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Running the good race

ATHENS, GREECE — Exploring the Olympic language in the New Testament

By Alexander Melirrytos
For the Christian Chronicle

August 05, 2004

ATHENS, GREECE – Greetings in the loving name from the Biblical city of Athens. For the last four years we have all been living the dream — the Olympic spirit is back home! It has permeated every place, every corner and every soul in our colorful city. Planning, preparations, fabulous new athletic facilities and a plead of great public works — though unbearably costly — have set up the welcome stage for the ATHENS 2004 OLYMPIC GAMES — August 13-29, 2004. It was back in 776 B.C. at the stadium of Ancient Olympia, Greece when this event was destined to become the greatest athletic gathering ever among the city — states in Greece, offering a great time for peace and brotherly love. Also, the blessings of Zeus, father of gods and man, were poured out from his “sacred” temple and his gold and ivory statue of sculptor Phidias, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
After three millenniums — 2,780 years to be precise — the Olympic games continue to radiate their glory and fame, fascinate, challenge and revive our athletic inner zeal and desire for victory. We identify with the competing athletes, though quite often from our sofa, in front of the TV, with a slice of pizza and a can of coke in our hand! On the occasion of the great event and in view of the fact that athletic language has been widespread among all New Testament writers, we may want to get the flavor and essence of our spiritual race and define terms often mistranslated in languages other than the original. Our race as Christians is a race worth taking; we have committed our life to His cause and He who is on our side has already won this race, so let us take a trip to history and its ancient setting … Having recently revisited the site of Ancient Olympia, this time with the Omonia Church, I listened carefully to our Christian tour—guide, Kostas Tsevas, who gave us enough food for thought, regarding the Christian race, our own, personal race …
We know by now that it all started when Adam and Eve heard the pearly gates of heaven close heavily behind them. Dressed in their nakedness, they reaped the dividends of their choice. Man found himself unable to make things right again by himself, so he looked up to the heavens for pardon and lifted hands up for forgiveness, much like babies who lift up their hands to be held. To man, God was still up there, in heaven, merciful or merciless, according to the circumstances, but one thing stood as a rock through the ages: Man knew exactly where to seek power from and forgiveness. It was certainly not down on earth, or below, in the world of darkness. Paul clarifies this during his visit to our city: “ God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him…” (Ac. 17:27). Through the pre-historic era, Greeks developed an early type of worship, the “kionolatreia” (kion which means pillar and latreia which means worship) — worship of pillars — any pillar, not temple pillars. Remember, we are way back in time, long before god was served in a confined manner to “…live in temples made by hands…” (Ac. 17:24—26) Later, another worship style appeared, “dendrolatreia” (dendro which means tree and latreia which means worship) — worship of trees, extremely tall trees that induced woe and fear. These trees became the sacred trees of gods. In the Greek pantheon, each god has his sacred tree. Zeus or Jupiter, for example, has his sacred beech — oak tree (hiera fygo) — “fagus silvatica” or forest oak, in Dodoni — the oracle in Epirus. In Olympia – Peloponese, Zeus has the sacred olive tree that gave beautiful wreaths “kallistephanos hiera elaia”. Apollo in Delphi has the sacred laurel “hiera daphne” and Dionysus, god of theatre and wine has his sacred ivy “hieros kissos”. Aphrodite and Demeter had the sacred myrtle “hiera myrsini” and so on. Yes, there were priests, but they were sleeping on the ground. Worship site buildings — temples — were unknown. What these two early expressions of worship had in common is that their respective objects of worship — the pillars and the trees — were pointing upwards, like hands were raised, or the smoke of incense being offered. Altars and temples came much later.
Initially we have the run race and its variations. In fact we have different types of run races, like the “stadiou dromos” — stadium race (what we call today 400m, or quarter mile, or one round of a modern city stadium) the “dolihos dromos” — run race with hurdles, almost as it is today. We had long distance run race, as is the marathon today and the “hoplitis dromos”, a run race in full armor, “hoplitis meaning the soldier, the one bearing arms. Then we had “diskos” — discus, “akontion” — javelin and jumping, like the long jump, all these being considered as “light” races. Then we had the “heavy” races, as boxing, wrestling and pangratium, a special race with elements from both boxing and wrestling. There was the race of throwing at the games, but not that of lifting weights, as it was confined to training purposes only. The boxers, for example, lifted weights as part of their training, just to gain muscular strength.
