Skip to content

Book Review: DeSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity (Part I)

September 26, 2009

815724_1_ftc_dpHere is a book revew I did this summer on a very influential read concerning the 1st century Mediterranean culture.  It’s long, so it will be broken into two parts.  This will not likely interest many readers, but if you’re interested in the cultural background of the 1st century, or you want to see what a graduate level book review looks like (hopefully!), then this is for you:

Context is crucial and culture forms our understanding and interpretation of scripture.  So argues David DeSilva in his enlightening contextual study of first century Mediterranean culture in Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity:  Unlocking New Testament Culture.  There have been a great many studies in recent years on the impact of Second Temple Judaism on Christianity, as there have been numerous works on the impact of Greco-Roman culture on the early church.  Recently, students of Christianity and the New Testament have seen the necessity of understanding the cultural milieu in which Christianity arose, and DeSilva’s work certainly adds to the discussion, but I believe in a way that is unique.  While other works usually focus on either Jewish culture or Greco-Roman culture, DeSilva chooses four significant cultural values that impacted both Roman and Jewish peoples of the first century.  These four values, mentioned in the title, are those of honor and shame, the patron-client relationship, kinship and family codes, and issues of purity and separation codes.  He then shows how the New Testament writers communicated with these cultural values impacting their message.  DeSilva writes, after all, that “culture…provides the framework for all communication,” and this would not be any different for the New Testament writings (17-18).

In writing about these four cultural values, DeSilva seeks to accomplish two purposes.  The first is to provide insight into the cultural world of the New Testament writers.  In order to “hear” the texts of the New Testament correctly, we must seek to understand the culture of these writers (18).  This is so, because according to DeSilva, “Modern readers, too, are fully enculturated into a set of values, ways of relating and so forth.  Without taking some care to recover the culture of the first-century Greco-Roman writers…we will simply read the texts from the perspective of our cultural norms and codes” (18).  The New Testament writings are interpreted in a vacuum without the cultural contexts.  Secondly, understanding these values helps us “not to miss what it is the text does seek to convey and what effect and formative power it would wish to have on us and our communities of faith [emphasis mine]” (18).  DeSilva writes with a heart for the contemporary church and how knowing these cultural values and contexts may provide us with new and fresh interpretations of scripture that is more faithful to its original intent.  Thus, he ends each section with practical guidance for appropriating understandings reached for the building up of our communities of faith.  In the end, DeSilva claims that his work will seek “to equip readers to become better readers of Scripture so that they may become better shapers of disciples and faith communities” and this, I feel, he does in a way few people can (21).

In terms of the outline of the book, DeSilva’s approach is simple.  He begins by tracing the particular cultural value (beginning with honor and shame) through Greco-Roman and Jewish writings, showing how pervasive the value was to first century Mediterranean society.  He then devotes a second chapter of the same value to showing how it is presented in the writings of the New Testament.  Here, DeSilva offers a wealth of passages showing how in the teachings of Jesus, and the writings of the apostles, each value is expressed and embodied.  After he relays the New Testament material, he ends the chapter with practical admonitions about how we might, today, implement our “new” contextual understandings of the scriptures in our congregations.  Because we live with a different set of values, understanding these writings within the context of the first century cultures helps us reevaluate how we’ve applied certain passages of scripture, so that we offer the most faithful interpretation and application possible.  It will be appropriate here to quickly survey each of the four values that DeSilva discusses.

Like many Eastern cultures today, the world of the first century was built on the concept of honor and dishonor (23).  DeSilva  notes that the Roman statesmen Seneca and others like him, expected people to “choose one course of action over another, or to approve of one kind of person over another, and in short, to organize their system of values, all on the basis of what is ‘honorable’” (23).  This concept of honor often played out in moral instruction.  DeSilva writes about how the orator Isocrates would uses phrases in his instruction such as “it is honorable” rather than “it is right,” or “it is disgraceful” rather than “it is wrong” (24).  Perhaps the most enlightening aspect of issues of honor, is that this value is a communal value.  Honor and shame were used as a means of preserving the boundaries of what is acceptable in a given community.  This is especially important for the early church, whose way of life was often at odds with the surrounding Greco-Roman culture.  DeSilva shows how the language of the New Testament places high value on what is honorable behavior as a follower of God.  Take for instance Peter’s admonition in his letter:  “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they may malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God…” (I Peter 2:12).  What is especially surprising about the New Testament’s concept of honor, however, is that it often runs counter to the greater surrounding culture.   While wealth, power, success, and class (outside appearances) were means of honor for the first century societies, Christians had a different system of honor:  the work of God in the believer (75-76).  In fact, it is often weaknesses that are “honorable” to God as the beatitudes of Jesus show.  In any case, the concept of honor and its opposite—shame—were necessary for the continuity of the life of the community of believers in the first century, especially since they were often ridiculed by society at large.  Ultimately, DeSilva argues that the contemporary Western church, which has often succumbed to the influence of what the surrounding society values, needs to rediscover how to live “honorably” as a community of Christ followers—letting the church be the “court of reputation” as he calls it, rather than becoming a “mirror of society’s values” (87).

The second cultural value, probably the most difficult for contemporary Westerns to get—the patron-client relationship—was a deeply embedded value for Roman and Jewish peoples.  While those, in many Western societies, have governments and public welfare to provide safety nets in difficult times, people of the first century had no protection (96).  In such community driven societies, people needed help from one another and the primary way to acquire it was through patronage.  Briefly explained, the patron-client relationship was a way for people to gain access to favors (i.e. “clients”) from the people who had the capacity to give such favors (i.e. “patrons”).  In return for the favor, the clients would proclaim the benevolence of the patrons wherever they went (97).  It was thus, a mutually beneficial relationship.  Each side had a “part” to play.  How does this concept play out in the New Testament?  According to DeSilva, it impacts our understanding of grace (104).  When the followers of Jesus announced the grace of God, listeners would have understood it in the context of this patron-client relationship.  God is seen as a benevolent patron, bestowing favors on his clientele.  In response, the recipients of such grace would proclaim God’s fame and honor, by spreading the word (evangelism) and living lives worthy of such grace.  This understanding of grace helps explain the reciprocal nature of God’s initiative to bestow grace on his children.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Hunter Harper permalink
    December 7, 2009 1:22

    Very interesting. I look forward to reading Part II. I think the churched-masses’ definition of “reading” does not often include seeking to understand cultural context(s) which leads to less practical applications and more general/blanket presentations of biblical directives.


  1. Book Review: DeSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity (Part II) « You can take everything I have..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: