In what ways does Luke-Acts interact with the Graeco-Roman benefaction system, and how does this interaction aid Luke's purpose?
Luke-Acts makes extensive use of the Graeco-Roman benefaction system as both social background and as a hermeneutical key to understanding the person and role of Jesus and the nature of the new community. It feeds into Luke’s understanding of the ethics of the new community formed by Jesus, and informs the reader’s conception of God and his grace throughout his works. To investigate this we need to understand the nature and extend of Graeco-Roman Patronage (a term preferable to benefaction-system), the numerous ways Luke interacts with it, and the key question of Luke’s purpose and its relation to the two former points.
By ‘the Graeco-Roman benefaction system’, I will refer to Patronage. This term presents a number of difficulties, of definition and scope. While in its own history in Roman culture, the language of Patronus/Cliens goes back to some quite formal social structures (in the Roman Monarchy), the types of relationships covered by the term by the early Principate, including the NT period, are characterised by common features extending across a range of social relations1. As I will argue, part of the nature of Patronage as a social dynamic is its ambiguity.
Saller, drawing upon Boissevain, notes three defining elements:
First, it involves the reciprocal exchange of goods and services. Secondly, to distinguish it from a commercial transaction in the marketplace, the relationship must be a personal one of some duration. Thirdly, it must be asymmetrical, in the sense that the two parties are of unequal status and offer different kids of goods and services in the exchange - a quality which sets Patronage off from friendship between equals.2
This broad understanding covers a range of social relationships, beyond what has traditionally been understood by Patronage ‘proper’, to include varieties of relationships which might be classed as amicitiae3 rather than Patronage.4 For the purposes of this essay, we will proceed with his three-fold understanding of a social and ongoing personal relationship marked by the asymmetrical exchange of goods. Its personal nature distinguishes it from merely financial exchanges.5
One of the barriers, and keys, to understanding the role of Patronage, is to realise how far removed such a social practice is from the organisation of modern Western-style Democracies.
The political and social system ... is a universalist society with a central government and bureaucracy... citizens expect to have access on an equal basis to goods and services provided by the state.6
In such societies networks of ‘favours’ and the idea of Patronage operate covertly at best, since they are seen to subvert principles of equitable access and meritorious reception of state-granted benefits.
By way of contrast, the Roman Empire functioned largely without a centralised bureaucracy of the modern conception. Political power was obtained through friendship-networks and Patronage, and political power was exercised in a similar manner. Provincial governors could not expect to fulfil their rule without developing patron-client relationships within their jurisdiction. This Patronage-dependent governance is extended even to the Imperator, so that the whole Principate evidences Patronage from top to bottom.7
In a social world where Patronage is extensive, even pervasive, people live in an extensive web of personal-bonds of debt and obligation. Where those relationships were clearly between persons of unequal status, a patron-client type relationship is clear. Where the parties are of a roughly equal status, the label of amicitia more readily applies, though even here there are problems. On the one hand, ‘friendships’ to inferiors still carried the same kinds of obligations that Patronage did, though less formally and stringently8, while friendship with equals still involved the exchange of goods and services, not unequal in value, but certainly unequal in kind. “In short, the Romans could hardly conceive of friendship without reciprocal exchange.”9
What then is the actual shape of a patron-client relationship? In essence, it involves two parties of unequal status. The patron bestows a good/service to the client, normally one they cannot obtain for themselves. Saller explores the language of this exchange in terms of officium, beneficium, and meritum. All of these to various extents describe a favour of some sort given to a friend/client. This gift initiates or continues a reciprocal exchange between the parties. The client party then has an ongoing obligation to respond with officia, which may take several forms. In Roman political relations it would often involve electoral support. Inevitably though, the response involved the ascription of honour and a practice of personal testimony to the the patron’s favour and beneficence. This enhanced the social prestige of the patron, and established the character of the client as grateful.
2. Patronage in Luke-Acts
In this section I will consider a number of passages from Luke-Acts to which an understanding of Patronage readily sheds interpretative light. These range from the relevance of Patronage for understanding both narrative and parables in Luke, the re-interpretation of Patronage by Jesus in Luke 22, the question of Jesus as Broker, and the extended Brokerage of the Apostles in Luke-Acts.
2a. Patronage in Narrative: Luke 7:1-10
A clear instance of the relevance of Patronage in Luke-Acts is the Healing of the Centurion’s Servant in Luke 7:1-10. Here we have a centurion, in a master-slave type relationship (which has important overlaps with a patron-client type relationship. It is a more codified and legal relationship in which the master extends beneficence and receives servitude in kind). The act of seeking healing for the slave is, to some extent, self-interested (for the slave is one o]j h=n auvtw/| e;ntimoj 7:2), but also an act of beneficence towards the slave. The need of the Centurion is for a good beyond his power to obtain/grant – healing for one at the point of death. However, Jesus appears as a person who has control of this first-order good. So the Centurion seeks to approach Jesus.