Races in Greece had two characters. Most of them had local character and some of them, select four, had inter-Hellenic, inter-Greek character. Almost all Greek cities worshipped their patdon god with races and these races had mostly local character. The Panathenean games were local races to praise the patron goddess of the City of Athens, Athena or Minerva in Latin. The winners received as prize local products. In Athens they had olive oil from the holy olive tree altar. In the nearby city of Elefsis, races were held to worship Demeter and Persephone. The winners of these races received wheat as a prize. In the Modern Greek language all cereal food, like wheat, maize, barley, oats, corn, rye and the like are called “Demetriaka”, grains of Demeter. In the city of Argos, in Peloponese, races were conducted to worship Hera or Juno in Latin, Jupiter’s wife. The prize was consisted of bronze or iron items, as the Argeans were famous blacksmiths. The inter—Greek games were four: The most famous of them all were the Olympian games, honoring Jupiter, held in Olympia every four years. We also had the Pythian games in Delphi honoring Apollo, also every four years, the Isthmian games in Corinth — the Corinthian Isthmus — now a Canal — honoring Poseidon or Neptune in Latin, every two years and the Nemean games in the city of Nemea, also in Peloponnese, honoring Zeus as well, every two years. These four inter-Greek races were called “stephanitae” — the true reward was through “stephanoi” — wreaths. The local games on the contrary were called “thematikoi”, as they offered “thema” or theme from the local product. The prizes, whether olive oil, wheat or bronze items were in no way items of significance or value. What was of greatest value, was the honor that came from the wreath of the holy tree of the respective god – from his or her holy altar — which of course was a perishable wreath, lasting for two to three days, before it dried up. It was not the wreath as of itself, but the great blessing and honor of receiving the wreath right from the sacred tree, the holy tree of their god. Can we now relate a little closer to the tree of life? “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7, also 2:10, 22:14, 22: 19.)
The celebrities, including kings and queens had always been received at the gates of a city. The reception ceremony was held at the city gates. The highest celebration in honor of a special visitor or a guest of high position was held at the gates. The banquet was held at the palace, but reception was held first at the gates. To receive and honor a winner of the Olympic games, they demolished part of the city walls. The winner or winners who visited the city, or who lived in that city, were making up for the loss of a tiny part of the city walls. This is how they received them in. Even kings were eager to become Olympic winners and they competed like common athletes. How would you like today to see a king or a president participate as a common athlete at the Olympic Games! Let us note at this point that the Olympic games last from five to seven days. But what about if more winners visited or lived in that city? What about if everyone in that city was a glorious winner? There would be absolutely no need for walls, right? However, New Jerusalem “… had a great, high wall… (Rev. 21:12). Being a prepared place for prepared souls, New Jerusalem should keep every incompetent soul out. The hue of the original text at this point is different. Lord Jesus commands: “Out with the dogs and those who practice magic arts (the word used is “pharmakoi” — like pharmaceutical, meaning the sorcerers who used “herbs” and “balms” and all kinds of mixes to heal and restore) and the fornicators and the murderers and the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” Rev. 22:15). Jesus’ anger at this point is beyond what these words can describe.
Only citizens of proven Greek origin could participate in the games. Whether from Greece or from countries of the Mediterranean basin, the dispersion, they should prove their Greek descent. No foreigners — read barbarians — could participate in the games.
The Jews could not participate in the games either, as it was forbidden from their own religion and cultural background. The games involved male nudity, which was endorsed by the Greeks, as only males attended or participated in them. Nudity was a shame to the Jews. Adam and Eve left God’s presence dressed in their nakedness. A very helpful hint to this is offered in Heb. Ch.12 “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…” We are in a full stadium, now. The scene is purely athletic. Witnesses are all the spectators, but the writer uses it in a metaphoric sense. “Let us throw everything that hinders… — other versions mention “weight.” Both expressions are wrong. Let us read from the original text, verse 1:
“Toigaroun kai hemeis” “Therefore, (and) we, — (we also)
“Tosouton ehontes perikeimenon hemin nephos martyron,” “such a great, (us) having, surrounding us, cloud of witnesses”
“onkon apothemenoi panta” “Volume (bulk) laying down every”— (laying down every volume, bulk — as if we lay all clothes down on the floor at the doctor’s examining room and step out of them) — not “weight” or anything else. “Onkos” is the word, meaning bulk, volume — oncology/ist; a tumor is a piece of volume, bulk. Clothes take up volume. We are now ready to watch a race in a stadium, twenty centuries in the past. Male athletes, well oiled, full of life and vigor and male spectators! You can’t run a run race — here a “stadium run race” — wearing your jacket, coat or tunic. They take up “onkos”. Anything else added on to you other than your naked body — right as you were created by god — was taking up extra volume, extra bulk! What you saw was what you got — a trained young man with all his muscles well defined — nothing more, nothing less. Hope you understand me right.
