(drafting) Paul’s Use of Spectacle and Sports Metaphors

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.

You Might Also Like

9 Replies to “(drafting) Paul’s Use of Spectacle and Sports Metaphors”

  1. If I Timothy 4:8 is to be believed, any Palestinian sports metaphors may be little more than armchair quarterbacking. It’s more than a little like Donald Trump talking about his military experience based on his having attended a military school.

    1. Armchair quarterbacking is for us old men. With a can of Bud Lite in our cup holder!

      NSRV says it best: tie in to athletes, and military, and youth. The author/authors of Timothy, I think, are some old men, who have become couch potatoes, reflecting upon their long past youth. Maybe like us! For us, “for bodily exercise is profitable for a little”! Spoken like a truly old man. Plus “the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer”. Perhaps that is what gets us in trouble sometimes.

      2 Timothy 2:3 Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.

      1 Timothy 4:7 but refuse profane and old wives’ fables. And exercise thyself unto godliness: 8 for bodily exercise is profitable for a little; but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life which now is, and of that which is to come.

    2. I’m glad you replied. Apparently, I had just enough typos to convince whatever autocorrect was in play to kicked out Palestinian instead of Paulinian.

      Still, I’m seeing a lot of a Donald Trump mentality in Paul’s metaphors. And, to be quite, I’ve come across too many John Wayne-mouth draft-dodgers in churches to have much patience. If they really want to know what it’s like, they should join up. Then, perhaps, they can speak with some authority.

      On the less cynical side, having once been number among the foreign occupiers of a small country, I suspect many early Jewish-Christians were motivated by jealousy of Rome’s power. After all, if they were the chosen of God, and had loved their lives has honorably as possible, they might reasonably wonder why they were subservient to these foreign infantiles.

      1. Seems like the later texts emphasize military analogy, while the earlier texts emphsize athletic competition. Influenced by 70 AD Jewish Sicarii episodes? Temple, Masada? Red badge of courage by Jews, picked up by fledgling Christians? Us against the world. just some random comments. I have no idea if it is valid.

        1. Good question.

          Even the most cursory examination of church history reveals in increasing Roman influence. Even today, much of what passes for Christianity is actually Roman in origin. Chief among those has been making Christianity the state religion.

  2. Dear Joel! Most useful and excellent post. But a word of support for such a pitiful (and pit bull) servant of God will not comfort you any…
    However (and this is an honest question), a long time ago, in my heydays as a preacher, I preached on 2nd Corinthians 2:14-14 exactly as related to gladiators in an arena whose “aroma” would either whet appetite of the beast whom he was fighting, (and it is alleged by scientists that we do release scents indicative of fear exciting a predator to attack) or somehow make the beast sense their “aroma” (Christ’s) and look for an easier prey among the other fighters, thus saying them… So Paul is perhaps saying that we are carried in triumph as the aroma of Christ exudes from our porous as we go into our spiritual battle being both the reason of our triumph and the “foul” smell that identify us as His.
    Now my question, as per my theory that God inspired His writers to write of things that were understandable by the “target audience” should the Christian message be transmitted in such a way that the cultural aspect of the hearers may be considered? Example (off topic): An Indian tribe in Venezuela will never be able to understand that “God makes us as white as snow”, but they will, when and if we say that “our hearts will be as white as coconut meat…”
    Well… I know we should trust the H.S. but, why not be like Jesus and Paul who used things understood by those who heard them? Do I have a semi-valid point?

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.