***Special thanks to Tracy McCarter of The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***
Sports and the Early Church
The story of evangelicalism’s dance with sports begins, appropriately enough, with the dawn of a faith that made its appearance in the context of sports-crazed societies. In the towns and cities where the gospel was first preached, athletics and sporting spectacles were woven into the fabric of civic life; they symbolized not only urban life, but what it meant to be Roman or Greek. French historian Henri Marrou characterized the Greek conception of life as a type of athletic struggle in which winning was one of the most significant aspects of the Greek soul. “There is no doubt that the Homeric hero and hence the actual Greek person of flesh and blood was really only happy when he felt and proved himself to be the first in his category, a man apart, superior.” 1 Cities sought identities, not merely through the exploits of their idolized athletes, but by vying with each other in building bigger and better sports and entertainment facilities. Wealthy politicians and entrepreneurs, anxious to display their power and prestige staged increasingly elaborate and expensive athletic shows at enormous personal expense. If the intensity of a cultural practice is reflected in years of assimilation, both the Greeks and Romans were far more steeped in the ethos of competitive sports than are sport enthusiasts of the 21st century. While American football and basketball date back a little over 100 years, Greek athletics and chariot racing, by comparison, had been around for over 600 years and the gladiatorial shows had been part of Roman culture for over 250 years when the first generation of Christians moved among their fellows.
The peculiar ethical demands of the newly formed faith fomented enormous cultural clashes with the societies in which it was being nurtured. The Christian community was forced to ask itself not only how being a Christian was different than being a Jew, but how being a Christian should modify believers’ approaches to all aspects of culture, including athletics, gladiatorial contests, and chariot racing. Tacitus, a first century historian and Roman senator, found the rage for sports among the masses almost inexplicable: “There are special vices peculiar to this city that children seem to absorb, almost in their mother’s womb: a partiality for the theater and a passion for horse racing and gladiatorial shows.” The pagan religious ceremony,as integral to sport spectacles as the Star Spangled Banner or seventh inning stretch is to American baseball, was a continuing source of uneasiness, but that wasn’t all. The single-minded obsession with self-aggrandizement, fame and glory that characterized Greek athletics and the smothering ethic of excess and obscene delight in human cruelty that found expression in Roman sports were problematic for the early Christians too. These impulses and the sports competitions which celebrated them represented an inhospitable backdrop for a new religion that emphasized love, sympathy, self-denial, soberness, and meekness. Given the fact that most early Christians were products of the socializing effects of popular sports, it would be naïve to imagine that their conversions brought with them swift and sweeping changes in their view of sports. It took time for them to sort out the implications of their faith for life in a world permeated with time-honored pagan customs and patterns of thought and action. Christianity’s conflict with heathenism may have begun, as one writer has noted, “in the arena of the people’s play,” but it was certainly not a war to the death. 2
For first generation Christians, informal play was never a live religious issue. Drawn largely from the lower classes, early converts probably lacked the time and resources required for indulging in sports and games, and when time was available, the constant threat of persecution no doubt robbed them of the inclination. Christian children living in the Hellenistic eastern part of the Roman Empire, where some of the earliest churches began, no doubt joined in many of the popular forms of informal play: tumbling and acrobatics, juggling, playing with tops and yo-yos, swinging on swings, and playing on see-saws. There is evidence that an invasive team ball game (episkyros) was played as well, but on the whole the Greeks weren’t much interested in team sports. The people of the Hellenistic provinces were indoctrinated with arete, the Greek ideal of excellence, expressed through a constant testing of one’s individual capacities against another, not only in sports, but in music, poetry, rhetoric, even in contests of surgery, kissing, drinking, eating, and beauty. But arête was a value centered in the individual; it was difficult, if not impossible to display arête while part of a team. Thus, the massive system of organized youth sports of our day probably had no corollary in the early Christian era.3
The Christian Bible does not provide a detailed account of Christian social life in the apostolic age and tells us virtually nothing about how Christians spent their leisure, but as British theologian J.G. Davies pointed out, “they do enumerate principles which were to be applied even more extensively as the centuries passed.” Scripture neither explicitly condoned nor endorsed informal play, implying that New Testament authors considered it to neither confer special advantage nor pose a substantial threat to the spiritual vitality of early adherents to the faith. The congregations at Ephesus and Corinth may not have competed against each other in a church episkyros league, but it wasn’t because they viewed physical activity or informal sports as inherently evil.4 But the public sport shows of the day—glittering, gaudy, contests designed to entertain pleasure-starved, hero-worshipping audiences—were an entirely different matter. Although not singled out for condemnation in scripture nor denounced in the very early years of Christendom, public athletic and gladiatorial shows eventually were vilified by a litany of early Christian leaders. As a rule, it was as a form of entertainment, not as a system of education or informal leisure that sport was problematic for the earliest of Christians. 5
Sports of the Day
Public sport spectacles in early Christian society were shaped by both Greek and Roman influences. The games of the ancient Greeks emphasized the ideals of agon, athletic exploit, honor, and winning. The Greeks valued athletics as military training experiences and thus appropriate for participation by the masses. The Romans also invoked a military rationale, especially for some of their crueler sports, but for the most part athletics weren’t of great interest to the early Romans. To them, the hours spent by Greeks in the athletics of the gymnasia and palestras had been a leading cause of their enslavement and degeneracy. Romans preferred to watch sport spectacles. To meet the demand for sports watching, public and private entrepreneurs offered a variety of dazzling, often vulgar shows.
At the same time, the line between Greek and Roman sports of the time was not always clear cut. The spread of the Roman Empire in Greece and its surrounds, for example, brought with it a Roman-like love of gladiatorial contests and chariot racing and for athletics made cruel and barbarous by modifications that appealed to public taste. Once threatened by the Roman conquest, the ancient Greek athletic contests had recovered by 12BC, thanks largely to an endowment from Herod that re-instituted the Olympic Games. Thus athletics, gladiatorial contests, and chariot racing all flourished in the eastern Hellenic section of the Empire around the time and places where Paul and his fellow missionaries labored.
