Volume 46 - Issue 1

‘I Call You Friends’: Jesus as Patron in John 15

By Daniel K. Eng


This article proposes that John 15:13–16 draws on the language of Roman patronage, which impacts the understanding of Jesus’s sayings regarding friends. We will suggest that φίλος conveys a regent obedient to a royal patron. Thus, the role of Jesus’s friend is one of subordination, not equality. After an introduction to patronage, this article makes the case that Jesus portrays himself as the greatest patron. First, John’s farewell discourse points to the disciples being subordinates. Second, Jesus makes a contrast between slaves and friends, which is consistent with many patronal relationships. Third, Jesus describes himself as a broker, mediating benefit from the Father. Fourth, inscriptions and provincial coinage contained terms like ΦΙΛΟΚΑΙΣΑΡ (friend of Caesar), referring to regents of the emperor. Patronage best explains the saying, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (15:13).” Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice for subordinates makes his patronage greater than Caesar’s.1

In the opening scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, undertaker Amerigo Bonasera approaches the crime family boss Don Vito Corleone to ask for justice for his daughter, who was beaten by two young men. As Corleone considers his history with Bonasera, he laments aloud that Bonasera has not shown him due respect and honor. At the end of the scene, Corleone agrees to arrange for vengeance for Bonasera’s daughter, also mentioning that there will be a time when Bonasera will be called upon to reciprocate.

Remarkably, the Godfather uses the term “friendship” in a way inconsistent with a common modern understanding of friends as equals. His relationship with Bonasera is defined by inequality and obligation. Corleone demands subordination and offers Bonasera access to an otherwise unobtainable favor.

Likewise, this article will make the case that the term φίλος or friend in the farewell discourse of John conveys a relationship distinct from a modern western understanding of friends as equals. While the connections of the term friend in John 15 with similar Old Testament and Hellenistic Jewish language have been explored,2 a thorough treatment of the friendship sayings in John 15:13–17 in light of patronage has largely eluded us.3 This article will build on the work that Gail O’Day has done on the Greco-Roman background of John 15:13.4

In what follows, we will contend that φίλος in John 15 describes a subordinate in a relationship defined by obligation. Drawing on the language of Roman patronage, the evangelist portrays Jesus as the patron par excellence, and urges loyalty to Jesus alone. In accordance, the role of “friend of Jesus” is one of subordination, not equality. Furthermore, we will suggest that these sayings in John 15:12–17 more specifically use φίλος to refer to a regent who is loyally obedient to a king. Finally, we will make the case that the concept of patronage best explains the saying, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.13).

1. Patronage in the Ancient World

Some have suggested that the prevalence of Roman patron-client relationships influences the Gospel of John. Martin Culy, pointing out that John 15:13–15 is the structural center of the upper room account, writes that “it would have been virtually impossible for the authorial audience to … not interpret what follows (and what precedes) in light of Greco-Roman notions of friendship.”5

Patronal relationships were prevalent in the ancient Mediterranean world, to the point that Seneca called patronage “a practice that constitutes the chief bond of human society.”6 Ancient patronage involved three elements: (1) the unequal status of the parties involved, (2) the reciprocal exchange of goods and services, and (3) the establishment of a lasting relationship between the parties.7 A related but unidentical term is benefaction, which describes the giving of goods or favors to another party. While benefaction could be used in a general sense and can refer to a relationship between parties of equal status, patronage was “ultimately a Roman phenomenon” and necessitated an exchange between unequal parties.8 Thus, patronage was prominently used for high-ranking officials and their associates who were of lower social rank.

The relationship between a patron and a client was characterized by reciprocity.9 Those of lower status had limited access to goods and services and often petitioned someone of higher status for their needs: commodities, advancement, and influence. If the person of higher status granted the petition, the two would enter into a patron-client relationship. In response, the client would reciprocate by promoting the patron’s reputation and vowing loyalty to perform services for the patron when a future opportunity arose.10 Such reciprocity was not bound by law, but by societal expectations: abandoning the duties of the patron-client relationship would be considered dishonorable and undignified.11 Seneca asserts that gratitude during that time did not exist apart from appropriate reciprocal action:

No man can be grateful unless he has learned to scorn the things which drive the common herd to distraction; if you wish to make a return for a favour, you must be willing to go into exile, or to pour forth your blood, or to undergo poverty, or, … even to let your very innocence be stained and exposed to shameful slanders.12

Thus, patron-client relationships were held together by “good will or faithfulness.”13 Some have pointed out that Paul utilizes this culture of reciprocity to urge Philemon to forgive and free Onesimus, his runaway slave.14

A patron in the Greco-Roman world would often refer to a client as φίλος or amicus.15 For example, Horace recalls how his literary patron Maecenas invited him to be numbered among his friends.16 This designation of friend is associated with the nature of patron-client relationships being decidedly asymmetrical: the client was permanently subservient in a relationship of loyalty. 17 The term cliens became degrading in nature, which led to the relative infrequency of the terms patronus and cliens in literature. Instead, with the range of the term amicus wide enough to describe both equals and unequals, patrons called their clients friends.18 This practice of referring to clients as friends became so pervasive that it was disapproved by figures like Plutarch and Maximus of Tyre, who insisted on a distinction between true friends who speak boldly, and false friends who were flatterers.19

2. Jesus As Patron

In what follows, we will contend that the language and principles surrounding the references to friends in John 15 are consistent with that of patron-client relationships. First, we will see how the farewell discourse conveys that the disciples are subordinates of Jesus. Second, we will examine the contrast Jesus makes between slaves and friends within the context of patron-client relationships. Third, we will examine a patron’s frequent role as a broker in light of Jesus’s promises about the disciples receiving from the Father. Fourth, we will make the case that Jesus takes on the role of a royal patron who has regents, or agents who act in his place.

