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Honor and Shame in the New Testament

Did honor-shame values shape the Christology of the New Testament?

Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)

Q. We are told that ancient societies like those of Israel were “honor-shame cultures,” and see various examples of that in biblical stories. My question is more about NT theology. How do the honor-shame cultural values of New Testament authors inform and shape their theology, especially Christology?

A. This is an important question because the cultural values of honor and shame figure centrally in various New Testament texts’ articulation of Christology. It is widely agreed that crucifixion was one, if not the most dishonorable forms of execution within the Roman Empire. It was a horrible death and perceived as such by Greco-Romans and Jews. The victim would be stripped naked and publicly put to death. This public dimension of the death was especially humiliating. Thus the New Testament authors faced the challenge of the fact of the crucifixion and its dishonorable nature.

In the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus is abandoned by his disciples, tortured and strung up upon a cross, where he cries out to God. Mark does not belabor Jesus’ suffering, but he does not hide it either. The element of dishonor that Jesus has suffered is in fact a central element of Mark’s overall Christology. Here, the Christ is the suffering Son of God, degraded and bereft. In a sense, Mark grants a certain honor to something that most ancients would find repulsive. Mark redefines, in many ways, what it means to be a Messiah or Christ. The true Messiah is a humiliated, tortured figure. Such an idea must have been quite difficult for many ancient people to comprehend or even want to consider.

The Gospel of John, however, tells the story of the crucifixion in a very different way. For John, Jesus’ crucifixion is actually his glory. Jesus’ suffering is not stressed in this Gospel, as if the author is not at all comfortable with narrating the story of a humiliated Christ. Despite the crucifixion, John’s Jesus is presented as a more powerful and honorable figure; a very different characterization with regard to honor and shame from the one presented in the Gospel of Mark.

The apostle Paul regularly refers to crucifixion, preaching “Christ crucified” which was a “stumbling block” to Jews and “folly” to Gentiles (1Cor 1:23). However, Paul then says that Christ is the power and wisdom of God (1Cor 1:24), and indicates that God chose what is foolish in the world to “shame the wise” and what is weak in the world to “shame the strong” (1Cor 1:27). In other words, Paul indicates that what would be perceived as deeply degrading, dishonorable and horrifying (the crucifixion) is actually an indication of God’s power and wisdom. In effect, Paul seems to be saying that weakness, suffering, and a horrible execution—all deemed dishonorable in the ancient world—are actually manifestations of God’s power.

Thus honor and shame are important to take into consideration when examining the various Christologies found in the New Testament. Each text must be read on its own, as they each, individually, grapple with the underlying values of honor and shame in different ways.

  • batten-alicia

    Alicia J. Batten is associate professor of religious studies and theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada. Her current research interests include the Catholic Epistles (especially James), ancient economics, dress in antiquity, and the history of biblical interpretation.