Updated: Apr 24, 2020
What is honor and shame in the biblical era, and how did it affect daily life? Was honor earned differently by men and women? How does understanding honor and shame culture help us see what Jesus accomplished on the cross? Read on to find out!
“Dishonor on you! Dishonor on your cow!” This quote from the Disney movie Mulan was a joke among my sisters and me for many years when we were kids. We loved the movie, but the whole premise that the only way a woman could bring honor was through a good marriage was incredibly foreign to our Canadian upbringing. Is this what honor looked like for women in Jesus' day?
This is the eighth post in a series on How to Live as a Woman in First-century Israel, where we are walking in the shoes of a New Testament era woman as she marries (or divorces), cares for her home and children, protects her reproductive health, worships, works in her family's trade, keeps clean and fashionable, and manages the finances and shopping. Throughout our journey we've seen that woman's experiences can't be put into a neat little box, no matter the century.
Even if you're not planning to go back in time any day soon, this post is still for you! Learning the history and culture of the first-century world can help you better understand the Bible.
So what is honor and shame in the Bible era, really?
As you begin your first-century life, you will find that moral teachers teach what is honorable or dishonorable rather than what is right or wrong. So what do honor and shame mean to you? Honor is about how you perceive yourself and it is validated by your standing in a social group. If you are in line with what your society considers noble, you have honor. Shame comes when you don't do something you know you should. (1)
Honor in this era is a value system. Bruce J Malina compares it to a modern credit rating. Without good credit nowadays, you cannot buy the things that give you status in our society such as a house or car. In the first century you will quickly find that without honor, doors are shut to you in society and in business. (2)
Honor is both something you are born into and something you can earn. You have no choice about where or to whom you are born, but nevertheless, your family's honor becomes your own, as does the reputation of your hometown. That is why genealogies are so important. You can earn honor by doing something worthy or noble. You can also be granted honor by someone who has great authority proclaiming it publically. (3)
While today it is the rich who rule the world, in the first-century world, wealth was considered only useful for accruing honor. Any other use of money was regarded as foolish. If you are wealthy, you might build public buildings, host banquets or games, become a patron, or give money to help the needy to gain more honor for yourself and your family. (4)
In this system, you consider everything you say and do through the lens of what society sees as noble and there is a polite and subtle testing of each other. Much like the concept of limited good, where there is a finite amount of things to go around, there was no idea that everyone could have high honor. Every social interaction outside of your family becomes a sort of challenge where each internally asks, “How does our honor compare? What challenge to my honor are you presenting with your words or actions?” You might feel like everyone is walking about with a chip on their shoulder, and in a sense, that is true. (5)
Honoring those in your social circles
In the honor system, you care most about acceptance from those you consider to be in your circle. At the heart of honor, you have your family. Family is everything to you, and you want to be included for both your physical needs and your emotional desire to belong. You are careful about who you include in your family circle, for their reputation is now embedded in the family name. You care about how you are perceived and about keeping and increasing the family honor in the eyes of a larger society with your actions and words. (6)
Beyond your family, you care about the good opinion of those in your village or town, the surrounding area, and your synagogue. You need to do business with these people, and perhaps intermarry your family with theirs. (7)
Who or what determines what is honorable and dishonorable?
Hearing a story where someone is praised as honorable or noble encourages you to copy them, and stories of someone being disgraced will warn you against similar actions. Plays, moral teachings, and even gossip all have their place in society's determination of what is honorable. Jesus Christ uses parables in much the same way. (8)
The greatest influence on what you see to be either honorable or disgraceful is determined by your religious beliefs. In Judaism it is the Torah that sets the standards for honor. You believe that following God's commands brings honor from God and men. Your Greek and Roman neighbors might have very different ideas of what is honorable. You might look down on them, and they might mock and belittle you. (9)
This constant mockery and social pressure to conform with the dominant society's ideals might create a lot in inner conflict for you. Your self-respect is built on how well you feel you are conforming to society's ideals. You want people to think well of you, and so it is hard when the culture you live in sees your actions as laughable, offensive, or not worthy of respect. (9)
In this environment, it is so important that your societal group stays united and meets frequently to encourage one another. Synagogues and churches both help their members to hold to their definitions of honor so they don't cave in to their neighbor's standards. (9)
Another important tool to keep a group united against heavy pressure is to wear these negative perceptions as a badge of honor. You believe that by standing up to them you are fighting an honorable battle that you can win. (9)
Even as they keep to their own standards, a social group will try to maintain an overall good opinion publicly. We see that in the early churches as they adhere to the teachings of Jesus while trying not to offend the outsiders in cultural norms—for example in how they dress or what they eat. (10)
Who is deserving of honor?