The approach is complicated by its mediation through elders of the Jews (v3-5). A number of social functions take place here. Firstly, the Centurion employs his own social networks to contact Jesus. It is not simply his humility10 that motivates him not to approach Jesus, but the social factor that he doesn’t have any connection to Jesus, particularly as an outsider in Palestine. Therefore it is the Jewish elders11 who approach on his behalf. This is Brokerage in action – a client in need without the proper social connections employs friends of friends to gain their needed good/service.
The basis of the elders’ appeal to Jesus is the Centurion’s own beneficence as a Patron. His Patronage has been evidenced in public acts of Patronage, such as the building of the synagogue (v5). Having acted graciously for the public good, the elders of the community have been obliged to return grace to the Centurion, and thus employ their connections to secure grace for him. Their commendation of him is also couched in terms that ascribe honour and praise for his beneficence – note the unusual, and qualified, usage of a;xio,j in v412. The interception of Jesus before his arrival at the centurion’s house is further illuminated by consideration of the responsibilities of hospitium, and the social conventions Jesus seems to be subverting in his willingness to not only extend beneficence to a Gentile, but engage in direct social intercourse with him and risk corpse-defilement.13
2b. Patronage in Parable: Luke 16:1-13
Turning from narrative to the parables, the vexed and difficult problem of the Parable of the Unjust Steward turns on an understanding of Patronage. The social setting involves a master – some kind of absentee landlord14 and a steward – “a trained, trusted, and duly emporwered agent of the master.”15 In this situation the steward is relatively free to conduct business on the master’s behalf, but is accountable to the master. The steward has been dishonest in his dealings, and now faces dismissal – both the loss of livelihood and social standing. Yet, the very nature of the dismissal, rather than any more severe calling-to-account (in v1) reflects a certain graciousness on the master’s behalf.
The steward acts to counter his situation – he continues to act on his master’s behalf before his deposition becomes known, and diminishes the sizeable debts, “the produce, respectively, of a considerable olive grove and of an acreage twenty to twenty-five times that of an ordinary family farm”16, owed to his master.
Debate over the parable revolves around two central questions – is the steward’s actions in diminishing the debts dishonest also, or a rectification of usurious loaning, and where does the Parable proper end – v7, 8a, 8, or 9?
Fitzmyer and Derret argue that the reduction represents the foregoing of usurious interest, owed to the master (Derret), or as the steward’s cut (Fitzmyer).17 Such a view is problematic because it imports a setting that is not apparent from the passage itself.18
The second issue of the end of the parable is complicated by v8a – Does o` ku,rioj refer to the master in the parable, or to Jesus commenting on the parable? Does the master or Jesus commend the steward?
The second half of the verse, following Combrink, seems clearly to belong to Jesus’ comment on the parable, marked by its quite different language: o[ti oi` ui`oi. tou/ aivw/noj tou,tou fronimw,teroi u`pe.r tou.j ui`ou.j tou/ fwto.j eivj th.n genea.n th.n e`autw/n eivsinÅ Combrink also argues that v8a completes the structure of the parable, without which it lacks both fulfilment and tension.19
Combrink offers a convincing application of the social-setting to the parable. The stewards act of debt-forgiveness is an act of beneficence to likely impoverished debtors. Although such an act is strictly reversible by the master, it cannot be done so without a severe loss of face. Instead, the steward has involved the master in an act of Patronage, which would accrue both honour and a grace-debt to himself and the master. The shrewdness of his act turns on the fact that the master cannot reverse this beneficence without great loss, while the act itself has secured the stewards future – he is owed favour by those he has benefited.20 The interpretation of Jesus’ comment on the parable we will leave aside.
2c. Patronage in Ideology: Luke 22:24-30
Perhaps the most explicit interaction between Luke and the Graeco-Roman benefaction system comes in Luke 22:24-30. There is a dispute among the disciples concerning to. ti,j auvtw/n dokei/ ei=nai mei,zwn (v24) – a status/honour dispute among the apostles. Jesus responds by drawing particular attention to the nature and pattern of honour among the Gentiles in v25. Gentile leaders act as Patrons in their own self-interest. They assume the title of euverge,thj. The whole Patronage system is not a social construct designed for the good of the clients, but sustains a society in which clients have no other recourse and patrons reinforce their control and extend their power through public and private benefaction.21
The point of Jesus’ illustration is not, contra Green, that the “disciples are, like God, to give without expectation of return, even to the wicked and the ungrateful.”22 Grace is not defined by the lack of return – it is more complex than that.
