Monthly Archives: January 2014

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.

Shame in a Range of Paul’s Epistles

1 Corinthians 1 -4, 11 and 14, 2 Corinthians 11 and 12, Galatians 1 and 2, Philippians 3, and Colossians 2, 1 Thessalonians

Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 1:27 that God chooses the foolish things of this world in order to shame the wise. He takes the weak things of this world in order to shame the strong. Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection change the whole dynamic of authority, power and honour: those who are first (the place of honor) will be last (the place of shame), and those who are last will be made first (cf. Matt. 20:16). This turning upside-down of accepted norms continues at the cross. “At the very hour of Jesus’ public shame on the cross, he was actually in the process of shaming his enemies, disarming the powers and authorities and making “a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15). With these new eschatological realities breaking in on the present order, the only remaining “glory” (doxa) of the world, Paul declares, “is in their shame [aisxunh]” (Phil. 3:19).”[1]

Joeph Plevnik says that Paul set aside the kinship basis for honour in favour of a new standard (Phil. 3:7-8, 10-11). “Status in Israelite and local Tarsus society is no longer the apostle’s supreme value; now it is status in the Christian group: Christ is now his supreme worth. Instead of boasting of his own power and courage, the apostle now accepts weakness, lowliness, suffering, and fear (1 Cor. 2:1-5) for the sake of the gospel. Instead of seeking recognition in the eyes of others, he wants to be found in Christ, his Lord and his judge (1 Cor. 4:1-5; 2:1-5). He does not seek human approval (1 Thess. 2:4) but only God’s approval (cf. Gal 1:10). He insists on his status and role as a legitimate apostle (Gal. 1 and 2)”[2] (p99).

So, Paul was often in conflict with other apostles who “insisted that Greeks and Romans had to first be ‘in Israel’ before they could be accepted ‘in Christ’ (2 Cor. 11:5-6; 12:10). In Paul’s view, those ‘in Christ’ need to reassess what they once considered honourable in favour of a new set of standards. For example, when the Corinthians began to boast about their spiritual accomplishments, he reminded them that God called them when they were lowly, weak, and foolish in order to shame the strong, the wise, and the noble.”[3]

Wener Mischke also highlights 2 Corinthians 12:20-24 and asks us to “notice the emphasis on giving greater honor to those who seem honorless, because in Christ, all are ascribed honor by virtue of their being in Christ, members of God’s family, unashamed before / holy Almighty God. In this way it appears that community trumps individuality in the body of Christ—and that God wants our desire for individual honor to be in balance with—if not in submission to—the unity, honor and strength of the community.”[4]

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul “is at pains to make sure that this fledgling Corinthian community observes proper first-century social conventions in order to maintain their public honour.”[5]

In 1 Corinthians 14, “Paul’s overriding concern [is]about potential shame for the community. Paul claims that women’s speech in worship is shameful. We should … remember that a man’s honour was impacted by his wife’s public comportment … Once again, the issue is public order so that the community (an ultimately Paul) will not be shamed by negative publicity.”[6]

[1] Timothy C. Tennent: “Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology;” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007: p88. He also notes that Jude 1:13 describes the rebellious world as ‘wild waves of the sea foaming up their shame’.

[2] Joseph Plevnik; “Honor/Shame;” in John J Pilch and Bruce J. Malina eds; “Biblical Social Values and Their Meaning – A Handbook”; Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1993.

[3] Ibid., p99-100.

[4] Werner Mischke; “Honor and Shame in Cross-Cultural Relationships;” Mission ONE, May 2010. Web. 21st November 2103. Available from at p20-21.

[5] Carolyn Osiek and Jennifer Pouya, “Constructions of Gender in the Roman Imperial World” in Dietmar Neufeld, Richard E. Demaris eds. ‘Understanding the Social World of the New Testament’, Routledge, Abingdon, 2010, p50.

[6] Ibid., p50.

