Three reasons to read the Bible through the “lens of honor and shame”

#1: When we understand that the ancient world of the Bible is characterized by the pivotal cultural value of honor and shame—we can better understand God’s Word. 

  • The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) said: “Now the greatest external good we should assume to be the thing which we offer as a tribute to the gods and which is most coveted by men of high station, and is the prize awarded for the noblest deeds; and such a thing is honour, for honour is clearly the greatest of external goods … it is honour above all else that great men claim and deserve.” [1]
  • “Athenians excel all others not so much in singing or in stature or in strength, as in love of honour” –Xenophon [2] (c. 430–354 BC)
  • “For the glory that the Romans burned to possess, be it known, is the favourable judgment of men who think well of other men.” [3]–Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
  • “The ancients name love of honor and praise as their premier value.” –Jerome Neyrey[4]

So to be a faithful interpreter of the ancient texts of the Holy Bible, we benefit from being familiar with the cultural values of the world in which the Bible authors wrote—namely, the pivotal cultural value of honor and shame.

#2: As we read the Bible through the lens of honor and shame, we’ll see more readily that, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is not only remedying the guilt of persons—God is also covering the shame and restoring the honor of persons.

Notice these verses which address the covering of shame and restoration and even the elevation of honor of those wo follow Christ:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name,he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. –John 1:12–13 ESV

How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? –John 5:44

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, –John 17:20-22 ESV

 …if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.  –Romans 10:9–11 ESV

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.  –2 Thessalonians 1:11–12 ESV

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. –2 Thessalonians 2:13–14 ESV

For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. –1 Peter 2:6-8 ESV

To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. –Colossians 1:27 ESV

#3: As we read the Bible through the lens of honor and shame, we recognize that these same cultural values are vitally important to many Majority World peoples today. This helps people from the West and Majority World understand each other better—and build meaningful friendships more easily.

  • We (Westerners) become aware of the powerful motivation of “saving face”—protecting oneself (and the other person!) from embarrassment. We learn the art and the value of indirect communication.
  • We recognize that job title, age, and “position of authority” is just as significant as effectiveness or job performance.
  • We learn that kinship and family “name” can be much more important than it is to people living in highly individualistic societies. We learn to honor the family more deeply.
  • We develop the ability to value relationships as much as tasks, and that just being together is honoring of the people with whom we gather, and is as valuable as any accomplishment.
  • We learn to put team or group ahead of the individual—requiring us to submit our own desires to those of the community. This can encourage us to be more patient. When everything inside says, Stand up and speak and make your ideas known!—we instead exercise patience and calmness in honor of the larger group.

Since early 2009, I’ve been reading my Bible through the lens of honor and shame. I say this plainly:

As I journey in life as a follower of Christ—I have gained a better sense of my own honor before God as my Father, and have become more comfortable in relating to people from non-Western cultures. A big reason why is that I’ve been reading the Bible through the lens of honor and shame.

[1] See Jerome H. Neyrey: Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1998) p.5
[2] ibid, p. 17
[3] ibid, p. 17
[4] ibid, p. 17


One thought on “Three reasons to read the Bible through the “lens of honor and shame”

  1. Werner Mischke Reply

    Wow, Howard, that is amazing you got to visit with Bedouins in Israel back in 1979. How wonderful! You are absolutely right about the closeness of their ways with the ways of the people of the Bible. Of course, the Bible is an Eastern book, not a Western book. And when we learn the cultural ways of the people of the Bible, we become acquainted with many of the values of Eastern people. Check out my article on honor and shame here: http://beautyofpartnership.org/about/free.

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