were not exempt from the current treatment of those who had incurred the wrath of the State. At Caesarea Titus caused more than 2,500 Jews to be slain in a day, fighting with the beasts and with one another (Jos. Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) vii. iii. 1; cf. VII. ii. 1). Under this same monarch a commencement was made to the building of the Colosseum, which was dedicated and first used for gladiatorial and other exhibitions (e.g. venationes ) in the reign of Vespasian (a.d. 80). The provinces soon learned to copy the evil example of the mother country (W. M. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire , 1893, p. 317ff.).

Already in the East, under Hellenic influence, ample provision had been made to satisfy the craze for public amusements. In the cities of the Decapolis there were in some instances two amphitheatres, while some possessed a ναυμαχία; and annual Παγκράτια or games of all kinds were held (G. A. Smith, Historical Geography of the Holy Land (G. A. Smith) 4 1897, p. 604). King Agrippa I. continued the policy of Herod the Great, building at Berytus a theatre and an amphitheatre, and giving exhibitions both there and at Caesarea (Jos. Ant . xix. vii. 5, viii. 2; cf.  Acts 12:19-23). When Roman influence fully pervaded the East, the zest for sports and for blood became still more pronounced. Nero himself lent patronage, but not lustre, to the Grecian games, and took a personal part in them (a.d. 67). In the Roman province of Asia festivals with games were held, probably under the presidency of the Asiarchs ( Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) i. 172). The climax was reached in the 2nd cent. a.d. (see Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire , p. 317f.). Confirmation of the wide-spread love of sport at this time is found in the well-preserved ruins of trans-Jordanic towns- e.g. Gerasa, Philadelphia, and elsewhere (G. A. Smith, op. cit. , p. 598ff.; E. Huntington, Palestine and its Transformation , 1911, pp. 280f. 295).

Such facilities for games even on the verge of the Empire speak for the universal practice of heathendom. The Christians stood aloof from these displays, and became steeled against them more and more with the lapse of time. In the 3rd cent. ‘no member of the Christian Church was allowed to be an actor or gladiator, to teach acting, or to attend the theatre’ (A. Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity 2, 1908, i. 301).

According to the Talmud, the religions leaders of the Jews were only slightly less rigid, although they could not altogether prevent attendance at the theatre and participation in games of chance (E. Schürer, History of the Jewish People (Eng. tr. of GJV).] ii. i. [1885] 32f., 36).

Literature.-Article‘Games’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , Hastings’ Single-vol. Dictionary of the Bible , Imperial Bible Dict. , Smith’s Dict. of Class. Antiquities , Seyffert’s, Dict. of Class. Antiquities (ed. Nettleship and Sandys); ‘Games, Classical,’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica 11; ‘Games and Sports’ in Jewish Encyclopedia , ‘Games (Hebrew and Jewish)’ in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics  ; E. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , ch. xii. (ed. Bury, vol. i. 4, 1906, p. 343ff.); W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals 88, 1888, i. 271ff.; E. Renan, Les Apôtres , 1866, ch. xvii.; S. Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius , 1904, pp. 234-244; F. W. Farrar, The Life and Work of St. Paul , 1897, Excursus iii., p. 698f.; W. Warde Fowler, Social Life at Rome in the Age of Cicero , 1908, pp. 285-318; L. Friedländer, Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire , translationJ. H. Freese and L. A. Magnus, ii. 1-130; T. G. Tucker, Life in the Roman World of Nero and St. Paul , 1910, p. 260ff.; S. Krauss, Talmudische Archäologie , iii. [1912] 102-121; E. Schürer, GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes (Schürer).]4 ii. [1907] 47-52, 60f., 67 (Eng. translation, History of the Jewish People (Eng. tr. of GJV).] ii. i. 23-28, etc.).

W. Cruickshank.

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary [2]

Games and combats were instituted by the ancients in honour of their gods; and were celebrated with that view by the most polished and enlightened nations of antiquity. The most renowned heroes, legislators, and statesmen, did not think it unbecoming their character and dignity, to mingle with the combatants, or contend in the race; they even reckoned it glorious to share in the exercises, and meritorious to carry away the prize. The victors were crowned with a wreath of laurel in presence of their country; they were celebrated in the rapturous effusions of their poets; they were admired, and almost adored, by the innumerable multitudes which flocked to the games, from every part of Greece, and many of the adjacent countries. They returned to their own homes in a triumphal chariot, and made their entrance into their native city, not through the gates which admitted the vulgar throng, but through a breach in the walls, which were broken down to give them admission; and at the same time to express the persuasion of their fellow citizens, that walls are of small use to a city defended by men of such tried courage and ability. Hence the surprising ardour which animated all the states of Greece to imitate the ancient heroes, and encircle their brows with wreaths, which rendered them still more the objects of admiration or envy to succeeding times, than the victories they had gained, or the laws they had enacted.

2. But the institutors of those games and combats had higher and nobler objects in view than veneration for the mighty dead, or the gratification of ambition or vanity; it was their design to prepare the youth for the profession of arms; to confirm their health; to improve their strength, their vigour, and activity; to inure them to fatigue; and to render them intrepid in close fight, where, in the infancy of the art of war, muscular force commonly decided the victory. This statement accounts for the striking allusions which the Apostle Paul makes in his epistles to these celebrated exercises. Such references were calculated to touch the heart of a Greek, and of every one familiarly acquainted with them, in the liveliest manner, as well as to place before the eye of his mind the most glowing and correct images of spiritual and divine things. No passages in the nervous and eloquent epistles from the pen of St. Paul, have been more admired by the critics and expositors of all times, than those into which some allusion to these agonistic exercises is introduced; and, perhaps, none are calculated to leave a deeper impression on the Christian's mind, or excite a stronger and more salutary influence on his actions. Certain persons were appointed to take care that all things were done according to custom, to decide controversies that happened among the antagonists, and to adjudge the prize to the victor. Some eminent writers are of opinion that Christ is called the "Author and Finisher of faith," in allusion to these judges. Those who were designed for the profession of athletae, or combatants, frequented from their earliest years the academies, maintained for that purpose at the public expense. In these places they were exercised under the direction of different masters, who employed the most effectual methods to inure their bodies for the fatigues of the public games, and to form them for the combats. The regimen to which they submitted was very hard and severe. At first, they had no other nourishment than dried figs, nuts, soft cheese, and a gross heavy sort of bread called μαζα ; they were absolutely forbidden the use of wine, and enjoined continence. When they proposed to contend in the Olympian games, they were obliged to repair to the public gymnasium at Elis, ten months before the solemnity, where they prepared themselves by continual exercises. No man that had omitted to present himself at the appointed time, was allowed to be a candidate for the prizes; nor were the accustomed rewards of victory given to such persons, if by any means they insinuated themselves, and overcame their antagonists; nor would any apology, though seemingly ever so reasonable, serve to excuse their absence. No person that was himself a notorious criminal, or nearly related to one, was permitted to contend. Farther, to prevent underhand dealings, if any person was convicted of bribing his adversary, a severe fine was laid upon him; nor was this alone thought a sufficient guard against unfair contracts, and unjust practices, but the contenders were obliged to swear they had spent ten whole months in preparatory exercises; and, beside all this, they, their fathers, and their brethren, took a solemn oath, that they would not, by any sinister or unlawful means, endeavour to stop the fair and just proceedings of the games.

3. The spiritual contest, in which all true Christians aim at obtaining a heavenly crown, has its rules also, devised and enacted by infinite wisdom and goodness, which require implicit and exact submission, which yield neither to times nor circumstances, but maintain their supreme authority, from age to age, uninterrupted and unimpaired. The combatant who violates these rules forfeits the prize, and is driven from the field with indelible disgrace, and consigned to everlasting wo. Hence the great Apostle of the Gentiles exhorts his son Timothy strictly to observe the precepts of the Gospel, without which, he can no more hope to obtain the approbation of God, and the possession of the heavenly crown, than a combatant in the public games of Greece, who disregarded the established rules, could hope to receive from the hands of his judge the promised reward: "And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned except he strive lawfully,"   2 Timothy 2:5 , or according to the established laws of the games. Like the Grecian combatants, the Christian must "abstain from fleshly lusts," and "walk in all the statutes and commandments of the Lord, blameless." Such was St. Paul; and in this manner he endeavoured to act: "But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway,"  1 Corinthians 9:27 . The latter part of this verse Doddridge renders, "lest after having served as a herald I should be disapproved;" and says in a note, "I thought it of importance to retain the primitive sense of these gymnastic expressions." It is well known to those who are at all acquainted with the original, that the word used means to discharge the office of a herald, whose business it was to proclaim the conditions of the games, and display the prizes, to awaken the emulation and resolution of those who were to contend in them. But the Apostle intimates, that there was this peculiar circumstance attending the Christian contest, that the person who proclaimed its laws and rewards to others, was also to engage in it himself; and that there would be a peculiar infamy and misery in his miscarrying. ‘Αδοκιμος , which we render castaway, signifies one who is disapproved by the judge of the games, as not having fairly deserved the prize: he therefore loses it; even the prize of eternal life. The rule which the Apostle applies to himself he extends in another passage to all the members of the Christian church: "Those who strive for the mastery are temperate in all things, now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible." Tertullian uses the same thought to encourage the martyrs. He urges constancy upon them, from what the hopes of victory made the athletae endure; and repeats the severe and painful exercises they were obliged to undergo, the continual anguish and constraint in which they passed the best years of their lives, and the voluntary privation which they imposed on themselves, of all that was most grateful to their appetites and passions.