Sports entertainment at the time of the early church assumed three different forms: the athletic games of the stadium, the gladiatorial shows of the ampitheatre (and theater), and chariot racing. In the eastern part of the empire where the church had its vital roots, the main sports attraction was the race at the hippodrome (circus) and athletics at the stadium. There were four primary athletic events of national interest, ancient equivalents of the World Series or the four “major” tournaments in golf or tennis: the Olympic games at Olympia and the Nemean games at Nemea, dedicated to Zeus; the Pythian games at Delphi in honor of Apollo; and the Isthmian games at Corinth in honor of Poseidon. Athletes who had been victorious at least once at each of these games were accorded special honors and usually a great deal of money. Although these events were the most popular, they accounted for only a small portion of the athletic contests of the day. Local games also associated with religious festivals permeated societies of the Mediterranean world. By the first century the sports craze had begun to spread, even to the point where separate competitions for women participants were being held in various cities. It wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Spectators suffered in blazing heat, often finding themselves in cramped quarters, subject to almost unbearable commotion, and constantly pestered by flies drawn to the huge quantities of blood and red meat spilled at the altars. 10
The athletic contests took place in the context of a grand sacred festival. Huge crowds arrived days before the events to revel in an ancient form of tailgating. Street philosophers lectured passersby; poets and artists presented their latest works; and fortune tellers, magicians and peddlers of food and souvenirs pestered tourists who walked the streets. The “pre-game warm up” began with a procession of over a thousand athletes, officials and spectators from nearby towns, stopping at appointed places along the way to offer sacrifices and for the athletes to be sprinkled by pig’s blood, a ritual purification. The modern equivalent, says one writer, would require the Olympics “to be combined with Coney Island, Carnival in Rio, mass at the Vatican, and a U.S. Presidential election.”11
On the first day of the games, the athletes gathered for administration of the sacred oath in front of a statue of Zeus Horkios (Zeus of the Oath). In contrast to the modern practice of collecting blood and urine samples to weed out dishonest athletes, Olympic participants swore on the flesh of wild boars that they would do nothing evil against the games. The five-day festival started with a competition for trumpeters and heralds at the grand altar; the winners served as the ancient equivalent of a public address system. The remainder of the day was taken up by the offering of animal sacrifices, especially by horse owners who sought divine assistance for the chariot races, the first event scheduled for the hippodrome. The next day at dawn, a procession led by priests of Zeus, clad in purple and carrying switches to punish athletes who committed a foul, visited some 63 altars to various gods. The skies were darkened from smoke from the altars, made even worse by private sacrifices arranged by affluent spectators who hired flutists, dancers, and priests to perform.
The first event was the 4-horse chariot race, followed by the horseback race and the 2-horse chariot race. The next day the scene shifted to the stadium for the pentathlon: the discus, javelin, and long jump, wrestling and the 200-meter sprint. These also were independent events. Victory celebrations and parties went long into the night. On the same night (perhaps the next) contestants and spectators gathered for a sacrifice at the great altar of Zeus, seven meters high and ten meters in diameter. Sacrifices continued through the following morning after a large procession in which 100 oxen made their way to the altar of Zeus. After the sacrifice large portions of the meat were roasted and distributed to crowds who spent the rest of the day recovering from the feast. It is significant that spectators saw no line separating athletic competition from worship; they were seamless rituals. And if some evangelical sports aficionados are to be believed, the Apostle Paul was there, watching, eating, mingling, clearing the smoke from his eyes, and discussing the fortunes of his favorite runner or fighter.
The following day featured footraces (gymnikoi agones) including a long distance race and another similar to the modern day 400-meter event. The afternoon brought the “heavy events:” wrestling, boxing, and the pankration, a brutal form of no-holds-barred street fighting. Boxers wrapped their fists with leather thongs which served as a cutting edge; some Roman fighters went them one better by weaving spikes into the thongs. Combat continued until one of the competitors surrendered. In a particularly sensational fight a pankratist named Arrachion dislocated his opponent’s toe, forcing his opponent to surrender, but not before his opponent’s leg scissor hold could be released. It suffocated Arrachion; thus a corpse was crowned and proclaimed the winner. These contests, says ancient sport expert Michael Poliakoff, involved “a level of officially sanctioned violence and danger that the modern Olympics would never tolerate,” even though such violence was fiercely banned in civic life outside the arena.12
While the ritualized murder that passed for sport in the Roman spectacles was eminently more debauched, romantic notions of ancient Greek athletics as honorable and pure, limited to amateur competitors and infused with a sporting spirit that valued “not winning, but taking part” are hardly consistent with what is known about them. To the Greeks, sports were all about winning. Losers were publicly mocked and humiliated. According to Pindar, the losers went “skulking down back roads, hiding from their enemies, bitten by their calamity.”13 British historian E.N. Gardiner, one of the foremost authorities on ancient sports, once said that “few…. realize how corrupt and degraded were Greek athletics during St. Paul’s lifetime.” Almost from their ancient beginnings they were about money. “Purists who refused to mix money with sport did not exist in the ancient world, and victors boast of success in the cash competitions as openly as they boast of victory in sacred contests.”14
Much like modern critics of sport, early Roman commentators resented the enormous sums paid to athletes. Historian Stephen Miller, for example, has estimated that as early as 476BC a boxer and pankratist named Theagenes won the equivalent of $44 million throughout his career. A trainer and medical technician for one athlete signed a contract for $132,000 in today’s currency only to be hired away the next year by a rival for $242,000.15 According to Pindar, the Olympic victors were given lifetime pensions which gave them “sweet smooth-sailing” for the remainder of their lives. They paraded triumphantly through town in four-horse chariots. “Long before the first television endorsement,” notes history writer Tony Perrottet, “they made fortunes from cameo appearances at lesser games in Asia Minor and southern Italy; or they embarked on lucrative careers in politics. One wrestler, Marcus Aurelius Asclepiades, became a senator in Athens, anticipating wrestler-cum-Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura by some 20 centuries.” 16
Scandals, bribery and cheating plagued the athletic contests of the east. Athletes traveled the stadium circuit, hoping to fatten their wallets at each venue. Many invoked powers from the darker side to help them defeat their opponents and bragged about their athletic exploits in the Greek spirit of unbridled self-assertion. The deadly seriousness with which the Greeks took sport is evident in the Iliad, where a boxer named Epeios warned his opponent that he would “smash his skin apart and break his bones on each other” and advised him to arrange to have “those who care about him wait nearby in a huddle to carry him out, after my fists have beaten him”. 17 Athletes, particularly those that fought in the “heavy events,” were peculiar physical specimens, depicted in art and literature as hulking toughs with torn ears, massive skulls and tiny brains whose epigrams boasted of the blood they had spilt. “Perhaps after all, mused one historian, not so very far removed from the gladiators as one might have imagined.” 18
Athletic contests never really captured the public imagination in the Roman Empire where sensibilities had been seared by the realities of incessant war. Something more titillating than footraces, javelin-throwing, and wrestling was required. Even the brutalities of the pankration and boxing failed to generate much enthusiasm. Romans found what they were looking for in the ancient Eutruscan custom of forcing prisoners of war, slaves, and other unfortunates to fight each other to the death. By adding a few embellishments and incorporating the contests into lavish and highly marketable spectacles the thrill of athletic competition was blended with the sadistic lure of ultimate defeat. The casual acceptance of these brutal shows continues to puzzle modern historians.
