The Shame of Crucifixion


Ever heard the Japanese term hara-kiri (腹切り) or seppuku (切腹, the standard term)? is basically a form of elaborate ritual suicide by disembowelment (and beheading), hence the term which means ‘stomach cutting’. At least, it originally was a form of suicide - in time the condemned simply went through the motions - dressing in a white robe and eating his last meal - and was then immediately beheaded. Seppuku was performed by samurai (who originally, were the only ones allowed to do it) in cases where impending shame was inevitable: either they were defeated in battle or lost the lord they serve. A samurai can also be ordered to commit seppuku if he committed a serious crime or did something that brought shame to himself or his lord - in this case, this is more of a (self-performed) execution. In all these cases, you can see a common pattern: death before dishonor. As this page notes:

Why does shame have to be avoided at all costs? In Japan, relationships between people are greatly affected by duty and obligation. In duty-based relationships, what other people believe or think has a more powerful impact on behavior than what the individual believes. Shame occurs through others’ negative feelings towards you or through your feelings of having failed to live up to your obligations. In contrast, the culture of the United States and most of the West is based on guilt (Benedict, 1946), where truth, justice, and the preservation of individual rights are more important components of consciousness.

In western culture, guilt can be relieved through confession, self-righteousness, or the justice system, but in Japanese culture, shame cannot be removed until a person does what society expects, which may include drastic measures such as committing suicide. For example, if you are falsely accused of a crime, your guilt will be removed when you are proven innocent in court, but shame will stay as long as other people are suspicious of your actions or think negatively of you.

In many cultures (such as in Japan), honor and shame are serious business even today. These are what we call ‘shame societies’. An anthropologist named Paul G. Hiebert defines shame thus:

Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one.

Now I personally grew up in another ‘shame society’: the Philippines. In the Philippines, hiya (shame, sense of propriety) is also of primary importance (sometimes negatively so), going hand-in-hand with amor proprio (‘love of self’; not in a negative way - self-respect). In fact, to be called walang hiya (“shame-less”) is perhaps one of the greatest insults you can heap into a person. The concept of hiya is much more than mere attainment and enhancement of social acceptance; it involves retaining the acceptance an individual already has. Filipinos value it so much that to hurt someone’s hiya intentionally is to ask for trouble: you know why there are many journalists killed in the Philippines? For the politicians whose misdeeds were publicly outed by the media, their crimes being laid bare is to suffer hiya in the gravest manner possible. Violence often occurs when someone is ‘put to shame’ in the Philippines. :wink:

Here’s the key thing to remember: the milieu and the context of the Bible, ancient Mediterranean cultures, are traditionally also ‘shame societies’. Much of life revolved around ensuring you and your family received public honor and avoided public shame. Just like in other honor-shame cultures, your public image or social rating is crucial; if by mishap you had brought shame to yourself or your family, you’re better off dead. A person’s place in society is basically defined by how much honor he’s got. This is why in the Iliad, Achilles - like any other good soldier in the ancient glory - is so bent on gaining eternal glory (kleos) in the battlefield: it’s something that would confer to him more ‘honor’. Not winning the award you think you deserve could be a moment of shame - which is what happened to Ajax the Greater.

We can also see this in the Bible. I’d like to point out two instances from the Old Testament where ‘shame’ plays a big part. King Saul decides to kill himself in the battlefield rather than be captured - he’s basically like the Japanese samurai who chose to take their own lives rather than be shamed by the enemy (1 Samuel 31:4-6). Another good example is Ahitophel (king David’s advisor who betrays him by siding with Absalom): when Absalom rejects Ahitophel’s advice in favor of Hushai’s, guess what he does. He goes home and hangs himself (2 Samuel 17:23), which from the perspective of people from a shame society is the natural thing to do - Ahitophel had just been ‘dishonored’ when Absalom ditched his advice. You might also notice that there are quite a number of psalms which repeatedly ask God: “let me not be put to shame.”


I know y’all know that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ had attracted some controversy, with people pointing out the film’s problems. I must confess that I’m also one of those who certain aspects of the film problematic. (Now I do like the film, but at the same time I can’t help but feel that there are Christians who give the film excessive credit. :blush:) Actually I wouldn’t say that this is a ‘problem’ specific to TPotC, but to most discussions of crucifixion I’ve seen so far. It is the overemphasis on the physical side of the suffering.

