Early in man’s history an interest in diversion and entertainment became manifest. Jubal, in the seventh generation from Adam, is said to be “the founder of all those who handle the harp and the pipe.” (Ge 4:21) In course of time, at least in the post-Flood period, games were also developed.
Egypt and Mesopotamia. In widely scattered locations of Egypt, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, archaeologists have unearthed various forms of gaming boards, dice, and game pieces, some of which date back to times before Abraham. A relief from an Egyptian temple gate portrays Ramses III playing a game similar to checkers with one of his concubines. Most games used dice or throw sticks to determine the moves.
Egyptian paintings, in addition to depicting dancing and instrument playing, show scenes of Egyptian girls playing with balls, juggling several at a time. Other youthful games, such as a kind of tug-of-war, involved team play. Marbles were also popular.
Israel. No direct reference is made in the Bible to games among the Hebrews, but there are scattered indications of certain forms of recreation in addition to music, singing, dancing, and conversation. Zechariah 8:5 tells of children playing in the public squares, and the singing and dancing of boys are mentioned at Job 21:11, 12. In Jesus’ time children played at imitating happy and sad occasions. (Mt 11:16, 17) Excavations in Palestine have produced children’s toys such as rattles, whistles, and miniature pots and chariots. Job 41:5 may indicate the keeping of tame birds. It appears likely that target shooting with arrows as well as with slings was practiced. (1Sa 20:20-22, 35-40; Jg 20:16) However, competitive games as such do not appear to have been in practice among the Jews until the Hellenic period.
Riddles and guessing games were popular in Israel, as is illustrated by the riddle Samson propounded to the Philistines.—Jg 14:12-14.
Greece. At about the time that Isaiah began to prophesy in Judah, the Greeks began their famous Olympic athletic contests in honor of Zeus, in the year 776 B.C.E. While the games at Olympia remained the most famous, three other Greek towns became important centers of the contests. On the Isthmus near Corinth were held the Isthmian Games, consecrated as sacred to Poseidon. Delphi featured the Pythian Games, while the Nemean Games, also in honor of Zeus, were held near Nemea.
The Olympic Games were celebrated every four years and were of profound religious significance. Religious sacrifices and the worship of the Olympic fire were prominent features of the festival. The Isthmian Games near Corinth were held every two years.
The basic program in all the contests included foot racing, wrestling, boxing, discus and javelin throwing, chariot racing, and other events. Participants took a vow to keep the rigid ten-month training schedule, which occupied most of their time. The training schedule was strictly supervised by judges who lived with the participants. The trainees often performed under conditions more difficult than the actual contest, runners training with weights on their feet and boxers training while wearing heavy uniforms. Years were often spent in developing the needed qualities for becoming a victor at the games. The prize consisted of a simple garland, or crown of leaves, wild olive being used at the Olympian Games, pine leaves at the Isthmian Games, laurel at the Pythian Games, and wild celery at the Nemean contests. The prize was often displayed at the finish line alongside the umpire, inspiring participants in the footraces to exert themselves to the utmost as they kept their eye on the prize. Failure to keep the rules, however, resulted in disqualification. The games were the topic of conversation by all before, during, and after the event. Victorious athletes were eulogized, idolized, lavished with gifts, and feted. Corinth gave the winning athletes a life pension.
Rome. The Roman games differed greatly from the Greek games, having as their prime features gladiatorial fighting and other exhibitions of extreme brutality. The gladiatorial contests originally began in the third century B.C.E. as a religious service at funerals and may have had close relationship with ancient pagan rites whereby worshipers lacerated themselves, allowing blood to flow in honor of their gods or in honor of their dead. (1Ki 18:28; compare the prohibition of such practices to Israel at Le 19:28.) The Roman games were later dedicated to the god Saturn. Nothing exceeded them for sheer brutality and callousness. Emperor Trajan once staged games featuring 10,000 gladiators, most of whom fought to the death before the end of the spectacle. Even some senators, some “noble” women, and one emperor, Commodus, entered the gladiatorial arena. From Nero’s time onward large numbers of Christians were slaughtered in these events.