2.1. Friends as Subordinates

In this section, we will examine how the farewell discourse communicates that the disciples are to be subordinates of Jesus, not equals. First, the content leading up to Jesus’s sayings about friends support the notion that the disciples are his subordinates. While Jesus violates the expectations of teacher-disciple relations by washing his disciples’ feet, his subsequent exhortations point to a persistently unequal relationship.20 Jesus declares that it is right to call him διδάσκαλος (Teacher) and κύριος (Lord, 13:13) and that slaves are not greater than their master (13:16). He then charges them a new commandment to obey: love one another (13:35). As he promises the Spirit (14:16–17), Jesus declares numerous times that loving him is demonstrated by keeping his commands (14:15, 21, 23–24). In John 15, Jesus continues the exhortation to obedience through the imagery of the vine and the branches. The disciples are extensions of Jesus as branches off the vine; they are not his equals. Jesus reiterates the centrality of obedience by declaring that keeping his commands is abiding in his love. Viewing the usage of φίλοι on the lips of Jesus as referring to equals would contradict the repeated references to obedience and subordination throughout the content leading up to John 15:13–16.

Second, the content of John 15 points to reciprocity and obligation. In the imagery of the vine and branches, the disciples are dependent on Jesus: apart from him they can do nothing (15:5). Jesus declares that he will lay down his life for his friends (15:13) and that they are his friends if (ἐάν) they obey his commands. He assigns them a task—to bear fruit. In return, they will receive what they ask for from the Father (15:16). The conditional statement in verse 16 denotes a cause-and-effect relationship that signals reciprocity. Thus, the notion of friendship in John 15, while involving fondness, also involves roles and responsibilities between those in the relationship.21

Third, in John 15:14, Jesus states that obedience is required to be his friends: You are my friends if you do what I command you. While some attempt to dismiss the possibility that the disciples’ status as friends of Jesus is dependent on their obedience,22 the syntax of the saying suggests that the designation is indeed conditional. The construction of the conjunction ἐάν with a verb in the present tense consistently communicates a conditional clause in the Gospel of John, regardless of the ordering of the clauses (see John 3:2; 5:19; 7:51).23 Thus, in the context of John 15, Jesus defines friendship with obedience as a condition. Barrett declares about this passage, “It is clear that the status of friend is not one which precludes obedient service; this is rather demanded.”24

If the exegete can suspend the notion that friendship necessitates a relationship of equals, the use of φίλοι as clients better fits this context. The elements of an asymmetrical relationship and reciprocity are prominent in this passage. Indeed, Saller declares, “Where the term amicus occurs with respect to a friendship between men known to be of unequal status, we can assume a patronage relationship.”25 When one is brought into a patron-client relationship as a result of an act of benefit, the recipients respond with loyalty, ready to carry out duties to the patron in gratitude.

While Aristotle’s teachings epitomized the Hellenistic ideal of friendship being characterized by social equals, the emergence of patron-client relationships in the Roman Empire shifted the public understanding of friendship.26 As a whole, the farewell discourse paints a picture of subordination, not equality. Subordination is more consistent with the usage of φίλος in Roman patron-client relationships than with Greek or modern western ideals of friendship.

2.2. The Manumission of Slaves

In this section, we will examine the saying of Jesus in John 15:15, regarding slaves and friends. We will make the case that the contrast between δοῦλοι and φίλοι again suggests that a patron-client relationship is being portrayed.

Three elements of John 15:15 suggest that the immediate context of this saying should take precedence the interpretation of its key terms rather than their usage elsewhere in Johannine literature. First, it is curious that the saying makes a contrast between slaves and friends, making 15:15 stand out. One would naturally consider the antithesis of a slave to be a freedman and the antithesis of a friend to be an enemy. Keener cites Sallust, who wrote that a Roman would describe conquered people as “slaves” but allies as “friends.”27 Second, as Leon Morris points out, the farewell discourse stands out as the first time in John’s Gospel that Jesus refers to his disciples as slaves.28 Third, this is the only instance in John where Jesus refers to the twelve as friends.29 This distinctiveness has led to the view that these friendship sayings do not fit with the rest of John’s message and were inserted later.30 With the uniqueness of this saying, it follows that the immediate context in John 15, which suggests patron-client language, would be most elucidatory in interpreting this saying about friendship.

The oldest and most persistent patron-client relationships existed between a former master and his freedman. A slave could purchase their own freedom and that of their loved ones by accumulating wealth or be rewarded with freedom by exhibiting faithful and loyal service. Being manumitted, a former slave entered into a reciprocal relationship with his former master.31 By granting freedom, the former master became a patron and could expect to receive honor and pledged loyalty from his clients.32 Petronius, in the Satyricon, depicts the loyalty of a rich freedman, Trimalchio, to his former master, to whom he was a slave for forty years.33

The attachment of the freedman’s obligation to his former master was inseverable. This bond of loyalty persisted, and it was socially deplorable to leave one’s patron for another. While enjoying freedom, the freedman still depended on and honored the patron, and he often performed services for him. This relationship would be subject to inheritance for several subsequent generations.34

In John 15:15, Jesus’s declaration is consistent with the manumission of slaves leading to a patron-client relationship. After affirming his role as κύριος after washing his disciples’ feet (13:14–16), he states that they are no longer slaves. The transition of the disciples from δοῦλοι and φίλοι and the contrast between them is best explained by the language of Roman patron-client relationships.

