Sunday, February 19, 2012

TSWOTB: Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, Part IV

The Sermon on the Mount: The Beatitudes and Interpersonal Conflict 

Matthew 5
1 And seeing the multitudes, he went up into the mountain: and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him 2 and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying 3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven 4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted 5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth 6 Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled 7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy 8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God 9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God 10 Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven 11 Blessed are ye when [men] shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake 12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you
Matthew 5 begins the longest recorded sermon that Jesus gave, called the Sermon on the Mount. The first 12 verses of this speech are called the Beatitudes, whose Latin root word beati comes from the Greek, (μακάριος, makarioi). The meaning of this word is recognized by many scholars as analogous to saying "how honorable is...." (See Jerome Neyrey's article, "Honoring the Dishonored: The Cultural Edge of Jesus' Beatitudes.). These conferments of honor stand in contrast to the "woes" (which can be read as "how shameful...") given by Jesus to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:13-21, here illustrated by Malina and Rohrbaugh:

Honor Attributions (Blessed are....) Shame Attributions (Woe unto you...)
Positive Negative
Addressed to disciples Addressed to opponents
Opens public career of Jesus Closes public career of Jesus
"theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (vs. 3, 10) "you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven" (v. 13)
"hunger and thirst for righteousness: (v. 6) "on the outside look righteous" (v. 28)
"merciful....mercy" (v. 7) "neglected....mercy" (v. 23)
"pure in heart" (v. 8a) impure (v.27)
"children of God" (v.9) son of Gehenna (v. 15)
"in the same way they persecuted the prophets" (v. 12) "descendants of those who murdered the prophets" (v.31)

With this in mind, the Beatitudes are grants of acquired honor by God to those that are, among other things, "poor in spirit". According to Neyrey, the poor (πτωχός, ptochos) mentioned here are more than just monetarily destitute - they are people bereft of any and all social support. In other words, no family. While childless widows can be considered a ptochos, the group of people Jesus is "blessing" are those who have been ostracized by their community. These are the people that can't defend their honor and are reviled and shunned. For what reason? The answer is in the climax of the Beatitudes:

Matthew 5
8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God 9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God 10 Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven 11 Blessed are ye when [men] shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake 12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you
Members of society, such as followers of Christ, who are regarded as shameful and deviant often undergo excommunication and ostracism in an effort to be shamed back into the fold. Jesus isn't telling his disciples to ignore honor, however He is telling them to hold fast to the only opinion that truly matters - God. To that end, Jesus promises to honor and vindicate those that hold fast to His teachings. Furthermore, Jesus attempts to render the opinion of hostile society moot by saying that they are descendents of the murderers of the Old Testament prophets. In other words, opponents of the Christian movement have abysmal ascribed honor inherited by blood-stained blasphemers, ergo their opinions on what constitutes honorable actions are irrelevant.

Matthew 5
13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men 14 Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid 15 Neither do [men] light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house 16 Even so let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven 17 Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfill 18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished 19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven 20 For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed [the righteousness] of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven
Jesus is exhorting His disciples to do good works which will shine (that is, become obvious) to the outside world. By doing so, God will be honored ("glorified") and so will you.

Matthew 5
21 Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment 22 but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire 23 If therefore thou art offering thy gift at the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee 24 leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift 25 Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art with him in the way; lest haply the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison 26 Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou have paid the last farthing 27 Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery 28 but I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart 29 And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell 30 And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell 31 It was said also, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement 32 but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery 33 Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths 34 but I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God 35 nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King 36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black 37 But let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil [one] 38 Ye have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth 39 but I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also 40 And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also 41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him twain 42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away 43 Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy 44 but I say unto you, Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you 45 that ye may be sons of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust 46 For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same 47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more [than others]? do not even the Gentiles the same 48 Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect
In agonsitic societies where honor and shame are core values, an affront to one's honor requires seeking satisfaction - that is, attempting to restore the honor lost by taking revenge on the offending party. Seeking satisfaction can lead the other party to do the same, and so on, leading to blood feuds which in turn lead to violence and disunity in the community. Jesus here stands against this "eye for an eye" mentality when it comes to interpersonal conflicts. Instead of seeking vengeance, Jesus wants His followers to "turn the other cheek" and not respond in kind. However, this isn't a call to be passive door-mats. There are two things to consider here:

  1. In honor-shame societies, if a person who is regarded as honorable is shamed unjustly, it is the social obligation for an outsider to defend him. Jesus is telling His disciples not to defend their honor by seeking satisfaction; but the implication is to let someone else defend it for them. This, of course, ties in with being a "light of the world" - a disciple of Jesus should have an established history of doing good deeds so that society will recognize their honorable character in the first place.
  2. By saying to lend your cloak in addition by the coat demanded by somebody and also to go two miles instead of one (a demand given by Roman soldiers to peasants to carry their armour and supplies for them), in effect Jesus is saying to shame your challenger by overdoing it.

We'll continue this series next time.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

TSWOTB - Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, Part III

The Temptation of Christ and the Inauguration of His Ministry

Matthew 4
1 Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. 2 And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he afterward hungered. 3 And the tempter came and said unto him, If thou art the Son of God, command that these stones become bread. 4 But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. 5 Then the devil taketh him into the holy city; and he set him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and saith unto him, If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and, On their hands they shall bear thee up, Lest haply thou dash thy foot against a stone. 7 Jesus said unto him, Again it is written, Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God. 8 Again, the devil taketh him unto an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; 9 and he said unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. 10 Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. 11 Then the devil leaveth him; and behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
Now here's one heck of an example of challenge and response! Previously, Matthew has been building up Jesus' ascribed honor as divine before climaxing with Yahweh's affirmation of it after His baptism. Such a ludicrously high honor, however, could not and did not remain uncontested in the first century. The first recorded instance of a challenge to Jesus' honor comes from none other than Satan himself. As a preliminary note, many translations say that Jesus was "tempted". This isn't the best translation of the Greek word here (πειράζω, peirazō) which means to test, scrutinize, or put on trial. What's being scrutinized or tested here is Jesus' honor.

Notice the way in which the Devil explicitly undermines the ascribed honor of Jesus: "If you really are the Son of God...." As I've mentioned several times before, a favorite tactic of a challenger in the social game of riposte is to call the lineage of the recipient into question. In this case, the Devil sarcastically questions Jesus' divine honor that has been established just a few verses before.

Now, here's an important point to keep in mind - if Jesus responded in His own words and under His own authority, He would have lost this honor challenge miserably and before a supernatural audience. In the Biblical world, your honor comes from your father, and any honorable son knows this. To try to rise above your father or to blaze your own trail would have brought shame not only upon yourself, but on your father and your entire family. Therefore, notice how Jesus responds. Jesus replies by quoting His Daddy.

