Volume 48 - Issue 2

The Agonistic Imagery of the New Testament and the Paradox of the Cross

By Andreas-Christian Heidel


Early Christians had to develop and negotiate their (new) identity within a society, to which their beliefs and ethical convictions were largely alien. These beliefs were rooted in the Christ event, especially in the understanding of Jesus’s death on the cross as an event of salvation, both individually and collectively. However, the cross contradicted the values of their Greco-Roman environment, and New Testament authors used various imageries to express this tension. This contribution traces this relationship by looking at the usage of agonistic imagery in New Testament writings: Sports metaphors are used by taking up their triumphalist character but at the same time transforming it with a contradicting ethos of defeat that expresses a new kind of paradox identity, both individually and collectively.


What is the victory prize? Not a palm branch, but what? The kingdom of heaven, eternal rest, glory with Christ, inheritance, brotherhood, innumerable goods beyond description. It is impossible to describe the beauty of this prize of victory; he alone knows it who has already won it, and he alone knows it who is about to receive it.

—John Chrysostom, Homiliae in epistulam ad Philippenses 13.2

It is a major concept in New Testament theology that a change of dominion takes place upon confessing and following Jesus (e.g., Rom 6:4–6; Gal 2:20; 1 Cor 6:20; 2 Cor 5:14–15). Considering their understanding of this change of dominion, earliest Christians had to reconcile their “new” identity with the conditions and phenomena of their real-life world. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 1:18–25, the death of Jesus at the cross contradicts the values of the world, leading Christ’s followers into a paradoxical existence: They shall judge the world spiritually (1 Cor 2:14–16), possess as if they do not possess, and experience fear and sufferings as if they were not cause to mourn (1 Cor 7:30). Even death itself assumes a new, apparently contrary meaning: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21; cf. 1 Cor 15:54–55). New Testament authors use a rich variety of different metaphors and analogies as expressions of this (new) identity. Among these, the agonistic imagery (ἀγών = contest) represents a particularly memorable form of expression, linking Christian identity and individual and communal Christian life to the all-familiar world of sport. Sports activities were an important part of most ancient cultures that shaped their way of life. This was also true of the Greco-Roman environment of the early Christians. There is little need to wonder why ancient thinkers chose to illustrate their ideas using terminology and images from the omnipresent world of the agonistic. Besides the professional athleticism that developed throughout history, the Greek gymnasia and Roman thermal baths also offered opportunities for sporting activity in daily life, not only to the higher castes of society but also to the general public.1 And regardless of individuals’ athleticism or respective levels of interest in sport, images of competition, discipline, victory, and defeat captured (and still capture) common experiences with which nearly everyone could identify.

In light of this conflict inherent in early Christian life, I would like to explore the way in which the imagery of sport contributed to the formation of early Christian identity, as it is expressed throughout New Testament writings. I will demonstrate how the paradox of the cross influenced the language of these writings relating to the world of sport: The New Testament provides examples of the use of sportive metaphors as expressions of Christian identity, most notably in ethical treatises. Thereby, the various adaptations of this imagery operate in a tension between an already known ethos of victory and a mostly new ethos of defeat.2 The former echoes the familiar triumphalism of the world of sport and competition in antiquity. But the latter was unknown in the ancient world of sport and therefore highly distinctive, showing how the paradox of the cross drove both an adaptation and concomitant transformation of the ideas, values, language, and behavior known to early Christians within their social context.

1. The Ethos of Victory

Numerous New Testament traditions and authors draw on agonistic motifs to illustrate Christian existence and especially its consequences for Christian ethics. Certainly, this was not an invention of New Testament authors, as they tie in here with familiar figures of thought from their intellectual environment.3 The motivation of an athlete in competition and the discipline required to achieve it offered concepts and metaphors through which both the triumph of Christian identity and the effort required to achieve that triumph could be expressed positively.

1.1. The Goal Ahead: The Imperishable Wreath as the Ultimate Prize

“No gain, no pain!” Turning the old saying around reveals the basis of the use of sporting metaphors in New Testament writings. For perhaps the most significant feature of Christian existence is hope in a higher good, to which the followers of Christ are called both individually and collectively. It is this hope that motivates the believer to live the life of a disciple of Christ, even if this discipleship means denying oneself and taking up one’s cross (Mark 8:34). There are many ways to describe this hope (i.e., messianic salvation or eternal life), but all connect to the expectation of a transcendent and simultaneously eschatological existence in communion with God.

