Now to the eternal king, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen. – 1 Timothy 1:17 (NET)
This is honorific language, and it is culturally significant for Paul. Before we can commence any type of exegesis of any portion of Paul’s letters (or letters traditionally assigned to Paul), we are obligated to take steps to construct the social framework in which the letter will be composed, in which it will be read by its recipient, and in which it may have been shared with an assembly of Christians. Specifically, we need to make ourselves aware of the patron-client relationship of the Roman world.
The patron-client relationship was one which tied persons of significantly different social status together in a reciprocal exchange of goods and services. The relationship is asymmetrical, in that the two sides are not social equals and will never make any pretense whatsoever of equality. The patron-client contract, especially in a world heavily divided between free and slave or citizen and subject, as was the Roman world, provides the client with things that would not normally be available to them, whether that be material things or even something nebulous and subjectively defined, such as justice. Whatever it is that is provided to the client by the patron, it is understood that the client badly needs these things, and that the client cannot obtain such things on his own.
In return for the benefaction of the patron, the client gives the patron honor and loyalty. In a world defined by the system of the limited good of honor, the client does not confer his own honor upon the patron. Rather, the patron is accorded greater honor in the court of public reputation by amassing a network of clients that, ipso facto, demonstrates the largesse of the patron and serves to signify how truly honorable and worthy of honor the patron is. The honor of the patron is the noised abroad by the client (the client speaks in honorific language about his patron), so that all may hear of the deeds of the patron on behalf of the client, which is part and parcel of his demonstration of loyalty. In Latin, this loyalty is known as “fides,” whereas in Greek it is known as “pistis.” Translated to English, we read it as “faith.” The denizens of the world into which Jesus and the announcement of His Gospel came would have largely heard “faith” as a response of loyalty within the parameters of the patron-client system.
Interestingly, the existence and prevalence of the patron-client relationship seem to be implied in many accounts within the Gospels of Jesus’ interaction with those that came to Him seeking some good thing that they could not obtain for themselves. Those that came to Jesus in search of the good that He could provide would be fully aware of the patron-client relationship, and would often expect the demand for or exhibit the desire to treat Jesus as their patron, offering their services or their selves to Him as their client. Jesus, however, during His earthly ministry, rejects clientage, and resists becoming a patron in the accepted sense. To demonstrate this, a couple of brief examples from the Gospels will suffice.
In the fifth chapter of Mark, Jesus heals a demoniac by casting a “Legion” of demons out of him and into a herd of pigs. At the conclusion of this story, it is reported that “As He was getting into the boat the man who had been demon-possessed asked if he could go with Him. But Jesus did not permit him to do so. Instead, He said to him, ‘Go to your home and to your people and tell them what the Lord has done for you, that He had mercy on you.’” (5:18-19) At first glance, it appears that Jesus is in fact telling this man to engage in activity that would be standard for a client, that of telling others about the benefaction of a patron. However, on second glance, Jesus, as was customary, is pointing away from Himself and to the Creator God of Israel as the source of healing. At the same time, the Gospel author wants us to see the way in which Jesus act of mercy is received, against the known background of the patron-client dynamic, as he goes on to write “So he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him, and all were amazed” (5:20). This would have been standard practice for a client. Though it has not been requested nor demanded of him, he has made Jesus his patron. Though the earthly Jesus clearly did not desire this, especially when we consider His constant insistence on keeping His activities or identity secret, in a cosmic sense this is entirely appropriate.
The story of “Blind Bartimaeus,” as recorded in the tenth chapter of Mark, also fits well into the patron-client dynamic. Commencing with verse forty-six we read: “They came to Jericho. As Jesus and His disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus the son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the road. When he heard that it was Jesus the Nazarene, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (10:46-47) By this, Bartimaeus is attempting to gain Jesus’ attention and ultimately His patronage, offering Jesus praise and requesting mercy, and so attempting to take the position of client. Reading further, “Many scolded him to get him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’ So they called the blind man and said to him, ‘Have courage! Get up! He is calling you.’ He threw off his cloak, jumped up, and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man replied, “Rabbi, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go, your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the road” (10:48-52).
In this story, we see that Bartimaeus is undeterred by the scolding. He desires Jesus’ patronage. He is willing to become His client. He throws off his cloak (likely his only cloak), thus signifying a complete reliance on this patron (further debasing himself as a nod to the honor of the potential patron). He also uses the honorific title of “Rabbi.” Jesus’ response is not what one would expect from a patron, in that He does not take credit for the healing, but rather, tells the man that he has been healed by his own faith (fides, pistis - loyalty). The now healed man, desirous of showing forth his loyalty and of having a role in increasing Jesus’ public honor, takes up the position of a client, by following Jesus on the road.