What are Games?
Doubtless the Hebrew children had playthings and sports, like all other children, but there is no more than a passing allusion to such things in the Bible, nor would more be expected. Acts Zechariah, 8:5, declares that part of the outward evidence of the restoration of Jerusalem will be the public playing of the children. The same prophet, 1 Chr 12:3, illustrates the divine care of Jerusalem by comparing the city to a stone of burden -- i.e. heavy and difficult, if not dangerous, to lift; for the Lord would guard her against all attacks, so that man could not prevail against her. In this comparison commentators see an allusion to a practice, which Jerome reports to have prevailed in Judasa, of lifting heavy stones as a trial of strength. Our Lord likens his generation of the Jews to children playing in the market-place a game which consisted in imitating a funeral or a marriage. Matt 11:16. But the Hebrews had no public games such as the Greeks and Romans had. They did not fit in with the Hebrew character, particularly with their intense religious feeling. Besides, the three great annual religious festivals -- the Passover, the feast of weeks, and that of tabernacles -- drew the nation sufficiently together to prevent stagnation. It was quite characteristic that these festivals furnished the Jews with their needed diversion. So far from having public games, the Jews considered them disreputable, and even blasphemous. For the attempt of Jason to introduce the gymnasium he is called an "ungodly wretch," 2 Mace. 4:13, and those who practised in it were said to have sold themselves to do mischief. 1 Mace. 1:15. The building by Herod the Great of a theatre and amphitheatre in Jerusalem, as well as at Caesarea, excited the aversion of pious Jews, and any one who took part in the games was regarded as a renegade. And yet, doubtless, the Jews paid some attention to the development of their muscles. The fact that swiftness of foot was so much esteemed and that runners were employed to carry the news of battle would render it probable that there were competitive races. So the Psalmist, Ps 19:5, speaks of the sun rejoicing "as a strong man to run a race," and in Eccl 9:11 the Preacher uses the words, "The race is not to the swift." Then, too, the skill acquired in the use of the bow and the sling, 1 Sam 20:20; Jud 20:16; 1 Chr 12:2, implies private if not public competition. The proposition of Abner, "Let the young men now arise, and play before us," 2 Sam 2:14, its immediate acceptance, and its bloody end, indicate the training and skill of the young men, and suggest that the friendly contests of peace had been turned, on this occasion, into a deadly struggle. But such an interpretation may be too far-fetched. The games of private life such as are known to us were many of them familiar to the Egyptians, and are pictured on the monuments. Presuming that the Hebrews would learn these from their neighbors, if they did not invent them for themselves, we may fancy an ancient Hebrew amusing himself with "odd and even," "checkers," "graces," catching balls, etc. But although the ancient Hebrews, as a nation, were opposed to public games, individuals among them entered into them with zest, and the Jews residing in foreign cities came into frequent contact with them. We find the Greek games frequently referred to by Paul, whose heroic nature seems to have been fired by the splendid triumphs of the arena. His metaphors are so frequently taken directly from these games that his mind seems to run on them, as, in a modern parallel, F.W. Robertson used metaphors taken from soldier-life. Some of Paul's allusions are unhappily concealed from view in the A.V. Nothing more than a brief handling of this interesting subject will be expected here. We follow, in the main, Dean Howson's Metaphors of St. Paul. The most noted of the Greek games were the Olympic, the Pythian, the Isthmian, and the Nemean. They bore the appellation of "sacred." They consisted of leaping, running, quoiting, wrestling, hurling the spear, and boxing; besides these, there were chariot-races. The Olympic games were held in the highest honor. The victors there were regarded as the happiest of mortals. They were crowned and led along the stadium, preceded by a herald, who proclaimed their names, parentage, and country. They were afterward solemnly received into their native cities. Poets sang their praise; statues were sometimes erected in their honor. These games were celebrated every five years at Olympia, in Elis, on the west side of the Peloponnesus; hence the epochs called "Olympiads." The other games were similar in toil and honor. The training preparatory to the contest in either was long and severe. Every care was taken to prevent foul play. The judges were strictly impartial. The prizes were of no intrinsic worth. At the Olympics the victors received each a wreath of wild-olive and a palm-branch; at the Pythian the crown or chaplet was made of laurel; at the Isthmian, of twigs of the pine tree; at the Nemean, of parsley or ivy. Only one out of all the combatants in each contest received a prize. The apostle Paul was doubtless brought frequently in contact with these games, which, although Greek in their origin, were yet fostered by Rome. He may have formed part of the throng which witnessed the Isthmian games, since these were celebrated near Corinth and Paul spent 18 months in that city. At all events, he had heard the scenes described, and had had pointed out to him the victors. The gymnasium, or place of training, and the stadium, or ground for running, were among the most conspicuous and the most frequented spots in the architecture and embellishment of the cities. That feature of these games which was the most exciting is the more frequently referred to-viz. the foot-race. Thus, Paul says: "None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, that I might finish my course [end my race] with joy." Acts 20:24. Again:I have fought the good fight [an athletic, not a warlike, contest]; I have ended my race; I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day. See 2 Tim 4:7-8. "The race is nearly run, the struggle is all but over; he is weary, as it were, and panting with the effort; but he is successful. The crown is in sight, and the Judge who cannot make a mistake is there, ready to place that bright wreath upon his head." To the Galatians he says: Foot-race. (Adapted from a View of the Circus Flora at Rome. Montfaucon.) "Ye did run well; who did hinder you. that ye should not obey the truth?" Gal 5:7. The magnificent outburst in the Epistle to the Philippians, Phil 3:13-14, -"I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus," -rings vividly before us a racer. The oft-quoted passage, 1 Cor 9:24-27, receives a flood of light when we bear in mind the familiarity of the Corinthians with the Isthmian games. Paul alludes to the foot-race, out of which only one runner came as a victor, to the strict regimen requisite to success, to the vast superiority of the Christian's prize, and the shame it were if, while so much energy were put forth to gain a little reputation, the Christian should not strive to gain an unfading crown: "I so run, not as uncertainly." A man who does not know his own mind is seldom successful. But the runner keeps his eye fixed upon the goal, and bends all his energies to win it. And the apostle, almost in the same breath, alludes to the pugilist: "So fight I, not as one that beateth the air." v. 1 Cor 9:26. He would not beat the air, but make every blow tell, as the heavy blow from the hand covered with the nail-studded leather (cestus) inflicted a bruise every time it struck. I keep under my body and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have been a herald [the officer who summoned the competitors to the struggle] unto others, I myself should be a castaway -reference to the training of the pugilist. See v. 1 Cor 9:27. These are only a few of the passages in Paul's writings to be illustrated by the Grecian games. The mention of the Chief of Asia (which see), or asiarchs, Acts 19:31, at Ephesus as the friends of Paul, in connection with Paul's declaration, taken literally, that he had "fought with beasts at Ephesus," 1 Cor 15:32, have led some to suppose the apostle was actually thrown into the arena, but delivered by a miracle, and that therefore the asiarchs treated him with consideration. But it is every way more likely that Paul uses a metaphor borrowed from the Roman games, in which fighting with wild beasts was introduced. He alludes again to these brutal fights between men and beasts, or to the gladiatorial shows, when, in 1 Cor 4:9, he says: "God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death." The words "refer to the band of gladiators brought out last for death, the vast range of an amphitheatre under the open sky well representing the magnificent vision of all created beings, from men up to angels, gazing on the dreadful death-struggle, and then the contrast of the selfish Corinthians sitting by unconcerned and unmoved at the awful spectacle." -- Stanley: Com. on Corinth, The early Christians, like the Jews, but for different reasons, regarded these games and the theatrical exhibitions of the Greeks and Romans with horror. They were closely connected with heathenism; attendance upon them exposed the Christians to the cry, "To the lions!" for in this way many had been killed; hence, regard for the memory of their departed brethren should forbid Christians' attendance on them. But apart from these considerations, they were regarded as too worldly, as tending to withdraw the mind from the things of God and unduly to elevate the body. Surely, as conducted in later times, the games were brutalizing, and hence the humane spirit of Christ forbade the sight of so much bloodshed and suffering.