Moderns tend to associate the games with the 50,000 seat Roman Coliseum built in AD 80, but in reality, gladiatorial amphitheaters were widely distributed throughout the empire and apparently enjoyed by highly cultured Greeks. At Pompeii, for example, the amphitheater was large enough to seat the entire city of 20,000. Like Greek athletics, the gladiatorial games were part of a ritual complex incorporating the Imperial Cult of the Emperors, Celtic cult practices, and the cult of Nemesis.19 Statues of gods surrounded the arena, their faces often covered to spare them some of the bloodiest scenes. When a gladiator had fallen, a man dressed as Charon, ferryman to the underworld, entered the arena and, striking the head of the corpse with a mallet, announced his ownership of the body. He was accompanied by another playing the part of Mercury who represented the guide of souls to hell. After he had stuck the body with a red hot iron, he escorted the stretcher-laden corpse from the arena.
The games followed various plans, but usually the first event of the morning show featured animal fights: bulls against elephants, lions against leopards, and rhinoceros against buffalo. During Nero’s reign elephants and bulls were said to have been attacked by 400 tigers in a single day’s program. The fights were followed by circus acts including boys dancing on the backs of elephants, trained tigers and bears, some dressed as gladiators. Animals that managed to survive were usually killed in the hunt which was the third part of the morning program. Sometimes relatively harmless animals such as deer, ostriches, and donkeys were herded into the arena and killed. Lunch time often featured executions of criminals and Christians which were carried out in elaborate mimes and crucifixions. Some were set afire; others were killed by lions. In a particularly popular innovation a pair of victims was brought to the arena, one armed the other defenseless. The defenseless man was chased around the arena and eventually killed by the armed man who then surrendered his weapon and, in turn, was chased and killed by the next prisoner.20
But it was the gladiatorial fights that drew the most attention. Gladiators were skilled athletes in one sense, trained professional killers in another. Masters of hand to hand combat, they engaged in what were perpetual “sudden death overtimes:” winners lived, sometimes to reap fame and fortune and to fight another day, while the bodies of losers bled into the arena sand. The contests were infused with religious overtones. Upon entering the arena gladiators swore sacred oaths that put their lives “on deposit” with the gods of the underworld. 21 If a fighter put on a good show yet lost this battle, his fate rested in the hands of the crowd and, if he were in attendance, the emperor. A thumbs up sign meant he could live to fight another day, a thumbs down sign sent his opponent’s dagger through his midsection. Few gladiators survived more than three years. Although some enjoyed longer lives and were celebrated as heroes and idolized by women, they were despised as humans, deprived of access to elite social functions.