To express this eschatological hope, one symbol from the field of sport stands out clearly throughout different New Testament writings: ὁ στέφανος, the wreath (or crown) of victory. If not all, most in the Roman Empire must have understood this symbol’s meaning, just as everyone today comprehends the ramifications of “Olympic gold.” The highest sporting achievement that athletes could dream of was winning the victory wreath of one of the so-called “crown-games” (ἀγὼν στεφανίτης) as the highest symbol of triumph. As Lucian famously describes it in his Anacharsis,

Anacharsis: “And these prizes of yours, what are they?” Solon: “At the Olympic games, a wreath made of wild olive, at the Isthmian one of pine, and at the Nemean one of parsley, at the Pythian some of the apples sacred to Apollo, and with us at the Panathenaea, the oil from the holy olive.”4

For early Christians this στέφανος symbolized the eternal victory of participating in Christ’s rise from death, which they longed to achieve (Rev 2:10; 3:11). Therefore, Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians in 1 Cor 9:24–25 of their ultimate goal, the runner’s prize (βραβεῖον) for which they are to strive: an imperishable wreath (στέφανος ἄφθαρτος). Within the Corinthian congregation there had been tensions, mainly arising from class conflicts and an orientation towards former ways, the value standards of their Greco-Roman world. With the image of the eschatological victory wreath, Paul sets a fixed point that readjusts perspective in such questions of worth and values. He moves within the horizon of experience of his conflicting addressees and at the same time chooses a metaphor that operates by intrinsic motivation. He invokes the triumphant feeling of the victorious athlete, which for the vast majority of Corinthian Christians might have been a wishful thought or impossibility.

It should come as no surprise that Paul uses the same metaphor in his letter to the Philippians. Here, too, he seems to write to a community marked by conflicts, such that he feels compelled to correct their perspective. But Paul offers in Philippians additional insights into the process of attaining the goal. Although every Christian is to invest considerable energy in chasing this prize to eventually win it (Phil 3:13–14; cf. 2 Tim 4:5), the grace of God forms the very foundation and strength for it (see also Phil 2:12–13). It is a granted prize, the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14). Paul would write this again to the Christians in Rome (Rom 9:16): “So then it depends neither on the one who will nor on [the exercise of] the runner, but on God, who has mercy.” This prize is unavailable to human effort alone, not only because of the necessity of divine grace but also because the gaining of this prize is subject to an eschatological condition (Phil 3:12–14). In 1 Pet 5:4 this future good to come (the award ceremony) is thus explicitly linked to the Parousia: “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading wreath of glory.”

Paul prominently wants these Christian communities to be properly oriented towards eschatological participation in Christ (1 Cor 9:24): “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run [οἱ ἐν σταδίῳ τρέχοντες], but only one receives the prize [βραβεῖον]? So run that you may obtain it!” The Christian life and lifestyle are not without purpose. Every little step should support the journey to the higher goal.5 They are to diligently pursue (διώκειν, Phil. 3:14), and the completion of the life contest is even more important than life itself, as Paul confesses before the elders of Ephesus, according to Acts 20:24: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my [race-]course [δρόμος] and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Moreover, this quotation shows that orientation towards the future does not require turning away from the present. In fact, Paul understands his mission to witness to the hope to which he reaches out as an essential part of his athletic endeavor.

It is the unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who like no other concentrates and expresses the athletic focus of Christian life on the exclusive following of Jesus:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run [τρέχωμεν] with endurance the race [ἀγών] that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1–2)

One’s eyes should be unmistakably directed towards Jesus, who is, according to Hebrews, the only one who has entered completely into heavenly communion with God. Within the context of Hebrews, to focus on Jesus means to stay strong to the confession of Jesus as Son and Savior. The exhausted athletes of faith must look to him alone. The image speaks for itself: With a stable chest, the running athlete can convert maximum energy into his forward movement. The upright, forward gaze is essential to do so. This orientation towards Jesus is expressed by the composite ἀφορᾶν. Literally (ἀπό + ὁράω), the term describes a process of looking away from everything else to focus attention exclusively on something concrete.

Sports imagery offers an impressive and memorable way to mirror one of the most distinctive aspects of early Christians within their Greco-Roman world in the first century: the exclusive character of their identity and ideology.6 This exclusivity leads to further consequences, again expressed through ideas from the world of sport.

