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.
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.