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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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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 .

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Games'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 19th, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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