Biblical scholars are increasingly realising that honour and shame were both ubiquitous and crucial cultural values in the ancient world and that understanding the influence of these values is therefore important for anyone reading the Scriptures.
Those who come from cultures that place less overt emphasis on honour and shame will thus need to do some work to ensure they are alert to the role of these values in how the Scriptures were written and can be interpreted. This is particularly the case in many Western societies because in those, shame is often treated as an individual and psychological issue; however, a careful reading of the Scriptures can alert us to a fuller understanding that recognises that every individual (and therefore every individual’s experience of honour and shame) is embedded in and shaped by the society around them.
Shame in the First Testament
Adam and Eve “were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25 (ESV)). Many considerations of shame in the Bible begin with the creation stories, which establish some fundamental ideas about human existence. The first is that creation is described as good, not just in the sense of being morally righteous but also in the sense of bringing joy and delight. In Gen. 1, when God sees that creation is “good”, the Hebrew word is towb, which is used to describe something beautiful, that which brings joy. The second idea is that human existence is based in relationship – we are created to know ourselves in the gaze of another.1 The first creation story in Genesis constantly repeats that “God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31 (ESV)) and the second creation story emphasises that the first human created should not be alone and is incomplete until the second is made from his rib. Adam and Eve are then described as being “naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25 (ESV)). This is a key statement in a story that actually gives very few details about the couple; there is a sense that they were open, accepting and unafraid to show their true selves to each other. This makes it all the more striking that the very first response to the eating of the forbidden fruit is that the couple begin to judge themselves and hide from God. Their eyes are opened and they realise that they are naked (Gen. 3:7) and that realisation causes them to fear God and conceal themselves from God’s presence (Gen. 3:10). It is notable that in Genesis, the couple’s experience of shame, their own judgement on their nakedness and their attempts to blame each other and the serpent all happen before God pronounces any kind of verdict on what has happened. The experience of sin somehow alters the couple’s perception of themselves and introduces the notion of a judgemental gaze, before God actually responds.2
In Genesis sin and shame are closely intertwined and the story of both sin and shame is then continued in the next generation. Psychologists have pointed out that different people respond to shame differently – some withdraw and become quieter while others compensate and become more aggressive in order to cover their shame. It is possible, therefore, to see the effects of shame being described also in the story of Cain and Abel.3 Cain responds to shame by blaming his brother and resorting to violence; Abel, who is noticeably passive and silent in the story, responds to shame by becoming withdrawn. Issues of shame and honour are then a key issue in reading Scripture.
The wider Biblical context
There is a wealth of material from biblical scholars who discuss shame as part of the wider project to apply learning from the social sciences to our reading of both First and New Testaments. Bruce Malina published The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology in 1981,4 and since then the work of the Context Group has established the value of drawing on social anthropology in understanding the historical context of Scripture. The notion that the cultural world from which Scripture comes was collectivist (as opposed to the individualism of much of modern Western society) and that honour/shame was one of the key values of that society is now well established. There is much to be gained by recognising the particular context and culture in which the Bible was written; however, Zeba Crook has rightly warned against the assumption that any society is 100 per cent collectivist or 100 per cent individualistic, noting the difference between aspiring to be individualistic and being fully so.
These are tendencies: the ancient Mediterranean was no more 100 percent collectivistic than modern North American society is 100 percent individualistic. There are elements of each found in the other, but the occurrence of collective concerns among North Americans (e.g., peer pressure) does not diminish the dominance of an individualistic ideology.5
Those of us in the West must be careful, therefore, not to treat biblical culture as if it is entirely alien to us, while at the same time understanding that by recognising that the desire to have honour and to avoid shame was a central cultural value, we can be alert to nuances in the text that might otherwise be missed. Equally, an approach to shame that recognises the role of the community in deciding who is honoured and who is shamed resists the individualist impulse to regard shame as being purely a personal psychological issue that needs healing. Rather, a reading of Scripture that takes note of the way in which shame and honour shape human life necessarily leads to reflection on issues of sin and how power is exercised. Western readers who are accustomed to looking only for the dynamic of sin–guilt–forgiveness can easily overlook the wealth of biblical material that deals with sin–shame–flourishing (of both individuals and communities).
It is not easy to tell the difference between shame and guilt. In theory they are often distinguished by saying that we feel guilt when we do something wrong but feel shame when we come to believe that there is something wrong with us. Shame is a feeling of being worthless, flawed or unwanted and can range from a temporary experience to a lifelong struggle. In practice, we do not always distinguish well between shame and guilt; people may talk about feeling guilt when in fact what they are dealing with is the deeper and more insidious problem of shame.