“kai tin ev—peri—staton hamartian…” “and the well—standing around(us) – (easily standing around —us) distraction of attention”. Disastrous distraction for an athlete a few moments before the race began, could come from everywhere. It was all over the place and around him. From other athletes, from the spectators, maybe some friends from the same city shouting out his name in excitement, distraction was so “thick” and “dense” you could cut it with a knife.
The verb “hamartano” which bears a spiritual only meaning in our days — to sin — had a slight drift or variation in its meaning, back then. Yes, it surely meant to sin, as we find it all over the N.T., but the meaning of the verb as of itself was “to distract attention, to lose goal, focus, target” — an archery term. What is our target and goal, according to God? To glorify His name constantly, throughout our life, right? He who does not practice it, has lost his target, his goal, he is distracted, he is a sinner — and therefore a failure.)
“di’ (dia) hypomonis trehomen “through (with the means of) patience let us run – be running —(continuous tense is used from the writer for us, the Christians — the actual race did last only a few minutes.) The writer is now modifying the scene of the stadium to our measure as men of faith – runners through life. Hence the continuous tense.
ton prokeimenon hemin agona” The, set before us, race The race is right here, right now, at hand, we cannot afford either distraction or volume, bulk. We want to be fast and to the goal.
“Aforontes” Fixing our eyes (present participle.) The verb is VERY powerful. Today it means “in regard to”, or “regarding” It is compound from “apo” which means out of – (subtractive – ablativus) and the verb horao — horo that means to see – (as in the word oracle.) Aforo means to take my eyes out of everything around me and ON to a single focused point — just like a cheetah focuses his eyes on a specific speckle on the gazelle’s back,on a single square inch, even the point on which to bite. My body, soul, spirit, my whole life or my entire being is all targeted on the last inches of the run race, focusing on the threads of the finishing line!
Eis ton tis pisteos arhighon ke teleiotin Iesun… To (unto) the, of the faith, leader (author) and “completer” — Jesus. “Teleios” in our days means “perfect” as being not in need of anything. Back then, “teleios” meant “complete”, the opposite of which was “a—telis”, incomplete, which is also the meaning in our days. Let us bear in mind that the word gym or gymnastic/s comes from the word “gymnos”, which means naked. Thus the term “gymniki agones” — gymnic races — races where the athletes were naked — totally naked.
Numerous scenes from the races, therefore. Athletic language at its best. The scenes are for us to visualize, the metaphoric sense for us to realize and think deeply again and again…
Speaking of another world in which the Jews was forbidden to enter, was the theatre, as its “world” involved use of masks and “hypocrisy”, playing the role of a character other than the actor himself. The word hypocrite is a purely theatrical term. A top actor should be top “hypokritis”— hypocrite.
What happened with the Romans, then? The Romans were fascinated from many things they found in Greece, they had always admired the Greeks. They took the twelve Greek gods and gave them Latin names, they imported letters and sciences in the uncivilized Latium and in general they looked highly upon the Greeks. They viewed themselves as brothers to the Greeks. Especially after the fall of the Greek and the Eastern Mediterranean world to Rome in 146 B.C., the Romans, now as noble brothers, participated with great enthusiasm at the Olympic games. After all, if your conqueror admires you and calls himself your brother, what else do you need? After all they were not barbarians! The Greek wrestling for example received some final, good touches and became GRAECO—ROMAN to this day. The open circular stage (to the wind) of the ancient Greek theatre, now received a protective back wall, good enough to protect the actors from the elements of nature. Not a bad idea at all! We welcome practical ideas! The Romans were good architects. In Europe, the “Jerusalem” or “Harvard” of architectural studies is either in Rome or in Florence! A coincidence?
