The drive for physical exercise is certainly alive and well in North American culture. Whether it is a registration at the local exercise facility or developing your own in-home exercise room or a less costly strategy, people are into exercise. In certain classes of Greco-Roman culture in the first century A.D. the daily routine involved some physical exercise, followed by a session in the local public or private baths. Athleticism was lauded then as it is now. So we are not surprised when Paul acknowledges the value of physical exercise in 1 Timothy 4:7-8, even as he declares limitations to its benefits.
Paul uses both the noun gumnasia and the verb gumnazō in these verses. This is the only context in the New Testament where the noun occurs, whereas the writers of Hebrews (5:14; 12:11) and 2 Peter (2:14) also use the verb. The adjective gumnos, “naked, uncovered, lightly clad,” occurs frequently. The connection between the adjective and the noun and verb used by Paul in 1 Timothy 4:7-8 is that in antiquity people normally participated in physical exercise naked.
Paul’s first letter to Timothy is somewhat personal as he directs and encourages his protégé to provide leadership for the Ephesian church, as well as care for his own spiritual development. Paul just warned him about the serious spiritual deceptions being taught by some people in Ephesus, i.e. “teachings of demons” (4:1). In contrast Paul urges him to find his “nourishment” in the “messages of faith and of good teaching” (4:6), which he has followed. He is to avoid foolish and unfounded myths, but “exercise or train” (gumnaze) himself for purposes of godliness. Paul’s instructions that follow suggest some ways in which this kind of exercise and training can procede with benefit. Lest Timothy conclude that Paul is promoting an asetic lifestyle, he immediately assures him that physical exercise has some limited benefit, but “godliness is beneficial in every way because it possesses the promise of present and future life.”
Aeschylus (Athenian playwrite of the 6-5th centuries B.C.) in Promotheus Bound (lines 580-600) includes a character named Io who is being punished by the gods by a stinging gad-fly. Aeschylus uses the verb gumnazō to describe how Io is “being disciplined or taught” through her punishment. Euripedes, a younger contemporary of Aeschylus, applies this verb to the exercise of horses in working with chariots (Hippolytus, 112). Isocrates, a fifth century lawyer/orator argues (Antidosis (orat. 15) 15. 250) that “what is most astonishing of all is that while they would grant that the mind is superior to the body, nevertheless, in spite of this opinion, they look with greater favor upon training in gymnastics than upon the study of philosophy (tous gumnazomenous tōn philosophountōn). And yet how unreasonable it is to give higher praise to those who cultivate the less than to those who cultivate the greater thing, and that too when everyone knows it was not through excellence of body that Athens ever accomplished any noteworthy thing, but that through wisdom of men she became the most prosperous and the greatest of Hellenic states” (translation by George Norlin). He makes a similar contrast to that which Paul offers, comparing the exercise of the body with the exercise of the mind. Isocrates in another speech (In sophistas (orat.13) 17.4) uses the verb to describe training in rhetoric and not physical training. This shows how the verb is expanding its application beyond the realm of physical exercise to other kinds of training and education.
This terminology only occurs in the Septuagint in the Maccabean literature. Some Jewish factions in the mid-second century B.C. built a gumnasion (gymnasium — a place where Hellenistic modes of education would be used and taught) in Jerusalem where Greek education was offered to Jewish young men. This was viewed by conservative Jewish elements as heretical and destructive of Jewish values (1 Macc 1:14; 4 Macc 4:20). 4 Maccabees, probably written around the same time as 1 Timothy, uses the phrase gumnasian ponōn “a school of sufferings,” reflecting the experience of persecution as a spiritual learning process.
Philo, the Jewish commentator on the Pentateuch and a contemporary of Paul describes Moses (De Vita Mosis I.48) as “carrying out the exercises of virtue with an admirable trainer, the reason within him, under whose discipline (gumnazomenos) he laboured to fit himself for life in its highest forms, the theoretical and the practical” (F.H. Colson). When Joseph’s brothers request grain because of the famine in Palestine, Joseph asks about their father, Jacob (De Iosepho, 223). They respond by saying “Our father is an old man, aged not so much by years as by repeated misfortunes, whereby as in a training-school he has been exercised (gymnazomenos) amid labours and sufferings which have tried him sore” (F.H. Colson). Philo urges the wise (De Sacrificiis Abelis et Caini 85) to “exercise (gumnasomen) our soul stripped of its encumbrances…” (F.H. Colson). Philo uses this verb to describe the development of religious piety and virtuous living among the Jewish patriarchs.
So Paul’s injunction to Timothy fits well within the rhetorical and religious usage of these terms found in Classical Greek writers and the subsequent Hellenism and Hellenistic Judaism. In Philo’s perspective the patriarchs exercised their spiritual faculties in order to live piously. Such exercise involves study of the Scriptures, reflection, perseverance in suffering, and willingness to experience deprivation because of loyalty to God and his values. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy fits well within this tradition. That the exercise of virtue and the expression of piety require such strenuous training is not an easy message for believers to hear in the 21st century. Sorting out truth from error is one of these exercises that Christians have to engage continuously. Those in leadership bear special responsibility to develop this capacity and then to exercise it for the good of the faith community.