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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

New Eyes on the New Testament, and a Meditation on Grace

There is a very short list of two books that have profoundly influenced my understanding of the New Testament.  The first is George Eldon Ladd's A Theology of the New Testament (orig. pub. 1974, rev. ed. 1993), which describes the basic categories of thought in the various sections of the NT (especially the Synoptic Gospels [Matt., Mark, Luke], Johannine literature [John and 1, 2, 3 John], and Paul's epistles).  The other is Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, by David A. deSilva (2000).  After this many years of reading the New Testament, I might have thought that I had the basics nailed down (notice the pattern in my life lately?), but deSilva's work has profoundly enhanced the way I read and comprehend it.  It's not so much that he has changed what I believe.  It is more like I've been used to watching it in black and white, and now it's in vibrant color, or like going from holding pieces of a puzzle to recognizing that they are puzzle pieces and seeing how they fit together.

deSilva is a leading scholar in a movement to ascertain a deep knowledge of how 1st-century Mediterranean society/-ies worked, including the nature of people's relationships and the values that they employed usually without thinking in their day-to-day assumptions and decisions.  deSilva and his ilk believe that doing so enables modern Westerners in a far-removed culture to hear the words of Scripture as its original hearers did and thereby come closer to receiving the message God delivered to them through it.  Though this concept is not that original, deSilva and others have gone beyond most in how thoroughly they have explored the the social environment and values of the Jewish and Gentile cultures of the early Christians.

deSilva's book explores four themes that he believes are central to the way 1st-century Mediterranean people interacted with each other, reflected in the title of his book:
  • the honor-shame dichotomy as a marker of social standing and as a means to enforce conformity;
  • the patron-client relationship as the major means by which financial, material, political, and social capital moved through society;
  • kinship ties as the predominant delineation between "us" and "them" and the ethics those ties require;
  • purity maps that distinguished between holy and common and between clean and unclean to manage the power of the supernatural and to maintain social stability.
The author explores each theme in two chapters.  In the first he explains how 1st-century Jews, Greeks, and Romans understood and employed that theme with extensive documentation from writings of the period.  In the second he traces where those themes appear in the New Testament and often how they are profoundly reinterpreted by Jesus and the apostles.  The latter chapter of each pair is always longer than the former, but one still gets the sense that deSilva is only briefly surveying the appearance of these themes in the New Testament; one could spend a lifetime plumbing their depths.

As a brief example of the richness deSilva's book brings to the table, let's look at the patron-client relationship in the 1st-century Mediterranean world, the place where people saw grace displayed.

In the West in 2010—certainly in our ideal and often in practice—the two ways that limited physical or non-physical goods get distributed are by money and by merit.  Many desirables have a price tag, a market value, and they are available to anyone with the money to pay for them.  Other desirables (for example, a job) are distributed to those who by skill and prior achievement demonstrate that they deserve them more than anyone else—that is, they have more merit.  Governments exist in part to ensure a level playing field, understood as free access to these desirables with money and merit being the only discriminating factors.  Governments are also to ensure that the things that can be gotten with money and the things that can be gotten by merit are kept separate (with a few exceptions like bank loans which require both).  By contrast, if someone gets something at a price that isn't offered to anyone else or in place of someone more deserving through some personal relationship, we are grossly offended.

But our concept of fair play and our vast marketplace undergirded by enormous collective wealth could not be more different from the 1st-century world.  In that society, money and merit did have their place, but they were positioned differently.  In a world of such scarcity that most of most people's time was devoted to surviving to the following day, money was used for basics like food and clothing but for little else.  Any larger acquisitions—a boat for one's fishing business, a loan, a real estate purchase, legal advocacy—were in such short supply that they could only be acquired as a favor from someone who had the wealth or power to bestow them—a patron.  Merit played a role in the application for those larger goods, but they didn't define merit as we do.  Rather than merit being defined by work ethic, skill, or ability to repay as in our culture, merit was defined as the degree of loyalty and gratitude one could expect from one's client.  Consequently, far removed from our modern disgust at nepotism, capital flowed in ancient society almost entirely by means of personal relationships.  It really was "who you know" that mattered.  And as opposed to the impersonal relationships that characterize much of modern commerce, the bestowal of a favor was a step toward an increasingly exclusive and permanent relationship that was even passed down to the succeeding generations of both patron and client.  And though government was greatly concerned with justice, our idea of economic fair play was not much of a priority in the ancient world.  To the contrary, government and its rulers and officials functioned as patrons to the people they governed either collectively or selectively.  Getting favors from government was as personal as any other relationship, not mediated by an impersonal application process.

(By the way, the best possible way to see the contrast between the modern Western way of acquiring goods and getting ahead and the ancient way is to watch carefully the fascinating opening scene of The Godfather.  The clash of values between the Americanized Bonasera and the traditional Don Corleone is the perfect portrayal of what I'm talking about.)

