“. . . who for the sake of the joy set before him endured the cross, despising its shame . . .” (Heb. 12:2, italics added).
In order to understand the significance of the italicized language we need to discuss two somewhat alien facets of the ancient world.
First, the society of ancient Rome was what anthropologists have often called an honor/shame culture.1 In this type of culture, one’s worth is linked to one’s status as seen by others. People have value and social significance because other people esteem them. If they violate the norms of society, they lose their personal value and worth.2 Wayne Meeks referred to Aristotle’s belief when he wrote that “the exchange of goods, services, and prestige, in proportion to the socially assigned ‘worth’ of each participant, was the process that made society work.” He went on to explain, “honour and shame were the reciprocal sentiments that enforced the unwritten rules of these continual transactions” and that “what was fair, what was expected, what was honourable depended on one’s place in the social pyramid.”3
Being honorable is determined by what we allow to shame us. Douglas L. Cairns has described αἰδώς (“sense of shame, modesty”) as “an inhibitory emotion based on sensitivity to and protectiveness of one’s self-image [whereas ἀιδεομαι (“to be shamed”)] convey[s] a recognition that one’s self-image is vulnerable in some way, a reaction in which one focuses on the conspicousness of the self.”4 Herman C. Waetjan, expanding on this notion in the ancient world, explained
Αἰδώς is a characteristic behavioral response to specific situations. Αἰδώς may cause information to be withheld in order to spare someone’s feelings. Αἰδώς can result in the modification of conduct out of fear of criticism. “It is aidos, then, which drives Hector to fight in open battle, in spite of the pity he feels for his wife and child.” Out of αἰδώς (here having the sense of shame) Oedipus blinds himself because of his inability to look others in the face.5
The opposite of αἰδώς is ἀναίδεια (“shamelessness”), a pejorative term that denotes a reprehensible quality that is liable to attract the censure of others. To be charged with shamelessness is to be implicated in disgraceful behavior, which can result from weakness, failure, or lack of respect for others. Because honor was seen as a limited good it created competition for honor. There was not enough to go around. Thus, all interactions become opportunities for challenge and riposte, but all the while avoiding any sense of shame in the process.6
Secondly, we need to understand that the crucifixion of Jesus was played out in this honor/shame setting. A careful reading of the Gospels will reveal that they do not mention very much at all about the physical suffering of Jesus. Taking the Gospel of Mark, for example: the only references to the torture of Jesus are in passing. In 15:15, as an aside, it says that, “after flogging Jesus, [Pilate] handed him over to be crucified.” And in 15:24 it simply says, “And they crucified him.” This phrase isn’t even the main part of the sentence, which is mostly devoted to how the soldiers divided his clothes.7
Crucifixion was certainly torture, but the main purpose of the punishment was to mock, humiliate, and shame people, to render them without any status or honor at all. It was considered so shameful that we know so little about it because respectable, educated Romans wouldn’t write about it. It was too shameful even to talk about. Being crucified is what happened to nobodies, supremely slaves.8
The idea of shame in the New Testament is conveyed by the terms αἰσχρός and αἰσχύνη occurs only rarely, but “of these uses the Hebrews [12:2] passage stands out, for it gives the positive nuance to the term, arising out of the Christian interpretation of the cross of Jesus.”9 And here is where the author of Hebrews adds innovation to the idea of a race. Training for a run is noble. Exercising, preparing, practicing––these are the hallmarks of an athlete. Being an athlete is an honorable activity. But the Christian is to keep her eyes on Jesus, who “despised” the shame of the cross. What are we to make of this phrase in this context?
Regarding the Parable of the Widow and the Judge (Luke 18:2-5), Waetjan remarks “By repudiating the social code of shame, by refusing to submit to authority, by taking the risk of aggressively pursuing her objective, the widow finally obtains justice for herself.”10 Likewise, the Parable of Friend at Midnight subverts the expectations of the honor/shame culture and cancels the reciprocity of friendship. The parable dismantles a world in which people expect God to act on the basis of reciprocity and mutual obligation. God is free to act however God wants, and God responds to human petition even and especially when they cry out in desperation “I have nothing.” More importantly, the parable subverts the very honor/shame culture that constitutes the structures that allow the friend at midnight to be oppressed. “God, as the metaphorical referent of the sleeper who responds to prayer on the basis of ἀναίδεια . . . is not offended or dishonored by conduct that honor/shame culture considered hateful. There is a ‘good shamelessness.’”11 The parable invites, that is, a rejection of the very assumptions on which honor and shame are constructed.
