Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: A (rather dated) Review

Michael Halcomb. Review of David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 2000. 336 pp. $30.00.

David deSilva, one of the foremost scholars in ancient Judaic and Greco-Roman culture, offers, in this work, helpful tools for responsible and integral Biblical interpretation. Reading the New Testament in light of its cultural milieu, deSilva’s socio-rhetorical methodology aims to school the reader in first-century values and practices that unlock the meanings of oft trivialized and overlooked New Testament passages. The thesis of deSilva’s work is to “[recover] the ideology of the early Christians” (20)—a recovery ultimately intended to strengthen the Church of modernity. Carefully and critically, deSilva analyzes Biblical passages through all of the lenses mentioned in the book’s title: honor, patronage, kinship and purity—each of which he devotes two chapters to. Tactfully ordered, each section of New Testament interpretation (chapters 2,4,6 and 8) is prefaced with a study and explanation of ancient Judaic and Greco-Roman cultural contexts (chapters 1, 3, 5 and 7).

Chapter one provides the reader with an evaluation of honor and shaming techniques employed in antiquity. Drawing from an array of major sources, deSilva’s primary works consist of: Seneca, Aristotle, Isocrates, Quintilian, Ben Sira, Plutarch and the Apocryphal and Biblical writings. These resources help interpreters clarify the “complex web of competing cultures, and…the ways in which honor and dishonor [were] attained” (42) in the ancient world. Further, exegetes can now begin to “approach the New Testament writings with a much greater sensitivity to how these texts speak to honor-sensitive hearers, develop a distinctively Christian definition of what gives a person worth and value (i.e. makes one honorable), and sustain commitment and obedience to Jesus and His teachings in a largely unsupportive world” (42).

The second chapter highlights the ways in which the Christian message and lifestyle “contradicted core values within the dominant Greco-Roman culture as well as the Jewish subculture within which the Church arose” (43). Scrupulous exegesis of a variety of New Testament passages reveals to readers that, though bodily persecution of believers existed in the first-century, social maltreatment was most common. Christians were shamed by society for deviating “from the dominant culture’s values” (51). Yet Paul, among other leaders, taught the Church that “their bond [was] stronger than society’s hostility” (60) and that “To be shamed by the shameless [the world] is ultimately no shame at all” (63).

Chapter three moves from honor and shame to patronage and reciprocity. In brief, this was understood as the practice of “giving and receiving favors” (96), an act that Seneca referred to as “the chief bond of human society” (96). This process of “brokering” has to do with the intricate network of dealings that occur in relationships between persons. In lieu of this fact, deSilva skillfully demonstrates how this is the context in which first-century Christians would have understood grace. He notes that, “Today, grace is primarily a religious word…For the actual writers and readers of the New Testament however, grace was primarily…a secular word” (104). Grace was a two-sided motif. On the one side, grace referred “to the willingness of a patron to grant some benefits to another person or to a group” (104) and on the other, “to speak of the response of a benefactor and his or her gifts, namely, gratitude” (105). This imagery was then applied to mortals and God (or in pagan literature, the gods).

After proficiently setting the stage in chapter three, deSilva unearths numerous insights in chapter four. For example, his treatment of Luke 7, the story of the centurion’s slave, is fascinating. When the Jewish crowds approach Jesus asking Him to heal the centurion’s slave, they say, “He is worthy of having You do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” A close reading reveals that, as deSilva says, “The centurion is presented as a local benefactor, doing what benefactors frequently do—erecting a building for public use.” Even more eye opening, is the fact that, being a Gentile, the centurion does not approach Jesus Himself (who is a Jew) because he is an outsider. In return for his public benefaction, he has the local Jewish elders go for him—persons who have some connection with Jesus. Now, the elders have had the opportunity to return the favor to their benefactor. Numerous stories like these are given fresh reevaluation by deSilva.

Chapter five introduces the reader to kinship language in the first-century world. Myriad issues are addressed here: kinship and identity, genealogy and lineage, ascribed honor and dishonor, the ethos of kin, cooperation and competition, sharing ideals and possessions, hiding the shame of kin, forgiveness, reconciliation and patience, the household, marriage and divorce, management of behavior, the ethos of the ideal woman, the raising and educating of children, slavery in the ancient world and architecture and activity. Thus, a wide array of topics is covered here and the reader is given some tools to be able to evaluate the Scriptures with a more critical eye.

The sixth chapter is dedicated to exploring the “Household of God” in the New Testament. In deSilva’s words, the thesis of the chapter is to consider: “how the early Christian leaders constructed this new family (chiefly through the attention they gave to creating a lineage), used the family’s lineage to promote perseverance in the family of faith, adapted the ethics of kinship to the new community, and finally held together the fictive kinship of the whole Church with the setting of the Church within natural households” (199). Particularly interesting about this section is deSilva’s explanation of how, while the Church gave attention to creating a lineage, it was not uncommon for this lineage to be abused (that is, appealed to out of concern for social gain or the fulfilling of one’s own rights or desires). Believers are to seek “opportunities to serve in the name of Jesus, not to indulge oneself in the name of [such] rights” (214).

In the next chapter, deSilva illustrates how the inhabitants of antiquity (both Jew and Gentile) structured their worlds according to purity (and pollution) maps. In other words, items like food, times, seasons, deaths, births, sexual engagements and temple practices consisted of specific rules and rituals that would either cleans or deem a person unclean. Of particular importance is how the ancients connected the material to the spiritual world. Whereas many society’s today still employ purity rules, these are largely “microbial: and less spiritual (244).

Chapter eight thoroughly shows how an understanding of ancient purity regulations brings to life many otherwise odd sounding Biblical passages. The importance of Jesus’ baptism and many of His ministry encounters, Peter’s vision of the sheet from heaven, Stephen’s speech and the Sabbath day among other stories, can be illumined by reading them through a purity/pollution lens. In this chapter, deSilva gives an excellent treatment of the issue of baptism for believers. He teaches readers that baptism is “emphasis on the purification of the believers and on the necessity of remaining in the liminal state, consecrated and awaiting entrance into the heavenly tabernacle…” (312). Following this section, deSilva offers a concise chapter on the importance of socio-rhetorical studies for the modern scholar, exegete and practitioner of the faith.

Adept in ancient source material, rich in exegetical methodology and brimming with fresh insights, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity is an invaluable resource in the field of New Testament and Biblical studies. Dr. deSilva’s work is to be commended for giving equal place to material from both Jewish and Greek studies. However, one question that the reader is left wondering is, what process does Mr. deSilva use to discern when one secular source illumines the Scriptures more than the next? Further, how fair is it to use documents (other than the Hebrew Scriptures which informed a Jewish worldview) written hundreds of years before the New Testament and/or writings composed hundreds of years after the New Testament to make judgments about the Early Church and New Testament culture? Is it really possible to know or even speculate about how influential they were? Apart from just pulling quotes from here and there, the elucidation of a more clear research methodology might have been nice and helpful for the student. That said, deSilva’s work is top-notch. He covers many bases and leaves very little room to be critiqued. This is an excellent work and is highly recommended.

*Note: deSilva, currently of Ashland Theological Seminary has (as far as I know) accepted a position in the New Testament department at Asbury. I'm bummed to be leaving after he has just arrived! He sure is a great find for ATS though.

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