One of the most enduring and persistent images ancient Greco-Roman philosophers used to depict the struggle of the good life was the metaphor of life as a race. Writers as diverse as Epictetus and Cicero illustrated the moral struggle through the metaphor of a run or a marathon. There is a start, there are difficulties and discouragements along the way, there is the time between the start and the finish, and there is the possibility of not finishing the race, of losing, or not accomplishing what one set out to do.1 If one is to succeed in life, one must prepare for it and embrace it much as a runner must do for a race. Those who train accordingly will be successful.
Thus, the idea of applying athletics and sports as a metaphor for life was common and widespread in the ancient world. The early Christians were not unique in utilizing this imagery, and it seems likely that they were borrowing much of their ideas from these other writers or people like them. When examining the New Testament, then, to look at the various ways in which athletic imagery appears there, it is important to avoid the temptation to think that there is something uniquely divine about using those ideas. Understanding that life is a race, or that God has called people into the contest or struggle of life as an athlete, is not uniquely Christian. Our interest in this use of athletic imagery, then, should not focus simply on the fact that some Christians described the life of discipleship in athletic terms, but rather on how they used those images.
The context for the book of Hebrews is one of Christians who are wavering and considering giving up.2 Most commentators identify them as recent converts, likely from a Jewish context, either as Gentiles who worshipped in a synagogue or Jews themselves, who have been stripped of the familiar rituals of their former faith, like animal sacrifice, that brought them comfort and security. They had abandoned those rites when they became followers of Jesus. Now, however, things have become difficult for them, as they are outsiders in their social context and face the pressure to conform again. They face ridicule and isolation since they no longer belong to the same social circles they once did.3
In chapter 12 the author begins to employ athletic imagery. He describes those former heroes of faith as spectators, a “cloud of witnesses,” encouraging the current generation (12:1).4 They are not just spectators; they were once participants who have already nearly finished their course, as the author informs us, for he has explained that “though they were commended for their faith, [they] did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (11:39). It is worth reproducing the text here in full:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1–3)
And so here the author introduces the central image that will control his ideas from 12:1–13.5 He explains that this wandering about and moving of their predecessors was actually movement towards a goal, a journey, a race.6 He employs the image of the ancient marathon in the Olympic games, which would begin with the runners far from the city in a remote place with few observers, moving through increasing crowds with increasing fatigue, until finally they emerge into the stadium with a mass of spectators. These spectators are the heroes of faith who have preceded the current generation, but the runners cannot finish without the spectators.7
But all of this imagery seems rather conventional. Imagining life as a race and comparing the preparation one must endure for a run as a metaphor for the kind of work one must do to be successful at life is not a novel idea. The author of Hebrews did not create this idea; he has borrowed it. As we mentioned above the idea of using a race as a metaphor for the moral or spiritual life was standard practice for the Cynic and Stoic philosophers of the ancient Roman world. In fact, this imagery was so common that it appears throughout the ancient world. It was as common then as it is now.8
This athletic metaphor is helpful, but how is it being utilized differently than how the Stoics deployed it? Is the author of Hebrews just baptizing something that was out in the broader culture and giving it Christian clothes? If all that we learn from Hebrews is that our Christian life is like a race––that we need to endure, prepare, run hard––then how is this moral struggle not the same as being a Stoic?9 If the message is simply that life is like a race––or even that discipleship is like a race––then it seems the author has really said nothing profound or original, certainly nothing Christian. What makes this athletic imagery uniquely Christian?
The obvious answer is Christ. Why that is the case is perhaps not so obvious.
It should not at all be surprising to learn that Jesus sits at the heart of Hebrews theological reflection. But Jesus is not just the thematic but also the structural center of this passage, which reveals a chiasm with Jesus at its center.10 The author of Hebrews instructs his readers to keep their eyes on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”11 There are several features immediately revealing about this instruction:
1.The author uses the simple name “Jesus,” highlighting the human from Nazareth. Jesus is a model because Jesus was human, like the audience to which the author of Hebrews writes.12 He ran the same race as them.
2.Jesus is called the pioneer of faith; he goes before them, scopes out the path, and prepares it for them. He is not just someone who has gone before them, he is the one who has mapped out the course in its entirety.13
3.Thus, Jesus is also the perfecter of faith. This word means something like someone who fulfills in every way possible. Jesus has not only run before them, and not only the one who was run first before all others, but he has run as completely and fully as possible.14
If all that we added to the previous section was that Jesus was a prior, first, best runner we still would not have added much to the generic image of the runner in Stoic terms, except that now our moral transformation is linked with Jesus specifically. However, it is precisely because it is linked specifically with Jesus that the imagery is used in new ways. It is not just that Jesus is the one who runs before us as the pioneer or the one who runs completely as a perfecter; it is the way that Jesus runs that matters:15 The second part of this post explains the unique way Jesus runs.
- See Epictetus, Discourses 1.24.1-3; 3.22.51-52; 3.25.2-5; Cicero, De officiis 3.10.12.
- For a more detailed description of the rhetorical situation reflected in Hebrews, which is all we can know with confidence, see Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary, New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 33–38.
