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Understanding the Gospels: Part 4

Introduction

What follows is my fourth installment to the blog series “Understanding the Gospels.” What I have sought to do is provide some insightful cultural and contextual information for understanding the New Testament background. I have painted with a broad brush, but I hope these posts will help some understand the Gospels more clearly and in that way come to know Jesus more fully.

If you missed my other posts, you can click to view Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. This post focuses on a couple of cultural elements of the NT. We will explore briefly the role of group orientation and the cultural dynamic of shame/honor. Originally this post was also going to cover the socioeconomic context and the cultural element of clean/unclean, but that would make this post too long. My next and final post will cover those two elements.

Group Orientation

America is one of the most individualistic cultures in the world. On a scale of 1—100, America scores 91 according to some research, which is the highest score result of cultures researched. [1] What this means is that we typically see ourselves, our identity, our rights, and our opinions as being self-determined and separate from the collective group. “To be an individualist is to be a self-standing person in a society where all people have a right to their own opinions and can speak for themselves.”[2] This cultural reality means that the Mediterranean world of the New Testament is about as foreign to us Westerners as could be since the Mediterranean world is highly collectivistic.

In a collectivists culture one’s identity is completely and directly related to one’s group orientation. A person in the Mediterranean world does not merely represent themselves, nor would they define themselves in individualistic terms. A person in the New Testament context was the sum total of their social networks and connections. Since their family lineage often had a direct correlation to their ethnic identity, social-economic status, religious orientation, and even occupational field, an individual’s identity and connections were nearly indistinguishable from their family name. Therefore, loyalty to the group or family name was an extremely high value. This also explains why in Acts whole households come to faith in Jesus Christ and are baptized (Acts 16:15, 33).

This group orientation/collective identity is not right, wrong, superior, or inferior. Our individualistic culture is also not right, wrong, superior, or inferior. Both cultural dynamics have pros and cons. The issue is our reading of Scripture and the cultural lens through which we interpret the text. We need to be aware of how we read the text—especially “you” statements. Many of the “you” statements in the NT could be better understood as “y’all” statements as they were addressing a community of believers.

Shame & Honor

“For the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, honor is the supreme social commodity.”[3] Honor in the New Testament context is simply the public and collective approval and appraisal of one’s social standing. In other words, honor was the public recognition of one’s social standing as determined by the whole. Honor was either ascribed or achieved/acquired, honor could be lost, and honor effected one’s socioeconomic status.

Honor was ascribed or inherited at birth from the family name—whatever honor the greater whole of society had ascribed to a person’s family name was inherited. One could acquire honor by doing benevolent or noble deeds like fighting for a noble cause, hosting a banguet, providing food for others during drought, building a public building, and such.[4] Another way one could acquire honor was through emerging as the victor in a competition. If one was the “loser” he lost honor. Honor was a static resource in that for one to gain honor another would have to lose some.

One of the most common public competitions in which honor could be one was the “game” of challenge and riposte. Here is how it worked: The game was initiated by a challenge. The challenge could be in the form of a question, an insult, an invitation, or even a gift. The person challenged, in order to defend his honor, would have to respond and sort of “one-up” the challenger to win. The game was played between people of equal or almost equal honor. For a person of high honor to challenge someone of lower honor was shameful. It would be like stooping to a lower level. Therefore, a challenger acknowledged the honor of the other person by nature of initiating the game. Likewise, the challenge would only be accepted if the person believed the challenger to be worthy of respect. [5]

In the Gosples, this cultural dynamic is seen frequently between Jesus and the Pharisees (Matt. 22:23-33; Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26, 10:25-37, 20:19-26). Implied within their challenging Jesus is the acknowledgement of his honor. Likewise, Jesus response to their challenges was his public acknowledgment of their respected position. However, Jesus often won the crowd’s approval and thereby shamed the Pharisees publically. “The winner of such a competitive exchange has defended his honor, while the loser experiences shame and his standing in the community is damaged.”[6] This is, at least in a small part, why the religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus. He was publically shaming them and thereby damaging their standing with the people.

Conclusion

The world of the Bible is drastically different from our Western, 21st Century world. Whether we realize it or not, our cultural and social setting influences how we read and interpret the Bible. In this post I have addressed two cultural and social dynamics that are pretty foreign to our modern day context. My hope is that understanding these elements will enrich your reading of the New Testament, specifically the four Gospels.

Questions

  1. How might the cultural element of individualism or collectivism influence the way one interprets Scripture?

  2. What is different about the NT world’s view of shame and honor from our current view?

  3. How does understanding the game of challenge and riposte shed light on the stories in the Gospels?

[1] Livermore, D. A. (2009). Cultural Intelligence: Improving your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. (p. 123)

[2] Livermore, D. A. (2009). Cultural Intelligence: Improving your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. (p. 68)

[3] Moore, Mark E. (2003). Fanning the flame: probing the issues in Acts. College Press Pub. Co. (p. 101)

[4] Moore, Mark E. (2003). Fanning the flame: probing the issues in Acts. College Press Pub. Co. (p. 102)

[5] Moxnes, H. (1993). “Honor and Shame.” Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture, vol. 23, no. 4. (p. 20-21).

[6] Moxnes, H. (1993). “Honor and Shame.” Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture, vol. 23, no. 4. (p. 21)

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