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The public games of Greece and Rome were familiar to the Christians and non-Christians of the first century, providing the NT writers with rich source material to illustrate spiritual truths. Condemned criminals were thrown to lions in the arena as punishment and for sport. In
GAMES. Though many amusements, entertainments, diversions, and games were known in the Near E in Bible times, there are, however, few references to them in the Bible. In interpreting the activities of the ancients, it is often difficult to distinguish sacred and secular, ritual and amusement. Furthermore, entertainment ranged from the enjoyment of fine arts to the sadistic pleasure of the physical torture of captives or slaves, from the refined performances in the Gr. theater to the cruel gladiatorial contests of Rome. Since material is considerable from antiquity concerning amusements—but little relating directly to the Bible—it is best to sketch ancient amusements generally and to note relevant Bible passages.
Children love to play. The prophet Zechariah described prosperity and peace as a time when “the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets” (
Adult amusement: active sports.
It appears that in Pal., hunting and fishing were means of livelihood rather than recreation. As a shepherd, David defended his flock against incursions of predatory animals, killing marauding bears and lions by hand (
Swimming was practiced, apparently as a practical skill and not as a recreation. In the Bible, swimming is mentioned (
Competitive athletics existed from very early times, but found its greatest development in the Gr. games (see Athlete, Athletics). Wrestling, in particular, was well-known; evidence for it comes from both Mesopotamia and Egypt. In Egypt hundreds of wrestling groups are shown in the tomb art (see Wrestle). Running, boxing, rowing, archery, and singlestick, or wandfighting, were also known. Participation often appears to be associated with the military or religion, and little of competitive sport could be called amusement for the participants. There is evidence from Medinet Habu and elsewhere that such competitions were performed to entertain the king and officials, or as part of the celebration of religious-political festivals.
In the OT, runners are mentioned as bearers of messages for the army or the king (cf.
Dancing and various acrobatic or rhythmic movements were associated with religious ritual, festivals, and even funerals. Miriam and the Israelite women played timbrels and danced after the Israelites crossed the sea (
Various forms of ball playing were practiced in Egypt; women are shown taking part in such games at Beni Hasan. Possibly there was even a form of ritual in which a ball was struck with a stick or club. Playing ball is not mentioned in the Bible, though a reference to a ball appears (
Sedentary, or inactive games.
Sedentary games are widely evidenced throughout the Near E, esp. board games of various kinds. Beautiful gaming boards and boxes have been found, as well as informal playing squares crudely scratched on flat rock surfaces. Playing draughts appears in the Book of Gates and is represented in the funerary art. Scenes at the High Gate of Medinet Habu show Ramses III and female members of his family indulging in such play. The representation of the playing board is found even in hieroglyphic writing as the biliteral sign mn.
Dice were used for determining moves in certain board games. The casting of lots is often referred to in the Bible, but always as a means of making decisions, whether of identity, procedure, or possession. Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus cast lots for His seamless tunic (
Spectator, or passive amusements.
The ancients were apparently more inclined to participate than to watch, but one may suppose that there were many spectators who observed religious ceremonies and royal festivities, with their attendant entertainment. The Philistines who congregated at the temple of Dagon in Gaza called for Samson to be brought to provide entertainment for them (
People enjoyed hearing stories told, and eloquent speeches were appreciated, as in the Egyp. story of the Eloquent Peasant (cf.
Magicians amused people in ancient Egypt, as the Papyrus Westcar shows, but the Egypt. magicians mentioned in the Bible were involved in serious matters (cf.
Throughout the ancient Near E, banquets were held for entertainment. Many banquet scenes are shown in the Egyp. tombs, and many references to feasts appear in the Bible. Participants enjoyed abundant food and drink—sometimes to excess—and were entertained by dancers and musicians. Such entertainment was common at Egyp. banquets, and it is evident that Salome’s dancing at the celebration of Herod’s birthday pleased the viewers (
Music was an important diversion of antiquity. The ancients, like their modern descendants, were well aware of melody and rhythm. The beat of the drum or the clapping of hands, the playing of flute, trumpet, or stringed instruments, and the use of the human voice are clearly represented in the tomb art and well documented in the Biblical lit. (cf.
