This essay is about a significant difference between our world and the world of the Bible, which seriously affects our interpretation of the Bible.

There was a time when a Skeptic suggested that some Biblical character had acted a certain way because they were "feeling guilty."

Skeptics are not the only ones who may say such a thing, but whoever does, the following statement may come as a surprise:

"Since the introspective, guilt-oriented outlook of industrialized societies did not exist [in NT times], it is unlikely that forgiveness meant psychological healing. Instead, forgiveness by God meant being divinely restored to one's position and therefore freed from fear of loss at the hands of God" [63].

This comes from the work of Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, in their social science commentary on the Gospels. Rohrbaugh himself said, in an email dated August 22, 2002, to a Skeptic who could not believe my explanation was true:

To be precise it is not quite accurate to say that guilt is a "modern" invention. Both guilt and shame exist in most societies though one response or the other usually dominates. Collectivist societies (dyadic view of personality) are ALL shame societies. Thus All known agrarian societies have been honor-shame societies and it is only individualistic societies in which guilt comes to the fore. The issue is therefore not the modern versus the ancient, but the collectivist versus the individualistic. Since industrialized societies allow for economic, political, and especially psychological individualism, it is industrialized societies that are guilt cultures. It is because the ancient Mediterranean world was a highly collectivistic, agrarian society that guilt was virtually unknown. Reading it into ANY biblical text is a serious mistake.

In reply, I have had Skeptics posit verses like these:

Psalm 38:4 is interesting 'My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.'
Proverbs 28:17 'A man tormented by the guilt of murder will be a fugitive till death; let no one support him.'
1 Corinthians 4:4 'My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.'

The problem -- as noted by scholars like Malina and Rohrbaugh -- is that these are anachronistic translations.As Rohrbaugh stated in reply to an inquirer:

No, these texts do not indicate that ancient people could be overcome by guilt. They indicate that people could be overcome by shame. Understanding the difference between guilt and shame is crucial here. Guilt is an internal reaction to a violation of one's own conscience. It depends on the existence of an individual conscience - something Middle Easterners do not have.
Shame is an internalization of the moral judgment that comes from outside, from the group. In shame cultures it is the group that has the conscience, not the individual. Thus when a group accuses one of violating its standards, deep shame is the result. That is what we read about in the Bible. See 1 Cor. 4:4.
To understand this more fully, please read the books on the Gospels that Bruce Malina and I have co-authored. Even more important are the many scholarly journal articles we have published. Internet quotes devoid of serious scholarly background are not the way to understand this.'

There are critical questions that need to be asked of this and other passages.

First, what is the Greek or Hebrew word for "conscience" or "guilt" in such passages? In many cases, there isn't one. One exception is Rom. 2:15, where the word is suneidesis, and that merely means one's moral perception -- not "conscience" in the modern sense of something internal that instigates guilt.

As Malina and Neyrey say in their own book, Portraits of Paul [187], the "conscience" in Paul's collectivist society was behavioral controls that laid outside the person. An ancient would regard as unintelligible the modern comment, "Let your conscience be your guide!" Modern translations, assuming modern values and perceptions, are putting the modern concepts of "guilt" and "conscience" into these passages. The KJV commits a similar error (or we gain a similar misunderstanding) from suneidesis being rendered "conscience".

Malina and Rohrbaugh's coterie of scholars -- the Context Group -- have been filling in the missing links in Western Biblical scholarship with 20 and more years of research supported by over half a century of ethnographical and social studies. Biblical translators aren't/weren't experts in social anthropology; the Context Group members are, and they have shown that Western Biblical scholarship as a whole (conservative, liberal, whatever) has been guilty of a widespread anachronism.

Second, how does this work out in practice? Would someone in a shame-oriented, collectivist society feel no guilty conscience about driving his car at 100 miles an hour, drunk, down the wrong way of a one way street? The answer -- hard as it may be to accept -- is yes.

In our guilt-oriented society, if someone really drives like this, he is expected to feel guilty whether the police stop him or not. In a shame culture, if the police miss him, he feels nothing; if he is caught, he is guilty (not "feeling guilt" -- rather, culpable) and is shamed (not "feeling guilty"); if he actually didn't drive that way, but people nevertheless believe he did, he is still shamed and dishonored.

An excellent introduction to these differences in the social world of individualist and collectivist societies may be found with this popular summary.


We may amplify these points with some real-world comments from someone who has one foot in our world, and the other foot in a world like the Bible's. Our writer comes from a native Chinese family, and now lives in the United States. China is still a collectivist, honor-shame culture as a whole, and our writer is specially qualified to give us some insight. The floor to our writer:


...A majority of the world is Chinese. So am I. We emphasize the extended family as a unit, we carry a monstrously vast line of traditions, and we even place surnames in front of personal names to show priorities in terms of identity. Certainly, not all of us follow the ways of our ancestors strictly, but this is due to the influence of, you guessed it, the Western world. But having been raised as in the first generation in this nation, I can say for certain that there are immense cultural differences. In particular, honor and shame rather than innocence and guilt are the issue: we do not think in terms of Jiminy Crickets in our heads, but rather base values on the group as a whole.