"It is written..."

Yes, it is written and the words recorded come from the Father as told in Jewish Scriptures, specifically Deuteronomy 8:3 -

Deuteronomy 8:3
And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by everything that proceedeth out of the mouth of Jehovah doth man live.
The Devil persists, and Jesus fires back Deuteronomy 6:16. Finally, the Devil demands that Jesus prostrate Himself before him (remember that such a bodily posture acknowledges a very great honor rating differential between two people), and Jesus defiantly quotes Deuteronomy 10:20. The honor challenge is thereby concluded. Jesus successfully defended His (and His Father's) status and the Devil is made to look like a first-rate shameful moron, forced to retreat with his tail between his legs. Admittedly, it should be remembered that an audience is required for a person to gain in standing (remember that the definition of honor is a claim of worth that is socially acknowledged). In this story, Jesus was alone. Yes, Jesus most definitely retained His honor before a supernatural audience in attendance; but the Matthew's implication is that the reader upon reading this story will tacitly be the audience needed for Jesus to praised on a human level.

Matthew 4
12 Now when he heard that John was delivered up, he withdrew into Galilee; 13 and leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali: 14 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, 15 The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, Toward the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16 The people that sat in darkness Saw a great light, And to them that sat in the region and shadow of death, To them did light spring up. 17 From that time began Jesus to preach, and to say, Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. 18 And walking by the sea of Galilee, he saw two brethren, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishers. 19 And he saith unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you fishers of men. 20 And they straightway left the nets, and followed him. 21 And going on from thence he saw two other brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. 22 And they straightway left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Once more, Matthew argues that Jesus' ministry is a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, meaning that Jesus is God-ordained and honorable.

An interesting thing to note about this passage that is often overlooked is that Jesus was almost certainly a student of John the Baptist. Notice that Jesus only struck out on His own after John's arrest, and even after that, Jesus begins His ministry by repeating John's message: "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." In any case, this is also an example of the ancients' perception of limited good. Honor, like all other goods tangible and intangible, was thought to be in finite supply. Therefore, if one person gained in honor, it had to mean that someone lost some of theirs. As it relates to this story, John the Baptist's role as teacher has ended and Jesus has taken up the mantle. This means that John's honor must decrease in order for Jesus' to increase, a fact that John explicitly notes here:

John 3:29
The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.
Lastly, it's of note that when Jesus calls His disciples, they immediately respond. This shows Christ's authority as a teacher, and authority, as Bruce Malina tells us, is one of the key components of one's honor.

Matthew 4
23 And Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people. 24 And the report of him went forth into all Syria: and they brought unto him all that were sick, holden with divers diseases and torments, possessed with demons, and epileptic, and palsied; and he healed them. 25 And there followed him great multitudes from Galilee and Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judaea and from beyond the Jordan.
The chapter ends with Jesus starting His teaching and healing ministry, both of which would increase Jesus' acquired honor rating. Jesus' reputation begins to grow and spread, and the ever-present mark of the Father's approval is the supernatural healings and exorcisms. Jesus' following as a teacher is apparently multitudinous therefore, as Matthew would like the reader to understand, Jesus should be given the high honors due to a great teacher.

So in summary, we've seen the following:
  1. Jesus ascribed honor is first contested by the Devil, in the first recorded example of Jesus engaging in challenge and response. Jesus wins by quoting His Father from whom His honor comes.
  2. Matthew again emphasizes the fact that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies.
  3. Jesus demonstrates his honor as a great teacher by his huge following
  4. The Patron-God of Israel is shown to approve of Jesus' audacious claims by the miraculous healings performed by Him.

  • Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: FORTRESS PRESS, 2003).
  • Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
  • Richard Rohrbaugh, Honor and Shame: Core Values in the Biblical World. NOTE: This is a DVD recording of a lecture given by Dr. Rohrbaugh, previously acquired by the Biblical Archaeological Society; but has since been removed from the store.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

TSWOTB - Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, Part II

 King Herod, the Magi, and the early childhood of Jesus

Matthew 2
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 2 Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 3 And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ should be born. 5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written through the prophet, 6 And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah, Art in no wise least among the princes of Judah: For out of thee shall come forth a governor, Who shall be shepherd of my people Israel. 7 Then Herod privily called the Wise-men, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and worship him. 9 And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 10 And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshipped him; and opening their treasures they offered unto him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Last time we talked about how the cosmic wonder in the sky during Jesus' birth was indicative of the birth of a great person in ancient thought. Matthew continues to show Jesus in a positive light by emphasizing that Jesus' birth is a fulfillment of Jewish Scriptures, specifically the prophecies of Isaiah.

Jesus' main adversary at this point is King Herod, who fears for his political safety because the star in the heavens signifies political calamity. In this story, Herod is shown in a shameful light for he hatched a plan in secret with the Wise-men of the East. In the culture at the time, honorable men did their dealings in public for all to see. Those who sought privacy were thought to be busy in shameful practices - just as Herod spoke privately with the Magi. The Magi, however, are shown to be honorable men who refused Herod's disingenuous request (vs. 12). Furthermore, God Himself granted them a vision, thus their actions are blessed by the Patron-God of Israel. Notice, therefore, what these honorable and divinely-directed men do --- they bring gifts to Jesus and prostrate themselves before Him. Bringing gifts to someone confers honor to an individual and prostrating yourself meant that you acknowledge a huge gap between the honor rating of yourself and the recipient. If the honor difference isn't so great, you might bow or kiss a person on the cheek. However, the Magi fall on their faces. Matthew's implication is clear in saying that Jesus is a very honorable and significant individual whose social worth is affirmed by others.

Matthew 2

13 Now when they were departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I tell thee: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. 14 And he arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt; 15 and was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt did I call my son. 16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the Wise-men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the male children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had exactly learned of the Wise-men. 17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, 18 A voice was heard in Ramah, Weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; And she would not be comforted, because they are not. 19 But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, 20 Arise and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead that sought the young childs life. 21 And he arose and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither; and being warned of God in a dream, he withdrew into the parts of Galilee, 23 and came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, that he should be called a Nazarene.
Again, Matthew emphasizes that Jesus' birth was foretold in Scripture.

Matthew 3

1 And in those days cometh John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, saying, 2 Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. 3 For this is he that was spoken of through Isaiah the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight. 4 Now John himself had his raiment of camels hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then went out unto him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about the Jordan; 6 and they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said unto them, Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance: 9 and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. 10 And even now the axe lieth at the root of the trees: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 11 I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire: 12 whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.
Here we come to our first instance of challenge and response in the Gospels. The Pharisees and Sadducees, who will be quite the thorn in Jesus' side during His ministry, come to John the Baptist and John immediately calls their lineage into question. Remember how ascribed honor came primarily from your father. By saying that the Ps&Ss are, as Rohrbaugh puts it, "snake bastards", the honor rating (and therefore the importance of their opinion) is shaken. John also implies that their actions have offended God's honor and that He will soon seek satisfaction for it (vs. 10 - remember that "seeking satisfaction" was the term used to describe the actions of a dishonored person trying to vindicate himself). On the other hand, John builds up the honor of Jesus by his extravagant claims in vs.11.

