Paul and Stoic Athletics

Paul illustrates a conundrum similar to Seneca in his spectacle and athletic metaphors. In his spectacle metaphor in 1 Corinthians 4, Paul tells the Corinthians that he is exhibited in the Roman arena as the “dregs of this world.” Whereas some at Corinth have the opportunity to have lavish dinner parties, Paul inhabits a lowly position. He is in the center of the arena, standing on the sands of its floor, like a criminal to be executed.

By Janelle Peters
Loyola Marymount
October 2021

Philosophers who have said that virtue must be pursued by means of spiritual exercises have ranged from the Stoics to Paul the Apostle to Ignatius Loyola to Pierre Hadot. For Stoic philosophers Cicero, Epictetus, and Seneca, struggle makes the philosopher more virtuous. Cicero looks to the gladiators to highlight the accessibility of moral training to all, even those whom the powerful consider marginal. Epictetus compares the philosopher to an athlete who may compete in the greatest contest on a daily basis. In his work on providence, Seneca says that a benevolent God places those whom he most cherishes in difficult circumstances in order to refine them. Just as one trains one’s body, one trains one’s soul. Exercising virtue involves laborious effort. It requires the sage to manifest courage in the face of overwhelming odds or evil.

Paul resembles these thinkers in his athletic metaphors. Like Epictetus, he advocates daily training for a transcendent honor. Like Seneca, he compares the philosophical condition to being put on display in the arena. Such a scenario is precisely the one that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians when he claims to be on display in the arena by the will of God in chapter 4. Later, in chapter 9, Paul tells the Corinthians that he trains his body so as not to be disqualified himself after preaching the good news of Jesus to all his communities.

I compare Paul with these philosophers in the early Roman Empire. While Paul does not say that he is directly interacting with the ideas of Epictetus or Seneca, he does mention masculine philosophers and experts in 1 Corinthians 1. Paul uses athletic tropes common from Cynic-Stoic discourse to present himself to the Corinthians as a humbler authority, demonstrating that true virtue focuses not on present honor but on eternal glory, where status distinctions are erased.

Stoic Athletic Imagery

Just as Rocky Balboa gloried in his unbroken nose in the first Rocky and Ali bragged he was the “prettiest thing that ever lived,” ancient Greek athletes considered physical beauty a prize, as I note in Paul and the Citizen Body (available from Mohr Siebeck). Breadmaking imagery represented the sport’s potential for physical disfigurement. According to Theocritus, champion Polydeukes kneads his opponent like dough (22.11). A champion boxer avoided any large blows. A virtuous champion boxer could win without turning others into bread. In Dio Chrysostom’s Orations, Melancomas dances around his opponent for hours. Whereas lesser boxers punch quickly and decisively to see if they can obtain a quick knockout, Melancomas’ strategy is to outlast his opponent on his footwork. Dio approves of Melancomas’ stamina and self-control (29.14). Given possible measures such as ladders to keep boxers in proximity, this description of Melancomas is also a philosophical manifesto (Poliakoff 1987, 516).  

As a Roman Stoic from the early imperial period, Seneca differs from his Greek counterparts. Seneca believes in the difficulty of boxing, and not because the Roman art world has produced athletic imagery such as the Boxer of Quirinal, a sculpture of an athlete who is worn and spent from his exertions. Seneca has seen the rise of a new political order based on physical combat. He doubts that good athletic victors will always emerge from their matches unscathed. Virtue is not always determined by a lack of struggle, and courage can only be proven in the face of ill fortune. In his On Providence, Seneca writes:

Bodies grown fat through sloth are weak, and not only labour, but even movement and their very weight cause them to break down. Unimpaired prosperity cannot withstand a single blow; but he who has struggled constantly with his ills becomes hardened through suffering, and yields to no misfortune; nay, even if he falls, he still fights upon his knees. Do you wonder if that God, who most dearly loves the good, who wishes them to become supremely good and virtuous, allots to them a fortune that will make them struggle? (Basore 1928, 11).

