This post 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.
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 , that aiteo has the force of “demand,” and we should go to God and demand what is ours. That is a good example of wrongly 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.” 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.