The patron-client relationship was the setting for what the Greeks called kharis, most often translated in our Bibles as "grace."  Greek mythology included a trio of goddesses known as the Three Graces, traditionally portrayed as dancing in a circle.  The Roman philosopher Seneca speculated that the Three Graces represented the generosity of the giver, the gift itself, and the gratitude of the recipient of the gift respectively, because those were the three definitions of the word kharis.  The Graces danced in a circle, because ideally each step would naturally lead to the next—from the patron's generosity to the favor bestowed to the client's praise of the patron and back to another show of generosity.  To fail in one of these steps was to disrupt the dance of grace, and because the Graces were divine it was even blasphemy.  Naturally as the dance of grace spun on it bound the benefactor and his client in a tighter and tighter relationship.  The patron increasingly owed it to his client to be generous or risk being viewed among his peers as stingy and selfish.  The client was expected never to flag in gratitude, either repaying his patron in some way as he had opportunity or at least to praise his patron constantly and publicly for his generosity to give to one who could not repay him.  Above all the client was to be loyal, because to seek favors from another patron, especially an enemy of his own, was to show the most egregious ingratitude and dishonor to the one who had favored him.

Sometimes the best favor a patron could bestow was access to another patron who had what the client needed.  In such a case, the client would ask for that access and his patron would go to his friend or patron and ask himself, functioning as a mediator.  The mediator would vouch for the worthiness of his client as someone who would show gratitude and loyalty in return for the favor, and the other patron might bestow that favor because of his faith in the mediator.

Are you beginning to see anew what Paul meant when he wrote that we are saved by grace through faith?  The dance of grace in the New Testament begins with God's desire to be generous to human beings.  It continues with his bestowal of the gifts of salvation, forgiveness, eternal life, adoption, the Holy Spirit, freedom from Satan, the inheritance of the new earth, and anything and everything else that he gives us as a result of his generosity.  And it continues further with our endless gratitude and loud, public praise to him for his gifts only to spiral back again.

From this perspective, certain common heresies and confusions about God's grace become absurd.  For example, to claim that it is okay to sin because we are assured of forgiveness is to violate the dance of grace by failing to repay God's grace (as in generosity) with our own (as in gratitude).  No one who wanted to remain in a patron's grace would ever take such a foolish risk.  In addition, to sin is to believe the promises of God's enemy and rival patron, Satan.  It is totally inconsistent with gratitude to one's patron to chase after the benefactions of his hated adversary.  On the flip side, to expect to receive righteousness before God as a payment for services received is just as much an insult to grace.  It assumes that we have anything to give to our patron that he does not already have instead of recognizing our desperate need for what he has to give that we cannot acquire in any other way.  It is similar to the blasphemy of Simon the magician who sought to buy the Holy Spirit with money as if he were daily bread instead of a gift far more precious than anything available in the marketplace.  Both approaches confuse our relationship to God with a merit-and-money relationship instead of a relationship of grace.

Obviously, Jesus Christ is our mediator, the patron from whom we seek the favor of access to the grace of God the Father.  This is where we can get our hands around the concept of faith.  The phrase generally translated "faith in Christ" in our English Bibles is actually pistis khristou, "faith of Christ."  The "faith of Christ" is a faith that runs in two directions.  We who seek the grace of Christ to grant us access to the Father have faith in him that he has the ability to gain that access that we can't secure for ourselves and that no one else can secure for us—in other words, it is faith both in Christ's goodness and in his uniqueness before the Father.  But the Father also has faith in Christ that the people the Son vouches for to become the Father's clients are worth giving his grace to.  So the faith of Christ is nothing other than the relationship of grace between God and believers that is necessarily and solely mediated by Christ's faithfulness to both parties' faith in him.

What's all the more amazing is that the Father by his grace sent the Son to make it possible for us to ask for his grace.  And he bestowed that grace not to people who seemed like good candidates to be clients but to his hostile enemies.  And finally, he used our utmost expression of ingratitude—killing his Son—as the very means by which we might gain access to his grace of forgiveness.  He used our utterly unworthy act as the very means by which Christ could vouch for us as worthy to receive God's grace.  This exceeds by infinite orders of magnitude the most lavish expressions of grace of a patron to his clients the ancient world had ever seen and therefore it demanded the most effusive, outrageous, relentless, costly, unyieldingly loyal gratitude of those early believers who had received it.

This examination of grace and faith just scratches the surface of the insights in deSilva's book.  I strongly recommend it to every reader of the Bible.  The content meets high standards of scholarship, but fortunately his writing style doesn't, by which I mean he generally avoids using a word no one knows when a word most people know works just as well, and when he does use technical terms he explains what they mean.  It's not as easy to read as a novel or the sports page, but it's at least as readable as this blog, for what that's worth.  And deSilva even takes time to touch on the application of these themes in the New Testament to the present-day Church.  No one who works their way through Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity will fail to be enriched.

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