4. The athletae took care to disencumber their bodies of every article of clothing which could in any manner hinder or incommode them. In the race, they were anxious to carry as little weight as possible, and uniformly stripped themselves of all such clothes as, by their weight, length, or otherwise, might entangle or retard them in the course. The Christian also must "lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset" him,   Hebrews 12:1 . In the exercise of faith and self-denial he must "cast off the works of darkness," lay aside all malice and guile, hypocrisies, and envyings, and evil speakings, inordinate affections, and worldly cares, and whatever else might obstruct his holy profession, damp his spirits, and hinder his progress in the paths of righteousness.

5. The foot race seems to have been placed in the first rank of public games, and cultivated with a care and industry proportioned to the estimation in which it was held. The Olympic games generally opened with races, and were celebrated at first with no other exercise. The lists or course where the athletae exercised themselves in running, was at first but one stadium in length, or about six hundred feet; and from this measure it took its name, and was called the stadium, whatever might be its extent. This, in the language of St. Paul, speaking of the Christian's course, was "the race which was set before them," determined by public authority, and carefully measured. On each side of the stadium and its extremity, ran an ascent or kind of terrace, covered with seats and benches, upon which the spectators were seated, an innumerable multitude collected from all parts of Greece, to which the Apostle thus alludes in his figurative description of the Christian life: "Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight,"   Hebrews 12:1 .

The most remarkable parts of the stadium were its entrance, middle, and extremity. The entrance was marked at first only by a line drawn on the sand, from side to side of the stadium. To prevent any unfair advantage being taken by the more vigilant or alert candidates, a cord was at length stretched in front of the horses or men that were to run; and sometimes the space was railed in with wood. The opening of this barrier, was the signal for the racers to start. The middle of the stadium was remarkable, only by the circumstance of having the prizes allotted to the victors set up there. From this custom, Chrysostom draws a fine comparison: "As the judges in the races and other games, expose in the midst of the stadium, to the view of the champions, the crowns which they were to receive; in like manner, the Lord, by the mouth of his prophets, has placed the prizes in the midst of the course, which he designs for those who have the courage to contend for them." At the extremity of the stadium was a goal, where the foot races ended; but in those of chariots and horses, they were to run several times round it without stopping, and afterward conclude the race by regaining the other extremity of the lists from whence they started. It is therefore to the foot race the Apostle alludes, when he speaks of the race set before the Christian, which was a straight course, to be run only once, and not, as in the other, several times without stopping.

6. According to some writers, it was at the goal, and not in the middle of the course, that the prizes were exhibited; and they were placed in a very conspicuous situation, that the competitors might be animated by having them always in their sight. This accords with the view which the Apostle gives of the Christian life: "Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended; but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,"

Php_3:13-14 . L'Enfant thinks, the Apostle here alludes to those who stood at the elevated place at the end of the course, calling the racers by their names, and encouraging them by holding out the crown, to exert themselves with vigour. Within the measured and determinate limits of the stadium, the athletae were bound to contend for the prize, which they forfeited without hope of recovery, if they deviated ever so little from the appointed course.

7. The honours and rewards granted to the victors were of several kinds. They were animated in their course by the rapturous applauses of the countless multitudes that lined the stadium, and waited the issue of the contest with eager anxiety; and their success was instantly followed by reiterated and long continued plaudits; but these were only a prelude to the appointed rewards, which, though of little value in themselves, were accounted the highest honour to which a mortal could aspire. These consisted of different wreaths of wild olive, pine, parsley, or laurel, according to the different places where the games were celebrated. After the judges had passed sentence, a public herald proclaimed the name of the victor; one of the judges put the crown upon his head, and a branch of palm into his right hand, which he carried as a token of victorious courage and perseverance. As he might be victor more than once in the same games, and sometimes on the same day, he might also receive several crowns and palms. When the victor had received his reward, a herald, preceded by a trumpet, conducted him through the stadium, and proclaimed aloud his name and country; while the delighted multitudes, at the sight of him, redoubled their acclamations and applauses.

8. The crown in the Olympic games was of wild olive; in the Pythian, of laurel: in the Isthmian or Corinthian, of pine tree; and in the Nemaean, of smallage or parsley. Now, most of these were evergreens; yet they would soon grow dry, and crumble into dust. Elsner produces many passages in which the contenders in these exercises are rallied by the Grecian wits, on account of the extraordinary pains they took for such trifling rewards; and Plato has a celebrated passage, which greatly resembles that of the Apostle, but by no means equals it in force and beauty: "Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible." The Christian is thus called to fight the good fight of faith, and to lay hold of eternal life; and to this he is more powerfully stimulated by considering that the ancient athletae, took all their care and pains only for the sake of obtaining a garland of flowers, or a wreath of laurel, which quickly fades and perishes, possessed little intrinsic value, and only served to nourish their pride and vanity, without imparting any solid advantage to themselves or others; but that which is placed in the view of the spiritual combatants, to animate their exertions, and reward their labours, is no less than a crown of glory which never decays; "an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for them,"   1 Peter 1:4;  1 Peter 5:4 . But the victory sometimes remained doubtful, in consequence of which a number of competitors appeared before the judges, and claimed the prize. The candidates who were rejected on such occasions by the judge of the games, as not having fairly merited the prize, were called by the Greeks αδοκιμοι , or disapproved, which we render cast away, in a passage already quoted from St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians: "But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be, αδοκιμος , cast away," rejected by the Judge of all the earth, and disappointed of my expected crown. What has been observed concerning the spirit and ardour with which the competitors engaged in the race, and concerning the prize they had in view to reward their arduous contention, will illustrate the following sublime passage of the same sacred writer in his Epistle to the Philippians: "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect; but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark, for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus," Php_3:12-14 . The affecting passage, also, of the same Apostle, in the Second Epistle of Timothy, written a little before his martyrdom, is beautifully allusive to the above-mentioned race, to the crown that awaited the victory, and to the Hellanodics or judges who bestowed it: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but to all them also that love his appearing,"  2 Timothy 4:8 .

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [3]


I. Among the Israelites. The Jews were essentially a serious people. What in other nations developed into play and games of various kinds, had with them a seriously practical and often a religious character. Their dances were a common form of religious exercise, which might indeed degenerate into disorderly or unseemly behaviour, but were only exceptionally a source of healthy social amusement (  Psalms 150:4 ,   Exodus 32:6; Exo 32:19 ,   2 Samuel 6:14 ff.,   Jeremiah 31:4 ,   Ecclesiastes 3:4 ). Music , again was especially associated with sacred song. Its secular use was condemned by Isaiah as a sign of extravagant luxury (  Isaiah 5:12 ). Lots and the like were used as a means of ascertaining the Divine will, not for amusement or profit. Even what with children might be called games of ‘make believe’ became with some of the prophets vehicles of religious instruction. The symbolic object-lessons of Ezekiel were like children’s toys adapted to a religious purpose (see esp. ch. 4). Even this humour of the prophets, striking as it was, was intensely serious: witness the scathing ridicule of PhÅ“nician idolatry by Elijah and Deutero-Isaiah (  1 Kings 18:27 ,   Isaiah 44:12-20;   Isaiah 46:1-2 ).

It is a matter of some dispute whether manly sports had any place in the social life of the Israelites. There was undoubtedly some sort of training in the use of weapons, particularly the sling (among the Benjamites especially) and the bow , for the purposes of warfare and the chase. We have a definite reference to the custom of practising at a mark in   1 Samuel 20:20;   1 Samuel 20:35 ff., and there are several metaphorical allusions to the same practice (  Job 16:12-13 ,   Lamentations 3:12 ). Again, it has also been thought that we have in the burdensome stone of   Zechariah 12:2 an allusion to a custom of lifting a heavy stone either as a test of strength or as a means of strengthening the muscles; but there is no actual proof that there was any sort of competitive contest in such exercises. It may be suggested, however, on the other hand, that the practice of determining combats by selected champions, one or more, from either side, which we read of in   1 Samuel 17:10 ,   2 Samuel 2:13-16 , and the expression used in the latter case, ‘let the young men … arise and play before us,’ makes it likely that friendly tournaments were not unknown.

Riddle-guessing is the one form of competition of which we have any certain proof. In   Judges 14:12-14 the propounding and guessing of riddles as a wager appears as part of the entertainment of a marriage feast. The questions put by the queen of Sheba to Solomon probably belong to the same category (  1 Kings 10:1;   1 Kings 10:3 ). Indeed, the propounding of ‘dark sayings’ was a common element in proverbial literature (  Psalms 78:2 ,   Proverbs 1:6 ).

Children’s Games . Games of play are so invariable an element of child life among all peoples, that it hardly needs proof that the Israelites were no exception to the rule. The playing of the boys and girls in the streets of the glorified Jerusalem (  Zechariah 8:6 ) might indeed mean nothing more than kitten play; but fortunately we have in   Matthew 11:15 . ||   Luke 7:31 f. a most interesting allusion to the games (mock-weddings and mock-funerals) played in the market-place in our Lord’s time, as they are played in Palestine at the present day.

