Patronage: In Heaven as it is on Earth

by: FireTag

January 7, 2012

Over the New Year holiday, a comment by Stephen Marsh in his own post on rent seeking reminded me of something John Dominic Crossan had talked about in his book The Historical Jesus — the parallelism between the concepts of an earthly patron in the development of the Roman Empire, and heavenly patronage as it emerged in the early church culture within that Roman Empire. Just as this year’s political contests highlight debates about how political power and economic power should interact, Crossan suggests that the Roman solution to that interaction framed the evolution of the early church in ways that did not reflect Jesus’ own teachings and practices.

I previously wrote about Crossan’s central concept in The Historical Jesus. That concept is of a “brokerless kingdom”, with emphasis on the “brokerless” part.  Crossan devotes a whole chapter of some 25 pages to explaining how central the relationship between patron and slave was in early Rome.

Crossan points out that this relationship is not always obviously exploitative. Indeed, the patronage relationship could sometimes be almost like that of a feudal lord to his knights. It became a way for both parties to rise in society vis a vis all other parties not linked to the patron.

In rarer cases, the patronage was between social equals (The Historical Jesus, page 61).

“An example of a horizontal relationship is the case of Cicero and Manius Acilius Glabrio… They are social equals, so that the patron-client relationship is not one of permanent hierarchical inequality but rather of delicate, reciprocal, and alternating indebtedness. It is more precisely and politely termed… friendship, but the term must be understood in their sense and not necessarily in ours.  It began, probably in the fifties B.C.E. with Cicero defending Acilius in two capital cases…

“Cicero would not at the time have submitted a bill to Acilius for his legal and oratorical representation. To have done so would have concluded and closed their mutual indebtedness and thereby violated the ethics of amicitia, or friendship, as such alternating patronage and clientage was called…

“The ‘bill’ would be paid in installments, as it were, and would be ‘paid’ as favors done to friends of Cicero rather than directly to Cicero himself. The patronal web enlarges… as Cicero becomes a broker between the now powerful [proconsul of Sicily] Acilius and his own clients.”

In a very real sense, then, patronage is merely a different (from the “corporation”) form of dog-eat-dog competition. It arose historically in Rome from raw military rather than purely economic conquest, and after it did, it persisted with the velvet glove shown to those inside a particular patronage web. However, the iron fist was always obvious to those outside the web. Rome was primarily different in scale and efficiency rather than in nature from all of the other agrarian societies that arose around the Mediterranean Sea. Rome did begin its rise to power, after all, with the Rape of the Sabine Women. And women eligible for marriage were among the scarcest resources of all in the Mediterranean region (which motivates a lot of Old Testament stories, as well).   

Clossan quotes anthropologist David Gilmore in regard to modern times:

“Mediterranean societies are all undercapitalized agrarian civilizations. They are characterized by sharp social stratification and by both a relative and absolute scarcity of natural resources. There is little social mobility. Power is highly concentrated in a few hands, and the bureaucratic functions of the state are poorly developed. These conditions are of course ideal for the development of patron-client ties and a dependency ideology…patronage relations provide a consistent ideological support for social inequality and dependency throughout the Mediterranean area.”

Crossan then concludes (page 68-69):

“Whether, then, in the ancient or modern world, and whether between individuals or nations, the patron and client relationship is one of exploitation at best and repression at worst.”

It is against this framework, therefore, that Crossan paints the original teachings of the Jesus of history as being specifically directed against the exploitative and repressive patronage ideology shared by both the Roman and Jewish elites and taken for granted even by his own disciples.

Although reported only by Mark, and therefore not central to Crossan’s textual analysis of the development of the early church (which requires multiple ancient sources to verify the text), the events regarding the initiation of Jesus’ ministry in Mark 1: 16-38, and particularly Mark 1:35-38, are illustrative of Crossan’s position:

“Finally, the whole city [Capernaum] and all its sick are gathered together at Peter’s door once the Sabbath has ended. Any Mediterranean person would recognize what should happen or is already happening. Peter’s house is becoming a brokerage place for Jesus’ healing, and Peter will broker between Jesus and those seeking help. What happens?”