1.2. Endurance and Discipline

Even though the hope of reaching the desired goal rests on the assurance of faith in Christ, the journey there remains challenging. Naturally, the more alien a conviction and its effects on one’s own way of life appear in a particular context, the greater the resistance arising against them. From the beginning, early Christians encountered resistance from their environment: inner-Jewish disputes, clashes with pagan customs, or later even reprisals up to offensive persecution by Roman authorities. It is therefore no wonder that they were concerned about encouraging each other to persevere. Once again, there are numerous references to the world of athletes, who naturally know that the crucial thing in exercise and combat is to endure. Those who give up lose, as Rev 3:11 insists: “Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your wreath [στέφανος].”7

The Pastoral Epistles’ special use also bears noting, especially 1 Tim 1:18–19 and 6:12. The latter reads as follows: “Fight the good fight [ἀγωνίζου τὸν καλὸν ἀγῶνα] of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Whether Paul himself was involved in writing these texts does not really matter here. Regardless, they speak to an advanced situation within the development of early Christian movements. They call for continuing the contest of faith and keeping it alive by passing on the apostolic teachings to the next generation(s). Here, the aspect of persevering and enduring extends beyond individuals to the Christian community as a whole, through the ages, as it is especially expressed in 2 Tim 2:2. This succession in the transmission of tradition that is brought up here reminds one of the handovers in a torch relay race, likewise a facet of Greek sporting events (e.g., at the Panathenaia, cf. Pausanias, Description 1.30.2).8

Closely related to the call to persevere are those sports metaphors expressing self-discipline. These are likely the most prominent images, particularly those used by Paul in 1 Cor 9:25–27. In discussing whether followers of Jesus may eat meat sacrificed to idols, Paul reminds the Corinthians of his apostolic role. He, too, would have the spiritual freedom to far more things, but voluntarily exercises abstinence and endures deprivations for the proclamation of the gospel and with regard to weaker consciences. He compares this self-discipline, which he also demands from the Corinthians, with the workout of athletes: “Every athlete exercises self-control [ἐγκρατεύομαι] in all things” (1 Cor 9:25). Here, Paul can refer to familiar experiences of the Corinthians: At the Olympic Games, athletes had to swear an oath that they had lived abstinently and focused on training (Pausanias, Description 6.23–24) for the ten months before the competitions (Pausanias, Description 5.24–25). Such a code of honor and strict preparation certainly also applied to the Isthmian Games,9 which were likely to have taken place during Paul’s first stay in Corinth.10

Even more memorable is Paul’s comparison to a boxer in 1 Cor 9:26b–27: “I do not box [πυκτεύω] as one beating the air. But I discipline [ὑπωπιάζω] my body and keep it under control [δουλαγωγέω], lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” The term πυκτεύω is the technical term for the well-attested athletic discipline of boxing (πυγμή), a brutal one-on-one fight, that ended only when one of the opponents surrendered or was knocked out. The fighters tried to punch out their opponents with precisely aimed blows, especially to the head, and to evade such blows themselves with skillful parries.11 In Paul’s case, the opponent of his boxing match is his own σῶμα, against which ὑπωπιάζειν is directed. This term means to “strike one under the eye.”12 On the one hand, this once again signals goal orientation, and on the other hand it expresses the high degree of self-discipline Paul demands of himself. Because Paul, especially in 1 Corinthians, shows much emphasis on careful mindfulness of the body (1 Cor. 7), it can hardly be argued here that he advocates physical self-mortification.13 Rather, μου τὸ σῶμα refers to the holistic human existence, the blows to be taken as alluding to the experiences of suffering the apostle was forced to endure (2‎ Cor 4:7–12; 6:4–10; 11:23–33; 12:10).14 Considering Paul’s emphasis on the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit in 1 Cor 6:19, it becomes clear how strongly he connects the body (and the experiences associated with it) to Christian identity: The body shows where the person belongs and what determines him.15 For the athlete, this is an uncompromising commitment to training and competition for the sake of victory. For the apostle—but according to his claim, also for every Christian—it is an uncompromising commitment to discipleship, witness, and communion in Christ. In this sense, the Christian life should be marked by sobriety (2 Tim 4:5), so as not to jeopardize completion of the course (2 Tim 4:7). The ethical claim thus formulated is the practical consequence of the exclusivity of early Christian identity and ideology. The repeated emphasis on this claim in Paul, but also in other ancient and early Christian writings, does, however, raise questions about the extent to which this claim truly resonated with the everyday reality of Christian communities and individuals.