Shame in Romans

In the last post we heard from Robert Jewitt who is a scholar who has focussed much of his studies on the Epistle to the Romans. Another New Testament scholar, Halvor Moxnes, has argued that the entire argument of this, Paul’s most influential letter, is in the ancient context of an ‘honour society’ in which ‘recognition and approval from others’ is central, which means that the group is more important than the individual. Moxnes says that this “contrasts with the dominant concern of Western theology and its interpretation of Romans, in which guilt and guilt-feeling predominate as a response to wrongdoing. He notes that the semantic equivalents of honour and shame play important roles in the argument of Romans; these include: honour, dishonour, and the verb to dishonour; shameless, be ashamed, and put to shame; glory and to glorify; praise and to praise; boast, boasting and to boast.”[1]

[1] Robert Jewett; “Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph Over Shame;” Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999; p18, quoting Halvor Moxnes, ”Honour and Righteousness in Romans;” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32 (1988); p61-77.

Romans 5: 1-11

In his book, St. Paul Returns to the Movies, among other examples, Robert Jewett sets the film Edge of the City alongside this passage from Romans.

He asserts that: “while our traditional theologies and understandings of Jesus’ death focus attention on individual forgiveness of sins, this passage – like most of Paul’s letters – focuses on the deeper and broader dimensions of the human dilemma: the problems of weakness, alienation, and suffering. We see this in the references to ‘peace with God’, to ‘reconciliation’ with God, to ‘boasting’, and to ‘affliction’. Paul’s approach is grounded in the effectiveness of Christ’s death in behalf of the vulnerable and undeserving.”[1]

The Edge of the City is “a low budget film, made for television under the title A Man Is Ten Feet Tall. It appeared for a short time in 1957. It has been shown sporadically since that time. The film features Sidney Poitier has the friend who gives his life for Axel Nordmann, a neurotic army deserter on the lam played by John Cassavetes. In Arthur S. Barron’s summary of the plot, Axel “gets a job in a New York freight yard by ‘kicking back’ part of his pay to a brutal boss. The deserter is befriended by a warm and sympathetic Negro foreman. Under the impact of this friendship he thaws out and moves toward maturity In a vicious freight-hook fight, however, the Negro is killed by the bully. After a period of cowardly indecision, the deserter finally goes after the murderer and drags him to the police.””[2]

“This film has been cited as the first instance in American cinematic history for a black person to appear simply as a friend of a white protagonist.[3] However, this feature of the story eliminated the possibility of national distribution in the pre-civil-rights period of the 1950s. Thus a film that presents one of the most compelling Christ figures in American cinema, elaborating the profound theme of redemption through self-sacrificial blood, remains an unrecognized and largely unavailable classic.”[4] It is Jewett’s opinion that this is the only film he knows that rises to the level of a potential dialogue partner with the proclamation of the blood of Christ in Romans 5.

Jewett asks: “What is so wrong with humans that Christ had to die? The usual answer to this question makes little sense: he had to die to provide forgiveness for the sinful deeds that humans commit. One difficulty is that there is no reference to forgiveness in this passage in Romans, and very few such references in the rest of Paul’s letters. In addition, since the God of Israel’s faith was forgiving, and since there were institutions of forgiveness in temple and synagogue prior to Jesus’ time, one can hardly make a case that the Jewish religion was lacking in this regard.”[5] So, Jewett points us to expressions Paul uses in verses 6-10 to describe the human dilemma, “to build the case on this evidence rather than on the traditional viewpoint.”[6]

The first expression is in Rom 5:6: “While we were still weak,” Christ died for us. “Weakness is not used here in the sense of being unable to do the law and thus being inclined to mistakes and sins, as the traditional teaching has suggested. Commentators have been puzzled by Paul’s seemingly un-theological[7] and overly “mild”[8] choice of the term weak in this sentence, but it would have resonated powerfully within the honour-shame framework of the audience in Rome. Weakness relates to human vulnerability and affliction, which Paul elaborates in Rom 5:3-4.”[9] Jewett goes on to explain that Paul’s argument  in Romans 5 correlates with what psychologists say about human development –  “that humans feel vulnerable at a very early age, when already as infants they discover they are outside the womb and unable to cope for themselves. The terror and pain are heightened if loving care is not provided in a reliable manner. The feeling of not being loved at this basic level evokes primal shame.”[10]

