The Patron-Client Relationship in the Ancient World

One of the most difficult aspects of Bible study is understanding the text in the way that a person living at the time the Bible was written would understand it. We can use the model of a stage play to teach us how to better interpret the Bible. Let’s say we travel to England to see Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare, played, not in American English with modern phrases and modern adaptations, but right in Stratford-on-Avon with the jargon used when Shakespeare wrote. When you are watching the play, there are three distinct aspects or concept areas to consider.

The first aspect is what has gone on, and what is going on, “behind the scenes” of the play. This includes the preparation of the actors and the building of the set, but it also includes the culture, customs, vocabulary, experiences, thought processes, etc. that was part of the world at the time the play portrays. For example, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo” does not mean, “Romeo, Romeo, where are you, Romeo?” Rather it means, “Why are you Romeo?” i.e., why do you have to be from a forbidden, enemy family, and not from an acceptable family?

The second aspect is what is happening on the stage, which includes everything we see and hear there. The third aspect is what is happening to us, the audience, watching from the seats. This includes our emotions, ideas, etc., which are conditioned by the cultural background we live in, and which we are partly aware of and partly not. If we do not properly understand the “behind the scenes” ideas and attitudes, we will not properly understand what is happening on stage, and if we do not understand what is “behind the scenes” of the biblical text, we will not understand the Bible when we read it.

Let’s apply this three-aspect stage play model of biblical interpretation to a couple of verses. If we read, “You shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15), we understand it because stealing occurs in every culture. Many such things in the Bible can be clearly understood just as they are written because they are universal to mankind and to societies. However, things are different when “behind the scenes” cultural aspects are necessary to understand the verse. Take, for example, Paul’s appeal when he was taken before the Sanhedrin:

Acts 23:6
Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.”

To understand this verse, one must know what the Sanhedrin were, what a Sadducee was and what they believed, and what a Pharisee was and what they believed. Those things are not covered in detail in the Bible because everyone reading the verse at the time Acts was written knew perfectly well who each group was and what they believed. Thankfully, we can find these things easily in any good Bible dictionary.

The cultural atmosphere in our Western World today is one based on “rights” and “laws.” It is written into the fabric of Western Society that all people have equal rights, such as the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The fact that each American citizen has rights “guaranteed” by laws is such a fundamental part of our lives that it is difficult to imagine life without them.

However, it is a serious mistake to interpret the Bible in terms of our own culture. In the ancient world people were not thought of as being equal, with each having rights. Certain rights were granted to certain segments of society, yes, but even those were regularly ignored. A Roman slave owner, for example, would have thought it absurd that his slave had the “right” to life or happiness.

That people were not thought of as having “rights” is clear from both the ancient writings and the biblical text. Herod the Great killed the children in Bethlehem because he suspected a rival would arise from that town. John the Baptist was imprisoned because he confronted Herod Antipas about marrying his brother’s wife, and then was executed simply to please Herodias, who did not like him. Paul, though a Roman citizen, was kept in jail in Caesarea for almost two full years because the ruler, Felix, was hoping for a bribe (Acts 24:26).

In fact, the process to gain rights has been slow and hard fought. In 1215 A.D. (almost 1,000 years after the New Testament era) the barons of England forced King John to sign the Magna Charta, a “bill of rights,” if you will. Article 39 stated that rulers could not imprison and punish people without a lawful trial. King John was basically forced to sign it, but immediately sent it on to the Pope, who declared it null and void, and for extra measure, excommunicated the barons. To us today, the “right” to a trial and to not be tortured just because some ruler does not like us seems fundamental indeed, but not so to the King of England and the Pope in 1215.

If ancient societies did not function like ours, on laws and rights, what was their “cultural atmosphere,” and how did they function? Ancient biblical societies functioned on a patron-client basis. As such, there was great inequality between the “Haves” and the “Have-nots.” The inequality existed in substance (possessions) and power and influence. As a result, the client needed the resources that the patron could offer. The patron needed (or found useful) the loyalty and honor that the client could give him.

This article is only a brief introduction to the subject of the patron-client society, which deserves much deeper study. It is important that we as modern readers really understand the patron-client society. It was not like in the Western world where there are the “Haves” and the “Have-nots,” and the “Have-nots” feel that they are equal to, but less fortunate than, the “Haves.” We today have the “rich and powerful” and also the poor, but for the most part we believe that poor people are equal to the rich but simply have had less opportunity, or have made more mistakes, than they did. That was not the case in ancient society, where access to goods and power was not considered free and equal to everyone, and people were not considered fundamentally equal. It was part of the fabric of society that such access to power and influence was channeled either through individuals or special groups.