It is not surprising that the later Christian lifestyle of asceticism, as a quasi-professionalized practice of spiritual and physical self-discipline, adopted another technical term from the Greek world of sport: ἄσκησις.16 The Greeks were already familiar with mental asceticism, especially in the older Sophistic, as well as in Stoicism as a sophisticated technique for controlling one’s own affections (see Epictetus, Diatribai 3.16).17 In its special association with the body or physical exercise, it became a fixed term for athletic training, effectively synonymous with γυμνάζεσθαι or μελετᾶν. Although ἄσκησις appears only once (and only as the verb ἀσκέω) in the New Testament (Acts 24:16), it became a key concept of Christian ethics in early church writings, particularly from the third century on. Those writings factually referred to the New Testament, above all to Paul, from whom they derived their language and their categories from Greek philosophy, as well as from Philon’s theological ethics.18 From these forms of asceticism originally located within the Christian community, monasticism finally developed from the second half of the third century onwards in both Egypt and Syria as a consequent retreat, initially of individual ascetics, into seclusion.

2. The Ethos of Defeat

We have seen how New Testament authors could adopt imagery and language from the world of ancient sport to express their (new) identity and values. But in at least two ways, the fact that the Christian faith was deeply rooted in the confession of Christ as the crucified Son of God led to new perspectives by including an ethos of defeat, which supported a new value system. I mean to describe the New Testament and early Christians’ revolutionary use of symbols of weakness and defeat to paradoxically express the hope for victory we have already examined. It is a victory won against the odds—even won in only this way.

2.1. Strength through Weakness

The ancient athletic world submitted to the law of the strongest and the most skillful. Obviously, the fight for victory remains today the very purpose of any competition-based sport. And in antiquity, too, value was given to fairness, although there is no shortage of evidence of athletes’ trying to gain an advantage even by using magical aids.19 In Roman chariot races, the (imaginative but quite unfair) disturbance of the opponent was part of the charioteers’ repertoire—of course for the great entertainment of the spectators.20 However, there was no idea of any value in “just” being part of the event.21 Victory was all that mattered, especially as it involved considerable material and immaterial rewards for the athletes, including enormous benefits in their hometowns.22 Yet the motivation for athletics and participation in competitions must not be relegated solely to the pursuit of these benefits. As Harry W. Pleket has shown with numerous examples, a sporting ideal developed alongside (or perhaps despite) the material awards, stating that the actual achievement of an athlete was not the (material) prize, but victory itself.23 This attitude is reflected by the “fan base” in its clearly higher appreciation of the “crown-games”—or later “holy games” (ἀγὼν ἱεροί)—in comparison to (more local) “prize-games” (ἀγὼν χρηματίτης) in Roman imperial times.24 Sport here followed the general standards of ancient societies, according to which no gain (such as learning a lesson) could be found in defeat, because social values were primarily honor-and-shame based.25

However, the Christian faith’s emphasis on the cross turns these values upside down (1 Cor 1:27–28): “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.”

At the very heart of Christianity is the paradoxical idea of strength in weakness (2 Cor 12:9–10), victory in defeat—and most strikingly—life in death (John 11:25). In the triumph of God over the powers and forces of the world through self-sacrifice and defeat, Paul and his fellows found an intrinsic motivation that stood in contrast to the sporting spirit of their world, which was at least also highly motivated by the desire for social status and honor.26 Of course, the preparation of the athletes for the competitions as well as the competitions themselves were also a painful torture of extreme hardship and deprivation. Seneca, actually a critic of sporting spectacles, nevertheless impressively describes the attitude of an athlete (for the Stoic, of course, a welcome comparison for his own required moral effort):

An athlete cannot bring true courage to his fights unless he has sometimes been beaten black and blue. The fighter who has seen his own blood, whose teeth have been rattled by a blow from his opponent, who has been thrown to the ground and felt the whole weight of his rival’s body on him, who has not lost his spirit even when hurled about the ring, who every time he has been knocked down, has got to his feet again more pugnacious than ever, this is the man who faces his next fight with confidence.27

