Faith, Grace and Works (Part III)

A New Perspective on Grace

Over the last couple of decades, a better understanding of the socio-cultural environment of the ancient world has revolutionised New Testament studies, including the scholarly understanding of grace. Over the course of centuries, the word grace has accrued a special religious meaning but it originally just meant a gift. According to our modern sensibilities, giving a gift is a one-time transaction which comes with no expectation of a return. The seminal work of John Barclay in Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans 2015) has convincingly demonstrated that the idea of an unconditional, purely altruistic gift probably originated with Luther in the medieval period and was actually quite foreign to the ancient world. As Dr Barclay explains, in the patron-client economy of the Greco-Roman world, gift-giving was about forming a lasting reciprocal relationship, which was absolutely necessary in a world full of scarcity. (Dr David A. deSilva provides a fairly concise overview of the patronage system and honour system in ancient Mediterranean societies which contextualises why gift-giving was so important.)

Now there are some important differences which Dr Barclay explores in detail, however, the same societal view of gift-giving mostly applied to the ultimate Benefactor. God’s gifts were also regarded as conditional. So even though his favours and benefits are completely his initiative and he gives them to people regardless of their prior merit or worth, his divine gifts still require certain behaviour from recipients. In ancient times, beneficiaries were not necessarily expected to reciprocate with equivalent value, especially when there was a difference in social status. However, in the ancient view of gift-giving, the very least a recipient could do was show public gratitude to their benefactor and generally conduct themselves in a manner that honours and enhances the reputation of their patron. In other words, gifts were always given with some expectation of return. The reciprocity existed because of the relationship that was formed through the act of gift giving and receiving. This applied to the gifts of God and the believer’s reciprocal relationship with God due to the gifts. Continue reading “Faith, Grace and Works (Part III)”

The Ancient Economy of Favours and the New Testament

How did people in the Greco-Roman world, the era to which the New Testament belonged, get what they wanted? Living in modern consumer driven economies you might think the same thing happened then. In fact a totally different system, one of patronage, ran the ancient world. Dr David A. deSilva digs into this strange, even shocking, economy of favours and returns. Continue reading “The Ancient Economy of Favours and the New Testament”

Honour and Shame in the cultural world of the New Testament

I constantly emphasize that if we are going to understand the Bible we must do so in its historical context. Cultures differ depending on where you live in the world today. In the ancient past too cultures significantly differed and we are veritable foreigners to that world. In the video lectures below, New Testament scholar Dr David deSilva takes us through the major cultural values that influenced the ancient Mediterranean world of which the Bible belonged to. Without these indispensable cultural lenses we will inevitably misread scripture. Continue reading “Honour and Shame in the cultural world of the New Testament”