This saying of Jesus in John 15:15 describes two characteristics of being his friend. First, as discussed above, a friend does what he commands. The disciples have free agency but are expected to obey, not bound by law but by social reciprocity. They are recipients of the greatest act of love, and their expected obedience is based on loyalty to a patron who has provided the gift of freedom.

Second, as it states in John 15:15, a slave does not know what the master is doing. In other words, the expressed distinction between slaves and friends is disclosure. Jesus gives them full disclosure of what he has heard from the Father, 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. In ancient Greece, slaves were considered “animated instruments,” bodies without reason.35 This notion was epitomized by Aristotle’s view that the slave was a “living tool,” an extension of the master’s will. Jesus, in treating them as free agents with awareness of the masters’ dealing, effectively frees them from slavery.36 In addition, Jesus’s facilitation of disclosure from the Father echoes a different facet of patronage, which we will discuss below.

The repeated command to love one another, which brackets the sayings regarding friendship in John 15 (vv. 12 and 17, also 13:34), further bolsters the case that Jesus is freeing slaves in 15:15. Paul Flesher demonstrates from the Mishnah that a slave was only defined by the vertical relationship with his owner: “the master prevents the bondman from holding any relationships apart from the property relationship between his slave and himself … he cancels all the bondman’s kinship ties, and prevents him from forming new ones.”37 In other words, the slave was incapable of having any horizontal relationships, as he was to be solely defined through a vertical relationship. Therefore, by pronouncing the command to love one another in horizontal relationships, Jesus figuratively moves his disciples through the experience of manumission, going from social death to social life, opening access to relationships with one another. In this way, he was granting them freedom, and they were to respond with grateful loyalty.

Susan Elliott’s work further bolsters the argument that Jesus is manumitting slaves by pointing out that a slave could not meaningfully perform an act of love. Since the slave’s life did not belong to him, he could not give it up. As an extension of the master’s will, any action would not be voluntary. Jesus’s command to show love (13:34) could only be meaningfully fulfilled by one who has the agency to choose. “The coercion inherent in slavery eliminates the possibility of authenticity in any action of service since the coercion means that the slave’s true intent cannot be known or shown.”38 Thus, Jesus’s command to show love treats them as freedmen rather than slaves.

While Jesus’s declaration of friendship may have its background in the figures of Abraham and Moses relating to God as friends, Roman patronage has more points of contact with John 15:13–15. Philo makes the contrast between δοῦλος and φίλος in the context of Moses (On the Migration of Abraham 45) and Abraham (On Sobriety 55–56). Philo’s portrayal of Abraham is especially notable since it mentions confidence and revelation (cf. Sirach 27:17). However, these texts do not allude to a status of slaves that changes to that of friends. Abraham is called a friend of God in 2 Chronicles 20:7 and Isaiah 41:8, but the LXX uses the verb ἀγαπάω rather than φιλέω in these places. He is frequently referred to as God’s friend in the Testament of Abraham (e.g., 1:6; 4:7; 8:2, 4; 9:7; 15:12–13; 16:5, 9; 20:14), but there is no contrast with being a slave. Exodus 33:11 tells of the Lord speaking with Moses face-to-face as one speaks to a friend (cf. Sibylline Oracles 2:245), but again, there is no contrast with a slave.

The best way to reconcile manumission in John 15:15 with the context of subordination is through viewing the sayings in the context of a patron-client relationship. As stated above, the most persistent form of patronage was the manumission of slaves, and patrons called their clients friends. The disciples, being freedmen, have a reciprocal relationship with Jesus characterized by loyalty and the carrying out of commands.

2.3. Brokerage

Another element of John 15:13–16 that reinforces a connection with patron-client language is Jesus’s declaration that he acts as the mediator or broker to give his disciples access to the Father. It was common for a patron to give clients access to goods or services from another patron. The broker would intercede with the distant patron and serve as a go-between or middle-man for clients with whom he has personal contact. The broker would thus have a patron-client relationship with those he assisted.39 The epistle of Philemon displays an example of brokerage, as Paul acts as the broker for Onesimus to gain benefit from Philemon.40

Patron-brokerage relationships in the Roman Empire enabled local figures to receive a following of clients through their mediating of services and goods from a more distant patron. Local politicians grew in power and influence by granting favors from the emperor to locals.41 As a result of brokerage, senators were largely clients loyal to the emperor, and had their own clients.42 As an illustration, deSilva cites Sophocles’s fictional example of Creon serving as a broker for favor with king Oedipus.43 The best broker was a person whom both the distant patron and the client trusted—one with “a foot in both worlds.”44 Those closest to the emperor and most able to broker his favors would be male members of his immediate family—sons and grandsons.45

Sayings of Jesus in the farewell discourse are consistent with the language of brokerage. Jesus, the unique Son, affirms his oneness with the Father. This oneness is especially shown in Jesus’s declarations that by knowing him, they also know the Father (14:7) and that he is in the Father and the Father is in him (14:10). As portrayed by John, Jesus was qualified as one with a foot in both worlds, and his status as the Son makes him the sole broker.46 Jesus declares that he is the only broker to the Father, and that the Father would be otherwise inaccessible (14:6). He states that he will ask the Father, and the Father will give the Spirit (14:16–17; cf. 15:26), making Jesus the broker. Jesus declares that keeping his commands will open up access to the Father’s love (14:21, 23). In the friendship sayings in John 15, Jesus declares that he makes known to his disciples everything he has heard from his Father (15:15), setting himself as the broker of revelation. In his commissioning of his disciples to bear fruit, he promises that the Father will give them whatever they ask (15:16). This promise comes with a qualification—they ask in the name of Jesus, the broker. Later in the farewell discourse, Jesus reiterates the promise that the Father will give anything they ask for in his name (16:23–27). Notably, it is the Father who grants the disciples’ requests in John 15–16, not Jesus himself as in 14:14.47 As Jesus sets himself up as the sole broker of the Father’s benefits, he sets up a relationship of reciprocity with the disciples being dependent on him.