All benefaction involves a return, but benefaction, according to the social mores, was not to be undertaken for a return. Part of the exceeding grace of God’s benefaction, then, is that God truly is capable of this kind of double-blind of giving without expectation of return23, yet a gift that cannot but indebt a return. Another aspect of the graciousness of God as Patron is that his grace extends not only to those established as gracious and so worthy of Patronage, but to the ungrateful.24
The location of this episode in the gospel close to the crucifixion is highly relevant. The Apostles are about to become permanent brokers of God’s Patronage, and so it is at this point that Jesus fundamentally re-aligns their concept of Brokerage and Patronage. The one who is to have honour is act in the pattern of a slave (v26), those accorded the status of seniority, likewise to act in the role of those in minority. Jesus himself models a pattern of grace that does not seek to accumulate honour and status to himself in his benefaction, but genuinely acts for the Other’s good without regard to status.
Verse 28 serves to reinforce, however, the bonds of amicitia and Patronage. The perseverance of the Apostles during Jesus’ adversity marks them as faithful clients, who will receive future beneficence as leaders – the gift of the kingdom – in which they act as patrons/brokers.25
2d. Jesus as Patron and Broker
A further extension of the Patronage-model is the idea of Brokerage. Brokerage is not explicitly explored in the classical writings on the subject (Seneca, Dio Chrysostom, et alia). Boissevain describes the business of a broker as “that a social broker plcaes people in touch with each other either directly or indirectly for profit”26. He identifies centrality (between parties), time (to devote to managing social relationships), and power (to control access to first-order goods) as key factors in the success of a broker.27 Essentially a broker functions as a go-between who controls and permits access of clients to patrons beyond their reach.
This model of Brokerage has been applied by Moxnes28 and more extensively by Malina29 to explore Jesus’ role in the Synoptics. It does offer interpretive possibilities to a number of Lucan passages. Jesus’ acts of benefaction, as in the healings 5:12-16 and 17:15-19, can be read as mediatory – Brokerage – to God as Patron. Furthermore, it makes sense, without a direct resort to Jesus’ divinity, to episodes wherein the response to Jesus’ benefaction is praise and honour to God (eg. 18:43) – the honour/worship response of the client is given to the patron, not primarily the broker.
The concept of Jesus as Broker further provides a hermeneutical key for understanding the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus is, from the start, a seemingly peripheral figure in Jewish society. His main claim to centrality as a broker is a unique access to God, a claim that circumvents and repudiates the mediation of the Jewish religious-establishment. It calls into question their monopoly on divine Patronage, and Jesus’ Brokerage is radical in that he regularly offers benefaction to those the Jewish leaders withhold it from: the poor, the impure, the ungracious, those unable to respond appropriately to acts of grace.
2e. Apostolic Brokerage
Brokerage offers a readier understanding of two passages in Luke, and the entire book of Acts. In Luke 9:1-6 the Apostles, and then in 10:1-10 the Seventy-Two, are sent out with a delegated authority. They act as brokers for Jesus’ benefaction. They control access to divine grace, and bestow it according to their Patron’s wishes. Insofar as Acts is a continuation of Luke recording the Acts of Jesus by His Spirit through the Apostles after the Ascension, the whole book of Acts can be read as the continuing Brokerage of the Apostles on Jesus’ behalf. Paul’s appeal in 2 Cor 5:20 is based on just such an apostolic role – representatives of Christ.
The second fundamental restructuring of Patronage in Acts is the nature of the new community formed by Jesus’ disciples. On the one hand believers are reconstituted into a kinship-community, thus removing each other from an us-them competitive mentality, and ‘freeing’ inter-believer interactions from strict roles of grace-given and grace-owed. Secondly, the benefaction of God given to believers constitutes a community in which the asymmetrical patron-client relationship is subverted to what Moxnes describes as a community of “patrons without clients”30 – like God the rich are to give to those who cannot repay, without expectation of repayment, and benefaction to the community is to be done without motivation of honour (cf. the negative example of Ananias and Sapphira who seek the honour of public benefaction through deception).
3. The Purpose of Luke-Acts
The question of Luke’s purpose in Luke-Acts is another difficult question. Bock lists at least 10 different suggestions that have been made, and comments “Of all these suggestions, those centering on God's role in salvation and his new community are most likely to reflect the key aspects of Luke's comprehensive agenda.”31
that the purpose of Luke-Acts would have been to strengthen the Christian movement in the face of opposition by (1) ensuring them in their interpretation and experience of the redemptive purpose and faithfulness of God and by (2) calling them to continued faithfulness and witness in God's salvific project. The purpose of Luke-Acts, then, would be primarily ecclesiological - concerned with the practices that define and the criteria for legitimating the community of God's people, and centered on the invitation to participate in God's project.32
The question of Luke’s purpose is complicated by his literary preface in 1:1-4. He addresses a literary patron, Qeo,filoj, likely a real figure not a symbolic name.33 His ‘orderly account’ has a primary focus of salvation-history in the nature of its arrangement.34 The debate over whether Theophilus was already a Christian remains unsolved. Regardless, the specific dedication to a patron does not limit the intended readership of Luke-Acts, which undoubtedly was meant for a broader audience from the start.
