Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 2

Honor_and_shame_02192015Jerome H. Neyrey.  1998.  Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Neyrey organizes his discussion of honor like an anthropologist into 7 categories:

  1. Definition of honor,
  2. Sources of honor,
  3. Conflict and honor,
  4. Display and recognition of honor,
  5. Collective honor, and
  6. Gender and honor (14-15).

Under sources of honor, for example, Neyrey notes that honor can be both ascribed as in being born into a well-known family or achieved as in earning special merit (15).

Shame, by contrast, is the opposite of honor—loss of respect, regard, worth, and value in the eyes of others.  A shameless person does not care what people think of them (30).  Because honor and shame are displayed publicly, our individualistic culture downplays both honor and shame.

Honor must, of course, be defended.  Neyrey notes 4 steps into challenges to honor and response—reposte:

  1. Claim to honor,
  2. Challenge to that claim,
  3. Riposte to the challenge, and
  4. Public verdict by onlookers (44).

Neyrey (51) sees many examples of challenge and riposte in Matthew.  For example in Matthew 9: 1-8 we see:

Claim to honor:  “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” [Divinity claim] (v 2)

Challenge:         “This man is blaspheming.” (v 3)

Riposte:             “Which is easier…Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” (vv 5-6)

Verdict:              “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid…” (v 8)

Much of Neyrey’s book focuses on the details of Matthew’s encomium of Jesus. For example, Matthew portrays Jesus as just in performing his duties to God, his parents, and the dead (109).  Jesus is faithful to God (his heavenly patron) even until death (Matt 26:39; 110).  He defended the rights of parents over traditions, like “korban” (Matt 15:5).  While Neyrey skips over the question of just for the dead, clearly Jesus’ teaching about eternal life would also honor the dead.

A key hypothesis that Neyrey advances is to read the Sermon on the Mount as reforming the honor code of his society.  Neyrey writes:

“Jesus did not overthrow the honor code as such, but rather redefined what constitutes honor in his eyes and how his disciples should play the game…For example, he forbade his disciples to play the typical village honor game by forswearing honor claims (i.e. boasting), challenges (i.e. physical and sexual aggressiveness), and ripostes (i.e. seeking satisfaction and revenge). Moreover, he attempted to redefine whose acknowledge (i.e. grant of honor) truly counts…Jesus , then, changed the way the honor game was played and redefined the source of honor, name, acknowledgment by God, not by neighbor.” (164).

Most importantly in this respect, Neyrey suggests that the Greek words “makarios” and “ouai” be translated respectively as esteemed or honorable (not blessed or happy) and as shame on or disrespectable (165-166). In this way, Jesus is redefining the honor code that applies to his disciples.

Neyrey also sees Jesus redefining shame in the last “makario”.  This verse in Matthew reads:  “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute [drive out] you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matt 5:11 ESV)  Neyrey sees this verse addressing the problem of a son being disinherited for becoming Jesus’ disciple rather than being generally persecuted (169).  In other words, what society took as dishonorable, Jesus redefined as honorable[1].

Following Neyrey, the Sermon on the Mount can be read as Jesus offering more than your typical a pep talk to his disciples who needed reassurance.  He was commissioning them to a higher calling.  This calling was something worth dying for or, more importantly, something to live for.

Clearly, this reading is as important today as it was then.

Footnotes

[1]Neyrey reads Matthew as implying that:  “Discipleship often meant cross-generational conflict within families.” (227)  Today we see this dynamic when a Muslim or Jewish child converts to Christianity or when a child from a “good family” suddenly “gets religion” and drops out of college to pursue social ministry.

Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 2

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Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 1

Jeremey Neyrey Honor and ShameJerome 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.

Introduction

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[1]. 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[2].

Organization

Neyrey writes in 10 chapters divided into 3 parts:

Part One:  Matthew: In Other Words

  1. Honor and Shame in Cultural Perspective
  2. Reading Matthew in Cultural Perspective

Part Two:  Matthew and the Rhetoric of Praise

  1. The Rhetoric of Praise and Blame
  2. An Encomium for Jesus: Origins, Birth, Nurture, and Training
  3. An Encomium for Jesus: Accomplishments and Deeds
  4. An Encomium for Jesus: Deeds of the Body and Deeds of Fortune
  5. An Encomium for Jesus: A Noble Death

Part Three:  The Sermon on the Mount in Cultural Perspective

  1. Matthew 5:3-12—Honoring the Dishonored
  2. Matthew 5:21-28—Calling Off the Honor Game
  3. Matthew 6:1-18—Vacating the Playing Field (v).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.

Assessment

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.

Footnotes

[1] http://www.knowledgeworkx.com/blogs/knowledgeworkx/item/141-three-colors-of-worldview.

[2] For example, read:  2 Corinthians 7: Godly Grief (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Ba).

Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 1

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