- It is important to acknowledge that even though Hebrews argues against a return by its readers to the Jewish cultic worship from which they left, Hebrews itself is not supersessionistic and should not be read as a missive of Christianity against Judaism. “[The author] therefore does not set Christians in opposition to Jews, but instead contrasts the generation of fathers that broke the Sinai covenant (Heb. 3–4) with the generation of sons and daughters, heirs of the land, and now those are addressed by the covenant renewal (Heb. 2).” Gabriella Gelardini, Deciphering the Worlds of Hebrews: Collected Essays, Vol. 184, Supplements to Novum Testamentum (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 331.
- Unless otherwise noted all Scripture is NRSV.
- David Alan Black, “A Note on the Structure of Hebrews 12,1-2,” Biblica 68, no. 4 (1987): 550, suggested that a hymn may be behind the language of this section, using poetic language to highlight his main theme that Jesus is “better.”
- Zoe Hollinger has recently argued that the phrase “τρέχωμεν τὸν . . . ἀγῶνα” in Heb. 12:1 should not be translated as “run. . . the race” but rather more akin to engaging in a struggle of life and death (“Rethinking the Translation of τρέχωμεν τὸν . . . ἀγῶνα in Hebrews 12.1 in Light of Ancient Graeco-Roman Literature” The Bible Translator 70, no. 1 (2019): 94-111). She noted that in many places where those terms appear together in other ancient literature without explicit reference to athletics then it does not refer to a race but a fight for survival (cf. especially the two references to Euripides where athletic imagery is both present and absent, 99–100). In light of how the philosophical tradition appropriated the language of running, in particular, and the agonistic tradition in general, it still seems best to me to translate this passage with race language, and receiving Hollinger’s advice that, “If translators insist on retaining the translation ‘run’ for τρέχω, then it should be made clear that ‘run’ has the connotation of onward progress, with ἀγών taking on the notion of ‘risk’ or ‘struggle’ in order to preserve the nuance of struggle in the face of conflict or death, which is paramount here” (108).
- Thomas G. Long, “What Cloud? What Witnesses? A Preacher’s Exegesis of 12:1-2,” Word & World 28, no. 4 (2008): 356, noted that “it is not an individual footrace, reach runner headed for the finish line, but instead a relay race.”
- The prevalence of this theme is well observed in nearly all the literature on this passage, where the interpretation seems to center on emulating Jesus’ endurance in one’s own “race of faith.” See Stephanie Nash, “An Example of the Traditional Bible Study Model Based on Hebrews 11:1-12:2,” Review and Expositor 107, no. 2 (2010): 224–25; Do Kyun Lim, “An Exegesis of Hebrews 12:1-3: Emulate the Endurance of Jesus!” ACTS Theological Journal 41 (2019): 188–89; Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 355; Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 639.
- As seems to be the case with David A. Renwick, “Hebrews 11:29-12:2” Interpretation 57, no. 3 (2003): 300, who suggests that the author approaches his audience “like a motivating coach at a sporting event” whose “primary concern is to help readers deal effectively with the Christian ‘game’ of life.. . . ”
- Black, “Structure of Hebrews 12,1-2,” 546. “In other words, the structure of the colon clearly shows how ‘running the race with endurance’ is the main theme, though the climactic, periodic style results in this theme quickly abandoned and exchanged for ‘Jesus and who he is.’ Thus it is Jesus, and not the runners (past or present), who is emphasized as the focal element of the discourse” (italics original).
- Todd D. Still, “Christos as Pistos: The Faith(fulness) of Jesus in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69, no. 4 (2007): 746–55, outlined how the new(er) Pauline debate about translating πίστις Χριστοῦ as “the faithfulness of Christ” also finds expression in the book of Hebrews, with Heb. 12:1–3 being particularly notable.
- Ellingworth, Hebrews, 639, noted that this is the first time since 10:19 that Jesus has been mentioned by name.
- “Pioneer” is an apt translation as it embodies both the notion of “leader” and “founder” that ἀρχηγός implies. “If an emphasis is meant for 12.2, then the athletic imagery would support Jesus’ leadership in the race of faith.” Christopher A. Richardson, Pioneer and Perfector of Faith: Jesus’ Faith as the Climax of Israel’s History in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Vol 338, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament 338 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 99.
- N. Clayton Croy, “A Note on Hebrews 12:2,” Journal of Biblical Literature 114, no. 1 (1995): 118–19, highlighted two ancient parallels that utilize the rare word τελειωτήν in Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Polybius. In both cases the word contrasts with the idea of founder or inventor and refers to one who “perfects” or “refines” a particular style or idea. The significance for its use here in Hebrews 12 is that both terms apply to Jesus. “He, according to the author, is both originator and consummator of faith. He is the ‘prototype,’ but not one to be transcended by subsequent improvements, for his is also faith’s paragon” (italics original).
- This emphasis can be lost when Heb. 12:2 is translated as “the originator and perfecter of our faith,” as though Jesus’ efforts were mainly geared towards shoring up belief in himself amongst his followers. When Jesus is understood as a participant in faith, as one who has his own faith and models that for others, then the better translation will understand this phrase to herald Jesus as the originator and perfecter of faith(fulness) itself. See Gerald Glynn O’Collins, “The Faith of Jesus: Translating Hebrews 12:2a,” The Expository Times 132, no. 9 (2021): 387–93. O’Collins noted seventeen different English translations that utilize “our faith” and only five that leave it simply as “faith” (390).