We read in 2Ma 4:9-17 how Jason the high priest and the head of the Hellenizing party, having bribed Antiochus Epiphanes with 150 talents of silver, set up ‘a place of exercise’ (gymnasium) for the training up of youths ‘in the practices of the heathen.’ The only game specifically mentioned is the discus. There is also mentioned in 2Ma 4:18 ‘a game’ that was held every fifth year at Tyre evidently an imitation of the Olympic games. Later, Herod the Great appears from Josephus ( Ant. XV. viii. 1) to have provoked a conspiracy of the Jews by building a theatre and an amphitheatre at Jerusalem for the spectacular combats of wild beasts, and to have initiated very splendid games every five years in honour of Cæsar. These included wrestling and chariot races, and competitors were attracted from all countries by the very costly prizes.

II. Games of Greece and Rome. Athletic contests formed a very important feature in the social life of the Greeks. They originated in pre-historic times, and were closely associated with religious worship. Thus the Olympic games were held in honour of Olympian Zeus in connexion with the magnificent temple in Olympia in Elis; the Isthmian games on the Isthmus of Corinth in honour of Poseidon; the Pythian were associated with the worship of the Pythian Apollo at Delphi; the Nemean were celebrated at Nemea, a valley of Argolis, to commemorate the Nemean Zeus. These four games were great Pan-Hellenic festivals, to which crowds came from all parts, not only free-born Greeks, but also foreigners, although the latter, except the Romans in later times, were not allowed to compete. The most important of these games were the Olympic. They were held every four years, and so great was the occasion that from the year b.c. 264 events as far back as 776 were computed by them. The period between one celebration and another was called an Olympiad, and an event was said to have occurred in the 1 J James 2:1-26 nd, 3rd, or 4th year of such an Olympiad. The Isthmian games, which took place biennially in the first and third year of each Olympiad, seem to have been modelled on very much the same lines as the Olympic. To the Biblical student they have a more direct interest, as it is highly probable that the frequent allusions to such contests by St. Paul (see esp.   1 Corinthians 9:24-27 ) were due to his personal observation of these games, which must have taken place while he was at Corinth. As, however, our knowledge of the Olympic games, of which several ancient writers have left us particulars, is far more complete, it often happens that the language of St. Paul is more easily illustrated from them. It should be mentioned also in this connexion that besides these four great athletic contests, games of a local character, often in imitation of the Olympic, were held throughout Greece and her colonies in all towns of importance, which had both their stadium and their theatre. The most important of these, from the Biblical student’s point of view, were the games of Ephesus. With these St. Paul was certainly familiar, and, as will be seen below, allusions to games are remarkably frequent in writings connected with Ephesus.

The contests at Olympia included running, boxing, wrestling, chariot races, and other competitions both for men and for youths. The judges, who seem also to have acted as a sort of managing committee, with many dependents, were chosen by lot, one for each division of Elis. They held at once a highly honoured and a very difficult post, and were required to spend ten months in learning the duties of their office. For the last 30 days of this period they were required personally to superintend the training of the athletes who were preparing to compete. In addition to this, the athletes were required to swear before competing that they had spent ten months previously in training. We thus realize the force of such allusions as that of  1 Timothy 4:7-8 , where St. Paul insists on the greater importance of the training unto godliness than that of the body. These facts also add point to the allusions in   2 Timothy 2:5 . An athlete is not crowned unless he contend ‘according to regulation.’ These regulations required the disqualification not only of the disfranchised and criminals, but of those who had not undergone the required training. It is the last to which the passage seems especially to point.

The prize , while it differed in different places, was always a crown of leaves. At Olympia it was made of wild olive; in the Isthmus, in St. Paul’s time, of pine leaves; at Delphi, of ‘laurel’; at Nemea, of parsley. In addition to this, at Olympia, Delphi, and probably elsewhere, the victor had handed to him a palm-branch as a token of victory. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the honour attached to winning the prize in these contests. The victor entered his native city in triumphal procession; he had conferred upon him many privileges and immunities, and his victory was frequently celebrated in verse. His statue might be, and often was, placed in the sacred grove of Elis, and he was looked upon as a public benefactor. St. Paul in   1 Corinthians 9:24-27 makes use of the spirit of these contests to illustrate to the Corinthians, to whom it must have specially appealed, the self-denial, the strenuousness, and the glorious issue of the Christian conflict, drawing his metaphorical allusions partly from the foot-race and partly from the boxing and wrestling matches. ‘They do it to receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, as not uncertainly; so fight I, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage,’ etc.

There is a very interesting allusion to the games of Ephesus in  2 Timothy 4:7 ‘I have contended the good contest, I have completed the race … henceforth is laid up for me the crown of righteousness,’ etc. This stands in striking contrast to   Philippians 3:12-16 ‘Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect: but I press on … forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.’ Here again it is the intense eagerness of the athlete that is specially in St. Paul’s mind. We have many other allusions by St. Paul to the foot-race , as in   Romans 9:16 ,   Galatians 2:2;   Galatians 5:7 ,   Philippians 2:16 ,   Acts 20:24 . These generally refer to the ‘course’ of life and conduct. The last passage, it should be remembered, is addressed to the elders at Ephesus. The full significance of   Romans 9:16 is missed unless we realize the intensity of effort required by the racer. The supreme effort of the will is worthless without the grace of God.

We have allusions to the wrestling match certainly in   Ephesians 6:12 , where St. Paul speaks of wrestling against spiritual forces, and probably to boxing in   Ephesians 4:27 , where ‘giving place’ means giving vantage-ground to the spiritual foe. In connexion with Ephesus we may notice also the allusion in   Acts 19:31 to the Asiarchs the officers who superintended the games. The reference to fighting ‘with wild beasts at Ephesus’ in   1 Corinthians 15:32 is probably a metaphorical allusion to such contests as were common afterwards in the Colosseum at Rome, and were, according to Schmitz (see ‘Isthmia’ in Smith’s Dict. of Gr.-Rom. Ant .), probably introduced into the Isthmian games about this time.

Outside St. Paul’s writings there is an important reference to athletic contests in  Hebrews 12:1-2 . Here the two points emphasized are: (1) the ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Gr. martyres ), whose past achievements are to encourage the Christian combatants for the faith; (2) the self-sacrifice and earnestness needed in running the Christian race. The Christian athlete must lay aside every ‘weight’ every hindrance to his work, just as the runner divested himself of his garments, having previously by hard training got rid of all superfluous flesh, and look only to Christ. Again, in   Revelation 7:9 we have in the palms in the hands of the great company of martyrs a very probable reference to the palms given to the successful competitors in the games. Here, again, it should be borne in mind that it was to Ephesus and the surrounding towns, the district of the great Ephesian games, that St. John was writing.

F. H. Woods.

Fausset's Bible Dictionary [4]

Of children,  Zechariah 8:5. Imitating marriages and funerals,  Matthew 11:16-17. The earnestness of the Hebrew character indisposed adults to games. Public games they had none, the great feasts of religion supplying them with their anniversary occasions of national gatherings. Jason's introduction of Greek games and a gymnasium was among the corrupting influences which broke down the fence of Judaism, and threw it open to the assaults of the Old Testament antichrist, Antiochus Epiphanes ( 1 Maccabees 1:14;  2 Maccabees 4:12-14). Herod erected a theater and amphitheater, with quinquennial contests in gymnastics, chariot races, music, and wild beasts, at Jerusalem and Caesarea, to the annoyance of the faithful Jews (Josephus, Ant 15:8, sec. 1; 9, sec. 6). The "chiefs of Asia" (Asiarchs) superintended the games in honor of Diana at Ephesus ( Acts 19:31).

In  1 Corinthians 15:32 Paul alludes to "fights with beasts" (though his fights were with beast-like men, Demetrius and his craftsmen, not with beasts, from which his Roman citizenship exempted him), at Ephesus. The "fighters with beasts" were kept to the "last" of the "spectacle"; this he alludes to,  1 Corinthians 4:9; "God hath set forth (exhibited previous to execution) us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death, for we are made a spectacle unto the world," etc., a "gazing stock" as in an amphitheater ( Hebrews 10:33). The Asiarchs' friendliness was probably due to their having been interested in his teaching during his long stay at Ephesus. Nero used to clothe the Christians in beast skins when he exposed them to wild beasts; compare  2 Timothy 4:17, "I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion" (namely, from Satan's snare,  1 Peter 5:8).

In  2 Timothy 4:7, "I have striven the good strife," not merely a fight, any competitive contest as the race-course,  1 Timothy 6:12 which was written from Corinth, where national games recurred at stated seasons, which accounts for the allusion: "strive" with such earnestness in "the good strife" as to "lay hold" on the prize, the crown or garland of the winner, "eternal life." (See Timothy .)  James 1:12;  Revelation 2:10.  Philippians 3:12-14; "not as though I had attained," namely, the prize, "or am already perfected" (Greek), i.e., my course completed and I crowned with the garland of perfect victory; "I follow after," i.e. I press on, "if that I may apprehend (grasp) that for which I am apprehended of (grasped by) Christ," i.e., if so be that I may lay hold on the prize for obtaining which I was laid hold on by Christ at conversion ( Song of Solomon 1:4;  1 Corinthians 13:12).