In this respect, the athletes were fully familiar with the idea that victory could be achieved only through pain. But the Christian ethos surpassed this concept in that the “real” victory, though not earthly realizable, is neither to be attained through own effort nor through lowliness alone, but is to be found in defeat itself. Although sporting imagery and terminology provided powerful opportunities to express Christian identity, aspiration, hope, and certainty, New Testament writers transformed these metaphors by integrating an ethos of defeat, weakness, and humility.28 Furthermore, experiences of suffering for Christ or the gospel became a sign of victory itself and a central aspect of participating in God’s triumph (Jas 1:12). Here the paradox of the Christian existence in the shadow of the cross appears particularly clearly because suffering, pain, and even death become themselves a joy and a distinction of a persevering, faithful struggle (Rev 2:10; cf. Phil 1:29).

The early and later Christian use of the metaphor of the στέφανος—the wreath/crown of victory (see above)—impressively echoes this paradox: there hardly has been any other symbol in later Christian iconography as closely associated with Jesus’s “shameful” victory on the cross as the crown of thorns (ἀκάνθινος στέφανος, see Mark 15:17 parr.). Christ’s wreath of honor consisted precisely of a symbol of humiliation, contradicting all worldly high status.

This paradoxical correlation of strength through weakness expressed through the symbol of the wreath has been increasingly marginalized in the further development of early Christian sources. Tertullian (second century) could still point to it in his critical (and polemical) treatise on the reception and wearing of wreaths (coronae) from different occasions as a “profane” honorary (and also cultic) symbol:

Christ Jesus, I am asking, what sort of wreath did he have put on? […] Made of thorns, I think, and of spines […]. If you owe your own head to him for all these things, offer it to him, if you can, just as he gave his for yours; or if you cannot be crowned with thorns, you should at least not crown yourself with flowers, since that is inappropriate.29

Though Tertullian is a clear example of the presence of the wreath of thorns among early Christian written sources, in iconographic sources the symbol is missing—at least as a symbol of weakness and shame. It was not until the Middle Ages that it attained its iconographic prominence, by which Christian art is still influenced today. As an exception, a (only) fourth-century sarcophagus from the Domitilla Catacombs in Rome could be mentioned here (today on display in the Vatican Museums).

Fig. 1: Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Passion of Christ (c. 350 C.E.)30

The sarcophagus features scenes from the passion and resurrection of Christ, including one scene showing Christ being crowned with the wreath of thorns by a Roman soldier. But as everyone knows, exceptions confirm the rules because the scenes reflect a rather triumphalist style. Instead of the dying Jesus, a victory wreath hangs from the cross. And the coronation scene also seems rather victorious: Christ appears as a calm philosopher with a scroll in his hand, while a soldier holds a jeweled tiara over his head. The shameful New Testament portrayal of Christ suffering during his passion seems to have no place here anymore (and not yet again).31

2.2. Team Spirit: Our Common Salvation

The integration of the ethos of defeat had an impact not only on individual (or self-related) ethics, but also on how Christians treated each other within their spiritual community, or better to say, how they were meant to treat each other according to New Testament authors. The problems within the Corinthian church Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians—many of them arising certainly from social differences—demonstrate that Christians’ lived reality could be indeed less harmonious. However, here too we can clearly observe how the paradox of Christian identity and belief transforms the sports metaphors and language Paul used to demand unity.

As Paul illustrates his call to humble self-sacrifice in his own deprived life as an apostle, he returns the ball to the disputing Corinthians. They, too, should not insist on their rights, for the sake of the community in Christ and for the sake of the missionary witness to their neighbors. Rather, if necessary, they should willingly renounce their rights and freedom. They should not only be strong, but also become weak. They should not use strength against weakness; rather they should exercise thoughtfulness, so that others may not stumble and be hindered in reaching the shared goal: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it!” (1 Cor 9:24). This call is not to be understood as an exhortation to exceed other Christians—that is, in an ethical sense or in a certain degree of spiritual giftedness. Rather, Paul is transforming the sporting ideal of the ancient world with the ethos of defeat by including the idea of love and compassion, emphasizing the importance of the unity of the Christians, which was motivated by their common goal: eternal community with God. While the ancient world understood sport primarily as a “cut-throat competition,”32 Christian ethics is concerned with the hope of achieving the eschatological goal for all believers.