This becomes a springboard for our later attempts to cover up shame and to escape its pain. “Some of us boast to cover up our vulnerability; some of us, to show we are more worthy than others. But most of the members of the early church in Rome were labourers, slaves, and homeless immigrants from the most marginal social circumstances.[11] Their weakness consisted in having little to boast about, and thus facing a chronic, collective shortfall in group self-esteem. In a basic sense, most boasting derives from weakness in one form or another: some seek to cover up painful circumstances, and others feel they are losers with nothing to boast about to bring them honour. The annals of group conflict from the beginning of recorded history reveal an infinite variety of strategies to overcome shameful weakness.”[12]

In Edge of the City, John Cassavetes plays the role of Axel Nordmann from Gary Indiana, a man on the run because of his shame and weakness. “He had joined the army in the hope of finding something to boast about so his family would love him. “I figured I could do something good” by joining the army he says, “… if I made sergeant, I could come home. The thing is … a guy’s gotta something before someone can love him.” But after being bullied as a nobody, Axel deserted. He gets a job on, a railway loading dock where his weakness is exploited by a foreman who demands a kickback from his salary. He is befriended by Tommy Tyler, played by Sidney Poitier. TT is another foreman on the dock, one who does not take kickbacks or bully his gang.”[13]  Tyler plays a kind of is playing a kind of Christ role in the film, struggling for the dignity of his young friend and ultimately dying in an effort to protect him from the murderous bully Charlie Malek.

The matter of human weakness in Paul’s thought is directly related to Jesus’ death. His ministry to the weak and dishonourable members of society was bitterly controversial (Matt 9:10-11; 12:9-14). He ate with tax collectors and sinners. “He was friendly to women of ill repute (Luke 7:36-50), to rough fishermen as well as to hated government agents (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 19:1-10). He opposed the contempt with which the weak and vulnerable members of society were treated (Mark 9:42; Matt 5:22; 18:10-14). His effort to overcome hostility toward outsiders culminated in the cleansing of the Gentile court of the temple, which led directly to his death (Mark 11:17-18).[14] He conveyed the boundless love of God to the weak and the lost (Matt 18: 14), and he challenged the presumptions of the strong (23:1-36), ending up by being crucified between two thieves.”[15]

“The second term used to describe the human dilemma is in the reference to Christ dying ‘for the ungodly” or “impious” (Rom. 5:6). … The word “impiety” should be interpreted in the light of Rom. 1:18-25, which shows that humans tend to be so obsessed with their own honour and the status of their groups that they make gods of and for themselves…. Impiety for Paul is not a matter of lacking religion. Rather, impiety follows a religion – whether secular or traditional – that is self-serving and thus idolatrous. Paul has in mind the aggressive ungodliness of those who “suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18) about their own shame while seeking honourable status that competes with the status of God. In fact… ,  only God is finally worthy of honour. … When we seek this for ourselves or our group, we are usurping the position of God. As Paul writes in Rom 1:25, people tend to “worship and serve the creature rather than the creator.””[16]

Only after Paul understood the gospel could he begin to understand that his own piety had been an assault on the honour of God, that he had in fact been impious, despite his extraordinary adherence to the law.

