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.