If we do not operate from within an awareness of the patron-client system of the ancient world, we will miss what would have been obvious to the witnesses of these things and to those to whom these stories came, whether in oral or written form. That is not to say that we will not be able to understand the overarching Gospel message (Jesus is Lord), but rather, that our readings and ability to apply that which is gleaned and learned from those readings will be richer by orders of great magnitude if we approach the Scriptural text within appropriate historical and contextual boundaries. As we move attempt to rightly understand Scripture, it is incumbent upon us to realize that the world into which the Gospel narratives were introduced would have been more than well-versed in the dynamics of the patron-client relationship, as would those that came to identify themselves as Christians. This cultural dynamic would certainly be put to good use, especially since, in that time, it was very much the case that all positive relationships with any god were rooted in the perception of the patron-client relationship.
It is quite important to have a strong grasp of this underlying cultural principle of the patron-client system so that we might hear correctly hear what men like Paul are communicating to churches and to individuals in those churches. There is a strong counter-cultural bent in the New Testament (as is largely the case for Paul), and the patron-client system seems to be a place from which to wade in to the deep end of the exegetical waters. To that end, we must explore and understand said system, providing a few more details that can serve as cultural keys in an exegesis of the letter.
A client was a loyal supporter to a high standing Roman family, and it is the head of that higher-standing family that would ultimately be known as “patronus,” or “patron.” The clients of the patron functioned as an extended family to the patron---something like a clan. They would be expected to loyally support him (fides, pistis) in any venture upon which he chose to embark, be it military, political, or commercial. Meanwhile, the patron would aid his clients through representing their political interests through the office that he held, or by defending them in the courts as their advocate if such became necessary. This bond between patron and client was one of the bedrock foundations of Roman society. This reciprocal loyalty (fides, pistis) was a highly prized virtue, and it served to hold together families while serving as the unifying nexus of the social order. The loyalty of the client would be expected to extend beyond the patron and to the patron’s family as well. If a patron were to die, a client would be expected to offer the patron’s heir the same loyalty as had been offered to the original patron. Likewise for the client. Should the client die, his heir would be expected to stand in for the head of that family, continuing the clientele loyalty to their benefactor.
Though the patron-client system functioned at multiple levels, in which the client of one patron could also have clients of his own, it would be obvious that the most noble of families could have large numbers of clients supporting them in their endeavors. Along the same lines, entire kingdoms or nations, once conquered and made subservient, could become clients to the Roman commander that had conquered them. Such was the way of the world. Of course, if clients had clients, and if this reached all the way down to the basest level of society, it would also hold true for the other side of the ladder. Even a noble family would be the clients of a more honorable family, with this being the case all the way up to, in the days of Jesus and subsequently of the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers, the Caesar himself. Ultimately, all were looked upon as clients of Caesar, who was faithful and loyal to his subjects. Those subjects, in turn, were to be faithful and loyal to Caesar. This ideal was embodied in the phrase “ek pistis eis pistin,” which is often translated as “from faith to faith,” as Paul borrowed this phraseology from the Caesar cult and put it to use in his letter to the Romans (1:17).
It is this system that truly formed the foundation of the Roman state. Not only did it serve to create stability, but the unwavering loyalty of clients could aid certain families in retaining power for extended periods of time. At the same time, it created something of a welfare network, which was especially useful within an empire that lacked the means (or, at least, did not direct those means) to support those most in need and incapable of providing for themselves. The client system that surrounded a patron would look out for its members, ensuring that no harm would come to its own. If one member of the client group would be struck down by poverty, the other clients, and most likely the patron as well, would see to it that the one in need could get a loan. In the worst case, they would see to it that their fellow client would receive a decent funeral. If the patron was unable to provide assistance personally, he would orchestrate the assistance (gaining honor), perhaps asking other clients to come to the aid of another that had fallen on hard timea.