Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Language, Part 3 (patronage)

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible  -             By: E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien    We’re considering Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien — an excellent book.

For some time now, I’ve been looking for an excuse to dig more deeply into the meaning of the Greco-Roman patronage system as it relates to Christianity. The authors provide the briefest of introductions —

In the Roman system, likewise, the client couldn’t earn the “favor”; the patron showed “kindness” to help. Seneca, a philosopher from Paul’s time, said the patron and the client had a relationship, a form of friendship. The client was now a “friend” of the patron, but not a peer. The client was expected to reciprocate with loyalty, public praise, readiness to help the patron (as much as he could) and, most importantly, gratitude.’ This kind gift had strings attached. (All gifts in antiquity had strings attached.) Seneca called it “a sacred bond.”‘ The recipient of the gift was obligated to reciprocate. Paul introduced Lydia to Christianity (Acts 16). She reciprocated by hosting Paul and his team at her estate.

The language of patronage permeated everyday life. We know well the Christian terms grace and faith, but these were common before Paul used them. They were part of the language of patronage. When the patron gave unmerited gifts of assistance, these were commonly called charis, meaning “grace/gift.” The client responded with faithfulness to the patron, called pistis, or “faith.”” We see that when Paul explained our new relationship with God, he used something everyone understood: the ancient system of patronage. Taken together, this vocabulary–so central to the Christian faith–means something different than the sum of its parts.

(Kindle Locations 859-866).

The authors’ point is that you can’t adequately translate the words charis (grace) or pistis (faith/faithfulness) into modern American English because modern Americans have no cultural relationship comparable to the Roman patronage system. I think they’re right.

Because we live in a very different culture, we try to fit these words into American categories. Hence, we take “grace” to mean “unmerited favor with no expectations of any kind.” After all, if I give $20 to a homeless man, I expect nothing in return at all, not necessarily even gratitude.

Moreover, we take “faith” to mean “believe to be true” or “have confidence in.” If I believe in the Republican Party, I have confidence in their teachings, but I may not give them a penny or volunteer an hour for their cause. To a modern American, “faith” does not necessarily involve commitment or loyalty — just an intellectual assent.

Everett Ferguson, in his textbook Backgrounds of Early Christianity explains,

The patron rendered assistance in need, welcomed the client from time to time to his house and table, and offered legal protection as needed. The relationship operated on all levels and in various groupings: between former masters and freedmen, rich and poor, generals and conquered peoples, aristocrats and collegia or clubs. Everyone from slave to aristocrat felt bound to display respect to someone more powerful than himself, up to the emperor.

(page 67).

Here’s an excellent article on the topic by David A. deSilva, “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament,” Ashland Theological Journal 31 (1999). (It’s well worth the time to read the whole thing.) DeSilva delves into, not only “grace” and “faith,” but the role of Jesus as a mediator in light of Roman patronage practices. He concludes,

The fundamental ethos governing relationships of patrons and the clients, benefactors and beneficiaries, and friends is that grace must answer grace: the receiving of favor must lead to the return of gratitude, or else the beauty and nobility of the relationship is defaced (dis-graced). As we grow in our appreciation of God’s beneficence, we are thereby impelled to energize our commitment to make an appropriate response of gratitude to God. When the magnitude of God’s generosity is considered, gratitude and its fruits must of necessity fill our speech, attitudes, and actions.

The New Testament authors outline what a just and suitable response would entail, guiding us to act as honorable recipients of favor and averting us from making an ugly response of ingratitude, neglect, or disloyalty, which would also lead to the danger of exclusion from future favors yet to be conferred. We come to engage evangelism more naturally (but also necessarily) not now as a contest for winning souls, but as an opportunity to spread the fame of God and testify to the good things God has done in our behalf. … We begin to understand that obedience to God — throwing ourselves and our resources into the work of caring for the global church — is not something we might do “over and above” the demands of everyday life. Rather, these pursuits are placed at the center of each day’s agenda. As God did not bestow on us what was merely left over after he satisfied himself, so we are called upon to ‘ make a like exchange by giving our all and our best to God’s service first. Moreover, we discover that loyalty to such a patron must be preserved without wavering.

It’s not as though the lessons we learn from deeper studies of the Greek language make the difference between salvation and damnation. Any English translation will be good enough to teach us how to be saved.