Luke’s interaction with Graeco-Roman Patronage aids these purposes in two ways.
Firstly, it must be understood that Divine-Human relationships throughout the Graeco-Roman world were already understood in Patronage-type ways. Gods bestowed graces, people respond with praise/honour/veneration. Luke speaks into a situation where even many of his Jewish readers will understand God as Patron as their primary analogy.
Into that situation Luke’s gospel portrays a God who inverts and subverts typical Patron-Client relationships. Unlike the negative picture of “the rich” in Luke’s Gospel, God’s grace is regularly extended to those without honour, to the poor, to the impure, and to those unable to respond appropriately to grace (seen in Zechariah’s song, for instance). God is shown as a faithful and beneficent Patron, worthy of undivided loyalty (16:13 and possibly 20:19-2635), who is at work through, and approached through, one new mediator/broker – Jesus of Nazareth. As such, the model of Patronage in Luke-Acts advances Luke’s portrayal of the salvation-historical events of Jesus’ life and death.
It further provides a key to understanding the events of Acts, as Luke portrays the Apostles and the Apostolic community as the extension of Jesus’ Brokerage: access to the Father is provided through the new community whose constitutive element is the grace – the gift – of the Holy Spirit (Jesus’ continual presence). Second to that is the nature of the new community as patrons-without-clients: benefaction which subverts the patron-centered nature of Graeco-Roman society.
While I am hesitant to embrace the full-fledged argument of Malina that “the main analogy employed to understand and present the God of Israel in the gospel story is that of patron-client as understood and practices in the Mediterranean”36, since it seems to fail to do justice to the extensive Jewish socio-cultural and scriptural influences in Luke and the other Synoptics, the pervasive nature of patron-client relationships, coupled with the reciprocal obligations of both unequal and equal friendships, in the Mediterranean of the Early Roman Principate, undoubtedly colour both the historical nature of Jesus’ activity in Luke-Acts, and the portrayal of Jesus and his emergent community by Luke. God is depicted throughout Luke as a Divine Patron who perfectly fulfils the ideal of a beneficent giver – giving without a thought for the return. He is a Patron whose gratia extends to those unable to give a proper return. He takes as clients those who are outside traditional social-relationships. Jesus appears as a Broker with particular access to God, a Brokerage which challenges the established Brokerage of the Jewish establishment. He extends and enacts this radical new picture of God’s beneficence, proclaiming the good news of God’s subversive Patronage to the outsiders (Luke 4:16f). He constitutes a new community whose pattern of leadership is to subvert the Graeco-Roman Patronage system (Luke 22:24-30; Acts 2:43-47, 4:32-5:11), whose role is to extend God’s beneficent Patronage even to the Gentiles, and who continue to act as Brokers in Jesus’ physical absence.
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Boissevain, Jeremy Friends of friends: networks, manipulators and
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Combrink, H. J. B. ‘A social-scientific perspective on the parable of the 'unjust' steward (Lk 16:1-8a)’ Neotestamentica 30 (2, 1996) Pretoria : NTSSA, University of South Africa. p281-306.
deSilva, David A. Honor, patronage, kinship & purity : unlocking New Testament culture Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, 2000.
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Kim, Kyoung-Jin Stewardship and Almsgiving in Luke’s Theology JSNT Sheffield : Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
Kloppenborg J.S. ‘The dishonoured master (Luke 16, 1-8a)’ Biblica, 70(4, 1989) 474-495.
Malina, Bruce J. ‘Patron and Client : The Analogy Behind Synoptic Theology’ Forum 4 (1, 1988) Bonner, MT : Polebridge Press 2-32
Malina, Bruce J. & Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic
Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Gospels Minneapolis : Fortress Press, c2003.
Marshall, I.H. The gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Exeter : Paternoster, 1978.
Moxnes, Halvor ‘Patron-Client Relations and the New Community’ in Neyrey, J.H. (editor) The social world of Luke-Acts : models for interpretation Peabody, Mass. : Hendrickson Publishers, c1991.
Saller, Richard P. Personal Patronage under the Early Empire Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1982.
-- ‘Patronage and friendship in early Imperial Rome: drawing the distinction’ in Wallace-Hadrill (editor) Patronage in Ancient Society London ; New York : Routledge, 1989. p49-62.
Syme, Ronald The Roman Revolution London : Oxford University Press, 1960.