Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Honor and Shame, Part 2

Continued from last entry.


So far we've taken a quick look on the most basic questions of honor and shame - what is it and why is it important? This time we'll investigate how one could gain or lose honor in their collectivistic society.

A person's honor rating can be subdivided into two basic categories: ascribed and acquired honor. According to Norwegian New Testament scholar, Halvor Moxnes, "ascribed honor is inherited from the family at birth. Each child takes on the general honor status that the family possesses in the eyes of the larger group, and therefore ascribed honor comes directly from family membership." This automatic grant of honor inherited at birth can not be added to or diminished, despite future actions of the person him or herself, unless the person gets adopted into a higher family. Acquired honor, on the other hand, "by its very nature...may be gained or lost in the perpetual struggle for public recognition.1,2 Let's take a closer look at these two categories.

Ascribed Honor

It makes sense that in a collectivist society (see previous blog entry), an individual of any given in-group should possess the same social standing of the whole. Individualism and a "Me, Myself, and I" mindset is completely foreign to such a person. Therefore, citizens of the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East, such as those found in the Bible, viewed the world through stereotypical lenses. For instance:

"Behold, everyone who uses proverbs will use this proverb about you: 'Like mother, like daughter.'" ---Ezekiel 16:44
"All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. ---Matthew 11:273
"No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD. ---Deuteronomy 23:2
"But you, draw near, sons of the sorceress, offspring of the adulterer and the loose woman. " ---Isaiah 57:3
"You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?" ---Matthew 23:33

It gets even more interesting with the following:

"One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, the Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies." ---Titus 1:12

This "prophet" that Paul referred to was none other than Epimenides, himself a Cretan!, when he said, "They fashioned a tomb for thee / O holy and high one / The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies! / But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever, / For in thee we live and move and have our being."4

The ancient world certainly wasn't politically correct, but they truly believed the blood of your family determined your worth. Bruce Malina says, "being born into an honorable family makes one honorable since the family is the repository of the honor of past illustrious ancestors and their accumulated acquired honor."5 Indeed, Ben Sira 3:11 attests to this when it says, "For the glory of a man is from the honour of his father; and a mother in dishonour is a reproach to the children."

With this in mind, if a person tried to discredit another, they often brought their enemy's lineage into question. Notice how Jesus called the Pharisees a "brood of vipers" (Richard Rohrbaugh says a more correct translation is "you snake bastards!" Not only were the Pharisees the offspring of hated serpents, they were illegitimate sons of hated serpents! 6)

In closing, Halvor Moxnes lists the following common elements of ascribed honor:

  1. The central unit of social organization is the family, and beyond that the lineage or clan. The consequences of this central position of the family are important. A person is never regarded as an isolated individual, buy always as part of a group, responsible for the honor of the group and also protected by it. Because honor always derives from the group, an individual's conduct also reflects back on the group and its honor.
  2. Since honor is linked to the family and depends heavily on the way it defends its honor status, the result is an exclusive loyalty toward the family. Thus honor values are exclusive and particularist and stand in sharp contrast to the universal and inclusive view of the West. Moreover, the history of the family becomes all-important.
  3. The family plays a central role in the agonistic character of honor societies. Family honor is on the line in the continual game of challenge and riposte, be it expressed in words, gestures, acts, or ultimately in feuds between families.
  4. Even if a family or a clan presents a common front toward outsiders, there may be conflicts and tensions within the group. There can be large differences between individual lineages in terms of wealth and status, hence some members of a family can become clients of other more honorable and wealthy ones. There can be fierce competitions between them for the kind of public honors and positions that can become hereditary within the lineage.7

Acquired Honor

"Acquired honor," according to Bruce Malina, "is the socially recognized claim to worth that a person acquires by excelling over others in the social interaction that we shall call challenge and response."8 Challenge and response is also called riposte, conjuring images of fencers delivering and parrying blows. This social game, which takes place almost always between people of different in-groups regardless of the apparent innocence of an encounter, occurs through antiquity to our present day in cultures that anthropologists term agonistic (from the Greek word for "contest")9

Riposte, says Malina, occurs in three phases. I shall demonstrate this by using a story from the Bible, found in the fourth chapter of Luke:

Luk 4:16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.
Luk 4:17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
Luk 4:18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
Luk 4:19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Luk 4:20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Luk 4:21 And he began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
Luk 4:22 And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, "Is not this Joseph's son?"
Luk 4:23 And he said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Physician, heal yourself.' What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well."
Luk 4:24 And he said, "Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.
Luk 4:25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land,
Luk 4:26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.
Luk 4:27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian."
Luk 4:28 When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath.
Luk 4:29 And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.
Luk 4:30 But passing through their midst, he went away.
As a preliminary note, Jesus just did a very honorable thing by reciting from memory the scriptures of Isaiah. The crowd was astonished and was granting Jesus a new grant of honor (a pious Jew, after all, is an honorable Jew). But somebody had to drop a turd in the middle of it all, which brings us to the first phase of riposte.

The first phase is "the challenge in terms of some action (word, deed, or both) on the part of the challenger"10. In this case, a subset of the group tried to deny Jesus His duly acquired honor by bringing His lineage into question ("Is not this Joseph's son?"). This group thought Jesus was being uppity and trying to rise above the status of a carpenter's son by claiming honor due to an expounder of the Law and the Prophets.

The second phase is "the perception of the message by both the individual to whom it is directed and the public at large."10 This is important because one of the favorite techniques an agonistic challenger will try to use is to insult his opponent so subtlety that they don't even recognize they're being insulted --- and thereby lose the honor challenge. Jesus, however, picks up on this slight and retorts. And He doesn't simply repay insult for insult - Jesus ups the ante by firing back two salvos. Which brings us to the third phase of a riposte encounter - "the reaction of the receiving individual and the evaluation of the reaction on the part of the public."10

Jesus' response was to say that a prophet often isn't recognized by his own countrymen; but God still honors the prophet and blesses those that receive him, even if that person should be an outsider, such as the widow and the Syrian. In other words, Jesus blasted His opposition by saying God will still will work through Him and if Jews won't accept His status, so what? God will then give to an outsider that which should have been received by one of His' chosen people - a scathing remark to a group who believed in the holiness of their race as opposed to that of the Gentiles.11

By resorting to violence, Jesus' opposition loses this honor challenge (challenge and response is a game of wit. When brawn tries to substitute for a deficient wit, the one who throws the first punch loses).

This entry has gone a bit long so I'll cut if off for now. Next time we'll go a bit deeper into ascribed and acquired honor, including the roles woman play in this social game.

  1. Halvor Moxnes and Richard Rohrbaugh, ed., The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation, (Massachusetts: Baker Academic, 1996), 20.
  2. David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2000), 28.
  3. Bruce Malina notes that this verse amounts to "like father, like son". Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 32.
  4. Epimenides, Cretica.
  5. Bruce Malina, 32.
  6. Richard Rohrbaugh, Honor and Shame: Core Values in the Biblical World. NOTE: This is a DVD recording of a lecture given by Dr. Rohrbaugh, previously acquired by the Biblical Archaeological Society; but has since been removed from the store.
  7. Halvor Moxnes and Richard Rohrbaugh, 28.
  8. Bruce Malina, 33.
  9. David deSilva, 29.
  10. Bruce Malina, 33.
  11. These insights came from Richard Rohrbaugh's lecture, Honor and Shame: Core Values in the Biblical World.

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