Matthew 3

13 Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. 14 But John would have hindered him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? 15 But Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffereth him. 16 And Jesus when he was baptized, went up straightway from the water: and lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him; 17 and lo, a voice out of the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Here we have a fascinating example of God affirming the outrageous honor rating that Matthew would like the reader to confer to Jesus. After being baptised by John, the spirit of God descends and a voice from heaven (a Jewish way of saying a voice from God) acknowledges Jesus as His very own son and one who pleases Him greatly. With Yahweh's blessing, the reader can believe that Jesus' ascribed honor is indeed divine and therefore supremely high.

In summary, we've seen the following:
  1. Matthew emphasizes that Jesus' birth has been foretold in Scripture, therefore Jesus can be seen as significant.
  2. Jesus' adversaries are seen as shameful, therefore their opinions of Him are worthless.
  3. Honorable individuals (the Magi) recognize Jesus' high social worth. The implication is that the reader should as well.
  4. God affirms Jesus' divine parentage, therefore Jesus ascribed honor rating is as high as Yahweh Himself.

  • Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: FORTRESS PRESS, 2003).

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien Discuss Myths and Christianity

“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic 'progress' leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.” 

--- JRR Tolkien

TSWOTB - Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, Part I

The Birth of Jesus

Now that we've finally finished learning about the basics of honor and shame, we can start applying those concepts into interpreting passages of Scripture. Ideally, I'd like to cover the entire Bible; but this new series has the short-term goal of studying the four Gospels, beginning with Matthew. Unless otherwise stated, most of these insights comes from the magnificent scholarly book Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. So let's begin contextualizing!

Matthew 1
1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judah and his brethren; 3 and Judah begat Perez and Zerah of Tamar; and Perez begat Hezron; and Hezron begat Ram; 4 and Ram begat Amminadab; and Amminadab begat Nahshon; and Nahshon begat Salmon; 5 and Salmon begat Boaz of Rahab; and Boaz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; 6 and Jesse begat David the king. And David begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Uriah; 7 and Solomon begat Rehoboam; and Rehoboam begat Abijah; and Abijah begat Asa; 8 and Asa begat Jehoshaphat; and Jehoshaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Uzziah; 9 and Uzziah begat Jotham; and Jotham begat Ahaz; and Ahaz begat Hezekiah; 10 and Hezekiah begat Manasseh; and Manasseh begat Amon; and Amon begat Josiah; 11 and Josiah begat Jechoniah and his brethren, at the time of the carrying away to Babylon. 12 And after the carrying away to Babylon, Jechoniah begat Shealtiel; and Shealtiel begat Zerubbabel; 13 and Zerubbabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor; 14 and Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; 15 and Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob; 16 and Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. 17 So all the generations from Abraham unto David are fourteen generations; and from David unto the carrying away to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon unto the Christ fourteen generations.

The entire Christian movement was quite the oddball in the Biblical world for reasons too many mention here. However, one of the hardest pills for the first hearers of the Gospel to swallow was that of following a son of a carpenter from the middle-of-nowhere (and therefore, unimportant) town of Nazareth in Galilee who claimed to be God. If you remember from earlier, your primary honor rating came from your lineage and the town you were born in, therefore it was absurd to believe a Nazarene carpenter could be hailed as divine! Therefore, Matthew's first task whilst penning his Gospel was to help bolster the reader's perception of Jesus' ascribed honor by recounting His genealogy.

Genealogies in the ancient world weren't meant to be historical accounts, although they necessarily are. When somebody recounts a genealogy, the intended purpose is to give the pedigree of the person's ascribed honor. In other words, a person retelling his lineage is in effect saying, "My father was so-and-so of a particular social worth, and his father was the son of a person of the same kind of social worth, therefore you should treat me in the same manner." In the same way, Matthew's elucidation of Jesus' genealogy was intended to say many things about Jesus while not mentioning them explicitly:

  1. By being a descendant of Abraham, Jesus is a true Israelite, therefore you should respect him as part of your national in-group - a member of God's chosen people.
  2. By being a descendant of King David, Jesus can be accounted among the highest honorable caste of royalty.
  3. The number fourteen is prevalent in Jesus' genealogy (vs. 17), and this number means double perfection (the number 7) and represents the name of David.

While genealogies are often skimmed or skipped altogether by modern Western readers due to their perceived boring nature or tediousness, Matthew just made the pill of regarding Jesus as very honorable much easier to swallow for the original audience.

Matthew 1

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. 20 But when he thought on these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 And she shall bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name JESUS; for it is he that shall save his people from their sins. 22 Now all this is come to pass, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, 23 Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, And they shall call his name Immanuel; which is, being interpreted, God with us. 24 And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took unto him his wife; 25 and knew her not till she had brought forth a son: and he called his name JESUS.
Malina and Rohrbaugh tell us that in the mindset of the people in the ancient world, the birth of a great person is always thought to be heralded by great events. In the case of Jesus, His birth was marked by a cosmic meteor that moved from east to west which, according to Pliny the Elder, signifies political calamity. "See!" you can almost hear Matthew say, "it's not so hard to believe that Jesus is significant. His birth was marked in the heavens with an ominous star! Surely this means that Jesus is of high honor indeed."

Furthermore, the ascribed honor rating given to Jesus by His earthly parents is emphasized. Joseph, His father, is noted to be righteous and Mary, His mother, is told to be a virgin which meant that she kept her womanly honor of chastity. More significantly, Jesus is seen to have divine ascribed honor for it was none other than the Holy Spirit that brought about Jesus' conception -- a conception foretold in Holy Scripture from the great prophet, Isaiah! And the cherry on top of all of this is that Jesus shall have the power to forgive sins, which is an ability only possessed by Yahweh.

In summary of this account of Jesus' wonderful birth, Matthew helps explain why the son of a nobody from a nowhere town can be hailed as supremely honorable:

  1. Jesus is a descendant of Abraham (therefore, a member of God's chosen people) and King David (therefore possessing royal honors)
  2. Jesus birth is marked my magnificent and ominous cosmic events, therefore Jesus is a significant person.
  3. Jesus has divine ascribed honor for He is conceived of the Holy Spirit
  4. Jesus has high earthly ascribed honor for His parents were themselves honorable (Joseph is righteous and Mary came into union with him as a virgin)
  5. Jesus' birth was prophesied in Scripture by a great prophet of Israel, therefore His significance is cemented.
  6. Jesus is further seen to be of divine origin for He has been given the power to forgive sins

We'll continue looking for instances of honor and shame in the Gospel of Matthew in our next entry.

  • Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: FORTRESS PRESS, 2003).

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Native's Experiences Living in a Honor-Shame Culture

Lest you think that honor and shame is a relic of a bygone era, fellow TheologyWeb member, Andius, here recounts some examples of living in a honor-shame infused culture within Guatemala. Special thanks goes out to Andius for these anecdotes...


OKAY!! On to the honor shame dynamics that are still alive and well in my home. At the moment, I am not gonna stick to a certain structure, since after all, these be anecdotes.

Throughout Latinamerica's existence, the 15th to 19th Century constituted the prime years where honor was a highly valued good. This article is a wonderful article that can serve as reference:

With that article in mind, it will give you a better idea of how the particularities of Spanish honor (and quite closely, Portuguese honor) still survive to this day, although with each passing decade, and with each passing generation, honor is more and more disposed of, and innocence and guilt are highly embraced, emulating North America more and more. ^^ Nonetheless, here are my anecdotes of what little value for honor is still left for a city dweller like me.

The honor is still highly embedded in one's "masculinity" (macho) and "feminity" (mujer) The stereotype of how a true man should behave and look like is still alive and well. Despite the fact that in professional and academic circles, such notions have been publicly abandoned (publicly being the key word), the concept of Latin manhood and womanhood still permeate the psyche of many (not all though). Still amongst some traditionalists, a man is not a man if he allows his woman to be "under control" (home duties such as cleaning the house, cooking the meals, and bearing and raising the kids). The stigma of a man who has a cheating wife is no longer prevalent (save for the die-hard conservatives), but you are still a disgustus individual if you are a fornicator, don't matter if your a man or woman. However, women get the short end of the stick on this one, since a cheating man can get away far more easily than a woman (we men being unable to be pregnant and all), and in some villages and social circles, a man that can bed many women is seen as a bona fide "macho". Surrounding yourself with pretty women publicly can be a show of "power" amongst some circles (It's never going to impress Churchly circles, gaining condemnation instead). Regrettably, this notion has spawned our particular form of male chauvinism (machismo), which our women are relegated to lower incomes, reduced to nothing more than baby spawners and children raisers. And of course... they find out that your a homosexual, then it's a huge stigmafest of shame what away.

Oh yeah, the other matter that attaches to honor here is also your racial identity. Were I to borrow Hook's term, it's an example of ascribed honor. Historically, this was the order of racial importance, highly akin to the peoples of India;

1. Criollo, Pure unmixed descendant of Spaniards (Peninsular used to occupy the top spot, but after independence, their kind fused with the Criollos). They have inherent higher honors.

2. Mestizo/Ladino, mix of Amerindian and Spaniard, and sometimes African (the bulk of Latinamerican society, they were once originally THE most despised caste by criollo and indian alike, because they were literally bastards from both sides. By the 18th century, said stigma/shame was slowly lifted and eventually gone, to the point that by the end of the 19th Century, they became dominant majority, constituting the iconic "latino" that the rest of the world sees.). They have good honors, but only if you don't look too much or act like an indio. Yours truly hails from a family of Ladinos.

3. Negro, African descendant (the descendant of the few slaves that came here. Despite being slaves, they received loads of luxuries and were treated extremely well). They have neutral honors.

4. Indio, descendant of Amerindians, or a Mestizo family that still looks "Indian" or acts like one. (They are basically the spit and scum of my society. They "embody" backwardness and stupidity. Calling someone "indio" here is a derogative term). They have an inherent ascribed shame.

Now to tell you an anecdote or two regarding me, and how I personally interact with the honor/shame dynamics in here.

- Because of my status as a ladino (particular guatemalan term, the rest of Latinamerica uses the term Mestizo), I can access and interact with social circles of higher standings (and even more so, since I come from a somewhat wealthy family), I don't have to deal with me being discriminated (wether it's job applications, or payed services). Basically, people are quick to respond to me. I don't have to deal with the crap "Indios" have to deal with (racial discrimination is still pretty strong here). My racial ladino heritage automatically grants me some honor, and even more so since I still look predominantly "European/Mediterranean" (although some Americans I know tend to focus more on my Amerindian traits, especially my bronzed skin, you can take a look for yourself in my Facebook profile if you wish. ), and my family does not behave or dress like an Amerindian (many of them still cling strongly to their Maya heritages) making me in a way, racially closer to Criollos, and I am viewed as "civilized" and "modern" (this is, in a way, MY acquired honor).

- When I went job hunting with my female cousin, I was in effect, safeguarding her. Because my cousin is a very well endowed and attractive girl, she tends to attract perverse eyes and attention, an attention she herself hates (especially when coming from unattractive men or men of lower social status, ergo, indios). The idea of attracting men of lower status disgusts her. It disgusted her so much, that she refused to leave my side and be on her own (not to mention she was very shy about job hunting, since this is her first job appliance experience, so I walked her through a bit). Kin men accompanying their kin women, although no longer viewed as necessary (since Latina women, despite usually seen as "lesser", are becoming more and more independent from "male dependancy", slowly breaking the chains of male chauvinism and male dependancy), it is viewed as an honorable thing to do, of which I earned the gratitude of my aunt and parents.

To contrast the honor shame dynamic, guilt and innocence is a highly integrated into latin psyche, if not eve more so than honor. Here's an anecdote.

- We have an expression here; "Que pena" or "Que pena me da" that can be roughly translated to "How shameful and/or guilty / embarrassing, burden full" and "This makes me feel bad". Said expression can actually be used to express both guilt, shame, and even both in simultaneously! It is used a lot because of it's numerous layers of meanings. Examples;

* When I am in the mall with a date, I tastefully tease my date how lovely she would look in a bikini that is on display, and she also tease-fully replies with a smile and hands in her cheeks "¡Aaayy nooo que pena!" (Nooo wayyy, how embarrassing!).
* When a friend and I are 25 minutes late for a class (and all too common occurrence amongst latinos ), He mutters to me "¡Uuyy, que pena! entraremos tarde" (ggaaah, how shameful! we will be late).
* When I have told a friend of mine during his birthday "¡Que me pena me da que no te di un regalo!" (I feel so bad/guilty for not bringing you a present!), only to reaffirm me with a "don't worry". ^^

The lovely thing about the expression, is basically to express general distress, wether publicly, privately, or even both. There is even this song about Pena!:

The song talks what a "pena" it is to tell one's former lover, that they will have to hurt their heart, negate their cries for love, their affection, and how it is best if they forget about each other, and hope that God will grant them their much needed longing for happiness. Guilt and pain is the way "pena" is used in this song. But it can also be translated to another English expressión; What a shame, which is also what "pena" transmits.

