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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Honor and Shame

“Discharge your obligations to everyone; pay tax and levy, reverence and respect, to those to whom they are due”: the advice that Paul wrote to the Roman Christians (Rom. 13.7 ) sums up prudential rules for survival in the status-conscious society of the Roman empire. “Reverence and respect,” more commonly translated “fear and honor,” are pervasive indices of a person's, or a family's, place in a stratified system of relationships. One's welfare depended—and one's life might well depend—on knowing precisely whom one had better fear and to whom one was obliged to show honor.

“Honor” and “shame” in ancient society—and in many less-industrialized societies even today—do not refer primarily to private emotions but to public demonstrations of the behavior, the values, and the deserts deemed proper or improper for people, depending on their place in the society. A misbehaving child in a modern Greek village will be chided with “Aren't you ashamed!” An adult behaving improperly may be asked by an acquaintance, “Have you no philotimo?” Philotimo corresponds to the ancient Greek philotimia, “love of honor,” which names the most powerful and pervasive root of ambition in ancient society. It was the pursuit of public honor by wealthy individuals that produced most of the grand monuments whose ruins still inspire our wonder at the cities of antiquity. The monuments never lacked conspicuous inscriptions to tell passersby that So-and-so “erected this at [the donor's] own expense, in payment of a vow” or “in return for being elected” to some municipal office. Tombstones of the mighty recorded who they were, of what family, and what they had done—what offices they had held, how much they had spent on their home towns. Obviously the more wealthy and powerful one was, the “more honorable,” as the second-century law codes mentioned above made clear.

Behaving in a way thought beneath one, on the other hand, brought shame, on both the individual and the family. The aristocrats of Rome were scandalized when the emperor Nero masqueraded as a charioteer, an actor, or a musician. To put on airs above one's position was risky, too, for failure to bring it off would make the person and his family a laughingstock. The Roman satirists delight in lampooning the manners of the newly rich. Any untoward public behavior might bring shame upon a person's family and clan; no wonder Jesus' family tried to restrain him when they thought, “He is out of his mind” (Mk. 3.21 ). To be unable to repay an obligation was also shameful, of course—unless the obligated person was obviously the social inferior of the other, or acknowledged the other as his patron. In that case the client renounced any claim to be the equal of the other and could enjoy the dim reflection of the patron's honor. For the lower classes, submissive modesty was a becoming virtue, as well as a practical necessity. For persons of higher status deliberately to lower themselves, on the other hand, was thought bizarre, or the political trickery of a demagogue. For “humility” to become a virtue, as it did in Christian moral discourse, required a new way of thinking about status and a new paradigm of power.

The new paradigm was the Christian story of the Messiah who was crucified, the one who was “in the form of God” but “made himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave …, humbled himself, and was obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross” (Phil. 2.7–8 ), who “was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (2 Cor. 8.9 ). Thus it was understandable to Christian readers, though it would have been astonishing to anyone else, that the apostles would be seen “rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer humiliation [lit., “to be dishonored”] for the sake of the name” (Acts 5.41 ). To be sure a Stoic philosopher, like Musonius Rufus, might urge the wise person to ignore insults, even a slap in the face—but because thus the philosopher won still greater honor by exhibiting his intellectual superiority to the insulter. The Christians were formulating a different sort of ideal, in which a person insulted by a slap on the cheek should turn the other. The Christian, too, expected to receive greater honor thereby, but in the form of the “glory” with which God would reward the faithful at the final judgment of the world.

In practice, not surprisingly, the ancient sentiments about honor and shame, integrally part of the positional society and households in which the Christian communities were embedded, lived on in the churches, in greater or less tension with the paradigm of humility. The churches, too, had to depend on the patronage of their wealthier members—sometimes even of non-members—for the housing and protection of their meetings, and those patrons would expect a certain deference in return. Conflicts between such traditional forms of benefaction and power and the claims of charismatic leaders, prophets and itinerant apostles, can be documented in the later church and may well lie behind some of the conflicts revealed in the letters of Paul. Some of the Corinthian Christians evidently felt, too, that Paul had shamed them by refusing to accept financial support from them (2 Cor. 11.7–8 ). As the institutional structure of the church became more formal in later centuries, it became common for bishops to be drawn from the “more honorable” levels of society, who could combine traditional forms of patronage with the power of office.

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