Understanding the Culture of Honor and Shame and How it Affected Women

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