There may be more anecdotes to come, this is only but the tip of the iceberg my Lord. Here in the city, we are guilt-oriented with a sprinkle of honor and shame, but in the villages and towns.... aaah, THOSE are more 50/50 between guilt and shame, and were honor, along with innocence, hold strong sway in how one acts and thinks. Amongst gangs and cartels, THOSE are almost pure honor-shame (although what is honorable for them might repulse others in some ways, especially where killing others are involved), with guilt rarely creeping in their psyche (they are a clear cut example of how to "unlearn" the feeling of guilt, although for disgustus ends).

I'd love to answer any inquiries you may have. Hope this helps a bit.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Social World of the Bible - Honor and Shame, Part V

A Shameful Hodge-Podge of Cultural Values

This entry is going to be a little unfocused. I quickly want to get into investigating specific instances of honor and shame within the New Testament and how keeping such a cultural paradigm in mind will color our interpretation of scriptural passages; but we first have to finish talking about a few related but seemingly random things beforehand. This is partly because it's hard to talk about honor and shame without also going off on tangents and partly because this blog series is just me desperately trying to organize my thoughts for the first time into some kind of coherency. However, all of these topics are necessary for understanding the ancient world - and the majority of our world's current population. So with that in mind, let's begin.

Satisfaction: Regaining Lost Honor

If you remember from earlier, the main tactic a person utilized to gain honor was by engaging in the social game of challenge and response, otherwise known as riposte. The winner of this game of wit gained honor and prestige while the loser lost a bit of his own social standing and accrued shame. Furthermore, a person or his in-group can be shamed if an offense is given from someone outside; such as a man deflowering or lying with a woman he is not married to or murdering somebody. In either case, the shamed person or group can seek to restore some of their lost honor or simply to avoid losing their social prestige altogether by seeking what's called satisfaction. Bruce Malina explains, "To bring things back to normal, what is required is a response, a sort of pushing challengers to their own side of the line, along with a fence-mending operation. This process of restoring the situation after the deprivation of honor is usually called satisfaction or gaining satisfaction. To allow one's honor to be impugned, hence taken, is to leave one's honor in a state of desecration - vitiated, profaned, debased - and this would leave a person socially dishonored and dishonorable. One the other hand, to attempt to restore one's honor, even if the attempt is unsuccessful, is to return one's honor to the state of the sacred, to resanctify and reconsecrate it, leaving one socially honored and honorable (hence making one a person of valor, of standing)."1 In other words, a person who wishes to be respected in such a society must try to regain the status of their good name, even if the attempt is futile. Therefore, for example, in an extreme case where somebody is murdered, another member of the affronted in-group will require blood for blood and seek to kill the offender. However, satisfaction is only desired if the offender is of the same social class. In other words, if a member of one of one of the higher classes insults or affronts a member of a lower class, the person of the lower class must "grin and bear it". A person of higher status, however, can seek satisfaction for perceived slights by a member of a lower class; but not visa versa. Such is the way of life.

The Perception of Limited Good

A crucial point to understand is that the ancient world viewed any and all resources as finite. This makes sense for somebody that lived in a time and place where finding food and drinkable water was a constant struggle and desirable land was contested by all kinds of peoples and tribes. This belief in the finitude of resources is commonly coined by anthropologists as a "perception of limited good". But it's not just food or land or any other natural resource that was believed to be finite or a limited good - but practically everything, including intangible or abstract goods. Malina tells us that "extensive areas of behavior are patterned in such a way as to suggest to one and all that in society as well as in nature - the total environment - all the desired things in life, such as land, wealth, prestige, blood, health, semen, friendship and love, manliness, honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety - literally all goods in life - exist in finite, limited quantity and are always in short supply."2 A perception of limited good, therefore, helps explain why instances of challenge and response are seen as a zero-sum game wherein they always result in one gaining honor while another loses it. Jerome Neyrey, a retired New Testament Studies professor of Notre Dame, elucidates further that "... in the perception of the ancients, honor, like all other goods, existed in quite limited supply. There was only so much gold, so much strength, so much honor available. When someone achieved honor, it was thought to be at the expense of others. Philo, for example, condemns polytheism, because in honoring others as deities, the honor due to the true God is diminished: "God's honour is set at naught by those who deify mortals" (Ebr. 110; see Josephus, Ant. 4.32; War 1.559). When John's disciples lament to their master that Jesus is gaining more disciples and honor, they understand that Jesus' gain must be John's loss. John confirms this, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). Thus claims to honor by someone will tend to be perceived as threats to the honor of others, and thus needs to be challenged, not acknowledged. In fact, two gospels state that it was out of envy that Jesus' enemies have handed him over (Mark 15:10//Matt 27:18; see John 11:47-48)." 3

Honor as Symboled in the Human Body

All of the nuances of honor and shame and other cultural values of the biblical world was symboled (that is, abstractly represented) within or upon the human body. Neyrey and other anthropologists describe the human body as a "microcosm of the social body."4 Different body parts and postures and even the clothes that cover them all are socially significant and represent in some way a value of that ancient society. Malina says, " this social road map is most often condensed and expressed in somewhat compact symbolic form in one's physical person. What I that your physical person, your body, works as a sort of personalized road map of the social values of your society."5

Specific body parts represent different cultural abstractions and have differing honor values embodied in them. Neyrey says that, "the head and face are particular loci of personal honor and respect. A head is honored when crowned or anointed. Servants and courtiers honor a monarch by avoiding looking them in the face, that is, by the deep oriental bow. Comparably, to slap someone on the mouth, spit in their face, box their ears or strike their heads shames this member and so gives "affront" (Matt 26:67; Luke 22:63-64; Mark 15:17-20)." While the head and face are the highest symbols of a person's honor, a person's shame resides in the shameful body parts - namely, the buttocks and genitals. Therefore to be stripped or to otherwise show yourself naked is to shame yourself.

One's honor status can also be displayed in the clothing covering the body. Says Neyrey, "Clothing, moreover, symbolizes honor: "Men are the glory of God and their clothes are the glory of men" (Derek Eretz Zuta). Elites signal their status by their clothing and adornment (Luke 7:25; see m. Yoma 7.5). Purple clothing was a particular mark of honor, worn by kings (Judg 8:26), priests (Exod 28:4-6; 39:1, 28-29; 1 Macc 10:20; 11:58), and nobles at court (Ezek 23:6; Esth 8:6; Dan 5:7; see Reinhold: 7-21, 48-61). Uniforms signal rank or office. Philo provides a striking example of the way clothing replicates honor in his description of Pharaoh's investiture of Joseph with symbols of status: ". . .royal seat, sacred robe, golden necklace, setting him on his second chariot, bade him go the round of the city with a crier walking in front who proclaimed the appointment" (Jos. 120)."

