Monday, August 24, 2009

Book review:

Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture

David A. deSilva, 336 pages
IVP Academic

ISBN: 978-0-8308-1572-2
IVP Press

David A. deSilva is Trustees' Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio. He has published numerous books already, and in this book he attempts to "provide a concise guide to some of the more prominent and prevalent aspects of the culture that gave birth to the early church", that is honor, patronage, kinship, and purity. The book is divided into eight chapters, in which deSilva investigates one particular aspect in the world at large in one chapter, then follows up that chapter with a look at how that is then applied throughout the New Testament.

Chapters 1 and 2: Honor & Shame
deSilva does a good job here to help the readers encounter the honor and shame culture that was the 1st century world. He also looks into the language of honor and dishonor in the first-century Greco-Roman world (in which the first century Jewish world would be a subset). He also brings to light the fact that honor was also tied to group values; that individuals tried to display virtues that found approval from the group and simultaneously avoided vices that brought dishonor and shame from the group. The second part of this section is deSilva's look into how honor and shame was formulated by the early Christians.

Chapters 3 and 4: Patronage & Reciprocity
Personally, I think these chapters were the most intriguing part of the book, as patronage is a concept that is very foreign to our world today, and yet, it is a concept that continues to draw my interest. Here deSilva overviews some relevant material in the Greco-Roman world that well portrays this institution that so dominated the first century world. deSilva focuses most of his attention in the NT chapter (ch. 4) on how God is our benefactor and the proper response Christians are to display to that beneficience.

Chapters 5 and 6: Kinship
If chapters 3 and 4 were the most interesting, chapters 5 and 6 were the most fulfilling to read. I just recently wrote a paper that talked about elements of kinship language found in the Thessalonian correspondence, so these chapters were a good review again of this great aspect of NT culture. deSilva looks into how kinship is reconstituted in the Christian community and in his conclusion he states,

"Our churches will be better equipped to serve as vessels of God's love and favor as we adopt and help one another in the church keep before their eyes the "ethos of kin" that Jesus, Paul and the other New Testament voices instruct Christians to take up toward one another. Many Christians are less than kin and less than kind to one another. Violations of the spirit of unity and of the command to put the interests of the other ahead of a person's own interests need to be addressed gently but forthrightly in the context of the vision the New Testament gives us of what the church could be..."

Chapters 7 and 8: Purity
In these sections, deSilva looks into the concept of "pollution" and how the concept of "holy" and "pure" has been skewed in our post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment era. He does an excellent but brief survey of Jewish material that helps to understand how early Christians understood the concept of "sacred space" and how some lines regarding purity and holiness have been redrawn in the Christian community.

Final thoughts:
All in all, this is an excellent survey of four important aspects of NT culture that may be overlooked often in our readings of the NT. My only wish was that he included more primary sources in his book, but my guess is that he aimed this book to be semi-academic; so as not to be so esoteric that it is beyond the grasp of serious readers of the Bible, but not so elementary that it would be overlooked as a serious work of a scholar. Highly recommended!


Brian LePort said...

This looks like a good book.

Mike S. said...


Yeah, it was definitely a quick read and his pages don't follow the usual academician's pattern of filling up half his/her pages with footnotes...