Thursday, January 05, 2017

Our Cultural Blind Spots

NOTE: Recently, my friend Dr. Scott Bartchy – Professor Emeritus of Christian Origins and History of Religion at UCLA – sent me two documents to examine. Both of them contained more than enough insight to fill up this blog for the next few months. This blog is one of many to come based on these new insights.


Due to our own lack of awareness about first century Jewish culture, we have been blinded to several key nuances found in the New Testament texts. 

As Bartchy points out, “Their values are not our values. Unless we learn otherwise, both professional exegetes and naïve readers naturally assume that our own social experiences and the cultural values with which we were raised have been generally characteristic of socially-approved human life across time and space. Regrettably, this assumption has encouraged readers…to interpret our ancient (NT) documents in ways that ignore or misunderstand the prevailing structures of fundamental human relationships in Jesus’ social world.”

He then goes on to point out that these areas of misunderstanding include concepts like kinship, marriage, patriarchy and manliness.

His paper, “Jesus, The Pharisees and Mediterranean Manliness” – which is scheduled to appear as chapter 16 in a book entitled “Teaching the Historical Jesus: Issues and Exegesis”, edited by Zev Gerber – goes on to masterfully demonstrate how several of Jesus’ commands and teachings are typically misunderstood by modern commentators and bible teachers. The main reason for this blind spot, he says, is our lack of understanding the “Shame/Honor” values inherent within first century Jewish culture.

The tension that arises between Jesus and the Pharisees, Bartchy says, is primarily caused by Jesus’ subversive teachings and actions that sought to undermine the prevailing culture of the day, which the Pharisees were deeply entangled with.

In this shame/honor culture, Jesus seeks to redefine what makes for honor and shame in His Father’s Kingdom, or “When God rules all things”.

In short, Bartchy’s point is this: The way the Pharisees – and every other male in the first century – behaved was normal behavior. When they sat at the place of honor at the table, it was what they were all trained to do since birth. When they asked their Rabbi if they could be given the honor to sit by his side, this was totally acceptable. When they sought to be recognized by others for their wisdom or authority, this was how everything was supposed to be.

Simply put, the first century Jewish culture of Jesus’ day was based on shame and honor. Males were trained early on to bring honor to themselves – and therefore to their family name – at all costs. They were also trained to avoid being shamed for the same reasons. Every male of Jesus’ day was either working to be seen as honored or striving to avoid being placed in a position of shame.

When we see Jesus rebuking the Pharisees flaunting their honor in the marketplace and praying in public, for example. This is what everyone in that culture would have expected them to do. It was not seen by anyone at that time as prideful, arrogant or rude. That is, not by anyone other than Jesus, of course.

Jesus shows up and right away challenges this status quo. It was Jesus who was seen as rude for condemning these men of honor for behaving normally. It was Jesus who was seen as behaving oddly when he rebuked the Pharisees for inviting honorable people to their banquets rather than the lame, the blind, the poor and the sick.

Jesus was the one that everyone in that culture would have perceived as being rude, arrogant and yes, possibly even prideful. Or at least they would have seen him as someone who had little authority to point to those who had honor and claim that in reality they had none.

“The goal of male socialization,” says Bartchy, “(was) to add honor to the family name. (Because) honor was by far the most highly prized possession. How much honor anyone deserved depended on one’s peers’ perception and their public acknowledgement of one’s authority, gender status and reputation.”

Bartchy goes on to describe two forms of honor in this early culture: Ascribed honor and Acquired honor. The honor inherited from one’s family was the ascribed honor one was born into. The honor one might receive by competing with other men in the culture was acquired honor. Both were very important to have and to cultivate.

“Thus, seeking greater honor for oneself and one’s family was the fundamental life task of every adult male, and traditional male socialization produced human beings who were programmed to pursue a neverending quest for greater honor and influence,” says Bartchy.

It is in this context that Jesus’ words to his disciples – “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” – rang out like nails scraping loudly down the world’s longest chalk board.

“The vast majority of commentators…have ignored the cultural appropriateness (when James and John ask to sit at Jesus’ side in the Kingdom) seeking honor,” he says.

As a result, most everyone has missed the incredible forcefulness of Jesus’ teaching as it cut against the grain of acceptable masculinity in the first century Mediterranean cultures.

One also must take into account how little of this honor Jesus himself had – from both ascribed and acquired varieties: The identity of his birth father was questionable. His family standing was automatically in doubt due to where he had grown up (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” John 1:46).