Lastly, the posture of a body can display some honorific gesture. Most notably, in the presence of a an extreme social superior such as a king or a manifestation of God Himself, an inferior will prostrate himself and show total respect to the honor rating of the recipient.6

With all this in mind, how does our interpretations of the stories of Jesus' crown of thorns, mocking purple robes, and crucifixion change? Was the original intent of these stories to emphasize the shame Jesus underwent through the affronts to His physical body, or the physical pain (as is often emphasized in the Western world and movies like The Passion of the Christ)? But I'm getting ahead of myself.

High-context vs. Low-context Societies

Despite the overwhelming amount of scholarship on the subject of honor and shame in Biblical and current cultures (there really is no use in denying its importance within the Bible), somebody might still ask why it isn't so explicitly obvious within the text? Are scholars just reading all this stuff into it? Both the skeptical and believing communities alike often scoff at some claims made by apologists or the scholarly community at large because they believe the arguments go beyond the text to an unjustified degree.

When you get right down to it, this question is demonstrative of simplistic thinking if it's meant to counter mainstream scholarship. For one thing, ideas don't translate very well across languages and a plain English reading of a text means very little if you ignore all the assumed cultural underpinnings (after all, words represent culturally accepted values, symbols, and ideas). And of course, this question isn't a systematic argument itself and does not address any of the points raised by anthropologists and sociologists. However, there's a more important point to make and that lies in making the distinction between high and low context societies.

The biblical world consisted of high-context societies. High-context societies assume that its members will import needed cultural meaning and context automatically without them needing to be explicitly mentioned. These societies can be contrasted with low-context societies such as our own, where we assume the opposite. When it comes to the Bible itself, John Pilch instructs us that "Being the high-context documents that they are, all the books of the Bible presume that readers will supply the appropriate cultural information necessary for a complete understanding of what the documents meant to their intended audiences. It is not that the writers made incomplete reports. Rather, the writer presumes that he and the readers share the same language, culture, and perspectives. Why belabor the obvious?"7


So there we have it. I've tried to lay out all the basic points of honor and shame that I can think of but I'm sure I've forgotten a few things or there simply wasn't a convenient way to mention them. Obviously, this series was never meant to be exhaustive anyway and I'm still a little wet behind the ears - independent research on your part is strongly encouraged. I think next time I'll begin taking all we've talked about and using it to interpret specific passages of Scripture.


  1. Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 39.
  2. Ibid., 89.
  3. Jerome Neyrey, Despising the Shame of the Cross: Honor and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative,
  4. Ibid.
  5. Bruce Malina, 38.
  6. Jerome Neyrey.
  7. John J. Pilch, Stephen: Paul and the Hellenist Israelites, (Collegeville, Minn.: Michael Glazier Books, 2008), xxi.

The Social World of the Bible - Honor and Shame, Part IV

Terms and Vocabulary for Honor and Shame

When a person reads the Bible, they can be clued in on some of the underlying subtext by the words used in a text. When looking for instances of honor and shame in the New Testament, a reader can (at least in part) sometimes recognize them by the following terms (this list is not exhaustive either in the terms or the examples of them):

Greek Words for "Honor"

  • Honor
    GREEK: τιμή, timē
    EXAMPLES: John 4:44, Romans 2:7, 2:10, 9:21, 12:10, 13:7, 1st Peter 1:7, 2:7, 2:17, 1st Corinthians 12:23-24
    NOTE: Most commonly used to refer to humans
  • Glory / Reputation
    GREEK: δόξα, doxa
    EXAMPLES: John 5:44, 7:18, 8:50, Revelation 4:10-11, 5:12-13, Romans 9:23, 11:36, 16:27, 1st Corinthians 2:8, 1st Thessalonians 2:6
    NOTE: Primarily, but not exclusively, used to refer to God
  • Praise
    GREEK: ἔπαινος, epainos
    EXAMPLES: Romans 2:29, 13:3, 1st Corinthians 4:5, 8:18, Ephesians 1:6, 1:12, 1:14, Philippians 1:11, 4:8, 1st Peter 1:7, 2:14
    NOTE: Another word for praise (αινος, ainos) is used exclusively for God (Matthew 21:16, Luke 18:43)

Greek Words for Seeking Honor
  • Boast / Boasting
    GREEK: καυχάομαι, kauchaomai
    EXAMPLES: Romans 2:17, 2:23, 5:3, 1st Corinthians 1:29, 1:31, 3:21, 2nd Corinthians 10:13, Galatians 6:14, Ephesians 2:9, Philippians 3:3

Greek Words for "Shame"
  • Shame
    GREEK: αἰσχρός, aischros and words with the αἰσχ- stem.
    EXAMPLES: Luke 9:26, 1st Corinthians 1:26, 11:4-6, Romans 1:16, 5:5, 6:21, 9:33, 10:11, Hebrews 12:2, Titus 1:11
  • Dishonor
    GREEK: ἀτιμία, atimia and words with the ἀτιμ- stem.
    EXAMPLES: Mark 12:4, John 8:49, 1st Corinthians 4:10, 11:14, 12:23, Romans 1:24, 1:26, 9:21
  • Reproach / Disgrace
    GREEK: ὄνειδος, oneidos
    EXAMPLES: Luke 1:25, Romans 15:3, 1st Timothy 3:7, Hebrews 10:33, 11:26, 13:3
  • Scorn
    GREEK: καταγελάω, katagelaō
    EXAMPLES: Matthew 9:24, Mark 5:40, Luke 6:21, 6:25, 8:53
  • Slander / Blaspheme
    GREEK: βλασφημέω, blasphēmeō
    EXAMPLES: Matthew 9:3, 27:39, Mark 3:28, Acts 13:45, 18:6, 19:37, Romans 2:24, 3:8, 1st Corinthians 4:13, 10:30, 1st Timothy 1:20, 6:1, Titus 2:5, James 2:7, 1st Peter 4:4, 2nd Peter 2:10, Jude 1:8

Let me reiterate that this list is far from exhaustive, neither in the list of terms nor the examples given for each. But this should start as an introduction and should remind everyone that honor and shame so ubiquitously permeate the Scriptures that, should we wish to study them, it would behoove us all to have the Bible in one hand and a solid social science interpretative book in the other.

  • Halvor Moxnes and Richard Rohrbaugh, ed., The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation, (Massachusetts: Baker Academic, 1996), 23-24..
  • David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2000), 27-28.
  • “Strong's Concordance and Lexicon,” Study Bible,

The Social World of the Bible - Honor and Shame, Part III

How honor was gained and lost, Part 2 of 2

Last time we started investigating just how a person of a collectivist society accrues honor and shame and today we'll pick up where we left off and also examine the role woman played in this social game.