"Forgetting those things behind (the space already past, contrast  2 Timothy 3:7;  2 Peter 1:9) and reaching forth unto those things before," like a race runner with body bent forward, the eye reaching before and drawing on the hand, the hand reaching before and drawing on the foot. The "crown (garland) of righteousness," "of life," "of glory," is "the prize of the high calling (the calling that is above, coming from, and leading to, heaven) of God in Christ Jesus" ( 1 Thessalonians 2:12), given by "the righteous Judge" ( 2 Timothy 4:8;  1 Peter 5:4). The false teacher, as a self constituted umpire, would "defraud you of your prize" ( Katabrabeueto ), by drawing you away from Christ to angel worship ( Colossians 2:18). Therefore "let the peace of God as umpire rule ( Brabeueto ) in your hearts" and restrain wrong passions, that so you may attain the prize "to the which ye are called" ( Colossians 3:15).

In  1 Corinthians 9:24 the Isthmian games, celebrated on the isthmus of Corinth, are vividly alluded to. They were a subject of patriotic pride to the Corinthians, a passion rather than a pastime; so a suitable image of Christian earnestness. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians at Ephesus, and in addressing the Ephesian elders he uses naturally the same image, an undesigned coincidence ( Acts 20:24). "So (with the determined earnestness of the ONE earthly winner) run, that ye may obtain" is such language as instructors in the gymnasts and spectators on the race-course would urge on the runners with. The competitor had to "strive lawfully" ( 2 Timothy 2:5), i.e. observing the conditions of the contest, keeping to the bounds of the course, and stripped of clothes, and previously training himself with chastity, abstemious diet, anointing, enduring cold, heat, and severe exercise.

As a soldier the believer is one of many; as an athlete he has to wage an individual struggle continually, as if (which is the case in a race) one alone could win; "they who run in the stadium (racecourse, oblong, at one end semicircular, where the tiers of spectators sat), run all, but one receiveth the prize." Paul further urges Christians, run so as not only to receive salvation but a full reward (compare  1 Corinthians 3:14-15;  2 John 1:8). Pugilism is the allusion in "I keep under (Greek: I bruise under the eyes, so as to disable) my body (the old flesh, whereas the games competitor boxed another I box myself), and bring it into subjection as a slave, lest that by any means, when I have preached (heralded, as the heralds summoned the candidates to the race) to others, I myself should be a castaway" (Greek: rejected), namely, not as to his personal salvation of which he had no doubts ( Galatians 1:15;  Ephesians 1:4;  Ephesians 1:7;  Philippians 1:6;  Titus 1:2;  2 Timothy 1:12), but as to the special reward of those who "turn many to righteousness" ( Daniel 12:3;  1 Thessalonians 2:19).

So Paul denied himself, in not claiming sustenance, in view of "reward," namely, "to gain the more" ( 1 Corinthians 9:18-23).  1 Corinthians 9:25; "striveth for the mastery," namely, in wrestling, more severe than the foot-race. The "crown" (garland, not a king's diadem) is termed "corruptible," being made of the soon withering fir leaves from the groves round the Isthmian racecourse. Our crown is "incorruptible" ( 1 Peter 1:4). "I run not as uncertainly," i.e. not without a definite goal, in "becoming all things to all men" I aim at "gaining the more." Ye gain no end, he implies to the Corinthians, in your eating idol meats. He who knows what to aim at, and how to aim, looks straight to the goal, and casts away every encumbrance ( Hebrews 12:1). So the believer must cast aside not only sinful lusts, but even harmless and otherwise useful things which would retard him ( Mark 9:42-48;  Mark 10:50;  Ephesians 4:22;  Colossians 3:9).

"He must run with enduring perseverance the race set before him." "Not as one that beateth the air," in a Skiamachia , or sparring in sham fight, striking the air as if an adversary. Satan is a real adversary, acting through the flesh. The "so great a cloud of witnesses" ( Hebrews 12:1-2) that "we are compassed about with" attest by their own case God's faithfulness to His people ( Hebrews 6:12).

A second sense is nowhere positively sustained by Scripture, namely, that, as the crowd of surrounding spectators gave fresh spirit to the combatants, so the deceased saints who once were in the same contest, and who now are witnessing our struggle of faith, ought to increase our earnestness, testifying as they do to God's faith. fullness; but see  Job 14:21;  Ecclesiastes 9:5;  Isaiah 63:16, which seemingly deny to disembodied spirits consciousness of earthly affairs. "Looking off unto Jesus ( Aforontes , with eye fixed on the distant goal) the Prince-leader and Finisher (the Starting point and the Goal, as in the Diaulos race, wherein they doubled back to the starting point) of our faith" ( 2 Timothy 3:7).

Holman Bible Dictionary [5]

 2 Samuel 2:14-16 Isaiah 11:8 Zechariah 8:5

Drawings and paintings on tomb and palace walls, sculptures and reliefs, as well as numerous artifacts illustrate recreational activities. Egyptian art depicts a wide variety of contests which required physical effort including water sports, gymnastics, and fencing. Egyptian children played “circling,” a game found drawn with accompanying instructions on the walls of several tombs. Games were also played with hoops, sticks, and other paraphernalia. A scene of children riding a mock chariot or go-cart decorates a Greek jug from about 500 B.C. Classical Greeks often turned a drinking party into lighter amusement, a game of “kottabos.”

Board Games Over 4000 years old, board games were common throughout the Middle East. Moves and captures common to most board games were carried out on specifically designed surfaces, usually a series of connecting squares or cells. Game pieces moved from one square to another according to certain rules which are still unknown. A throw of dice, knucklebones, or even heelbones (lots) determined play. In the Old Testament, lots decided things such as slave allotments ( Nahum 3:10 ), apportionment of land ( Joshua 18:6 ), and care of the Temple ( Nehemiah 10:34;  1 Chronicles 24:5 ). Their use of dice or “lots” gradually extended to gambling, then to simple table games. Soldiers cast lots for Jesus' garment at the crucifixion ( John 19:24 ). The knucklebones of sheep were specially suited to deciding lots since they could fall in only four positions. Dice eventually replaced knucklebones. Examples of dice have been found together with gameboards in tombs where they were placed for use in the afterlife. Sometimes lots were cast with ostraca (broken pieces of pottery).

The oldest surviving game board was discovered in Egypt. Made of clay and divided into squares, it has eleven cone-shaped playing pieces, all dated before 4000 B.C. Another game commonly referred to as “hounds and jackals” was played throughout the Fertile Crescent (Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys with intervening land). Numerous fragments have been found.

Its pegged playing pieces, carved with the likenesses of jackals and dogs, fit into holes in the board. A beautifully preserved example from Thebes has ivory playing pieces and three knucklebones with it. Several boards for this game were also found in Assyria. Drawn on stone slabs, some have an inscription bearing the name of the Assyrian king, Esarhaddon (680–669 B.C.).

In the royal graves at Ur, four boards from about 2500 B.C. were uncovered, each a box with a surface of inlaid shells and stones forming a twenty-square pattern. Drawers in the boxes held three four-sided lots and the pieces, seven for each board. A board with a similar design was found in Knossos, Crete.

Playing pieces of varying designs as well as game boards of ivory and stone have been discovered at Samaria, Gezer, Megiddo, and other sites in Palestine. Excavations at Debir (tell beit Mirsim) in Southern Palestine unearthed a limestone board with ten glazed playing pieces and an ivory “die.” Boards for a game called “fifty-eight holes” have been found at Megiddo and in Egypt and Mesopotamia as well. Although they differ in shape and in the type of materials used to make them, each has approximately fifty-eight holes spaced around its edges and placed in varying designs across the upper surface. The examples at Megiddo date to about 1300 B.C.

Public Games The four Greek Panhellenic Games were the largest public sports contests in the Near East. Some believe that Paul was a spectator at the Isthmian Games (near Corinth), one of these international spectacles. It is evident that the apostle was familiar with athletics ( Galatians 2:2;  Philippians 3:13-14;  2 Timothy 2:5;  1 Corinthians 9:25-27 ). Among the events were the pentathlon (long-jump, javelin and discus throws, running, and wrestling) and chariot races. All races were run on a long track or stadion with pylons at each end. Runners or charioteers rounded the pylons, racing back and forth instead of circling an oval track. The track at Olympia (the largest Panhellenic game) has been excavated, and its starting line was found to have provided space for twenty contestants.

Athletes were rubbed with oil and participated without clothing. Competitive spirit was vigorous, and contests were governed by few rules. Prizes for winners of the Panhellenic Games were simple wreaths of olive, wild celery, laurel, and pine. At Rome, one could see basically these same events until wild beasts were introduced into the arena. Sometimes as many as ten thousand gladiators fought at the Roman games which might last for several weeks. Herod the Great built many amphitheaters in Palestine, including one near Jerusalem where men condemned to death fought with wild animals. Men began preparing for the games as youth in “gymnasia” where facilities for practicing sporting events were provided for both young and old.

The process of hellenization (the forcing of Greek culture on the Jews) brought amphitheaters and gymnasia to Palestine. Orthodox Jews were repelled by nude athletes and games dedicated to Caesar. Trophies of ornamented wood were considered images and thus forbidden. Add to this the cruelty of the games, and it is understandable why devout Jews hated the games.

Diane Cross

Easton's Bible Dictionary [6]

  • Among the Greeks and Romans games entered largely into their social life.

    (A) Reference in the New Testament is made to gladiatorial shows and fights with wild beasts ( 1 Corinthians 15:32 ). These were common among the Romans, and sometimes on a large scale.

