For contemporary Americans, friendship is usually a relationship between relative social equals. That is not the case in the ancient Greco-Roman world. D. K. Eng frames the idea of “friendship” in John 15 within the social constructs of the patronage system in Greco-Roman culture.
Eng argues that “friend” here “describes a subordinate relationship defined by obligation.” John’s Gospel has been used to illustrate how the ancient systems of honor and shame, and of patron/client hierarchy, work in and through the social world of the New Testament. I have often relied, for example, on the work of Malina and Rohrbaugh in this regard.
The patron was superior to the client in terms of social status. That status was key to the resources of honor and shame as well as access to good and services and the network of power and influence. Clients asked for favors. Patrons might grant those requests. When that happened a relationship of mutuality was created where the clients owed the patrons honor and the patrons were responsible to act on behalf of the clients.
Since the term “client” was regarded as a demeaning label, patrons often referred to their clients as “friends.” Eng argues that the Farewell Discourse has the following elements: that the disciples are Jesus’ subordinates; that the move from “slave” to “friend” is part of the patron/client system; that Jesus functions as a “broker” between the disciples and God; and that Jesus is, in fact, a “royal patron” who appoints regents in his stead and who, by giving his life for his friends, outdoes the greatest patron in the world of the time, Caesar.
The image of the Vine and the Branches is one example of the superior/subordinate relationship in the Discourse. The branches are dependent on the vine for life and can do nothing without the Vine. As subordinates they are obliged to obey their teacher and lord. Eng points to Jesus’ words about the move from slaves to friends as further evidence of the hierarchical relationship in Jesus’ description.
The relationship between the freed person and the former master involved continuing obedience to the former master and a heightened involvement in the life and affairs of the master. “Jesus gives them full disclosure of what he has heard from the Father,” Eng notes, “elevating them from slave status. While they are expected to obey, they do so with revelation. With an understanding of the affairs of Jesus and the Father, they are not mere extensions of a master.”
O’Day comments on this dimension as well. Friends could expect to engage in “frank speech,” plain talking, with friends – even when those friends were social superiors. “According to Hellenistic philosophers,” O’Day writes, “to be someone’s friend was to speak frankly and honestly to them and to hold nothing back.” Jesus no longer calls the disciples “slaves” (he never did, really, but for his purposes of teaching, the image works), instead he calls them “friends” – “because I have made everything known to you that I have heard from the Father.”
This “frank speech” is a mark of genuine friendship in the ancient Mediterranean world. It is also, as O’Day points out, a source of the disciples’ capacity to be friends with Jesus and with one another. “Jesus’ openness is a model of how we are to treat one another,” O’Day writes, “but is also provides the well-spring that makes our acts of friendship possible” (2008, page 26).
In this time when truth is subordinated to power, when paranoia is a practical strategy, and when friendship is sacrificed on the altar of political allegiance, the plain-speaking confidence of friendship described here is a radical idea, empowered and called forth by Jesus’ friendship with disciples.
O’Day points to the “promotion” from “slaves” to “friends” as the gift of partnership with Jesus in the mission of the gospel and “the source of the disciples’ capacity for friendship” (2008, page 26). Moreover, this gift and capacity equip us to regard all others as “friends” in Christ. She suggests that such friendship “assumes that everyone with whom we speak is our partner and companion.”
Such open speech can be transformative for both parties in the communication “because in holding nothing back, the speaker acts in the intimacy and trust of transformative love. The speaker risks herself in the speaking,” she concludes, “the listener risks himself in the hearing” (2008, page 27).
Eng wants us to see this language of friendship in a “royal” context. The Farewell Discourse comes after the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The disciples are called into friendship with the “king.” This discussion of friendship comes after the Good Shepherd imagery which, as we noted in discussing that text, contains royal imagery. The “shepherd” was a standard picture of ancient Israelite kings. Eng notes that “friend of the king” is a typical label in much of the ancient world for a loyal subordinate.
He goes on to note that the title “friend of Caesar” was well-known in the first century imperial system. It is even mentioned later in John, when Pilate is threatened with the idea that he might “be no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12). To be a “friend of Caesar,” therefore, was not merely to be a loyal subordinate. In fact, if Pilate is a model, such “friends” were empowered to act on behalf of the ruler as regents. Once again, as in the case of the frank speech, we see that this friendship is about partnership in the ruling enterprise as well as companionship.
Eng discusses how Jesus hands the authority of this partnership over to the disciples during the Farewell Discourse. That is precisely one of the themes of the discourse. The disciples “are no longer slaves, but friends. The disciples are expected to respond by fulfilling their commission to love one another and bear fruit. Their loyalty is to Jesus in his absence,” Eng writes, “in the same way that Pilate’s loyalty is expected by Caesar in his absence.”
Caesar is described, therefore, as an imitation of and antitype to Jesus. His disciples are the real “friends of the king” and are commissioned to act on his behalf. “Jesus declares the disciples are to act as his loyal client-kings or emissaries,” Eng writes. “His prediction of his departure and commissioning of his disciples to obedience point to the same type of relationship that Pilate has with Caesar. They are to act in place of Jesus, not as slaves,” he concludes, “but as honored friends.”
What does it mean to be “slaves” in the ancient Mediterranean? In Greek philosophy, a slave is not a person. Orlando Patterson (1982) made it clear that to become a slave is to suffer “social death.” He describes this in detail. “Perhaps the most distinctive attribute of the slave’s powerlessness,” he writes in Enslavement and Social Death, “was that it always originated (or was conceived of as having originated) as a substitute for death, usually a violent death.” The cultural rationale was that if the person had not been enslaved, the person would be dead. “Archetypically,” Patterson continues, “enslavement was a substitute for death in war. But almost as frequently, the death commuted was punishment for some capital offense, or death from exposure or starvation.”
Since the enslaved person had died—in principle or theory, at least—the slave could then be treated as having died the death that mattered. “Because the slave had no socially recognized existence outside his master,” Patterson concludes, “he became a social nonperson.” So, enslaved persons in the ancient world are regarded as “bodies” rather than people. Enslaved persons by definition do not have an inner life or what Greek philosophers might regard as a “soul.” Enslaved persons are “animated tools” but have no independent existence. Enslaved persons are regarded as relatively intelligent livestock—“cattle on two feet,” as the Greeks put it.
J. B. Harrill notes some development of this idea in Roman law and philosophy. Romans believed that enslaved persons had some measure of interior life, but it was not independent of the wishes and needs of the master. “The Roman notion of mastery,” he writes, “defined the ideal slave not in terms of obedience to individual commands of the master but in terms of having accepted the master’s wishes so fully that the slave’s innermost self could anticipate the master’s wishes and take the initiative. Romans,” he concludes, “did not want automatons for their enslaved persons.” They did not, however, want them to be full-fledged persons either.
Jesus, in John 15, moves disciples from social death of slaves to life as regents of the Divine Realm! And he describes this as the definition of the mission of disciples in the world. But what about this dying business? More on that in the next post.
References and Resources.
deSilva, David A. “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament.” https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/31-1_032.pdf.
Eng, D. K. (2021). ‘I Call You Friends’: Jesus as Patron in John 15, Themelios 46.1 (2021), 55-69. Themelios, 46(1), 55–69. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/i-call-you-friends-jesus-as-patron-in-john-15/.
O’Day, Gail R. “I Have Called You Friends.” Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2008. https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/61118.pdf.
Stamper, Meda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-159-17-3.
Rodriguez, William. “Love and Friendship in Toy Story 3.” Journal of Religion and Film 14:1 (April 2010). https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1480&context=jrf.