Unfortunately, too often Christians think we have our own special, insider language, and we forget that the first century believers were simply using ordinary terms to describe their new faith. For example, the wider, cultural lens of patronage and honor offers an important insight into the key New Testament terms of “grace” (charis) and “faith” (pistis).
Status based relationships were foundational for Roman society (see Cicero, De Offic. and Seneca, Ben.). Among equals, friendship was valued and mutual and equal benefits were exchanged. Cicero (Off. 1.56) writes, “Another strong bond of fellowship is effected by mutual interchange of kind services, and as long as these kindnesses are mutual and acceptable, those between whom they are interchanged are united by ties of enduring intimacy.”
However, relationships with those of differing status was guided by patron-client relationships. Those with lower status were the “clients” who sought out benefits from those with superior power, honor, and wealth who were the “patrons.” Freed slaves normally became clients of their former masters. The patron’s duty was to protect their clients from powerful enemies as well as to provide legal help, and honor was gained through increasing their number of clients. In return, clients owed respect and deference to their patrons. Clients would attend to their patrons publicly, such as waiting in receiving rooms in the morning hours or by accompanying their patron around the city throughout the day.
In addition, the wealthy provided public benefaction such as providing for events like religious festivals, local celebrations, and athletic competition. They also were expected to provide improvements to the city’s infrastructure like temples, theaters, roads, and porticoes. They provided aid in times of famine or disaster relief. In response, the city would bestow public honors, inscriptions, statues, and even commutative sacrifices to the gods acknowledging the giver’s generosity. The ultimate public benefactor of the Empire was the Roman emperor.
Understanding patronage and honor helps us to understand further key New Testament terms of “grace” (charis) and “faith” (pistis). “Grace” (charis) can simply refer to the “gift” or benefit given by a patron to a client. More conceptually, “grace” is also understood in terms of the willingness or generosity of a patron to grant a benefit as a favor. Thus, Aristotle (Rhet. 2.7.1) writes, “Grace (charis) may be defined as helpfulness toward someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself [or herself], but for the person helped.”
“Grace” (charis) also refers to the response of gratitude from the client for the gift (e.g., Demosthenes, Cor. 131). This reciprocal function of grace between the patron and client can be summarized with expressions like Sophocles’s (Ajax 522) comment, “Favor (charis) is always giving birth to favor (charin).” While the majority of occurrences of charis are translated as “grace” in the New Testament, we see this reciprocal response in the occasions for translating charis as “thanks” such as “thanks (charis) be to God” (2 Cor 8:16).
Interestingly, the proper response to a benefactor’s “gift, grace” (charis) was describe in terms of “faith” or “loyalty” (pistis; Lat. fides). In the patronage context, a client’s “faith” was understood as expressing “trust” in the patron’s ability to provide the benefit as well as “loyalty” to the patron for providing the gift. The greater the gift, the greater the obligation placed upon the client to provide the appropriate response.
Thus, New Testament authors make use and challenge this system of human benefaction by describing God as the ultimate benefactor whose “gift, grace” (charis) of salvation is bestowed upon humanity as his clients, who are expected to respond with “faith” (pistis) expressed in “trust” and “loyalty.” For the New Testament authors, salvation is not so much a free gift bestowed upon humanity, but rather the death and resurrection of Christ offer humanity a priceless gift, which cannot be earned because of its surpassing worth. The only proper response to this gift is to accept it by faith, expressed in trust and loyalty. And by accepting this gift, all other loyalties are realigned and subjugated to the Lordship of Christ.
This entry is from my introduction to the New Testament, New Testament Foundations, co-authored with Ralph Martin. https://www.amazon.com/New-Testament-Foundations-Introduction-Students-ebook/dp/B07M7FSBF3/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=toney+martin+new+testament&qid=1600790215&sr=8-1
Another great resource that digs deeper into salvation as loyalty/allegiance is Matthew Bates’s Gospel Allegiance https://www.amazon.com/Gospel-Allegiance-Misses-Salvation-Christ/dp/1587434296/ref=sr_1_2?crid=370672ZWE9LPD&dchild=1&keywords=salvation+by+allegiance+alone+by+matthew+w.+bates&qid=1600790413&sprefix=bates+salvation+b%2Caps%2C228&sr=8-2
Image: Public Domain: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patronage_in_ancient_Rome#/media/File:Tabula_Patronatus_Bocchorus_(AD_6)_-_Serra_Ferragut.jpg
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