The common achievement of the goal and the faithfulness of the cared-for Christians even become the hallmarks of the successful apostle and a spiritually “healthy” congregation: “For what is our hope or joy or crown [στέφανος] of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?” (1 Thess 2:19; cf. Phil 2:16). Therefore, they should take Paul as an example in their common ἀγών (Phil 1:30), as well as their church leaders (1 Thess 5:12: cf. Heb 13:7). A central form of expressing this mutual care is intercession as a form of joint competition (Rom 15:30; cf. Eph 6:18; 2 Thess 3:1)—a team sport, so to speak (cf. Jude 3). Such a (for ancient values rather revolutionary) understanding of community found its practical counterpart in diaconal care—probably one of the most characteristic and distinctive features of the early Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire (cf. Jas 2:15–17; Matt 25:35–36; Tertullian, Apology 39), recognized by their contemporaries, even by those who more or less rejected them (e.g., Pliny the Younger, Epistulae 10.96; Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus 12).33

Once again, the Letter to the Hebrews gives this distinctive sense of community a reality that transcends even time and space. In his use of agonistic metaphor to appeal to the perseverance of his faith-weary addressees (see above), the author lets the earthly athletes of faith chase towards their goal surrounded by a cloud of spiritual team members: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, […] let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Heb 12:1). The “cloud of witnesses” refers to all true believers, listed named and unnamed in Heb 11, a community that ends up in an open number and ultimately includes all those on their way to the future heavenly city (Heb 13:14), following their forerunner Jesus. The imagery in Heb 12:1 thus invokes the cheering crowd at a sporting event, illustrating the special (and exclusive) community of believers throughout all time—an idea later shaped into the expression of an ecclesia invisibilis.

3. Conclusion

The world of ancient sport exerted considerable influence on the development of the formation of earliest Christian identity and its expression throughout the New Testament. This world of experience offered that movement, and its adherents from a wide variety of social, regional, and cultural origins, a broad spectrum to articulate self-understanding, convictions, hopes, and ethical principles in a familiar way contemporaries could understand. At the same time, this usage of agonistic imagery mirrors the ambivalence earliest Christians inevitably faced in the midst of their Greco-Roman environment. This was raised by the significance of the cross for their new identity, which contradicts common ancient values. This ambivalence led to the integration of a then mostly unknown paradoxical ethos of weakness and defeat as a paradoxical and dialectical expression of triumphalist hope.

[1] Cf. Harry W. Pleket, “Zur Soziologie des antiken Sports,” Nikephoros 14 (2001): 182–83, 208–9.

[2] I refer here to two aspects pointed out in a similar way by Thomas Söding, “Der Sport des Apostels. Die Dialektik von Kampf und Sieg auf dem Weg von Phil 3 zu 2 Tim 4,” in Das Ziel vor Augen: Sport und Wettkampf im Neuen Testament und seiner Umwelt, ed. Karl-Heinrich Ostmeyer and Adrian Wypadlo, BWANT 226 (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2020), 81–99.

[3] On this see Amphilochios Papathomas: “Das Agonistische Motiv 1Kor 9.24ff. im Spiegel zeitgenössischer dokumentarischer Quellen,” NTS 43 (1997): 223–41.

[4] Lucian, Anacharsis 9, trans. Austin M. Harmon, LCL 162 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925). According to Pausanias 10.7.5, from 582 BCE prizes at the Pythian games were also wreaths of laurel. Cf. David G. Romano, “Athletic Festivals in the Northern Peloponnese and Central Greece,” in A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity, ed. Paul Christesen and Donald G. Kyle (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 180.

[5] Otherwise, Christian beliefs and ethics would be like an aimless runner, or a boxer who is just beating air (1 Cor 9:26).

[6] Cf. Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2016), 86–92.

[7] At this point, it is fitting to refer to a second aspect of numerous sports metaphors: They often have an explicit military connotation. This is reasonable because numerous competitive disciplines such as running, spear throwing, archery, or chariot racing originate from the world of warfare. In general, the development of sport in the Greek world was closely interwoven with military training. Cf. Reyes Bertolín Cebrián, The Athlete in the Ancient Greek World, Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture 61 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020), 159–76. These metaphors primarily seek to urge Christians to be watchful of spiritual temptations and the expected increase of end-time tribulations. Cf. Victor C. Pfitzner, Paul and the Agon Motif: Traditional Athletic Imagery in the Pauline Literature, NovTSup 16 (Leiden: Brill, 1967), 163–64. To be prepared Christians should arm themselves with “spiritual weapons” such as justice, prayer, sobriety, or truthfulness (cf. Rom 13:11–13; 2 Cor 10:3–5; 6:7; Eph 6:11–18; 1 Thess 5:4–8). By fighting in this way, they share in Christ’s suffering as his good soldiers (2 Tim 2:3–5), equipped with the same mind as Christ (1 Pet 4:1).

