Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
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 (Philippians4, 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 article Beast), but which is considered by McGiffert (Apostolic Age 1897, p. 280) and von Weizsäcker (Apostolic Age, i. 2  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 Christianity2, 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.  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 Morals88, 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, translation J. 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.  102-121; E. Schürer, GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes (Schürer).] 4 ii.  47-52, 60f., 67 (Eng. translation , History of the Jewish People (Eng. tr. of GJV).] ii. i. 23-28, etc.).
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Games'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/g/games.html. 1906-1918.