Pagan Games Introduced Into Palestine. During the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century B.C.E., Hellenizing Jews introduced Greek culture and athletic contests into Israel, and a gymnasium was set up in Jerusalem, according to the first chapter of the Apocryphal book of First Maccabees. It is stated at 2 Maccabees 4:12-15 that even the priests neglected their duties to engage in the games. Others, however, strongly objected to such adoption of pagan customs.
In the first century B.C.E., Herod the Great built a theater at Jerusalem, an amphitheater in the plain, also a theater and amphitheater at Caesarea, and he instituted the celebration of games every five years in honor of Caesar. In addition to wrestling, chariot racing, and other contests, he introduced features from the Roman games, arranging fights between wild animals or pitting men condemned to death against such beasts. According to Josephus, all of this resulted in an abortive conspiracy by offended Jews to assassinate Herod.—Jewish Antiquities, XV, 267-291 (viii, 1-4); XV, 331-341 (ix, 6).
The Christian Viewpoint. Tertullian, who was a writer of the second and third centuries C.E., set forth the position of early Christians toward the entertainment common among the Romans by saying that Christians “have nothing to do, in speech, sight or hearing, with the madness of the circus, the shamelessness of the theatre, the savagery of the arena, the vanity of the gymnasium.” He added: “Why should we offend you, if we assume the existence of other pleasures? . . . we reject what pleases you; what pleases us gives you no delight.” (Apology, XXXVIII, 4, 5) With regard to bodily training or discipline as a whole, the apostle Paul sums up the Christian attitude in his counsel to Timothy at 1 Timothy 4:7-10.
Illustrative Use. Features of some of the games were aptly used by Paul and Peter to illustrate points of teaching. In contrast with the prize sought by contestants in Greek games, the crown for which an anointed Christian strives was shown to be, not a fading garland of leaves, but the reward of immortal life. (1Pe 1:3, 4; 5:4) He was to run with the determination of winning the prize and must keep his eyes fixed on it; looking back would be disastrous. (1Co 9:24; Php 3:13, 14) He should contend according to the rules of a moral life so as not to become disqualified. (2Ti 2:5) Self-control, self-discipline, and training are all essential. (1Co 9:25; 1Pe 5:10) The Christian’s efforts were to be well aimed, with victory in mind, just as the well-trained boxer’s blows count without wasted energy; though the objects of the Christian’s blows were, not some other human, but things, including those within himself, that could lead him to failure. (1Co 9:26, 27; 1Ti 6:12) All hindering weights and the entangling sin of lack of faith were to be put off, even as the contestants in the races stripped themselves of cumbersome clothing. The Christian runner was to be prepared for a race requiring endurance, not a short burst of speed.—Heb 12:1, 2.
It is to be noted that at Hebrews 12:1 Paul speaks of a great “cloud of witnesses [Gr., mar·tyʹron] surrounding us.” That he is not referring to a mere crowd of observers is made clear by the contents of the preceding chapter to which Paul refers by saying, “So, then, . . . ” Hence, Paul is encouraging Christians to move onward in the race by pointing, not to mere onlookers, but to the fine example of others who were also runners, and particularly urging Christians to look intently at the one who had already come off the victor and who was now their Judge, Christ Jesus.
The illustration at 1 Corinthians 4:9 may be drawn from the Roman contests, with Paul and his fellow apostles here likened to those in the last event on the bill at the arena—for the most gory event was usually saved till last, and those reserved for it were certain of death. Hebrews 10:32, 33 may similarly have the Roman games as its background. (See THEATER.) Actually, Paul himself may have been exposed to the perils of the Roman games in view of his reference at 1 Corinthians 15:32 to ‘fighting wild beasts at Ephesus.’ Some view it as unlikely that a Roman citizen would be put before wild beasts in the arena, and they suggest that this expression is used figuratively to refer to beastlike opposers in Ephesus. However, Paul’s statement at 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 concerning the very grave danger experienced in the district of Asia, where Ephesus was located, and of God’s rescuing him from “such a great thing as death” would certainly fit an experience with literal wild beasts in the arena much more aptly than it would the human opposition Paul encountered at Ephesus. (Ac 19:23-41) It may thus have been one of the several “near-deaths” Paul underwent in his ministry.—2Co 11:23; see AMUSEMENTS.