[8] See Donald G. Kyle, “Sport, Society, and Politics in Athens,” in A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity, ed. Paul Christesen and Donald G. Kyle (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 159–75, 163. See also Donald G. Kyle, Athletics in Ancient Athens (Leiden: Brill 1987), 190–93.

[9] See Philostratos, Life of Apollonius 5.43: “When the Olympics come round, the Eleans train the athletes for thirty days in Elis itself. While the Delphians assemble them at the time of Pythian games, and the Corinthians at that of the Isthmian, and say ‘Proceed to the stadium, and show yourselves to be true men qualified for victory,’ the Eleans address the athletes as follows on their arrival at Olympia: ‘If you have trained in a way worthy of your coming to Olympia, and have done nothing lazy or dishonorable, proceed with confidence. But those of you who have not so trained in this way may go wherever you please.’” (trans. Christopher P. Jones, LCL 17; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005). On further ancient sources about the preparation of the athletes for the Panhellenic festivals see: Stephen G. Miller, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources, 3rd ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012), nos. 83–86.

[10] Cf. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, St. Paul’s Corinth: Texts and Archaeology, 3rd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2002), 12–15; Oscar Broneer, “The Apostle Paul and the Isthmian Games,” The Biblical Archaeologist 25/1 (1962): 1–31. One has to admit that a real-life experience of sport festivals cannot be proven with certainty in the case of Paul, neither is that possible for his stays in Tarsus nor for Corinth/Isthmia. However, it remains plausible, even though Paul could have mainly known these agonistic motives from his intellectual environment, such as Cynic and/or Stoic philosophy.

[11] See Ingomar Weiler, Der Sport bei den Völkern der Alten Welt (Darmstadt: WBG, 1981), 176–83.

[12] Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott: A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed., ed. Henry S. Jones and Roderick McKanzie (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 1904.

[13] See Eckhard J. Schnabel, Der erste Brief des Paulus an die Korinther, HTA (Wuppertal: Brockhaus; Giessen: Brunnen, 2006), 517.

[14] See Helmut Merklein, Der erste Brief an die Korinther: Kapitel 5,1–11,1, ÖTK 7/2 (Gütersloh: Gütersloher; Würzburg: Echter, 2000), 235.

[15] Wolfgang Schrage, Der erste Brief an die Korinther: 1Kor 6,12–11,16, EKK 7/2 (Düsseldorf: Benziger; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1995), 370.

[16] See Hans Windisch, “ἀσκέω,” in ThWNT 1 (1933): 492–94.

[17] Cf. Epictetus, Enchiridion 47: “When you have become adjusted to simple living in regard to your bodily wants, do not preen yourself about the accomplishment; […]. And if ever you want to train [ἀσκέω] to develop physical endurance, do it by yourself and not for outsiders to behold […]” (trans. William A. Oldfather, LCL 218, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928). Here, the idea of asceticism as voluntary abstinence, which is not forced by external circumstances, but motivated by inner conviction, is already obvious.

[18] See Windisch, “ἀσκέω,” 493. Philo applies sophistical pedagogy to the interpretation of the three patriarchs, whereby Jacob represents for him the (mental) ascetic: “But in spite of her [i.e., pleasure] expecting to throw and cheat the good mind, she shall herself be thrown by Jacob who is practised in wrestling [πρὸς τοῦ πάλην ἠσκηκότος], not the bodily wrestling but that in which the soul engages against dispositions that are her antagonists, fighting as she does with passions and wickednesses.” Philo, Embassy 3.190; trans. Francis H. Colson and George H. Whitaker, LCL 226 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1929).

[19] “Plenty of evidence suggests at least a healthy level of superstition on the part of competitors,” as “[a] number of lead curse tablets discovered in Corinth, at Isthmia, and in Athens show athletes invoking divine aid to inhibit the performance of their opponents.” Sarah C. Murray, “The Role of Religion in Greek Sport,” A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity ed. Paul Christesen and Donald G. Kyle (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 309–19, 315.