The opposite of shame is normally held to be honour and, in a group-oriented society, honour is a complicated mix of how others see us and our own self-image. It is not possible for someone who lives in a shame/honour culture to have a strong sense of self-worth unless that person is honoured by the group around them. This means that being subject to public disgrace (particularly if a person’s honour group abandons them) may be even more devastating in a shame/honour society than in some modern Western cultures.6
What is more, in order to be honoured by the group around them, a person needs to live by the values of that particular group. Honour, in this sense, may be said to hold together something that individualistic societies separate – reputation and integrity. Again, this is a nuance that Western readers often miss, regarding the desire for honour as simply meaning a desire to have others think well of you. Just like shame, honour has both an internal psychological and an external social dimension. As Kwame Appiah expresses it:
It’s important to understand that while honor is an entitlement to respect— and shame comes when you lose that title— a person of honor cares first of all not about being respected but about being worthy of respect. Someone who just wants to be respected won’t care whether he is really living up to the code; he will just want to be thought to be living up to it. He will be managing his reputation, not maintaining his honor.7
Appiah’s mention of a code of honour here reminds us of another dimension of honour that is strongly related to being embedded in a group. The assumption is that the group operates by an agreed standard or set of values – what Appiah calls an “honour code”. To be considered and to consider themselves as honourable, a person must live out that code, and importantly since honour involves an intricate relationship between a person’s own internal judgement on themselves and the judgement of the group, it is important to live up to that code even when no one observes you.
I said that the honorable person cares about honor itself, not simply about the social rewards of being considered honorable. Emotions like shame (and pride) are reinforced, it’s true, when other people are watching – especially those whose respect matters to me most. Nevertheless, honor requires me to conform to the standard for its own sake, not merely for the sake of reputation and its rewards. And someone who aims at reputation for its own sake is taking a dishonorable short cut.8
Appiah goes on to argue that honour and the desire for honour is a powerful motivating force that has been harnessed for good in the past and could be again.
Seek honour from Yahweh
The Scriptures recognise the danger of a person who is shameless, in the sense of failing to have due regard for others. This is particularly the case when the shameless person is in a position of power. Thus, the leaders of Israel are criticised heavily for their failure to act honourably; in Jeremiah’s description the problem is that they have acted shamefully but did not know how to blush (Jer. 6:15) – in other words, they have lost touch with honour in the sense of integrity and treating other people with respect. At the same time, there is also encouragement to seek honour from Yahweh; the challenge to the Israelites is not that they ignore the quest for honour – the challenge is to strive above all to be honoured by Yahweh, which means to live by Yahweh’s standards for what is honourable and what is shameful (1 Sam. 2:30). Oppressing the poor is seen as an insult to God while generosity honours God (Prov. 14:31). Equally, God is portrayed as one who honours those whom society shames (1 Sam. 2:7–8).
A further and even more countercultural theme is that God will sometimes call on God’s people to bear shame, a theme that is epitomised in the mysterious figure of the so-called “suffering servant” in Isaiah. In Isa. 53, there is a strong emphasis that the servant is “despised, rejected and held in low esteem” among the other forms of distress described, and yet somehow it is that very shame that brings healing to others. The final end for the servant is honour in the sight of God.
Therefore, I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isa. 53:12 (NRSV))
Jesus and shame
These same themes are then explored further in the New Testament depictions of Jesus. Jesus is portrayed as one who challenges the usual assumptions about honour (Luke 14:7–14, Matt. 23:11–12), who honours those whom society treats with disrespect and who takes issue with his disciples’ preoccupation with who is the greatest (Mark 9:34, Matt. 18:1, Luke 9:46). In the early parts of the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as powerful and yet as often resisting the attempts of others to honour him in public. The ancient Mediterranean world commonly assumed that it was desirable for good and generous acts to become well known – thus bringing honour to the person concerned – and yet Jesus often tells those he has healed to keep quiet (Mark 5:43), while evil spirits who recognise him as “the Holy One of God” are commanded to silence (Mark 1:24).9
Crucifixion was deliberately designed to be the most humiliating death conceivable and it is possible to see a devastating determination to shame the victim in many aspects by how it was performed. The victim would be naked and held up for disgrace. There was a deliberate element of being mocked and the execution was usually performed in a prominent public place. The Romans regarded crucifixion as so shameful that it was not discussed in polite company. For the first disciples and for the New Testament writers, one of the great challenges of following Jesus was not simply his death but the particularly shameful way in which he died.10
The Gospel writers respond to this challenge in different ways. Mark’s Gospel makes the dishonour that Jesus suffers a central element in the presentation of who Jesus is. The Gospel is structured so that Jesus is first portrayed as powerful and honourable and yet, as noted, also resisting the attempts of others to enhance his honour by telling people about him. After the Transfiguration, Jesus first predicts that he will be treated with contempt (Mark 9:12) and then suffers the degradation of being betrayed by a disciple, abandoned by those who should have supported him, arrested and put to death in a particularly humiliating way. In this way, Mark makes the mystery of a humiliated Messiah central to the Christian Gospel.