Rather, when we delve more deeply into the language than our translations allow by themselves, we begin to read the scriptures more as the original recipients would have. Some contemporary controversies go by the wayside as, for example, legalism is destroyed by a deeper understanding of grace and faith — but so is cheap grace.

When we understand the patronage system, we are no longer allowed to imagine that God expects nothing from us but belief that Jesus is the second member of the Godhead. Faithfulness and loyalty are part of the equation, too. But there is also no expectation that we might or even could earn what God has done for us. It’s a free gift — but a gift that leads to faithfulness and commitment to the cause of our Patron.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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7 Responses to Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Language, Part 3 (patronage)

  1. Skip says:

    Interesting but too cerebral for me. Alright, now let’s go out and share our faith.

  2. alanrouse says:

    Where is the evidence? These authors are asking people to change how they read the scripture based on nothing more substantial than the authors’ claims. They might be right. Or they might not be. But it’s irresponsible to call for such a fundamental, profound response without significant evidence. And the authors simply haven’t supplied it.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Alan Rouse,

    As stated in the post, the article posted at is excellent and well worth reading.

    The article summarizes the historical evidence for the patronage system, giving primary references to Greco-Roman authors. It’s quite thoroughly researched and affirms the historical conclusions of Everett Ferguson, a very conservative expert on biblical historical backgrounds.

    The authors then apply their conclusions to the interpretation of several NT passages, showing how a patronage understanding brings new light to several such passages.

    Of course, I’ve argued for years that pistis (faith/faithfulness) includes the idea of faithfulness/loyalty, from multiple sources, including a grammatical analysis of the NT and a parallel passage from Josephus, first pointed out by N. T. Wright. Therefore, it hardly surprises me to find that a deeper understanding of the culture of the First Century points in the same direction. In fact, this view of patronage/faith/grace fits very nicely with the chesed passages mentioned in the previous post.

    The cited article does an excellent job of pointing out the paradoxical logic of the patronage system. The patron gave gifts sheerly out of generosity, with no expectation of return, but the culture imposed an understanding that gratitude and honor would lead the recipient to reciprocate — not to earn the gift but to display gratitude and, most importantly, to bring honor to the patron. The relationship was entirely one-sided. There was no trade or bargaining. And a recipient could choose to be a dishonorable ingrate — but to do so was to become a pariah. It was socially unthinkable.

    Hence, the natural result of charis was pistis. It was charis first, resulting in pistis. And pistis was not in exchange for charis but as a natural, obvious result of charis.

    The beneficiary did not come to believe in the patron in the sense of believing that he exists. Rather, he became faithful to his patron, in the sense of showing appreciation and living to give honor to his name. He became an advocate for his patron, living to tell the world of his goodness.

    But the gift was unconditional, in that an ungrateful beneficiary would get to keep the gift. However, his ingratitude would bring an end to future gifts. The relationship could be lost — not be failing to adequately repay. No beneficiary could ever adequately repay. Rather, the relationship would be severed by refusing to do what honor and gratitude demanded — be grateful and further the interests of the patron.

  4. Sounds a bit like royalty’s noblesse oblige

  5. Jay Guin says:


    The Roman patronage system has something in common with noblesse oblige. So far as I can tell, though, after Roman times, there was no expectation of faithfulness to one’s benefactor. Noblesse oblige is the duty of the wealthy to be generous to those in need, but I can find no historical source indicating an anticipation that those benefited will respond in faith/faithfulness/loyalty.

  6. laymond says:

    Mat 7:21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

    We seem to be getting closer to understanding the covenant between God and man. but we still seem not to know just who Jesus (the son) is. but I believe Jesus said that was alright as long as we know who God is.

    NIV – Mat 12:31 – And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.

    NIV – Mat 12:32 – Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

    “Son of Man” The title Jesus seemed to prefer over all others.

    When we understand the patronage system, we are no longer allowed to imagine that God expects nothing from us but belief that Jesus is the second member of the Godhead.

    We need to understand, and the bible tells us this plainly. Jesus is not “second” in anything he is a part of, Jesus is Alpha, and Omega, the first and the last. but never second.

  7. Pingback: 1 Corinthians 12:27-28 (spiritual gifts) | One In Jesus

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