Likewise in Hebrews 12, the idea of Jesus’s “despising shame” has often been read “as Jesus ‘braving’ or ‘facing up to’ the experience of humiliation which the cross entailed, or as a Stoic disregard for the experience.”12 This notion, however, fails to account for the full meaning of the phrase “αἰσχύνης καταφρονήσας.” To act in this way is not to endure or tolerate the negative opinions of others, it is to reject entirely the basis on which those evaluations are formed. To despise shame is, like the friend at midnight, to act “shamelessly.” Shame in this context “goes beyond the experience of disgrace; it signifies sensitivity to the evaluation of one’s actions and commitments by others.”13 Despising shame, in this sense, is to “set aside concern for one’s reputation, and simultaneously place a negative value on the opinion of those who would judge one’s actions as disgraceful.”14
The author admonishes his readers to “consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (12:3).15 They are tempted to return back to their former way of life and to succumb to the shaming that would seek their significance and value again in how their friends, families, and peers see them. Instead, they are to see their humiliation at the hands of others like Jesus saw his: as a token of honor in the eyes of God, whose estimation alone matters. Running this race is not glorious, then, and does not result in honors and accolades when one is done. Instead, everyone is screaming the whole time “You’re going the wrong way!” and “You’re wasting your life!” And from the eyes of the surrounding society this is all true. Running the race as Jesus did is not simply a metaphor encouraging one to endure. Instead, one must disregard shame, just as Jesus did, and in so doing find the “joy” set before them.16
The unique contribution of Hebrews 12, then, is not that it deploys athletic imagery to the life of faith or that it imagines a struggle in real life in the language of a race. The author of Hebrews uses the traditional imagery of athletic competition––which invokes images of honor and tradition––in order to persuade his readers to abandon those notions of honor. The author asks his audience not simply to ignore the systems of honor and shame in which they are immersed but to act in defiance of them. To run the race of faith, he insists, is to run against honor, impervious to the taunts and social goads surrounding oneself, and inviting the derision that comes with that question, “Have you no sense of shame?”
- The modern West is usually not considered an honor/shame culture. The sharp contrast between our modern world and the ancient Mediterranean’s honor/shame culture has been challenged recently. Colin Patterson, “The World of Honor and Shame in the New Testament: Alien or Familiar?” Biblical Theology Bulletin 49, no. 1 (2019): 12, using insight from modern cognitive psychology, argued that status attained through individual achievement and from attributed honor are not as fundamentally different as they might seem.
- Bruce Malina’s work, notably The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), helped usher the study of honor/shame culture into New Testament studies.
- Wayne Meeks, The Moral World of the First Christians (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 37.
- Douglas L. Cairns, Aidos: The Psychology and Ethics of Honor and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 2.
- Herman C. Waetjan, “The Subversion of the ‘World’ by the Parable of the Friend at Midnight,” Journal of Biblical Literature 120, no. 4 (2001): 714.
- There have been several criticisms and challenges to Malina’s work in recent years, notably Zeba Crook, “Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited,” Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no. 3 (2009): 609–10, who, while largely still accepting Malina’s model, argued that it is too rigid and does not allow for women, peasants, and others at the edges of society to challenge the honor of men at the center even though there are clear examples of this in the ancient world.
- When Christians search their Bibles for examples of the tortures of Jesus they are often surprised to find so few details. Movies like “The Passion of the Christ” are replete with examples of those horrors, but those are drawn from the later Stations of the Cross reflection on the passion rather than the Scriptures themselves. In fact, some of the most iconic images we have, like driving nails into the hands of Jesus, are nowhere mentioned in the New Testament at all.
Compare this point with the very detailed language used in 4 Maccabees to describe the torture of the seven brothers before the king Antiochus.
- This is why Paul writes that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. . . and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). The connection between slavery and crucifixion is clear here as well.
- William R. Domeris, “Honour and Shame in the New Testament,” Neotestimentica 27, no. 2 (1993): 285.
- Waetjan, “Subversion of the World,” 715.
- Waetjan, “Subversion of the World,” 715.
- David A. deSilva, Bearing Christ’s Reproach: The Challenge of Hebrews in an Honor Culture (North Richland Hills, TX: Bibal, 1999), 40–1.
- deSilva, Bearing Christ’s Reproach, 41.
- deSilva, Bearing Christ’s Reproach, 41.
- Ellingworth, Hebrews, 644, noted that the verb here is used by Philo, Migr. Abr. 133, “of a weary runner in the stadium.”
- There is debate about how to render the term ἀντὶ τῆς προχειμένης in 12:2. The two main choices are “instead of” or “for the sake of” the joy set before Jesus. The latter is preferred here. For a full discussion see Ellingworth, Hebrews, 641.