What happens is that Jesus immediately quashes that process. He leaves during the night without telling his disciples, forcing the disciples to pursue him. When they ask him to come back because everyone is waiting to be healed, he tells them he must go and preach, too, in the next village, because that is why he left Capernaum. On page 347, Crossan notes:

“Peter, if Mark had granted him a reply, would have said that it makes much more sense to stay right here at Capernaum, let the word go forth along the peasant grapevine, and await the crowds that would come to his door… It was, after all, what John the Baptist had done…That entire day is a Markian creation opposing Jesus to Peter and showing their, from Mark’s point of view, incompatible visions of mission…The egalitarian sharing of spiritual and material gifts, of miracle and table, must be atopic; else it will inevitably become another hierarchical operation.”

Jesus seemingly had no intention of replacing one patronage web with another. But that vision gradually was eaten away among his followers by the culture of patronage that surrounded them.

Crossan (beginning on page 68 of The Historical Jesus) follows G. E. M. de Ste. Croix in showing how the early ecclesiastical history of Catholicism traces the evolution of political Rome with merely a time lag in something as fundamental as the selection of leaders.

“During the Republic, the word meant the vote of free people, although, of course, votes might often be bought or co-opted. But by the end of the common era’s second century, suffragium came to mean ‘influence, interest, patronage, by a powerful man’…Such patronage was ideally based on the moral obligation of reciprocity, but, where and as that ethos disintegrated, patronal influence could be bought and paid for in cash. Finally…’not later than the end of the fifth century’ the word suffragium came ‘to mean not only the influence which the great man exercises but also the actual sum of money or other bribe given him…”

As to the religious parallel:

“‘St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage …prior to his martyrdom in 258, several times uses the expression suffragium plebis…but…he is not thinking of any popular vote: it is the comprovincial bishops whose judicium is to decide the choice, suffragium can only be expressed through acclamations. …Cyprian appears to be the earliest surviving writer to advocate this method of electing bishops, which he represents as the only proper one’. Such popular acclamatory concurrence was considered essential, at least theoretically, into the fourth and fifth centuries, and popular acclamation alone sufficed to elect very special bishops…even in the second half of the fourth century. But by the middle of the sixth century, the participation of the laity in ecclesiastical elections was a thing of the past.’

“‘By the later fourth century the term patrocinium has begun to be applied to the activity of the apostles and martyrs on behalf of the faithful. … The expression suffragium then finds its way into everyday religious terminology in the sense of intercession.’ Just as the terrestrial patron is asked to use his influence with the emperor, so the celestial patron, the saint, is asked to use his influence with the Almighty.”

“Finally, there is the third usage, suffragium-as-bribe. From the fifth century onwards we begin to hear frequently of simony, the sale or purchase of ecclesiastical preferment or spiritual gifts, an offence with which the Church seems not to have been seriously troubled under the pagan empire, but now becomes rife. It need not surprise us to find the word suffragium applied to the corrupt practices by which bishoprics were so often procured.'”

So, do you think Crossan makes a good case? Should a prophetic church be concerned about whether the political culture in which it lives is following the patronage path of Rome in contrast to the “unbrokered” model of Jesus? Should we wonder about the extent to which that patronage model is leaking into our own religious and ethical understandings? Maybe rent-seeking is just the tip of a very dangerous iceberg.

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25 Responses to Patronage: In Heaven as it is on Earth

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on January 7, 2012 at 6:36 AM

    Fretag, I think you would enjoy Nibley’s essay on Acclamato.

    But you wrote a brilliant essay here. The patronage web was essential to Roman civilization, and, amazingly, was a step up from other forms of organization.

    It was the Greek City States in the Italian peninsula deciding that they preferred Roman rule to their own corrupted democracies that led to Hannibal losing the punic wars.

    Patronage was at the heart of that, because of the way it created a mutually beneficial flow.

    But … you present the “but” so very, very well.

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  2. EmberRising on January 7, 2012 at 9:30 AM

    Hi, FireTag,
    Thanks for posting this. These ideas are, I believe, worthy of great consideration. I also think that Crossan is difficult to read because he is so scholarly in his writing. That’s too bad because then the ideas don’t get where they need to go.

