Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Patron-Client system and Hebrews 11:1

One of the most interesting devolopments in theology in the last decade is the study that has been done on the cultural contexts.

Now of course historically some people have tried to take the cultural setting into account when interpreting the Bible. However, until recently we have had very little understanding of the culture of ancient societies, so their efforts were rather futile. In the last few decades however, subjects like Anthropology have really got going in a serious way, and the amount of study that has been done in looking at different cultures and their developments is tremendous. The results of studies of ancient medditeranean cultures is slowly trickling into theological studies, with some rather important results.

The two most important cultural concepts to grasp are that the New Testament era was an "Honour/Shame" society, with a "Patron-Client" system. So what does that mean?

An honour/shame society is a society where one's worth in the eyes of others is all-important. Your "honour" is approximately how well you are thought of, how much "standing" you have, how respected you are. It also doubles as money, and is thus also roughly equivalent to a modern day credit rating. If you are honourable people will be happy to do business and favours for you in the sure knowledge that you will pay them back (if you didn't, your honour would consequently suffer). Societies develop sophisticated ways to gain and lose honour, and mark out various behaviours as honourable or dishonourable. A feature of honour societies is the use of favours as opposed to money. A person will do a favour for you, and you will remember that you "owe them a favour", and then at a later time do a favour for them of the same value (or of higher value, putting them in your debt). Favours ranged from giving someone a meal, helping them with their harvest, giving them a gift, granting them a position of authority, finding some way of honouring them (thus increasing their honour) etc. In such a way it can be "better to give than receive" for the very mundane reason that it puts others in your debt which means you'll receive even more later.

The Patron-Client system is the name given to a particular way of structuring a society such that is organised in a roughly hierarchical structure. Each person in the hierarchy has a "patron" above them (perhaps more than one) and a number of clients below them. The analogy of an army with one general commanding lots of captains each commanding lots of soldiers is a useful one. Basically in the patron-client system, people seek to make mutually beneficial alliances, with the less poweful people seeking out the more powerful people and offering allegiance in exchange for protection and benefits. So if I found a person I wanted as a patron, I would offer my allegiance to them, promising to do what I could to enhance their honour (thus increasing their power and wealth, see above) and serving them as I could, and in exchange they might grant me (or get their friend, or their patron to grant me) a position in government etc or some other favour that I am wanting. Hence society was made up of this huge web of tree-like structures of Patron-Client relationships. The Clients offered their faithfulness and the Patrons responded by granting favours. Clients could ask particular favours of their Patrons, or alternatively a Patron could shower their clients with gifts, and the client was then expected to praise in extravagant terms their Patron's generosity to others thus increasing the Patron's honour (and thus wealth). Of course if you had a reputation for extravagantly praising your patrons for their gifts, other patrons would seek you out, wanting to effectively invest in you, giving you gifts in exchange for you publically praising them and increasing their honour.

So, an example of how the Patron-Client system can be relevant to Biblical interpretation is Hebrews 11:1.
"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (NRSV)
That is a rather horrible translation.

The words "faith" (faithfulness) and "hoped" (expected), are technical terms in the Patron-Client system. As noted before, "faithfulness" denotes the client's loyalty to their patron (and also the patron's loyalty to the client). "Expect" denotes the hope of future favours. A client could validly expect favours from their Patron if they had been faithful to their Patron and served them well. Thus, in the first half of the verse we actually just have a basic statement about how the Patron-Client system works: If you are faithful you can expect favours. That's it. It's a summary of how a part of their every-day life society worked. The second half of the verse is just saying the same thing a different way: Our faithfulness testifies that we will receive favours that we haven't yet gotten (that we do not yet "see").

Historically this verse has been a minefield for people arguing over the definiton of faithfulness. A huge amount of stuff has been written trying to nail down precisely what each of the words in the sentence meant in an effort to get a precise definition of "faith" out of it. (Unfortunately this didn't work too well as a few of the words in the sentence have a variety of translation possibilities) But as a result of these efforts a lot of people are convinced that the Bible here defines faith as belief in things we can't see. As a result of theologians' sterling efforts over the centuries in mining the bible for sentences such as this one they have had great fun in formulating exactly what it means to have "faith". "Faith" had become an almost-magical word, set apart from everyday life.

