So what do we mean when we talk about a Shame vs. Honor 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 50 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/honor 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 honor depends ultimately on the response and evaluation of others. Accordingly, although one may claim honor on the basis of one’s own self-estimation, this becomes real honor 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, honor could be achieved in two ways. A person might claim honor 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 honored, and this is called ascribed honor. Acquired honor is based on deed that the group recognizes as virtuous. In cases where a person’s claim to honor 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 honor and avoid shame.” (ibid.)
When relating this idea to the Bible, we find it pervading many passages of Scripture and we need to be aware of its influence to help us increase our understandings of what was taking place. Let us look at some examples.
In the Biblical period, there were some groups who had ascribed honor. We can think right away of Aaronic priests, Levites, and the elderly. Of course, Jesus being recognized as being descended legally from a Davidic family would have accorded him some ascribed honor.
When we think of achieved honor, look at someone like John the Baptist, whose actions and lifestyle demonstrated to the people at that time that he was virtuous and he thereby acquired a very high level of honor.
It is important to understand that the cultural environment we are talking about here was a highly conservative one. People were very conscious about avoiding actions that might bring shame on a family. Where actions took place that were outside of the perceived social norms, whole families were shamed due to the actions of an individual member.
In this light, we can read the narratives of the birth of our Lord and can fill in the gaps of what is not said and see what might have taken place between the families of Mary and Joseph in response to her becoming pregnant prior to their marriage being consummated. This issue no doubt was a scandal, which could have had disastrous consequences, but Joseph took specific actions to take responsibility for the situation so that he was recognized as Jesus’ legal father. While he did this and it was recognized legally, no doubt there was lots of whispering and talking about this family in Nazareth at that time and things like this in that culture are not quickly forgotten. It affected the whole family from that point forward.
In a shame versus honor culture, people who violated social norms are outside of the norm and standard that the community expects. It used to be that way in most Western countries some 50 years ago when we talk about issues like children conceived out of wedlock or people who have children and the father is not present or specifically known.
Even today among Christians here in Israel this method of living is still the norm. According to the most recent surveys we have seen, the divorce rate among Christians in Israel today is about 1%. In all the time that I have lived here approaching 13 years of my life, I have not known of one Christian girl who became pregnant outside of marriage. In addition, concerning divorce, it is so rare and it is absolutely frowned upon and people avoid it like the plague because it is considered such a “shame” and it is almost impossible to restore the “honor” of the family after going through such a thing.
These issues are really important for us to understand because they are present in our modern cultures and they were present in the Biblical cultural. For us today who are seeking to better understand the Bible, it is important that we take these issues into account.
To conclude, let us remember the importance of knowing what were the prevailing cultural themes that were in place and affecting the Biblical culture and narratives. If we do this, we have a much greater opportunity to understand the Bible in its cultural and historical contexts.