In this article, I propose a new way of interpreting athletic metaphors in early Christian literature. I argue that the metaphorical figure of the athlete would have evoked for ancient readers not simply the ideas of competitive struggle, but also the idea of sexual abstinence, a lifestyle choice closely associated with athletes in the Greco-Roman world. The article collects and discusses evidence for the practice of athletic celibacy, drawing together a disparate collection of medical and philosophical literature, with Christian sources, from the second and third centuries CE. It demonstrates that athletic celibacy was a familiar concept in this period, and that many observers were interested in the methods that athletes used to control their sexual urges, including applying lead plates to their loin muscles. The treatment of this evidence suggests that there was greater interest in sexual abstinence among non-Christians than has previously been understood, and that athletes were implicated in controversies about whether or not total abstention from sex was a healthy lifestyle choice. As such, I argue that it is plausible to regard the athletic imagery of early Christians not only as a metaphorical comparison between two kinds of strident individuals, but also as advocacy for the celibate life as the most healthful lifestyle.

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