The Hellenization of the Near E introduced many Gr. amusements. Hippodromes, stadiums, and theaters sprang up as Gr. culture pervaded the earlier lands of the Bible. The NT missionary efforts enlarged the immediate geography of the Biblical narrative and widened its cultural horizons as well. Paul alluded to the Gr. athletic games (see nodetitle). He also declared that the apostles had been made a θέατρον, G2519, (“a theater, a spectacle”) “to the world, to angels, and to men” (
E. Falkener, Games Ancient and Oriental (1892); I. Lexova, Ancient Egyptian Dances (1935); H. Hickmann, 45 siècles de musique dans l’Égypte ancienne (1956); C. De Vries, Attitudes of the Ancient Egyptians toward Physical-Recreative Activities (unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, 1960). Hickmann, Musikgeschichte in Bildern. Ägypten (1961).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
I. ISRAELITISH GAMES
1. Children’s Games
3. Games of Chance and Skill
II. THE GAMES OF GREECE AND ROME
1. Historical Introduction
2. General References
3. Specific References to Greek Athletics
4. References to the Theater and the Drama
About the amusements of the ancient Israelites we know but little, partly on account of the nature of our literary sources, which are almost exclusively religious, partly because the antiquities thus far discovered yield very little information on this topic as compared with those of some other countries, and partly because of the relatively serious character of the people. Games evidently took a less prominent place in Hebrew life than in that of the Greeks, the Romans and the Egyptians. Still the need for recreation was felt and to a certain extent supplied in ways according with the national temperament. Mere athletics (apart from Greek and Roman influence) were but little cultivated. Simple and natural amusements and exercises, and trials of wit and wisdom, were more to the Hebrew taste. What is known or probably conjectured may be summed up under the following heads: Games of Children; Sports; Games of Chance and Skill; Story-telling; Dancing; Proverbs; Riddles. The amusements of Greece and Rome, which to some extent influenced later Jewish society and especially those which are directly or indirectly referred to in the, will be theme of the latter part of the article.
I. Israelite Games
1. Children’s Games:
There are two general references to the playing of children:
There are interesting accounts in Les enfants de Nazareth, by the Abbe Le Camus (60-66; 101-10), of the way in which the children of the modern Nazareth mimic scenes connected with weddings and funerals. That Israelite children had toys (dolls, models of animals, etc.) cannot be doubted in view of the finds in Egypt and elsewhere, but no positive evidence seems to be as yet forthcoming.
Archery practice is implied in the story of Jonathan’s touching interview with David (
High leaping or jumping was probably also practiced (
3. Games of Chance and Skill:
Dice were known to the ancient Egyptians, and Assyrian dice have been found, made of bronze with points of gold, but there is no trace of them in the Old Testament. Recent research at Ta`-annek has brought to light many bones which seem to have been used in somewhat the same way as in a game played by the modern Arabs, who call it ka`ab, the very word they apply to dice. These bones were "the oldest and most primitive form of dice" (Konig after Sellin, RE3, XVIII, 634). The use of dice among the later Jews is attested by the condemnation of dice-players in the Mishna (Sanh., iii. 3). The Syrian soldiers who cast lots for the raiment of Jesus at the cross (
It has been suggested that the mockery of Jesus before the Sanhedrin described in
Listening to stories or recitations has long been a favorite amusement of Orientals (compare Lane, Modern Egyptians, 359-91: "The Thousand and One Nights"), but there seems to be no reference to it in the Bible. There can be no reasonable doubt, however, that the Hebrews, like their neighbors, had story-tellers or reciters, axed heard them with delight. Egyptian tales of great antiquity are well known from the two volumes edited by Professor Petrie in 1895; and there are several non- canonical Jewish tales which combine romance and moral teaching: the Books of Tobit and Judith and perhaps the Story of Ahikar, the last of which, with the help of the Aramaic papyri discovered at Elephantine, can be traced back (in some form) to about 400 BC (Schurer, GJ V4, III, 255). There are also many short stories in the Haggadic portions of the Talmud and the Midrash.
It was probably usual to welcome a king or general with music and dancing. There is a good illustration in a fine Assyrian sculpture in the British Museum which represents a band of 11 instrumentalists taking part in doing homage to a new ruler. Three men at the head of the procession are distinctly dancing (SBOT, "Psalms," English, 226).
