In Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity(2000) David A. deSilva gives us a look at first-century cultural values and explains how understanding them will allow for a greater understanding of the world which produced the New Testament. To hear and understand scripture correctly, one must correctly understand the world in which it was written. DeSilva’s goal, as he puts it, “is to introduce the reader to another dimension of the context within which the New Testament texts were composed and within which they effected the purposes of God for their readers” (19). When we are better readers of scripture, we are better disciples, and can actively influence the communities into which God has called to live.
The text is divided neatly into the four titular categories: honor and shame, patronage and reciprocity, kinship, and purity and pollution. For each cultural value there are two chapters: one chapter expounding on its role in the Greco-Roman world of the 1st century, and a subsequent chapter integrating that exposition with our understanding of the New Testament. This book posits an enlightening set of ideas into discussions on contextualization, historicity of scripture, and even basic New Testament hermeneutics by situating the bible firmly in its 1st century Mediterranean culture. DeSilva’s text would appeal to Biblical scholars and curious Christians alike.
DeSilva begins with honor and shame. The notion of honor was one of the foundational values for the first century world. Their world was “every bit as socially sophisticated as ours and, in some ways, far clearer and more articulate about the values that defined and guided each group” (27). A person had honor based on the family into which they were born, but honor could also be achieved through virtuous dealings and building an estimable reputation (like a solider who demonstrates extreme bravery and loyalty). The quest for honor kept all members of a group in check. If one deviated from the honorable path, that person would bring shame upon themselves and the group(s) with which they were affiliated. While the Jews were once the dominant group, they had for generations been subject to the laws of other groups and struggled to maintain their identity. This meant a Jew decide between Torah adherence, which gained them honor within their Jewish circles (but contempt from everyone else), or acquiescing to the dominant cultural values and the consequent shame from their own kind. The early Christians, like their Jewish peers, promoted cultural values that were fundamentally at odds with those of the dominant Greco-Roman culture (like ultimate loyalty to God instead of Caesar). Christians experienced everything from shunning to execution as resistance in their commitment to Christ, and so neighbors and friends attempted to dissuade them from their path. New Testament writers frequently encouraged their audience to remember that God’s ultimate code of honor and shame was more important than the temporary, worldly one. While Christians today are certainly familiar with the notion of earning a certain group’s approval, we are generally uncomfortable with conflict and shame, and so avoid discussing or rebuking it in others. However, if we can become more sensitive to the cultural text of honor and realize what a core cultural value it was for New Testament audiences, we will become attuned to clearly hearing what the New Testament has to tell us about our own personal value (self-respect and validation) and what gives us our worth (86).
The next value deSilva deals with is patronage and reciprocity. The first-century Greco-Roman world was one “in which personal patronage was an essential means of acquiring access to goods, protection or opportunities for employment and advancement” (96). Patronage was not only allowed but promoted, and it is tied to honor in the sense that the honorable thing to do was remain loyal in one’s relationships. Patronage even crossed socioeconomic boundaries; the term “grace” (for New Testament audiences) would have had connotations of reciprocity among the rich, poor, and even among humans and gods. Grace meant showing favor that was selflessly interested in the benefit of another. It was not mandated to repay someone; the cultural shame of failing to reciprocate grace or favor was enough. Grace was like a dance in which honor or favor was freely given to a client, patron, or friend, and was freely repaid in kind. The New Testament authors reframed this discussion in terms of God being the ultimate benefactor for us. Heseeks us out to give us life; this formation of a grace relationship “runs contrary to the normal stream of lower-echelon people seeking out brokers who can connect them with higher patrons” (130). As the ultimate mediator of God’s favor, Jesus voluntarily gave his own life to grant deliverance from sin and death. Not only that, but Christ continues to intercede on our behalf before the Father. In the face of such incredible grace, our only response must be more grace, in the form of the words we speak and actions we live out. This attitude rightfully re-orients our worldly pursuits around those that bring honor not to ourselves, but to God. Failure to promote the kingdom of God, who is our supreme benefactor, results in disloyalty to the one we should only please (156).