2.4. A Royal Patron with Client-Regents

In this section, we will make the case that the evangelist portrays Jesus in the farewell discourse as a royal patron with regents, or client-rulers, who act in his place. In other words, the disciples are brought into a particular relationship where they are called to carry out duties as his loyal representatives.

2.4.1. Context of John 15

The context of John 15 points to Jesus as a royal patron designating his disciples as friends. The farewell discourse comes directly after the pivotal demonstration that Jesus is the king of the Jews. After his anointing by Mary in Bethany, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem is met with shouts reserved for the king. “Hosanna” is a declaration of dependence and praise reserved only for the king of Israel (2 Kgs 6:26) and for the Lord in the Hebrew Bible. The crowd continues to shout, “king of Israel,” and Jesus mounts a donkey in accordance with the coming king prophesied in Zechariah 9:9 (John 12:12–15). This episode provides the context supporting the view that John 15 would have been understood as friendship with a king.48

A prevalent usage of the term friend refers to client with political dependence on a royal patron. This can be seen in ancient Israel, with Hushai being the first φίλος of the king (1 Chr 27:33 LXX). Inscriptional evidence demonstrates that friend of the emperor is an official title dating back to the successors of Alexander.49 Furthermore, the LXX translation of Esther renders שַׂר (prince or ruler) with φίλος of the king (Esth 1:3; 2:18; 3:1; 6:9).50 From the classical period to Macedonia and Syria, a friend of the king is a loyal subordinate.51 Instances in intertestamental literature also use friend in this way. In 1 Maccabees 10:20, Alexander Epiphanes writes to the high priest Jonathan, the brother of Judas Maccabeus, stating that he is appointed “friend of the king,” and to “keep friendship towards us” (cf. 1 Macc 15:28, 32; 2 Macc 7:24 for friends of Antiochus). Eleazar refers to his relationship with the king Ptolemy of Egypt as “friendship” in the Letter of Aristeas 40–41, 44 (cf. 190, 208, 225, 228). In the first century, Dio Chrysostom writes that kings must depend on the loyalty of their friends (φίλος) to rule.52

Of great interest to this particular study is the language of a friend of Caesar during the Roman imperial period. Clients of a political leader would be bestowed with the honorific title of amicus bearing the name of that leader. Amici would be granted political influence in exchange for loyal adherence.53 Josephus, writing during the imperial period, referred to the political subordinates of Antiochus as friends (Antiquities of the Jews 12.366–91; 13.145). Inscriptional evidence demonstrates the prevalence of terms like ΦΙΛΟΚΑΙΣΑΡ (friend of Caesar), and to a lesser extent, ΦΙΛΟΣΕΒΑΣΤΟΣ (friend of Augustus), which referred to client kings and senators.54 For Romans acting in an administrative role abroad, like provincial rulers, the honorific title friend of Caesar indicated that they represented Caesar’s authority.55 A client-king with a special debt to the emperor would be especially expected to use the epithet φιλόκαισαρ or φιλοσέβαστος. Mannus VIII of Osrhoene, with his throne restored by Rome, issued coins that bore ΦΙΛΟΡΩΜΑΙΟΣ (friend of Rome).56 This widespread usage of political friendship language in the Roman Empire is consistent with the Jewish religious leaders’ questioning of the governor Pilate as he attempted to release Jesus. They, aware of the political ramifications, declare that if Pilate releases the so-called king of Jews, he would not be a φίλος τοῦ Καίσαρος (John 19:12).57

The patron-client dynamic provided people in the provinces with access to their ultimate patron in the imperial cult. Nicolaus of Damascus observed that people honored Augustus with temples and sacrifices in response to the benefits received from the emperor. They sought imperial aid through the priests of the imperial cult, sending the priests to Rome to honor the emperor and preserve favor.58

The widespread nature of the connection between a friend of Caesar and a client is further bolstered by numismatic evidence. Roman provincial coinage often displayed φίλ– terms publicizing the relationship of these local governors or cities to the emperor. A coin of King Agrippa I displays him clasping hands with Claudius, with the reverse inscription describing friendship, or φιλία between the two. A coin from Stratonicea describes the city as ΦΙΛΟΣΕΒΑΣΤΩΝ (friend of Augustus). Coins from Philadelphia (see Figure 1, with Caligula on the front) and Tripolis display the title ΦΙΛΟΚΑΙΣΑΡ. Under Caligula, seven different coins displaying ΦΙΛΟΚΑΙΣΑΡ were in circulation.59 All of this evidence from coinage demonstrates that client kings or regents were called friends. This association of friendship with regency would be found in every purse, and would be reinforced every time people used coins.

Figure 1: Coin from Philadelphia. Roman Provincial Coinage, 3031.460

2.4.2. Jesus Commissions His Disciples to Act in His Absence

The content of the farewell discourse points to Jesus commissioning his disciples to act in his place during his absence. Jesus speaks of his departure, gives the new command to love one another (13:31–14:17), and promises to broker the benefits from the Father. He then appoints them to bear fruit as they abide in him (15:1–11, 16). The notion of a friend as an honorific title bestowed by the king to his client governors fits with Jesus’s commissioning of his disciples. They 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, in the same way that Pilate’s loyalty is expected by Caesar in his absence.

