A Brief Look at Patronage as Background for the New Testament

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The present study is an inquiry into the interconnected reciprocal nature of patronage in the Greco-Roman imperial social setting, as one background component from the New Testament world. One would be wrong to think that such a social dynamic’s presence was minimal. In actuality, patronage and its vocabulary not only appears specifically in the New Testament (Luke 22:25; Acts 10:38; Rom 16:2; Philm 17-20, Phil 4:14-20, etc), but the social reciprocal dynamics in which its value and cultural powers are also assumed (shame, honor, unity, gratitude, fellowship, etc.). The reader who knows what to look for will see it in numerous contexts shaping the life of the body.[1] Unfortunately, the many elements vital to the matrix of patronage can only be pointed to. Yet, as Bruce J. Malina observes, it was “the most significant form of social interaction in the limited-good world of the first century is an informal principle of reciprocity, a sort of implicit, non-legal contractual obligation, unenforceable by any authority apart from one’s sense of honor and shame.”[2] The challenge in this paper is to briefly and accurately describe it.

In seeking to understand the New Testament accurately, scholars propose various exegetical principles and contextualizing models to accomplish this task.[3] The process here requires an approach which appreciates the cultural background of the New Testament to contextualize its vocabulary. This, Albert A. Bell reminds, is the “crucial part of understanding any written text.”[4] Greco-Roman words have a socially conditioned context that the modern reader may not readily identify. “Without a comprehension of the sociological dynamics of that world, our understanding… is terribly superficial at best and woefully mistaken at worst.”[5] The most crucial need for the reader of the New Testament, then, is to be able to bridge the cultural and time gap between the original (native) context and the reader’s contemporary context. This linguistic and cultural divide can be managed. In advancing a cultural-anthropological reading model, Jerome H. Neyrey argues that one can avoid ethnocentric and anachronistic readings of Paul (and the New Testament) by appreciating the difference between reading him as member of the same culture (an emic reading), and by reading him informed by the analytical and descriptive works of specialists and ethnographers (an etic reading).[6] As one gets closer to this “emic reading,” the modern reader comes closer to better appreciate the symbolic universe of Paul’s and Jesus’ culture.[7] The goal here is to gain a realistic perception from “native informants” which can illustrate and contextualize patronage as a Greco-Roman phenomenon.[8]

The presentation to follow will demonstrate how significant the social form of patronage was in the daily life of the Greco-Roman world, it will outline the vocabulary of patronage in Latin and Greek primary sources, it will sharpen this outline to differentiate between political and social patronage, and then offer a realistic scenarios that can illuminate reading the New Testament in its social and cultural world.

Daily Significance of Patronage

In modern analogy, patronage was like an ancient informal “welfare system.” Social services, like the modern model of the United States, would have been quite foreign. Instead, patronage was a cultural phenomenon in which there was a reciprocal relationship between the upper class and the lower class. It benefited lower classes with protection and patronage by means of reasonable support (legal, financial, medical, marital, etc.) for public support, the running of errands, odd jobs, escorting through streets, and providing social honor in exchange (a return). In exchange for the daily allowance (sportula), the client was at the patron’s call. Thus, it was a form of social investment between patron-client; interestingly, even slaves of wealthy households were known to have clients who hoped the slave could use their influence upon their master.[9] Greco-Roman and Christian scholarship is unequivocal about the daily and social significance of the patron-client network of relationships.[10]

Martial, in his colorful Epigrams, clocks what city life was like in the urbs (4.8.1-4): “The first and second hours wear out clients greeting their patrons.” The imagery evokes the crushing nature of the daily dependence of clients upon their patronus. A step further, Juvenal shows how important this allowance of money was for the everyday professional and collegia with his sarcastic words in the Satires (1.95-126):

For no deity is held in such reverence amongst us as Wealth; though as yet, O baneful money, thou hast no temple of thine own; not yet have we reared altars to Money in like manner as we worship Peace and Honour, Victory and Virtue, or that Concord that clatters when we salute her nest.[11]

This fits the common view that the patron-client phenomena were important to the daily life of every social stratum of the Greco-Roman world. To this point, Jérôme Carcopinodescribes that whether employed or unemployed, freedman or the parasite do-nothing, aristocrats or lower plebeians, clients “were no sooner out of bed than they were in the grip of the duties inseparable from being a ‘client.’ […] there was no man in Rome who did not feel himself bound to someone more powerful above him by the same obligations of respect, or, to use the technical term, the same obsequium.”[12] This honor-bound relationship allowed those in various professions and collegia to survive by means of this small daily “dole as their main source of revenue.”