It is honorable across all ancient Mediterranean cultures to respect and obey those who are considered your superiors, such as your parents, grandparents, your patron, your teacher, your employer, or anybody else who rules over or provides for you. God deserves the greatest honor of all. (11)
Challenging or affronting the people in your life who have a higher honor status than you do will only result in embarrassment for you and your family, and you might lose income or other benefits of being well-respected. (12)
When a child is disobedient to a parent, that parent loses honor in the eyes of those around him, which affects the public opinion of the whole family. (If a man cannot control his own household, how will he be a competent business partner or a worthy father-in-law for my children?) (12)
Equality in the biblical era
In this culture and time, not all men are considered equal. (13) Your authority, gender status, and how you are respected will determine where you land in society. (14)
Honor creates tiers in society, and you cannot challenge the honor of someone who is not on the same tier as you to gain more honor for yourself. If a king gets into a squall with a commoner, both of them look foolish in the public's eye. If the person you are challenging with your words or actions does not consider you an equal, they will ignore you, putting you back in your place and causing you public embarrassment and a loss of respect for you and your circle. We can see that the Pharisees saw Jesus as an equal because they had no qualms in challenging him. (15)
It is considered socially acceptable that those at the top tier can do what they like with those who have little or no honor without a loss of their own status, unless it is their duty to protect them. Attacking one member is an attack on the whole family. Attacking the client of a patron is attacking the honor of the patron himself. (16)
We see in the New Testament that through Jesus we have been adopted as children of God. This holds stronger meaning when we know what this means in the culture. Our honor is embedded in God, which becomes an equalizer across men and women, slave and free, Gentile and Jew, as all who have become heirs are accorded the same honor as a son. On the other hand we see that rejecting God's son brings us dishonor and judgment. (17)
How did women gain and keep their honor in ancient times?
Men and women do gain and keep their honor in different ways. The culture of the day values modesty and chastity in women above all. (18) If a woman wants to bring honor to herself and her family, she needs those traits, and she is praised for them. God commands that children honor their mother and father, and if you are a worthy woman, this comes naturally to them. In a letter a son describes his mother in this way,
“My dearest mother deserved greater praises than all others, since in modesty, propriety, chastity, obedience, woolworking, industry, and honor she was on an equal level with other good women, nor did she take second place to any woman in virtue, work, and wisdom in times of danger.” (19)
As a woman, your role is to bring honor to your household by being hardworking in your duties, God-fearing, wise, and loving. While men went out to seek honor among peers, as a woman your role is primarily to protect the family's honor. You can help this by not putting yourself into situations where your virtue might be brought into question.
What modesty looks like in manner and dress will depend on the standards of the region, and what is acceptable in one area might not be in another. You might find that women let the men talk at dinner and listen quietly unless invited to join, or that the women serve the men before eating themselves. You might be left out of men-only banquets altogether. If your husband or father requests something of you, you honor them by complying, which also protects you from shame. Most likely you will see that women will not talk to strange men, especially ones who are foreigners as they don't know if they can be trusted and they want to protect their reputations. Women will often find themselves in humble positions, but a humble heart is highly praised by Jesus Christ.
A woman who behaves as if she doesn't care what those in her circle think of her is “shameless”, and fully without honor. Having “healthy shame” is considered important in women, but we see that it is valued in men too. While we don't like the word "shame" in modern society, in this context it is a tool for self-respect and a moral guide—the same way we know it isn't right to walk around town naked, be an addict, or bully the weak. It is about doing the right thing so you can be proud of who you are. (20)
In this era when it seems every action is analyzed, you will be most relaxed at home and in your family circle. Most homes are turned inwards, away from the street and the eyes of strangers. In your courtyard, in your house, and on your rooftop, you can be yourself. (21)
Jewish women enjoy greater honor in their religious circles than Greek women. We see Jewish women given titles such as matron of the synagogue or called an elder. In the early Christian churches we have women called disciples, deaconess, apostle, and patrons (helpers) of others. (22)
While women are excused from full compliance to rites because they might have young children or be in a state of impurity (see more in this post on Women at Worship in the First Century!) Jewish women are still expected to pray, to keep their house kosher, and instruct their children to obey the Torah. These commands from God show that their lives matter to Him.
In many Roman and Greek circles women were excluded from worship. Women had their own household gods and were forbidden from bringing sacrifices or praying to certain deities. There were some temples where women could participate fully, but that was not the same across the board. (22)
How Jesus receives honor through shame
Jesus Christ, as one who lives in this era, knows full well the jostling of those who seek honor. He encourages those who want to be given the honor to serve others instead, which seems counter-intuitive to men who are used to a place of power and prestige.
Jesus suggests that those who want the seat of honor take the lowest. He himself shows how to serve by washing his disciple's feet. He eats with those who had no honor, such as tax collectors. Because Jesus was willing to submit himself to the most shameful and humiliating death of all, death on a cross, God granted him glory and honor as we read in Hebrews 2:9-10. (23)
What do you think? Does this system of honor seem impossible to maintain or repressing to you? Do you ever consider if you have honor? What does an honorable person look like in your eyes, and is that different or the same as the first-century standard?
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1. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 69
2. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 37
3. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 32
4. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 37-38
5. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 33
6. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 29
7. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 36
8. Dictionary of New Testament Background page 519
9. Dictionary of New Testament Background page 520-521
10. Dictionary of New Testament Background page 518
11. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 30
12. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 31
13. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 41
14. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 29
15. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 35
16. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 40
17. Dictionary of New Testament Background page 521; John 1:12-13; Hebrews 10:26-31
18. Dictionary of New Testament Background page 519
19. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 79
20. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 50-51
21. The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina page 47
22. Dictionary of New Testament Background page 1279
23. Dictionary of New Testament Background page 521