Honor and Shame

I recently read three books in a row that each happen to highlight a common theme: how the honor-shame culture of NT times differs drastically from our culture. Not only is it fascinating; it’s important for understanding the Bible.

1. Ben Witherington III. Is There a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

[Excerpt from a section entitled “Rhetorical Conventions or Apostolic Hubris? (pp. 63–64)]

Let’s consider an example of socio-rhetorical conventions. What in the world is going on in 2 Corinthians 10–13, especially considering what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1 that he will boast in nothing but the cross of Christ? Isn’t he boasting about himself in 2 Corinthians 10–13 (or in Phil. 3)? What should we make of Paul’s autobiographical remarks in such texts?

As it turns out, there were rhetorical rules about boasting. In fact, Plutarch wrote a little treatise on what constituted “Inoffensive Self Praise.” What is interesting about 2 Corinthians 10–13 is that while Paul does follow these rules in a self-deprecating sort of way, he also subverts the whole way that ancients would normally boast about themselves by boasting of things they would never brag about. No one would brag about how many times they had been stoned, how many times they had been run out of town, how many times they had been shipwrecked, and how many times they had been pursued and betrayed by their co-religionists, and especially no one would have bragged about how they escaped danger by being lowered over a city wall in a basket under the cover of darkness. I like to call this story (mentioned in both Acts 9:25 and 2 Cor. 11:32–33) St. Paul the Basket Case.

There is profound irony in this story because in the Roman military, there was an award called the Wall Crown, given to the soldier who was the first bravely to scale a city wall and help capture a besieged city. Paul is bragging about exactly the opposite. He says in effect, “I was first down the wall, in a basket, escaping under cover of darkness.” I find it interesting that Paul can both use the rhetorical conventions and at the same time subvert the normal way they would be used by doing mock boasting or boasting in things that no normal, sane, first-century person would boast about. On top of all this, Paul is also inverting the way the ancients viewed honor and shame. He is “glorying in his shame,” to use an oxymoron.

2. John Dickson. Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. [I reviewed this for the November 2011 issue of Themelios.]

[Excerpt from ch. 5: “Philotimia: Why the Ancient World Didn’t Like Humility” (pp. 83–95)]

The ancient Greeks loved honour. . . .

Honour and Shame

One of the most difficult things for ancient history students to get their heads around when first exploring the subject is the place Mediterranean societies gave to honour and shame. Honour was universally regarded as the ultimate asset for human beings, and shame the ultimate deficit—so much so that academics frequently refer to Egyptian, Greek and Roman societies simply as “honour-shame cultures”. Much of life revolved around ensuring you and your family received public honour and avoided public shame. . . .

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that in a society that placed such a high value on honour, humility was rarely, if ever, considered virtuous. . . .


It was in this context that ancient Greeks and Romans thought nothing of praising themselves in public or, better still, getting others to praise them. No one appreciated crass boasting or boasting that put others down—hubris or arrogance. Nor was self-love advisable, as the Greek myth of Narcissus falling in love with his reflection teaches. But taking hold of the honour due to your merit was perfectly acceptable. It was taken for granted that those with merit would seek the honour due to them. This was philotimia.

Perhaps the most famous expression of love-of-honour is the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, The Achievements of the Divine Augustus, written by the emperor Augustus himself (63 BC–AD 14) and, by his order, inscribed on bronze tablets to be set up in front of his mausoleum. Copies were distributed throughout the empire. It is . . . a rare glimpse into a mind-set that valued public honour above virtually everything else.

When you remember that this account (just 2,500 words in the original Latin) was penned by the emperor himself in the first person, you realize how little cringe there was in the period over self-congratulation and how different the ancient and modern worlds are in this respect. The emperor takes us through his thirty-five key areas of accomplishment topic by topic—military victories, public awards, gifts to the city at his own expense, building projects, civic games and so on. . . .

Self-congratulation was not just the special interest of emperors. Ordinary citizens of limited significance felt at liberty to parade their best accomplishments before others. Take the famous autobiography of Josephus . . . .

Nowadays, we would be horrified if someone, however great, opened their autobiography with such obvious self-aggrandizing. But this was perfectly normal in antiquity. As long as these things were true—which they probably were in the case of Josephus—the merit warranted the praise, even if it was self-praise. In these paragraphs, as in the Res Gestae, we catch a glimpse of one of the profound cultural differences between ancient Mediterranean society and the modern Western world. And the difference came about not through a slow evolution of ethical reflection but through a kind of humility revolution [i.e, Jesus].

3. Bruce W. Longenecker. The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from the New Testament World. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003. 

The honor-shame culture saturates this fictional correspondence between Luke (the author of the Gospel according to Luke and Acts) and Antipas, a nobleman of Pergamum and benefactor of many.

Here are some examples (I won’t quote too many lest I spoil the book’s plot):

  • Antipas writes Calpurnius (the nobleman who introduces Antipas to Luke), “I did, however, take the occasion of the banquet to praise you before Quadratus as a man of honor in our neighboring city of Ephesus” (p. 33).
  • Luke writes Antipas, “I assure you that I find no dishonor in being a Christian” (p. 44).
  • Antipas writes Luke, “If Jesus the Nazarene is associated with John who baptizes and who opposed Herod Antipas, I will be intrigued to discover from your narrative whether Jesus followed the path of social unrest that John seems to flirt with or the path of honor” (p. 64).
  • After visiting a gathering of Christians, Antipas writes Luke, “One thing struck me from the moment of being welcomed among them: The gatherers are very diverse with regard to their social statures, ethnic backgrounds, and civic positions. . . . Moreover, at no point did those gathered seem particularly interested in regulating their behavior according to social codes. This was especially evident when the food was brought out from the kitchens. At that point, the gatherers simply assembled themselves in small groups throughout the house, without any special interest in arranging themselves according to social customs of honor. I have never seen members of associations act in that fashion” (p. 90).
  • Antipas writes Luke, “What nobleman stoops down in the street to pick up a diseased beggar and care for him? . . . All of my natural impulses are repelled by the thought of Antonius’ action, and my instincts label it an impractical, irresponsible, and ultimately dishonorable action” (p. 92).


  1. Michael Dore says

    Ever read Honor and Shame by Roland Muller?

    Interesting book on bringing out aspects of honor and shame in the gospel (along with the legal aspects), especially when dealing with Muslims or other cultures that focus heavily on honor/shame.

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