Jesus’s assertion in John 15:16 points to him being the ultimate patron. While patrons could choose whom to call friends, clients of the day had to seek out their assistance, cultivating the relationship themselves.61 Jesus’s declaration, “you did not choose me, but I chose you” turns the tables on this convention. In language that echoes the chosen-ness of Israel,62 the kingly Jesus himself seeks out and appoints those who will be the recipients of his benefits, appointing them to do his work. With his declaration that they will bear fruit that will remain and that they will receive anything they ask the Father in his name, Jesus guarantees the certainty that his brokerage will be effective.63 They act in place of Jesus, with the assurance of the spirit and other benefits from the Father.

Jesus’s call to keep his commands as he is departing highlights the value of loyalty in the absence of an important figure, which was expected from clients and friends. While a client could have multiple patrons, having two patrons who were enemies of one another would be unthinkable.64 This concept is illustrated by Jesus’s teaching that no one can have two masters, for he will hate one and love the other (Matt 6:24).65 James 4:4 appeals to this concept using the term φιλία: calling them adulteresses, James affirms to the apparently common knowledge that friendship with the world is enmity towards God. Likewise, a client king would have a responsibility and commitment to their patron in allegiance and fidelity.66 The Jewish leaders’ manipulation of Pilate illustrates this value of loyalty. In calling for Jesus’s crucifixion, the Jews declare loyalty to the emperor—“we have no king but Caesar” (19:15).67

Amid this political climate, it follows that Jesus draws on the language of friends to solidify loyalty from his disciples, and to commission them to do his work in his absence. Rensberger maintains,

The Fourth Gospel…does not offer a mere retreat from political and social relationships, though it does offer an approach to them that is as radical as its Christology … by calling for adherence to the king who is not of this world, whose servants do not fight, but remain in the world bearing witness to the truth before the rulers of both synagogue and Empire.68

While the concept of agency in the Mishnah has relevance as background to John 15, the activity of patron-client relationships more has more points of contact. Elliott defines an agent as “someone who carries out a task at the request of a superior, referred to as the ‘principal.’”69 The agent acts in the place of the principal and is considered an extension of the principal’s will.70 In this way, an Israelite can transfer legal powers to an agent and assumes responsibility for the agent’s actions. To be sure, some overlap exists between a slave and an agent. However, while a slave is a ‘living tool,’ a free man acts by his own will on behalf of the principal.71 Ultimately, while agency in Judaism has some overlap with patronage, the patron-client relationship is an even better fit for John 15, with the language of friendship, brokerage, and manumission of slaves. Thus, even if we recognize the framework provided by the Mishnah for the content of John,72 patronage has a greater influence on the friendship sayings in John 15.

In John 15, Jesus declares the disciples to act as his loyal client-kings or emissaries.73 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, but as honored friends.

3. The Greatest Love

Having established that the friendship sayings in John 15:13–16 are saturated with imagery of Roman patron-client relationships, we now return to the issue posed at the beginning of this article: How does Jesus demonstrate the greatest love? Carson articulates a common objection to Jesus’s statement: “surely life-sacrificing love for enemies is greater yet.”74 While Carson and others are correct that Jesus is indeed addressing friends without contrast to enemies,75 one cannot ignore the fact that this is the first time that Jesus calls them friends. The background of patronage has implications for the saying about the greatest act of love. In this concluding section, I will contend that patronal relationships are the key to understanding the saying about the greatest act of love. This greatest love is not only shown when one lays down his life, but when it is done for subordinates.

The notion that one would die for one’s friends was not unfamiliar; the Greek ideal of friendship included this motif of true friends.76 In The Symposium, Plato writes that “Only those in love are prepared to die for one another.”77 In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle affirms that a virtuous man, if necessary, will lay down his life for his friends.78 However, this ideal of friendship involved seeing friends as equals. Aristotle taught perfect friendship is between equals,79 as both parties render the same benefit in friendship.80 When princes have friends below their stature, Aristotle writes, the friendship does not remain.81 When the Romans gained power and influence, the concept of friendship transformed. Friendship was “no longer viewed primarily through the lens of democratic citizenship.” This frustrated Hellenistic figures like Plutarch and Cicero, and they publicly addressed what “true” friendship entails.82

While a declaration of dying for one’s friends would have been expected given the Hellenistic concept of friendship as between equals, the concept of friendship in connection with Roman patronage would be much more remarkable. The concept of friends as subordinates associated with Roman patronage fits better as the background of Jesus’s saying regarding the greatest love. This love goes beyond that of dying for one’s equals.

An account from Seneca is relevant to our discussion of Jesus laying down his life for subordinates. Seneca describes a slave concealing his master during a civil war, dressing in his master’s clothes. The slave offers his own neck to the swords of his master’s enemies, being willing to die in his place. Seneca calls this “a rare show of loyalty.”83 If the slave’s willingness to die for his superior was rare, it follows that one dying for subordinates would be even rarer. To lay down one’s life for subordinates would indeed prove to be the greatest love.

The saying about the greatest love in John 15:13 echoes Jesus’s earlier saying in John regarding the good shepherd, where the relationship is also between unequals. After Jesus affirms that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (10:11), he declares that he himself is the good shepherd who lays down his life, moving from a maxim to a promise (10:15).84 No longer in the hypothetical third-person terms often employed by philosophers, Jesus declares that he cares for the sheep so much that he will lay down his life for them. One cannot ignore that the sheep are the subordinates of the shepherd, and they follow him (10:27). This subordination makes remarkable the shepherd’s willingness to sacrifice his life, especially in contrast with the hired hand.

