In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Friendship, Kinship and Enmity

  • Introduction
  • Modern Theory
  • Encyclopedias and Handbooks
  • Major Primary Sources
  • Scholarly Sources
  • Friendship in Ancient Judaism

Biblical Studies Friendship, Kinship and Enmity
Zeba Crook
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0011


Friendship in any age is a difficult concept to pin down. What constitutes friendship? What is true friendship? What is the difference between friends and acquaintances? More complex even is the use of the language of friendship in relationships where feelings of friendship are absent. Friendship is a feeling, a rhetorical topos, and an institution with culture-specific rules. Friendship in the Greek and Roman periods (which include of course the biblical periods and cultures) is complex because of the highly stratified social structure of the ancient Mediterranean. Ancient writers struggled with the question of whether friendship could transcend social strata, and their feelings on the matter are a point of contention among modern scholars. By and large, there appears to be a consensus that while Aristotle, the earliest to theorize on friendship, thought that it could only occur between two people of equal social status, by the Hellenistic era friendship could happen between status unequals. That this is the case is suggested by the angst reflected in ancient writings concerning the ability to distinguish friends from flatterers (Plutarch in particular). Yet, it complicates considerably our ability to know whether ancient writers mean real affective friendship language when they use friendship language to describe relationships of dependence and patronage. What is more, friendship language becomes intertwined with kinship, especially in groups whose members feel closely united. There, the language of fictive kinship is used to denote a collection of people with presumably strong and positive feelings for one another. After all, friendship is a form of voluntary kinship—one generally chooses one’s friends, and there may be some people with whom one is friendly for nearly an entire lifetime, as with kin. And of course, friendship can be reflected or echoed in texts even where the precise language is not used. Finally, ancient writers also reveal an abiding concern with friendships that end in what we might call enmity. As we do, they recognized that friends can be fickle and that friendships can reach a breaking point.

Modern Theory

By and large, friendship is under-theorized in sociology and anthropology. Many works discuss and presuppose friendship, but it is less commonly a subject of study in and of itself. Suttles 1970 establishes the sociological interest in friendship, but it is Boissevain 1974 that introduces friendship as a social category worthy of study, and that unites an interest in friendship with network theory. Bell and Coleman 1999 and Howell and Stambaugh 2010 confirm that the influence of Boissevain continues to the present day. Allan 1979 importantly combines the study of friendship with the study of kinship and class. At a time when the trend was to see friendship in overly romantic hues, Wolf 1966 shows that friendship without symmetrical exchange quickly turns into patronage, which should not be confused with friendship. Eisenstadt and Roniger 1984 continues in the tradition set by Wolf, and both of these works are extremely influential on scholars of ancient Mediterranean social values.

  • Allan, Graham A. A Sociology of Friendship and Kinship. London: Allen & Unwin, 1979.

    Explores the interplay between friendship and kinship, especially as it relates to class and social structure.

  • Bell, Sandra, and Simon Coleman, eds. The Anthropology of Friendship. New York: Berg, 1999.

    A variety of theoretical and anthropological area studies on friendship, kinship, and networks.

  • Boissevain, Jeremy. Friends of Friends: Networks, Manipulators, and Coalitions. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974.

    The classic work introducing the theory of network and the benefit of networks analysis.

  • Eisenstadt, S. R., and L. Roniger. Patrons, Clients, and Friends: Interpersonal Relations and the Structure of Trust in Society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511557743

    A very influential work on modern Mediterranean culture. Explores in depth the interrelationship and subtle distinctions between patronage, clientage, and friendship.

  • Howell, Britteny M., and Melony L. Stambaugh. “Social Relationships.” In 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Edited by H. James Birx. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2010.

    An overview of modern scholarship on social support systems, including friendship and networks (7 August 2012).

  • Suttles, Gerald D. “Friendship as a Social Institution.” In Social Relationships. Edited by George J. McCall, Michal M. McCall, Norman K. Denzin, Gerald D. Suttles, and Suzanne B. Kurth, 95–135. Chicago: Aldine, 1970.

    An influential post-WWII sociology of friendship.

  • Wolf, Eric R. “Kinship, Friendship, and Patron–Client Relations in Complex Societies.” In The Social Anthropology of Complex Societies. Edited by M. Banton, 1–22. London: Tavistock, 1966.

    Stresses the importance of balanced reciprocity, for without it, friendships morph into relationships of patronage.

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