Some time ago, I was asked to peruse an item by upcoming Biblical scholar Erlend D. MacGillivary titled, "Revaluating Patronage and Reciprocity in Antiquity and New Testament Studies." Given my interest in the subject of patronage models as applied to the Biblical text, it was presented to me as a critique of such applications. My reaction to the critique is mixed and can be boiled down to certain points which can be extracted thusly:
The terminology of patronage has been used somewhat informally for all reciprocal relationships when in historical terms, it is only properly used for specific Roman expressions of such relationships.
Probably this is true...and it is a point to which I plead guilty myself, though I would be far from convinced that it is a problem. In the past, for example, I have roughly equated the client-patron format with that of the suzerain-vassal model in the Old Testament. Of course, I did not do this as a way to indicate that they were in every significant respect identical, but to communicate a complex idea in simple terms. I also have some good friends who are Indonesian, who appreciate my work on cross-cultural apologetics. They have described to me relationships in Indonesia that are reciprocal in nature, and informally, I have used terms like "patron" to describe these relationships. My friends understood my points and did not thereby suppose that I was describing relationships in Indonesia in Roman terms. In the same way, Paul and other New Testament authors can certainly have used the language of patronage as a way to explain things to a Gentile audience. The relationship between YHWH and believers is certainly similar enough that the general language of patronage is suitable, even if the particulars of Roman patronage are not.
Patronage is being over-applied to Biblical scenarios.
Indeed, but I think it goes too far to say that this is a "dangerous phenomenon"-it is also perhaps overstated. The example given by MacGillivary is taken from Malina and Rohrbaugh's discussion of the Temptation narratives, in which the devil is trying to coax Jesus to become his client. Malina and Rohrbaugh say that an honorable client could never serve two masters. In response, MacGillivary gives example of dual patronage from ancient literature, but I wonder whether this properly represents Malina and Rohrbaugh's point, which I take to be that no honorable client could serve two masters who are at odds with one another. Indeed, Malina and Rohrbaugh reference Jesus' "no man can serve two masters" teaching in Luke 16:13, and since the parties in question are God and Satan, it would seem obvious that the point being made has to do with serving patrons with conflicting goals and not merely dual patronage as such.
The Jews rejected patronage as a concept.
MacGillivary points to examples of how the Jews rejected the benefaction of Herod, and did not return the favor he showed. He also notes that the Jews did not honor Augustus as a benefactor. This is all true, but it does not exactly equate, I think, with a "far-ranging Jewish rejection of formal Greco-Roman reciprocal systems" as MacGillivary claims. Rather, Jewish rejection of figures like Herod and Augustus as benefactors is rooted in the simple fact that YHWH Himself is the Jews' benefactor. It is YHWH who delivers rewards and punishments and to whom the Jew owes loyalty.
One of McGillivary's sources indicates this, as he quotes Josephus as saying regarding reciprocity that, "the Jewish nation is by their law a stranger to all such things, and accustomed to prefer righteousness to glory." However, this can hardly be a "broad cultural rejection of the Greco-Roman idea of reciprocity itself" and it can hardly be that the Jews "did not know that a response was implicitly being demanded of them," when someone like Herod offered himself as a benefactor, as this would create a scenario in which the Jews were unique among collectivist societies. It would also mean that Jews were somehow culturally blind, as a whole, to the niceties of reciprocal relationships, in spite of the fact that they were surrounded, for hundreds of years, by cultures that observed them.
The fact of the matter is revealed by a fuller quote from Josephus. MacGillivary quotes this:
...the reward of such as live exactly according to the laws is not silver or gold; it is not a wreath of olive branches...not any such public signs of recognition.
Here is the complete quote (emphasis added):
However, the reward for such as live exactly according to the laws is not silver or gold; it is not a garland of olive branches or of small age, nor any such public sign of commendation; but every good man hath his own conscience bearing witness to himself, and by virtue of our legislator's prophetic spirit, and of the firm security God himself affords such a one, he believes that God hath made this grant to those that observe these laws, even though they be obliged readily to die for them, that they shall come into being again, and at a certain revolution of things shall receive a better life than they had enjoyed before.
This indicates that it is God who gives rewards to the loyal and obedient Judean. The Jew can have no conflicting loyalties on this point: Patronage to Augustus meant, in total, denying YHWH's uniqueness and stature as the true king. This is also, no doubt, why we saw that God set up a system of pervasive charity in Judaism, as MacGillivary notes: that way, no Jew could ever owe anything to a pagan whose values and demands conflicted with YHWH's. YHWH was their "patron" - although more technically, he was their suzerain, and in that position no other reciprocating figure could possibly fit.
In the end, we should certainly be cautious about broadly applying cultural concepts to Scripture. But we must also be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that the Jews were so unique that they were essentially strangers in their own world.