Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Honour and Shame

I'm currently rewriting my notes for a course that I teach on Luke-Acts. Here's what I have to say about "honour" and "shame" in the New Testament:

The values of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ had pivotal importance for both Roman and Jewish societies. First century people in the Mediterranean were told from childhood to seek honour and avoid disgrace. Social interaction, religious life, and group loyalties were affected in some way by the values of honour and shame. Honour is the claim to a certain status and the acknowledgement of that status by group consensus. Honour can be either ascribed (by gender, rank, noble birth, etc) or acquired through social advancement in public accomplishments, by excelling over others, and by embodying certain virtues like piety, fidelity, and courage. Honour was a limited commodity in ancient societies and it was attained through the social competition of challenge and response. The Greek philosopher Aristotle listed two motives for action: honour and pleasure (Nic. Eth. 3.1.11 [1110b.11-12]). One of the earliest Latin handbooks on rhetoric stated that a course of action must be honorable, regardless of however safe or unsafe it might be (Rhetorica ad Herennium 3.5.8-9). Quintilian, a teacher of rhetoric in the first century AD claimed that honour was the main factor in the art of persuasion (Institutes 3.7.28, 3.8.1). According to Joshua ben Sirach honour is an important aspect of the life of an obedient Jew. He affirms the fifth commandment to honour one’s father and mother and emphasizes the rewards of such behaviour (Sir. 3.3-8), honour is something that God confers (Sir. 10.5), those who fear the Lord are worthy of honour and those who do not fear him receive dishonour (Sir. 10.19), and someone who is the leader of a family are worthy of honour, but someone who fears God receive honour in God’s eyes (Sir. 10.20). Sirach also exhorts readers to, ‘Excel in all that you do; bring no stain upon your honor’ (Sir. 32.23). Shame is, by contrast, the public recognition of a lack of honour or else a failure to act honourably. Certain actions and professions can be regarded as shameful such as adultery and prostitution. For some persons, usually of a subservient position in society or a household, honour was to be found in one’s sense of shame and embarrassment. For instance, in Sirach we read: ‘A shameless woman constantly acts disgracefully, but a modest daughter will even be embarrassed before her husband. A headstrong wife is regarded as a dog, but one who has a sense of shame will fear the Lord’ (Sir. 26.24-25). A woman then is most honourable if she has a strong sensitivity to bringing shame on herself or her family. Honour and shame were values that created social adhesion, formed collective identity, enforced group boundaries, and fostered a set of standards of conduct. If a voluntary association, household, or individual was to pursue honour and avoid shame, then they would have to adhere to what constitutes honourable behaviour in the eyes of the wider pagan society. But Jews and Christians often failed to do this since they did not undertake their civic responsibility to worship the emperor (= impious and disloyal) and they engaged in practices that appeared socially inappropriate like circumcision and greeting each other with a ‘holy kiss’ (= barbarous, immoral). Associations and groups that failed to act honourably ran the risk of derision, insult, abuse, reproach, and harassment from society (e.g. Heb. 10.32-34; 1 Pet. 2.11-12; 4.1-4) and in some extreme occasions even provoke an extreme response like expulsion from a society or city (John 9.22; 12.42; 16.2; Acts 5.40-42; 18.2; Rev. 2.9), confiscation of property (Tob. 1.20; 3 Macc. 7.21; Heb. 10.34), and even death (2 Macc. 7.1-49; Acts 8.58-60; 12.1-2; Rev. 2.13). Christians could respond by saying that God will ultimately honour them (Rom. 8.18-39; Phil. 3.17-21; 2 Thess. 1.4-10; 1 Pet. 2.20; Rev. 12.10-11). Suffering, insult and persecution is a sign of dishonour in society but a sign of honour within the community that follows Jesus (Acts 14.22; 2 Cor. 4.6-18; Heb. 11.37-40), and by enduring persecution they follow the example of Christ and acquire even more honour (John 15.20; Heb. 12.1-4; 1 Pet. 3.14-17).


jeltzz said...

It is always good to remind, or teach, students that the Roman value of 'honour' involves public and social constructions, rather than the internalised concept of 'honour' that has emerged much more recently. Romans did not really conceive as 'doing the honourable thing' as 'doing what is right regardless of public perception', but rather the reverse, 'doing what is right regarding public perception', a conception of honour almost the polar opposite to general usage of the word today.

- Seumas Macdonald

HonorShame said...

Thanks for the citations from ben Sirach. I curious to know how these HonorShame insights informs your reading of Acts.