At gatherings, for instance, a father may yell at his child for being "diu liên"--throwing one's face away, a lovely image for what it means to be, for lack of a better word, shameful. But even in instances of moral guilt, what happens? The same phrase is applied, whether the child was caught cheating on homework, stealing a bicycle, or throwing food across the room in a restaurant. In some cases, yes, manners are the issue, but for some reason, it is not the fact that the action was in itself wrong that one is condemned for--it is the fact that it brought shame, particularly to the family name. For this reason, perhaps, Asians in general have been advocates of stricter discipline, particularly corporal. Modern psychologists may claim that punishment does no good, but for the honor-driven parents, it certainly brings about the desired behavior modification.

Of course, there are more trivial examples. There is rarely a gathering in which people will not "fight" over the right to pay the bill. Of course, each will attempt to claim it first, (not because it is morally right, or because they really want to, but because it is honorable,) and they will attempt to excuse the others by elaborating on how embarrassing it would be to accept it. Then there is the stereotype of the high grades, the good schools, the countless extracurriculars, at least piano or violin, and so forth. For what purpose? To represent the family name. You will never hear the older generation say, "It's for your own good," whether in regard to an order, or a punishment, or anything, because it simply isn't about us as individuals. And you will most certainly never hear, "Don't you feel bad?" The Chinese are notorious for their stoic attitudes. It is sometimes joked that we as a race don't even have emotions.

There is another silly game often played. One might say something intentionally belittling so as to win reinforcing praise from the other party, whether with regard to how a child never studies or how poorly the food is cooked. This, of course, is a cheap way to win, you guessed it, honor. As a result, the principle of limited good shows up all the time. People do not dispense presents or hospitality out of goodwill, but necessity, because it would be shameful to accept it without returning the favor.

Of course, a known tendency in such a society can be to become completely dishonest. So long as one is not caught, any means are fine. There is fierce competition and pressure, which is why it never surprised me that many of my fellow American- born Chinese peers ended up, in fact, doing this. They had become so obsessed with the outward favor that they took a Machiavellian approach to it all. It never once bothered them that they might be doing the wrong thing. It never once occurred to them to live for themselves. It never occurred to them that there was an internal concept of right and wrong. These are ideas foreign to us.

I was once reprimanded for inappropriate behavior during recess back in elementary school. When the teacher tried to explain how I might hurt the other children, how I should feel bad, and how I should say sorry, much of it did not make any sense, because I knew my parents would scold me for making them look bad. One view was individualistic, emotional, and personal. The other was collectivist, pragmatic, and social. I can understand how the modern understanding of the Christian message came to be this fuzzy idea of accepting Jesus into one's heart, to believe and have a wonderful, soul-lifting experience and freedom from guilt, replete with flowers and singing. On the other hand, I have never been able to identify with this, although I can most certainly say that the collectivist, honor-shame mindset was crucial to making the Chinese church I grew up in look a lot more like the one seen in Acts rather than the dead, formal service churches are popularly made out to be.


Objection: The flaw in this method is the obvious fact that differences of opinion can be found in any field of 'expertise,' whether it be sociology, psychology, history, law, medicine, or whatever.

This is merely indicating an inability to produce authoritative contrary scholarship. Let us make this matter simple, however: There are NO authorities in the field of sociology who disagree concerning the basic matter of honor/shame verses guilt societies. The reason Malina and Rohrbaugh (and all the other authorities) know these things is because even today, 70-75% of the world is still honor-shame oriented. We know how a "guilt society" develops -- because a leisure class develops, which enables time for introspection.

That is why the first recorded signals of what we call "guilt" appear in the works of the classic, at-leisure Greek authors (as a linked item above notes).

Human nature being human nature would tell us that such emotions as guilt did exist in biblical times.This is simply an expression of cultural imperialism that ascribes modern values to the necessary expression of being "human." The simple fact is that we have "living laboratories" as well as social models of development, and the texts that tell us that the ancients were honor-oriented. We do not, by the same token, have to have studied personally every person who lived in Biblical times to make these claims.

I can produce Biblical citations that show that people felt guilty.

As above, such claims usually rebound to one of three errors:

  1. They arbitrarily make "guilt" the emotion experienced, though it is not mentioned in the text (in other words, they commit what Rohrbaugh called the serious mistake of reading it into the texts)
  2. They appeal to some modern translation that does the same (note again that none of the translators are/were qualified as social scientists or anthropologists).
  3. In some cases they confuse a statement of legal guilt with a feeling of guilt and then make the same mistake of assuming that the feeling had to be there.

When it comes to guilt and shame, there seems to be an overlapping of these emotions, which makes it difficult to imagine someone's experiencing the one without experiencing at least some of the other.

Hard for us to imagine, perhaps: This is right about overlapping; the difference, as has been noted in links and material above, is that shame is caused by external vectors whereas guilt is the result of an internal vector (what we call "conscience") that developed as a result of the ability to introspect at leisure. Of course we have not lost shame as a reaction when we developed into a guilt society; but shame societies nevertheless remain without a concept of "conscience" guilt (as our native informant from China told us above). To "find it hard to imagine that someone could feel shame without also feeling guilt" is no more than a problem of limited imagination and experience.

These people had guilt in reality, but they suppressed it. Your native Chinese informant is a liar.

I have actually had an objector write me this in an email, and it needs no answer. It remains that for texts like 1 Tim. 1:9, "hold faith and a good conscience," Paul refers not to some internal Jiminy Cricket, but a moral sense that Timothy acquired from external vectors (his family, peer group, etc.) and which would continue to be his moral motivation in the days ahead. Searing of conscience would result in inability to feel shame, not guilt.

-JPH