That's one of the reasons, I suspect, that theologians have been relatively slow to pick up on the findings of the social sciences. The discovery of how the word "faithfulness" was actually used in the day-to-day life of the first century AD Mediterranean world has made hundreds of years of theological discussions worthless, and a lot of people don't like to let mere facts or evidence get in the way of their ideas and traditions. [Maybe I'm being too harsh, after all, the first book on the subject of linking Social Sciences with NT exegesis was only in 1981, and it was pretty badly written]

Anyway, the take home lesson is:
Next time you're reading the bible and you see the words "faith" or "belief" read "faithfulness" instead and think "Patron-Client system = faithfulness repaid with favours". (Of course the result won't make much sense because it won't fit with how the translators have translated the rest of the sentence)

A great rule to keep in mind is this: Faithfulness is targeted at people, belief is targeted at ideas. You can be committed to a person, or committed to an idea. But talking about faithfulness to an idea, or belief in a person is nonsense.

Another example: Jesus says "believe in me". [which is a mis-translation of course, breaking the above rule] Jesus is asking for people to become his clients. ie he's saying "follow me". He's not saying "believe that I am God". There are other examples in classical literature of people saying "believe in me", and guess what, they were wanting clients, not claiming divinity.

I can only hope that over the next couple of decades that these developments can start filtering through to mainstream bible translations.

Some books for those wanting to know more:
Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Hanson & Oakman, 1998
The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, James S. Jeffers, 1999
Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, David A. Desilva, 2000
The New Testament World, Bruce Malina, 3rd Ed 2001
The social setting of Jesus and the Gospels, Stegemann, Malina & Theissen, 2002


Blogger EONsim said...

A few related asides.

Muslim and other Eastern societies are often considered to be based on an Honour/Shame system that tightly links into there faith. While "western" (really don't like that term) societies tend to be more orientated towards right/wrong.

The Patron Client system tended to be rather weak among the lower classes in all time periods. Working much better for the middle and upper/noble classes has they had access to materials and positions that people wanted. A Patron/Client system is based more on "want" rather than "need".

Patron/Client systems were very strong also during the middle ages in Europe, again among the upper classes and Royal Courts.

Also all modern democratic politics is to a degree a Patron/Client system this is probably most clearly seen in American politics where individuals and companies supply politicians with money to support there election campaigns and sway the opinion of the masses. In return if the party they supported gets in they get government contracts and legislation that favours there interests (especially corporate). The biggest corporates can afford to pay/play both sides and tend to.

In the more English style democracies this is significantly less apparent with strict rules controlling and limiting spending and personal donations too political parties. With the common person having a greater effect or more accurately any significant group voters. With the politicians expected to protect and help the communities that place them in office by increasing the degree of interest the government takes in the region and therefore hopefully the amount of resources utilised in that community.

Well it must be late I've rambled on a lot more than I intended, this is almost big enough to be a separate blog post.

Blogger Andrew said...

Yeah, Chad you raise a good point that Client/Patron systems tend to fail at the lowest echalons of society (although would this apply to feudal societies?), and a group of the poorest people get left out of the system entirely (namely the sick, the injured, the elderly etc who can't work and hence have nothing to offer anyone).

It was precisely this fact that society was failing these people that greatly upset Jesus. He himself was raised in the very lowest classes (a carpenter in an agrarian society = poorest of the poor, and if his father died while he was young = loss of family honour and uber-poverty), and so probably got to see what these people went through first-hand. His determination to help these people led him on a mission to get them accepted into society, both by himself helping them, and by trying to change society.

Perhaps I should write a post on that, because today when we think of Jesus we tend to think of "how to get to heaven", but the more I study what Jesus did and said, the more completely convinced I am that Jesus' mission was actually to help outcasts back into society.


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