Since the Middle Ages we Western Christians have historically focused on the physical, sensual aspects of Jesus’ life, particularly His suffering. This really explains why we have devotions to, say, every single wound in Jesus’ body or to the Sacred Heart or meditative devotions like the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross, or why we have (had) things like the Flagellants or passion plays. It also I think explains why we (particularly in recent years) are so ‘stuck up’ in portraying an explicitly suffering or a dead Christ on the cross and complain that the corpus on our crucifixes is not bloody or battered enough. :wink: We focus on trying to ‘be there’, visualizing in graphic detail every single step Jesus took or every single blow He received and relating to it, that at times to an outsider we might look like masochists obsessed with blood and gore. To put it bluntly, we place emphasis on the ‘shock value’.

You might have also noticed that most popular introductions on crucifixion nowadays are written and presented by doctors :stuck_out_tongue: - or at least, focus on the physical and medical aspects. They’ll talk about how the scourging will cause hypovolemic shock, how the nails (supposing they were driven through the wrists) will destroy the median nerve, and so on and so forth. All this again attempt to give us that sense of ‘relating’ to what happened to Jesus.

In fact, have you ever noticed that in most Jesus films, the filmmakers make it a point to depict almost every single detail of the Passion? It’s clicheish: Jesus is flogged, beaten, carries His cross and is crucified onscreen, before the eyes of the viewers. Most films would pick and choose from different episodes from the gospels, but if there’s one event they’ll insist on depicting scrupulously, it’s the Passion. The answer to this is really simple: most Jesus films had their origins in a Western context and so typically reflect that spirituality.

All these are well and good, but what people often forget is that what made the ancient afraid of crucifixion is not so much the guts and gore, but the shame and degradation which death by crucifixion entailed. In other words, they were not so much worried about physical death but the social death which crucifixion brings with it. It isn’t the beatings or the wounds per se; it is the prospect of being losing one’s honor by being slowly dehumanized in public view that is terrifying. Mark Goodacre’s article Scripturalization in Mark’s Crucifixion Narrative begins with a very good summary:

One might have thought that it was something of a scholarly cliché to stress the horror, the shame, the degradation, the suffering involved with crucifixion. Yet many of the scholarly reactions to The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004), which balked at the scale of suffering endured here by Jesus, provide a timely reminder that many of us still have very little grasp of just how appalling a death crucifixion was. The remarkable thing about Mel Gibson‘s film was not so much the magnitude of suffering depicted but its restraint in showing many of the true horrors of crucifixion, as Gibson himself realized. Consider, for example, Seneca‘s mockery of the view that life is worth holding on to at any price:

[INDENT]Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross.

But there is a problem with the iconographic focus on Jesus‘ suffering in The Passion of the Christ, for while it gives some hint of the appalling suffering involved in such a death, it masks what for the ancient mind marked the true terror of death by crucifixion. For it was not merely the excruciating physical torture that made crucifixion so unspeakable, but the devastation of shame that this death, above all others, represented. Consider, for example, Cicero‘s remarks:

But the executioner, the veiling of the head and the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things or the endurance of them, but liability to them, the expectation, indeed the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man. (Pro Rabirio 16).[/INDENT]


I’d like to finish by providing at least three quotes. One is from Michael J. Gorman’s Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters, where Gorman introduces the concepts of group identity and honor and shame (pp.2-4):


A second important aspect of ancient Mediterranean culture was its sense of group identity. Whereas contemporary Westerners tend to define themselves and their identity first of all as individuals, ancient Mediterranean cultures tended to define the self primarily in terms of group membership. This fundamental cultural difference is sometimes referred to as the distinction between a ‘monadic’ and a ‘dyadic’ culture. In a monadic culture the self can be defined alone (mono-), with emphasis on the person as an individual. In a dyadic culture, however, the self can never be defined alone but always and only in reference to another (dy-, ‘two’), and particularly to the group — the family, the city, etc. In a dyadic culture, value is placed on inheriting and living by the norms and customs of the group, not on the formulation of independent judgment and values. To live is to live as part of a body and to take one’s place within that body. To deviate will likely spell disaster.


