Wednesday, 10 July 2019

The Sociocultural Context of the New Testament (Part 3): Patronage

An extension of the honor/shame/reciprocity mentality (see previous post) is the patron-client social structure, which generally involves relationships between superiors and inferiors. It emerges within “a social stratification based on wealth, occupation, and/or status,” producing an environment “in which one group of people has something that another does not and initiates a supply and demand system” (B. K. Gold, Literary Patronage in Greece and Rome 1). 

During the New Testament era there was an understood code of etiquette. Rather than a legal or contractual arrangement, “the social conventions were stronger than any regulations of law…. Everyone from slave to aristocrat felt bound to display respect to someone more powerful than himself, up to the emperor” (E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity [3rd ed.] 67). This was “a pervasive system that operated in all segments of that society …” (B. K. Gold, op cit. 5). 

To accept a gift or favor meant the recipient was in the inferior position, and to refuse a gift or favor was to embarrass or shame the giver. “Favors accepted without appropriate responses called the client’s character into question, bringing shame rather than honor not just to the individual but also to the tightly knit social group with whom he or she was associated. The quest to maintain honorable character was placed far above economic prosperity or success ...” (C. L. Blomberg, Handbook of NT Exegesis 87). Although the patron-client relationship might seem to have been voluntary, those regarded as social inferiors generally had no choice if they wanted to survive socially and economically (B. Witherington III, Paul Quest 48-49). 

There was no such thing in the world of the New Testament as a government-generated welfare system or any kind of wealth distribution. Instead there was the societal expectation that the wealthy would serve as benefactors or patrons for those of the lower class. “In return, the client supported his patron in elections, did odd jobs for him, and escorted him through the streets, giving the patron’s social standing a healthy boost” (A. A. Bell, Jr., Exploring the NT World 191-92). Alliances between benefactors and recipients were often hereditary, passed down from one generation to the next. Because the client was expected to be available whenever the patron demanded, there was little time, interest, or even need for physical work. 

In such an environment the problems in mid-1st-century Thessalonica are more readily understood. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy had to direct this young church to discipline “every brother idly walking … not working at all” (2 Thess. 3:6-15, author’s own translation). While manual labor, particularly among the socially elite, was considered demeaning and indicative of a slave rather than a person of prestige (cf. 1 Cor. 4:12-13; 9:19; 2 Thess. 3:7-10), it is also plausible that “converts included those of the urban poor who had formed client relationships with wealthy members in the Thessalonian church, but who exploited the generosity of their new Christian patrons” (J. Weima, Thessalonians 601). 

Literary patronage was also a well-established tradition in Greek and Roman society, seeing that literary work in antiquity was not intended as a money-making enterprise. Writers “were often the near social equals of their patrons; the differences between writer and patron were far more subtle than those between a patron and a lower-class dependent” (B. K. Gold, op cit. 1-6173).

The prologues of Luke’s two-volume work (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1) potentially serve as a dedication to Theophilus as the patron who provided financial support for Luke’s travels, research, and writing projects. Accordingly, Luke-Acts “was intentionally produced for wider distribution and adhered to certain literary conventions. In this regard the address to Theophilus again becomes important, since it was normal to dedicate such works to the patron who paid for the publication, meaning the costs of papyrus, ink, secretaries, and copyists and in many cases support for the author” (L. M. White, From Jesus to Christianity 249).1

Within the 1st-century church, Phoebe is described as a “benefactor” [prost├ítis] of Paul and many others (Rom. 16:2).The widowed patroness was not uncommon in the ancient world.Other Christian patrons may have included Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), Jason (Acts 17:3-9), Gaius and Erastus (Rom. 16:23), and Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 1:16-18). Paul praises the Philippians for their generosity but does not directly thank them (Phil. 4:10-17), presumably aware of the culture of reciprocity whereby he avoids an unhealthy patron-client perception. Instead, he offers thanks to God (1:3-11) and frames their generosity as giving to God, the ultimate patron (4:18-20), rather than to Paul himself as a duty-bound client. 

--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
    “The presence of a patron in a work of literature ensured that the work would be public in its nature. This was perhaps the ultimate value of the patron: he forced a writer to focus his thoughts outward and thus to create a work worthy of immortality” (B. K. Gold, op cit. 176).
     The feminine noun prost├ítis, signifying “protectress, patroness, helper” (BAGD 718), occurs in the NT only in Rom. 16:2. D. J. Moo argues that the sense of “benefactor” or “patroness,” common in secular Greek, is the probable usage here (Romans 915-16). 
    E. R. Richards, “Reading, Writing, and Manuscripts,” in The World of the NT (eds. J. B. Green and L. M. McDonald) 349.
    C. L. Blomberg, A Handbook of NT Exegesis 88.


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