BMCR 2006.02.33

Reconceptualising Conversion

, Reconceptualising Conversion: patronage, loyalty, and conversion in the religions of the ancient Mediterranean. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche; Band 130. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004. 326 pages. ISBN 9783110915600 €88.00.

This challenging book is the result of a doctoral dissertation under the direction of John S. Kloppenborg at the University of Toronto. It attempts to set the context for the conversion of Paul, one of the most heavily studied themes in ancient religion, in the context not of psychology but of the social structures of patronage. The author says that he chose Paul because he is the most accessible example of conversion in the ancient world. (One might first think of Augustine, but both the times and the person are quite different than those of Paul.)

In Chapter One Crook reviews studies of Paul’s conversion through the psychological model from A. D. Nock to Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Even cultural and cross-cultural psychological methods are deemed inadequate because they still assume a central psychic unity of construction common to all persons, with differing external cultural dressing. Rather, he argues, different cultures, individualist or collective, have fundamentally different ways of constructing the self. Paul is not the product of the introspective, idiocentric culture of the West from which so many of his interpreters come.

Chapter Two takes up the theme of reciprocity and benefaction in reciprocity theory and as understood in ancient Mediterranean cultures. Marshall Sahlins’ triad of generalized, balanced, and negative reciprocity is useful for understanding the structures of exchange. In pre-modern cultures, all types of exchange create social relationships. Generalized reciprocity between social unequals creates ongoing relationships of benefaction and gratitude, of patron and client. Crook is rightly critical of Stephen Joubert’s argument that benefaction or euergetism is beneficial while patronage is exploitative. In reality, the two semantic and social realms interweave and interact to such an extent that the terms benefactor and patron are almost interchangeable. Crook’s distinction between the two social contexts is that the recipient of a gift must return a gift of equal or greater value, while the recipient of patronage is incapable of doing this, but rather, must return loyalty and ascribed honor. Literary patronage is less clear: sometimes the two parties are near equals, and patronage might include material support and housing, so that the only clear difference is the honor due to the patron by the author’s writing and literary dedication. Of course, the gods are the chief patrons in every religion, including Christianity. The client’s response of honor is what we call religion.

One questionable claim is made here: that “it can be stated categorically” that pre-Hellenistic Palestine lacked a social structure of patronage or benefaction (p. 79) because there is no terminology for it. Instead, Israel had a formalized covenant relationship. This assertion is made with no discussion or proof, and in my view, needs further study.

Chapter Three takes up the rhetoric of patronage and benefaction under five rhetorical conventions. First, contrary to what might be supposed, there is ample evidence of patrons recruiting clients rather than the other way around, most common in literary patronage but not unknown elsewhere, especially the call of a god to a human, e.g., Asclepius to Aristides, Isis to Lucius, Christ to Paul. Second, the philosopher functions as a kind of patron in that his/her teaching is a form of benefaction to disciples. Third, the client’s response is prayer, praise, and proselytism. Clients spread the good news to other prospective clients. Familial language is sometimes used, especially πατήρ, including by Jesus. Fourth, the client engages in synkrisis regarding the patron: rhetorical comparison of before and after, of life without and with the benefits of the patron, whether divine or human, e.g., Pliny’s Panegyricus to Trajan, Lucius to Isis, Aristides to Asclepius. Fifth, the semantic domain of χάρις is crucial.

χάρις and the εὐεργ‐ words are nearly interchangeable in this context, in which beneficence, both conceptual and in concrete acts, and the reciprocal act of gratitude are the principal meanings. Paul’s use of χάρις is not so totally new and different as is sometimes supposed. There is good discussion of the misunderstandings exhibited by Western biblical scholars under the influence of later theological interpretations. Crook notes a total absence of εὐεργ‐ words in Paul’s vocabulary, replaced by χαρ‐ words.

In Chapter Four the findings up to this point are tried out on several key Pauline passages that have some reference to Paul’s “conversion”: 1 Cor 9:1, 16-17; 15:8-10; Gal 1:11-17; Phil 3:4b-11. In the passages in 1 Corinthians, Paul receives his vision as a benefaction as did Lucius from Isis, Aristides from Asclepius. His client response of “prayer, praise, and proselytism” is his mission to the Gentiles. In 1 Cor 9:17, the οἰκονομία is Paul’s role as supervisor of God’s estate. Gal 1:13 and Phil 3:4b-11 are synkrisis. (There is some problem here, as Paul cannot put himself in a context in which his former way in the Law was negative, but he does use words like κέρδος and σκύβαλα to describe what he has left behind.) Paul has learned in his vision that his way of honoring God his patron needs adjusting in light of the revelation of Christ and of a new understanding of God’s relationship with non-Jews through Christ. Several times Crook comes near to saying that Paul keeps his patron but changes brokers, from the Law to Christ. This would be a controversial personifying of the Law, a step that Crook prefers not to take.

Chapter Five rounds out the argument by discussing the relationship of patronage, benefaction, and loyalty to conversion. The Latin word fides, Greek εὐσέβεια and even more, πίστις reflect the semantic domain of loyalty and trust, with different manifestations for patron and client, but ones in which their mutual bonds are recognized. Loyalty to an emperor, the loyalty of the manumitted slave to a patron, and loyalty of disciples to the philosopher-benefactor founder of a school are examples of the different kinds of contexts in which the exercise of this quality occurs.

In sum, Paul was not converted because he had a psychological crisis brought on by a vision, but because it was made clear to him that his patron, God, was asking something new and different from him, and the loyal response of acquiescence was the only way to go. Crook concludes with a plea that we look at Paul and his contemporaries not from the perspective of the idiocentric cultures of the West, but from that of the allocentric cultures that still form the majority of the world’s inhabitants today.

The writing in this book is unusually clear and organized so that the arguments are very easy to follow. Crook has given us a rewarding study in ancient patronal relationships that is competent, interesting, and, apart from a few quibbles, undoubtedly correct.