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Frank and Flor Gant
Essay: Paul's Use of Military Imagery in 2 Corinthians
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Essay: Paul's Use of Military Imagery in 2 Corinthians
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Written January 2004

 The apostle Paul was perhaps the greatest Christian missionary who ever lived.  It has been estimated that he walked over 10,000 miles during his lifetime, which began approximately 10 A.D. and ended with his execution in Rome in about 67 A.D.  Paul's contributions to the Jesus movement are immeasurable as he was mightily used by the Holy Spirit to promote God's plan of Grace throughout the Greco-Roman world.  He was perfect for the task because, although he was a Jew, he had a thorough understanding of the paganistic world he lived in.  His use of everyday life as a prop for his exhortations for Christ were unequaled, and therefore very valuable to Christians today in our understanding of God's Word. 

The Roman military was the strongest in the world during Paul's lifetime and as such, he used it over and over to illustrate many of the points in his argument for Christ.  Rome used the military not only as protection against foreign enemies, but as a police force for keeping order in the civic arena as well.  In Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, he freely uses military imagery to assist people in receiving a clear picture of his teachings; it is in this area that this paper will focus.

The first instance of a military image is in the passage of 2:14-17, and in particularly in verse 14: "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ" (NIV).  The use of thriambeuonti (Gk) or 'triumphal procession' would bring to mind vivid imagery of a grand parade and a spirited festival, some lasting for several days.  This parade would be in honor of a returning, conquering general and his army, and of the gods, which aided in the generals victory. 

Hubbard (2002:206) and Witherington (1995:367-70), each describe the event in like manner: the general would arrive in Rome, passing through one of its many triumphal arches, in his gold-lace chariot, driving before him the important captives of his conquest, such as the general of the defeated army.  Behind the victorious general would be the rest of his army and its spoils of war.  The losing city would be plundered of every valuable item it possessed, all of it coming to Rome and to the emperors treasure house.  The people of Rome and the surrounding areas would line the streets waiting for their chance to cheer the general and his victors.  Incense of all flavors would be lit and burned until the air above Rome would be covered with a blanket of haze.  The parade reached its end at the Forum, where sacrifices to the gods would be made and the losing general and other prominent captives would be executed. 

Scott writes that there are two opposing theories to the interpretation of Paul's word picture here: the older version is that Paul and Christians are part of the parade as conquering soldiers under God, the General; the second thought, which is more recent, and also the one that Scott prefers, is that Paul and Christians are the captives being paraded before God's chariot.  Witherington adds to this saying that Paul's imagery here is of himself as an enslaved leader and then again as Christs slave.  The Greco-Romans would be very familiar with the finale of a triumphal procession and realize that Paul was equating himself (and all Christians) to those who would die for their service, but in the Christians case death is victory (1995:369). 

This same image may have been alluded to in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, in 4:9a: "For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena."  The wording is similar to 2 Corinthians 2:14, but Paul doesn't use thriambeuonti here in 1 Corinthians, he uses apedeixen, which the NASB translates as 'exhibited us,' a phrase that seems better than the NIV's procession. 

In verse 5:1, Paul compares our temporary body, our earthly tent, with our heavenly body, a house in heaven.  In doing so, he illustrates the fragility of this body with a tent that is destroyed.  Tents were very commonplace in the first century; the occasional traveler would sometimes use a tent as shelter, but primarily, herdsman and soldiers used tents.  It would not be uncommon for someone to see thousands of tents in military encampments throughout the Roman Empire; and most probably, everyone had at some time seen a tent collapse and the soldiers scurrying to repair the damage before everything was lost.  This somewhat comical image of a collapsing tent was in perfect contrast to the undestroyable, permanent building God has prepared for us in heaven.

The apostle Paul uses the vision of an armed foot soldier in the next chapter.  In chapter 6, verses 3-10, Paul tells of his hardships and how he persevered through them.  Attention will be focused on verse 7b: "With weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left."  This is very similar to something Paul would say later in his life in a letter to the Ephesians: "Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:16-17).

In the first century, most combat was hand-to-hand between enemy foot soldiers, although Rome did employ a cavalry and have such weapons as catapults, ballists, and onagers large weapons that would launch some sort of missile at the enemy.  These missiles included large arrows up to the size of telephone poles, and large stones up to 220 lbs, some of the smaller stones that could travel up to 1,300 feet.  In Paul's day, the army of Rome, with its advanced weaponry, was vastly superior to any that it would meet until the 6th century A.D.  A great many of the soldiers were Legionaries, men who stayed in the military for 25 years; they received a very good salary, as well as periodic bonuses from the emperors, and although their life wasnt easy, were generally well cared for (Constable 2003:109). 