With the passage of time the popularity of the games grew, as did the thirst for increasingly brutal, elaborate, and spectacular shows. The Romans didn’t have 24-hour telecasts on ESPN, but they watched a lot of gladiatorial games. In the fourth century, 177 days a year were designated as public holidays with 10 full days given to gladiatorial contests, 66 to chariot races and the rest of them devoted to the theater. The games required huge expenditures of private and public money. Emperors and aristocrats vied with each other to present the most colossal spectacle. In the early first century, Augustus sponsored dozens of shows that were estimated to have required 10,000 gladiators; the birthday of Vitellius (15-69AD) was said to have been marked by gladiatorial contests in all 265 districts of the empire. When conventional one-on-one battles failed to excite, promoters offered grander spectacles featuring infantry and cavalry; arenas could be flooded for colossal naval battles. Caesar once sponsored a show featuring gladiators, chariot races, athletic competitions, a naval battle, and five days of wild-beast hunts. It ended with a battle between two armies each consisting of 500 infantry, twenty elephants, and thirty cavalry. In their search for even more depraved entertainments, promoters arranged torch-lit battles featuring women against men, women against women, women against dwarfs, blind against blind, and women fighting from chariots; even combats between aristocrats became popular forms of titillation for frenzied crowds. 22
Scholars have attributed deep and complex motives to the Roman love for gladiatorial games. Some have identified important connections of the games to military and political life while others have seen in it as an attempt to compensate for an “excruciating feeling of humiliation and insecurity” that faced the Romans in their daily lives.23 A case has been made that the games’ popularity can be traced to the sense of reassurance that the crowds felt upon seeing disasters inflicted on others and not themselves. Others have claimed that by enjoying vicariously the violence of the arena the Romans were purged of aggression and hostility, certainly untrue in the case of Empress Pompaea, whom Nero kicked to death because she scolded him for his late return from the Circus Maximus. However one dresses up the ritualized torture and unspeakable violence of the arena in sociological theory, it still remains an unprecedented variation on sports. It represents what historian Crane Brinton rightly called, “a special case of moral history.” One has only to probe the underbelly of bullfights, Acapulco cliff diving, daredevil shows and auto racing to appreciate that the specter of death and violence is intrinsically fascinating to a large percentage of the population, but only in Rome was the urge satisfied by unrestrained ritual slaughter.24
Chariot racing in the hippodrome had been part of ancient Greek athletics long before Christ, reaching its ascendancy in the first few centuries of the Roman Empire, not only in Rome, but in the eastern cities where many of the earliest Christian churches were founded. It may be impossible to exaggerate the addictive power of racing in Greco-Roman life. For the average Roman, said a commentator of the age, “the Circus Maximus is temple, home, community center and the fulfillment of all of their hopes.” The race course, along with forums, fountains, theaters, temples, and the public baths, was regarded as an essential hallmark of a classical city. Although not as brutal as gladiatorial contests, chariot races combined frenzy and fury to create a spectacle that was unexplainable in its grip on the Roman conscience. Hundreds of thousands packed the massive Circus Maximus to witness spectacles which, in their day, rivaled those of modern day Super Bowls. If the size of the stadium reflected the level of interest of the citizens, there can be no question that racing was the most popular spectacle. The Circus Maximus stretched more than three football fields long (335 meters) and one football field wide (80 meters), an area large enough to hold up to 250,000 spectators. Most races were seven lap events; twenty four races were run each day, although history records as many as 48 being run on special occasions. Intermissions might include gladiatorial contests, acrobats, boxing, wrestling, and even wild beast hunts.25
It is not stretching the historical record too thinly to describe chariot racing as the forerunner of modern day auto racing in which daring, speed, and the possibility of death on the track combined with ribaldry and drunkenness in the stands. Charioteers tended to be small and their chariots, unlike the bulky ones pictured in the movie Ben Hur, were lightweight and designed for speed, something that enabled them to race at speeds exceeding those possible on a mounted horse. Drivers wore protective uniforms to limit injury in case of a crash. Negotiating the turns posed problems for the charioteer just as they do for today’s race car racer and driving styles were aggressive and ruthless. Cutting across the path of a rival, trying to force it aside and up against the barrier was considered legitimate; hence spectacular accidents, often involving several teams, were accepted as part of the race. All in all it wasn’t a great deal different from the “aggressive driving” and “bump-drafting” that has plagued NASCAR in recent years. When asked by reporters what he needed to do to improve his performance, NASCAR idol Jeff Gordon told them that he needed to be aggressive and “jump back in that throttle and carry that corner speed,” expressing a sentiment that only his fellow competitors and ancient charioteers could have appreciated.26
Although modern race car drivers move at much faster speeds, the chariot races were much more dangerous, to the horses as well as to men. Excerpts from a fifth-century poem written by Sidonius Apollinarius speak of the “sweat of drivers and flying steeds,” “the hoarse roar from applauding partisans,” and at the end, describes the absolute horror: “(Your competitor) shamelessly made for your wheel with a sidelong dash. His horses were brought down, a multitude of intruding legs entered the wheels, and….the revolving rim shattered the entangled feet; then he, a fifth victim, flung from his chariot, which fell upon him, caused a mountain of havoc, and blood disfigured his prostrate brow.” One of the saddest inscriptions embossed on a Roman tomb was placed there by a charioteer named Polyneices. The tomb contained the body of his son, who like his brother, died in a racing accident: “Marcus Aurelius Polyneices, born a slave, lived 29 years, 9 months and 5 days. He won the palm 739 times: 655 times for the Reds, 55 times for the Greens, 12 times for the Blues and 17 times for the Whites.”27
Fierce partisanship ruled the day and the disposition of crowds was a mixed bag: those delirious with joy might be seated close to those seething with anger and disappointment. Young vandals with a special talent for crude and incendiary taunts riled both the competitors and spectators. The “factions,” fan clubs or sport associations with distinct political ties and passionately devoted to their “colors,” had especially notorious reputations for violence. Spectator riots were not uncommon, certainly more common at the races than at the decidedly more violent gladiatorial contests. Gambling was as pervasive as was drunkenness; more than one drunken fan made the fatal mistake of running onto the track during a race. Like the hooligans that disrupt modern European soccer, they “fought with their throats in the hippodrome and occasionally with knives in the streets.” On at least one occasion a brawl in the stands left 3000 Blues dead, killed by Green hoodlums known as “citizen burners,” whose morbid mantra of “burn here, burn there, not a Blue left anywhere” was as familiar to circus crowds as “kill the ump” is to modern baseball fans.28