If the Mishna can be trusted (Cukkah, v.4), there was a torch-light dance in the temple in the illuminated court of the women at thein which men of advanced years and high standing took part. The Gemara to the Jerusalem Talmud adds that a famous dancer on these occasions was Rabbi Simeon or Simon, the son of Gamaliel, who lived in the apostolic age (Josephus, BJ, IV, iii, 9). According to another passage (Ta`anith 4 8) the daughters of Jerusalem used to dance dressed in white in the vineyards on Tishri the 10th and Abib the 15th. Religious dancing in the modern East is illustrated not only by the dances of the dervishes mentioned above, but also by occasional dances led by the sheikh in honor of a saint (Curtiss, Primitive Semitic Religion Today, 169). Among the later Jews dancing was not unusual at wedding feasts. More than one eminent rabbi is said to have danced before the bride (Kethubboth 17a). Singing and dancing, with lighted torches, are said to be wedding customs of the modern Arabs.
Arts. "Dance" in Smith DB2, HDB, DCG, EB, Jew Encyclopedia (also "Games"); "Tanz" in RE3 and the German Dictionaries of Winer, Riehm, and Guthe (Reigen); Nowack, HA, I, 278 f.
Proverbs (mashal; paroimia) : Proverbs and proverbial expressions seem to have been, to some extent, a means of amusement as well as instruction for the ancient Oriental who delighted in the short, pointed statement of a moral or religious truth, or a prudential maxim, whether of literary or popular origin. Most of these sayings in the Bible belong to the former class, and are couched in poetic form (see PROVERBS; ECCLESIASTES; ECCLESIASTICUS). The others which are shorter and simpler, together with a number of picturesque proverbial phrases, must have recurred continually in daily speech and have added greatly to its vivacity.
The Old Testament supplies the following 10 examples of the popular proverb:
(1) "Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before Yahweh" (
(2) "As the man is, so is his strength" (
(3) "Is Saul also among the prophets?" (
(4) "Out of the wicked (wicked men) cometh forth wickedness" (
(5) "There are the blind and the lame; he cannot come into the house" (
(6) "Let not him that girdeth on his armor boast himself as he that putteth it off" (
(7) "Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life" (
(8) "The days are prolonged, and every vision faileth" (
(9) "As is the mother, so is her daughter" (
(10) "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge" (
In the New Testament we find 10 others:
(1) "Physician, heal thyself" (
(2) "Can the blind guide the blind? shall they not both fall into a pit?" (
(3) "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you" (
(4) "One soweth, and another reapeth" (
(5) "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country" (
(6) "There are yet four months, and then cometh the harvest" (
(7) "Wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles (m "vultures") be gathered together" (
(8) "It is hard for thee to kick against the goad" (
(9) "The dog turning to his own vomit again, and the sow that had washed to wallowing in the mire" (
(10) "Ye .... strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel" (
See also PROVERBS.
In addition to works already mentioned Konig, Stilistik, etc., DCG ("Jesus’ Use of Proverbs"); Murray, DB, article "Proverbs"; Cohen, Ancient Jewish Proverbs, 1911.
The most important authority is the above-cited monograph of Wunsche. Konig has an interesting paragraph in his Stilistik, Rhetorik, Poetik, etc., 12 f. Compare also Hamburger, RE, II, 966 ff; articles on "Riddle" in Jew Encyclopedia, Smith’s DB, HDB, larger and smaller; Murray’s DB; Germanof Winer, Riehm2, and Guthe; Rosenmuller, Das alte und neue Morgenland, III. 48 f.