Normally, a young male in this situation – with so little ascribed honor – would feel immense pressure to work for acquired honor in the eyes of everyone around him. “Yet…rather than seeking honor for himself,” Bartchy notes, “Jesus was prepared to be humiliated rather than to compete for honor and play the traditional male game of one-upmanship.”

Beyond this, Jesus went further to teach his own disciples to ascribe honor to others and to work to help those without honor to acquire it.

With all of this in mind, listen as Jesus stands on the mount to preach a sermon that proclaims honor upon those who are humble, and those who give comfort to others, and those who practice mercy, and those who make peace. Listen as Jesus defies the honor-seeking culture of His day to declare that God only honors those who have none, and those who don’t want any, and those who only work to bring honor to those people around them who will never, ever earn – or even deserve – honor in their own society.

Bartchy also points out that one New Testament scholar, K.C. Hanson, “forged a major breakthrough in understanding the famous ‘Beatitudes’…when he applied his knowledge of both ancient Mediterranean cultural values and Hebrew and Greek philology to his translation of the Greek word “macharios” (traditionally rendered “blessed”)..(as) “honored.”

Therefore, Jesus’ words, “Honored are the merciful. Honored are the poor.” Etc. take on new and fantastic implications for us. Now we see that Jesus is rewriting the rules and creating a brand new set of cultural values that stand in direct contrast to those considered normative in his day. By saying that the poor are honored, and the peacemakers are honored, Jesus is saying that God uses a totally different set of values for deciding who receives honor and who receives shame. God’s Kingdom honors the humble, not the proud. His Kingdom honors the poor and the outcast, not the rich and the influential.

What must be stressed is that there is nothing specifically “Pharisaical” about seeking honor for oneself during Jesus’ day. Everyone operated under these rules. It was the status quo and no one questioned it.

No one except Jesus, that is.



Unknown said...

This is fantastic and fits in with the Joy of Being Wrong book by James Alison I mentioned to you.

To your point about James and John asking to sit at Jesus' right and left, Alison discusses that story and points out that Jesus did not rebuke James and John for wanting to sit at his right and left. Actually, he rebuked the other 10 for getting indignant. The 10 were the ones that told about how the Gentiles ruled by lording it over. The 10 were presuming that is what James and John wanted because that was what was in their heart.

Marshall said...

not exactly 'honor & shame' as we may understand these today. from Mark 10:41, the '10' responded in displeasure/grief hearing of the request for James and John to sit alongside Jesus in the Kingdom. What the sons of Zebedee requested, though honorable, was not virtuous in context. rather than a presiding culture of 'honor and shame' (as is today common especially among cultures far-Eastern), functions in what was to be regarded as 'virtue or vile' formed a cultural framework --- a 'fence' governing attitudes and behaviors. Pharisees using the Precepts/Law of Moses to define what is becoming of virtue, but also admixing their select traditions of the elders --- traditions actually sometimes in conflict with God. Jesus, the true Reality, stepped up to reveal what is truly of virtue, and the people were fascinated and adoring... until He came to calling them to be following Him on to the crucifixion. Who could believe there ever would be such great virtue found in a most horrific death?

Mick Smith said...

It is so true that we need to understand he culture of the day to really see how radical Jesus' teachings were. His honouring and engaging with women is another practice that totally went against the culture around Him. He was a real political revolutionary and everything He preached was contrary to political and social norms of that time. The challenge is how do we live like that today!!

Tim said...

I think it's more accurate, when speaking about believers, to call this blind spots of the flesh. No doubt there are many elements of normalized behaviors (culture) are against the pleasure or character of God. There are also elements of culture that are admirable and in harmony with God's character. Believers who are indwelt by the Spirit, are at war with the flesh, not the culture. Seeking to get positions of status and influence of power over other believers is what Jesus is rebuking because this practice rejects the humility of the Spirit. Our identity is that we are all slaves, servants, who have no position or status above any other follower of Jesus. It is in this identity that believers can hear the Spirit direct. God can only resist those who systematize as "godly", patterns of leadership that claim elevating titles, full pay checks, and dominating gatherings in one way communication, completely dismissing God's design to pour his wisdom through every believer, even children. What a sinful mess abounds in the current normalized form of church life. We should not make this a cultural interpretation. This is a sinful nature- flesh issue that is at war with the Spirit and our new nature.

Taco Verhoef said...

I think I need to buy that book.