Constable's Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome has a terrifically helpful section on the Roman Army of the first century A.D.; the information listed below, combined with the Book of Ephesians, came primarily from that source.  The soldiers personal body armor had evolved by this time into something that would have actually benefited the wearer, no longer would a simple blow to the head or body be life threatening.  Using Paul's letter to the Ephesians as the base, Constables description of a Roman soldiers protective wear and offensive weaponry follows:

    6:14a: With the belt of truth buckled around your waist - the typical soldiers belt included two leather straps in a criss-cross fashion over the shoulders, one loop holding a dragger and the other holding a sword.

    6:14b: With the breastplate of righteousness in place -only Legionaries (full-time soldiers) wore breastplates, they were segmented and hinged for flexibility and comfort.  Auxiliaries (part-time soldiers) had to make do with mail or scale armor.  Officers preferred very expensive, finely made mail, the bronze rings of this mail was only an eighth of an inch in diameter.

    6:15: With your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace - for shoes, the soldier wore a caligae, it was a leather sole with woven leather lace strips at the top, the soles were studded with hobnails.  Some foot soldiers and cavalrymen also had metal shin guards that went from the ankle to the knee and were lined with leather.

    6:16: Take up the shield of faith - the foot soldier carried a large, rectangle shield made up of three layers of plywood covered with felt, surrounding the outside of the shield was rounded metal boss.  Instead of having two straps on the inside to hold it with, there was one small metal handle in the very center in which to grip.

    6:17a: Take the helmet of salvation - their helmet was made of iron and had detachable cheek and neck protectors; the rank of the soldier was signified by the size and color of his feather plum on top of his helmet. 

    6:17b: The sword of the Spirit the sword - was the foot soldiers primary offensive weapon, it was held in its scabbard on his right side for soldiers and on the left side for officers.  The swords were typically made of bronze and, according to rank and wealth, could be engraved with ornate designs.  The handle could be of a wide variety of materials depending on the wealth of the owner: wood, metal, bone, or silver-encased wood.  The soldier also carried a dagger on the opposite side of his body than that the sword, plus he carried two javelins as his initial attack weapon a light, long-distance javelin and a heavier, medium-distance spear.

The first century Christians would be very familiar with the riggers of the life of a soldier their intense training, sparse living conditions, and the quickness in which they would employ violence to subdue any situation so Paul's alluding to the military in verse 6:7b would have been correctly interrupted and received. 

At the beginning of chapter 10, in verse 3, Paul addresses the issue of spiritual battle by comparing it to the wages of war as the world does it.  He goes on to say, in verse 4, that the weapons the Christian uses in this spiritual war are not the same ones used in an earthly war.  Paul also exhorts, in verse 5, his readers to be ready to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ and, in verse 6, to be ready to punish every act of disobedience.

In the first century, Rome was involved in 14 major battles, eight of which probably occurred during Paul's lifetime (Leaders 2004).  The Roman soldier was a highly trained individual because his full-time job was to train for battle.  This put him in a position of superiority over most of the enemies he would face, for they were typically everyday people called into action as the need arose, making the training he underwent uncommon to the rest of the known world.  The soldier trained by using repetitive motions with his swords and other equipment, the same movements of slash and jab were done over and over, teaching the muscles to act almost involuntarily when the actual need to perform arose.  Today, the same thing can be seen in sports: a football quarterback throws thousands of balls before the season starts, or a child in a karate class performs thousands of kicks and jabs before ever entering competition.

The way Rome (the world) went to war was a very precise science by Paul's day.  When the Roman army would confront an enemy, the squad of front-line soldiers had a set pattern they would employ:  when the two armies were still at a distance from each other, the Roman foot soldier would launch his light, long-distance javelin, it is to be remembered that the Roman soldier practiced quite extensively with his javelins and spears and was extraordinarily accurate.  Upon getting closer to his enemy, the Roman would then launch his heavier, medium-range spear, again probably fairly successful in hitting his target.  Lastly, right before engaging the enemy in a sword fight or hand-to-hand combat, the Roman soldier would hurl, with great force, a lead-weighted pilum at his opponent (Grossman 2000).  The soldier would then use his sword to make those slashes and jabs hed practiced for years, he was quite an affective killing machine.  After this first assault had done its job, the cavalry would come in, chase down and kill any survivors who were attempting to flee. 