Further supporting the case that these friends are subordinates, Jesus does not call himself a friend to his disciples. They are his friends, not necessarily the other way around. While Jesus has offered his slaves manumission, he does not place them on equal ground. This inequality is consistent with the later designation of Pilate as the friend of Caesar. It reflects the Roman rather than Greek understanding of friendship, as Aristotle excluded the idea of a superior being a φίλος to an inferior.85

Culy claims that this language of laying down one’s life for friends would “imply that something more than” patron-client relationships is in view here.86 Malina and Rohrbaugh state that the friendship in 15:13–15 is “fictive kinship” in light of the saying about greatest love—they insist that this kind of love is only reserved for family members.87 However, their objection ends up proving the point of this article. Jesus declares that there is no greater love, implying a comparison with other acts of benefit. His act of love shows him to be the greatest within a certain sort of role. Culy is right that this love appears outside what was customary for patrons and clients. He explains why there is no greater love: no patron would do this for a client. With the elements of inequality, reciprocity, manumission of slaves, and brokerage in view, the friendship sayings in John 15 point to patronage. Jesus, then, declares that he is like no patron who ever lived.

In his saying about the greatest love, Jesus foretells his death. He has set into motion the events that will lead to the cross, as the religious leaders have plotted to put him to death. In this way, Jesus moves from a maxim in hypothetical terms to an actual act of love. His death for his subordinates fulfills John 10:11: he, as the good shepherd, lays down his life for the sheep.

Ultimately, patron-client relationships make the most sense out of Jesus’s declaration that laying down one’s life for friends is the greatest act of love.88 While clients would be expected to undergo affliction for their patrons, a patron would not lay down his life for his subordinate clients. Patrons offered goods and services to those of lower status so that they would receive honor and influence. In other words, they had something to gain afterward. The reciprocal culture led clients to seek to repay these debts, a practice that frustrated Plutarch and other writers. The declaration of the greatest love demonstrates Jesus to be the patron par excellence. He chooses his friends, lays down his life for them, and in doing so, offers an act of patronage that cannot be repaid.

4. Implications for Further Research

With the friendship sayings of Jesus saturated with the language of patron-client relationships, this study raises questions that would be worthy of further research.

First, does the patronage language suggest that Jesus foretells his resurrection and ascension? Given the saying about the greatest love and the commissioning of the disciples, Jesus’s sayings come with an underlying assumption that he will be able to receive their reciprocal acts of loyalty. After all, the greatest act of love for his friends elicits the response of gratitude. They pledge to serve the patron with acts of service, to the point of undergoing affliction. Jesus commissions his friends to bear fruit, and it follows that he would later be alive to be served. He has declared his intent to depart, and they are to serve a living patron. In this way, Jesus appears to hint towards his resurrection and his ascension.

Second, does this usage of φίλος inform our understanding of John’s use of the cognate verb φιλέω? While it has been pointed out that the evangelist uses the terms φιλέω and ἀγαπάω interchangeably in some places (John 13:23; 20:2; 21:7),89 the account of Jesus’s reinstatement of Peter (John 21:15–19) is relevant here. With Jesus asking, “do you love me?,” using ἀγαπάω and Peter affirming using φιλέω, it may be possible that Peter pledges loyal obedience to Jesus in response to his question. This would make fitting Jesus’s reply to feed my sheep, as it is a commission to a task after Peter pledged loyalty.

5. Conclusion

The distinctiveness of John 15:13–16 and its points of contact with Roman patron-client relationships suggest that Jesus’s sayings draw from this imagery. As discussed above, John 15:13–16 is the only place in the Gospel where Jesus refers to his disciples as slaves, and also the only place where he calls them friends. Also, it introduces the concept that the disciples can ask anything through the broker Jesus, and the Father will grant their request. The sayings’ parallels with patronal relationships include the concepts of friends as subordinates, the manumission of slaves, brokerage to another patron, and client-regents who act in a king’s place.

Jesus’s ultimate act of love is the greatest in one sense because he pays the ultimate price, but it is also the greatest in a different sense because it is done for subordinates. This sacrifice is a love for which the Greek understanding of friendship as equals does not account. The evangelist, following his purpose (John 20:31), urges his hearers to choose between loyalty to Jesus and loyalty to Caesar, as a person could not have two patrons who were rivals of one another.90 With Caesar being the greatest patron in the world, Jesus declares himself to be an even greater patron than he.

[1] Previous versions of this paper were presented at the University of Cambridge Graduate New Testament Seminar, the British New Testament Conference, and the Evangelical Theological Society and Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings, all in 2019. The author thanks the participants in these conference sessions for their feedback, as well as Amber Dillon for assisting with a later version.

[2] See, for example, D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 521–23; Takaaki Haraguchi, “Philia as Agapē: The Theme of Friendship in the Gospel of John,” AsJT 28.2 (2014): 253–57.

[3] Both Martin Culy and Craig Keener dismiss an allusion to patronal friendship, but they do not consider the connections of manumission and brokerage to patronage. See Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 2:1014; Martin M. Culy, Echoes of Friendship in the Gospel of John, New Testament Monographs 30 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2010), 162–66. Malina and Rohrbaugh, while pointing out the brokerage in v. 16, still insist that the friendship in vv. 13–15 is “fictive.” Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 235.

[4] Gail R. O’Day, “Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John,” Int 58 (2004): 144–57. O’Day discusses patronage, but does not include the concepts of slavery, brokerage, and regency in connection with John 15:15–17.

[5] Culy points out that there are eighty-one verses between 13:1 and 15:13–15, and eighty-one verses between 15:13–15 and 17:26. Culy, Echoes of Friendship in the Gospel of John, 157–58.