    I wonder if some of your other readers see evidence of this patronage in the Mormon church and what the Mormon church might look like without such patronage?

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  3. FireTag on January 7, 2012 at 9:47 AM


    I wonder what ANY Christian church would look like if we had, or became able to, base it on the Mark 1 interpretation that staying away from brokers was more vital than efficiency of mission. Could we even conceive of a “kingdom” without a church.


    Crossan also talks about how “pax Romana” had a lot of advantages over the city-state in clearing out internal wars and exporting them to the borders of the Republic. (Similar to pax Britainia or pax Americana, for that matter.) But it was tough on those outside the core, and ultimately could not sustain itself against an imperial family winning the competition among the internal patronage webs.

    Was Jesus trying to get us to leapfrog the imperial stage to something that would improve the life for more people for far longer because it was based on spiritual resource abundance rather than material resource scarcity? That’s what I wonder.

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  4. Mike S on January 7, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    Great article.

    I appreciate the “flat” organization that it seems that Christ was trying to implement when He lived on the earth. That is how things should ultimately be, with the primary relationship being between God and an individual, with CHRIST as the only Mediator.

    It does seem that the LDS Church is quite different from this. The hierarchy and correlation seems to define everything, including the order people sit on a stand or everything else. The Church also seems to insert itself into the relationship between God and man.

    Is this right? Who knows? To answer this, ask if it’s possible for an active Mormon to have a full relationship with God independent of the LDS Church? Or does is someone’s relationship with God dependent on their relationship with the LDS Church?

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  5. FireTag on January 7, 2012 at 3:15 PM


    Crossan actually goes so far as to suggest that Jesus was trying to stay out of the patron role Himself (“there is none good save the Father”), and if I had had more space, I could have noted that the early Dark Ages Christian view of patronage had a continual line of patrons ALL the way to God — even seeing Jesus as the ultimate patron in interpreting his relationship to man and God.

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  6. Bob on January 7, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    #4: Mike S,
    “ask if it’s possible for an active Mormon to have a full relationship with God independent of the LDS Church?”
    Why not ask__”..for a person to have…”.
    How could an active Mormon act independent of the Church?

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  7. ji on January 7, 2012 at 4:23 PM

    Yes, an active Mormon can have a full relationship with God independent of the Church. He or she will have a relationship with the Church, or course, for supporting and fellowshipping with fellow believers — but his or her relationship with God is wholly independent of his or her relationship with the Church.

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  8. Bob on January 7, 2012 at 4:48 PM

    #7: ji,
    If one is in a relationship with the Church, one follows it’s Priesthood and teachings and can’t be independent. If one believes one must be baptized to be in the Church, one can not be independent of it of it’s controls.

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  9. FireTag on January 7, 2012 at 7:27 PM


    Many of the discussions in the bloggernacle — and maybe its very existence — revolve around the validity of there being alternative answers to the “yes or no” view your comment espouses.

    Now, if your problem is with the “active” part of “active Mormon”, then I can see your point. I’ve never been in an LDS church in my life — having been “born in apostasy”, as it were — and my belief, for example, that the Book of Mormon was inspired by God for a vital purpose isn’t going to get me across that doorway.

    But I object to not being considered part of the Mormon religious tradition the way many “active Mormons” object to not being considered as part of the Christian tradition.

    The point of THIS post, however, has more to do with whether Jesus historically acted as if starting an efficient “church”, if brokering patronage went with that efficiency, was really what He had in mind.

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  10. Bob on January 7, 2012 at 8:17 PM

    #9 FireTag,
    Yes many, but not all.
    Back to your post: No, I don’t think Jesus was trying to build a patronage system. I don’t see a fixed order of things in his ministry.

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  11. Charity on January 7, 2012 at 9:03 PM

    The temptation and tendency to broker power is inherent in most organizations. We attach ourselves to power through association with “powerful” people, by our need for security. We all want to be important (or powerful) via the structure that guarantees the highest position for our guaranteed position at the “right hand of God.” The Church captializes on this. Any church can hardly resist the temptation to become that safety or broker in the midst of an uncertain world.

