Wednesday, January 25, 2012

You may know of the podcast, Men in Blazers, in which the two hosts discuss association football, better known this side of the Atlantic as “soccer.” Primarily they discuss English Premier League football, but American soccer also makes an appearance as does the rest of the world when they have time. The hosts, Roger Bennett and Michael Davies are erudite, witty, and clever, in a way that only Brits seem able to pull off without seeming over the top. They have the English ability to straddle the line between subtlety and absurdity, while constantly mocking the pretensions of others, which is fine since they engage in that other English comedic staple, self-deprecation. But why bring them up here at Bible Junkies, other than to let you know how I spend my afternoons?

Apart from soccer and WWI poetry, there have been two occasions recently in which citations from The Bible and the Talmud have made their way into the Men in Blazers podcast. A couple of weeks ago it was 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, in the context of rapturous delight of fans, and today it was a Talmudic saying describing the many reasons the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, offered for pulling a player from the match, with Roger Bennett saying, “there’s a Talmudic saying, Mickey, ‘When someone offers too many reasons for something, there is really no reason.’” The first citation from the New Testament made me happy, but the Talmudic saying made me delirious. I love to see ancient texts quoted in modern contexts, especially sacred texts, as they are intended to be a part of everyday life, not separated from it. It made me realize that sports and citations from the Bible, Talmud and the Graeco-Roman classics ought to be appearing in many more podcasts, blogs, newspapers, magazine, television and other media to make sense of various events and people. With respect to sports, I want to find more ways to bring ancient wisdom onto the field.

Olympic Stadium in Athens

Here are a few ways this could be done:

1.    The History of Sports in Early Christianity and Judaism: there are a lot of books on Christianity and religion in the 19th century and 20th century, but how many books on sports in the ancient context of Christianity and Judaism? Not many; there is a chapter in my book on children in early Christianity, but I do not know of a book for instance on the Gymnasium, as mentioned in 1 Maccabees 1:14 and 2 Maccabees 4:9-12, in Jerusalem (though Saul Lieberman discussed it in his excellent Greek in Jewish Palestine).

2.   The History of Sports in The Graeco-Roman World: The Greeks created the Olympic Games, The Isthmian Games, the Delphic Games and more! Do enough people know about this? Mark Golden has written books about this and so have many others, but we need to explore all of the ways in which ancient sport influences us today, including the fact that the ancient athletes used to scrape sweat from their bodies with a metal tool called a strigil, mingled with the oil that they rubbed over themselves, and the famous ones used to sell it! This is made for E-Bay! We need more ancient ideas for athletes today.

3.   Citations from Ancient Literature that Can Be Used to Enlighten or Understand Sports or Sports Figures Today: this is how Men In Blazers has used the Talmudic saying and the 1 Thessalonians passage, but we need to mine many more of these. We need citations and passages and sayings that help shed light, for instance, on tough situations in sports. Instead of “our backs are against the wall” with a minute left in a game, we could say, “I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none” (1 Corinthians 7:29). Talk about focus, eh? The Bible is full of such advice, but we have not even spoken of the Talmud, the Mishnah, or The Tosephta. Tosephta Avodah Zarah says, 

T.1:17- R. Eliezer, son of R. Josi the Galilean, says, "if you saw a sage going along the road and you want to travel on the same road, advance (your trip) on his account three days, or delay (your trip) on his account three days, in order that you may travel with him along the way, because angels of peace accompany him. As it is written, "For he will command the angels to guard you in all your ways"(Ps.91:11).

T.1:18- And if you saw a wicked man travelling along the road, and you want to go along the same road, advance (your trip) on his account or delay (your trip) on his account three days, in order that you may not travel with him along the way, because the angels of Satan accompany him. As it is written, "Appoint a wicked man against him and let an accuser stand at his right hand"(Ps.109:6).

T.1:19- R. Simeon ben Eliezer says, "if children would say to you, 'build the Temple', do not listen to them; and if elders say to you, 'destroy the Temple', listen to them. Because the building of youths is destruction, and the destruction of elders is building. This is seen in the matter of Rehoboam, son of Solomon." (My Translations.)
I am not certain how these sayings could be used, but I think 1:17-18 could be used when you either miss the team bus or plane –“Coach, I feared a wicked man was on the road, so I delayed my travel” or if you do not want to travel to the White House with your hockey team – and 1:19 could be applied when you fear your team has too many young players, not enough veterans or when your city has to decide on whether to build yet another stadium. Anyway, the Talmudic literature, not to mention the Bible and the Classics, are a goldmine of sayings like this.

4.   Sports Images used in the Bible and Talmud: sports images are used in the Bible and the best known book is by Victor Pfitzner, Paul and the Agon Motif: Traditional Athletic Imagery in the Pauline Literature, but I think more could be done: what other sayings, not traditionally seen in the context of sports could be utilized in this way? What about this passage from Acts 8 with Simon Magus? 
Acts 8: 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, "Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." 20 But Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God's gift with money! 21 You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God.
I think this passage could be used to argue against the use of agents in sports, trying to make money on gifts given by God. It’s a possibility. It could also be more likely seen in the context of athletes using steroids or other banned substances, trying to gain athletic gifts through monetary means.

5.    Sports and its Relationship to Religion (1): that is, sports in the context of religion, such as the ancient Olympic, Nemean, Pythian or Isthmian Games, which were associated with the worship of particular gods. This is to say nothing of the modern attraction of athletes to religion, not just the most famous, Tim Tebow, but many others who belong to Athletes in Action and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Is there something about sports that attracts participants to religion? Is this found outside of North America? Outside of the ancient context?

6.   Sports and its Relationship to Religion (2): that is, sports as religion. Has there ever been a time when sports have been as, well, worshipped as they are today? "The similarities between sport fandom and organized religion are striking. Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration." While ancient sports were associated with religious festivals and rites, the sports themselves were not a part of religious devotion. Why does sport seem to bleed over into religious fervor? Has this always been so? Why now?

I am partly kidding with some of the passages I quoted from ancient religion in the context of current sports, but only partly. I think the more often ancient texts illuminate present realities, the better we are connected to ancient wisdom and ourselves. I think the better we understand the function of sports in our society, the better we understand ourselves, as a culture and as people.Can you think of any other passages from the Bible, the Talmudic literature or the Greco-Roman classics which might fit in making sense of sports today? Can you think of any other ways in which sport and religion intersect? The model has been given to us by the Men In Blazers podcast, who have "fought the good fight" (1 Timothy 1:18, 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7) and given us a way "to smooth the path of the righteous" (Isaiah 26:7). On we go, our backs are against the wall!
John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


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