[6] Seneca, On Benefits 1.4.2, trans. John W. Basore, LCL 131 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935).

[7] Richard P. Saller, Personal Patronage Under the Early Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 1.

[8] Alicia Batten, “God in the Letter of James: Patron or Benefactor?,” NTS 50 (2004): 262–63. Cf. Koenraad Verboven, The Economy of Friends: Economic Aspects of Amicitia and Patronage in the Late Republic (Bruxelles: Editions Latomus, 2002), 61.

[9] Stegemann and Stegemann call the exchange within patronage “general reciprocity,” to be distinguished from reciprocity between equals. See Ekkehard Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann, Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century, trans. O. C. Dean, Jr. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 34.

[10] The patron would thus gain political power and high esteem. See David A. deSilva, “Exchanging Favor for Wrath: Apostasy in Hebrews and Patron-Client Relationships,” JBL 115 (1996): 92–93.

[11] Nicols calls such relationships “extralegal” or morally based. John Nicols, Civic Patronage in the Roman Empire, Mnemosyne Supplements 365 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 2–3. Cf. Saller, Personal Patronage, 14.

[12] Seneca, Moral Epistles 81.27, trans. Richard M. Gummere, LCL 76 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920). deSilva adds, “Seneca describes involves an intense loyalty to the person from whom one has received beneficence” (“Exchanging Favor for Wrath,” 104).

[13] Jerome H. Neyrey, “God, Benefactor and Patron: The Major Cultural Model for Interpreting the Deity in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” JSNT 27 (2005): 468.

[14] For example, see David A. deSilva, “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament,” ATJ 31 (1999): 50–51.

[15] Batten, “God in the Letter of James,” 259. For examples of φίλος, see Dio Chrysostom, Kingship 3.94–96; Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 1.52–54; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 17.31.6; 17.39.2; 17.100.1; 18.55.1.

[16] Horace, Satires 1.6.62 (“in amicorum numero”).

[17] “A client was by definition unable to solve his debt of honour to his patron,” according to Verboven, The Economy of Friends, 62.

[18] Saller, Personal Patronage, 8–11.

[19] See Plutarch, How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend. David Konstan demonstrates that Plutarch and Maximus of Tyre appealed to pure friendship as a way to highlight the coercive nature of the patron-client custom. See David Konstan, “Patrons and Friends,” CP 90 (1995): 328–42.

[20] Contra Culy, who writes that Jesus “has levelled the playing field” (Echoes of Friendship in the Gospel of John, 161).

[21] Cf. Culy, Echoes of Friendship in the Gospel of John, 144–45.

[22] For example, Ridderbos writes, “Jesus does not mean that he makes his friendship with them dependent on their obedience to his commandments.” See Herman N. Ridderbos, The Gospel According to John: A Theological Commentary, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 520. Carson asserts, “This obedience is not what makes them friends; it is what characterizes his friends.” Carson, Gospel According to John, 522.

[23] Contra Michaels, who attempts to appeal to word order to dismiss the conditional nature of this saying. See J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 813. Michael P. Theophilos correctly cites John 3:2; 5:19; 7:51 to support John 15:14 having a conditional clause with this word ordering; see “John 15.14 and the Φιλ– Lexeme in Light of Numismatic Evidence: Friendship or Obedience?,” NTS 64.1 (2018): 36.

[24] C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), 477.

[25] Saller, Personal Patronage, 15.

[26] O’Day, “Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John,” 146–47.

[27] Sallust, The Jugurthine War 102.6; see Keener, The Gospel of John, 2:1013. Keener misses the connection between manumission of slaves and patron-client relationships.

[28] “He has not actually used this term of them previously, though 13:16 comes very near it, and 13:13 certainly implies it,” according to Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 675.

[29] Jan van der Watt points out that Jesus does call them friends in Luke 12:4, but this is a “passing” reference; see “Laying Down Your Life for Your Friends: Some Reflections on the Historicity of John 15: 13,” Journal of Early Christian History 4 (2014): 177–78. In addition, it is possible that he is addressing the crowd of thousands (12:1).

[30] Ernst Haenchen and Ulrich Busse, Das Johannesevangelium: Ein Kommentar (Tübingen: Mohr, 1980), 483.

[31] Nicols, Civic Patronage in the Roman Empire, 3.

[32] S. N. Eisenstadt and Luis Roniger, Patrons, Clients, and Friends: Interpersonal Relations and the Structure of Trust in Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 52–53.

[33] Petronius, Satyricon 101.

[34] Eisenstadt and Roniger, Patrons, Clients, and Friends, 54–55.

[35] Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 4–5.

[36] Cf. John Fitzgerald, “Christian Friendship: John, Paul, and the Philippians,” Int 61 (2007): 292.

[37] Paul Virgil McCracken Flesher, Oxen, Women, or Citizens? Slaves in the System of the Mishnah, Brown Judaic Studies 143 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 38. Cf. Susan M. Elliott, “John 15:15—Not Slaves but Friends,” Proceedings: Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 13 (1993): 34.

[38] Elliott, “John 15,” 39.

[39] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 60.

[40] So deSilva, “Patronage and Reciprocity,” 51.

[41] Eisenstadt and Roniger, Patrons, Clients, and Friends, 230.

[42] Saller, Personal Patronage, 75.

[43] Sophocles, Oedipus the King, 771–74. He also cites examples from the letters of Cicero, Pliny the Younger, and Fronto, in David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 97–98.

[44] Neyrey, “God, Benefactor and Patron,” 476.

[45] Saller, Personal Patronage, 59.