This sense of group identity leads to another generalization about ancient Mediterranean culture: it was a culture of honor and shame. Simply defined, honor and shame refer to the ongoing attribution and withdrawal of esteem by peers — one’s family, socioeconomic group, city, etc. In Roman society this respect was based primarily on such things as wealth, education, rhetorical skill, family pedigree, and political connections. These were the culture’s primary ‘status indicators.’ In a dyadic culture ‘self-esteem’ is an oxymoron; the only esteem one has is bestowed not by the self but by the group. To ‘lose face’ by failing to please the group, by failing to embody the group’s values, constitutes both the loss of honor and the loss of self. In this environment peer pressure is not something to avoid, as most Westerners would answer, but is in fact the appropriate norm.

The second is from Jerome Neyrey’s Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (pp. 139-40):

At first glance, death offers scant grounds for praise. It means the collapse of health, the total loss of power, and the severing of status markers such as patron-client relationships. Death, moreover, ends the possibility of achieving further success and may even signal a defeat by a rival’s superior power. Furthermore, Christians writing about the crucifixion of Jesus were confronted with a genuine shame and stigma. The author of Hebrews merely expressed what everyone knew by describing Jesus’ crucifixion as “the shame of the cross” (αἰσχύνης, Heb. 12:2). This evaluation of crucifixion echoes what Paul said earlier, that Jews considered it a “stumbling block” and Greeks called it “folly” (1 Cor. 1:23), terms connected with shame. These Christian authors accurately reflect the cultural evaluation of a death by crucifixion in the Greco-Roman world (Hengel 1977:1-10; Neyrey 1996b: 113-15). Later Christian writers had to confront the shame of the cross, acknowledging its common assessment as “a disgraceful punishment even for worthless men” (Arnobius, Against the Nations 1.36), suitable only for criminals (Minucius Felix, Octavian 9.4). Origen, for example, responded to challenges from Celsius, who charged that Jesus was “most dishonorably arrested and punished in utter disgrace” (Against Celsus 6.10). Jesus’ death by crucifixion, then, carried with it the stigma of shame.
Granted that death by crucifixion was shameful, wherein lay the shame? …] First, the ancients considered crucifixion the appropriate punishment for criminals and slaves, who utterly lacked any honor ascribed them by birth of virtuous deeds. Victors crucified “losers” such as defeated soldiers (Diodorus Siculus 14.53.4) or survivors of a defeated city (Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander 4.4.17) or captured rebels (Livy 22.32.2; 33.36.2). Elites rarely were crucified, a death which would utterly destroy their reputation as well as their lives. Cicero was outraged to hear that Roman citizens were so treated (On Verres 2.52.163; For Rabirio 16).



Second, death by crucifixion climaxed a process of bodily degradation. It was preceded by torture and mutilation; it was occasionally accompanied by the condemned being forced to witness the brutal deaths of their wives and children (see Plato, Gorgias 473B-C; Republic 361E). In particular, a man to be crucified might be put on the rack, be blinded by hot irons, have his hands amputated, and of course be scourged. In terms of a bodily grammar of honor and shame, his face and eyes were assaulted. He was involuntarily stripped naked, and thus shamed (Neyrey 1996b); his body was made ugly and repulsive by beatings, scourgings, and mutilations. His torture and death, moreover, occurred in public, even as entertainment for the crowds, which only magnified the victim’s shame and disgrace. Philo records one such grisly “theater” of crucifixion:

[INDENT]He [Flaccus] ordered the crucifixion of the living. … [H]e did this after maltreating them with the lash in the middle of the theatre and torturing them with fire and the sword. The show had been arranged in parts. The first spectacle lasting from dawn till the third hour consisted of Jews being scourged, hung up, bound to the wheel, brutally mauled and haled for their death march through the middle of the orchestra. (Flaccus 84-85)

