Rick Renner explains that “pale is also the Greek word from which the Greeks derived their name for the Palastra— a huge palace of combat sports that was situated in the center of most larger, ancient cities. The Palastra was a huge building that outwardly looked like a palace but was dedicated to the cultivation of athletic skills. Every morning, afternoon, and night, the most committed, determined, and daring athletes of the day could be found in this fabulous building, working out and training for their respective sports. Three kinds of athletes primarily worked out at the Palastra: boxers, wrestlers (see article Greek wrestling), and pankratists.
Let me tell you a little about how these sports functioned in the first century when Paul wrote this verse, because it forms the backdrop to the word “wrestle” in Ephesians 6:12. The first and most feared combat sport was boxing. But the boxers from the first century were not like our boxers today. Their sport was extremely violent— so violent that they were not permitted to box without wearing helmets. Without the protection of helmets, their heads would have been crushed!
In fact, this sport was so severe that few boxers ever lived to retire from their profession. Most of them died in the ring. Of all the sports, the ancients viewed boxing as the most hazardous and deadly. In this brutal and barbaric sport, the ancient boxers wore gloves ribbed with steel and spiked with nails. At times the steel wrapped around their gloves was serrated, like the blade of a hunting knife, in order to make deep gashes in the opponent’s skin. In addition to this, they used extremely heavy gloves that made every punch more damaging.
It is quite usual to find artwork from the time of the ancient Greeks that includes boxers whose faces, ears, and noses are totally deformed from being struck by these dangerous gloves. Making this sport even more dangerous was the fact that there were no rules— except that a boxer couldn’t clench his opponent’s fist. That was the only rule of the game!
There were no “rounds” like there are in boxing today. The fight just went on and on until one of the two surrendered or died in the ring. Next, there were wrestlers! Wrestling was also a deadly sport in the first century. In fact, most wrestlers chose to fight to the death rather than walk out of the ring in humiliation and defeat. As you see, it was an ugly, bloody sport. In order to make an opponent surrender, it was quite normal to strangle him into submission.
Choking was another acceptable practice in wrestling. Like boxing, wrestling was an extremely violent and bloody sport that tolerated every imaginable tactic: breaking fingers, breaking ribs by a waist lock, gashing the face, gouging out the eyes, and so on. Wrestling was a bitter struggle to the very end. The third combat sport was pankration, from the Greek words pan and kratos. The word pan means all, and kration is from the word kratos, which means power. When these two words were put together, they formed the word pankration, which means all powerful. These fighters were the fiercest, toughest, and most committed of all! In this sport, they were permitted to kick, punch, bite, gouge, strike, break fingers, break legs, and to do any other horrible thing you could imagine. There was no part of the human body that was off limits. They could do anything they wanted to any part of their competitor’s body, for there were basically no rules.
An early inscription from a father to his sons who participated in pankration says this: “If you should hear your son has died, you can believe it. But if you hear he has been defeated and chose to retire, do not believe it!” Why? Because like the other combat sports, pankration was extremely violent. While participating in this sport, more professional pankratists died than surrendered or were simply defeated. I realize that these are very graphic images, but they are also very important images, for they are all contained in the word “wrestle” that Paul uses in Ephesians 6:12.
In the day when Paul wrote this letter, everyone who saw the Greek word pale (“wrestle”) saw all these images in their minds. You can see, then, that this was a powerful, pungent word for Paul to use when he started to describe our conflict with unseen, demonic powers that Satan has marshaled together to try to destroy us. By using the word “wrestle” from the Greek word pale, Paul was telling every reader (and us) that spiritual warfare can be a bitter struggle and an intense conflict. (Sparkling Gems from the Greek).