Patronage in Latin and Greek Sources

Extant Greek and Latin sources (literary and epigraphic) speak of patronage, benefaction, and euergetism (good-doing) from political and social perspectives. Ideas such protection, assistance, help, advocacy, and philanthropy appear. Consider the following samples. It seems that patronage was initially borne out of political power and civic duty, but that distinction apparently broke down over time into a social network between the upper and lower classes in the Greco-Roman world among the rich, the poor, the freedman and freedwoman.[13]

The Roman historian Livy stretches back about four centuries to the early Roman Republic and recounts the story of Cincinnatus, the famed aristocratic plebeian consul, turn poor plebeian farmer, turn dictator, turn savior of Roman (History of Rome 3.26-29). According to Livy, his actions as dictator were reciprocated with honor and status. Livy frames (stylizes?) the response of the army as recognizing “the benefit [beneficii] they had received at his hands,” honored him with a golden crown, and “saluted him as their protector [patronum salutaverit]” (History of Rome 3.29.3). They had become his “clients,” and Cincinnatus would use this social bond to his advantage to “clear” the charges against his son Caeso who was on the run for charges of murder. The protector of Rome, then, returned his powers of dictator and returned to the rustic farm life. Later, when Augustus consolidates his power, Tacitus recounts his use of “gratuities” (donis) among the military and the poor (Annals 1.2). Michael Grant[14] interprets this as Augustus letting “it be understood that the old institution of patrons and clients had been recast, so that henceforward all the people were his own, personal clients, including the poorest citizens.” Thus, as principis Augustus and the emperors after him would portray (politically?) to the citizens of Rome and its subjects a bond of reciprocal loyalty.

Greek sources also illuminate various aspects of patronage. In the fifth century BCE, Sophocles frames the tragic Oedipus as gratefully exchanging protection from Thebes and “help [prostátisi] of the dread goddesses” who reigns in their districts, with obtaining “a great savior [sōtēr’] for this city, and troubles for my enemies” in him (Oedipus at Colunus 455-460). The Apocrypha[15] likewise points to the political upheavals in the Maccabean storyline connected to concepts of patronage. In 2 Maccabees, Simon slanders Onias, who is designated “a plotter against the government the man who was the benefactor [tòn euergétēn] of the city, the protector [tòn kēdemóna] of his compatriots, and a zealot for the laws” (4:2).[16]

In 3 Maccabees 3:13-29, “King Ptolemy Philopater” declares to his “generals and soldiers” that despite his goodwill (philanthrōpía), a desire to do good (eū poiēsaí), and to honor (timēsai) in the Jewish temple (3:15-17), the Jews “manifest ill-will toward us” and are “the only people among all nations who hold their heads high in defiance of kings and their own benefactors [euergétais], and are unwilling to regard any action as sincere” (3:19). The accommodative and benevolent king (philanthrópōs 3:20) declares that such rebellious Jews should be arrested, bound, and deported and that any who harbor them should be severely punished (3:25-29). Eventually, Philopator descends upon the Jews but is subdued by two angels. The king breaks down to pity and tears, and blames and threatens his “friends” (toís phílois):  “You are committing treason and surpassing tyrants in cruelty; and even me, your benefactor [euergétēn]” (6:24).

Political and Social Patronage in Rome

In the Greco-Roman world of the first century CE, there appears to be evidence distinguishing between political and social patronage. This can be confusing since sources often use terms like benefactor, euergetes, and patron in the process of discussion. The masculine form of the Greek prostát– (see verbal use above for “help”) is somewhat problematic. It is often considered synonymous with the Latin patronus. Interestingly, the New Testament the feminine form προστάτις is used in Romans 16:2 and translated as patron and benefactor (ESV; NIV, NRSV, HCSB). Erlend D. MacGillivray[17] takes exception to the view that these two forms are completely synonymous. The masculine appears in both Attic Greek and in the Roman Empire and carries both legal and a variety of leadership benefaction roles, but not the feminine form. MacGillivray argues that applying the masculine meaning upon prostátis is exegetically problematic for this reason. Benefaction is in view, but one must distinguish between political patronage from some interpersonal social networking.

MacGillivray argues that understanding prostátis depends, then, upon understanding the fluid nature of ancient Mediterranean reciprocal dynamics, recognizing the patron-client model is far too limiting and misleading. There is a difference between the narrow and nuanced meaning of classical patronage and the broad euergetistic/altruistic benefaction. While epigraphical gratitude evidence shows that prostátis and prostátes imply civic prestige, the nature of the evidence is, however, often weak to force synonymity. Part of the problem stems from the near normative templates in honorary Greco-Roman epigraphs that do not always neatly distinguish between the various kinds of patronage. Thus, the presence of these terms do not prove exclusively a classical patronage/patronus; consequently, MacGillivray’s work argues that prostátis and prostátes are not demonstrably synonymous.

