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The Influence of the Honor/Shame Culture in the New Testament Writings

Teaching the New Testament presents a challenge to the modern preacher. To accurately impart the message of the Bible, he must step into the world of the first century. Before applying the Biblical text to the modern day listener, he must initially seek to enter the world of the original audience. To understand the history of the text, the preacher must take into account many factors including knowledge of the language and culture as well as authorial intent. While the truth of God’s Word is eternal, the culture in which the author penned the Scripture is not. Fee summarizes the importance of this as he writes; “Good exegesis must be a combination of the historical and theological, without being predetermined by the hermeneutical question.”[1] Each preacher must work to find the full truth of each passage before yielding its proper application. This cannot be done without a clear understanding of the many historical aspects that influence the final text of the New Testament.

The importance of understanding the history of the New Testament is exemplified in the aspect of the honor and shame culture that existed in the time of its authorship. While every culture has some form of honor and shame, it was all-together defining in the period of the first century in the land of Palestine. Honor was viewed as a commodity. It was believed that a limited portion of honor could be bestowed within a culture and was, therefore, considered to be a true treasure.[2]

Shame was to be avoided at all costs. More than simply a feeling of embarrassment or disappointment, to be viewed in a shameful way was to be shunned and considered in many ways to be an outsider. The history and culture of the New Testament in regard to seeking honor and avoiding shame was much more than mere personal feelings. It was a matter of public thought and the esteem or condemnation given to a person by a group of significant people.

The history and culture of the first century is demonstrated in a number of New Testament passages. One example is found in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians. In the first chapter Paul writes, “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble” (1 Cor 1:26). In other words, most of the followers of Christ in the first century were regarded as shameful and empty of honor. Followers of The Way were not primarily those whom the culture held in high regard.[3]

He further states, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong” (1 For 1:27) Paul pronounces a stunning reversal and he does so within the contexts of the history and culture of his day. Those who are considered so honorable by society – yet reject the gospel – will actually be shamed by the very ones they consider to be shameful. The ones who are viewed as being weak – and therefore considered shameful – will be the same ones who will put to shame the ones the world considers to be strong – and therefore regarded as honorable.

Paul also incorporates this aspect of New Testament history in Philippians. For Paul, true honor is found in representing Jesus Christ while real shame is found in dishonoring the name of the Lord. Finding himself imprisoned, his opponents use his circumstances as a means to heap shame upon him (Phil 1:14). Yet, Paul feels that true honor will ultimately be his and shame will be avoided. This confidence is evident when he states, “according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil 1:20).

The influence of the honor/shame system continues to permeate Philippians as Paul seeks to encourage his fellow believers with three admonitions. First, Paul reminds the Christians that they are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20). In a culture in which honor could be granted based on place of birth or shame given due to ones hometown[4], Paul wants his readers to be reminded that they have the ultimate honor of possessing a heavenly citizenry.

Secondly, Paul upholds the standard of honor, yet redefines it. Shockingly, he regards humility as the pathway to honor. In doing so, the Apostle displays the history and culture of the day, yet does so in a redeemed fashion. He clearly believes that Jesus will be the One with the highest honor for all eternity as he declares that, “every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11). Jesus achieves this eternal glory because He “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). In the evaluation of the world, nothing could be more shameful than dying as a criminal on a tree.

Paul encourages his fellow believers to follow the example of Jesus. He implores them to “have this attitude in yourselves which was in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:5). Paul is not neglecting the reality of a culture that seeks honor, he simply redefines what true honor is and how it can be achieved. He teaches that the one who holds fast to the faith and follows the way of Jesus Christ, will be able to say as he did that “in the day of Christ, I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain" (Phil 2:16).

Finally, Paul exhorts believers to put their hope in the honor that will be theirs on the last day rather than seeking the glory that the world offers in the present day. Paul’s strategy is to get believers to focus on the eschatological hope that is available for every follower of Christ. He declares that those who have hoped in Christ will “transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory" (Phil 3:21). Conversely, those who have not hoped in the Lord, in the end, will be those “whose glory is in their shame” (Phil 3:19). The message is clear: seek the honor that the Lord will give to His children on the last day. This is the consistent preaching that comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul.[5]

Jesus Himself also gives many examples of how the history and culture of His day operated within the honor/shame paradigm. Chief among these examples is the parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11-32. As Jesus introduces the characters of the story the first century audience would have found the request of the younger son to be shameful. His behavior in taking his inheritance is implying: “Father, I cannot wait for you to die”.[6] The son’s decision to leave home and squander his inheritance among the Gentiles would have only increased the shame the crowd felt toward him.[7]

As the younger son returns home, the expectation of those listening to the story would have been that the father seeks retribution. Yet, his behavior becomes shameful as well. He runs, which no honorable man would have done as “Middle Eastern adults do not run in public if they wish to avoid public shame.”[8] He greets his son with a kiss and actually bestows gifts upon him. The gifts he gives to his son are intended to show him honor (the robe, the ring, and the party with the fattened calf). The manner in which the father receives the son is the picture of how Christ receives sinners who believe in Him. This gracious reception and celebration is what Bailey describes as the very “punch-line”[9]of the parable.

This parable of the Prodigal Son is told by Christ specifically as a response to the shame thrust upon Him by the scribes and the Pharisees. The religious leaders were outraged because Christ dared to talk to sinners and share a meal with these outcasts (Luke 15:1-2). It is quite interesting that the Lord’s reply to being regarded thusly is to tell a story filled with “shameful” behavior. After all, nothing could be more degrading than a Messiah who would come and suffer as a criminal and be executed. He is mocked, tortured, betrayed, cursed, and finally, put to death. The leaders regard Him as a shameful blasphemer. Yet, to those who know Him truly, He is forever the honored One. He will be worshiped as the very King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

To understand the culture and the history of the Bible is to more deeply comprehend the inspired words of Scripture. By grasping the aspect of honor and shame in the days of the first century the modern day preacher can more faithfully proclaim the message of the New Testament. It is by returning to the history of the first century for faithful exegesis that one can properly apply the message in today’s world.

[1]Gordon D. Fee, New Testament Exegesis(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 27.

[2]Thomas R. Schreiner’s section on Cultural Limitation in Interpreting the Pauline Epistles(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 155-159 is particularly insightful. He states that “it would be culturally naïve to try to impose the world of the Bible onto contemporary culture” yet also warns against writers who have “overemphasized the cultural gap between the world of the Bible and today’s world.” In other words, the gap is real and must be dealt with, but it is not insurmountable.

[3]It is said in Duane Litfin, Paul’s Theology of Preaching(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 217 that believers in the first century “lacked social standing in the community. Yet it was precisely such low-status people God had called, not the elite.”

[4]An example of this is seen in Nathaniel’s question regarding Jesus as the Messiah when he asks in John 1:46, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

[5]Among many other examples, see Romans 10:11 and 2 Timothy 1:12

[6]Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet & Peasant, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 164.

[7]Ibid., 161-162.

[8]Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 177.

[9]Ian Paul and David Wenham, Preaching the New Testament(Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2013), 253.


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