Obviously not all Roman soldiers survived these encounters, Rome even suffered two defeats in the first century: in 9 A.D. at Teutoburger Wald in present day Germany and in 66 A.D. at Beth-Horon near Jerusalem (Leaders 2004).  Roman soldiers died in every battle; some were then honored by their families, as a tombstone found in Bingen-Bingerbruck, Germania Superior and dated sometime between 14-69 A.D. shows.  The inscription reads: Annaius Daverzus, son of Pravaius, soldier of Cohors IIII (!) Delmatarum, 36 years of age, served 15 years, lies here. His heir set (this tombstone) up. (Cline 2003)

The apostle Paul continues in verse 5 that we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.  The image he is putting forth here is one of enemy prisoners taken captive by the Romans.  Some of the enemies of Rome were allowed to live after they were defeated, typically non-combatants or soldiers who were able to surrender, these people were taken as slaves back to Rome and sold.  Slaves were held under strict control and did only as their master commanded, they had no mind of their own (with few exception); they were obedient, even unto death, to their owner.

Like any piece of equipment, Roman slaves were valued for what they had to offer to the owner, a good cook was one of the most prized slaves, so were young males.  These skilled slaves were cared for almost as if they were part of the owners family, some even received a salary in which they could invest and save in hope of someday buying back their freedom.  Unskilled slaves were treated badly; they worked in the mines or on farms, or some even served in the military (History 2003). 

In verse 6 of chapter 10, Paul speaks of punishment for every act of disobedience.  The Roman military, as in any military, had to have rules which were strictly enforced; discipline is glue that holds a good army together.  Punishment for the soldier could range from being fairly light, a hit from the cane carried by Centurions and officers, to severe, as in the death sentence.  If the soldier was just sloppy in his duties or just slacking off in training, the Centurion would see this and beat the soldier with his cane.  For slightly bigger infractions, the offender could be thrown in the brig or lose some of his privileges.  The more serious crimes would result in death for the offender, crimes such as theft of another soldiers property or desertion.  This sentence would be carried out by his fellow soldiers beating him to death (Maximus 2001).

On his website The Romans in Britain, Victius Maximus tells of the consequences of the Roman soldiers most serious crime possible:

The most serious crime was cowardice. If only one soldier ran from a battle, then the survivors of the conflict would then face a fate that terrified them. Once a court had convened and the guilty soldier had been convicted of cowardice, then one in every ten soldiers from the unit would be executed. Those that were spared death were put on a ration of barley and water for a set period of time. (2001)

Its easy to see the impact the apostle Paul would have made on the first century readers of his second letter to the Corinthians; their lives depended on a strong military presence.  Many of the people reading his letter would either be in the army themselves, have friends or relatives in the army, or be a slave because of the Roman military.  Romes military was the strongest in the world during Paul's lifetime and as such, he used it over and over in his writings to illustrate many of the points in his argument for Christ, none more so than in his letter to 2 Corinthians.


AeroArt Online. The St. Petersburg Collection: Roman Prints. 2002.Retrieved January 21, 2004 from

Cline, Jenny. RomanArmy.Com. Imagebase. 2003 Retrieved January 21, 2004 from

Constable, Nick. Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. New York: Checkmark. 2003

Grossman, Dave. Evolution of Weaponry: A Brief Survey of Weapons Evolution: The Roman System. Killology Research Group. 2000 Retrieved January 22, 2004 from

History Learning Site. Roman Slaves. A History of Ancient Rome. 2003. Retrieved January 21, from

Hubbard, Moyer. 2 Corinthians. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Vol. 3, Romans to Philemon. 2002. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Leaders and Battles Database. Roman Empire Wars. 2004. Retrieved January 21, 2004 from

Marshall, Alfred. The Interlinear NASB-NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English. 1993. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Maximus, Victius. A Roman Soldier's Life. The Romans in Britain. 2001. Retrieved January 22, 2004 from mil_soldiers_life.htm

New International Version Study Bible. New International Version Study Bible. 1995. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Scott, James M. 2 Corinthians. New International Biblical Commentary, Vol. 8. 1998. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Soards, Marion L. 1 Corinthians. New International Biblical Commentary, Vol. 7. 1997. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Vine, W.E.. Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. 1952. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Witherington, Ben, III. Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. 1995. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.