If one does not operate from within an awareness of the patron-client system of the ancient world, one will undoubtedly 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 it will not be possible to understand the overarching Gospel message (Jesus is Lord), but rather, that readings and the ability to apply that which is gleaned and learned from those readings will be richer by orders of great magnitude if one approaches the Scriptural text within appropriate historical and contextual boundaries.
Moving forward then, it is incumbent upon an observer 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.
So, even though it may seem quite extraneous to a perusal of a letter of Paul, it is quite important to have a strong grasp of this underlying cultural principle of the patron-client system so that it is possible to correctly hear what Paul is communicating to Timothy. As indicated by the title of this study, there is a strong counter-cultural bent in the first letter to Timothy, as is largely the case for Paul; and the patron-client system seems to be a useful jumping off point. To that end, said system will continue to be explored, with that exploration 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 (offer fides or pistis) in any venture upon which he chose to embark, be that 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 (again, fides or 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.