1. Children's Games


2. Sports

3. Games of Chance and Skill

4. Story-Telling

5. Dancing

6. Proverbs

7. Riddles


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" (metscheq). 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 (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 Abbe 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 (18:23,27) 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; 18:46). The Psalmist must have watched great runners before he pictured the sun as rejoicing like a strong man to run his course (Psalms 19:5; compare also Ecclesiastes 9:11; Jeremiah 8:6; 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 20:20,35-38) and in Job's complaint:

"He hath also set me up for his mark. His archers compass me round about" (Job 16:12). 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 (Psalms 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" (Konig after Sellin, RE3, 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 (Schurer, GJ V4, 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 16:25,27(?); Job 21:11; Psalms 30:11; Ecclesiastes 3:4; Jeremiah 31:4,13; 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; 21:11; 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 6:14,16 parallel 1 Chronicles 15:29). There are general references in Psalms 149:3:

"Let them praise his name in the dance"; 150:4: "Praise him with timbrel and dance"; and perhaps in 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 (mephazzez), and whirling round (mekharker). 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 Psalms 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 (Cukkah, 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`anith 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 (Kethubboth 17a). Singing and dancing, with lighted torches, are said to be wedding customs of the modern Arabs.


Arts. "Dance" in Smith DB2, HDB, DCG, EB, Jew Encyclopedia (also "Games"); "Tanz" in RE3 and the German Dictionaries of Winer, Riehm, and Guthe (Reigen); Nowack, HA, I, 278 f.

6. Proverbs:

Proverbs (mashal; paroimia) :

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; 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 Rabbah 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 Mekhilta';

(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; Psalms 72:16; compare Psalms 92:7), an early Babylonian figure; a swarm of locusts (Nahum 3:15 and Na 4 other passages), a similitude used also by Sennacherib (RP, n.s. VI, 97), and the stars of heaven (Genesis 15:5 and 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; 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). 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 Konig, Stilistik, etc., DCG ("Jesus' Use of Proverbs"); Murray, DB, article "Proverbs"; Cohen, Ancient Jewish Proverbs, 1911.

7. Riddles:

Riddles (chidhah; ainigma):

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 Antiquities2, 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 (chidhah) 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 Wunsche, Die Rathselweisheit bei den Hebraern, 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 (Wunsche, 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 (chidhah) and figures, thou didst greatly move the nations." Chidhah occurs only once in Pr (1:6): "the words of the wise, and their dark sayings," but the collection contains several examples of what Konig calls "the numerical riddle": Proverbs 6:16-19;30:7,15,18,21,24-28,29. 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 chidhah seems to be used in the general sense of "mysterious utterance": Numbers 12:8; Psalms 49:4; 78:2; Daniel 5:12 (the Aramaic equivalent of chidhah); 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; 25:1,7; 26:5; 50:25; and there are similar sayings in Ab 5 1-11,16-21 (Taylor's edition). In the Book of Jeremiah (25:26; 51:41; 51:1) are two examples of a cryptic or cipher mode of writing which comes very near the riddle. SHe SHaKH, in the first two passages, represented by the three letters shin, shin, 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, margin, y, suggest k, s, d, y, margin, that is, Kasdim or Chaldees. This cipher or riddle-writing was called by the Jews 'At-bash (compare Buxtorf, Lexicon Chaldaicum, etc., I, 131, 137, 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 chidhah only in 1 Corinthians 13:12, "for now we see .... darkly," the Revised Version, margin "in a riddle" (Greek en ainigmati). There can be little doubt that riddles enlivened marriage festivals, such as that of Cana. Wunsche (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 Wunsche. Konig has an interesting paragraph in his Stilistik, Rhetorik, Poetik, etc., 12 f. Compare also Hamburger, RE, II, 966; articles on "Riddle" in Jew Encyclopedia, Smith's DB, HDB, larger and smaller; Murray's DB; German Bible Dictionaries of Winer, Riehm2, and Guthe; Rosenmuller, 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 Macc 1:14; 2 Macc 4:9,12) and frequented by priests (1 Macc 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 Gentilegames 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--Schurer (GJV4, II, 108-221) gives the history of 33--Caesarea 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 Isthmia or Isthmian 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 (Schurer, op. cit., 48), especially after the introduction of games in honor of the Caesars. The early Christians, therefore, whether of Jewish or Gentileorigin, 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 (agon) was also applied to the contests themselves, and then came to be used of any intense effort or conflict. The corresponding verb (agonizomai) 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; 4:12; 1 Timothy 4:10; 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 (agonizomenos) 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 (gumnaze) unto godliness" (1 Timothy 4:7), and in the remark which follows: "Bodily exercise (gumnasia) 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; 10:32; 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 (etheriomachesa) at Ephesus" (1 Corinthians 15:32). The reference is best understood as figurative, as in Ignatius on Romans 5:1, where the same word (theriomacheo) 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 pukteuo), as not beating the air." The allusion is probably continued in 9:27a: "but I buffet (the Revised Version, margin "bruise," Greek hupopiazo) 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 stadion) 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 Macc 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 trecho and dromos) 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; 20:24; Romans 9:16; Galatians 2:2; 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 skopos).

(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 kerusso) to others"; compare also 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11, where the Greek for "preacher" is kerux, "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 brabeion; compare also Colossians 3:15: "Let the peace of Christ arbitrate (Revised Version margin) in your hearts," where the verb is brabeuo). The wreath (stephanos) 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 2:7,9; James 1:12; Revelation 2:10; 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 pale) 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 theatron) occurs 3 times:

twice in the sense of "public hall" (Acts 19:29,31); 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 (Schurer, GJV4, II, 60; III, 500). 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, 446). 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 (Schurer, GJV4, 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 Konig 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, DB2; HDB, large and small; EB; Jewish Encyclopedia;arts. "Spiele" in Winer, RWB, and Riehm2, and especially Konig, "Spiele bei den Hebraern," RE3. On the games of Greece and Rome See articles in Smith's Dict. of Greek and Roman Antiquities, "Amphitheatrum," "Circus," "Olympia," "Stadium," etc.

William Taylor Smith

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'GAMES'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.