The races were immersed in almost unspeakable luxury. Successful charioteers reaped vast fortunes for the risks they took in the circus. One Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who took part in over 4000 races in a twenty year career, is reported to have earned nearly 36 million sesterti in his career. The annual pay for a soldier, by comparison, was 900 sesterti. While critics complained about the outrageous sums earned by drivers, they idolized them just the same, even to the point where one grief stricken fan is reported to have thrown himself on the funeral pyre of his favorite driver. But eventually the prize money and the elaborate entertainments proved too costly for the promoters. With the passing of time the ceremonies and ancillary entertainments (cheaper than the races) began to overshadow the actual competitions. By the 12th century they were simply too expensive for anyone to sponsor.29
Religious ceremony, especially the imperial cult of the Emperor, formed a significant part of the racing spectacles. Elaborate pre-race ceremonies featured a procession of the gods (pompa circensis) with hoisted images of Roman deities. In the second century, the Temple of the Sun bordered the racing grounds in honor of The Imperial Sun God who was the patron saint of the circus and chariot races. The cult remained an important element in the imperial ceremony and continued well into the eleventh century. Religious processions became so important that by the third century they consumed as much time and attention as the races themselves. On the track where the fires of competition burned hot, religion and magic became a tool for honing the competitive edge. Many charioteers, desperate for a win, were ill content merely to seek the blessing of their gods; additional insurance was sought on the dark side. An ominous inscription by one charioteer bears testimony to the earnestness of the supplicants: “torture and kill the horses of the Greens and Whites, and… kill in a crash their drivers Clarus, Felix, Primulus and Romanus, and leave not a breath in their bodies.”30
Greeks and Romans, like many people today, simply were unable to imagine life without sport spectacles. Not a great deal of thought was given to the moral issues raised by the competitions; the games were simply there, always had been and probably always would be. From the vantage point of the 21st century, gladiatorial contests, heavy athletics, and chariot racing may stand out as obvious targets of moral outrage, but for the Romans and Greeks, eminently reasonable people in their own right, they represented parts of glamorous and glorious traditions, albeit indelicate at times. Even highly cultured individuals such as Cicero and Pliny the Younger defended the gladiatorial games on the grounds that they encouraged bravery and contempt for pain and death, traits which would come in handy on the battlefields. Senses had become so numbed it may have been impossible for the average Roman to feel sympathy for those who suffered and died in the course of furnishing their entertainments. An indication as to how “naturally” the games were taken by ancients can be seen in the letters of Symmachus, a late fourth century Roman who didn’t have a reputation for being a harsh person, yet in reporting the suicides of some Saxons he was having groomed to fight in the arena, his letters show only how sorry he felt for himself, not at all for the Saxons. Seneca and some of his contemporaries might have complained that they returned home from the spectacles “more covetous, more ambitious, more self-indulgent…crueler and more inhuman for having been amongst my fellow man,” but they were clearly in the minority, pointy-headed intellectuals who obviously didn’t know good fun when they saw it.31
An Ambivalent Laity
The attitude of the average Christian convert toward sport spectacles has been described as “one of fanatical antipathy,” but “ambivalent and irresolute” is probably a more accurate characterization. Surely the Greek “admiration for the uninhibited and unbridled assertion of self” couldn’t be embraced by early Christians who were in the process of learning how to adapt their lives to the severe teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet it seems clear that early Christians struggled in deciding how much of the old way of life should be left behind and how much could be continued without marring their Christian witness. Judging from the tirades of church Fathers, more than a few, especially in the second, third, and fourth centuries, were sneaking off to the amphitheater, hippodrome and stadium. Gladiatorial contests and wild beast shows may have been, as a historian notes, “a Christian’s worst nightmare,” yet it must also be remembered that the early faith attracted people from all walks of life, including many who were accustomed to attending athletic events and gladiatorial shows. Some no doubt had been sport promoters, athletes, gladiators, and charioteers prior to their conversions. Just as some early Christians volunteered for the Roman army with its long calendar of pagan sacrifices, so too we must suspect that some remained patrons of the sport spectacles. “We should allow once again,” says historian Robin Fox, “for Christians who were ready to compromise to a degree which their leaders’ moral sermons would not contemplate.”32
In light of this, a range of opinions about the public sport spectacles most likely characterized the early Christian laity. New converts felt pulled in two directions: by cultural traditions and the excitement of the arena on one hand, and by the stern warnings of Christian ecclesiastics on the other. St. Augustine of Hippo, who regarded the gladiatorial contests as “licensed cruelty,” tells of his friend, Alypius, who gave up the games when he became a Christian, but on one occasion was enticed to the arena by friends. Overcome by guilt, Alypius put his hands over his face and refused to look. Yet, before long, the atmosphere got the best of him and soon he was shouting and roaring with the crowd. Surely Alypius was not alone. Many who had attended the spectacles on a regular basis before their conversion probably found that excising these pastimes from their lifestyles was not easily done.33
Some Jewish converts’ former separatist tradition had already forbidden attendance at spectacles, not simply on grounds of the pagan rites and nudity of the athletes (which violated Mosaic Law), but because sports were blatantly Hellenistic, a dangerous threat to Jewish ethical codes and customs. However, there is reason to think that this belief did not hold for all or even most of the Jewish population. The eminent Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria, for example, is known to have frequented the athletic contests of his day, often offering critical and informed commentary on them. He also was known to have attended the chariot races. The late H.A. Harris, remarking on the enormity of the influence of Greek culture on Jewish perceptions of sport, pointed out that the nudity of the contestants may not have been as objectionable to Jews as historians have imagined. Some Palestinian Jews as well as those scattered throughout the region had been attending and even participating in athletic contests as early as two centuries before Christ. If the Macccabean story of an unscrupulous high priest of the second century is true, even the priesthood had difficulty resisting the addictive pulls of sports. Jason was the leader of a pro-Hellenist faction in Jerusalem who, in an effort to facilitate the integration of the Greek and Jewish cultures did an unthinkable thing: he erected a gymnasium in Jerusalem, “enrolled the most influential young men and ‘brought them under the Greek hat.’” It was an immediate success, attracting Jewish priests who “no longer showed any zeal for the offices of the sacrifices, and were anxious to share the unlawful facilities of the palestra in their keenness to challenge one another in throwing the discus.”34