    Thank you for your very cogent thoughts on this. I will continue to be aware of the temptation to broker power. Jesus was the antithesis of a power broker. He was the REAL power, not the intermediary broker, weakened by the “need” to be recognized, revered, and adored. He taught us to connect directly to the Source. No brokers necessary.

    Appreciate your work.

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  12. FireTag on January 7, 2012 at 9:29 PM


    “He was the REAL power, not the intermediary broker…”

    That connects the historical Jesus to the Divine Jesus, but Crossan also suggests later in his book that Jesus’ message was “I am not your patron, and you are not its [the kingdom’s] brokers.”

    This connection between the divine and the historical is where I have trouble understanding (or perhaps accepting) Crossan’s interpretations theologically. Ultimately, if I didn’t think Jesus was a manifestation of something bigger than the human species, I personally don’t CARE what a historical Jesus taught any more than what Plato taught.

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  13. ji on January 7, 2012 at 10:23 PM

    Bob (no. 8) — We must disagree. No one in the Church controls my relationship with our God. I attend church meetings to fellowship with fellow saints, and I accept callings to help build up the kingdom, so to speak, but no one else controls my faith. Our God and Savior hears and answers my prayers directly, and my faith is in him directly. The Church is great, but my now established faith in and relationship with our God could exist without the Church.

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  14. dba.brotherp on January 8, 2012 at 7:11 AM

    This really made me think. Didn’t Jesus say somewhere that He was the way and that no one could come unto the Father except through Him? Now we have churches (organizations) and some of those churches say that you must belong to it or do this and that in order to come unto the Father. So if I understand correctly, I would say that, yes, the patronage model has crept into our churches.

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  15. Bob on January 8, 2012 at 8:24 AM

    I think one of the things that people of the early 1800s disliked about Joseph Smith was his bringing a Priesthood into his new church. There was going on a great effort to get away from this in the new America, and move to a simple form of worship.

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  16. FireTag on January 8, 2012 at 9:13 AM

    The qualifications of ministers in the 1830’s, particularly in the “burnt over” districts of revivalist Western New York, is something I’d have to research, but I think you have a valid point. Consider the differences between the Methodists of the time and the more formal organization of the Church of England. The latter probably aroused a great deal of nationalist resentment that close in time to the War of 1812. And then we would still have Quaker Pennsylvania, and Catholic Maryland as yet different models.

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  17. EmberRising on January 8, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    Charity: Nicely put.

    FireTag and others: This discussion definitely gets me thinking. One of the things that Crossan points out is that Jesus was showing an alternative to the legitimate Jewish Temple tradition/religious structure. Thus, his whole ministry could have been interpreted as, yes God is working there, but God is also available to you and you and you…

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  18. EmberRising on January 8, 2012 at 3:51 PM

    …and how many people throw out God because they can’t deal with the presentation of God given by a particular religious denomination or tradition?

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  19. FireTag on January 8, 2012 at 4:01 PM


    Very good. Both, instead of either/or.

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  20. Justin on January 9, 2012 at 9:10 AM

    Firetag — does this “broker” relationship relate to a scriptural stewardship relationship to you at all?

    Your comment #5:

    even seeing Jesus as the ultimate patron in interpreting his relationship to man and God.

    made me think about the scalable doctrine of stewardships:

    Where our spirit intelligence has stewardship over the organized spirit body — the spirit body has stewardship over the flesh — a husband has stewardship over his wife — parents have stewardship over their children — Jesus has stewardship over humans — God has stewardship over Jesus — etc.

    In which case, if you do relate “broker” language with “steward” language — then rather than establishing a broker/steward-less kingdom — I think [in Mark particularly] there is a picture of an -archy-less kingdom. No “boxing in” of the miraculous works of the Father — no hierarchy of administration to get through — just open-faced sharing and freedom. A kingdom of the servants serving the servants [as it were].

    Something a la Mark 10:

    But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them,

    “Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them.

    But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.

    For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister…

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  21. FireTag on January 9, 2012 at 9:38 AM


    I’m having a little trouble seeing where you’re going with this comment, so you may have to amplify. Your link to the linguistic origins of steward points to the notion of guardianship (and perhaps guardianship of that which is lesser than the guardian). A Mediterranean broker was not in it for the welfare of the client, although as I noted, patronage among equals could certainly reach the level of an alliance. So mutual servanthood was a lot closer in concept to mutual stewardship than the latter was to the concept of patronage, I think.