To sum up where the last blog post ended, the main way a person added to his acquired honor was by engaging in an intense and entertaining technique known to anthropologists and sociologists as challenge and response (also known as riposte). There are a few things to understand about this game - 1) it can only take place among social equals, 2) it occurs in public, 3) it requires a perception of a challenge by the opposing party, 4) it requires that the observing audience realizes who won and lost in order for one party or the other to gain a new grant of honor, 5) only males can engage in it and, 6) if one of the parties loses their temper and gets violent, they lose. Furthermore, riposte isn't necessarily negative. Friends can also engage in this game by exchanging compliments or gifts (this topic will be explored in much greater detail when and if I ever get around to making a series on patronage).

Aside from riposte, there are a few other ways for a person to accrue honor or shame. To put it simply, if a person fulfills their given social role to an extent that the society approves of, then they are considered honorable. This social role can be broken down into three components: authority, respect, and gender status. Bruce Malina instructs us that "authority" refers to "the ability to control the behavior of others" and "It should not be confused with physical force.". Furthermore, respect means "the attitude one must have and the behavior one is expected to follow relative to those who control one's existence." Finally, gender status "refers to the set of obligations and entitlements - what you ought to do and what other ought to do to or for you - that derive from symbolic gender differentiation." In other words, if you are a male, do you adequately fulfill your manly social duties? If you are a female, do you display attitudes expected of woman?1

Let's take a closer look at the first category of "authority". Imagine that you are a father in ancient Judea and you have a few children (preferably males, you see). To be honored in your society and to be respected amongst other fathers within your social circle, your children must themselves act honorably. If you give an order to one of your sons and he disobeys, the son's rebellion would heap upon you shame and your "peers would ridicule [you], thereby acknowledging [your] lack of honor as a father."2 Think back to the story given by Jesus in the 21st chapter of Matthew:

"'What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' 'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?' 'The first,' they answered. Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.'" ---Matthew 21:28-31
Now, imagine that you had a friend who was a teacher who had a sizable following of disciples. However, one day your friend took his students into a public space and taught a controversial message. To your horror, his crowd of followers dispersed one by one, muttering under their breath how foolish his former teacher is. Presently, your friend is left all alone and bears the scorn and mockery of the other people who saw him disgraced. Your teaching friend was disgraced and shamed because he had no authority. Malina says, "disagreement means people do not acknowledge his teaching influence." A teacher with no teaching influence is no teacher at all and thus deserves no honor as one. In fact, the only thing he acquires is shame among his peers.3 Skeptics sometimes like to argue that the Bible is full of made up stories in order to push an agenda; but it's hard to imagine what positive agenda John had when he wrote about the following story:

Many of [Jesus'] disciples, when they heard it, said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, "Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that you betray him. And he said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father." After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." ---John 6:60-69

Furthermore, even the closest of Jesus' inner circle deserted him in the Garden of Gethsemane during his arrest and almost all were gone at the foot of the cross. Some teacher indeed!4 The fact that the Scriptures keep these incredibly embarrassing and shameful stories intact testifies to their veracity. They could have done nothing but harm to the movement.

Now let's move on to "respect". In short, a person's acquired honor rating was partially contingent on how well he honored those who were honorable, especially those of higher social status, such as wealthy patrons, the chief priests, and (above all) God. Malina explains that "it is up to upright citizens to defend the honor of their social superiors, and God is the most lofty of all social superiors." Therefore, for instance, if an honorable individual witnesses someone blaspheming God, it was their social duty to defend Him.5 Think back to the story of David and Goliath:

Early in the morning David left the flock in the care of a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other. David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and asked his brothers how they were. As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear.

...David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”...David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”

Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”

But David said to Saul, "... Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.” ---1st Samuel 17:1-37

David gained massive amounts of honor for defending the name of king, country, and supremely for God whom the Philistine blasphemed. Finally, we should note that Paul reminds us to render honor to whom honor is due in the congregation of the church.

The last element that we'll look at tonight is a person's fulfillment of their gender status. David deSilva elucidates in Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity that "In the ancient world, as in many traditional cultures today, woman and men have different arenas for the preservation and acquisition of honor, and different stands for honorable activity." The world of the Mediterranean was (and is) divided into two spheres - the male spaces, and the female spaces. Men, says deSilva, occupy the public space. They are the public face of their in-group whose honor they must defend and it is men who engage in riposte. Woman, on the other hand, play a very interesting role indeed. Somewhat paradoxically, a woman's honor was referred to as shame. Shame in this sense doesn't mean gaining shame but having such a finely-tuned sense of her honor that she had shame. I'm sure at one point or other, we have heard or ourselves have said, "How disgraceful! Doesn't this person have any shame?" By "shame" in this context, we really mean modesty - a virtue that a woman was expected to exhibit and was in fact her honor.

Woman occupy the private space, especially the interior of the home. "A woman," said Plutarch in his very politically incorrect Advice on Marriage, "should be seen when she is with her husband, but stay hidden at home when he is away." Plutarch and his contemporaries also believed that a woman should only be heard by her husband and should speak through her husband to others outside of the kinship in-group. Furthermore, a woman who has shame (read: modesty) knows her husband, and only her husband, sexually. A "loose woman" who enters the male arena, speaks to males she isn't married with, and lies with other men loses her group respect and, in fact, brings shame on the male she is "embedded" with.6

The last point we'll look at here is the concept of a woman being "embedded" into some male. Under this cultural paradigm, a female from birth until death is embedded into the honor rating of a male. This means that any action she takes, honorably or dishonorably, primarily reflects upon her male guardian - and only secondarily upon herself. While a virgin, a lady is embedded into her father. When she is married off, her father relinquishes all control of her and she becomes embedded into her new husband who then accepts the responsibility of protecting her sexual purity and social timidity.7

Much more can be said about this topic, but for now we'll wrap things up. Next time we'll look at the vocabulary used by the ancients when they speak about honor and shame and sometime in the future, we'll connect all of the concepts we looked at with the New Testament and explore the role that honor and shame played for the early Christian church and the role is still plays today.

  1. Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 29-30.
  2. Ibid., 30-31.
  3. Bruce J. Malina, Windows On the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 17.
  4. NOTE: Jesus is, however, vindicated by none other than Yahweh Himself when He was raised from the dead. Any apparent honor lost and shame gained were rendered null and void - in fact, Jesus' honor rating shot through the atmosphere and pierced the highest heavens!
  5. Ibid., 15.
  6. David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2000), 33-35.
  7. Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 33.

The Social World of the Bible - Honor and Shame, Part II

How honor was gained and lost, Part 1 of 2
So far we've taken a quick look on the most basic questions of honor and shame - what is it and why is it important? This time we'll investigate how one could gain or lose honor in their collectivistic society.