In a brief play written by a second century Roman lawyer named Minutius Felix Marcus, the heathen Caecelius accuses Christians of being dullards by saying, “you have no concern in public displays; you reject the public banquets and abhor the sacred games” (italics added). Octavius acknowledges the claims and explains that Christians object to the games on two grounds: the pagan worship associated with the games, and the fact that the games “purvey and stimulate immorality.” 35 Shunning sports in a sport-mad society earned many early Christians reputations as kill-joys. “The world hates the Christian,” said the second century author of the Epistle to Diogenes, “though it receiveth no wrong from them, because they set themselves against its pleasures.” The early Christian lawyer and apologist Tertullian, an arch-critic of the sports of his times, thought abstaining from popular sport spectacles was the hallmark of a believer. 36
For some, ridding their lifestyles of sporting spectacles could be a defining moment in their religious lives. Thascius Cyprian, a third-century lawyer who became a Christian in mid-life (he called himself “a born again Christian”) gave up his practice and sold most of his property to help the Christian poor. Looking back on his life he was able to connect the change in his moral convictions as having been provoked by his shunning of displays of riches and the gladiatorial shows. In some cases this change in conviction happened so quickly that it raised suspicions, as for example those of early church father St. Jerome who once observed that the converts who were “yesterday in the amphitheater, (were) today in the church; (who) in the evening (were) at the circus (are) in the morning at the altar.” 37
A Hostile Clergy
In spite of the laity’s lingering fascination with the sport spectacles of their day, there was little doubt where Christian leaders stood on the issue. Preachers and apologists consistently thundered against “the circus, the race-course, the contest of athletes…which the Devil introduced into the world under the pretext of amusement, and through which he leads the souls of men to perdition.”38 In the authoritative words of historian Ernest Renan, “one of the most profound sentiments of the primitive Christians, and one too which produced the most extended results, was detestation of the theater, the stadium and the gymnasium—that is to say, of all the public resorts which gave its distinctive character to a Grecian or Roman city.” Another historian notes that “actors, musicians, dancers, and athletes were ranked together with prostitutes, astrologers, and diviners by Christian thinkers and rejected outright as representatives of the immorality, idolatry, depravity, and inhumanity characterized by such entertainments.” 39 The Apostolic Constitutions compiled in the third century urged Christians to avoid “indecent spectacles such as the theater and public sports,” and forbade baptism, church membership, and communion to those who frequented the amphitheater. Gladiators and fencing masters who taught how to kill were not to be baptized into the faith until they promised to give up their professions; and the canons of the Council of Arles in 314 AD specifically forbade Christians to associate with gladiators or charioteers.40
Preachers found it especially difficult to imagine newly converted Christians ambling comfortably among the scores of burning altars at the Greek athletic contests or sitting with a clear conscience as the procession of the gods passed by in the circus. Novation, an early 3rd century theologian, fired off a stern warning to early Christians who, he was shocked to discover, were unashamedly attending the games. “Sacred scripture condemns the spectacles,” he said, “because idolatry is the source of all the public games. How incongruous it is for a faithful Christian, who has renounced the devil at baptism, to renounce Christ at the games!” It wasn’t only idolatry that bothered Novation; he was equally critical of the immorality and brutality of the games, the strife and discord that they fomented among spectators, and the immoral climate that spawned including “wanton licentiousness, public vice, and notorious lechery.” These same two themes—idolatry and immorality—figured prominently in the writings of the Apostle Paul, who condemned the Corinthian practice of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor.8: 1-13), possibly to Zeus at the Isthmian games that were held at Corinth. Historian Richard DeVoe allows that the Apostle Paul’s dennounciation of “debauchery, idolatry and withcraft…drunkenness, orgies, and the like” as behaviors that will bar people from the kingdom of God in Galatians 5:19-21, his warning to the Corinthians not to indulge in pagan revelry (I Cor 10:7), and Peter’s warning against living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, and detestable idolatry all might have been aimed at the popular games. Beginning in the last half of the second century the church fathers preached unremittingly against Christian attendance of the games.41
For many church leaders, the sport spectacles represented in a microcosm all that was wrong with Roman society. They were paradigms of excess and extravagance, shallowness and sensuousness, selfishness and self-gratification. Church fathers often used the incredible story of Kleomedes, a famous Green athlete who was said to have killed his opponent using an illegal blow that tore open his rib cage, not simply to condemn athletics but to condemn the whole of pagan society.42 The brutality of the amphitheater was vilified, not simply because of the pain and suffering it caused the gladiators, but because of its pernicious effect on those who watched. There was an abiding concern about the capacity of fanaticism and consumption of violent displays to erode the reasonableness and humility that was seen as a hallmark of Christian demeanor. For example, Cassidorus, Christian secretary to Emperor Theodosius, viewed the frenzy of the circus as incompatible with the Christian spirit:
The spectacle drives out sound morality and invites childish factiousness, it banishes honesty and it is an unfailing source of riots… most remarkable of all, in these beyond all other spectacles men’s minds are carried away by excitement without any regard for dignity and sobriety. Green takes the lead and half the crowd is plunged into gloom. Blue passes him, and a great mass of citizens suffer the torments of the damned. They cheer wildly with no useful result; they suffer nothing but are cut to the heart. 43
But no early Christian leader so elegantly and systematically showed how and why sports of the times the sports should be brought into judgment by Christians as did Tertullian, a late second century ecclesiastic writer, lawyer, and apologist who had undisguised ascetic leanings. His De Spectaculis stands as the most explicit and harsh denunciation of sports in the early Christian era. In blunt and uncompromising prose, Tertullian considered arguments put forth by some in the Christian community to justify their attendance at the games and rebutted them like the skilled lawyer that he was:
The games bring enjoyment. God is not offended by people enjoying themselves so it is perfectly legitimate to gain pleasure by attending the spectacles. (I, 233)
The games are products of God’s creation. Since all things are part of God’s creation, they cannot be hostile to Him. This includes the horse, the lion, the strength of the athlete’s body, and the cement and marble of the stadium. (II, 237)
Scripture doesn’t specifically forbid attendance at the spectacles. (IX, p. 270; XV p.271; XVI, 273)
God looks on the games and is not defiled, neither will Christians be defiled merely by watching. (XXI, 283; XX 281)
