Jerome H. Neyrey. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 2)
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
A frequent comment in the church today is the need to stop using all those “churchy” words. While the definition of “churchy” may be up for grabs, the focus of these comments is usually on words that have in the postmodern context lost their meaning. Verses, such as—“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…” (Rev 4:11 ESV)—almost certainly be classified as knee-deep in churchy words, because our buddy culture admits no one worthy of praise, glory or honor or of titles such as Lord and God.
In his book, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, Jerome H. Neyrey states his objective plainly: “This book focuses on the praise of Jesus of Nazareth as presented in narrative form by the evangelist Matthew.” (1) Neyrey sees gospel as a type of ancient writing form called an encomium which is a structured biography designed to offer praise (2). The rules for writing such encomium were the subject of rhetorical handbooks, starting with Aristotle. Neyrey (4) writes:
“Nothing in the exercise of praise was left to chance, for students were instructed concerning the form of speech of praise, as well as the specific content of each element in that form. They learned to organize their praise according to the conventional manner of presenting a person’s life from birth to death and in light of specific rules for developing praise at each state of life.”
Honor (τιμη) is the “worth or value of persons both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the village or neighborhood”…“concern for ‘honor’ as reputation and ‘good name’ was endemic to the ancient world…” (5)
An important, but questionable, assumption in some biblical interpretation is that honor and shame play a same role in our own culture as in biblical culture. Cultural anthropologist sometimes describe American culture today as a guilt-innocence culture where guilt is only triggered when a law has been transgressed and shame, if experienced at all, is trigger when a law is broken and publically exposed. The shame and guilt so important in biblical culture has lost its meaning. Complaints about the meaninglessness of “churchy” words underscore an important cultural shift that renders aspects of the biblical witness out of reach.
Neyrey writes in 10 chapters divided into 3 parts:
Part One: Matthew: In Other Words
- Honor and Shame in Cultural Perspective
- Reading Matthew in Cultural Perspective
Part Two: Matthew and the Rhetoric of Praise
- The Rhetoric of Praise and Blame
- An Encomium for Jesus: Origins, Birth, Nurture, and Training
- An Encomium for Jesus: Accomplishments and Deeds
- An Encomium for Jesus: Deeds of the Body and Deeds of Fortune
- An Encomium for Jesus: A Noble Death
Part Three: The Sermon on the Mount in Cultural Perspective
- Matthew 5:3-12—Honoring the Dishonored
- Matthew 5:21-28—Calling Off the Honor Game
- Matthew 6:1-18—Vacating the Playing Field (v).
These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.
Neyrey is a tough read. Not only is it hard to follow the arguments, the arguments challenge important preconceptions that we hold in reading scripture. What happens if the “Jesus in our head” is not the Jesus of the bible? What if our kids hear something different than what we do during the Sunday morning service? These are important questions which directly affect our interpretation of scripture and experience of church. In Part 2 (look for the post on Monday, March 2), I will explore Neyrey’s arguments in more detail.
 For example, read: 2 Corinthians 7: Godly Grief (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Ba).