[46] This understanding can be seen in the declared superiority of Christ, the son (Heb 1:2), as a mediator of God’s benefits in the epistle of Hebrews. See deSilva, “Exchanging Favor for Wrath,” 95–96. Jesus is also portrayed as the one mediator of God’s benefits in Matt 11:27; 1 Tim 2:5; and Eph 1:3–10, and the mediator of earthly petitions or doxologies (Rom 1:8; 7:25; 1 Cor 15.57; Heb 13:20–21; Jude 25). See Neyrey, “God, Benefactor and Patron,” 476.

[47] Morris, Gospel According to John, 676.

[48] Contra Culy, who denies any contextual basis. See Culy, Echoes of Friendship in the Gospel of John, 165 n. 146.

[49] So Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts from the Graeco-Roman World (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927), 378.

[50] G. Adolf Deissmann, Bible Studies: Contributions Chiefly from Papyri and Inscriptions to the History of the Language, the Literature, and the Religion of Hellenistic Judaism and Primitive Christianity, trans. Alexander Grieve (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1901), 168.

[51] See, for example, Pisistratus and his friends in Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 1.52–54, friends of Alexander in Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 17.31.6; 17.39.2; 17.100.1, and Polyperchon and the advice of his friends in Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 18.55.1.

[52] Dio Chrysostom, On Kingship 3.94–96.

[53] Eisenstadt and Roniger, Patrons, Clients, and Friends, 61–62.

[54] For example, see CIG 2.3499, SEG 17 (1960) 381. See Saller, Personal Patronage, 59.

[55] Greg H. R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1978 (Sydney: Macquarie University, 1983), 87–88.

[56] David Braund, Rome and the Friendly King: The Character of the Client Kingship (London: Croom Helm, 1984), 107.

[57] Cf. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, 89.

[58] deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity, 102.

[59] Theophilos, “John 15.14 and the ΦΙΛ– Lexeme in Light of Numismatic Evidence,” 38–41.

[60] Copyright CNG. Used with Permission.

[61] See Horace, Satires 1.6.62; Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, 119.

[62] Cf. Keener, The Gospel of John, 2:1015.

[63] Cf. Ridderbos, The Gospel According to John, 521.

[64] After Cicero, the conflict between loyalty to a friend and loyalty to the state became a significant issue when Rome came to power. See Alicia J. Batten, Friendship and Benefaction in James, Emory Studies in Early Christianity 15 (Dorset: Deo, 2010), 67–68.

[65] Cf. deSilva, “Patronage and Reciprocity,” 46.

[66] Theophilos, “John 15.14 and the ΦΙΛ– Lexeme in Light of Numismatic Evidence,” 38.

[67] Brian E. Messner argues that Pilate was under immense pressure to demonstrate loyalty to Tiberius, as the alternative would be loyalty to Sejanus; see “‘No Friend of Caesar’: Jesus, Pilate, Sejanus, and Tiberius,” Stone-Campbell Journal 11 (2008): 47–57.

[68] David Rensberger, “The Politics of John: The Trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel,” JBL 103 (1984): 411.

[69] Elliott, “John 15,” 36.

[70] Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, The Human Will in Judaism: The Mishnah’s Philosophy of Intention (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 108–10.

[71] Flesher, Oxen, Women, or Citizens?, 130.

[72] This is the argument of Peder Borgen, “God’s Agent in the Fourth Gospel,” in The Interpretation of John, ed. John Ashton (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 83–96.

[73] Cf. Morris, Gospel According to John, 676.

[74] Carson, Gospel According to John, 522, emphasis original.

[75] Morris, Gospel According to John, 674; Carson, Gospel According to John, 522.

[76] In addition to Plato and Aristotle, others wrote about dying for friends. Lucian spoke of blood and death and war for the sake of friendship’s (Toxaris 36). Epictetus wrote that it was one’s duty to die for a friend (Discourses 2.7.3).

[77] Plato, Symposium 179b, ed. Frisbee C. C. Sheffield, trans. M. C. Howatson, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 10. The love in view is φιλία. Cf. Symposium 208d.

[78] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 9.8.9. Notably, the verb that Aristotle uses is ὑπεραποθνήσκειν, not τίθημι with the preposition ὑπέρ.

[79] Lorraine Smith Pangle, Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 51–57. Pangle writes, “Aristotle has stressed repeatedly that the perfect friendship of virtue will be a friendship of equals” (p. 57).

[80] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 8.6.7. Aristotle does go on to recognize friendship between unequals, but he considers this type less valuable and “less truly” friendship. See Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 8.6.7, trans. H. Rackham, LCL 73 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926).

[81] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 8.7.5–6.

[82] O’Day, “Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John,” 146–47.

[83] Seneca, On Benefits, 3.25 (trans. Basore).

[84] O’Day, “Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John,” 150.

[85] Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics 7.4.1–2.

[86] Culy, Echoes of Friendship in the Gospel of John, 162.

[87] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, 235.

[88] Indeed, van der Watt writes, “It does not take much imagination to see how the death of Jesus on a cross could have been interwoven with the Greco-Roman thought of ‘laying down your life for others/friends’… Jesus’s words and deeds are remembered in the terms of a Greco-Roman maxim which signifies a movement from a traditional Jewish to a more Hellenized situation” (“Laying Down Your Life for Your Friends,” 173–74).

[89] Sean Winter, “Friendship Traditions in the New Testament: An Overview,” Pacifica 29 (2016): 202.

[90] With Jesus affirming his oneness with the Father, having both the Father and Son as patrons would not be a problem of conflicting loyalties.

Daniel K. Eng

Daniel K. Eng is assistant professor of New Testament language and literature at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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