Moreover,** when the victims witnessed the execution of their children, they could not count on their heirs to carry on their name or seek vengeance, both marks of shame** (Josephus, J.W. 13.380; Diodorus Siculus 33.15.1-2).
For these reasons, a number of authors close in time to the New Testament describe crucifixion in “superlative” terms, calling it a “most pitiable death (οἴκτιστον, Josephus, J.W. 7.203), or the “ultimate punishment” (summum supplicium, Cicero, On Verres 2.5.168), or the “most cruel and disgusting” punishment (crudelissimi taeterrimique, Cicero, On Verres 2.5.165), or the “most evil” cross (maximum malum, Plautus, Casina 611; Menaechemi 66; 849). Celsus calls it “shameful” ( 6.10), while others call it an insult (Melito, On the Passover 96: παρύβρισται; Achilles Tatius 2.37.3: ὑβρίζεται). These labels indicate the common cultural perception that death by crucifixion constituted the worst imaginable fate, namely, the most shameful of deaths.[/INDENT]


The last is from David F. Watson’s Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret (pp.69-71):

The utter degradation associated with crucifixion has been well documented. Seneca refers to the person who receives the death penalty as “covered with disgrace and public ignominy.” The cross, however, was widely considered the worst way to die, the most extreme of the three summa supplica, ahead of burning and decapitation. Beginning with Mark 14:42, Jesus is arrested (14:43-49); abandoned (14:50-52); put on trial (14:53-64; 15:1-5); spit upon by his accusers (14:65); beaten by the temple guards (15:65) [sic]; denied by his disciple Peter (14:66-72); condemned by the crowds (15:6-14); flogged (15:15); mocked, beaten, and spit upon by Roman soldiers (15:16-19); crucified (15:24); and then mocked further while he hung upon the cross (15:29-32), even by the two other criminals who were crucified alongside him (15:32). It is hard to imagine a clearer case of public humiliation.

It was not simply the physical torture of crucifixion, then, that made this death so despised. Rather, the public humiliation that went along with it made it all the more loathsome. Crucifixion played upon widely held ideals of masculinity. In the ancient context of Mark’s Gospel, it was thought appropriate and necessary or adult males to demonstrate prowess. Demonstrations of prowess could take any number of forms, such as the conferral of benefits; teaching, rhetoric, the writing of poetry; military victory; or avenging some type of insult or injury. Overly reserved men gave the appearance of being effeminate. Suetonius, for example, recounts that Vergil was so “modest in speech and thought” that he was called “the maiden.” It follows, then, that to be rendered unable to demonstrate prowess, to be made powerless, was shameful for a man. To be beaten, to be unable to repulse an attacker, was degrading because it was the inverse of the masculine ideal. In the Alexander Romance, Alexander frees captive soldiers with mutilated feet, ears, and noses, but they ask not to be returned to their families because “in their present condition they would bring embarrassment upon their relatives.” Crucifixion, a very public act of brutal physical abuse, represented the loss of prowess and power in the extreme.

Status had a direct bearing on the likelihood that one might die by crucifixion. It was a punishment for the lower classes, a fact that increased its power to degrade. Cicero writes that “the executioner, the veiling of the head, and the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things or the endurance of them, but liability to then, the expectation, nay, the mere mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.” Among the upper classes, then, the cross was an obscenity, best not to be spoken of in polite company. For the lower classes, it was a very real threat and a shocking manifestation of the violence that could be inflicted when the more powerful members of society felt threatened by their social subordinates.

Joel Marcus discusses crucifixion as a death that was generally reserved for people who had “gotten above themselves.” Slaves who revolted against their masters or people who engaged in rebellion against the government would be good candidates for this punishment. Irony, Marcus argues, was the very intention of such a death: “this strangely ‘exalting’ mode of execution was designed to mimic, parody, and puncture the pretensions of insubordinate transgressors by displaying a deliberately horrible mirror of their self-elevation.” The “elevation” of crucifixion, the “enthronement” upon the cross, was a way of mocking those who had acted above their proper social station.

