New Testament athletic metaphors

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Ancient Greek race at the Panathenaic Games, illustrated on a Greek vase. Like the Isthmian Games of Corinth, the Panathenaic Games continued into early Christian times.[1]

The New Testament uses a number of athletic metaphors in discussing Christianity, especially in the Pauline epistles and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Such metaphors also appear in the writings of contemporary philosophers, such as Epictetus and Philo,[2] drawing on the tradition of the Olympic Games,[3] and this may have influenced New Testament use of the imagery.[4]

The metaphor of running a race "with perseverance" appears in Hebrews 12:1,[5] and related metaphors appear in Philippians 2:16,[6] Galatians 2:2,[7] and Galatians 5:7.[8] In 2 Timothy 4:7, Paul writes "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."[9]

In 1 Corinthians 9:24–26,[10] written to the city that hosted the Isthmian Games,[11] the metaphor is extended from running to other games, such as boxing,[12] to make the point that winning a prize requires discipline, self-control, and coordinated activity.[13] In 2 Timothy 2:5[14] the same point is made.[15] These athletic metaphors are also echoed in later Christian writing.[16]

As with New Testament military metaphors, these metaphors appear in many hymns, such as Fight the Good Fight with All Thy Might,[17] which was sung in the film Chariots of Fire; and "Angel Band",[18] which was sung in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

New Testament athletic metaphors were embraced by advocates of muscular Christianity, both in the Victorian era and in later times.[19][20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Susan Heuck Allen, Finding the walls of Troy: Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlík, University of California Press, 1999, ISBN 0-520-20868-4, p. 39.
  2. ^ Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A commentary on the Greek text, Eerdmans, 2000, ISBN 0-8028-2449-8, p. 713.
  3. ^ David Arthur DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A socio-rhetorical commentary on the Epistle "to the Hebrews", Eerdmans, 2000, ISBN 0-8028-4188-0, p. 362.
  4. ^ Roman Garrison, The Graeco-Roman Context of Early Christian Literature, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997, ISBN 1-85075-646-5, p. 104.
  5. ^ Hebrews 12:1, NIV (BibleGateway): "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."
  6. ^ Philippians 2:16, NIV (BibleGateway).
  7. ^ Galatians 2:2, NIV (BibleGateway).
  8. ^ Galatians 5:7, NIV (BibleGateway).
  9. ^ 2 Timothy 4:7, NIV (BibleGateway).
  10. ^ 1 Corinthians 9:24–26, NIV (BibleGateway).
  11. ^ Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit, Tremper Longman, Colin Duriez, Douglas Penney, and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, InterVarsity Press, 1998, ISBN 0-8308-1451-5, p. 693 (RACE).
  12. ^ John Phillips, Exploring 1 Corinthians: An expository commentary, Kregel Publications, 2002, ISBN 0-8254-3495-5, p. 200.
  13. ^ Jerome H. Neyrey and Bruce J. Malina, Paul, in Other Words: A Culture Reading of His Letters, Westminster John Knox Press, 1990, ISBN 0-664-22159-9, p. 144.
  14. ^ 2 Timothy 2:5, NIV (BibleGateway).
  15. ^ John Norman Davidson Kelly, A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles: I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus, Part 1, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1963, ISBN 0-7136-1366-1, p. 176.
  16. ^ Jason König, Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-521-83845-2, p. 133.
  17. ^ The Cyber Hymnal: Fight the Good Fight with All Thy Might: "Run the straight race through God’s good grace."
  18. ^ The Cyber Hymnal: My Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast: "My race is nearly run; / My strongest trials now are past, / My triumph is begun."
  19. ^ Richard G. Kyle, Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity, Transaction Publishers, 2006, ISBN 0-7658-0324-0, p. 203.
  20. ^ Dane S. Claussen (ed), The Promise Keepers: Essays on masculinity and Christianity, McFarland, 2000, ISBN 0-7864-0700-X, p. 194.