Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Challenging the Authority of Jesus: Mark 11: 27-33 and Mediterranean Notions of Honor and Shame

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Challenging the Authority of Jesus: Mark 11: 27-33 and Mediterranean Notions of Honor and Shame

Article excerpt

(Foreign text omitted per Bell & Howell Information and Learning ...)

The final quarter of the twentieth century has been characterized by the employment of a variety of new methodologies in NT study. Models imported from the field of cultural anthropology have proved particularly fruitful for scholars interested in gaining a better understanding of the world of the early Christians. Near the beginning of almost every introductory textbook dealing with the cultural background of the NT, the reader encounters a chapter addressing Mediterranean sensibilities concerning honor and shame. Honor is consistently identified as the single most important value or "good" in the ancient world. The cultural centrality of honor serves, in turn, to explain much about Jesus' interactions with his antagonists in the Gospel narratives. Specifically, the questions which Jewish leaders repeatedly bring to Jesus must be interpreted as challenges to Jesus' honor.l

Beyond these general observations, however, few writers have attempted to utilize the honor-shame construct in a close reading of a specific Gospel passage.2 The escalating confrontations between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in Mark 11:27-12:34 offer particularly promising material for such analysis, and this has not gone unnoticed in the literature.3 But even in commentaries intentionally designed to highlight the socio-cultural background of the Gospels, one finds only general comments about the place of honor-and-shame, and challenge-and-riposte, in the conflicts between Jesus and his opponents.4 My intent here is to carefully examine a single important encounter between Jesus and his adversaries narrated in Mark 11:27-33. I will highlight the way in which the pivotal value of honor in Mediterranean society illumines the text at crucial points in the course of the highly charged dialogue.


1. Defining honor. Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey define honor as "the positive value of a person in his or her own eyes plus the positive appreciation of that person in the eyes of his or her social group." As they proceed to elaborate, "In this perspective honor is a claim to positive worth along with the social acknowledgment of that worth by others."5 Ideas about honor and shame can be found in virtually all societies. Scholars highlight two crucial characteristics, however, which serve to mark out the ancient Mediterranean world as distinct from contemporary Western culture in this regard:

1. In the world of the NT, honor was not a secondary value (less important, for example, than wealth), as is the case in the modern West. Honor was a pivotal cultural value.

2. In the collectivist culture of antiquity, one's honor was almost exclusively dependent upon the affirmation of the claim to honor by the larger social group to which the individual belonged.

It will prove useful to offer some reflections on each of these two important qualifications.

a. The centrality of honor. Writers consistently identify honor as the "dominant" or "paramount" value in Mediterranean cultures Halvor Moxnes suggests that understanding honor and shame is crucial for gaining any meaningful appreciation of the social environment of early Christianity. He offers several examples:

. . . it is possible to fathom the Mediterranean kinship system only if one understands that family honor is on the line in every public interaction. Similarly, one can understand the division between public and private space, a separation that often occurs along gender lines, only by recognizing the special roles of men and women in the honor system. Patronage, slavery, economic practices, purity rules, meal practices, and even the peculiar Mediterranean sense of identity that derives from group membership must likewise be understood in terms of honor and shame.'

My own research into but a single social component of the ancient worldthe Mediterranean family-has only served to convince me of the general validity of Moxnes's observations. …

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