The deterrent force of the cross also relied upon the group-oriented personality of the ancient world. People were embedded in groups, which consisted not just of families, but friends, patron-client relationships, and other types of voluntary associations such as collegia, religious groups, or philosophical groups. In The Golden A*s, a certain Aristomenes finds his friend Socrates sitting in squalor like a common beggar. Aristomenes says to his friend, “And dost thou live here as a ghost or beggar to our great shame and ignominy?” In his current state, Socrates brings shame not just to himself, but to his friends. Likewise, Plutarch states that it is impossible for a friend not to share his friend’s wrongs or disrespute or disfavor. Certain people were more important for a group’s collective honor than others. For example, the father was the most visible representative of a family’s honor. The head of a philosophical group, such as Epicurus, was the most significant member of that group in the eyes of the public. Crucifying the head of a group, then, would bring considerable shame on all the members of the group. The cross did not simply punish one person, but shamed all people associated with that person. It could serve as a group punishment inflicted upon a visible member of that group.

That’s it from me. A blessed Holy Week to you all.


The example given here; could it also be considered similar to Judas’ suicide by hanging after having betrayed his teacher and mentor, Jesus?


Yes! Matthew (the one who writes about Judas’ hanging) is definitely making a connection here: David was betrayed by Ahitophel, Jesus (the ‘Son of David’ as Matthew likes to call Him) was betrayed by Judas, both men eventually share the similar fate.


Quote from Patrick “Crucifying the head of a group, then, would bring considerable shame on all the members of the group. The cross did not simply punish one person, but shamed all people associated with that person. It could serve as a group punishment inflicted upon a visible member of that group.”
So who was responsible for Jesus’ shame, the Romans or the Jews? Only Rpmans could perform crucifixions but the Jews were afraid that their religion was in jeopardy with Jesus as a leader.

John 11.47 Then the leading priests and Pharisees called the high council together. “What are we going to do?” they asked each other. “This man certainly performs many miraculous signs. 48If we allow him to go on like this, soon everyone will believe in him. Then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.”
49Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! 50You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.”
51He did not say this on his own; as high priest at that time he was led to prophesy that Jesus would die for the entire nation. 52And not only for that nation, but to bring together and unite all the children of God scattered around the world.


I’m gonna quote another author again (“Envy - The Most Grievous of All Evils. Envy and the Evil Eye in the First-Century Mediterranean World,” from Bruce J. Malina’s The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, pp. 108-110):

In the previous chapter, we took a long look at the ancient Mediterranean belief that all goods in life were limited. Before that, we noted that first-century Mediterraneans lived in a ruralized society, with wealth and well-being attached to the land. And at the beginning of this book, we considered honor and shame as pivotal values in the ancient (and modern) Mediterranean world. It seems that the configuration of the perception of limited good and concern for honor and shame, coupled with life in ruralized society, produces preoccupation with envy. The point here is not that the ancients envied and we do not. We do, indeed, experience envy, yet we are not preoccupied with it nor do we ascribe significant events to it.

If we begin with our own, twenty-first-century Western experience, when does a person feel envious? When do we envy another, or when does another envy us? Invariably the feeling of envy surfaces only when we compete with another person who wins out over us in possessing some thing or in entering into some relationship that is in extremely limited supply: a unique role (class president, best student); a unique relationship (best friend, male or female); a single, available job; a single bargain (new car sale); and the like. You will notice that envy emerges only in situations of highly curtailed, drastically limited valuable objects. We envy other people when they are in possession of some highly restricted valuable object that we ourselves would like to have. And similarly, others envy us should we come into possession of some highly limited valuable object. Of course persons winning possession of rare, valuable objects or relationships consider themselves fortunate and elated in their new possession.

It would seem that envy is a feeling of begrudging that emerges in the face of the good fortune of others relative to some restricted good that is equally of interest to us. We might say that we only envy our social equals in similar social circles, yet in U.S. perception, we can all aspire to becoming prominent persons. And we find little difficulty in looking at eminent persons as beneath contempt. This description, of course, befits individualistic U.S. society. U.S. persons believe they may rise (and fall) in social standing; hence all persons are potentially social equals. What of persons in the ancient Mediterranean? You will notice that Mark’s report of Pilate’s appraisal of the reason for Jesus’ being put to death pits an individual over against a group, Jesus over against the high priests, who are envious of Jesus. When groups envy others, either single individuals or other groups, it is a good indication that we are dealing with a collectivistic, group-oriented society rather than an individualistic society. In collectivistic societies, people stay in the status in which they were born. Social standing is determined by birth, one’s ethnic group in general, and one’s status within that ethnic group. There is little, if any, social mobility, upward or downward. Even when elites are dispossessed and defamed by their elite peers, they remain elites at the lowest levels of elite statuses.

