Did the Biblical society influence the collective behavior of people?
The socio-cultural model and environment throughout all phases of the Biblical period influenced how people behaved individually and collectively.
There is a very important book by O.M. Bakke “When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in early Christianity.” This fantastic book (which is a must read) mentioned something which I have known for a number of years and wished to share it here. It concerns the issue of what Bakke refers to as the “Shame versus Honour“ cultural model.
So what are we talking about here and how does it relate to the Bible? In fact, it is really essential to understand because the Biblical events took place within cultural environments which it behoves Bible students (who wish to know and understand God’s truth) to be aware of. When we read Scripture we have to understand the cultural environment because if we do not, we risk misunderstanding what we are reading. In this regard, I should refer here to the work of Dr. John J. Pilch of Notre Dame University, who has done extensive work in this area trying to connect Christians in our modern world to the cultural world of the Bible with the view to improving their understanding of Scripture. Any search engine will have details of Dr. Pilch’s works that talk about these important issues.
You can also note this issue in the teachings of Rev. Kenneth Bailey in his works about Jesus and understanding the cultural context in which He gave His teachings. His interpretation of the many parables, especially of the Prodigal Son, for example, illustrate what we are here talking about very well.
Note: For anyone interested, you can also come and study about Biblical culture here in the Holy Land. I highly recommend it and would be happy to guide anyone and provide information about important opportunities to do that at the under-graduate or graduate level. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
So what do we mean when we talk about a Shame vs. Honour culture in the Bible?
This term may sound like a highly technical matter only to be understood by university professors, but I assure it is not. In fact, it will be understood quite well by those who are a little bit older and will remember a time in most Western countries some 70 or so years ago when most Western cultures operated according to this approach. Let us not how Bakke defines this issue:
“It is helpful here to remember that Mediterranean culture at this period was what cultural anthropologists call a ‘shame/honour culture.’ One primary aspect of such a culture is that, unlike modern Western culture, the group and the collective are more significant than the individual, who receives his or her status from the group. People perceive themselves primarily in terms of their relation to other person and groups. This does not mean that person’s own estimation of himself or herself is irrelevant to that individual’s perception of his or her own value; but the degree of honour depends ultimately on the response and evaluation of others. Accordingly, although one may claim honour on the basis of one’s own self-estimation, this becomes real honour only when the group recognizes and confirms the claim.” (Bakke, pg. 154-155)
This is a really important issue when it comes to understanding Biblical culture and lifestyles. Bakke continues:
“Basically, honour could be achieved in two ways. A person might claim honour because of his status, for example, because of inherited wealth or his noble family. In such cases, one need not do anything active in order to be honoured, and this is called ascribed honour. Acquired honour is based on a deed that the group recognizes as virtuous. In cases where a person’s claim to honour is not recognized by the group with which he identifies, that, the ‘significant others,’ he is put to shame. Such a culture might therefore be described as a culture of competition – competition to increase honour and avoid shame.” (ibid.)
Let’s also understand that the issue of shame is understood in the same way. There is “achieved shame”, due to an individual act, but there is also “ascribed shame”, which comes onto a group due to at act done by one of its members.
This idea is a powerful cultural check and balance to behaviour. When one realizes that the actions of an individual could bring repercussions on not only himself or herself, but also on their immediate and extended family, this idea helps very much to keep people following the rules that the collective accept as acceptable and as the basic standard of behaviour.
This issue, of course, affected how children in ancient times were raised. This is the “village” contribution to the raising of children. It is that collective umbrella of influence – the cultural air that the individual breathes – that contributes to how individuals behave in a given cultural system.