Gladiators in the Spectacle from the Zliten mosaic.
Gladiators from the Zliten mosaic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You know the drill. This is scratch work. The gist of this is to show that the use of spectacle, cultic sacrifice, etc… imagery would not be foreign either to Paul or the audience(s) which is why such an analogy that I will propose in Galatians can be allowed. 

Paul’s Use of Spectacle and Sports Metaphors

Given that this present study is largely dependent upon Paul’s ability to use emplotments relevant to his audience, and thus an acceptable and provable transference of semiotic cues, we must first determine if Paul (and his spectators) used metaphors related to the spectacle. It is my assertion he did and as such, I will briefly examine such symbols in the Pauline corpus, first to identity Paul’s use as well as an expectation that his audience (as well as the general Pauline corpus audience) would have understood them, given the frequency of use. While I do not consider the Pastorals or Ephesians and Colossians as authentic to Paul, given that their authors expected to appeal not only to the authority of Paul, but so to the audience of Paul’s authority, I will assess their uses of spectacle and sports metaphors as a secondary support to the overall hypothesis that Paul not only used the images, but the understanding of what the phrases meant was accessible to a wide audience.

As Peter O’Brien has noted, the verb τρέχω is a favorite image in the Pauline corpus. Rather than the nominal meaning of a swift walk, it has connotations of the stadium where prizes were awarded for an athletic feat of endurance. In Philippians 2.16, it is directly connected to the sacrifice (σπένδω) Paul is making to bring the faith to the church there. Further, the prize (βραβεῖον) alluded to in 2.16 is more forcefully spoken of in 3.12–14 and 4.1. Paul’s allusions to the stadium games are more than nuanced in 2 Corinthians 9.24–26. There, he drew upon the games in Corinth to better illustrate to the believers in the city the life of the follower of Jesus. Indeed, Anthony Thiselton suggests ἐν σταδίῳ could be translated as stadium, a choice that would transform the passage, moving it past the idea that Paul is merely speaking of a foot race, but quite possible the entirety of the arena games. Hans Conzelmann adds to our understanding of Paul’s metaphor by suggesting his self-designation (κηρύσσειν) is likely tied to the stadium as well.

Several more times in the Pauline corpus do the sports metaphors emerge. In Galatians particular it emerges twice, in 2.2 and 5.7. This is followed by secondary Pauline literature such as Hebrews 12.1, where the race is seen as surrounded by a cosmic arena. The metaphor makes an appearance several times in the pastorals. In 1 Timothy 1.18 and 4.7–8, the training (for the race) prevents bad religion. In 2 Timothy 2.5 and 4.7, once again a prize emerges as the victor’s crown, something the author of those letters would have us believe Paul is concerned with and demands the reader to focus on. Even with the earthly race in mind, each instance does have a cosmic focus, either with a heavenly audience (as in Hebrews 12.1) or with a heavenly grown (with the other references). However, these metaphors are usually limited to games, perhaps only requiring a symbolical sacrifice. The sacrifice, however, of the arena is a real one in several other references.

In 1 Corinthians 4.9, Paul is not necessary bemoaning the spectacle, but rather places God as the one who has placed the apostles on ἀπέδειξεν. In his mind, God has determined that the apostles are the gladiatorial show, the dénouement where one side will lose, suffer death, and be sacrificed. According to Conzelmann, Paul is adopting a Stoic stance in placing himself as the hero in a cosmic struggle. “The Stoic picture of the philosopher’s struggle as a spectacle for the world is taken over by Paul into his world-picture (cosmos and angels) and reshaped in terms of his eschatology; ‘spectacle’ has for him a derogatory sense. He is thinking not of the warrior who is admired by God for his heroism, but of the scenes in the Roman theatre with those condemned to death.” It should not be surprising, then, to discover another such reference, perhaps even one causing more dread to the reader’s mind, in Paul — and there is one in the same letter.

In 1 Corinthians 15.32, what began as an arena of games and moved to an gladiatorial combat, now emerges as a stadium of sacrifice — and it may be that Paul experienced the arena first hand. As Keener notes, the victim of such sacrificial acts was not expected to survive, which is why the connection to the resurrection is important. Likewise, this connection between the sacrifice in the arena and the resurrection provided by Christ is unambiguously found in 2 Corinthians 2.14–15. This idea that the spectacle is on a trajectory from a mere analogy of self-discipline in the life of the Christian to the emplotment of Paul’s message is demonstrated in Colossians 2.14–15, where the author uses Pauline imagery to suggest that those who would usually be displayed at the games were the ones Jesus had freed from sacrifice by his sacrifice. But more than that, those who had imprisoned the formerly bound were now led through the arena, ready to be sacrificed. The foes are better identified in Ephesians 6.12.

There can be no doubt that the reception of the Pauline corpus, even the disputed letters, included those familiar with the metaphor of sports and spectacle. Further, it would be wrong to single out the sports metaphor, stripping it away from the spectacle semiosis employed by Paul and subsequent writers. It was not merely an analogy of self-discipline, but encompassed the whole of the arena, including sacrifice before the cosmic audience. Paul and his audience would have easily understood and accepted such analogies, allowing us to better examine the role human sacrifice and the arena may have played in Galatia and the epistle bearing its name.

Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 299–300.

See V. C. Pfitzner, Paul and the Agon Motif: Traditional Athletic Imagery in the Pauline Literature. Leiden: Brill, 1967, 139–41. Pfitzner demonstrates the oversaturation of athletic imagery in the Philippians passage.

Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 1 Co 9:24–25.

Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 710.

Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 163.

Thiselton, First Corinthians, 359.

Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 88–89.

See Thiselton, First Corinthians, 1252, for the discussion he seemingly hosts on the topic between the two opposing (literal v. hypothetical) views. For this study, it matters little, but I do side with the view that this is a metaphor.

Keener, Bible Background, 1 Co 15:32.