    (B) Allusion is frequently made to the Grecian gymnastic contests ( Galatians 2:2;  5:7;  Philippians 2:16;  3:14;  1 Timothy 6:12;  2 Timothy 2:5;  Hebrews 12:1,4,12 ). These were very numerous. The Olympic, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games were esteemed as of great national importance, and the victors at any of these games of wrestling, racing, etc., were esteemed as the noblest and the happiest of mortals.

    Copyright Statement These dictionary topics are from M.G. Easton M.A., DD Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Thomas Nelson, 1897. Public Domain.

    Bibliography Information Easton, Matthew George. Entry for 'Games'. Easton's Bible Dictionary. 1897.

  • Webster's Dictionary [7]

    A modified revival of the ancient Olympian games, consisting of international athletic games, races, etc., now held once in four years, the first having been at Athens in 1896.

    Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature [8]

    If by the word are intended mere secular amusements, which are the natural expression of vigorous health and joyous feeling, fitted, if not designed, to promote health, hilarity, and friendly feeling, as well as to aid in the development of the corporeal frame, we must look to other quarters of the globe, rather than to Palestine, for their origin and encouragement. The Hebrew temperament was too deep, too earnest, too full of religious emotion, to give rise to games having a national and permanent character. Whatever of amusement, or rather of recreation, the descendants of Abraham possessed, partook of that religious complexion which was natural to them; or rather the predominant religiousness of their souls gave its own hue, as to all their engagements, go to their recreations. The influence of religion pervaded their entire being; so that whatever of recreation they needed or enjoyed is for the most part found blended with religious exercises. Hence their great national festivals served at once for the devout service of Almighty God, and the recreation and refreshment of their own minds and bodies.

    Games, however, are so natural to man, especially in the period of childhood, that no nation has been or can be entirely without them. Accordingly a few traces are found in the early Hebrew history of at least private and childish diversions. The heat of the climate too in Syria would indispose the mature to more bodily exertion than the duties of life imposed, while the gravity which is characteristic of the Oriental character might seem compromised by anything so light as sports. Dignified ease therefore corresponds with the idea which we form of Oriental recreation. The father of the family sits at the door of his tent, or reclines on the housetop, or appears at the city gate, and there tranquilly enjoys repose, broken by conversation, under the light and amid the warmth of the bright and breezy heavens, in the cool of the retiring day, or before the sun has assumed his burning ardors . Even among the active Egyptians, whose games have been figured on their mural tablets, we find little which suggests a comparison with the vigorous contests of the Grecian games. One of the most remarkable is the following (fig. 189), showing what appears to be play with the single-stick.

    International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [9]

    gāmz  :

    I. Israelitish Games

    1. Children's Games


    2. Sports

    3. Games of Chance and Skill

    4. Story-Telling

    5. Dancing

    6. Proverbs

    7. Riddles

    II. The Games of Greece and Rome

    1. Historical Introduction

    2. General References

    3. Specific References to Greek Athletics

    4. References to the Theater and the Drama


    About the amusements of the ancient Israelites we know but little, partly on account of the nature of our literary sources, which are almost exclusively religious, partly because the antiquities thus far discovered yield very little information on this topic as compared with those of some other countries, and partly because of the relatively serious character of the people. Games evidently took a less prominent place in Hebrew life than in that of the Greeks, the Romans and the Egyptians. Still the need for recreation was felt and to a certain extent supplied in ways according with the national temperament. Mere athletics (apart from Greek and Roman influence) were but little cultivated. Simple and natural amusements and exercises, and trials of wit and wisdom, were more to the Hebrew taste. What is known or probably conjectured may be summed up under the following heads: Games of Children; Sports; Games of Chance and Skill; Story-telling; Dancing; Proverbs; Riddles. The amusements of Greece and Rome, which to some extent influenced later Jewish society and especially those which are directly or indirectly referred to in the New Testament, will be theme of the latter part of the article.

    I. Israelite Games

    1. Children's Games

    There are two general references to the playing of children:  Zechariah 8:5 : "And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof"; and   Genesis 21:9 margin, where we read of Ishmael "playing" ( mecaḥēḳ ). The rendering of our Bibles, "mocking," is open to question. Of specific games and pets there is hardly a mention in the Old Testament. Playing with ball is alluded to in   Isaiah 22:18 : "He will ... toss thee like a ball into a large country," but children need not be thought of as the only players. If the balls used in Palestine were like those used by the Egyptians, they were sometimes made of leather or skin stuffed with bran or husks of corn, or of string and rushes covered with leather (compare Wilkinson, Popular Account , I, 198-201; British Museum Guide to the Egyptian Collections , 78). The question of Yahweh to Job ( Job 41:5 ): "Wilt thou play with him (the crocodile) as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?" suggests that tame birds were petted by Hebrew children, especially by girls. The New Testament has one reference to children's play, namely, the half-parable about the children in the market-place who would neither dance to the flute as if at a marriage feast nor wail as if at a funeral (  Matthew 11:16 f parallel   Luke 7:32 ).


    There are interesting accounts in Les enfants de Nazareth , by the Abbé Le Camus (60-66; 101-10), of the way in which the children of the modern Nazareth mimic scenes connected with weddings and funerals. That Israelite children had toys (dolls, models of animals, etc.) cannot be doubted in view of the finds in Egypt and elsewhere, but no positive evidence seems to be as yet forthcoming.

    2. Sports

    Running was no doubt often practiced, especially in the time of the early monarchy. Saul and Jonathan (  2 Samuel 1:23 ), Asahel ( 2 Samuel 2:18 ), Ahimaaz ( 2 Samuel 18:23 ,  2 Samuel 18:27 ) and some of the Gadites in David's service ( 1 Chronicles 12:8 ) were renowned for their speed, which can only have been the result of training and exercise. The same may be said of the feats of those who ran before a king or a prince ( 1 Samuel 8:11;  2 Samuel 15:1;  1 Kings 1:5;  1 Kings 18:46 ). The Psalmist must have watched great runners before he pictured the sun as rejoicing like a strong man to run his course (  Psalm 19:5  ; compare also  Ecclesiastes 9:11;  Jeremiah 8:6;  Jeremiah 23:10 ). For running in the Greek games, see the latter part of this article.

    Archery practice is implied in the story of Jonathan's touching interview with David (  1 Samuel 20:20 ,  1 Samuel 20:35-38 ) and in Job's complaint: "He hath also set me up for his mark. His archers compass me round about" ( Job 16:12 f). Only by long practice could the 700 left-handed Benjamite slingers, every one of whom could sling stones at a hair-breadth and not miss (  Judges 20:16 ), and the young David ( 1 Samuel 17:49 ), have attained to the precision of aim for which they are famous.

    In  Zechariah 12:3 , "I will make Jerusalem a burdensome stone," literally, "a stone of burden," Jerome found an allusion to a custom which prevailed widely in Palestine in his day, and has been noticed by a recent traveler, of stone-lifting , i.e. of testing the strength of young men by means of heavy round stones. Some, he says, could raise one of these stones to the knees, others to the waist, others to the shoulders and the head, and a few could lift it above the head. This interpretation is not quite certain (Wright, Comm ., 364), but the form of sport described was probably in vogue in Palestine in Biblical times.

    High leaping or jumping was probably also practiced (  Psalm 18:29 ). The "play" referred to in  2 Samuel 2:14 of 12 Benjamites and 12 servants of David was not a sport but a combat like that of the Horatii and the Curiatii.

    3. Games of Chance and Skill

    Dice were known to the ancient Egyptians, and Assyrian dice have been found, made of bronze with points of gold, but there is no trace of them in the Old Testament. Recent research at Ta‛annek has brought to light many bones which seem to have been used in somewhat the same way as in a game played by the modern Arabs, who call it ka‛ab , the very word they apply to dice. These bones were "the oldest and most primitive form of dice" (König after Sellin, Re 3, Xviii , 634). The use of dice among the later Jews is attested by the condemnation of dice-players in the Mishna ( Sanh ., iii. 3). The Syrian soldiers who cast lots for the raiment of Jesus at the cross (  Matthew 27:35 parallel   Mark 15:24;  Luke 23:34;  John 19:24 ) may have used dice, but that can neither be proved nor disproved.

    It has been suggested that the mockery of Jesus before the Sanhedrin described in   Matthew 26:67 f parallel   Mark 14:65;  Luke 22:63 f may have been connected with a Greek game in which one of the players held the eyes of another while a third gave him a box on the ear. The last was then asked with what hand he had been struck. A somewhat similar game is represented in an Egyptian tomb picture (Wilkinson, Popular Account , I, 192). This reference, however, though not quite inadmissible, is scarcely probable. Games with boards and men bearing some resemblance to our draughts were in great favor in Egypt (ibid., 190-95), but cannot be proved for the Jews even in New Testament times.

    4. Story-Telling

    Listening to stories or recitations has long been a favorite amusement of Orientals (compare Lane, Modern Egyptians , 359-91: "The Thousand and One Nights"), but there seems to be no reference to it in the Bible. There can be no reasonable doubt, however, that the Hebrews, like their neighbors, had story-tellers or reciters, axed heard them with delight. Egyptian tales of great antiquity are well known from the two volumes edited by Professor Petrie in 1895; and there are several non-canonical Jewish tales which combine romance and moral teaching: the Books of Tobit and Judith and perhaps the Story of Ahikar, the last of which, with the help of the Aramaic papyri discovered at Elephantine, can be traced back (in some form) to about 400 bc (Schürer, Gj 5 4, III, 255). There are also many short stories in the Haggadic portions of the Talmud and the Midrash.