A person's honor rating can be subdivided into two basic categories: ascribed and acquired honor. According to Norwegian New Testament scholar, Halvor Moxnes, "ascribed honor is inherited from the family at birth. Each child takes on the general honor status that the family possesses in the eyes of the larger group, and therefore ascribed honor comes directly from family membership." This automatic grant of honor inherited at birth can not be added to or diminished, despite future actions of the person him or herself, unless the person gets adopted into a higher family. Acquired honor, on the other hand, "by its very nature...may be gained or lost in the perpetual struggle for public recognition.1,2 Let's take a closer look at these two categories.

Ascribed Honor

It makes sense that in a collectivist society (see previous blog entry), an individual of any given in-group should possess the same social standing of the whole. Individualism and a "Me, Myself, and I" mindset is completely foreign to such a person. Therefore, citizens of the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East, such as those found in the Bible, viewed the world through stereotypical lenses. For instance:

"Behold, everyone who uses proverbs will use this proverb about you: 'Like mother, like daughter.'" ---Ezekiel 16:44
"All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. ---Matthew 11:273
"No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD. ---Deuteronomy 23:2
"But you, draw near, sons of the sorceress, offspring of the adulterer and the loose woman. " ---Isaiah 57:3
"You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?" ---Matthew 23:33

It gets even more interesting with the following:

"One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, the Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies." ---Titus 1:12

This "prophet" that Paul referred to was none other than Epimenides, himself a Cretan!, when he said, "They fashioned a tomb for thee / O holy and high one / The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies! / But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever, / For in thee we live and move and have our being."4

The ancient world certainly wasn't politically correct, but they truly believed the blood of your family determined your worth. Bruce Malina says, "being born into an honorable family makes one honorable since the family is the repository of the honor of past illustrious ancestors and their accumulated acquired honor."5 Indeed, Ben Sira 3:11 attests to this when it says, "For the glory of a man is from the honour of his father; and a mother in dishonour is a reproach to the children."

With this in mind, if a person tried to discredit another, they often brought their enemy's lineage into question. Notice how Jesus called the Pharisees a "brood of vipers" (Richard Rohrbaugh says a more correct translation is "you snake bastards!" Not only were the Pharisees the offspring of hated serpents, they were illegitimate sons of hated serpents! 6)

In closing, Halvor Moxnes lists the following common elements of ascribed honor:

  1. The central unit of social organization is the family, and beyond that the lineage or clan. The consequences of this central position of the family are important. A person is never regarded as an isolated individual, buy always as part of a group, responsible for the honor of the group and also protected by it. Because honor always derives from the group, an individual's conduct also reflects back on the group and its honor.
  2. Since honor is linked to the family and depends heavily on the way it defends its honor status, the result is an exclusive loyalty toward the family. Thus honor values are exclusive and particularist and stand in sharp contrast to the universal and inclusive view of the West. Moreover, the history of the family becomes all-important.
  3. The family plays a central role in the agonistic character of honor societies. Family honor is on the line in the continual game of challenge and riposte, be it expressed in words, gestures, acts, or ultimately in feuds between families.
  4. Even if a family or a clan presents a common front toward outsiders, there may be conflicts and tensions within the group. There can be large differences between individual lineages in terms of wealth and status, hence some members of a family can become clients of other more honorable and wealthy ones. There can be fierce competitions between them for the kind of public honors and positions that can become hereditary within the lineage.7

Acquired Honor

"Acquired honor," according to Bruce Malina, "is the socially recognized claim to worth that a person acquires by excelling over others in the social interaction that we shall call challenge and response."8 Challenge and response is also called riposte, conjuring images of fencers delivering and parrying blows. This social game, which takes place almost always between people of different in-groups regardless of the apparent innocence of an encounter, occurs through antiquity to our present day in cultures that anthropologists term agonistic (from the Greek word for "contest")9

Riposte, says Malina, occurs in three phases. I shall demonstrate this by using a story from the Bible, found in the fourth chapter of Luke:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.  And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

  And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  And he began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, "Is not this Joseph's son?"

And he said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Physician, heal yourself.' What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well."   And he said, "Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.  But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.  And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian."

When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath.  And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.  But passing through their midst, he went away.

As a preliminary note, Jesus just did a very honorable thing by reciting from memory the scriptures of Isaiah. The crowd was astonished and was granting Jesus a new grant of honor (a pious Jew, after all, is an honorable Jew). But somebody had to drop a turd in the middle of it all, which brings us to the first phase of riposte.

The first phase is "the challenge in terms of some action (word, deed, or both) on the part of the challenger"10. In this case, a subset of the group tried to deny Jesus His duly acquired honor by bringing His lineage into question ("Is not this Joseph's son?"). This group thought Jesus was being uppity and trying to rise above the status of a carpenter's son by claiming honor due to an expounder of the Law and the Prophets.

The second phase is "the perception of the message by both the individual to whom it is directed and the public at large."10 This is important because one of the favorite techniques an agonistic challenger will try to use is to insult his opponent so subtlety that they don't even recognize they're being insulted --- and thereby lose the honor challenge. Jesus, however, picks up on this slight and retorts. And He doesn't simply repay insult for insult - Jesus ups the ante by firing back two salvos. Which brings us to the third phase of a riposte encounter - "the reaction of the receiving individual and the evaluation of the reaction on the part of the public."10

Jesus' response was to say that a prophet often isn't recognized by his own countrymen; but God still honors the prophet and blesses those that receive him, even if that person should be an outsider, such as the widow and the Syrian. In other words, Jesus blasted His opposition by saying God will still will work through Him and if Jews won't accept His status, so what? God will then give to an outsider that which should have been received by one of His' chosen people - a scathing remark to a group who believed in the holiness of their race as opposed to that of the Gentiles.11

By resorting to violence, Jesus' opposition loses this honor challenge (challenge and response is a game of wit. When brawn tries to substitute for a deficient wit, the one who throws the first punch loses).

This entry has gone a bit long so I'll cut if off for now. Next time we'll go a bit deeper into ascribed and acquired honor, including the roles woman play in this social game.

  1. Halvor Moxnes and Richard Rohrbaugh, ed., The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation, (Massachusetts: Baker Academic, 1996), 20.
  2. David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2000), 28.
  3. Bruce Malina notes that this verse amounts to "like father, like son". Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 32.
  4. Epimenides, Cretica.
  5. Bruce Malina, 32.
  6. Richard Rohrbaugh, Honor and Shame: Core Values in the Biblical World. NOTE: This is a DVD recording of a lecture given by Dr. Rohrbaugh, previously acquired by the Biblical Archaeological Society; but has since been removed from the store.
  7. Halvor Moxnes and Richard Rohrbaugh, 28.
  8. Bruce Malina, 33.
  9. David deSilva, 29.
  10. Bruce Malina, 33.
  11. These insights came from Richard Rohrbaugh's lecture, Honor and Shame: Core Values in the Biblical World.