R. A. Kearsley[18] extends this trajectory and explores several first century CE gratitude (honorarium) inscriptions shedding light on the first-century distinction between political and social patronage. These aristocratic women are named, Iunia Theodora and Claudia Metrodora, and are celebrated as female benefactors/patrons who operated in mid-first century CE Asia Minor. The cities of Lycia (Myra, Patara, Tel-messos) recount the influence of Theodora. Theodora apparently had multiple-citizenships, she freely shared her wealth, applied influenced for political and commercial purposes, and is described consistently in benefactor terms (sōphronōs, philolúkios) in Lycia. Such amounts to Theodora functioning as a social benefactor. On the other hand, Metrodora of Chiot Island likewise held multiple-citizenships, did hold political office as magistrate (stephanephoros), which required benefaction toward the people although she surpassed such requirements. She functioned in banquets, directed imperial games, gymnasiarch, public bathhouse donation, basileia in Ionia, and was praised for her public virtue. She was a benefactor as part of holding office.

Realistic Patronage Scenarios for Reading the New Testament

The above illustrations provide insight into the deep and ancient tradition of patronage and how such played out in various settings. There are two passages where patronage vocabulary is explicitly found in the New Testament.

First, in Luke, the political aspect of patronage is evident in Jesus’ counter-intuitive teaching on greatness. Jesus corrects the “greatness debate” among the disciples by saying,

“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors [euergétai]. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (22:25-26).

Frederick W. Danker observes, euergétai “served as a title for rulers in Syria and Egypt… In many cases the title would conceal tyranny under extravagant expenditure” (cf. Greek Esther 16:2-3, 13-14).[19] One might argue that Jesus is taking for granted a political euergétai known to abuse such roles, and parts from the fundamental principle of the patron-client relationship: “a service performed or a favor done shall not be transformed into status and honor.”[20] Jesus’ leadership principle, then, is that one serves detached from the demands of reciprocity and the honor and status it brings (cf. Acts 10:38).[21]

Second, in Romans 16:1-2 patronage appears to have a social component. Paul commends Phoebe to the church as “a servant of the church at Cenchreae” and as one who should be helped —reciprocally— “for she has been a patron [prostátis] of many and of myself as well.” Caroline F. Whelan[22] relates this passage to the context of Roman reciprocal social conventions within associations (collegia). Whelan maintains that women not only had the Roman legal standing to operate their wealth independently of guardians, they also functioned as civic patrons for collegia. Secondly, comparable “recommendation” letters reveal two types of reciprocal relationships. There is the superior-inferior recommendation rhetoric, and two, the social-equals recommendation rhetoric; each reflecting in some sense the inherent nature of reciprocity in Rome’s social structure, the matrix of which fuses together the economic and social. Romans 16:1-2, then, points to one of these realistic scenarios. Whelan argues that the patronage between social equals (amica, friends) is probably in view. Phoebe needs Paul’s influence among those addressed in Romans 16 (thus the recommendation), but as “equals” such rhetoric is not for his own social benefit. Instead, it is a gesture of gratitude for her own social activity as a social patron (euergetistic) to the collegia of the church in Cenchrea.


Robert Wilken asserts: “We have a distorted view of the history of early Christianity… The historian of Christianity has given the impression that the rest of the canvas is simply background for the closeup —relegating the general history of the times to an introductory chapter of vague generalities.”[23] Hopefully, this paper provides a closer, native (emic) reading. The smaller the cultural and linguistic gap is, the more accurate the reading. May this paper accomplish its task, to gain realistic perceptions from primary sources which can illustrate and contextualize patronage as an important Greco-Roman imperial phenomenon.


  1. David A. deSilva, “Honor and Shame,” “Patronage,” DNTB 518-22, 766-71; Donald Walker, “Benefactor,” DNTB 157-59; Halvor Moxnes, “Patron-Client Relations and the New Community in Luke-Acts,” in The Social World of Luke-Acts, ed. J. H. Neyrey (1991; repr., Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993), 241-68; Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 66-69.

  2. Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World (Louisville: John Knox, 1981), 80.

  3. Ralph P. Martin, “Approaches to New Testament Exegesis,” in New Testament Interpretation, ed. I. Howard Marshall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 220-51.

  4. Albert A. Bell, Jr., Exploring the New Testament World (Nashville: Nelson, 1998), 2.

  5. M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., “Sociological Criticism,” in Interpreting the New Testament, eds. David A. Black and David S. Dockery (Nashville: B&H, 2001), 171.

