Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

He does not make gods who sculpts sacred faces into gold or marble; he makes gods who asks of them.

The humblest could hiss you at the games or piss on your statue. They could kill you.

Honour is always a question of ascription, not a matter of fact or individual right.1

That honor and shame were and (for the most part) remain pivotal cultural values in the Mediterranean is really beyond question. One can debate fruitfully how honor and shame work together and independently, and how they work differently in different locations, but there is more than enough evidence to defend the proposition that in the Mediterranean, past and present, these values remain pivotal.2

The broadly accepted anthropological definition of honor and shame has been distilled from two sources: the observation of human interaction in person3 and ancient literary and epigraphical remains.4 From the vast amount of modern ethnographic work and ancient primary sources, Bruce Malina developed a model of honor and shame that, while criticized,5 has stood the test of time. Many scholars of biblical antiquity have benefited from the explanatory power of Malina's model, an influence not limited to those affiliated with the Context Group.6 This much is admitted in the otherwise critical article by F. Gerald Downing.7

Yet, despite the obvious strengths of Malina's model, it is starting to show signs of its age and might benefit from some changes that would increase its heuristic power and longevity. It is always good to return periodically to look with fresh eyes at our models and the data we use to construct them, and I think we shall be rewarded by doing so here.


Malina claimed that concerns of honor and shame are to be found where authority, gender status, and respect intersect. Authority is the ability to control others without force; gender status refers to the different standards of acceptable behavior that apply to males and females; respect refers to the attitude one ought to have toward those who control your existence (humans, gods, God). Where these three intersect, Malina situates his well-known definition of honor: "the value of a person in his or her own eyes (that is, one's claim to worth) plus that person's value in the eyes of his or her social group."8 Honor, for Malina (as for Julian Pitt-Rivers and John G. Peristiany before him), relies on claims to honor from a person and the assessment of that claim by a public court of reputation (hereafter PCR).

There are two types of honor; Malina calls them "ascribed honor" and "acquired honor." Ascribed honor is the honor with which one is born: by ethnicity, family reputation, gender, wealth, and so on. This honor tends to be less dynamic than acquired honor, which can be won and lost on a daily basis through acts of benefaction and the agonistic contest of challenge and riposte.

Honor cultures are not a unique feature of the Mediterranean area. Honor cultures appear also in Japan and South America and within subcultures in nonhonor cultures (e.g., North American sports teams, military and police forces, and gangs). An honor culture is defined by the seriousness with which the people who inhabit it protect their honor and fight to retrieve it if it has been lost. This phenomenon can exist only in concert with the perception that access to honor is limited. If there were enough honor to go around, losing a little here and there would carry no consequences. This is an important distinction to draw, for it is also what distinguishes honor and shame cultures from non-honor and shame cultures: a non-honor and shame culture might well know honor and shame, but it does not see honor as a limited good and thus does not contest it with the same intensity.

It is Malina's understanding of the challenge and riposte contest that will be the focus of my critique of his model. …

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