Posted by: chuckbumgardner | January 5, 2008

Athletic Metaphors in Paul

I’ve been looking through the very helpful volume Paul’s Metaphors: Their Context and Character, by David J. Williams (Hendrickson, 1999).  Well-documented from both modern and ancient sources, this work is quite accessible to someone without formal training in theology or exegesis, yet worthwhile for the scholar as well.  Williams is concerned to provide cultural and historical background to shed light on the metaphors which Paul uses in his letters.  In books such as this, the danger of “parallelomania” — finding false parallels in the cultural context — is always present, but Williams is sane in handling his data.  Here are a couple of interesting examples from the realm of athletics.
In Galatians 5:7, Paul says, “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (ESV)  “Hindered” (egkoptw) is, as Friberg notes, “strictly, knock or cut into.”  Longenecker (Galatians [WBC], 230) translates “Who cut in on you to be keeping you from obeying the truth?” and notes, “The verb ejgkovptw . . .  in the context of a race suggests tripping or otherwise interfering with a runner, which inevitably had to do with one runner cutting in on another as they ran and so impeding the other’s progress.”  Williams in Paul’s Metaphors adds as illustrative material details about the races in the Greek Olympics:
The Greek stadium was a rectangle about 220 yards long by 8 to 13 yards wide.  A line at each end marked the start and the finish, and there was a turning post in the middle of each line.  In races longer than a single lap, the runners had to circle the post.  This presented less of a problem in the dolichos (the long race).  But in the diaulos, which was only two laps run at full speed, the turn was of critical importance.  When the runners were of comparable ability, bunching at the post was inevitable and interference was likely to occur. . . . In terms of Paul’s metaphor, it was at this point that the Galatians had run into trouble. (272)
One more.  In light of how chariots were raced, Williams understands Phil 3:13-14 as describing not a footrace, but a chariot race.
Most commonly . . . the chariots were quadrigae, drawn by four horses. . . . “[The charioteer] stood upright in his chariot, helmet on head, whip in hand, leggings swathed round calf and thigh, clad in a tunic the colour of his factio, his reins bound round his body, and by his side the dagger that would sever them in case of accident.”
The moment of greatest danger occurred when the chariot was turning toward at the metae [two wooden posts set up at the extremities of the course], which were always on the left (the races ran counterclockwise).  the success of this maneuver depended on the strength and agility of the two outside horses, the funales.  They were not harnessed to the shaft as were the two horses in the middle, but were more loosely attached by a trace (funis), the off funalis swinging out on the right and the still more vital near funalis holding back as a pivot on the left.  If the chariot hugged the turning post too closely, it ran the risk of crashing into it; if it swung too widely, it either lost position or was in danger of being overrun and wrecked by the other competitors.
Philippians 3:13-14 describes the charioteer, intent on the race, his eyes fixed on the front, not daring to look behind lest the slightest pressure on the reins (wrapped around his body) produce a false move and cause him to lose the race and possibly his life.  Paul declares that his goal is to “know Christ” (v. 10), but he has not yet attained it (v. 12), as some may claim to have done.  Nevertheless, it remains his goal.  Thus, “forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I drive on toward the finishing line.” (261-62)

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