“…personal patronage was an essential means of acquiring access to goods, protection, or opportunities for employment and advancement. Not only was it essential, it was expected and publicized! The giving and receiving of favors was, according to a first-century participant, the “practice that constitutes the chief bond of human society” (Seneca, Ben. 1.4.2). …For anything outside the ordinary, the person sought out the individual who possessed or controlled access to what the person needed, and received it as a favor. …Sometimes the most important gift a patron could give was access to (and influence with) another patron who actually had power over the benefit being sought. [1]

Understanding the patron-client society of the ancient world allows us to better understand verses in the Bible as they would have been understood by the biblical writers and those who read the Bible in the early centuries after Christ. Take, for example, John 16:24b: “…Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” The Greek word “ask” is aiteo. It is sometimes taught (and I have taught this myself in years past), that aiteo has the force of “demand,” and we should go to God and demand what is ours. That is a good example of reading our culture and ideas back into the biblical text. In the patron-client society of the biblical world, no “have-not” ever went to the local ruler and “demanded” goods or services, and no one would have ever thought of doing it to God Almighty!

A word study of aiteo shows that it has a range of meanings, including “to ask for, to demand, to plead for, to beg” (Thayer, Bullinger, Vine). Seeing that range of meanings, it makes sense to us Westerners who have “rights” that we should demand of God the things He should give us. However, the ancients would not have “demanded” from God, they would have “asked” Him, pleaded with Him, even begged Him. God, on the other hand, as the Ultimate Patron, and Giver of all good gifts, could in fact “demand” of us. The fact that clients “asked” (pleaded with, begged) patrons, and patrons “asked” (demanded) clients, partly explains the range of meanings of aiteo.

The huge difference between the rich and powerful and the poor and needy in the ancient world set the stage for another cultural aspect of the patron-client relationship, which is that patrons were honor bound to help their clients. In fact: “A patron’s social status was measured in part by the number and status of his clients.” [2] It is important to understand this to know how the biblical writers and readers understood their relationship with God. It is quite possible that upon hearing that we cannot go to God and “demand” from Him, readers of this article, being Westerners and members of modern society, may feel completely lost and wonders how we can ever get anything from God at all.

The first-century Christians would not have had the same problem. They understood that God was honor-bound to support them, and especially so since He was love, and they were doing what He asked them to do. As Scripture says, “…God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6b). An obedient Christian can expect God’s grace. [3] As a loving patron, God will bless, and give grace to, those who support and obey Him. On the other hand, like any ancient patron, those who are proud and arrogant will not get the blessings from God they could have otherwise received.

Once we understand the patron-client relationship, it seems to be everywhere in the pages of the Bible. It is why the leper came to Jesus and asked, “…Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (Matt. 8:2b). It is why the centurion (a Gentile) did not consider himself worthy to have Jesus come to him, but sent Jews to him with the message (Luke 7:6). Even the term “Christian” (“followers of Christ”), coined in Antioch of Syria by unbelievers, pointed to the patron-client relationship between the Lord Jesus Christ and his followers, whom he blessed and helped.

So, what about going “boldly” before the throne of grace to get what we need?

Hebrews 4:16 (KJV)
Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.

The word translated boldly in the KJV is parrhesia, and the English word “boldness” gives the wrong impression. Parrhesia was used of the Greeks in the marketplace who were called upon to speak about political issues with complete openness. It was to speak one’s mind, or say what one will, so perhaps “straightforwardness,” “candor,” “openness,” or “frankness” would be good translations. [4] As it can be imagined, that was quite rare in the ancient world. Speaking one’s mind to a ruler could get one in serious trouble (note our example of John the Baptist given earlier in the article).

We Westerners are used to speaking our minds, so when we see “boldly” in Hebrews, we tend to think of someone coming before God with boldness and brashness of presence, forcefully declaring what God should give him, but that is not how the ancient Greek reader would understand this verse. Rather, he would see God as the Ultimate Patron, before whom we should come with respect but without fear, being totally open and honest with Him, neither flattering Him nor hiding our true feelings, but laying before Him our genuine needs and concerns, in order that we can obtain the mercy and grace we need to meet our needs.

We Christians can have faith in a loving God who wants to help and support us, and who will do so if we ask Him. We can trust that He always has our best interests at heart. We must be careful not to “have faith in our faith,” thinking that our faith will get from Him what we want. Faith (trust) is important, but faith alone will not pull the blessings out of God’s pockets. The blessings are His to give, and as we trust Him, love Him, obey Him, and ask Him, He will pour them out to us.

[For more on the patron-client relationship besides the noted reference, see The Social World of Luke-Acts by Jerome Neyrey, and Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino.]


[1] David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2000), pp. 96 and 97.
[2] James Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1999), p. 192.
[3] It is sometimes taught that God’s grace is unconditional. The truth is that it is sometimes unconditional, and sometimes conditional. Scripture makes this clear, as we see in James 4:6b. Cp. John Piper, Future Grace (Multnomah Publishers, Inc., Sisters, OR, 1995).
[4] Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody MA, 1994) pp. 56-62.

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