What it is and why it's important
When it comes to understanding how almost 100% of the ancient world and 70% of the present population1 think, and value, and view the world, one of the most integral and core values to start investigating is the concept of honor and shame. Honor and shame are so interwoven into the fabric of most of the world's cultures, including those shown in the Bible, that to stay ignorant of or simply to ignore it would be a fatal detriment to one's understanding of Scripture.
Honor was so important that Greek historian and philosopher, Xenophon, in his work Hiero made it the sole distinction between humanity and the lower animals, and between a man and a mere human being2:
Examples of honor and shame within the Bible will be explored at a later time. The ubiquitous nature, however, of honor and shame remains uncontested by any scholar in the field. So what is honor? What is shame? Why is it so important to most people that has ever lived?
The general idea behind honor isn't so hard to understand. In a nutshell, honor is "basically a claim to worth that is socially acknowledged."4 There is no convenient analog to honor in our own culture, however we might think of honor as "social credit", just as we might have a line of credit with a banking institution. This claim of worth (or, if you will, reputation) determines how well society at large values a person's contribution towards the greater good and consequently determines the role a person plays in it, be it a farmer or a member of the nobility. The antonym of honor is "shame", which means a lowering of a person's worth or reputation as acknowledged by society. You must notice the later part of this sentence - as acknowledged by society. This is crucial for one can not legitimately make a claim of honor that his or her society does not recognize and doing so would, in fact, accrue shame upon an individual. In other words, no peasant can claim to have the worth of a king and enjoy the benefits of it, nor can a person be falsely modest and claim to be of lower worth (not that the latter would have occurred frequently....).
So why does honor play such a large role in these cultures? It's because these cultures are what anthropologist term a collectivist society. In the western world, such as America, most culture's are individualistic - meaning, as Daniel Bell puts it, "the fundamental assumption of modernity, the thread that has run through Western civilization since the sixteenth century, is that the social unit of society is not the group, the guild, the tribe, or the city, but the person."5. This runs counter to a collectivist society wherein a person always strives to achieve what is best for his or her in-group (more on that later) or society as a whole. This means that an individuals personal desires get subordinated to that of the collective group. As Malina puts it, "In collectivist cultures most people's social behavior is largely determined by group goals that require the pursuit of achievements that improve the position of the group. The defining attributes of collectivistic cultures are family integrity, solidarity, and keeping the primary in-group in 'good health'."6
In the ancient world, civilizations were always on the brink of collapse and chaos. Scarcity of resources meant that a society could afford no dead-weight. Everybody must play their part to ensure their mutual survival or they would simply die. This might be hard to understand to an American living with a fully-stocked grocery section of a Wal-mart and an up-to-date hospital staffed with knowledgeable doctors and nurses down the street; but the fact of the matter is that the ancient world was tough to live in. The average life expectancy was only around 35 years! Therefore, naturally, groups came to value people who contributed to society in a positive way and thereby gave birth to honor as a core value.7
Next time, we'll dive deeper into understanding honor and shame and explore how one can accrue honor or shame. Later, we'll investigate what's considered honorable given a person's status in life (male and female, young and old, wealthy, and so on) and the role honor and shame plays in the Bible.
- Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, ed., The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation, (Massachusetts: Baker Academic, 1996), 44, 46. NOTE: We would do well to remember this lest we think the concept odd or quaint. The fact is, us Westerners are the oddballs to the majority of the world and they view us as strange. And, to a certain extent, we are inferior for our lack of a honor-shame paradigm.
- Xenophon, Hiero. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1175/1175-h/1175-h.htm
- David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2000), 23-24
- Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 29.
- Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. (New York: Basic Books, 1976). 16.
- Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh. 47.
- David deSilva. 35.