    The other key aspect of Jesus movement against patronage was to replace it with commensality, which implies a deeper sharing of the common fate of relience on the spirit than mere charity. It’s “bring a miracle, and then share what, if anything, the recipient shares in return”.

    Patronage can’t do that. A universal patronage web offers no advantage to the patron, because the patron doesn’t gain enough from marginal contributors of resources to match what must be paid out to maintain them as clients. There HAVE to be “outs” who can be exploited in order for the “ins” to move upward.

    Indeed, if you want to bring this back to today’s politics, one of the problems for political machines is that in hard times, clients have to be expelled from the web and “thrown under the bus”. And that means the machine loses clients to a competing machine.

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  22. Justin on January 9, 2012 at 9:56 AM

    I’m having a little trouble seeing where you’re going with this comment, so you may have to amplify.

    Sorry — the question made sense in my brain.

    I was wondering if this “broker/client” relationship was [in your mind] analogous to a “steward/concerns of stewardship” relationship — if they are the same thing or if they are different.

    A steward would be the agent of the property owner. Do you see that as a “broker/client” relationship?

    The steward has certain authority in administering the property of the owner for the concerns of his/her stewardship. Do you see that as a “broker/client” relationship?

    Does this idea of brokerless-ness fit into Jesus’ description of a kingdom among the disciples that was free from Gentile -arhcy and authority power-pyramids?

    Would you say that the broker/client relationship hinders a “freely ye have received, freely give,” type of ministry? Would you say that a stewardship relationship hinders such a thing as well?

    The other key aspect of Jesus movement against patronage was to replace it with commensality, which implies a deeper sharing of the common fate of relience on the spirit than mere charity. It’s “bring a miracle, and then share what, if anything, the recipient shares in return”.

    I remember your post on commensality [sharing the table] and saw it fitting in quite well with scriptural “charity” being the “overwhelming desire and willingness to share all that you have with everyone else“.

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  23. FireTag on January 9, 2012 at 11:24 AM


    OK. I see what you’re saying a little better now, and I think the similarity (or not) between stewardship and brokering depends — going back to the linguistic arguments in your own post — on whether we see steward as more “manager for the owner” or “guardian for the sake of those being guarded”.

    Both LDS and RLDS traditions have taught the concept as the former, but by this time we have a couple of millenia of church-as-institutionalized-kingdom-brokers. I’m already thinking of a follow up post on how we might view a lot of NT scriptural incidents differently if we view stewardship as guardianship, and see those incidents as teaching AGAINST patronage/brokerage/stewardship-as-management.

    And here’s another angle that just occurs to me: do we think God considers Himself to own us, or closer to thinking of us as part of Himself?

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  24. Justin on January 9, 2012 at 1:27 PM

    And here’s another angle that just occurs to me: do we think God considers Himself to own us, or closer to thinking of us as part of Himself?

    I think that’s what’s behind the head/body analogies Paul uses. Does the head own the body? It depends on one’s perspective.

    A “broker”-type might suggest that a human is a brain that owns a stomach to convert food into nutrients for it. The focus is on the head, the leader, the one-in-charge, etc.

    Whereas, a more “broker”-less type person might suggest that a human is a stomach that has a brain to think of places to find food for it to eat. The focus is now on the body, the governed, the consent of the people, etc.

    I think the gospel looks at it both ways at the same time — not seeing the two components as hierarchical — either top-down or bottom-up — but as together on equal-footing simultaneously.

    In this view — humans aren’t brains with stomachs or stomachs with brains — but are single organisms. Any one part [head or body] cannot be considered outside the context of the whole thing.

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  25. FireTag on January 9, 2012 at 2:49 PM


    Although I hadn’t specifically thought of the Paul citations, they fit well with an extension to the idea that a LIVING God ought to be more like an organism than an owner. Again, I note that I tend toward a pantheistic view in which there is nothing outside of God, rather than a single person separate from the impersonal elements of reality.

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