Furthermore, just as honor and shame work differently in individualistic societies compared to collectivistic ones, so does envy. You will recall that shame in the ancient Mediterranean (and in collectivistic societies) is a publicly rejected claim to worth. A person asserts some value or feature as honorable (I am a great scholar, athlete, public speaker, worker), and the public refuses to acknowledge the person’s worth, even rejects him or her. This is shame marked by socially perceived disgrace. To be shamed by others breeds intense rage and inflicts a profound wound on the persons who are disgraced, together with those associated with them, particularly family members. Whether it is a bumper sticker on a car or a sign on a Roman cross, it becomes humiliation for everyone in the in-group. The ordinary reaction of collectivistic persons is to inform the group in which they might be embedded of the refusal of acknowledgement with a view to planning revenge on the new or traditional enemy responsible for the dishonor.

In collectivistic societies, shame works only for those individuals who feel an allegiance to others and to the social system in general, with a capacity to care about their social standing. In the Mediterranean world, there were alienated, unallied persons such as beggars, the dispossessed elites, or the conquered and exiled. If people are alienated, the effort to shame them is irrelevant and may only be a badge of honor. Thus to be crucified by conquering Romans who likewise crucified many of one’s fellow Israelites would not be shameful to fellow ethnics. But to be handed over by one’s fellow Israelites for crucifixion by out-group Roman authorities would be public shame, indeed.



In individualistic societies, where honor and shame are highly psychologized and bear deeply introspective resonance, shame is a denial of personal worth by some significant person (mother, father, teacher, relative, sibling). The person who is shamed believes he or she is simply not worthy to be alive, to be a person, to exist. This introspective sense of being shamed diminishes a person’s self-worth and often activates urges of self-destruction as the only proper answer to one’s lack of self-worth. This sort of reaction would rarely be found in the Mediterranean, past or present. As I was recently told by a Mediterranean informant after we both witnessed an incident of public shaming, “If I felt the urge to commit suicide, I would kill somebody.” This, in a nutshell, is a typical anti-introspective, collectivistic reaction to being shamed.


There is a reference in a former quote to Joel Marcus’ Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation, where he argues that crucifixion is to ‘exalt’ in a mocking way criminals who tried to elevate themselves. (The Christian image of Jesus being ‘lifted up’ on the cross, he argues, was one of the attempts at reversing the shamefulness of crucifixion into something honorable - which was in many ways countercultural.)

Irony was exactly their intention: this strangely ‘exalting’ mode of execution was designed to mimic, parody, and puncture the pretensions of insubordinate transgressors by displaying a deliberately horrible mirror of their self-elevation. For it is revealing that the criminals so punished were often precisely people who had, in the view of the judges, gotten “above” themselves — rebellious slaves, for example, or slaves who had insulted their masters, or people of any class who had not shown deference to the emperor, not to mention those who had revolted against him or who had, through brigandage or piracy, demonstrated disdain for imperial rule. Crucifixion was intended to unmask, in a deliberately grotesque manner, the pretension and arrogance of those who had exalted themselves beyond their station; the authorities were bent on demonstrating through the graphic tableau of the cross what such self-promotion meant and whither it led. Crucifixion, then, is a prime illustration of Michel Foucault’s thesis that the process of execution is a “penal liturgy” designed to reveal the essence of the crime.

Remember Malina’s quote from two posts ago: “In collectivistic societies, people stay in the status in which they were born. Social standing is determined by birth, one’s ethnic group in general, and one’s status within that ethnic group. There is little, if any, social mobility, upward or downward.” Also, that “shame in the ancient Mediterranean (and in collectivistic societies) is a publicly rejected claim to worth. A person asserts some value or feature as honorable (I am a great scholar, athlete, public speaker, worker), and the public refuses to acknowledge the person’s worth, even rejects him or her.” And that’s why being ‘exalted’ in crucifixion is shameful.


So do you think Jesus’ followers fled because they were ashamed, or frightened that the same thing would happen to them?