    5. Dancing

    Dancing , that is, the expression of joy by rhythmical movements of the limbs to musical accompaniment, is scarcely ever mentioned in the Bible as a social amusement, except in a general way (  Judges 16:25 ,  Judges 16:27 (?);  Job 21:11;  Psalm 30:11;  Ecclesiastes 3:4;  Jeremiah 31:4 ,  Jeremiah 31:13;  Lamentations 5:15;  Matthew 11:17;  Luke 15:25 ). There is one exception, the dancing of Salome, the daughter of Herodias, before Herod Antipas and his court ( Matthew 14:6 parallel   Mark 6:22 ), which was a solo dance, probably of a pantomimic character affected by Roman influence. The other Biblical references to dancing can be grouped under two heads: the dance of public rejoicing, and the dance which was more or less an act of worship. Of the former we have two striking examples in the Old Testament: the dance accompanied by the tambourine with which the maidens of Israel, led by Jephthah's daughter, met that leader after his victory ( Judges 11:34 ), and the dances of the Israelite women in honor of Saul and David to celebrate the triumph over the Philistines ( 1 Samuel 18:6;  1 Samuel 21:11;  1 Samuel 29:5 ).

    It was probably usual to welcome a king or general with music and dancing. There is a good illustration in a fine Assyrian sculpture in the British Museum which represents a band of 11 instrumentalists taking part in doing homage to a new ruler. Three men at the head of the procession are distinctly dancing ( Sbot , "Psalms," English, 226).

    The distinctly religious dance is more frequently mentioned. The clear instances of it in the Bible are the dance of the women of Israel at the Red Sea, headed by Miriam with her tambourine ( Exodus 15:20 ); the dance of the Israelites round the golden calf ( Exodus 32:19 ); the dance of the maidens of Shiloh at an annual feast ( Judges 21:19 ); the leaping or limping of the prophets of Baal round their altar on Carmel ( 1 Kings 18:26 ), and the dancing of David in front of the ark ( 2 Samuel 6:14 ,  2 Samuel 6:16 parallel   1 Chronicles 15:29 ). There are general references in  Psalm 149:3 : "Let them praise his name in the dance";   Psalm 150:4 : "Praise him with timbrel and dance"; and perhaps in   Psalm 68:25 . The allusions in  Song of Solomon 6:13 , "the dance of Mahanaim," and in the proper name Abel-meholah, "the meadow of the dance" ( 1 Kings 19:16 , etc.), are too uncertain to be utilized. The ritual dance was probably widespread in the ancient East. David's performance has Egyptian parallels. Seti I, the father of Rameses II, and three other Pharaohs are said to have danced before a deity (Budge, The Book of the Dead , I, xxxv), and Asiatic monuments attest the custom elsewhere. About the methods of dancing practiced by the ancient Hebrews but little is known. Probably the dancers in some cases joined hands and formed a ring, or part of a ring, as in some heathen representations. The description of David's dance: he "danced before Yahweh with all his might ... leaping and dancing before Yahweh" ( 2 Samuel 6:14-16 ) suggests three features of that particular display and the mode of dancing which it represented: violent exertion, leaping ( mephazzēz ), and whirling round ( mekharkēr ). Perhaps the whirling dance of Islam is a modern parallel to the last. Women seem generally to have danced by themselves, one often leading the rest, both in dancing and antiphonal song; so Miriam and the women of Israel, Jephthah's daughter and her comrades, the women who greeted Saul and David, and, in the Apocrypha, Judith and her sisters after the death of Holofernes (Judith 15:12 f). Once the separation of the sexes is perhaps distinctly referred to ( Jeremiah 31:13 ). In public religious dances they may have occasionally united, as was the case sometimes in the heathen world, but there is no clear evidence to that effect (compare, however,  2 Samuel 6:20 and   Psalm 68:25 ). Of the social dancing of couples in the modern fashion there is no trace. There seems to be some proof that the religious dance lingered among the Jews until the time of Christ and later.

    If the Mishna can be trusted ( Ṣūkkah , v.4), there was a torch-light dance in the temple in the illuminated court of the women at the Feast of Tabernacles in which men of advanced years and high standing took part. The Gemara to the Jerusalem Talmud adds that a famous dancer on these occasions was Rabbi Simeon or Simon, the son of Gamaliel, who lived in the apostolic age (Josephus, Bj , IV, iii, 9). According to another passage ( Ta‛ănı̄th 4 8) the daughters of Jerusalem used to dance dressed in white in the vineyards on Tishri the 10th and Abib the 15th. Religious dancing in the modern East is illustrated not only by the dances of the dervishes mentioned above, but also by occasional dances led by the sheikh in honor of a saint (Curtiss, Primitive Semitic Religion Today , 169). Among the later Jews dancing was not unusual at wedding feasts. More than one eminent rabbi is said to have danced before the bride ( Kethubbōth 17a). Singing and dancing, with lighted torches, are said to be wedding customs of the modern Arabs.


    Arts. "Dance" in Smith Db 2, Hdb , Dcg , Eb , Jewish Encyclopedia (also "Games"); "Tanz" in Re 3 and the German Dictionaries of Winer, Riehm, and Guthe ( Reigen ); Nowack, Ha , I, 278 f.

    6. Proverbs

    Proverbs ( משׁל , māshāl  ; παροιμία , paroimı́a ) : Proverbs and proverbial expressions seem to have been, to some extent, a means of amusement as well as instruction for the ancient Oriental who delighted in the short, pointed statement of a moral or religious truth, or a prudential maxim, whether of literary or popular origin. Most of these sayings in the Bible belong to the former class, and are couched in poetic form (see Proverbs; Ecclesiastes; Ecclesiasticus ). The others which are shorter and simpler, together with a number of picturesque proverbial phrases, must have recurred continually in daily speech and have added greatly to its vivacity.

    The Old Testament supplies the following 10 examples of the popular proverb: (1) "Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before Yahweh" ( Genesis 10:9 ); (2) "As the man is, so is his strength" ( Judges 8:21 ), only two words in the Hebrew; (3) "Is Saul also among the prophets?" ( 1 Samuel 10:11 f;   1 Samuel 19:24 ); (4) "Out of the wicked (wicked men) cometh forth wickedness" ( 1 Samuel 24:13 ); (5) "There are the blind and the lame; he cannot come into the house" ( 2 Samuel 5:8 ); (6) "Let not him that girdeth on his armor boast himself as he that putteth it off" ( 1 Kings 20:11 ); (7) "Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life" ( Job 2:4 ); (8) "The days are prolonged, and every vision faileth" ( Ezekiel 12:22 ), a scoffing jest rather than a proverb; (9) "As is the mother, so is her daughter" ( Ezekiel 16:44 ), two words in the Hebrew; (10) "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" ( Jeremiah 31:29;  Ezekiel 18:2 ). In the New Testament we find 10 others: (1) "Physician, heal thyself" ( Luke 4:23 ); in the Midrash Rabbāh on Gen: "Physician heal thine own wound"; (2) "Can the blind guide the blind? shall they not both fall into a pit?" ( Luke 6:39 ); (3) "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you" ( Matthew 7:2 parallel   Mark 4:24;  Luke 6:38 ), almost identical with a Jewish proverb, "measure for measure" cited several times in the ancient Midrash, the Mekhiltā' ); (4) "One soweth, and another reapeth" ( John 4:37 ); (5) "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country" ( Matthew 13:57;  Luke 4:24;  John 4:44; Logion of Oxyrhynchus); (6) "There are yet four months, and then cometh the harvest" ( John 4:35 ), possibly a kind of proverb; (7) "Wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles (m "vultures") be gathered together" ( Matthew 24:28 parallel   Luke 17:37 ); perhaps a proverb of which there is a trace also in the reference to the vulture: "Where the slain are, there is she" ( Job 39:30 ); (8) "It is hard for thee to kick against the goad" ( Acts 26:14 ), a Greek proverb: for proof compare Wetstein's note; (9) "The dog turning to his own vomit again, and the sow that had washed to wallowing in the mire" ( 2 Peter 2:22 ); Wetstein gives rabbinic parallels for the former half, and Greek for the latter; (10) "Ye ... strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel" ( Matthew 23:24 ).