The third reference to the human situation in our passage comes in the statement “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Jewett says that “in a basic sense, the status of sinner has a double connotation: it refers to the strategy of covering up shame through seeking godly honours and lying about our true situation; and it refers to the evil actions that flow from such a deception. But note that it is the actions of humans in a collective sense that are in view here: Paul refers to “sinners” in the plural and includes himself among the “us,” which should lead interpreters to think of the behaviour of groups rather than isolated individuals. Romans 1:18 refers to sin as “suppression of the truth” about who we are and who God is. Since human weaknesses and the vulnerability of our groups are too painful to bear, we try to cover them up.”[17] So people who have been shamed seek to shame others (see later in Romans 1) and the injured try to injure others, so that by doing so they might show that they are better, and gain self-respect. Thus “guilty deeds arise from shameful status, making all groups of humans sinners, a status which each group desperately seeks to disguise.”[18]

In the film, Axel Nordmann is covering up who he is and this is the second time he has used a false name. He did so to get into the army. His youthful indiscretions led to the death of his brother and alienation from his family. The alienation gets worse when he deserts the army and begins running. “The opening of the film shows him running through the loading dock area, barely making it through a closing gate. He is a kind of prodigal son, unable even to communicate with his family. But in this case, his crime, desertion from the army clearly derives from his shame. In contrast to the usual Christian paradigm of individual sin and forgiveness, in which evil deeds lead to shame, this is a story of original shame resulting in evil actions. The crime is an acting out of much deeper pain of shameful status that is unavoidable. This story resonates at a profound level with the honour-shame paradigms of the ancient world out of which our biblical texts arose.”[19]

Jesus had a particular affinity for the outcasts that ‘holy’ people kept at arms length. “But it was not until the crucifixion that the full dimensions of his campaign to overcome shameful status became clear. On Calvary human running and covering up and boasting and shaming led to the death of this man who took the side of the shamed. This death demonstrated the final measure of redemptive love that is capable of curing the shameful void from which evil actions spring.”[20]

“Like Tommy Tyler [TT] in the film, Jesus dealt with outcasts simply by accepting them. TT shares his food with Axel, and then takes him to the neighborhood where he lives and begins to share his life with him. Later, when the evil supervisor finds out who Axel really is, threatening to expose him to the authorities if he does not return to the kickback scheme, he is inclined to begin running again. TT convinces him to stay and face the consequences. … It was this kind of friendship to outsiders that got Jesus crucified, just as it gets Tommy Tyler killed at the conclusion of this powerful film.”[21]

The fourth description of the human dilemma is this: “As enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son” (Rom 5:10).  “The cross reveals all humans as God’s enemies, as those who crucify the Christ to avoid the exposure of their own shame, to retain their status of honour in religion and politics.”[22] Jewett says: This is the opposite of one of the traditional doctrines of the atonement, which supposed that God was the one who needed to be reconciled, paid off by the blood of an innocent victim in order to overlook the sins of the guilty. Although widely believed, this explanation of Christ’s death gets things completely backward, if our text is to be taken seriously. Instead, the cross exposes the enmity of the human race against God while at the same time offering unconditional reconciliation. The blood of Christ says, ‘The fight is over, so you can come home again.’”[23]

“The story of the redemption of Axel Nordmann by the death of his friend and protector Tommy Tyler also ties in with the theme of boasting, which runs through the text of Romans 5. Paul urges that we should “boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5:2). The glory is what was lost in the garden of Eden and in every person’s replication of the fall, as we deal with our vulnerability and seek glory for ourselves. We either want to boast in the glory we have achieved, or we want to run away because no glory seems possible.”[24]

“But now, in Christ, we boast in the hope given to us through the death of Christ, a hope that by grace we shall all participate in glory that we shall find our proper task that God intends for us to do. For Paul, this is a “hope” rather than an accomplishment, because he is convinced that none of us can ever achieve enough to boast.”[25]

“At the end of the passage, Paul returns to this theme of a new form of boasting, not in our own accomplishments but in Christ, who sets us free from our escapist tendencies ‘Let us boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ’, … (Rom. 5:11). … We now [can] boast in the God who triumphed through weakness, who uncovers and overcomes our enmity by the blood of the cross. And so our salvation takes the form of reconciliation. It produces a new identity leading to peace with God”[26]

Jewett’s summary of the message of the film and Romans 5 is that “Some of us have been running away from our true selves, and others of us are fleeing from afflictions; all of us remain uncomfortable with our vulnerability and weakness; we try to accomplish something in life so people will love us, not realizing that this motivation just leads us into forms of boasting and hiding that make our situation more dishonest and more difficult to bear. We take refuge in our group identity as members of an allegedly superior nation, or an allegedly righteous church, but our uneasy feeling of vulnerability remains. The Spirit is inviting us shameful deserters to come home again and to face mature responsibilities as we hear the admonition with ears made sensitive by Edge of the City: ‘Let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ!’”[27]

[1]  Robert Jewett; “Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph Over Shame;” Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999: p124.