I think both. There’s fear of course, and shame - as Jesus’ disciples and part of the ‘in-group’ they were implicated in His public shaming, so they really have no ‘face’ to show to the public. That’s why they ran away and hid, and that’s I think also why Peter denied Jesus.


I think so too - shame and fear. But after his resurrection, it was a different story! Then everyone came together and set out to spread the good news. It’s pretty amazing when you really think about it.


As was mentioned by the authors I quoted, the biggest hurdle the early Christians faced in preaching the gospel was the honor and shame mentality of their culture. The central figure of their movement was a convicted criminal who had died a very, very shameful death. That fact alone stands in the way of Christianity being palatable to Jews and Greeks. So what did the early Christians do? They radically reconfigured long-standing cultural values and turned it on its head: God did not care for the standards of the world, they said. In fact, what is ‘shameful’ in the eyes of men is in fact ‘honorable’ in the eyes of God. “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

I’m going to repeat Malina: “In collectivistic societies, people stay in the status in which they were born. Social standing is determined by birth, one’s ethnic group in general, and one’s status within that ethnic group. There is little, if any, social mobility, upward or downward.” So St. Paul is already saying something that’s unthinkable in that culture: why in the world would the Son lower Himself and choose to become “a slave”? It wouldn’t have been shocking for a Greco-Roman audience to hear of gods taking on human form, but to be told that Christ, who was equal to God (not just one god among many, but the one, single God) in every way “emptied Himself” and became “a slave” deconstructed everything they thought was written in stone. It was one thing to have role reversals for a day (Saturnalia, where the masters and the slaves would switch positions), but for One equal to God to choose to become a slave and live His life that way - even dying a shameful kind of death - is another matter entirely.

In collectivistic cultures, as I mentioned earlier, one’s status and achievements are the key criteria for honor in the public sphere. People were preoccupied in receiving more honor, or at least, not losing the honor they already have. It was unthinkable for someone to shame and humble himself - to lose one’s own honor on purpose, of one’s own free will. Joseph H. Hellerman once recalled the shocked reactions of his Korean students when he announced he had decided to leave his post as a professor to take up church ministry (Korea is, like Japan and China, a collectivistic, honor-shame culture):

One day in early 1996 I announced to my classes that this was my last semester as a professor at Talbot. I was going back into full-time church ministry [Little did I know that I’d be back in the classroom full-time in 2001, but that’s a story for another time.]

The reaction of my Korean students took me completely by surprise. They suddenly began to act quite uncomfortable around me. As I probed a bit, it became clear that these international students felt deeply sorry for me. They were somehow ashamed for me, as well.

Traditional Asian culture, you see, is wedded to honor and shame in much the same way as people in Jesus’ world were. Instead of military victory and public office holding, however, today’s Koreans regard educational achievements and vocational status as the key criteria for honor in the public sphere.

Additionally, and also characteristic of an honor culture, my Korean students view Christian education and ministry in markedly hierarchical terms. At the top of the pecking order is the seminary professor, with his august educational degrees and pedagogical authority. A local church pastor, although still a big fish in a small pond, doesn’t even come close.

The Korean brothers who heard my announcement in class that day couldn’t imagine that a seminary professor would willingly trade a position at the top of the spiritual pecking order for the lesser job of a pastor. They could only assume that someone else made that decision for me, against my will.

So these dear Korean students, sympathetically sharing in the shame they assumed I was experiencing, did not know quite how to respond to their now former, demoted professor.

The point of the above story should be quite obvious: in an honor culture, whether Korean or Roman, to willingly step down the ladder of public esteem is simply unthinkable. A Roman senator named Pliny put it like this, ‘It is more uglifying to lose, than never to get, praise’ (Ep. 8.24.9).

But notice what St. Paul says next:

Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Note again his further deconstruction of traditional values. He doesn’t say that Jesus was exalted by God in spite of His exchanging His divine status for a lesser condition and dying in ultimate shame, but because of that. God had overturned society’s evaluation of Jesus - violated social norms! - by raising Him from the dead and “bestowing on Him the name that is above every name.”


Christ has no shame in the crucifixion - it is our shame nailed to the cross


(Continued from post 14)

It isn’t just at Philippians 2 that St. Paul blurts out cultural faux pas in spreading the Christian message.

