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

September 27, 2009

Here is the second part of my somewhat lengthy book review.  See Part I for the first half.

A third cultural value discussed by DeSilva is the concept of family and how important family and community were to first century people.  In the West today, we still know what it means to be in a family, although, individualism has greatly affected our understanding of what it means to be a part of a people.  The idea of family and kinship in the first century went far beyond the immediate family (i.e. father, mother, siblings) to include one’s nation or ethnicity.  The family or group was also a means of identity:  “A person’s family of origin is the primary source for his or her status and location in the world and an essential reference point for the person’s identity [emphasis mine]” (158).  From this value of kinship, we have a context for the New Testament’s description of the church as the “household of God” and believers as “children of God.”  If status is derived from “family connection,” then what better way to assure believers than by claiming our inheritance as part of God’s family?

A second aspect of kinship, is how families were to treat each other as a family.  This helps make sense of the many passages in the New Testament about “loving one another,” “carrying one another’s burdens,” and “seeking the good of the other.”  Certainly families should do this!  Lastly, the church as family transcends “bloodline or natural lineage” to include all who have “attached” themselves to Jesus Christ (200).

The final value that DeSilva discusses that affected both Greco-Romans and Jews in the first century is the issue of purity—what is clean or unclean.  While we tend to think of the purity laws found in the Old Testament for Israel, issues of purity affects every culture in one way or another.  For example, in our culture today, food out on a counter is acceptable in one’s house when preparing a meal—it’s considered clean.  However, if the food was spread out over the staircase we would certainly see it as “unclean” (244).  Humans naturally set boundaries of clean and unclean.  Yet, in order to fully understand the New Testament’s “rewriting” of the Jewish purity codes, one would need to “step behind a millennia of ideology to recover the meaningfulness of the observance of purity regulations” (242).  DeSilva seeks to make us aware of purity issues in Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, to show that while the Church has abandoned some of the more archaic purity regulations, the central idea of being a pure and holy (i.e. separate) people before God is still very much intact.

If DeSilva’s goals in writing this work are to give a cultural context to our reading of the New Testament so that interpretations reached two millennia later will be faithful to the original context, and to provide the body of Christ with practical ways to be faithful to these interpretations, then DeSilva does a masterful job.  Rather than evaluate the work as a whole, I will rather explore a difficult passage of scripture within the context of the patron-client relationship, and describe one area of practical guidance involving how the twenty first century church could implement the concept of honor to strengthen discipleship.

A notoriously difficult passage theologically is found in the sixth chapter of Hebrews, when the author writes that “it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened…and have tasted the good word of God…since on their own they are crucifying again the son of God and holding Him  up to contempt” (Hebrew 6:4-6).  Can we lose our salvation?  Are we eternally secure?  These are questions that this passage has provoked throughout the history of Christianity.  Yet, in the context of the patron-client relationship, we may arrive at a deeper understanding that avoids striving over the concept of eternal security.  In the writings of the ancients concerning the patron’s responsibilities, we find the idea that patrons are to give without the expectation of return:  “He who gives benefits imitates the gods, he who seeks a return, money lenders” (107).  This quote from Rabbi Ben Sira implies that the patron never gives to “get” a return.  Yet, we know that the responsibility of the client is to give a return by honoring the benefaction of the patron.  Each side of the relationship had obligations to fulfill, yet the patron was to give as if there was no reciprocation to take place.  Each side was to fulfill its obligations.  When we understand this, we realize that the author of Hebrews is writing to clients of God’s grace, laying down  guidelines for showing their appreciation of the “goodness of God.”  This passage says nothing of the patron’s responsibility—it’s a warning to the clients of how unfortunate it will be if they fail to uphold their side of the “deal.”  The warning is so strong because, as DeSilva notes, “The doctrine of eternal security threatens to distract us, who are clearly in the role of clients, from focusing on what is our proper business” (151).  But in the end, the passage, because of its emphasis on warning the client, says nothing about the continued benevolence of the patron in spite of unfaithfulness on the part of the client—something that patrons were expected to do in their instruction.  God, as our patron, will continue to bestow his grace, but we need the warnings to uphold our part of the relationship.  Thus, a deeper understanding of the patron-client context helps us avoid interpretive conclusions that the writer of Hebrews did not intend.

Knowing the grace bestowed on us by our Father and patron, a healthy understanding of honor will help us remain faithful, in spite of the lure of the world and society to conform to its values.  DeSilva suggests that while America (and other Western countries) are not “honor cultures” per say, we do seek to “find their self-respect in achieving those marks society sets forth as the definition of successful” (85).  We want to be seen as “worthy.”  Yet, just as in the first century, society defines “worth” by values that are incompatible what God deems as “honorable”—material gain, prestige, position.  Understanding God’s view of honor, the church can once again look to become an “alternate ‘court of reputation’ in which members reinforce for one another the centrality of God’s values” through intimate small group settings (87).  We would do this by “admitting rather than suppressing the truth of our fallenness, ceasing our efforts to create and preserve a perfect image” (92).  We must learn to expose individualism, and be vulnerable about our sin, so we can encourage one another to pursue a life that is honoring to God.  Here, DeSilva provides the Church with application of his work, taking it out of the realm of the scholar, and placing within the realm of the pastor.  We need more scholarly works that do this.

In the end, DeSilva does exactly what he sets out to do.  He provides the resource for students of the New Testament, and followers of Christ, to place the writings of the New Testament within the context of the central cultural values of the first century cultures.  He then shows how a deeper understanding of these values will help us today be faithful in our communities of faith to honoring God, responding to grace, living together in the love of Christ, and being pure and holy before a holy God.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 27, 2009 11:49

    Very eye-opening and enlightening posts, Jon. Thanks for sharing the book. Where can I find one? 🙂

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