The Historical Background of Paul’s Athletic Allusions -- By: Jerry M. Hullinger

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 161:643 (Jul 2004)
Article: The Historical Background of Paul’s Athletic Allusions
Author: Jerry M. Hullinger


The Historical Background
of Paul’s Athletic Allusions

Jerry M. Hullinger

Jerry M. Hullinger is a Bible teacher in Pensacola, Florida.

One of the apostle Paul’s favorite methods for applying and illustrating Christian responsibility was through the use of athletic metaphors. For example he used words for “running” and the “race” on numerous occasions (Acts 13:25; 20:24; Rom. 9:16; 1 Cor. 9:24; Gal. 2:2; 5:7; Phil. 2:16; 2 Thess. 3:1; 2 Tim. 4:7). In addition he referred to other sports such as boxing (1 Cor. 9:26) and wrestling (Eph. 6:12). Paul also used words that would have conjured up images of the games in his readers’ minds. These include “prize” (1 Cor. 9:24), “crown” (v. 25), “goal” (Phil. 3:14), being disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27), “strive lawfully” (2 Tim. 2:5), and the giving of the crown by the righteous Judge (4:8).

To feel the full impact of Paul’s words, one must understand this part of his historical milieu.1 This study seeks to demonstrate that Paul’s athletic allusions are indeed based on the local games with which he and his readers would have been familiar. It also seeks to provide background material that will illumine Paul’s words and give further insight into why he chose these metaphors.2

The History of the Games

The Olympic Games

The chief athletic contest in Greece was the Olympic games. Founded in 776 B.C., these games were held every four years. In 472 B.C. the Olympics were extended to five days. The first day was

occupied with sacrifices to the gods and the taking of oaths by the judges and competitors. The second morning began with the naming of the competitors by the herald, and was followed by chariot races, horse races, and the pentathlon for men. Contests for boys w...

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