But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Boasting was a regular part of an honor-shame culture, especially when there was a sort of competition involved between two or more persons or groups. In Mediterranean societies, it was perfectly acceptable - in fact, expected - to brag about one’s own accomplishments. It was a virtue which added further honor to the one you already had. No one of course appreciated crass boasting or boasting that put others down (hubris), but in a society where people compete for honor (more specifically, men - women are generally seen as weak and ‘honor-less’), and do all they can to avoid losing honor, bragging, self-promotion - drawing attention to your abilities, your strength, your status, your achievements, your virility - and getting others to praise you was an acceptable way to improve your public reputation. It was taken for granted that those with merit would seek the honor due to them. This was the so-called philotimia, ‘love of honor’.

Since honor could be won or lost, people were often on guard against challengers. There were two ways of winning an ‘honor challenge’, where one person’s honor is challenged and attacked by another. If you perceive the challenger as insignificant, you might simply ignore him altogether and shame the challenger. If, meanwhile, you felt he was threatening, you could act to defend your own honor (a riposte), win the challenge and either maintain or gain greater honor.* Boasting could also be employed to either answer challenges or dissuade opponents from attacking one’s honor in the first place.

Paul, like any other person in his culture, also engages in honorable boasting. But notice what he does. He boasts about things people in his culture would not find honorable and boast-worthy at all - on the contrary, they are quite shameful. He brags about the cross of Jesus (!), his fragile physical condition (2 Corinthians 12:9) and the times he got worn and beaten in the proclamation of the gospel (2 Corinthians 11). One might as well have asked whether he was a fool, bragging about these things. Paul, with his message about a crucified Christ, sounded like a total lunatic.

  • Let’s say, for example, trick questions. A common strategy to shame others is to ask questions designed to expose the target’s ignorance. Now the person asking isn’t really doing an honest request for information, but is seeking to shame you. You can ignore the challenger if you felt he was not worthy of your time, but at the same time failing to answer can also be seen as an admission of ignorance - and thus an occasion of shame. What are you gonna do? You can ‘save face’ by answering the question, even if with the answer you give is incorrect, or even an outright lie. In this case, giving an answer - any answer - is more honorable than keeping silent. (Plus points, of course, if you know the right answer!) It would be up to the audience - there’s always an judging panel; after all, publicity is a key element in honor and shame - to determine if you’ve won or lost the challenge. Or let’s say a someone challenges you to fight a duel. If you felt he was just small fry that would add nothing to your honor, you are free to just pretend you haven’t heard the challenge. But if you felt he was a worthy challenger, you can take up the duel; if you win, it’s more honor to your credit.


Keeping all these cultural expectations in mind, why not read what St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians?

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

(1 Corinthians 1:14-31 ESV)


Good stuff Patrick. You are a great teacher.


If this sounds familiar to you, your hunch is correct. It is thought that the evangelists cast the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, and between Jesus and the temple authorities as ‘honor challenges’. In the gospels, you have the Pharisees or (later in Jerusalem) the temple priests trying to challenge Jesus’ honor by confronting Him or asking Him trick questions, but every time Jesus successfully manages to stand up to them - which in turn gives Him more honor in the eyes of the public and causes His opponents to ‘lose face’.

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

(Mark 3:1-6 ESV)


And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

(Mark 11:27-33 ESV)

However, such repeated conflict can only go so far. Remember what I said about us Filipinos in the first post? “Filipinos value hiya - ‘shame’ or sense of propriety] so much that to hurt someone’s hiya intentionally is to ask for trouble: you know why there are many journalists killed in the Philippines? For the politicians whose misdeeds were publicly outed by the media, their crimes being laid bare is to suffer hiya in the gravest manner possible. Violence often occurs when someone is ‘put to shame’ in the Philippines.

The same goes with Jesus and His opponents. Jesus in the gospels repeatedly manages to shame “the scribes and the Pharisees” and “the chief priests” by answering their questions (or in a few cases, even outright criticizing/insulting them - an act which denies His opponents honor). Such shaming will lead to further intensification of the conflict - until it escalates into full-blown violence. We all know how the story ended, don’t we?

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