Paper on IV Maccabees: Quotes on Athletics

I said I would look at Encyclopedia Judaica and the Jewish Encyclopedia to see if there were references to athletics in Jewish sources. Here’s some of what I found.

Jesse Harold Silver’s article on “Sports” in Encyclopedia Judaica:

“This opposition to sport became even more intensified when, following the intervening period of independence, Roman overlordship was substituted for Greek, and theaters and circuses were linked together as the very antithesis of ‘synagogue and school.’ To the considerations which applied to the gymnasia, were the added factors of cruelty associated with Roman sport, which was not confined to the characteristic aspect of gladiatorial contests, and also the fact that at the theaters the Jews were made the butt of satire, parody, and mockery (cf. Lam. R. intro. 17). The first sentence of the Book of Psalms ‘Happy is the man… who sat not in the seat of the scorners’ was made to apply to those who refrained from attending ‘theaters and circuses and did not attend gladiatorial combats’ (Pes. 148b), and the humane aspect of the opposition finds expression in the ruling that ‘one is permitted to go to stadiums if by his shouting he may save the victim’ (Av. Zar. 18b). It is a fact that at one period of his life the famous amora Simeon b. Lakish (Resh Lakish) was a professional gladiator (Git. 47a), but he justified this on the grounds of grim necessity. The very vehemence of the denunciation of the rabbis would seem to point to the fact that participation in, or at least attendance at, those sports by Jews was widespread.”

Frank H. Vizetelly and Cyrus Adler‘s ATHLETES, ATHLETICS, AND FIELD-SPORTS in Jewish Encyclopedia:

“Among other exercises popular with the Jews were ball-playing, the tourney, and dueling. The first was chiefly practised by the young women, and in some measure resembled tennis; but it brought upon them the displeasure of certain rabbis, who condemned its indulgence, especially on the Sabbath, as one of the causes of the destruction of the Temple (see Lam. R. ii. 4), and probably because it distracted attention from the more serious duties of life (Yer. Ta’anit, iv. 5).”

“That Athletics were not always unpopular with the Rabbis is shown by the various references found in rabbinical literature. In Gen. R. (lxxvii. 2) there is a comparison of ‘an athlete engaged in battle with the son of a king,’ and in Ex. R. (xxi. 10) is another: ‘as two athletes, one weak and one strong; one overcomes the other and places a wreath on his head.'”

I don’t see much about sports being against the law, though, of course, the rabbinic prohibition may count as law. But it’s not absolute, since one could be a gladiator out of necessity, or attend a stadium to save someone’s life. There is a sense that sports distact Jews from more important things, and one tradition says the temple was destroyed because too many Jews played ball. In II Maccabees 4, one problem with the gymnasium was that it distracted priests from the temple service.

Tomorrow, I’ll see if I can find anything about Jewish attitudes towards nudity, since people exercised in the gymnasium naked.

Two more notes:

1. In the EJ article, there seems to be a belief that the Jews developed their antipathy to sports as a result of Jason’s gymnasium, which involved the removal of the marks of circumcision. That differs from Bickerman’s view that sports were against Jewish law, and that this is what motivated Jewish concern about the gym. It assumes that circumcision was what sparked the concern, not sports per se. The opposition to sports arose as a by-product, in Silver’s opinion.

2. Robert Doran, “The High Cost of a Jewish Education,” Hellenism in the Land of Israel, ed. John J. Collins and Gregory E. Sterling (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001) 94-115.

Doran argues that Jason’s gymnasium was a place of Jewish education, not just Greek. He also states that one Jewish view denied that removing the marks of circumcision invalidated a Jew’s relationship with the covenant (106-107). Consequently, while some Jews were offended by Jason’s “reform,” others saw it as consistent with Judaism.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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5 Responses to Paper on IV Maccabees: Quotes on Athletics

  1. Doug Ward says:

    Thanks for posting this. I started reading about Christian reactions to Roman games after hearing a lecture on the subject:

    But I had never read much about Jewish reactions to Roman sports.

    Incidentally, there’s a lecture on crowd dynamics at the arena coming to Cincinnati in November; see


  2. James Pate says:

    Thank you for the information, Doug. Have you ever written for the Journal? Your name sounds familiar.


  3. Doug Ward says:

    There are a couple of times when you might have seen my name in The Journal. There was an article I wrote on the ark of the covenant that The Journal reprinted two different times.

    And in June 2005, I was involved in a debate with Anthony Buzzard on the deity of Jesus. The Journal covered that event.


  4. James Pate says:

    Yeah, that’s what I remember you from: the deity of Jesus debate–Buzzard, Fakhoury, Snow. If I’m not mistaken, you were on the pro-Jesus-is-God side, and you addressed those passages in Isaiah where God says he’s God and there’s no other. But then there was someone who denied Jesus preexisted. Was that you, or someone else?


  5. Doug Ward says:

    I’m an orthodox Trinitarian, and so I was arguing for the preexistence of Jesus. I make my case in

    The unitarians,of course, all deny the preexistence of Jesus. So the question of whether that preexistence is “notional” or “actual” is one of the major foci of those debates.


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