    There are also many proverbial phrases which added piquancy to conversation. Exceeding smallness was likened to the eye of a needle ( Matthew 19:24 parallel   Mark 10:25;  Luke 18:25 ), or to a grain of mustard ( Matthew 13:31 parallel   Mark 4:31;  Matthew 17:20 parallel   Luke 17:6 ), comparisons both found also in the Talmud, the Koran, and modern Arabic sayings. Relative greatness was likened to a camel ( Matthew 19:24 , etc.), in the Talmud to a camel or an elephant. Great number was illustrated by reference to "the sand which is upon the sea-shore" ( Genesis 22:17 and many other passages); "the dust of the earth" (  Genesis 13:16 , etc.; also an Arabian figure); "the grass of the earth" ( Job 5:25;  Psalm 72:16; compare  Psalm 92:7 ), an early Babylonian figure; a swarm of locusts ( Nahum 3:15 and   Nahum 3:4 other passages), a similitude used also by Sennacherib ( RP , n.s. VI, 97), and the stars of heaven ( Genesis 15:5 and   Genesis 15:10 other passages). When complete security was promised or described it was said that not a hair of the head was or should be injured or perish (  1 Samuel 14:45;  2 Samuel 14:11;  1 Kings 1:52;  Daniel 3:27;  Luke 21:18;  Acts 27:34 ). Overcoming of difficulties was referred to as the removal of mountains ( Matthew 17:20;  Matthew 21:21 parallel   Mark 11:23;  1 Corinthians 13:2 ), an expression which has rabbinic parallels. Other proverbial phrases may perhaps be found in the saying about the mote and the beam ( Matthew 7:3-5 ), jot or tittle ( Matthew 5:18 parallel   Luke 16:17 ), and the foolish words of Rehoboam and his young advisers ( 1 Kings 12:10 f). Many old proverbs have no doubt perished. Dukes in his Rabbinische Blumenlese gives 665 proverbs and proverbial expressions from the Talmud and related literature, and modern collections show that proverbial lore is still in great favor in the Biblical Orient. See also Proverbs .


    In addition to works already mentioned König, Stilistik , etc., Dcg ("Jesus' Use of Proverbs"); Murray, Db , article "Proverbs"; Cohen, Ancient Jewish Proverbs , 1911.

    7. Riddles

    Riddles ( חידה , ḥı̄dhāh  ; αἴνιγμα , aı́nigma ): Riddle-making and riddle-guessing were in favor in the ancient East, both in educated circles and in comparatively common life. There is a tablet in the British Museum (K 4347: Guide to Assyrian and Babylonian Antiquities 2,53) from the library of Ashur-bani-pal which attests the use of riddles not only by the Assyrians of the 7th century bc, but also in a far earlier age, for it contains a Sumer as well as a Semitic text. So it is not surprising that we find a remarkable example in early Israelite history in Samson's famous riddle: "Out of the eater came forth food, and out of the strong came forth sweetness" (  Judges 14:14 ). The riddle is couched in poetic form, as is also the solution: "What is sweeter than honey? and what is stronger than a lion?" ( Judges 14:18 ), and the comment: "If ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle" (same place) . The stipulation of a prize or penalty according to the success or failure of the persons challenged to solve the riddle was a custom met with also among the ancient Greeks and in a later age among the Arabs. In  1 Kings 10:1 parallel   2 Chronicles 9:1 the word used of Samson's riddle ( ḥı̄dhāh ) is employed of the "hard questions" put to Solomon by the queen of Sheba. The Septuagint seems to have understood the word as "riddle" here also, for it renders "enigmas," and some of the later Jews not only adopted this interpretation, but actually gave riddles said to have been propounded. Of these riddles which, of course, have no direct historic value, but are interesting specimens of riddle lore, one of the best is the following: "Without movement while living, it moves when its head is cut off"; the answer to which is: "a tree" ( Jewish Encyclopedia , article "Riddle"; see also for these riddles Wünsche, Die Räthselweisheit bei den Hebräern , 15-23). If Josephus can be trusted, historians of Phoenicia recorded a riddle-contest between Solomon and the Phoenician Hiram in which the latter finally won with the help of a Tyrian named Abdemon ( Ant. , VIII, v, 3; CAp , 1, 18). In this case, too, defeat involved penalty. The testing of ability by riddles has a striking parallel in the Persian epic, the Shah Nameh , in the trial of the hero Sal by the mobeds or wise men (Wünsche, op. cit., 43-47). Solomon's fame as an author of riddles and riddle-like sayings is referred to in Sirach 47:15, 17 (Hebrew): "With song, and proverbs, dark sayings ( ḥı̄dhāh ) and figures, thou didst greatly move the nations." Ḥı̄dhāh occurs only once in Prov (1:6): "the words of the wise, and their dark sayings," but the collection contains several examples of what König calls "the numerical riddle":  Proverbs 6:16-19;  Proverbs 30:7 , Proverbs 30:15 f,18 f, 21ff,24-28, 29ff. In each case the riddle is stated first and then the solution. The saying in   Proverbs 26:10 : "As an archer that woundeth all, so is he that hireth the fool and he that hireth them that pass by," has been cited as a riddle, and it is certainly obscure enough, but the obscurity may be due to textual corruption. There are several passages in the Old Testament in which the word ḥı̄dhāh seems to be used in the general sense of "mysterious utterance":  Numbers 12:8;  Psalm 49:4;  Psalm 78:2;  Daniel 5:12 (the Aramaic equivalent of ḥı̄dhāh );  Daniel 8:23;  Habakkuk 2:6 . In  Ezekiel 17:1 it describes the parable or allegory of the Two Eagles and the Cedar and the Vine. Sirach has several numerical riddles: 23:16; 25:1 f,7 f; 26:5 f; 50:25 f; and there are similar sayings in Ab 5 1-11, 16-21 (Taylor's edition). In the Book of Jeremiah ( Jeremiah 25:26;  Jeremiah 51:41;  Jeremiah 51:1 ) are two examples of a cryptic or cipher mode of writing which comes very near the riddle. SHē SHaKH , in the first two passages, represented by the three letters shı̄n , shı̄n , kaph , answering to our sh , sh , k , is meant to be read with the substitution for each letter of the letter as near the beginning of the alphabet as it is near the end, the result being sh = b , sh = b , k = l , that is, B-b-l or Babel /Babylon. In the same way in the last passage the consonants composing the word Lebkamai l , b , k , m , y , suggest k , s , d , y , m , that is, Kasdı̄m or Chaldees. This cipher or riddle-writing was called by the Jews 'At - bash (compare Buxtorf, Lexicon Chaldaicum , etc., I, 131, 137 f, edited by Fischer; and modern commentaries on Jer). The New Testament contains no riddle except the numerical puzzle,  Revelation 13:18 (compare Number; Gematria ), and has the Greek equivalent of ḥı̄dhāh only in  1 Corinthians 13:12 , "for now we see ... darkly ," the Revised Version, margin "in a riddle" (Greek en ainı́gmati ). There can be little doubt that riddles enlivened marriage festivals, such as that of Cana. Wünsche (op. cit.) gives some interesting specimens of later Jewish riddles, subsequent indeed to our Lord's time, but such as might have been in circulation then.


    The most important authority is the above-cited monograph of Wünsche. König has an interesting paragraph in his Stilistik , Rhetorik , Poetik , etc., 12 f. Compare also Hamburger, Re , II, 966ff; articles on "Riddle" in Jewish Encyclopedia , Smith's Db , Hdb , larger and smaller; Murray's Db  ; German Bible Dictionaries of Winer, Riehm2, and Guthe; Rosenmüller, Das alte und neue Morgenland , III. 48 f.

    II. The Games of Greece and Rome

    1. Historical Introduction

    This is not the place to give a detailed account of the Greek gymnasia and the elaborate contests for which candidates were prepared in them, or to describe the special forms of sport introduced by the Romans, but these exercises and amusements were so well known in Palestine and throughout the Roman Empire in the time of Christ and the apostles that they cannot be passed over in silence. Some acquaintance with them is absolutely necessary for the interpretation of many passages in the New Testament, especially in the Epistles. Hellenic athletics found their way into Jewish society through the influence of the Greek kingdom ruled over by the Seleucids. Early in the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (circa 176 bc) a gymnasium, "place of exercise," was built in Jerusalem (  1 Maccabees 1:14;  2 Maccabees 4:9,12 ) and frequented by priests ( 1 Maccabees 1:14 f), who are spoken of as "making of no account the honors of their fathers, and thinking the glories of the Greeks best of all." After the success of the Maccabean rising Greek games fell into disrepute among the Jewish population of Palestine, and were thenceforth regarded with suspicion by all strict religionists, even the worldly Josephus sharing the general feeling ( Ant. , XV, viii, 1). Nevertheless Gentile games must have been familiar to most in Jerusalem and elsewhere during the Herodian rule and the Roman occupation. Herod the Great built a theater and amphitheater in the neighborhood of the city (Josephus, ibid.; for probable sites, see G.A. Smith, Jerusalem , II, 493), and instituted in the name of Caesar games which included Roman as well as Hellenic sports, celebrated every 5 years. There was also a hippodrome or race-course for horses and chariots, bearing considerable resemblance to the Roman circus (Josephus, Ant , Xvii , x, 2; Bj , II, iii, 1). Jericho, too, was provided with a theater, an amphitheater and a hippodrome. There was a hippodrome also at Tarichea. In addition there were scattered over Syria many Hellenic and partially Hellenic cities - S chürer ( Gjv 4, II, 108-221) gives the history of 33 - C aesarea Stratonis, Caesarea Philippi, the cities of the Decapolis, Tiberias, etc., which would all have had gymnasia and games. In Tarsus, which must have had a large Greek element in its population, Paul must have heard, and perhaps seen, in his childhood, much of the athletic exercises which were constantly in progress, and in later life he must often have been reminded of them, especially at Corinth, near which were celebrated biennially the 1sthmia or 1sthmian Games which drew visitors from all parts of the Empire, at Caesarea which possessed a theater, an amphitheater and a stadium, and at Ephesus. The custom, indeed, seems to have been almost universal. No provincial city of any importance was without it (Schürer, op. cit., 48), especially after the introduction of games in honor of the Caesars. The early Christians, therefore, whether of Jewish or Gentile origin, were able to understand, and the latter at any rate to appreciate, references either to the games in general, or to details of their celebration.

