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This Is How the Ancient World Received Grace, Part 1

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*Editor’s Note: Matthew Bates will be speaking at the Renew Gathering on November 6, in Franklin, TN.

To understand what follows, you’ll need to keep in mind that the ancient concept of “return gifting” is different from “gift returning” (something you do at Target on December 26). In Gospel Allegiance, Matthew Bates explains the ancient expectation of “return gifting,” and how it helps us better respond to grace. Here’s Bates:

[In return-gifting], the receiver of a gift must reciprocate by giving a return gift in order for the original gift to be received.

A pure gift is a gift given freely, with no strings attached and no expectation or obligation to reciprocate in order to accept the gift. In our modern world we tend to idealize the pure gift as the best kind. Let’s say a woman gives her boyfriend running shoes that he has been craving. We would think it unseemly if she were to condition her gift on his reciprocation. That is, if she were to think or indicate, “I’ll only let him keep the shoes if he returns the favor by buying me the tennis racquet I want.” As moderns we think it ill-fitting to give a gift if we are going to require a gift in return.

But nobody in the ancient world, including the biblical authors, felt that gifts should be pure or freely given so that reciprocation was unnecessary.

Our contemporary values suggest that an ideal gift is noncircular, but this does not correspond to ancient values. They believed the opposite! A grace or a gift had to be reciprocated through a return gift. If not reciprocated, the receiver had rejected the gift. . . .

The return gift was not ordinarily an even exchange.

For example, if I were a steward in the city of Corinth, such as the Christian named Erastus (Rom. 16:23; cf. Acts 19:22; 2 Tim. 4:20), I might grace the city by paving a portion of it. In return for my benefaction, I might expect the city of Corinth to erect a monument publicly thanking me. Just such an inscription was found in 1929 in Corinth: “Erastus in return for his aedileship [elected office] paved it at his own expense.” If the Corinthians had refused to erect this monument, Erastus as the benefactor could have withheld the gift or subsequently ripped out the pavement. This would have been deemed normal prudence in the ancient world.

Failure to reciprocate meant the grace had been spurned. In the ancient world, if a gift is given, some sort of return gift must be given. If not, it sends a social signal that the initial gift has been rejected (Bates, 144-146).