II. The Games of Greece and Rome.
1. Historical Introduction:
This is not the place to give a detailed account of the Greek gymnasia and the elaborate contests for which candidates were prepared in them, or to describe the special forms of sport introduced by the Romans, but these exercises and amusements were so well known in Palestine and throughout thein the time of Christ and the apostles that they cannot be passed over in silence. Some acquaintance with them is absolutely necessary for the interpretation of many passages in the New Testament, especially in the Epistles. Hellenic athletics found their way into Jewish society through the influence of the Greek kingdom ruled over by the Seleucids. Early in the reign of (circa 176 BC) a gymnasium, "place of exercise," was built in Jerusalem (1 Macc 1:14; 2 Macc 4:9,12) and frequented by priests (1 Macc 1:14 f), who are spoken of as "making of no account the honors of their fathers, and thinking the glories of the Greeks best of all." After the success of the Maccabean rising Greek games fell into disrepute among the Jewish population of Palestine, and were thenceforth regarded with suspicion by all strict religionists, even the worldly Josephus sharing the general feeling (Ant., XV, viii, 1). Nevertheless Gentilegames must have been familiar to most in Jerusalem and elsewhere during the Herodian rule and the Roman occupation. Herod the Great built a theater and amphitheater in the neighborhood of the city (Josephus, ibid.; for probable sites, see G.A. Smith, Jerusalem, II, 493), and instituted in the name of Caesar games which included Roman as well as Hellenic sports, celebrated every 5 years. There was also a hippodrome or race-course for horses and chariots, bearing considerable resemblance to the Roman circus (Josephus, Ant, XVII, x, 2; BJ, II, iii, 1). Jericho, too, was provided with a theater, an amphitheater and a hippodrome. There was a hippodrome also at Tarichea. In addition there were scattered over Syria many Hellenic and partially Hellenic cities--Schurer (GJV4, II, 108-221) gives the history of 33--Caesarea Stratonis, , the cities of the Decapolis, Tiberias, etc., which would all have had gymnasia and games. In Tarsus, which must have had a large Greek element in its population, Paul must have heard, and perhaps seen, in his childhood, much of the athletic exercises which were constantly in progress, and in later life he must often have been reminded of them, especially at Corinth, near which were celebrated biennially the Isthmia or Isthmian Games which drew visitors from all parts of the Empire, at Caesarea which possessed a theater, an amphitheater and a stadium, and at Ephesus. The custom, indeed, seems to have been almost universal. No provincial city of any importance was without it (Schurer, op. cit., 48), especially after the introduction of games in honor of the Caesars. The early Christians, therefore, whether of Jewish or Gentileorigin, were able to understand, and the latter at any rate to appreciate, references either to the games in general, or to details of their celebration.
2. General References:
3. Specific References to Greek Athletics:
In addition to these general references there are many allusions to details, again found mainly in the Pauline Epistles. These may most conveniently be grouped in alphabetical order.
The combats of wild animals with one another and with men, which were so popular at Rome toward the close of the Republic and under the Empire, were not unknown in Palestine. Condemned criminals were thrown to wild beasts by Herod the Great in his amphitheater at Jerusalem, "to afford delight to spectators," a proceeding which Josephus (Ant., XV, viii, 1) characterizes as impious. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD many Jewish captives were slain in fighting with wild beasts (BJ, VII, ii). This horrible form of sport must have been in the apostle’s mind when he wrote: "I fought with beasts (etheriomachesa) at Ephesus" (
This form of sport is directly referred to in
(c) The Course.
Foot-races and other contests took place in an enclosure 606 feet 9 inches in length, called a stadium. This is once referred to in a passage in the context of that just mentioned, which almost seems based on observation: "They that run in a race-course (RVm, Greek stadion) run all" (
(d) Discus Throwing.
The throwing of the discus, a round plate of stone or metal 10 or 12 inches in diameter, which was a prominent feature of Greek athletics and is the subject of a famous statue, a copy of which is in the British Museum, is not mentioned in the New Testament, but is alluded to in 2 Macc 4:14 as one of the amusements indulged in by Hellenizing priests in the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes.
(e) The Foot-race.
(f) The Goal.
The goal of the foot-race, a square pillar at the end of the stadium opposite the entrance, which the athlete as far as possible kept in view and the sight of which encouraged him to redouble his exertions, is alluded to once: "I press on toward the goal" (
(g) The Herald.
The name and country of each competitor were announced by a herald and also the name, country and father of a victor. There may be an allusion to this custom in
(h) The Prize.
This form of sport, which was in great favor in Greek society from the age of Homer onward, is alluded to once in the New Testament: "Our wrestling (Greek pale) is not against flesh and blood," etc. (
4. References to the Theater and the Drama:
Although there is no direct reference in the New Testament to the intellectual contests in which the Greeks delighted as much as in athletics, the former cannot be entirely ignored. The word "theater" (Greek theatron) occurs 3 times: twice in the sense of "public hall" (
In addition to works already mentioned see for the whole subject: articles "Games" in Smith, DB2; HDB, large and small; EB; Jewish Encyclopedia;arts. "Spiele" in Winer, RWB, and Riehm2, and especially Konig, "Spiele bei den Hebraern," RE3. On the games of Greece and Rome See articles in Smith’s Dict. of Greek and Roman Antiquities, "Amphitheatrum," "Circus," "Olympia," "Stadium," etc.