Seneca positions the struggle, which the Greeks would call an agon (hence agony or antagonist), as a necessary component of cultivating virtue. Blows from an adversary prove one’s strength. Seneca’s God is a good god, and God loves the good. The reason that God allows the good to suffer—that is, the problem of theodicy—is because God wants them to become even more virtuous than they already are. Virtue, for Seneca, requires struggle.

Epictetus, another Roman Stoic, also thinks that the philosophical life is like training and competing in an athletic contest. In Arrian’s recounting of Epictetus’ Discourses, he exhorts his audience to continue against hard obstacles: “Those competing in the greatest contest should not fade out, but take the blows too” (Long 2002, 111). By the greatest contest, of course, Epictetus means life. Philosophical training resembles athletic training in that it requires real effort. Those who give up a match here and there may take heart, since “if once you win a victory, you are as though you had never given in at all” (Oldfather 1928, 225). The main thing is not to end up forfeiting every event on the circuit “like quails that run away” (Long 2002, 112). Epictetus uses athletic events from Greek athletics—wrestling, pankration—to demonstrate the intensity of philosophical training. Though it is not a forgiving sport, those who stumble may nonetheless redeem themselves by showing courage and strength for a single win, a victory that will wash away the memories of the many struggles that it took to get there.

 A quick glance at Cicero’s use of gladiatorial imagery in Tusculan Disputations 2.41 shows how much Stoic philosophy has changed with Epictetus and Seneca in the first century. A Roman philosopher during the late Republic, Cicero prioritizes adversity for the spiritual progress of the philosopher. He uses the gladiator, drawn either from the destitute or the barbarian men in Rome, as an example of how even someone of the most nominal virtue can achieve spiritual greatness: “See, how men, who have been well trained, prefer to receive a blow rather than basely avoid it!” (King 1927, 193). If the Samnite can face the prospect of combat and death in public view with perfect composure, Cicero asks, “shall a man born to fame have any portion of his soul so weak that he cannot strengthen it by systematic preparation?” (King 1927, 193). Philosophers should be able to emulate and exceed the gladiators in spiritual training. Like Seneca, he uses the image of the arena to explain how to achieve virtue, but he differs from Seneca in retaining a smidge of elitism as he is doing so.

Looking at these three Stoic authors of the first centuries BCE and CE, one can see that all of them have been influenced by the popular athletics of their day. They use sports imagery to encourage their audiences to undertake philosophical training and to achieve moral perfection. For Epictetus, Greek athletics show us that one failure does not determine the course of the philosopher’s life—the philosopher may encounter bumps along the way to spiritual perfection. Both Cicero and Seneca use the imagery of the Roman arena and its gladiatorial combat to show that the good can suffer and that suffering can make them stronger. Writing from the Roman Empire and not the Republic Cicero knew, Seneca is clearer than Cicero that ill fortune can fall upon both the good and the bad, and, in fact, God disciplines those whom he loves the most. However, all three Stoics show us that athletic imagery played a central role in Stoic ideas about moral training and its ends.

Paul’s Athletic Imagery in 1 Corinthians

Paul illustrates a conundrum similar to Seneca in his spectacle and athletic metaphors. In his spectacle metaphor in 1 Corinthians 4, Paul tells the Corinthians that he is exhibited in the Roman arena as the “dregs of this world.” Whereas some at Corinth have the opportunity to have lavish dinner parties, Paul inhabits a lowly position. He is in the center of the arena, standing on the sands of its floor, like a criminal to be executed (Nguyen 2007, 289). Paul uses for athletic references in 1 Corinthians for two main reasons. First, his spectacle metaphors depict the adversity he faces as he preaches the gospel. Second, his athletic metaphors demonstrate the rigor and intent with which all Christians should undertake spiritual discipline. Both uses indicate his apostolic commitment. Visually, the apostle appears to the world as one condemned (Heath 2013, 140). Wiedemann notes that the spectacle’s reinscription of the social order matches the humiliation of Jesus to reassert the power of the king (Wiedemann 1995, 70).