As for the athletic events, Tertullian condemned the gambling that was rampant, and he found the violence in boxing and wrestling (and no doubt the pancratium) incompatible with the Christian view of the body as the object of God’s creation (XVIII, 277). Taking a passing shot at running, throwing, and jumping competitions as “idle (or frivolous) feats,” he believed wrestling to be intrinsically devilish (IVIII, 277). Quaint though his perception of wrestling might have been, Tertullian possessed keen insight into the nature of sports of his day, a perception shaped no doubt by many years of attending prior to his middle-aged conversion.44
When such blasts from the pulpit proved ineffective in stemming the public craze for sports, more extreme action was taken. In one of the more grizzly protests of this sort an obscure Syrian monk named Telemachus traveled to Rome from the desert in the early fifth century where he attempted to halt the gladiatorial shows single-handedly. He managed to make it to the floor of the Coliseum, thrust himself between two battling gladiators and commanded them to stop “in the name of Christ Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Incensed by the rude interruption the spectators stoned him to death.45
Again, Tertullian didn’t speak for all Christians of his age and especially for those in succeeding centuries. The large-scale Christianization of society in the late third and fourth centuries would lead to a dulling of the sharp distinction between the attitudes and lifestyles of believers and pagans with respect to many aspects of popular culture. “The question of what it was that defined a Christian had never been easy to answer,” says historian R.A. Markus, “but it had become especially troubling in an age when Christianity seemed to have become so easy.” Some Christians probably always had attended the games and races, but with the passing of a century or two, visiting the circus and arenas became more accepted in Christian circles. How else is one to explain a Phrygian inscription dating to the third century that tells of a wealthy Christian who paid for the expense of city games, or historical records showing that in Eumenia a Christian athlete named “Helix” had won prizes in pagan games extending from Asia to southern Italy, or Christian emperor Constantine’s decision to allow the inhabitants of a town in Italy to honor him by sponsoring sport spectacles?46
And there is the curious story of Hilarion, the third century charismatic Christian ascetic who lived as a hermit in the desert who was said to have performed miraculous faith healings. According to Jerome, this pillar of the faith not only applied his faith healing to heal a charioteer’s neck which had been stiffened by racing, he agreed to bless the racing horse of a prominent charioteer in Gaza whose opponent was said to be amassing wins by using a sorcerer to curse his opponents. According to Jerome, Hilarion gave a blessing to the horses, their stables and the racecourse and next time out they romped home to resounding Christian cheers. “The decisive victory in those games and many others later,” said Jerome, “caused very many people to turn to the faith.” If these records are indeed true (Jerome was the only historical source) history may duly record Hilarion as the first Christian chaplain to sports and his protégé charioteer as the first athlete evangelist.47
The ultimate demise of the Greek athletics probably occurred not so much as a result of Christian condemnation as of a declining economy and the waning of interest in the religion with which they were associated. Wild beast shows continued to be popular even under the rule of some Christian emperors, and the chariot races continued well into the 11th century, long after Christians had assumed political power and engineered feeble attempts to Christianize them (see chapter 3). There is no doubt that by five centuries after Christ, Christianity had impacted the races, but despite the protests of ecclesiastics, it never brought down the final curtain on them. In the end, the spectacles simply became too costly to sponsor. And while Christian influence no doubt played a significant role in the eventual demise of gladiatorial shows, there also is reason to believe that even against this most outrageous of sports, the church proved to be a weak moderator of public opinion. Constantine banned gladiatorial games in 325 AD, but there is evidence that they continued to be popular in the western Empire into the early decades of the 5th century. 48
Was Paul a sports aficionado?
In the minds of many in the modern Christian community, Paul’s use of rich athletic imagery suggests that he may have not been as critical of sports as were his progeny of the second and third centuries. The evangelical athletic community has interpreted his heavily reliance on athletic metaphors as an apostolic blessings on the sports and games of his day, and by extension, justification for their involvement in popular sports today. Evangelical athletes find inspiration in the passages; it isn’t uncommon, for example, for them to sport T-shirts emblazoned with athletic imagery from Philippians 3:14 (“I press toward the mark for the high calling of God in Jesus Christ”) or II Tim. 4:7 (“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”)49
Citing Paul’s use of athletic language in order to justify involvement in sports is hardly a modern Christian invention. Third century church leader Novatian was dismayed when some of his contemporaries sorted through scripture in a frantic attempt to justify their attendance at the games. They questioned why they shouldn’t be allowed to attend the races at the hippodrome when Elijah had driven a chariot. And if the Apostle “paints for us the picture of a boxing match and of our own wrestling against the spiritual forces of wickedness…Why then should a faithful Christian not be at liberty to be a spectator of things that the divine Writings are at liberty to mention?” But Novation tells his readers that the Apostle’s references are merely exhortations to practice virtue, “not concessions to attend pagan spectacles and enjoy base pleasures,” and wonders if “it would have been far better for such people to lack (any) knowledge of the Scriptures than to read them in such a manner.” But this doesn’t answer the question of why would Paul have used these athletic figures of speech unless he, in contrast to the church leaders that followed in his wake, was a proponent of popular sports50
First, a quick review of the athletic passages in Paul’s writing.51 The most elaborate applications of this athletic language refer to the events of the stadium, especially running. In I Corinthians 9:24-26 where Paul urges his readers to exert greater effort in running “the race,” he draws a parallel between the self renunciation required in his ministry and that required of athletes who compete for prizes in the stadium and in verse 27 shifts to the metaphor of boxing to make the point that his own desires are not to stand in the way of the spiritual war. He uses the technical term hypopiazo (“I give it the fist blow under the eye: I beat my body and defeat it.”) In Philippians 3:12-14 the Apostle, again in the context of an apology for his ministry, uses the athletic metaphor of a runner to illustrate the critical importance of the goal for which he is striving in his ministry. In other passages he speaks of having finished his race and adhered to the course set for him by God (Acts 20:24; II Tim 4:7). In Romans 9:16 Paul reminds readers that salvation comes not merely by wishing or running, but by mercy bestowed by God. A reference to running in Gal 2:2 mentions his not having run in vain, and again in Phil 2:16, Paul notes that he “did not run or labor in vain,” where some scholars believe the word used for labor refers to an athlete’s training.52 In Galatians 5:7 he mentions that although he has been running well, someone has broken the rules, fouled him, and caused him to stumble, and in II Tim 2:5 he urges Timothy to endure hardships and to keep from becoming tangled in worldly affairs, reminding him that a man (athlete) is not crowned unless he runs according to the rules.
