Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Relationships in Bible Times part 5

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.

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.

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 post). 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 references, see The Social World of Luke-Acts by Jerome Neyrey, and Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino. Truth or Traditions website.]


  1. Hi Donna

    Thanks for that insight into the KJV and "boldly". Out of curiousity I did a quick look and found that the NIV, the ESV and the NASB all use the word "confidence" which seems a lot closer to the idea that the patron can be expected to provide support but one still keeps ones place.

    Thanks also for the reference to the Neyrey book, I have added it to my wish list on Amazon.ca. That of course was a more dangerous proposition because I also ended up adding Tannehill's "Narrative Unity in Luke - Acts" and John H. Elliot's "What is Social Scientific Criticism"!!! Oh well, at least it is still only the wish list.

  2. I've just discovered your blog and am loving it! We've (Sallie Poet and me, Lynda Wilson) just finished a series of scripture study lessons for use in Relief Society study groups or individual study on the Gospel of Luke. If you don't mind I'd like to link to your posts on the status of women in the Biblical world. Our materials can be found online at www.sistersatthewell.org
    Love that you explore the meaning of the words in Greek and are open to exploring the wonderful insights of Christians of all persuasions. I hope you get a lot of new readers from our site!