[2] Ibid., p125 quoting Arthur S. Barron, “Murder on the Waterfront,” New Republic 136, 4th March 1957, p22.

[3] See Robert Hatch, “Films,” The Nation 184 (February 9, 1957): p125; Barron, “Murder on the Waterfront,” p22: “Here…, an entirely new pattern has been introduced. In this picture Negro and White appear as full equals, as close friends …. all without a shred of self-consciousness. The relationship is entirely spontaneous and open. For the first time, Hollywood has given the Negro the role of a warm, uncomplicated and natural human being.” Bosley Crowther in New York Times, 30 January 1957, p33 agrees that this film comes “close to some sort of fair articulation of the complexities of racial brotherhood.”

[4] Robert Jewett: p125.

[5] Ibid., p125-126.

[6] Ibid., p126.

[7] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary 38a (Dallas: Word, 1988), p254.

[8] John C. O’Neill, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), p93.

[9] Robert Jewett: p126.

[10] Ibid., p126.

[11] See Jewett, “Ecumenical Theology for the Sake of Mission: Rom. 1:1-17 + 15:14-16:24,” in D. M. Hay and E. E. Johnson, eds., Pauline Theology, Vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), p93-97 and chapters 5-6 of Jewett, ‘Paul the Apostle to America: Cultural Trends and Pauline Scholarship’ (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994).

[12] Jewett, “Saint Paul Returns to the Movies;” p126.

[13] Ibid., p126-127.

[14] See Marcus J. Borg, Jesus A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), p175-84; idem, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), 1 p12-16. For a discussion of the role of the cleansing of the temple in the sequence of events leading to Jesus’ execution, see E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (Allen Lane: Penguin, 1993), p254-62, p272-73.

[15] Robert Jewett, op.cit., p127.

[16] Ibid., p128.

[17] Ibid., p128-129.

[18] Ibid., p129.

[19] Ibid., p129.

[20] Ibid., p130.

[21] Ibid., p130.

[22] Ibid., p130.

[23] Ibid., p130.

[24] Ibid., p131.

[25] Ibid., p132.

[26] Ibid., p133-134.

[27] Ibid., p135.

Shame in Paul’s Letters

I have really enjoyed reading Robert Jewett’s book, ‘Saint Paul Returns to the Movies, Triumph Over Shame’.[1] In this book he takes passages from Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians and places them in dialogue with a movie. In each case the main themes are based around honour and shame. For example, he places 1 Corinthians 11:17-18, 20-26, 33-34, where the poor in Corinth are being shamed by the wealthy in their love feasts, alongside ‘Babette’s Feast’; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, where Paul is arguing that love, agape, transcends the honour system alongside ‘Forrest Gump’; 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, where the shameful secrets of a visitors heart can be exposed by the prophetic word, alongside the ‘Prince of Tides’; 2 Corinthians 3:1-3, where Paul  suggests that written letters confirming status and honour need to be set aside in favour of letters written on the Corinthians hearts, along side ‘Mr Holland’s Opus’. Nothing would delight me more than to spend time covering each of these passages and the others in Jewett’s book, but one example will have to suffice (see the next post). 

[1] Robert Jewett; “Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph Over Shame;” Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999.

