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THEATER. In spite of a rudimentary dramatic structure discernible in the Book of Job and the Song of Songs, Israel produced no drama and had thus no theaters. The word theater is from the Greek and is a noun derived from the verb theaomai, “to view,” or “to look upon.” The Greek theater, and the Roman theater that followed it, were therefore structures designed to seat the viewers at a dramatic representation. The theater was usually an open-air structure, a semicircle of stone seats built into the side of a hill, and seating up to five or six thousand people. The seats were cut concentrically, and at the foot of the auditorium a semicircular piece of level pavement provided the “orchestra” or the place where the chorus, an indispensable part of all Greek dramas, and the actors performed. In the more primitive theaters a tent backed the diameter of this semicircle, into which the actors retired to change their masks and, by implication, their roles. (There were only three actors in a Greek tragedy to fill all the roles involved in the play.) On the tent was painted a rough representation of trees or a temple or a house, to indicate that the scene of action was town or country and so on. The Greek for “tent” is skēnē, hence “scenery” in the dramatic sense. Surviving Greek theaters are acoustically remarkable. Theaters were commonly used for public gatherings, since they were likely to provide the largest places of assembly in the city; hence the use of the only theater mentioned in the NT (Acts.19.29), that of Ephesus. The ruins of this theater, a most imposing structure seating twenty-five thousand people, have been excavated. Roman theaters tended to be more elaborate than those of the Greeks, contained a more finished stage, and, perhaps in conformity with the needs of a severer climate, were at least in part roofed over.——EMB

THEATER (θέατρον, G2519, from θεάομαι, G2517, to view, look upon). In the ancient world, a structure usually open air and semi-circular, with stone seats. Greek theaters, found as early as the 5th cent. b.c., were on hillsides to take advantage of natural land formations. Early Roman theaters were erected as free-standing buildings supported by arch construction. They were used for presentation of dramatic productions, pageants, religious rites, choral singing, games, gladiatorial contests, and public assemblies and forums of citizens.

Historical development.

It would be impossible to determine when man began to develop his histrionic interests. The religious dance, the earliest outlet for the emotions, has been considered the origin of the arts. A religious ceremony and drama involving Osiris was performed yearly by the Egyptians as early as 2000 b.c. There is no evidence that Israel ever produced a drama or had theaters. Religious dance, however, is found in the OT (Exod 15:20; 2 Sam 6:16), and the Books of Job and Song of Solomon are cast in dramatic dialogue form. Nonetheless, the true flowering of the theater must be credited to the Greeks in the 6th and 5th centuries b.c. Tragedies and comedies were presented before large audiences. No later civilizations have surpassed the Gr. genius for drama. The Gr. drama was inextricably bound up with religion, particularly the festival to Dionysus, the wine god, often degenerating into origes. Menander (342-291 b.c.) was the outstanding figure in the later Gr. theater. The Romans introduced the Gr. drama as they conquered and assimilated the Gr. nation and culture. The growth and proliferation of the Rom. theater paralleled the fortunes of the Rom. empire.

Herod the Great built theaters in Jerusalem, Caesarea, Damascus, Gadara, Philadelphia, and other cities. The theater was prob. encouraged by the Jews of the Diaspora.


The earliest Gr. theaters were nothing more than marked-out dancing circles in the center of which was an altar, located at the foot of a hillside on which spectators stood or sat. The best preserved example of the later Gr. theater is the magnificent structure at Epidaurus. The most famous is the theater of Dionysus at Athens. Of the Rom. theaters the one at Aspendus in Asia Minor, built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, is the best preserved. The Romans erected magnificent theaters with rich and showy adornment, even in the smaller cities. Augustus Caesar was a great patron of the theater. Remains of Gr. and Rom. theaters may be seen today in cities visited by Paul (Philippi, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus; cf. Acts 19:29, 31).


S. Cheney, The Theatre: Three Thousand Years of Drama, Acting and Stagecraft (1929); A. Nicoll, The Development of the Theatre, 3rd ed. (1948); S. Cheney, “Theatre,” EBr (1957); M. Bieber, The History of the Greek and Roman Theater (1961).