Other metaphors employ language referring to the training done by athletes (e.g. Acts 24:16) and to umpires that supervised competition, urging believers to “let the peace of Christ “umpire” in their hearts (Col 3:15). He contrasts athletes’ corruptible crowns, with the much more enduring crowns of righteousness for believers (I Cor 9:24-25). In Phil 4:1 the thought of reward is more prominent where Paul describes the Philippians as “the wreath” with which he himself will be crowned if they stand firm, for they will be living proof that he had neither run nor trained in vain. In 2 Tim 4:8 he uses terms for both reward and umpire in stating that “there is laid up for me (as on the ivory and golden table at Olympia) a wreath of righteousness, which the Lord, the umpire who makes no mistakes, will award me on that day.” Chariot racing, not running, is thought to be the sport envisioned in Philippians 3:13-14 where Paul talks of forgetting what has gone on before and “straining forward” to what lies ahead, “I drive on toward the finishing line.”53
The gladiatorial contest forms the basis of yet other metaphors. In I Cor.15:32 Paul claims to have fought wild beasts in Ephesus, reminding his readers that he would not have done so if he didn’t believe in the promise of eternal life to believers. He appeals to Philippian Christians to “stand firm” in one spirit, contending together as one for the faith of the gospel, thought to be a clear reference to gladiatorial contests. Like those thrown into the arena to face the beasts, Christians are condemned to fight for their lives (or their faith). And, in Phil:1:30 he describes himself engaging in a “contest” with his readers, and again, in 4:3, speaks of certain women who had once fought side by side with him in the cause of the gospel, all thought to be drawing on gladiatorial imagery. Commentators have also pointed out subtle references to gladiators in Philippians 1:28, Romans 3:6; 15:30, and 2 Cor 4:8-9.54
On the basis of Paul’s plentiful athletic metaphors it is tempting to assume that he was predisposed to the sports of his day. The definitive work on Paul’s athletic metaphors remains Victor Pfitzner’s St Paul and the Agon Motif, a painstakingly thorough examination of the literary, historical, philosophical, and theological context in which Paul’s athletic language was used. Pfitzner contends that the athletic terminology had long lost any direct association with athletic contexts by the time it appears in Paul’s epistles. In this respect it would not be unlike metaphors used by contemporary sports fans and critics alike. “Make sure you touch base with me (baseball),” “I struck out” on the exam (baseball) “Do an end run” around the committee (football), “go an extra round” (boxing), or “take a rain check” (baseball) all derive from sports, yet they are so far removed from their original context that those using them rarely appreciate their connection to sports. The athletic metaphors used by Paul were “very much in the air” so that he undoubtedly would have grown up with them or acquired them in his discussions with street corner philosophers who roamed the Mediterranean world or perhaps in his many contacts with Greek-speaking synagogues. The metaphors were so common, claims Pfitzner, that “it is not hard to imagine that any Hellenistic Jew could have either written or understood them without himself having gained a firsthand knowledge of the games from a bench in the stadium.” Because the metaphors Paul used had long been dissociated from actual athletic experience, along with Paul’s background as an educated Pharisee who identified with the Palestinian Jews’ “deep lying abhorrence (of) Greek athletics and gymnastics as typical of heathendom…” Pfitzner concludes that “one must question Paul’s so-called love for, and familiarity with Greek sports!” Even more problematic was how Paul could have blended an image that glorified the Greek ideal of agon, with its spirit of self-assertion and human achievement, with a theological system that repeatedly underscored human insufficiency and divine grace.62
It is possible, even likely, that Paul played sports informally in his youth. It is conceivable, though highly improbable, that he maintained an interest in the public games during his ministry. In light of the pagan religious ceremonies that were part of the games, and the sharp contrasts between the atmosphere and ethos of Greco-Roman competition and Paul’s exhortation to the spiritual life, it seems more likely that he shared the largely negative views of influential church leaders who followed in his wake.
In summing up the story of Christianity’s first encounter with popular sport it is important to point out that the historical record contains no evidence of early church authorities having condemned sports played informally; the essential acts of moving, striving, contesting, and developing skill for purposes of enjoyment never came under attack. It seems likely that early Christians played an assortment of informal games prior to and following their conversion, surely as children but perhaps as adults as well. But sports made part of grand entertainment spectacles were another matter entirely. To those in the vanguard of the faith, the major sport palaces of the day were off limits to Christians. Early Christian leaders were not nearly as concerned about the effects of sport on the participants (since most weren’t Christians) as they were its effects on the minds, souls, and dispositions of those who watched. They were careful, critical observers of sport, arguably more critical than the Christian community is today. They saw how sport spectacles so often appealed to baser human instincts and softened Christian resolve against not only pagan religious sentiments but also the underlying worldview that defined the essence of Greek and Roman culture. To the early fathers, watching the games risked blurring the lines that distinguished the new faith from the old religion.
Secondly, the church took seriously its stand against sport and other public entertainments. How one integrated sports into his or her lifestyle represented a kind of litmus test for measuring Christian commitment. “It is above all things from this,” said Tertullian, “that they (the pagans) understand a man to have become a Christian that he will have nothing to do with the games.” Third, from the beginning popular sport proved to be a divisive issue, not only in setting Christians apart from their pagan neighbors, but in fomenting dissention among the Christian community as well. Early Christian leaders may have been united in the belief that the sport spectacles of the day were incompatible with the teachings of Christ, but apparently, rank-and-file believers weren’t so sure. Thus, in taking a position against sport, clerics and church authorities set themselves apart not only from the secular sports promoters but from part of the early Christian community as well. Almost from the outset it was clear that the church and the laity would be locked in a long battle over sports, and given the public’s unquenchable thirst for sport spectacles, it was a contest the church was destined to lose.