When reading the Bible, individuals bring their own cultural background to the text and view Scripture through the lens of their own experiences. However, understanding the world Jesus and first-century Christians lived in requires studying their society and interpreting texts based on how they would have understood them without imposing our twenty-first century ideas on ancient texts. Malina and Neyrey assert that "to come to understand the persons of the ancient Mediterranean world … we should be prepared to learn entirely new ways of perceiving as to assess these persons on their own terms" (Malina and Neyrey, 1996, 4). This is a difficult task for most people because the first-century Mediterranean society was so different from anything a person living in a Western culture experiences. It becomes even more difficult when one realises that many things that would be no-brainers for the average first-century Palestinian aren't mentioned in Scripture, because the authors lived in a high context society. Since people shared a large body of knowledge, they didn't bother to state certain concepts that would be taken for granted by the reader. Group embeddedness and honor are two such concepts which permeated the world of the early Christians, and which we must understand if we hope to ever view the Scriptures in the same way as the early Christians.
Western civilizations are overwhelmingly individualistic; it is assumed that the individual will look after his own interests first, and if it benefits society as well, that is an added bonus. Individualistic cultures did not exist before the sixteenth century, and such a mindset would be considered a pathology in the New Testament world. The ancient Mediterranean society was group-oriented; decisions were made based on what was best for the group (Malina and Neyrey, 1996, 11,13). They were group-embedded, meaning that each individual was part of a community which shared common beliefs and values. Group-embedded people would not hold their own opinions per se; the beliefs of the individual would mirror the beliefs of his community (16,72-73).
People in the New Testament world would have been viewed in terms of their relationships with others, as 'son of so-and-so,' or as a member of a group, such as the scribes or Pharisees. Since the behavior of one individual reflected on the group as a whole, the community would encourage behavior that upheld their beliefs and traditions, and undesirable behavior would be met with strong censures, ranging from insult and reproach to physical abuse and confiscation of property or, at worst, execution (DeSilva, 2000, 36). Collectivist cultures depended heavily on the community for upholding cultural norms, since it is assumed that people lack the personal inhibition to control themselves (Malina and Neyrey, 1996, 186). Because the community had the role of keeping the individual in line, there was no expectation of privacy; anything done in secret was immediately associated with evil intentions (Pilch and Malina, 1998, xxxii)
Just as a person was expected to uphold the traditions and beliefs of his community, it was assumed he would exhibit the same traits members of his family had always exhibited. This was thought to be inherited from his family, and something he was unable to change (26). This is why the early Christians were so suspicious of Paul's conversion until Barnabas testified on his behalf (Acts 9:26-27). Similarly, a student was expected to develop the beliefs and character of his teacher, who molded him into a version of himself. The objective was not to exercise creativity or originality, but to learn the values and traditions of their culture. The student could only hope to imitate his teacher; it was impossible in their minds for a student to surpass the one who taught him. Jesus uses this idea when he asserts that "a student is not above his teacher" (Luke 6:40, Matt. 10:24).
Since all the people in a community or group held certain similar beliefs, it was possible to stereotype people. Very few Pharisees are identified by name in the Bible, it is enough for the reader to know that they are Pharisees (Pilch and Malina, 1998, xxvi). The most important traits ancient people used to define relationships between individuals in the society were one's gender, country of origin, and race. By knowing these three things about someone in the ancient world, one would be able to know a great deal about the person (Malina and Neyrey, 1996, 3). When asked, Paul identified himself in Acts 21:39 as a Jew from Tarsus and a citizen of Rome; for a person in that culture, that is all the information needed to make an accurate judgment about his character. In his letter to Titus, he makes use of common stereotypes about Cretans: "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons" (1:12).
The values of honor and shame are central in the Bible. These are values that any person living in the ancient Mediterranean world would have understood from youth, but which most Americans have trouble understanding. Honor may be defined as "a claim to worth that is publicly acknowledged" (Pilch and Malina, 1998, 106). Typically, behavior was sanctioned by labeling it as honorable or dishonorable, rather than right or wrong, profitable or unprofitable (DeSilva, 2000, 24). Each culture had its own standards for determining honorable and dishonorable behavior; something that would be considered honorable in one group may be considered dishonorable in another (25). For instance, Jews and Christians both considered idol worship to be dishonorable, but it was a regular part of Roman and Greek everyday life which was considered to be honorable in that group.