    2. General References

    The word which described the assembly gathered together at one of the great Grecian games ( agō̇n ) was also applied to the contests themselves, and then came to be used of any intense effort or conflict. The corresponding verb ( agōnı́zomai ) had a similar history. Both these words are used figuratively in the Pauline Epistles: the noun in   Philippians 1:30;  Colossians 2:1;  1 Thessalonians 2:2;  1 Timothy 6:12;  2 Timothy 4:7 , rendered in the Revised Version (British and American) (except in the second passage), "conflict" or "fight"; the verb in  Colossians 1:29;  Colossians 4:12;  1 Timothy 4:10;  1 Timothy 6:12;  2 Timothy 4:7 , translated "strive," "fight." In  1 Corinthians 9:25;  2 Timothy 2:5 (where another word is used) there are literal references. The former passage English Revised Version: "Every man that striveth in the games ( agōnizómenos ) is temperate in all things," also alludes to the rigid self-control enforced by long training which the athlete must practice. The training itself is glanced at in the exhortation: "Exercise thyself ( gúmnaze ) unto godliness" ( 1 Timothy 4:7 ), and in the remark which follows: "Bodily exercise ( gumnası́a ) is profitable for a little." It is remarkable that the word gymnasium , or "place of training," which occurs in the Apocrypha (2 Macc 4:9, 12) is not met with in the New Testament. The necessity for the observance of rules and regulations is referred to in the words: "And if also a man contend in the games, he is not crowned, except he have contended lawfully" ( 2 Timothy 2:5 ). In all these passages the games will have been more or less in the apostle's thought (for other possible New Testament references compare  Hebrews 5:14;  Hebrews 10:32;  Hebrews 12:1;  2 Peter 2:14 ).

    3. Specific References to Greek Athletics

    In addition to these general references there are many allusions to details, again found mainly in the Pauline Epistles. These may most conveniently be grouped in alphabetical order.

    (A) Beast-Fight

    The combats of wild animals with one another and with men, which were so popular at Rome toward the close of the Republic and under the Empire, were not unknown in Palestine. Condemned criminals were thrown to wild beasts by Herod the Great in his amphitheater at Jerusalem, "to afford delight to spectators," a proceeding which Josephus ( Ant. , XV, viii, 1) characterizes as impious. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ad many Jewish captives were slain in fighting with wild beasts ( Bj , VII, ii). This horrible form of sport must have been in the apostle's mind when he wrote: "I fought with beasts ( ethēriomáchēsa ) at Ephesus" (  1 Corinthians 15:32 ). The reference is best understood as figurative , as in Ignatius on  Romans 5:1 , where the same word ( thēriomachéō ) is used, and the soldiers are compared to leopards.

    (B) Boxing

    This form of sport is directly referred to in  1 Corinthians 9:26 : "So box I (Revised Version margin, Greek pukteúō ), as not beating the air." The allusion is probably continued in  1 Corinthians 9:27 : "but I buffet (the Revised Version, margin "bruise," Greek hupōpiázō ) my body."

    (C) The Course

    Foot-races and other contests took place in an enclosure 606 feet 9 inches in length, called a stadium. This is once referred to in a passage in the context of that just mentioned, which almost seems based on observation: "They that run in a race-course (RVm, Greek stádion ) run all" (  1 Corinthians 9:24 ).

    (D) Discus Throwing

    The throwing of the discus, a round plate of stone or metal 10 or 12 inches in diameter, which was a prominent feature of Greek athletics and is the subject of a famous statue, a copy of which is in the British Museum, is not mentioned in the New Testament, but is alluded to in  2 Maccabees 4:14 as one of the amusements indulged in by Hellenizing priests in the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes.

    (E) The Foot-Race

    The words for "run" and "race" (Greek tréchō and drómos ) sometimes clearly, and in other cases probably, allude to foot-races at the games. For obvious references compare   1 Corinthians 9:24;  Hebrews 12:1;  2 Timothy 4:7; for possible references see  Acts 13:25;  Acts 20:24;  Romans 9:16;  Galatians 2:2;  Galatians 5:7;  Philippians 2:16;  2 Thessalonians 3:1 . The second of these passages ( Hebrews 12:1 ) alludes to the necessity for the greatest possible reduction of weight, and for steady concentration of effort. All the passages would remind the first readers of the single-course and double-course foot-races of the games.

    (F) The Goal

    The goal of the foot-race, a square pillar at the end of the stadium opposite the entrance, which the athlete as far as possible kept in view and the sight of which encouraged him to redouble his exertions, is alluded to once: "I press on toward the goal" ( Philippians 3:14 , Greek skopós ).

    (G) The Herald

    The name and country of each competitor were announced by a herald and also the name, country and father of a victor. There may be an allusion to this custom in  1 Corinthians 9:27 : "after that I have been a herald (Revised Version margins, Greek kērússō ) to others"; compare also  1 Timothy 2:7;  2 Timothy 1:11 , where the Greek for "preacher" is kḗrux , "herald."

    (H) The Prize

    Successful athletes were rewarded at the great games by a wreath consisting in the apostolic age of wild olive (Olympian), parsley (Nemean), laurel (Pythian), or pine (Isthmian). This is referred to in a general way in  Philippians 3:14 , and in  1 Corinthians 9:24 : "One receiveth the prize" (Greek in both cases brabeı́on  ; compare also  Colossians 3:15 : "Let the peace of Christ arbitrate (Revised Version margin) in your hearts," where the verb is brabeúō ). The wreath ( stéphanos ) is directly alluded to in  1 Corinthians 9:25 : "They (the athletes) do it to receive a corruptible crown";   2 Timothy 2:5 : "A man ... is not crowned, except he have contended lawfully"; and   1 Peter 5:4 : "Ye shall receive the crown of glory that fadeth not away." There may be allusions also in   Philippians 4:1;  1 Thessalonians 2:19;  Hebrews 2:7 ,  Hebrews 2:9;  James 1:12;  Revelation 2:10;  Revelation 3:11 . In the palm-bearing multitude of the Apocalypse ( Revelation 7:9 ) there is possibly a reference to the carrying of palm-branches by victors at the games. The judges who sat near the goal and who, at Olympia at any rate, had been carefully prepared for their task, may be glanced at in  2 Timothy 4:8 : "The crown ... which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day."

    (I) Wrestling

    This form of sport, which was in great favor in Greek society from the age of Homer onward, is alluded to once in the New Testament: "Our wrestling (Greek pálē ) is not against flesh and blood," etc. (  Ephesians 6:12 ). The exercise made great demands on strength, perseverance and dexterity. There is an indirect allusion in the term palaestra , which first meant "place for wrestling," and then "place for athletic exercises in general" (2 Macc 4:14).

    4. References to the Theater and the Drama

    Although there is no direct reference in the New Testament to the intellectual contests in which the Greeks delighted as much as in athletics, the former cannot be entirely ignored. The word "theater" (Greek théatron ) occurs 3 times: twice in the sense of "public hall" (  Acts 19:29 ,  Acts 19:31 ); and once with a clear reference to its use as a place of amusement: "We are made a spectacle" ( 1 Corinthians 4:9 ). "The drama was strongly discountenanced by the strict Jews of Palestine, but was probably encouraged to some extent by some of the Jews of the Diaspora , especially in Asia Minor and Alexandria. Philo is known to have witnessed the representation of a play of Euripides, and the Jewish colony to which he belonged produced a dramatic poet named Ezekiel, who wrote inter alia a play on the Exodus, some fragments of which have been preserved (Schürer, GJV 4, II, 60; III, 500ff). An inscription found not long ago at Miletus shows that part of theater of that city was reserved for Jews (Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East , 446ff). The readers of the Pauline Epistles, Jews as well as Gentiles, would be generally more or less familiar with theater and the drama. It has been suggested that there is a glimpse of a degraded form of the drama, the mime or mimic play, which was exceedingly popular in the 1st century and afterward, in the mockery of Jesus by the soldiers ( Matthew 27:27-30 parallel   Mark 15:16-19 ). The "king" seems to have been a favorite character with the comic mime. The mockery of the Jewish king, Agrippa I, by the populace of Alexandria, a few years later, which furnishes a very striking parallel to the incident recorded in the Gospels (Schürer, GJV 4, I, 497), is directly connected by Philo with the mimes. The subject is very ably discussed by a German scholar, Hermann Reich, in a learned monograph, Der König mit der Dornenkrone (1905). Certainty is, of course, unattainable, but it seems at least fairly probable that the rude Syrian soldiers, who were no doubt in the habit of attending theater, may have been echoing some mimic play in their mock homage to "the king of the Jews."


    In addition to works already mentioned see for the whole subject: articles "Games" in Smith, Db 2; Hdb , large and small; Eb  ; Jewish Encyclopedia  ; arts. " Spiele " in Winer, Rwb , and Riehm2, and especially König, "Spiele bei den Hebräern," Re 3. On the games of Greece and Rome See articles in Smith's Dict. of Greek and Roman Antiquities , "Amphitheatrum," "Circus," "Olympia," "Stadium," etc.

    Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [10]

    Copyright StatementThese files are public domain. Bibliography InformationMcClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Games'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.