Athletic Sports

Entertainment and spectator/participatory sports did not develop until Greek and Roman times. Races had been run in Israel (Jeremiah 12:5), but they were not for entertainment. It was the promotion of sports in the Greek fashion in 170 BC that led to the division among Jews between Sadducees and Hasidim.

The Greeks believed that it was as important to be healthy as it was to be educated. In Greece there were four celebrations of games: the Isthmian, Nemean, Pythian, and Olympian, the last by far the most important and held every four years. The Olympian games were in honor of the god Zeus, and because the games began with offerings to gods and to heroes, they were actually religious occasions. Short races were followed by long ones, and then the pentathlon of jumping, running, discus, javelin and wrestling. The was also chariot racing, boxing, running in armour, and contests between heralds and trumpeters.

Contestants trained under rigid rules, and thirty days before the games commenced they came together under close supervision. They had to exercise regularly, avoid luxuries, and obey certain rules (1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Timothy 2:5). When an event was over, a herald proclaimed the name of the winner and his city, and the winner was presented with a palm branch, which later became a wreath made from the leaves of a sacred olive tree (1 Peter 5:4).

Picture of a Palm Branch/Wreath that the olympian winner receive 

The Olympian games were one of topics of conversation in New Testament times and frequently provided illustration and metaphor (Romans 15:30; Philippians 1:27; 3:14; 2 Timothy 4:7; Hebrews 12:1; Jude 3). Two of the events need special mention in view of such references. In wrestling, the opponent had to be held down and thrown down. The victor then put his foot on his opponent’s neck. Such wrestling had an honourable history. Jacob wrestled at Peniel, and Genesis 32:24-25 indicates that he was not able to overcome his opponent within the rules. Judges 15:8 also uses a wrestling term. In boxing, there was a difference between the early and later rounds. In the early rounds, arms were bound with soft leather, and the winner was the first person to knock the opponent down. If the spectators became bored because the contest was too even, the arms were bound with studded leather to bring the contest to a bloody climax.




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