Shame in Acts

In recent posts we have been thinking about the place of shame in the life story of Jesus and in his parables. Shame is no less significant in the Book of Acts and the Epistles. This post and those following will provide some examples. We will again listen to expert witnesses as we look at the different passages. Here are some examples from the Acts of the Apostles:

Acts of the Apostles 11, 16 and 18

The book of Acts contains several examples of entire households being saved and baptised (Acts 11:14; 16:15, 34; 18:8). The households of Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Crispus “probably represent not only the immediate families, but also the servants and other individuals who may have been employed under their authority. … People who live within a social setting that is shame-based are more oriented toward seeing the entire social group come to Christ together or resist the message together.”[1]

“In a shame-based culture it is difficult to act in isolation from others, especially those senior to you. [Acts] seems to recognize this reality. … Entire households [are saved together which minimises] the social dislocation and avoid[s] the charge that one person has brought shame on the rest of the family. … The source of the shame is not so much tied to the propositional content of the Christian message, as it is to the scandalizing notion that someone may be acting independently from the will of the larger group.”[2]

Timothy Tennent comments: “In my experience in India over the years, I have seen several remarkable examples of extended families and other larger social groups coming to Christ together. This tendency should not be viewed, as it sometimes is by outsiders, as an abandonment of the need for individual faith and repentance. Rather, whenever an extended social network comes to Christ, it should be seen as multi-coordinated personal decisions.[3] This means that multiple numbers of people are deciding to follow Christ in a single movement, rather than through dozens of individual decisions isolated from one another.”[4] This seems to me to be somewhat over concerned for Western ideas of individuality. It elevates the place of the individual. It would be entirely possible that the gospel could bring about change at a corporate rather than only an individual level.

While we will not dwell on it here, Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch have produced a Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts which analyses each passage in the light of honour and shame being pivotal values in the New Testament world. Their detailed textual notes point consistently to on-going honour-shame dynamics, and particularly to the social interaction of challenge and riposte.[5] The Context Group[6] of theologians is gradually working through the full text of the scriptures providing commentaries which highlight the honour-shame dynamic.

[1] Timothy C. Tennent: “Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology;” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007; p98.

[2] Ibid., p98.

[3] Tennent notes: “This phrase is my own, but missiologist Alan Tippet refers to these extended social conversions as ‘multi-individual decisions’ or ‘multi-personal conversions’”. See Alan Tippet, “People Movements in Southern Polynesia: A Study in Church Growth,” (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p123-241.

[4] Tennent, p98-99.

[5] Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch; “Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts “; Fortress Press, Augsberg Fortress, Minneapolis, 2008.

[6] The Context Group is a group of theologians and anthropologists of whom, Malina, Pilch, Neyrey and Cook, among others, are leading members. They seek to enable a wider audience to engage with the social realities of biblical cultures.

John 18 and 19 – The Passion Narrative

Shame and honour are present in the story of Christ’s passion. They are significant in the narrative. Jerome H. Neyrey says that “The passion narrative in John 18-19 is profitably viewed in terms of the values of honour and shame.”[1]

Neyrey reads John 18 and 19 through the lens of the typical honour challenge (claim, challenge, riposte, and public verdict). “This bring[s] the phenomena of honour and shame to the surface in that narrative and … interpret[s] the endless confrontations described there in their appropriate cultural perspective. Thus from the narrator’s point of view, Jesus maintains his honour and even gains more in his death; he is in no way shamed by the events.”[2]

Jerome Neyrey’s comments are informative and helpful as we think about the place of shame in the gospels.

John 18:1-11 – The Arrest – Normally capture and arrest would denote shame – but the gospel portrays the display and maintenance of honour. Jesus steps forward and takes charge of the situation (18:4); he knows all things before-hand (18:4); he asks the questions (18:4) – this is usually done by the one in power! The soldiers draw back and fall to the ground (18:6) – bodily posture in the presence of an honoured one. The sequence is repeated (18:8-9) to re-emphasise it.

Statements (18:8-9) also emphasise that Jesus is in control – ‘Let these other go’ and ‘This was to fulfil the word which he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those you gave me’’. So “the narrator presents Jesus firmly in control: knowing all that will happen, asking questions, controlling the events, giving commands, and receiving profound respect from his would-be assailants. He is without doubt the most honourable person in the situation.”[3]  Jesus suffers no shame. Nothing happens against his will, so he is in no way diminished.

