Running in the Bible

Its Implications for the Christian Life

Swiss painter Eugene Burnand’s 1898 oil on canvas of Peter and John Running to the Tomb.

In the United State of America in the early twenty-first century, running is one of the most popular forms of physical exercise. Of these, today’s runners, one might ask: how many know that running has a significant place in the Bible? Many might be familiar with Saint Paul’s reference to running in his First Letter to the Corinthians (9:24–27):

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.

The Jerome Biblical Commentary explains for us Paul’s reference here:

Corinth was famous for the Isthmian games celebrated there every two years. The sporting contents suggested to Paul the example he now uses. For example his reference to “a perishable crown” refers to the fact that prizes for the great Greek games were not money or expensive gifts, but honorific crowns, symbols of victory for supremacy: a laurel wreath for the victors of the Pythian games at Delphi; an olive wreath for the victors in the Olympics at Athens; and at Corinth, a wreath of pine branches for the victors of the Isthmian games.1

The entry on “athletics” in the Oxford Classical Dictionary further elucidates Paul’s athletic metaphor when it says: “The Greeks were more interested in athletic contests between individuals than in team games, and athletic competitions were popular and numerous.”2 It goes on to say that at major athletic festivals the principal athletic event was running, and that took three forms: the stadium race which was about 200 meters, the diaulos, which was two lengths of the stadium, and the long-distance race which could be as much as 24 lengths of the stadium.

Paul’s use of the image of the Christian life as comparable to a runner training to race is a good one because it reminds us of the importance of daily religious exercises such as prayer and perhaps fasting or acts of charity or penance.

However, we should also note that Paul’s use in First Corinthians of the image of racing is not his only reference to that sport. In his Second Letter to Timothy he says, “I have finished the race” (4:7). Moreover, Paul is not the only New Testament writer to use the image of running the race as a symbol of the Christian life. In the Epistle to the Hebrews we are told, “let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us” (12:1).

But it is also important to note that the use of this image of running as a metaphor for the spiritual life is not the sole preserve of the New Testament, the Old Testament also supplies us with several references to running. In Job 9:25 we hear the lament “my days are swifter than a runner.” In Psalm 119, we hear it said “I will run the way of your commandments” (v. 32). And in the Book of Proverbs, we read “the just run along joyfully” (29:6).

But we should also note that Old Testament references to running are not usually references to athletic activities. Old Testament references to runners are usually references to messengers or to soldiers. For example, in Second Samuel 18:19 we read: “Then Ahimaz, son of Zalok, said ‘Let me run to take the good news to the king.” Jeremiah 51:31 describes relay runners who carry the message of the fall of Babylon: “One runner meets another, herald meets herald, telling the king of Babylon that all his city is taken.” But note carefully the reference to warriors running in Joel 2:7: “Like warriors they run.” What Joel says there helps to remind us that soldiers in the ancient world were not transported, instead they had to march and if necessary run to where they were needed. And, indeed, a group of soldiers running together could be a bad sign, a sign of retreat from defeat as in Second Samuel 18:24–25:

Now David was sitting between the two gates, and a lookout mounted to the roof of the gate above the city wall, where he looked about and saw a man running all alone. The lookout shouted to inform the king, who said, “If he is alone, he has good news to report.”

Finally, we should note the fact that in the New Testament there is described to us an important race, and that is the race between Peter and Paul to the tomb of Jesus. That race between Peter and John is narrated to us in the penultimate chapter of John’s gospel. In John 20:1–8, we are told:

On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord form the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciples also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first.

 

It is interesting that in the history of exegesis and Christian preaching very little reference is made to this passage. For example, I could find no reference to it in the works of Ambrose or Augustine, nor in the works of Aquinas or Bernard of Clairvaux. It could be that most biblical commutators or preachers saw this passage as mere historical witness to the fact that Peter was much older than John and in no such good physical shape as to give John competition. However, I did discover a few theological or spiritual interpretations of this race between Peter and John.

Pope Gregory I was born at Rome into a patrician Roman family and as a young man followed his father into government service. But after the death of his father, Gregory became a monk and was soon made a deacon of Rome by Pope Pelagius. And when Pelagius died in 590, Gregory himself became pope.  In the year 604 Gregory produced a book on pastoral care. It consists of forty sermons on the Gospels. Homily 22 is on John 20:1–9. And there Gregory offers a very imaginative interpretation of the race to the tomb undertaken by Peter and John:

What, my friends, what does this running signify? Can we believe that the evangelist’s very profound narrative lacks a mystical meaning? Surely not. John would not have said that he arrived first but did not enter unless he believed that there was a mystical significance to his hesitation. What does John signify, then, if not the synagogue, and Peter, if not the Church?

We shouldn’t be surprised to find the synagogue said to be signified by the young apostle, and the Church by the elder, because although the synagogue was earlier than the Church of the Gentiles in worshipping God, still by the world’s reckoning the multitude of Gentiles existed prior to the synagogue, as Paul testifies when he says that it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical [1 Cor 15:46]. And so the Church of the Gentiles is designated by the older of the two, Peter, and the synagogue of the Jews by the younger, John.3

However, I prefer the interpretation given by Gregory of Palamas. Gregory was born at Constantinople in 1296, he became a monk of Mount Athos, but later, in 1347, he was made archbishop of Thessalonika. In the year 2009, Mount Thabor Publishing of Waymart, Pennsylvania, published a translation by Christopher Veniamin of all sixty-three of Gregory’s extant homilies. I quote here from homily five, where Palamas says of John 20:3–6:

At one time Peter had a mother-in-law (cf. Mk 1:29–31, Lk 4:38–39), but he did not lag behind the virgin John when they both ran to the tomb where life began (cf. Jn 20:3–6). In some ways he even surpassed John, for he was appointed leader of the leaders by their Lord (cf. Mt 16:18–19, Jn 21:15–17).

Palamas, himself a celibate monk, begins by noting the fact that Peter was married. But then he goes on to point out the special dignity of Peter among the twelve apostles, what we might call the primacy of Peter, suggesting that is why, though John got to the tomb first, he did not enter in but instead waited for Peter to arrive and then let Peter precede him. There is an important lesson here for all Christians: no Christian runs alone, not only is the Lord calling us forward but we are part of a community of faith. Jesus Himself emphasized the importance of community in the faith when he said, “where two or three are gathered together there am I in their midst.” But within the community of Christian faith there is an order and even a hierarchy. In the earliest work of the Christian movement, Paul admonishes the Christians at Thessalonika: “respect those who are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess 5:12). And thus, while one might make great strides in one’s own religious life of prayer and study, one should still respect authority in the Church, even when, like Peter who once denied Jesus, Church authorities do not always live up to their high calling.

  1. Jerome Biblical Commentary (Prentic Hall, 1968), 268.
  2. Oxford Classical Dictionary (Clarendon Press, 1979), 142.
  3. Gregory the Great: Forty Gospel Homilies, trans. David Hurst (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1990), 165.
Lawrence B. Porter, STL, PhD About Lawrence B. Porter, STL, PhD

Lawrence B. Porter, STB, STL, STLr, PhD, is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, and a professor of systematic theology in the Seminary/School of Theology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ. In his thirty years of teaching, Porter has published two books, A Guide to the Church (2008) and The Assault on Priesthood (2012), and more than thirty articles in various pastoral and theological journals. Porter regularly presides and preaches at the noon time Sunday Mass at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Hillside, NJ.

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