And who is responsible? God. It is God who has edited the story of life so that the editor of the games puts Paul in the arena. This is very much like Seneca, who also attributes the trials and tribulations of life to a good God who allots suffering to make his beloved philosophers even better. God has allowed not only Paul to appear in the arena in disgrace. Apostles have been given suffering for the greater glory of God and the overall flourishing of understanding of the good.

Paul contrasts the humble position of the apostle in the arena with the Corinthians’ pretensions of kingship. “Already, you have all you want!,” Paul chides, “already you are kings!” The lack of worldly honors is not a problem for Paul. The philosopher does not hope for a crown in this world. He or she is content to be on display before angels, condemned to die. In subsequent chapters, Paul will claim that he fought beasts in Ephesus secure in the knowledge of his future resurrection and an eternal life after that resurrection (1 Cor 15:32), a belief held by Stoics and participants in the Eleusinian mysteries as well as Christians. Fighting against the passions is the way for moral advancement (O’Reilly 2020, 76). At the same time, as enslaved persons could be sold into beast fighting until later legislation (Wiedemann 1995, 75). This claim on the part of Paul underscores his solidarity with enslaved persons, much like other places in the letter (Peters 2020, 431).

In the athletic metaphors of 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, Paul resembles Epictetus. He says that he beats his body and enslaves it. It is this pre-beaten and bruised body that Paul hopes will not be disqualified. Here, Paul could be training in order to compete in the first place—to have the training to be admitted to compete or to build the muscle memory not to false start, for instance. In order to win, he does not run for leisure, he runs in a directed fashion so as to prepare for the footrace. Paul does not beat the air like a shadow boxer. He makes sure that he knows how to make the direct contact necessary to win a boxing match.

Like Epictetus, Paul envisions a single event determining the permanent victory of its competitors. He reminds the Corinthians that there is a singular prize at an athletic competition. Therefore, they must “run so as to win.” Though they previously may have not undertaken a path of philosophical training or spiritual discipline, the members of the Corinthian house-churches all have the opportunity to win the race. Their background and present social status do not matter. In fact, they might even have victory over an apostle like Paul.

However, Paul differs from Epictetus in that Paul claims that he himself might be disqualified, despite having preached to others. Again, Paul personalizes the material we find in other philosophers. Whereas Seneca and other Stoics think through the lens of an arena in which they have not found themselves, Paul earlier assigned to himself the possibility that he might be condemned in the arena while the Corinthians are kings. Now, he speculates that they might win the race while he finds himself out of competition altogether. 

The point of Paul’s rhetoric in the athletic metaphors in 1 Corinthians 9, though, is not to compare himself with the Corinthians. As Pfitzner has observed, Paul’s use of athletic imagery departs from the individualistic focus of moral training of the Stoics (Pfitzner 1967, 190). Paul worries that he might be disqualified while those who have received his teaching go on to eternal glory. He does not raise the prospect of unhealthy competition. Paul is not afraid that one of the Corinthians will trip him or even just outpace him. Paul is afraid that he will not have practiced what he has preached, and that lack of preparation will result in his disqualification. The Corinthians, meanwhile, must simply “run so as to win.” Paul anticipates that they will have the prerequisite muscles and skills. The apostle is emphasizing his own humility to emphasize to his churches the need to train with diligence.

Paul is also trying to reorient the Corinthians toward an eternal perspective. He wants to diminish the value of “perishable crowns” in favor of honors that will carry over into the heavenly kingdom (Peters 2015, 81). The reason that Paul brings up the labor of the pagan athletes competing for botanical crowns is because he wants to praise the effort of the athletes as virtuous. All athletes train hard and discipline their bodies for fleeting fame and glory. The ancient Greeks consider this to evince self-discipline. Athletes put in daily exertions to have a chance of coming in first in their event. Those in Corinth who believe in Christ should take note of the virtue of self-discipline and hard work (Peters 2015, 80). They should apply the same labor to training their souls.


Athletic imagery was a common trope in Stoic philosophy. For Cicero, the transcendence achieved by gladiators in the Roman arena proved that all could make philosophical progress. Epictetus similarly points out that one need only attain one victory in the Greek games to be considered a champion. A single moment of discipline, training, and luck coming together could erase previous shortcomings. This does not mean that the good will always win, but it does mean that the good should keep trying their best. For Seneca, physical combat demonstrates that the good will not escape trials and tribulations, but they can take comfort in the fact that the divine order is a benevolent one. God allots suffering to the good in order to perfect them through spiritual training.