[20] See Karl-Heinrich Ostmeyer, “Vier Pferde, Farben und factiones. Die apokalyptischen Reiter und ihr zeitgeschichtlicher Hintergrund (Offb 6,2–8),” ZNW 113 (2022): 112.

[21] See Söding, “Sport,” 96: “Die Siegermentalität ist nicht nur dem Sport, sondern der gesamten Kultur eingeschrieben,” with reference to Tonio Hölscher, “Die Geschlagenen und Ausgelieferten in der Kunst des Hellenismus,” Antike Kunst 28 (1985): 120–36.

[22] Cf. Philip F. Esler, “Paul and the Agon. Understanding a Pauline Motif in Its Cultural and Visual Context,” in Picturing the New Testament. Studies in Ancient Visual Images, ed. Petra von Gemünden and Annette Weissenrieder, WUNT 193 (Tübingen: MohrSiebeck, 2005), 366–68.

[23] Harry W. Pleket, “Sport und Leibesübungen in der griechischen Welt des hellenistisch-römischen Zeitalters,” in Geschichte der Leibesübungen: Leibesübungen und Sport in der Antike, ed. Horst Ueberhorst (Berlin: Bartels und Wernitz, 1978), 300–305.

[24] See Papathomas, “Motiv,” 232. On the terminological development of the different categories of the games see: Sofie Remijsen, “The So-Called ‘Crown-Games’: Terminology and Historical Context of the Ancient Categories for Agones,” ZPE 177 (2011): 97–109.

[25] Cf. Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001) 27–57; Philipp Steger, “Die Scham in der griechisch-römischen Antike: Eine philosophisch-historische Bestandsaufnahme von Homer bis zum Neuen Testament,” in Scham – ein menschliches Gefühl: Kulturelle, psychologische und philosophische Perspektiven, ed. Rolf Kühn and Michael Raub and Michael Titze (Opladen: Westdeutscher 1997), 57–73; Esler, “Paul,” 369–70.

[26] See Söding, “Sport,” 96. Here, however, there were also considerable differences in the individual sporting traditions. In the Roman context, athletes in the circus or in the arena were considered socially infamous (infamie) professions. The stigma attached to this profession is somewhat contradictory to the sometimes religious veneration of some of the sport’s famous heroes. See Ostmeyer, “Vier Pferde,” 103.

[27] Seneca, Epistulae Morales 13.2. The quote in English translation comes from Harold A. Harris, Sport in Greece and Rome: Aspects of Greek and Roman Life (London: Thames and Hudson, 1972), 67.

[28] Cf. Pfitzner, Paul, 194, who also emphasizes that by binding the new Christian identity to Christ, an essential motivation is now to earn honor for Christ through the Christian ἀγών. While ancient athletes sought the honor of their city in addition to their own, here, a shift within the value system takes also place in light of the cross.

[29] Tertullian, The Crown, 14.3–4 (own translation; see the Latin version in Tertullian, De corona [trans. Fabio Ruggiero, Oscar Classici greci e latini 30; Milan: Mondadori, 1992]).

[30] Displayed at the Vatican Museum (inv. no. 31525). Photo Copyright © Governorate of the Vatican City State-Directorate of the Vatican Museums.

[31] Luke’s depiction of Jesus’s prayer ἐν ἀγωνίᾳ in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44) admittedly tends to illuminate Jesus’s struggle for suffering more strongly from the point of view of his obedience and his victory, but here too Jesus is precisely not the ideal—“Stoic”—martyr, but is portrayed as truly “wrestling for a positive victory,” as Pfitzner has rightly pointed out (cf. Pfitzner, Paul, 132). On the often drawn comparison between Luke’s portrayal of the Passion and Jewish accounts of martyrdom as well as with the “noble” death of Socrates, cf. critically Brian J. Tabb, “Is the Lukan Jesus a ‘Martyr’? A Critical Assessment of a Scholarly Consensus,” CBQ 77 (2015): 280–301.

[32] Söding, “Sport,” 97: “Verdrängungswettbewerb.”

[33] Cf., e.g., Hurtado, Destroyer, 144–48; Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 103–19.

Andreas-Christian Heidel

Andreas-Christian Heidel is lecturer in New Testament at the Internationale Hochschule Liebenzell (University for Applied Sciences) in Germany and postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for New Testament Studies of the University of Bern in Switzerland.

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