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Did St. Paul watch the Olympic Games?

chariot racing

Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany | CC BY-SA 2.0

Philip Kosloski - published on 07/31/21

Scholars believe St. Paul may have attended the Isthmian Games, an athletic competition held in Corinth that led to the Olympic Games.

St. Paul often compared the Christian life to the training and competition of athletic competitors. This is very clear in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.

1 Corinthians 9:24-25

What is St. Paul talking about?

The Isthmian Games

St. Paul is writing to the Christians in the city of Corinth. In between the Olympic Games, which were held at Olympia (hence the name), there were other games that were held during “off” years, such as the games located at the Isthmus of Corinth.

These were called the “Isthmian Games,” and St. Paul may have witnessed these games in his lifetime.

In the 19th-century book The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, the author explains the probability that St. Paul attended such games.

[T]he Isthmus of Corinth was one of four sanctuaries where the most celebrated games were periodically held … an interesting question suggests itself here viz whether the Apostle was ever himself present during the Isthmian games. It might be argued à priori that this is highly probable for great numbers came at these seasons from all parts of the Mediterranean to witness or take part in the contests and … it is likely that the Apostle just as he desired to be at Jerusalem during the Hebrew festivals so would gladly preach the Gospel at a time when so vast a concourse met at the Isthmus, whence as from a center it might be carried to every shore with the dispersion of the strangers. But further it will be remembered that on his first visit St. Paul spent two years at Corinth and though there is some difficulty in determining the times at which the games were celebrated, yet it seems almost certain that they recurred every second year at the end of spring or the beginning of summer.

Furthermore, St. Paul is clearly referencing the ultimate prize given to the winner of these races: a laurel wreath crown.

He may have watched the various competitions, such as chariot races,the javelin, the long jump, footraces, wrestling and boxing.

St. Paul refers in his letter to the Corinthians to the footraces, which are similar to the races that are still held at the Olympics today.

When we watch the Olympics in our own time, we can watch as St. Paul did and be inspired to be a saint, attaining to perfection in the spiritual life to “win” an everlasting crown in Heaven.


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