Kinship was vital to first century life. One’s identity, like their honor, was tied to the reputation of their lineage. Jewish culture placed even more value on one’s parents and family. Harmonious living with one’s family involved cooperation in maintaining their honor, hiding the shame of kin, and mutual trust in the pursuit of honor and preserving the family lineage and reputation. Divorce brought complications, but in general the man had dominion over the woman, who was expected to stay at home to raise and educate the children to carry on their family’s trade. With family ties so strong, it becomes more radical to think of how many disciples left their families to follow Jesus. “It is now attachment to this Jesus that determines whether or not a person is in the family, rather than the person’s bloodline or natural lineage” (200). Christ redefined the “descendents” of Abraham to allow for anyone to be adopted into the new family of God. As members of God’s household, we are now bound to its code of honor and values. As the church, we have a great opportunity to re-imagine what it means to treat each other as those joined by the blood of the Lamb.
Purity is something of a foreign notion for modern evangelicals. We have made a holy God available to everyone and have done away with the need for professional mediation. However, we do understand what when food falls from a plate to the ground (or dirt is brought inside the house) that an unhealthy boundary has been crossed and contamination has occurred. This contamination disqualifies us from entering in to the presence of a holy God. To avoid pollution and boundary crossing, maps of people (and their bodies), locations, and times must be made known, and sacrificial systems developed to atone for a transgression of the sacred. “Only as we come to appreciate the revulsion of sin (and feel revulsion ourselves) will Scripture have done its work building the all-important barrier between our desires and forbidden things…” (269) Jesus essentially re-wrote the maps of who, what, where, and when was permissible. Ritual moments are important for helping us remember boundaries and retain holiness.
I found deSilva’s text to be enormously informative. We have grown accustomed to reading, understanding, and applying scripture within our own contemporary cultural context; it is incredible how rarely we stop to think about what, say, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians might have sounded like to the Ephesians themselves. DeSilva’s methodology is effective. By breaking down cultural values into four manageable, finite (though dynamic) concepts, it becomes possible to isolate specific intersections and applications of concrete first century ideals with New Testament passages. This results in a richer understanding and appreciation for the New Testament, the world into which its texts were written, and even possible implications for discipleship in today’s world.
This is particularly relevant for churches that are trying to live out the Gospel amidst a generation of people whose identities are fragmented, individualistic, and dynamic. How can someone who lives alone understand the value of kin? How can a kid who sees people get famous for whoring themselves out possibly understand the value of honor? As deSilva notes:
Studies of Generation X have shown relationship to be the way of reaching those born into a postmodern worldview, the way to show the reality of our faith. A church can no longer afford to be mainly a group of people who agree on propositional truths…but must become a group of people committed to one another in love, loyalty, and mutual support (239).
We live in a culture that celebrates the “now”and the “me”. When we read the New Testament we cannot help but bring these presuppositions with us to the text. DeSilva is trying to help us understand what the New Testament might have actually sounded like to those it was originally intended for; this will help us be more self-aware of our baggage and at least attempt to come to the text without an agenda, willing to be shaped by it.
Discussing the established cultural norm is a great way to understand how powerful Jesus’ words and deeds actually were. For example, understanding how powerful individual and group honor was in the first century sheds light on the constant New Testament reminders to hold one another accountable in discipleship of Christ (82). Also, understanding that violation of purity required a three-phase ritual process of restoration in some groups underscores the radical dynamics implied in statements like “everything is now permissible” or when Peter had a vision that all food was now acceptable (266). Modern readers typically gloss over pollution mandates, but deSilva shows how this would have meant a complete break of traditional ways of living for first century readers!
I found this text to be a quick and engaging read. It reminds us that we have systematized our theology based on a few letters of advice and encouragement written to real people two thousand years ago. Only once we understand their world can we understood how it would have shaped their reading of the letters and documents that became our New Testament. By attempting to understand the original context of the New Testament, we can become more adept in living it out (as disciples of Jesus) in our own.
DeSilva, D. A. (2000). Honor, patronage, kinship & purity: Unlocking New Testament culture. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press.