Now to the eternal king, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen. – 1 Timothy 1:17 (NET)
Before one can commence with an exegesis of the text of Paul’s first letter to Timothy (this study will take the position that the letter comes from the mind and hand of the Apostle Paul, though for the purposes of this study, it really makes no difference whether the letter is Pauline or deutero-Pauline), there is an obligation 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, one must be 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 then 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, such is read 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.