Let us get to something deeper, now. Both the priests and the worshippers, who were devoted to the worship of a specific god, were distinct from the others by wearing a wreath on their head from the respective tree of their god. A worshipper or priest with a wreath made from laurel — (Daphne or bay leaves) was clearly identified as one who served spiritually god Apollo — god of light and music. Please note at this point that the three entities — god, priests and worshippers — wear the same symbol. We will use this idea later — think identification!
The wreath denotes a symbol of religious / spiritual nature ONLY. This is the “stephanos”, NOT A CROWN, NOT A DIADEM. The wreath has always meant reward for invisible qualities, like glorification from above, liberty or justice personified rewarding an individual with a wreath and all the similar ideas. Let us read from the original text all of the following passages in the N.T. often found in concordances translated as “crown: Mt. 27:29, Mk. 15:17, Jn. 19:2, 19:5, 1 Co. 9:25, Php. 4:1, 1 Th. 2;19, 2 Ti. 2:5, 4:8, Jas. 1:12, 1 Pe. 5:4, Rec. 2:10, 3;11, 6:2, and 14:14. The use of the word “crown” in these passages does a perfect job in confusing the reader as far as the real meaning of the word is concerned. In all these passages the word used is “stephanos” — wreath. Also, “Surrounding the throne were twenty—four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty—four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns (stephanous) — (accusative) of gold on their heads. (Rev. 4:4) Clearly a religious scene.
Regarding priests, there were “noble priests”— “evgeneis hiereis, priests of a noble descent, like the prefix ev— or eu— denotes: good, noble and “genos” means gene – thus genetics) descent, or loosely “eugene priests”. They were the priests or the high priest for a god. They wore the wreath, which as we described, was a wreath made out of leaves. There were also “vasileis hiereis” — king priests, or royal priests who were both priests and kings! Philip the II, King of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great was one of them. From the excavation of his tomb, found intact, not many years ago — we see his golden stephanos, his golden wreath, representing the oak tree wreath with the leaves and its acorns, at the Vergina Museum, near Thessalonica. The wreath is golden, imperishable, as he is a royal priest. What kind of wreath do we get, as being royal priesthood and a holy nation? “…but we do it to get a stephanos that will last forever. “ (1 Co. 9:25) Can we see the analogy?
A common practice in Ancient Greece was worshipping gods through races, based on the fundamental belief that our body is a gift from the gods, a dwelling place of our soul and spirit, as it actually is, therefore, in return we offer it back to god through a hard race! This ceremonial practice is still alive through tradition in Greece, as we have celebrations for the memory of saints — the patron saint of each city. We have cities in Greece where horse races are conducted on Saint George’s Day. It is not a coincidence that Saint George is the patron saint of Cavalry in all the countries following the Eastern Orthodox Church. Even in West Europe we bear witness to St. George in graven images or icons as a horse rider giving the death blow to the old serpent or dragon — Satan? Also, in some parts of Thrace, the ancient Tiras in the genealogies of Noah (Ge. 10) there are wrestling races on St. Peter’s Day. Tradition at its best!
We mentioned that the wreath bears only spiritual identity. Early in the morning, on the very last day of the celebrations, all the victors — only — (of the various races) appeared in front of the temple and the priests in an extra glamorous, official ceremony crowned them with a wreath from the sacred tree. Especially from Olympia, we have details that these branches from the holy olive—tree were taken off by a male child, having both his parents alive “pais amphithalis” Using a golden pair of scissors, the child cut the branches and placed them on a golden table, made by the famous goldsmith Kolotas. Nothing less than gold, the metal of kings! – Think “Streets of gold” Then a great banquet. (Did I hear you say Rev. 19:5—10?) was given in their honor and this marked the end. God was rewarding the winners— through his Priest, of course. Compare now with the idea of God Himself having taken us to His banquet hall, his banner of us being love.. Even kings desired to participate in the games, in order to receive the stephanos, the highest award ever been given to a mortal a stephanos from the sacred altar of Olympia. King Philip participated in such games, being skillful in chariot races. Let us keep the spirit of the last day events… “Faithful until death… until the race is over…”
After the 4th Century B.C. the winners appeared before the priests to receive their wreaths, having not only the diadem on their forehead, but also holding a branch of palm tree. ”After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language (not just Greeks!), standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” Rev. 7:9.) Compare with Jn. 12:12,13 “ They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting…” We have mosaics at the Olympia museum showing crowned victors with wreaths on their heads, still holding palm branches!
