Wednesday, 3 July 2019

The Sociocultural Context of the New Testament (Part 2): Honor and Shame

Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son
The Bible grew out of an ancient Mediterranean cultural environment where the concept of honor vs. shame was embedded as a pivotal value, similar to many present-day eastern- and middle-eastern cultures.“Briefly, the honor/shame complex implies that the maintenance of honor—for one’s self, one’s family, and one’s larger groups—is absolutely vital to life. This entails reputation, status, and sexual identity. The vocabulary of honor and shame is extensive in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin” (K. C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus 4). Particularly in male-dominated societies with a strong collectivist framework, honor and shame are linked to wealth and power, public order and repute, where a person lives for the acclaim of his fellow humans. Indicative of the New Testament world, “the quest for honor and praise was one of the most important forces binding society together ...” (B. Witherington III, Paul Quest 45).

Honor and shame cultures place heavy emphasis on reciprocity. Each social interaction is viewed as an opportunity to increase honor and avoid shame. In the ancient Mediterranean world this included dinner invitations, gift-giving, and special favors. In fact, nearly “every public activity turned out to be some kind of competition for honor and praise” (B. Witherington III, Paul Quest 47).Concepts like unmerited favor (Gal. 6:1-2; Heb. 12:28), giving without expecting something in return (Luke 6:34-35), and a forgiving attitude (Matt. 6:14-15; Col. 3:13) were practically unheard of in secular society. The Lord’s so-called “golden rule (Matt. 7:12) stands in stark contrast to the popular ethic of reciprocity. 

W. Mischke suggests that because of the characteristic individualism of the modern Western world, the honor/shame motif of scripture is largely unrecognized and “represents a blind spot for Christians trained in the Western theological tradition” (“Honor-Status Reversal,” Orality Journal 4:1 [2015]: 11). Removing this blind spot, Minschke argues, enables interpreters to see “honor-status reversal” as a major theme throughout the Bible. “One’s honor-status can be high or low or in-between, ranging from the lowest honor-status of a leper or a slave—to the immensely powerful high honor-status of a mighty king,” the reversal of which turns one’s standing “the other way around” (ibid., 12-36).3

Calling upon readers to esteem others “in humility” (Phil. 2:3) runs counter to societal norms of the time. The general populace of the 1st-century Greco-Roman world did not regard humility as a virtue any more than most secular westerners do today.“The idea that ‘humility’ is a virtue was foreign to the pagan world; the word, in fact, always appeared in Greek literature with the unfavorable sense of ‘humiliation’” (P. E. Harrell, Philippians 92). Nevertheless, a Christ-like spirit looks beyond self to the interests of others (Mark 9:35; Rom. 12:10; 1 Cor. 10:24, 33; 1 Pet. 5:5-6; cp. Phil. 1:15).

The countercultural message of the New Testament is that humility and greater dependence on God are beneficial and should be utilized and esteemed. “Therefore I am well pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, and difficulties for Christ; for when I might be weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10, authors own translation). This strength-out-of-weakness paradox clashes with man’s infatuation with achievement, prosperity, status, notability, and power.

The New Testament consistently challenges society’s status quo and reconfigures the boundaries of honor and shame. All who might be dishonored because of ethnicity, gender, or social standing can now be unashamed in Christ, where no one is considered inferior to anyone else (1 Cor. 12:12-27; Gal. 3:26-29; Col. 3:9-11). In this regard New Testament writers are seen as deviants, radicals, and change agents, swimming against the current of popular culture (B. Witherington III, Paul Quest 46, 50). At the same time, the shame of dissociation was an integral component of church discipline to draw one back to faithfulness (2 Thess. 3:6-15).

Understanding the real world of the early Christians enables us to appreciate Christianity’s “cutting edge” (E. Ferguson,  Backgrounds of Early Christianity [3rd ed.] 4). It is “a kind of looking glass world where everything works on principles opposite to those of the world around us. To be blessed, be a blessing to others. To receive love, give love. To be honored, first be humble. To truly live, die to yourself. To gain the unseen, let go of the seen. To receive, first give. To save your life, lose it. To lead, be a servant. To be first, be last” (K. R. Krell, “Work Your Way Down the Ladder,” <Link>).5

--Kevin L. Moore

     B. J. Malina, The NT World xii, 27-57; see also B. J. Malina and J. H. Neyrey, “Honor and Shame in Luke-Acts,” in J. H. Neyrey, ed., The Social World of Luke-Acts 25-66.
     A guest to a dinner party might be expected to reciprocate with a reading, an oral recitation, or other entertainment (E. R. Richards, “Reading, Writing, and Manuscripts,” inThe World of the NT [eds. J. B. Green and L. M. McDonald] 349).
     Along with OT references, the following NT passages are submitted as examples: Matt. 5:3-11; Luke 1:51-53; 2:32-38; 9:48; 13:30; 15:11-32; Rom. 1:14-16; 1 Cor. 1:27-29; Eph. 2:1-7, 11-22; Phil. 2:5-11; Rev. 3:18, 21; 5:6-7; 6:11; 18:2; 21:22-26. Having heard Minschke’s oral presentations (Teachers of Missions Workshop [23 Feb. 2018], Hurst, TX), I get the impression that his passion for the subject may be driving him to discover honor/shame allusions in passages where it is less than apparent. He emphasizes the greater attention in scripture to the honor/shame motif above the more westernized concern for innocence/ guilt, although the latter is sufficiently addressed in biblical terms of forgiveness, justification, moral purity, et al. Guilt pertains to one’s actions, while shame concerns one’s worth. For a helpful discussion of this theme, see Jackson Wu, “Have Theologians No Sense of Shame?” Themelios 43:2 (Aug. 2018) 205-219.
     W. Grundmann, TDNT 8:11-12. The Greek noun tapeinophrosúnē (“humility”) occurs in the NT in Acts 2:19; Eph. 4:2; Phil. 2:3; Col. 2:18, 23; 3:12; 1 Pet. 3:8; 5:5. 
     The “looking glass world” reference alludes to Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking-Glass, where Alice steps through a mirror into a world where everything is backwards.

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