John, however, presents the crucifixion as being, in some mysterious way, a means by which Jesus is glorified (John 12:27–36). Jesus refers to his death as the time when he will be lifted up (John 12:32), which both refers to the fact that victims of crucifixion were elevated and carries the meaning of exaltation and being raised to honour. John stresses Jesus’ power and voluntary surrender (John 18:11 and 19:11) and that Jesus was crucified as “King of the Jews” (John 19:19–22). John, it seems, attempts to subvert the humiliation of Jesus’ death by characterising it as, in fact, profoundly honourable.
Shame in Paul’s letters
Paul’s understanding of Jesus is shaped by the struggle to understand a crucified Messiah, regarded by the Jews as scandalous and by the Gentiles as ridiculous, and yet for Paul it is precisely the humiliated Jesus who is the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:23–27). Thus, the crucifixion asks key questions for Paul about what wisdom and power look like in the light of Christ. But the crucifixion was not, of course, the end of the story. For Paul, as for the rest of the New Testament, Jesus is not simply the crucified Messiah, he is also the resurrected one – and it is important to recognise that in raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicated the one who had been humiliated by earthly powers. Thus, Paul opens the letter to the Romans by referring to Jesus as having been “declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4 (NRSV)). We might say that the Roman empire gave one verdict on Jesus in the humiliation of crucifixion, but that God returned a very different one in the resurrection. The letter to the Philippians holds that the death and resurrection together show us something of the nature of God. Jesus, being in the form of God, refuses to grasp at equality with God but empties himself and accepts even death on a cross. Therefore, God exalts him (Phil. 2:5–11).
In other words, in their portrayal of Jesus, the biblical writers seek to raise the issue of “Whose honour and whose shame?” in different ways. Jesus is presented as one who accepted being shamed by those around him but was ultimately demonstrated to be honoured by God. Just as the Israelites were encouraged to seek honour from God, so Paul also is quite comfortable arguing that Christians should be motivated by a desire for honour, provided that the honour they are seeking is from God.11 This is then to be worked out also in the inner life of the Christian Church; Paul’s famous image of the church as the body of Christ allows him to make this argument.
On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.1 Cor. 12:22–26 (NRSV)
There is gracious picture here of a group of people who are particularly attentive to the question of who among them normally receives honour and who is normally shamed. The gospel calls us to ensure that it is those often treated as if they were less valuable who should be given particular respect within the family of God.
It is not easy to summarise what the Bible has to say about shame in a relatively brief article, not least because different biblical writers take different approaches to how the subject is handled. It is, however, possible to argue the following. First, that understanding the cultural values of honour and shame is vital for a faithful exegesis of Scripture. Secondly, that the Bible offers a wealth of teaching that is particularly helpful to those who struggle with shame as much or more than they do with guilt. Finally, reading the Bible constantly challenges the reader to consider again what is shameful and what is honourable and how to be faithful to a Messiah who is both the crucified and the resurrected one.
Judith Rossall is tutor in church history and preaching at The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. She is a Methodist minister and author of Forbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves: Reading the Bible with the Shamed (SCM Press, 2020). She is also a member of the Transforming Shame network, which can be found on both Facebook and YouTube. She spoke about the Bible and shame at the Transforming Shame conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvQ0VlDB7D0
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1 Judith Rossall, Forbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves: Reading the Bible with the Shamed (London: SCM Press, 2020), 2–3.
2 Mike Higton, Christian Doctrine (London: SCM Press, 2008), 267.
3 Rossall, Forbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves, 12–20.
4 Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981).
5 Zeba Crook, “Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited,” Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no. 3 (2009): 599.
6 Gabriele Taylor, Pride, Shame, and Guilt: Emotions of Self-Assessment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 55.
7 Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2011), 16.
8 Ibid., 18.
9 David F. Watson, Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 37–62.
10 Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (London: SCM Press, 1977), 87–88.
11 Jayson Georges, “From Shame to Honor: A Theological Reading of Romans for Honor–Shame Contexts,” Missiology 38, no. 3 (2010): 301–2.