Let us now visit the historical setting of the word DIADEM. The word is Greek and it is a compound word – diadema. The preposition “Dia” means through and “deno” means to tie. The verb is diadeno, to tie through. It was a strip of woolen cloth, of crimson color, which was tied through the head, with the knot at the back, much like the karate kid we see in the movies. After the Hellenistic times, the diadem was decorated with silver or gold and other decorations. It was purely an athletic sign or term, not a religious one, not a political or a civil one. It denoted the winner of a specific game and it was given to distinguish the winner from the other participants. Because an athlete could win in multiple races, he could wear more than one diadems, for example, one for boxing, one for wrestling and one for pangratium — a combination of the two. To clearly show all these victories, the victor wore diadems both on his forehead, as well as around his arms, right on his biceps, as the habit was. When we see the famous statue of the Charioteer of Delphi, we see a noble young man who has diadems around his arms. He had won in multiple chariot races – one, two or four—horse chariot. We also have the classical statue “Diadoumenos” of sculptor Polycletus, the young man with the diadem on his head. As we mentioned before, even kings participated in the games. The horses of the famous king Diomedes were legendary. King Diomedes, like king Philip and other kings of course, were proud to wear one or more diadems. Certainly, to a king, the pride and glory from having been awarded a diadem or a wreath at the Olympic games was much higher than his dull everyday job — sitting on his throne and throwing commands and threats right and left!
In the book of Revelation, John has seen a similar picture. “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire and on his head are many (crowns)…— “diademata polla” — many, multiple” Rev. 19:11—12 The word in the original text is NOT “crowns” or “wreaths” but “diadems” — diademata. Our Lord has won every race: The race of death, that of sin and its guilt, that of tribulation, that of perseverance and humility, that of sorrow, that of rejection and on and on the endless list goes.
So far we have dived into the world of the “stephanos” — wreath, awarded on the last day of the games, a religious, spiritual term and that of the “diadema” — diadem, purely an athletic term. Now we will see the word crown as a symbol of civil authority and power. “Stemma” is the original Koine Greek word, with the root also from “steph—”, thus the verb stefo that means to crown, to anoint someone as having civil authority. Remember the famous masterpiece at the “Museum Du Louvre”, in Paris, — Napoleon’s coronation from the Pope. Emperor Napoleon takes the crown himself from the Pope’s hands and puts it on his head — in full impatience and utmost arrogance. Our Lord in full patience receives exaltation from His Father. (Php. 2:9) The crown — “stemma” was a symbol of civil authority, made of a metal pipe, usually golden and decorated at the top with precious stones in shape of a dome, like that of kings, czars and monarchs. The crown does not have any spiritual or religious connotation, or even an athletic one. It is used as a symbol to denote a king — someone who has a) a kingdom, b) a law and a decree by which he rules in sovereignty and c) faithful, devoted subjects, citizens of his kingdom who gladly listen to his voice and obey his will and command. “…They will sparkle in his hands like jewels in a crown…” Zec. 9:16
King Philip, for example, could wear any of the three mentioned symbols. When he won a race, he wore a diadem, as a royal priest performing his duty, he brought his people before god and he then wore a stephanos, a wreath. Compare this second symbol with the wreaths on the head of many Roman Emperors — “Divine Caesar.” Even Mr. Nero had a wreath! When King Philip received foreign delegations, or statesmen, he wore his royal crown — stemma — to portray his civil authority, always following the occasion.
Our Lord is the sovereign King, the Priest and de facto the Royal Priest; this is why, by His grace, we also can take the office of ”Royal priesthood”. He brings His people before God offering spiritual sacrifices, having offered Himself FIRST as the perfect sacrifice, having paved the way for us to follow – “preparing a place”. He is also THE prophet, bringing God’s logos — (expression of will) to man and of course He is also the Great Winner, in the Scheme of Redemption, having won all races.
Last but not least and in stark contrast to the ancient games, our race is open to every tongue, to every tribe and every nation, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Php. 2:10,11.

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