Simon Peter’s response, although usually the correct one (a riposte to challenge of honour), is out of place. “Normally failure to respond to a challenge is shameful, but here Jesus explains that it is precisely out of honour that he refuses to resist, that is, out of respect for the will of his Father.”[4]

John 18:12-14, 19-24 – Jewish Investigation – throughout these passages we see a conflict taking place, an honour contest of challenge and riposte.

John 18:28-19:16 – Roman Trial – the extended conflict of charge and refutation, challenge and riposte continues. This occurs on several levels. First, those who deliver “Jesus to be judged engage in their own challenge-riposte game with Pilate. … This challenge-riposte game between Pilate and the Judeans will be continued in 18:39f and 19:6,12ff. But the main contest focuses on the formal process of Jesus before Pilate, which is also an elaborate game of challenge and riposte.”[5]

Charges are brought in verses 29-33. Jesus is than taken to see Pilate (18:29-33). This “serves as the forum where Jesus’ honour claims are both challenged and defended. On the level of rhetoric, Pilate asks questions which challenge Jesus, whose riposte is initially a clever strategy of answering a question with a question. … By questioning Pilate, Jesus might be said to be giving a riposte: ‘Do you say this of your own accord’ (18:34). Pilate’s response is not only scorn (‘Am I a Jew?’), but mockery of Jesus. How shameful, he points out, that  ‘Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over’ (18:35).”[6]

Pilate’s verdict (18:38b) “ tells the reader, at least, that Jesus’ claims are publicly judged to be honourable. … Honour defended is honour maintained. Yet the public verdict in this honour contest remains unclear.”[7] The honour-shame contest or game then continues between Pilate and the crowd (18:39-40) before Pilate gives a judicial warning (19:1-5) – a lashing is technically a judicial warning – intended to inflict pain but especially to humiliate and so discredit troublemakers. The mockery Jesus endured “is far more painful than the physical beating because it produces the most dreaded of all experiences, shame.”[8]

“But if the actors in the drama are portrayed as shaming Jesus, it does not follow that readers of this gospel must concur. On the contrary, insiders have been repeatedly schooled in irony to see Jesus’ death as his ‘being lifted’ to heaven (Jn.3:14; 8:23; 12:32) or his ‘glorification’ (Jn.12:23; 13:31f; 17:1,5). … In short, the gospel inculcates an ironic point of view that death and shame mean glory and honour.”[9]

Pilate’s presentation of Jesus to the crowd, in the culture of the time would provoke laughter and derision. Crowds regularly gathered a public executions to participate in the mockery (see Matt.27:38, 39, 41). Jesus own people call for his shameful death, and issue “a new challenge to Jesus honour: ‘By our law he ought to die, for he made himself the Son of God’ (19:7). The crowds consider this ‘claim’ to be so serious a charge as to warrant the death sentence. And so a new trial ensues to deal with the new charge.”[10]

The drama continues with the final verdict and sentence (19:12-16). The next point worth noting here comes in 19:19-22: “The game of push and shove continues over the public title attached to Jesus’ cross. Pilate’s inscription … may be read as a final ironic riposte by the narrator in defense of Jesus’ honour, comparable to Caiaphas’s ‘prophecy’ about Jesus’ death (Jn.11:51). It is also Pilate’s act of authority in defense of his own embattled status. The title, which may be construed as another honour claim, is once again challenged by the Jerusalem elite, who urge a more shameful version: ‘This man said, I am the King of the Jews’. Again they charge that Jesus vaingloriously assumes honours not rightfully his (19:7,12). This time Pilate wins: ‘What I have written, I have written’ (19:22).”[11] (p131).

