It’s back to business and the main focus of this blog: interpreting the Apostle Paul in his Greco-Roman context. In the past, I had done a series of posts on athleticism in the Mediterranean world during the early imperial period of Rome. But when I was visiting the Getty Villa last summer, I came across a stunning mosaic from the Gallo-Roman period discovered in the archaeological ruins of a Roman villa in present-day Villelaure, France. I thought it worth discussing the boxing scene depicted in this mosaic floor made of stone and glass:

Roman Mosaic of two Boxers (ca. A.D. 175)
Photo by Max Lee © 2015 from the Getty Villa

In the above photo, we have the artist’s depiction of the aged Sicilian boxing champ Entellus (left) and the younger Trojan hero Dares (right) who is bleeding from a wound inflicted by Entellus. In the background is the prize bull for the winner (no-brainer: Entellus won!) which, according to Virgil’s Aeneid, was punched so hard by Entellus, he cracked the bull’s skull and killed it as a sacrifice to the gods. 
    Even more interesting is how both boxers wear caesti or leather gloves, often wrapped with iron balls or lead around the boxers’ hands to increase the force of the blows. It goes without saying that such blows could prove fatal in the ring.
    The mosaic is a shocking reminder that boxing was brutal in the ancient world, and the athlete who engages in it required focus, stamina, discipline, training and endurance. Ancient boxers made modern MMA fighters look like wimps. 
    Therefore it is all the more striking (pardon the pun!) how the Apostle Paul uses the boxing metaphor to describe the discipline and focus needed in ministry: 

25 Every competitor/athlete (ὁ ἀγωνιζόμενος) exercises self-control over all things; they do this to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box (πυκτεύω) as though beating the air; 27 but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after I proclaim (κηρύξας) [the gospel] to others, I myself shall not become disqualified. (1 Cor 9:25-27)

The minister is the spiritual athlete. The one who proclaims the gospel to others and learns to become all things to all people so that by all means he or she might save some (cf. 9:22) requires the focus and precision of an expert boxer who disciplines one’s own body and trains it, but also stays on mission without distraction. Everyone who preaches the gospel knows that ministry can be more brutal than boxing.