First century Middle Eastern society was very different than today’s Western European & US societies and subcultures. Ideas of self, ethics, and economics differed radically from our notions of these concepts and features in today’s world. These difference in turn affect our hemenuetic as we approach text that is passed down to us from that era as distinct from how it would have been received by the contemporary and those audiences nearer to that period. Nearer here is not restricted to temporal shifts but more a cultural distance. This yields several different hermeneutical choices for the modern scholar approaching matters written back then. One can view the text absent any historical/cultural context, one can take from the text the meaning that would have been received from the contemporary (or near) listeners, or one might take a parallel or analogous meaning to the one the contemporary listener might have derived into a modern context. But consider the last two options one must undertake to understand at salient features of society in the first century Middle East.

Anthropologists inform us that 1st century Middle Eastern residents dwelt within what is called an honor/shame patron/client society. Additionally economically speaking the intuitions about economic exchange was predominated by one which assumed a zero-sum exchange between parties. Below I will briefly outline some of the consequences and explore what that entails.

  • Honor is not an internal personal characteristic but a quality evaluated in a social context. 
  • Honor changes through social evaluation of a challenge/response interaction between peers.
  • Honor is a feature shared by a family/extended family unit.
  • Courts are seen primarily as a safety valve or redress between individuals or families which are not on a peer relationship. 
  • Members of an honor/shame society normally look for the good not of themselves as an individual but for their family in ethical, social, and economic interactions.
  • In our society economic exchange is assumed not to be a zero-sum gain, and that win-win is the default with an equitable exchange being one in which the gains are commensurate. In a society in which zero-sum is the default assumption, gathering of personal or familial wealth means that others were harmed by the same. This is just one of the reasons that in these cultures privacy was far rarer than it is today.

Discussions of honor/shame and economics arose in the context of our late-vocations class, now studying the New Testament. Our teacher’s grandmother resides (or resided) in rural Okinawa. This in many ways is similar to the 1st century being discussed. Every morning there, as the household awakens the screens are pushed aside and all the home living spaces are opened up. Children with their boundless energy dash in and out in groups from every home. Little if anything occurs “in private.”

What follows are just a few implications of these observations.

  • When St. Paul denotes himself as a tent-maker, Roman citizen, Pharisee, born-free, so on. He is making peer related claims to an honor driven audience. He is, in effect, noting the large groups of people with whom he can claim a peer relationship. Note as well, he also on several occasions will also note himself as a slave of Christ.
  • When, as happens frequently, various religious leaders like the Pharisees or Sadducees confront Jesus this is part of the typical challenge/response format. Implicit in this exchange is that they see Jesus as their social peer, even though he comes from the rural backwoods.
  • At the same time, when those same religious leaders resort to the Roman court and Pontius Pilate this is a serious loss of honor for them, a move of utmost desperation. Normally the courts are used only (as noted above) for conflict resolution and redress between social strati.
  • Consider also the radical nature of Jesus message of humility and charity especially for those outside one’s group circles. No message could be more orthogonal to the normative outlook of those members of an honor/shame society.
  • Finally, Jesus message of poverty and against seeking wealth is not in and of itself radical in this society. Seeking wealth was rarely a personal or familial good. However, for example, when he tells the young man, “sell all you have and give it too the poor” which was a very hard message for him to take. The primary reason would be hard was not primarily the impact that would have on the man personally, but on his family.

Filed under: ChristianityMark O.Religion

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