  6. Jerome H. Neyrey, Paul, In Other Words (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990), 13.

  7. Neyrey, Paul, 14-17. Neyrey’s distinctions and concerns have value, but he makes a hardline dichotomy between Paul as one who receives supra-cultural insight (i.e., from God) and Paul as a fully incarnated product of his times (18). This distinction ignores Paul’s stated role from God. This is one of Mulholland’s four critiques of this model, it tends to be human-centered, often grounded in dynamic models foreign to the Roman world, imposes the model on the evidence, and lends itself to sociological reductionism (“Sociological Criticism,” 178-80).

  8. David A. deSilva, The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1999). The “native informants” are “our best instructors” (xi).

  9. Bell, Exploring the New Testament World, 191-92.

  10. Ferguson, Backgrounds, 67; Florence DuPont, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, trans. C. Woodall (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993); Micahel Grant, A Social History of Greece and Rome (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1992).

  11. Juvenal, Satire 1.95-126, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/juv-sat1eng.asp.

  12. Jérôme Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, ed. Henry T. Rowell, trans. E. O. Lorimer (1940; repr., New Haven: Yale University, 1968), 171.

  13. Grant, Social History of Greece and Rome, 30, 54, 70-76, 114-119.

  14. Grant, Social History of Greece and Rome, 75-76.

  15. See also the verbal, and substantival, usages in Wisdom 3:5, 11:5, 13, 16:2, 19:13-14; 2 Macc 8:6; 4 Macc 8:6; Greek Esther 16:2-3 = 8:12c (tōn euergetoúntōn), 13 = 8:12n (euergétēn). Of these sources, Mordecai is framed as sōtēra and euergétēn (cf. God in LXX Psa 12:6, 56:3, 114:7).

  16. Quotations for the Old Testament Apocrypha are taken from New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible (Nashville: Nelson, 1989). The Greek text is from Septuaginta (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1996).

  17. Erlend D. MacGillivray, “Romans 16:2, prostátis/prostátes, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships to New Testament Texts,” NovT 53 (2011): 183-99.

  18. R. A. Kearsley, “Women in Public Life in the Roman East: Iunia Theodora, Claudia Metrodora and Phoebe, Benefactress of Paul,” TynB 50.2 (1999): 189-211.

  19. Frederick W. Danker, Jesus and the New Age According to St. Luke (St. Louis: Clayton Publishing, 1979), 222.

  20. Moxnes, “Patron-Client Relations,” 261.

  21. Halvor Moxnes, The Economy of the Kingdom (1988; repr., Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 158.

  22. Caroline F. Whelan, “Amica Pauli: The Role of Phoebe in the Early Church,” JSNT 49 (1993): 67-85.

  23. Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University, 1984), xiv.


Bell, Albert A., Jr. Exploring the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Jesus and the First Christians. Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1998.

Carcopino, Jérôme. Daily Life in Ancient Rome: The People and the City at the Height of the Empire. Edited by Henry T. Rowell. Translated by E. O. Lorimer. 1940. Repr., New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1968.

Danker, Frederick W. Jesus and the New Age According to St. Luke: A Commentary on the Third Gospel. 1972. Repr., St. Louis, MO: Clayton Publishing, 1979.

deSilva, David A. “Honor and Shame.” DNTB. 518-22.

deSilva, David A. The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999.

deSilva, David A. “Patronage” DNTB. 766-71.

DuPont, Florence. Daily Life in Ancient Rome. Translated by Christopher Woodall. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.

Grant, Michael. A Social History of Greece and Rome. New York, NY: Scribner’s Sons, 1992.

Kearsley, R. A. “Women in Public Life in the Roman East: Iunia Theodora, Claudia Metrodora and Phoebe, Benefactress of Paul.” TynB 50.2 (1999): 189-211.

MacGillivray, Erlend D. “Romans 16:2, prostátis/prostátes, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships to New Testament Texts.” NovT 53 (2011): 183-99.

Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insight from Cultural Anthropology. Atlanta, GA: Knox, 1981.

Moxnes, Halvor. The Economy of the Kingdom: Social Conflict and Economic Relations in Luke’s Gospel. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1988. Repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004.

——-. “Patron-Client Relations and the New Community in Luke-Acts.” Pages 241-68 in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Edited by Jerome H. Neyrey. 1991. Repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993.

Mulholland, M. Robert, Jr. “Sociological Criticism.” Pages 170-86 in Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues. Edited by David Alan Black and David S. Dockery. Nashville, TN: B&H, 2001.

Neyrey, Jerome H. Paul, In Other Words: A Cultural Reading of His Letters. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1990.

Walker, Donald D. “Benefactor.” DNTB. 157-59.

Whelan, Caroline F. “Amica Pauli: The Role of Phoebe in the Early Church.” JSNT 49 (1993): 67-85.

Wilken, Robert L. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1984.