John’s Gospel, Irony, and First Century Shame/Honor


Jerome H. Neyrey wrote a nice article in Semeia called “Despising the Shame of the Cross: Honor and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative” (#68 [1994] 113-137) (the above image is not the issue in which Neyrey wrote).  In this article, Neyrey discusses what shame and honor meant in the first century (which is a bit different than our culture’s understanding).  He then relates them to Jesus’ shame and honor in John’s Gospel.  This article is another “must read” for those who preach/teach/study the Gospel of John.  Here are a few ‘teaser’ quotes.

“…In the perception of the ancients, honor, like all other goods, existed in quite limited supply.  There was only so much gold, so much strength, so much honor available.  When someone achieved honor, it was thought to be at the expense of others.  Philo, for example, condemns polytheism, because in honoring others as deities, the honor due to the true God is diminished: ‘God’s honor is set at naught by those who deify mortals….'”

“When John’s disciples lament to their master that Jesus is gaining more disciples and honor, they understand that Jesus’ gain must be John’s loss.  John confirms this, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30).  Thus, claims to honor by one person will tend to be perceived as threats to the honor of others, and consequently need to be challenged, not acknowledged.  In fact, two Gospels state that it was out of envy that Jesus’ enemies handed him over (Mark 15:10//Matt 27:18; cf. John 11:47-48).”

Later, Neyrey writes about shame in the 1st century.  “Contempt, loss of face, defeat, and ridicule all describe shame, the loss of honor.  The grammar of honor presented above can be reversed to describe ‘shame.’  Shame can be ascribed or achieved.  A magistrate may ascribe shame by declaring one guilty and so worth of public flogging (2 Cor 11:23-25); a king may mock and treat one with contempt (Luke 23:11)….  Thus the elite and those in power may declare one honorless and worthy of contempt….  Yet shame may be achieved by one’s folly or by cowardice and failure to respond to a challenge.”

“If the honorable parts of the body, the head and face, are struck, spat upon, slapped, blind-folded, or otherwise maltreated, shame ensues.  If the right arm, symbol of male power and strength, is bound, tied, or nailed, the resulting powerlessness denotes shame.  If one is publicly stripped naked, flogged, paraded before the crowds, and led through the streets, one is shamed.”

Neyrey’s remarks certainly help us evaluate other NT statements that include honor and shame, specifically in light of John’s Gospel and irony: how Jesus’ suffering and death can be “shame” and “glory/honor” at the same time.  Also, for more intellectual exercise, compare this with Luther’s Theology of Glory v Theology of the Cross


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