Biblical Studies Honor and Shame
John J. Pilch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0077


Anxiety, shame (along with its correlative, honor), and guilt are three control patterns of human personality that exist in all cultures. There is no honor culture, no shame culture, and no guilt culture; all cultures contain these three strategies for controlling human behavior but tend to stress one more than the others. Indeed, all three controls exist in each person, group, and culture but in varying degrees and in many different configurations. This is what anthropologists mean when they identify circum-Mediterranean cultures as characterized by honor and shame controls. These controls also characterize other small-scale, face-to-face cultures such as Asia and India. Because of this, a multidimensional systems model is necessary for studying specific honor and shame cultures. Honor is a public claim to worth or value and a public acknowledgment of that claim. Positive shame is a concern for maintaining and protecting one’s worth, value, reputation. Negative shame is the loss of one’s honor. Refusing to be concerned about one’s honor is to be shameless. Honor and shame are thus external controls on human behavior that depend upon the opinions of others. These controls stand in contrast to guilt, which is an internal control quite independent of the opinions of others. In cultures where honor and shame are the dominant controls, secrecy, deception, and lying are strategies for defending one’s reputation by seeking to influence the opinions of others. Challenge and riposte are strategies for attempting to increase honor with the risk of losing some as well. This article will discuss honor and shame as found in that Mediterranean document known as the Bible, written about Mediterranean people by Mediterraneans.

Introductory Works

For the scholar having no familiarity with honor and shame as core cultural values, Augsburger 1986 provides sensitivity to these elements as they are present in all cultures but emphasizes different configurations. The undergraduate textbooks Malina 2001 and Pilch 1991 explain how these values are found in the New and Old Testaments, respectively. Downing 2007, Plevnik 1993, Rohrbaugh 2010, and Simkins 2000 are good references providing overviews of honor and shame. Biblical scholars Malina, Pilch, and Rohrbaugh did anthropological field work in the Philippines, Poland and the Philippines, and Israel, respectively. Though not strictly speaking a reference work, Daube 1956 is important for highlighting the presence of these values in rabbinic materials. Schneider 1972 offers a contrast with a presentation of honor from a linguistic point of view with no social-scientific support.

  • Augsburger, David W. Pastoral Counseling across Cultures. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986.

    Though written by a pastoral counselor for counselors, this book, and especially chapter 4, “Inner Controls, Outer Controls, Balanced Controls: A Theology of Grace” (pp. 111–143), explains how anxiety, shame (and honor), and guilt exist in all societies and cultures but are balanced differently. For anyone totally unfamiliar with cross-cultural studies, this is an excellent starting point.

  • Daube, David. “Disgrace.” In The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism. By David Daube, 301–324. London: Athlone, 1956.

    This chapter surveys the notion of disgrace (dishonor, shame) in select passages of the New Testament with comparisons from the rabbinic materials. While it is not a reference work in the strict sense, it gathers key text segments for further social-scientific investigation. Reprinted in 1994 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson). Also reprinted in Collected Works of David Daube, Vol. 2, New Testament Judaism, edited by Calum M. Carmichael (Berkeley, CA: Robbins Collection, 2001), pp. 617–624.

  • Downing, F. Gerald. “Honor.” In New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 2. Edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 884–885. Nashville: Abingdon, 2007.

    Downing’s articles are moderate and fair. In other publications, he is critical of the “honor/shame” concepts as oversimplifications. Also see “Shame,” in Vol. 5, p. 212.

  • Malina, Bruce J. “Honor and Shame: Pivotal Values of the First-Century Mediterranean World.” In The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. 3d ed. By Bruce J. Malina, 27–57. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2001.

    This chapter on honor and shame added two important items to the first edition: “A Significant Clarification,” directed to anthropologists and biblical scholars who might be missing the forest for the trees, and a chart contrasting Mediterranean with emerging US preferences regarding the rearing of children. A bibliography of Context Group publications confirms Malina’s cultural insights.

  • Pilch, John J. Introducing the Cultural Context of the Old Testament. Hear the Word 1. New York: Paulist Press, 1991.

    This workbook introduces basic values of Mediterranean culture: honor and shame in contrast with guilt and challenge- riposte, and collectivism compared with individualism. See especially pp. 49–70. Reprint with errata published in 2007 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock).

  • Plevnik, J. “Honor/Shame.” In Biblical Social Values and Their Meaning: A Handbook. Edited by John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina, 95–104. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993.

    Plevnik’s article presents an overview of the core cultural values of Mediterranean culture, honor, and shame with a brief bibliography. All the essays in this handbook explain Mediterranean values. In each entry, the final paragraph contrasts the specific Mediterranean understanding of the value with the very different Western value known by the same name.

  • Rohrbaugh, Richard L. “Honor: Core Value in the Biblical World.” In Understanding the Social World of the New Testament. Edited by Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris, 109–125. London: Routledge, 2010.

    Presents an up-to-date survey of honor and shame with confirmation from Greco-Roman authors and illustrations from Matthew and Luke. Contains excellent overviews of other Mediterranean values such as kinship and family, ethnicity, healing, and collectivism. A 1991 video, Honor and Shame: Core Values of the Biblical World, includes anecdotes of experiences in Beit Jala, Palestine. The video includes experiences in Beit Jala that are not in the printed texts.

  • Schneider, Johannes. “Timê.” Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 8. Edited by Gerhard Friedrich, 169–180. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972.

    Though it does not use social-scientific method, this article is an exhaustive collection of data on honor in the ancient world providing a researcher with many relevant texts to examine through social-scientific lenses.

  • Simkins, Ronald A. “Honor, Shame.” In Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 603–604. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.

    DOI: 10.5117/9789053565032

    A brief but significant overview of honor and shame with a brief bibliography.

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