By Kevin O’Shea C.Ss.R
Some questions may be asked about the Olympic Games, and about possible biblical and Christian connections with them.
A culture of manual labour and Sabbath rest
The Jews had a culture of manual labour and Sabbath rest, but they had no culture of the body or of bodily games. They were family oriented, not spectacle oriented. In the first century, indeed, in the lifetime of Jesus, there were some amphitheatres in Palestine, built by the Romans. The Jews usually looked on these buildings as an insult. There was one being built in Sepphoris, near Nazareth, when Jesus was young. There is no way to prove it, but he may have even worked with the Nazareth men-folk on the building site for it. Jesus never went to Olympic Games.
A culture of the body, of physical strength and games
The Greeks did have a culture of the body, of physical strength, of games, and of Olympic Games. There is evidence of Olympics in Greece in 776 bce. They took place from that time every 14 years till the year 394 BCE. They lapsed then for some time, and revived later. They were originally a one-day occasion. On that day, there was originally only one event, a footrace the length of the stadium. Later, other events were added: discus, javelin, broad jump, boxing, wrestling, pentathlon, chariot races. There were religious rituals connected with the occasion.
The only competitors were Greeks, but they came from all provinces. A truce was declared in all local wars for that period of time! No women were permitted to be there, either as participants or as spectators, but the priestesses of Demeter were there for the religious rituals. Only amateurs were allowed to compete. The competitors took an oath of fair play. Kings competed on equal terms with commoners. Winners did not get gold medals, but they got a branch of wild olive round their head. St Paul probably did go to Olympic Games.
Paul may well have gone to the Isthmian Games, held quite close to Corinth every second year, and second in importance to the Olympics.
The Romans too liked games, and in their culture, there were two major times in the year for them. They were late December and late March.
On game day, in the morning there were ‘venationes’ (hunts = fights with wild animals, who were killed by ‘bestiarii’ = beastmen).
At lunchtime, there was public execution of criminals. [The death sentence could occur for threats to private property, to public order, to state security, or to the dignity of the authorities. The authorities (low-level, local) had the right to judge such things. It was a case of state terrorism. In practice, ‘arrest’ meant execution.] Roman citizens were executed with one stroke of the sword. Slaves were fed to beasts, or crucified, or burnt at the stake.
In the afternoon, there were gladiators in combat. Often they had to play the part of some tragic myth figure. Christian martyrs were often killed at these games.
Sometimes these games were held at a cemetery to ‘console’ the dead… Cruelty was worse outside of Rome, in the provinces.
The XXXI Olympiad and the Rio games of 2016
The present Olympic Games were revived in 1896 and have continued every 4 years until now, with the exception of the years of the world wars. In 2016 they games are in Rio, Brazil.
St.Paul often used sporting metaphors. He mentions the ‘crown’ given to a winner (in Greek, stephanos). You could translate it nowadays as ‘gold medal’. He talks about ‘a gold medal to boast about’. He tells the Galatians that they have lost their enthusiasm, when ‘they were running nicely’. Etc.
Quotes from St Paul referring to the Games
1 Corinthians 9: 24-27
All the runners at the stadium are trying to win, but only one of them gets the prize. You must run in the same way, meaning to win. All the fighters at the games go into strict training; they do this just to win a wreath that will wither away, but we do it for a wreath that will never wither. That is how I run, intent on winning; that is how I fight, not beating the air. I treat my body hard and make it obey me, for, having been an announcer myself, I should not want to be disqualified.
You began your race well....
I can assure you, my brothers, that I am far from thinking that I have already won. All I can say is that I forget the past, and I strain ahead for what is still to come; I am racing for the finish, for the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Christ Jesus.>
2 Tim 4: 7-8
I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that Day...
Happy the man who stands firm when trials come! He has proved himself, and will win the prize of life, the crown that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
Do not be afraid of the sufferings that are coming to you; I tell you, the devil is going to send some of you to prison to test you, and you must face an ordeal for ten days...
But the virtuous live forever, their recompense lies with the Lord, the Most High takes care of them. So they receive the royal crown of splendor, the diadem of beauty from the hand of the Lord...
Cf. Nicholas King, St.Paul and the Olympic Games, Thinking Faith, July 24, 2012