Paul’s picture of himself in the arena differs from the metaphor of the gladiator employed by Cicero, Epictetus, and Seneca to demonstrate the discipline in both athletics and rhetoric. Christians are not Stoics looking to defeat the best possible opponent. They are not simply receiving blows because God disciplines those whom he loves. For Paul, Christians distinguish themselves by striving in agonistic competition for an eternal crown, not fleeting worldly fame. If they are in the arena as those condemned to die, they draw attention to the true world order, the one in which the resurrection is a reality. The good train with the hope that they will rise to eternal participation in Christ.

As an apostle, Paul himself does not take his receipt of a heavenly crown and participation in the body of Christ for granted. He trains his body to the point of bruising. He reminds the Corinthians that the crown for a race is a singular crown. In case the Corinthians were tempted to work only as hard as the top athletes at the games—whether at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, or Isthmia—the apostle reminds them that elite athletes discipline their bodies for a crown made of leaves from a tree. The botanical crown for which they have labored so hard will not last. By contrast, Paul and the Corinthians seek an imperishable crown. Should they not all train even harder than Olympic athletes?

The individualistic orientation found in the Stoics, as Pfitzner noted, is not present in Paul. The apostle does not describe moral training as a process through which everyone may journey. He actively exhorts a particular community to give their full effort to attain eternal glory. The crown they seek is a singular crown, and yet they do not need to worry about competing against one another. Like Paul, they need only concern themselves with exercising their philosophical muscles so hard that their minds feel bruised and the chance of disqualification is negligible.



Primary Sources

Cicero. Tusculan Disputations. Translated by J. E. King; Loeb Classical Library 141; Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1927.

Epictetus. Discourses, Books 3–4. Fragments. The Encheiridion. Translated by W. A. Oldfather. Loeb Classical Library 218; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928.

Seneca. Moral Essays, Volume I: De Providentia. De Constantia. De Ira. De Clementia. Translated by John W. Basore. Loeb Classical Library 214; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928.

Secondary Sources

Arnold, Bradley. Christ as the Telos of Life: Moral Philosophy, Athletic Imagery, and the Aim of Philippians. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.

Coleman, Kathleen. “Fatal charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments.” Journal of Roman Studies 80 (1990): 44–73.

Garrison, Roman. “Paul’s Use of the Athlete Metaphor in 1 Corinthians 9.” Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 22 (1993): 207–17.

Goodrich, John K. Paul as an Administrator of God in 1 Corinthians. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2012.

Heath, J.M.F. Paul’s Visual Piety: The Metamorphosis of the Beholder. Oxford: Oxford, 2013.

Inwood, Brad. Reading Seneca. Stoic Philosophy at Rome. Oxford: Oxford, 2005.

König, Jason. Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2005.

Long, A.A. Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. Oxford: Oxford, 2002.

Nguyen, V. Henry T. “The Identification of Paul’s Spectacle of Death Metaphor in 1 Corinthians 4.9.” New Testament Studies 53 (2007): 489–501.

O’Reilly, Matt. Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2020.

Peters, Janelle. “Crowns in 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and 1 Corinthians.” Biblica 96 (2015): 67-84.

Peters, Janelle. “Slavery and the Gendered Construction of Worship Veils in 1 Corinthians.” Biblica 101 (2020): 431-443.

Pfizner, Victor C. Paul and the Agon Motif. Leiden: Brill, 1967.

Poliakoff, Michael B. “Melankomas, ek klimakos, and Greek Boxing.” American Journal of Philology 108 (1987): 511-518.

Poplutz, Uta. Athlet des Evangeliums: Eine motivgeschichtliche Studie zur Wettkampfmetaphorik bei Paulus. Freiburg: Herder, 2004.

Wiedemann, Thomas. Emperors and Gladiators. London: Routledge, 1995.



Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.