This deep-seated cultural reality is manifested in the New Testament in many of the stories that reflect this kind of socioeconomic system, often in the form of agricultural and financial parables. There is a very real sense in which God Himself can be considered the good and perfect patron, providing for His dependent creatures all that they need, with their proper response being honor and gratitude (Rom. 1:18–25). Failure to give appropriate honor is the great sin (2:23). At the same time, we can see through Jesus’ teachings and actions that He often challenged certain aspects of this patron-client structure, emphasizing God’s exorbitant giving while also encouraging those with power to become lowly, with His own sacrificial death as the prime example (Phil. 2:5–11).
family and kin
Many aspects of family life are universal across all cultures, while many other aspects are not. Societies have varying customs about marriage, parenting, children, siblings, and extended families. In terms of family and kin relationships, there were many ways that Jewish and broader Greco-Roman cultures overlapped significantly. Biblical teachings and the Greco-Roman moral philosophers said many similar things about life as a family.
Much more so than in the modern West, a person’s family of origin and ancestry formed his primary identity. To be the “son of” someone—either positively or as a vulgar criticism—was the starting point for one’s place in the world. Individuals were first a part of an extended family or kin group before they were individuals. One’s reputation and standing in society were primarily determined by one’s ancestry, unless one greatly shamed or distinguished oneself. Ancient households typically consisted of extended relations, all of whom worked together in some trade or industry, sharing their resources and their reputation and seeking to protect and promote their own kin before anyone else. One difference in marriage practices was that Jewish people tended to marry within their extended kin group to preserve inheritances and lineage, whereas Romans often sought to marry outside their kin for strategic and economic reasons.
In the New Testament, we see that the family serves as one’s primary identity with this important twist—for the Christian, his or her identity is now the family of God gathered around Christ. The most frequent metaphor used to describe Christians is “brother and sister.” This family language is very purposeful, teaching Christians to realign their allegiances around their new identity as the children of God.
Understanding these cultural values and practices is valuable for our reading of the New Testament because so many of the teachings of Christianity simultaneously affirm and transform the culture. Christianity always starts within a given culture and then over time reforms that culture through alternative practices, allegiances, and habits that align with the kingdom of God.
Editor’s Note: Portions of this article are adapted from Reading the New Testament as Christian Scripture: A Literary, Canonical, and Theological Survey by Constantine R. Campbell and Jonathan T. Pennington, © 2020 Baker Academic (BakerPublishingGroup.com). Used by permission.