These events then move on to the crucifixion (19:17-37) and the story makes clear that what takes place is shameful: the crucifixion itself; the surrounding criminals; the mocking title; Jesus nakedness; various people mocking him. The “spectators would give public witness to the shame of Jesus’ death.”[12]

Timothy Tennent asks us to note even more: “A crucifixion involves several parts, including the scourge, carrying the beam to the place of execution and, finally, the agonizingly slow death after being impaled on the beams. The scourge has all the elements of public shaming. Jesus is stripped naked, his hands are bound, and he is publicly beaten, including spitting and repeatedly striking the head (Matt. 27:30). All the features of honor are brought forward in a mock coronation ritual ceremony, adding to the humiliation and shame. Jesus is given a crown of thorns for his head, a purple robe to wear, they shout “Hail, king of the Jews” as they strike him (Matt. 27:29), and they mockingly bend their knees and bow to him. Everything is done to maximize the shame.”[13]

Carrying one’s own beam to the place of execution is a form of shaming, especially since it is carried publicly through the streets and the criminal is taunted along the way by the crowds. “The Scriptures emphasize that Jesus is forced to carry the cross (John 19:17), and considerable attention is given to the fact that he is publicly mocked and taunted by several different groups of people (Matt. 27:38 –43; Mark 15:27 –32; Luke 23:35 –39). Ancient crucifixions took place in public (John 19:20) …, the criminal was nailed to the beam and exposed naked. This is emphasized in the scriptural account, which records that Jesus is nailed to the cross and placed between two criminals. Then the soldiers take his clothes, possibly even his undergarments, and divide them among one another (John 19:23), an act explicitly mentioned as a fulfilment of Psalm 22. … The vocabulary of shame is integral to Psalm 22, which foreshadows his humiliation,”[14] just as shameful acts are explicit in different accounts of the crucifixion. “… Thus to them he dies a brutal death, apparently a victim whose life was taken from him in violent fashion. His blood is spilled, without hope of vengeance or satisfaction. This is what outsiders see and count as shameful. … The narrator, however, instructs insiders to perceive this scene in terms of honour.”[15]

First, Jesus does the honourable thing by his mother.  “He defends her honour by adopting as ‘brother’ the Beloved Disciple, and by ensuring that his new kinsman will defend his mother’s honour by ‘taking her into his own house’ (19:27; see Acts 1:14). … Shame lies in being a victim and more especially in the exercise of power by another over one’s life. That may be what the eye sees in Jesus’ death, but not what the ear hears in the narrative. Jesus is honourably presented as the figure in control of events. He knows that all is now completed (19:28) and he chooses to die, ‘It is finished’ (19:30)”[16]

John 19:38-42 – Jesus’ Burial – “This gospel narrates that Jesus’ body received quite an honourable burial, despite the shame of his death.”[17]

Throughout the narrative in John 18 to 19, the narrator makes it clear to his readers that Jesus remains in control, he is honourable, he has status, but at the same time we see him embracing the shame, accepting the circumstances, being seen by others as shameful. There is an interesting and important dynamic here which the apostle Paul picks up in his Letter to the Corinthians. What the world sees and understands as shameful and honourable are not so in the kingdom of God. Honour and shame in the Kingdom are very different. It seems as though the cross, the passion of Jesus, is the point where this countercultural perspective takes final hold in the gospel message, until now it has been foreshadowed in the interactions between Jesus and his challengers, and in the way Jesus has dealt with those who were shamed, disgraced and rejected by the culture of the day.

[1] Jerome H. Neyrey; “Despising the Shame of the Cross: Honour and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative“; in Semeia 68, 1996; pp113-137.

[2] Ibid., p113.

[3] Ibid., p120, cf., Timothy C. Tennent: “Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology;” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007: p89.

[4] Neyrey, p120

[5] Ibid., p121, cf., Tennent, p89.

[6] Ibid., p123, cf., Tennent, p89.

[7] Ibid., p125

[8] Ibid., p125

[9] Ibid., p126

[10] Ibid., p126.

[11] Ibid., p131.

[12] Ibid., p131.

[13] Tennent, p89-90.

[14] Ibid., p90.

[15] Neyrey, p131.

[16] Ibid., p131.

[17] Ibid., p132