Shame in Hebrews

David DeSilva says that Christians who received this letter were “longing for honor and a place in the society’s ladder of status. While believers were once content to lose their place in society (with the confiscation of their property, their subjection to trial and disgrace, Heb. 10:32-34), with the passing of time these longings resurface and pressure some of the believers at least to withdraw from the associations that marginalise them and hinder their efforts to regain honor in society’s eyes. … This accounts for the withdrawal of some of the gathered worshipping community (Heb. 10:25) as well as the perceived need on the part of the author to reinforce the importance of showing solidarity with the imprisoned and tortured (Heb. 10:34; 13:3). The author solves this problem by holding up before the congregation an alternative system of honor – one familiar to them, but with regard to which they require reinforcement – which carries with it the promise of greater and lasting reward for those honoured according to its standards.”[1]

The only way to maintain peace of mind was to despise the opinions of those outside the Christian community.[2]  “Against the background of both the Jewish martyrological literature and the Stoic/Cynic treatment of honor and dishonour, the meaning of Heb. 12:2 becomes quite clear. Jesus was not merely ‘disdaining the shame,’ roughly equivalent to braving or being unafraid of enduring the shame, nor stoically disregarding suffering and death.[3] Rather, he was providing a paradigm for the Christian minority group of counting as nothing the negative evaluation of the outside world, thinking only of the evaluation of God (‘the joy that was set before him’). Jesus despised (i.e., considered valueless) the disgraceful reputation a cross would bring him in the eyes of the Greco-Roman world. His own vindication came afterward, when he ‘sat at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Heb. 12:2). While in the public court of opinion, Jesus took the most disgraceful seat – on a cross – in God’s court of reputation, Jesus was worthy of the highest honor.” [4]

DeSilva points to early Greek Fathers, “much closer in time and culture to the author of Hebrews, understood Heb. 12:2 in much the same way. Jesus, as ‘Lord of Glory’, despised the negative evaluation of human beings.[5] …  Jesus’ own attitude toward the negative evaluation of the outside world was a pattern for believers who wished to follow him and share in his honor and victory.[6][7]

The author of the epistle sets forward a number of examples of those who have despised shame, particularly:

  • “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Heb. 11:8-22. … Abraham left his homeland and embraced the status of ‘foreigner’ and ‘sojourner’ while awaiting the promise, but in so doing, he, like Christ, despises shame. In the Greco-Roman world, the sojourner or foreigner held a lower status than the citizen. … Indeed sojourning could be considered a reproach,[8] and the very terms ‘foreigner’ and ‘immigrant’ could be used as terms of abuse[9].” [10]
  • Moses, in Heb. 11:24, who “occupies a position of very high social standing. His honor rating by birth is very high, as well as by wealth, … (11:26). Faith expresses itself, however, not in achieving honor in society’s eyes, … but in achieving honor in God’s eyes. Before God’s court of reputation, the ‘reproach of Christ’ is of greater value than the ‘wealth of Egypt’, and the person of faith will evaluate the promise of society correctly in the light of God’s reward. Moses’ correct evaluation (Heb. 11:26) results also in a choice for ill-treatment now in the company of God’s people rather than temporary enjoyment of safety and security in the unbelieving society (Heb. 11:25; cf. 4 Macc. 15:8).”[11]
  • Other lower status examples in Heb.11:35b-38.

“Even if society ascribes disgrace to the believers, they are to despise a disgraceful reputation for the sake of gaining the honor and citizenship that God ascribes.”[12]

[1] David A DeSilva; “ Despising Shame: A Cultural-Anthropological Investigation of the Epistle to the Hebrews;” Journal of Biblical Literature, Volume 113, No. 3, Autumn 1994, p440.

[2] cf., Dio Chrysostom; Orat. 66.17-18, 24.

[3] These are the views of William Lane (Hebrews [WBC 47B; Word Books, Dallas, 1991], p414) and Harold W. Attridge (The Epistle to the Hebrews [Hermeneia, Fortress, Philadelphia, 1989], p358) respectively.

[4] DeSilva; op. cit., p445-446.

[5] Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunom.; Origen, Frag. In Ps. 37.12.4-5

[6] Origen, Exhor. ad Mart. 37.11-14; … John Chrysostom, In Epist. at Heb. 63.13-17, on Heb. 12:2; Macarius, Serm.

[7] DeSilva; op. cit., p447-448.

[8] Lucian, Patr. 8

[9] Plutarch, De Exil. 607 A

[10] DeSilva; op. cit., p448-449.

[11] Ibid., p449.

[12] Ibid., p450 and see Malina and Neyrey; ‘Honor and Shame’, p27; Neyrey; ‘John 18-19’, p7-8; Malina and Neyrey; ‘Conflict in Luke-Acts: Labelling and Deviance Theory’, in The ‘Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation’; ed. J.H. Neyrey; Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1991, p101.

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