A person would receive a certain amount of honor at birth, simply by being 'son of so-and-so.' Since social standing and worth were largely determined through one's gender and the family he or she was born into, it is something that one is essentially powerless to change. Certain people groups were considered to be more honorable than others. Jews would not associate with Samaritans normally; the term 'Good Samaritan' would have been an utterly foreign oxymoron to the Jews of Jesus' day. Because one's main source of honor derived from one's lineage, honor challenges often include attacks on parentage (DeSilva, 2000, 28).While some honor is set at birth, honor may also be acquired by virtuous or heroic deeds (Malina and Rohrbaugh, 2003, 325). One may also have honor ascribed to him by people with higher social status, or by being granted membership to a group that is considered honorable, such as a citizenship in a polis (Malina and Neyrey, 1996, 83; DeSilva, 2000, 28).
Honor may also be earned through taking it from others via the game of challenge-riposte. In challenge-riposte, a challenge is made in public which must then be answered. If the one who is challenged fails to answer, then he loses honor in the eyes of the community and the one who challenges gains honor. However, if he successfully "ups the ante" with an answer which the challenger cannot answer, he gains honor, and the challenger loses honor. (DeSilva, 2000, 29). When viewed in the context of challenge-riposte, even the seemingly innocent questions asked by the scribes are serious challenges to Jesus' honor (31). In these exchanges, Jesus shows proficiency in answering challenges, until "no one dared ask him any more questions" (Luke 20:40).
However, someone who gained too much honor was seen to be a threat to the community. Ancient people believed that everything that was good existed in limited quantities that had already been distributed by God. So someone who gained wealth, prestige, or honor had to be taking it from someone else around him, even if that person did not know it (Pilch and Malina, 1998, 123-124). Since position in life was seen as granted by God, for one to try to gain honor or wealth was looked down as not only selfish because he was taking from other people in the community, but as in rebellion against God as well. John the Baptist demonstrates the concept of 'limited good' with regard to Jesus' growing popularity, but accepted it, saying, "He must increase, but I must decrease," implying that for Jesus to gain honor meant that he had to lose some of his own (John 3:30).
Considerations on what is honorable and dishonorable often center on how it affects the family, which was the most important institution for society at that time, or society in general (Malina and Neyrey, 1996, 17). Practices such as adultery are dishonorable because they weaken the stability of the family, and by extension, that of society as a whole. Cowardice puts the individual's safety before the good of the group, and failing to honor the local gods or rulers risks losing their favor or invoking their wrath, thus the dishonorable designation for both behaviors (DeSilva, 2000, 34).
Jesus did many things which would have been considered dishonorable by the religious authorities during that time, e.g. eating with tax collectors and 'sinners' (Matt. 9:11), breaking the tradition of the elders, which was considered to have the same authority as the Torah by the Pharisees (Matt. 15:1-2), and associating with Samaritans (John 4:7-42). Jesus' death on a cross was the most shameful death possible; it is the shame of the cross, not the pain, that is emphasized in the New Testament (Hebrews 12:2). However, Jesus never condemned the honor/shame system; he redefined what was honorable. Instead of taking revenge 'an eye for an eye,' the appropriate response for gaining back lost honor, Jesus instructs his followers to love their enemies, to bless the ones that curse them, to return "hostility with generosity, violence with courageous refusal to use violence, curse with blessing from God's inexhaustible resources of goodness and kindness" (DeSilva, 2000, 71; Luke 6:28,35).
Early Christians faced persecution because they did not conform with the accepted norms of what was honorable and dishonorable in the Greek or Jewish cultures (DeSilva, 2000, 43). However, the author of Hebrews describes withstanding the suffering and dishonor as an honorable exercise which builds the character of the Christian, strengthening his loyalty to God and preparing him for citizenship in Heaven (DeSilva, 2000, 69; Heb. 12:5-11). Furthermore, from the Christian perspective, the unbelievers could not make a valid judgment about what was honorable, because they did not know God, who is the most honorable of all. Believers gain much more honor from God than they lose in the world's sight, having been adopted into God's family and gaining a share of Christ's honor (DeSilva, 2000, 62, 73; Hebrews 2:10). Still, some Jewish Christians tried to Judaize the Gentile Christians to help put their Jewish neighbors at rest (50). Paul fiercely attacks this practice in Galatians especially (Galatians 1:6-9, 2:11-14, 5:12).
As Christians, we should want faith and beliefs to match Jesus' teaching as closely as possible, and this is difficult or impossible coming to the Scriptures with only our preconceived notions and experiences. Knowledge the cultural context is only one part which is needed for sound interpretation of biblical passages, but it is an indispensable tool for sound exegesis.
DeSilva, David A. Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2000.
Malina, Bruce and Jerome H. Neyrey. Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1996.
Malina, Bruce J. and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. 2 ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Pilch, John J. and Bruce J. Malina, eds. Handbook of Biblical Social Values. Rev. ed. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.