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Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, and the Early Christian Challenge to Traditional Honor and Shame Values


Christianity originated in what has often been described as an honor-shame culture. In Mediterranean antiquity, society, rather than the individual, defined both worthy behavior and a person's worth. While who and what was honored varied according to location and community, the ultimate result was a stratified society that judged some persons as honorable and not others.

Jesus of Nazareth and his earliest followers challenged their society's deeply held values by honoring those judged unworthy and rejecting traditionally sanctioned behavior. Paul of Tarsus embraced Jesus' provocative vision and adapted it as he established Christ-worshiping communities throughout the Mediterranean region. The former persecutor's encounter with the crucified, resurrected Christ fundamentally changed his understanding of Israel's God (Yahweh) along with what and who was honorable; in particular, all those in Christ were worthy of honor and urged to an honor-sharing life in imitation of Christ. Later canonical writings embrace and develop the challenge that Jesus and Paul presented.

The challenge to traditional honor and shame values that began with Jesus and was embraced by Paul and other canonical writers, continued in Christianity as it spread to Rome, Asia, Carthage, and across the Mediterranean region through the middle of the third century. Significant continuities endured, including the emphasis on non-retaliation, humility as a worthy path, the honor-sharing use of power, and the glory of suffering for Christ. At the same time women gained honor through martyrdom and chastity.

While Christianity challenged its culture's deeply embedded values, the dominant culture eventually altered the nascent faith's teachings on honor. The canonical writings embraced the shared honor of all Christ worshipers, but later sources returned to a patriarchal, hierarchal vision of community that emphasized the honor of some at the expense of others. At the same time, the spectacle in the arena so shaped onlookers' perception of martyrs that the honor of dying for Christ in later sources far exceeded earlier writings' estimation of martyrdom.

Christianity persisted in critiquing society's conclusions about what behavior was honorable and who should receive honor well into the third century. Jesus' honor-sharing life and humiliating, sacrificial death had left their mark.

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