As John Dickson, one of the most difficult concepts to get across to late Western students is the concept of an ancient honor and shame culture, a culture where not truth nor life is the top value in the hierarchy of values, but rather obtaining honor is. The Greek word is philotimia literally the love of honor, and it dominated the matrix of values in the Greco-Roman world, in particular the male part of that world tasked with obtaining, maintaining and sustaining the honor of his family and their family name etc.
“Uppermost in a father’s mind in the ancient world was not whether his son would be happy (in the modern sense) or make money or live morally [or tell the truth], but whether the boy would bring honor to the family, especially to his father, and to himself.” (p. 86). One was to seek to build respect and garner praise for one’s family and its name. The greatest fear in such a society was being publicly shamed— such as Jesus was on a cross. Other things such as justice, kindness, social order, were down the depth chart of the hierarchy of values, though they were valued. Goodness, pleasure, and prosperity, while good things were not the main goals of one’s life in the Greco-Roman world.
Dickson rightly (pp. 88-89) points to the famous Delphic canon of virtues, a list of the top 147 bits of moral advice (from the 6th century B.C.) and humility is not even listed. Instead what is listed is things like— Honor good people; rule your wife; Don’t let your reputation go; respect the elder; die for your country; don’t mock the dead; control yourself; practice prudence; return a favor…. and so on. Notice that love and humility are not really mentioned in the list— the cardinal Christian virtues. Humility was only expected of inferiors towards superiors— thus hubris towards the gods or the emperor was thought foolish, “but humility before an equal or a lesser was morally suspect. It upset the assumed equation: merit demands honor, thus honor was the proof of merit. Avoiding honor implied a diminishment of merit. It was shameful.” (p. 89). Humility was not to be confused with modest (modestia) the exercising of personal restraint.
In light of all this, you will not be surprised that in antiquity boasting was seen as a normal, natural, and necessary activity, it was a way of establishing one’s honor. There was nothing wrong with publicly praising oneself, while avoiding offending or besmirching the honor of another person. Crass boasting that put others down was to be avoided, as was pure self-love or narcissism, but claiming the honor properly due a person was normal and natural. There are honorific columns, erected by the person being praised himself, all over the Greco-Roman world, including in places like Capernaum where there is one for a Jewish stone mason written in Hebrew. Honorific stone columns were the ancient equivalent of our gold plaques and the like.
Self-congratulation began from the top down, with the first Emperor, Augustus, himself setting the pace by writing out himself a long list of his accomplishments and posting it all over the Empire—lest anyone forget! It’s called the Res Gestae, and it lists his military victories, many benefactions, sponsoring of gladiatorial games, and the like. You should Google it and read it. Dickson gives but a small sample of the 2,500 Latin word inscription. Lest we think this disease of self-praise only infected pagans, Dickson rightly quotes the beginning of the Jewish historian Josephus’ autobiography in which he brags about his priestly and royal pedigree right from the beginning, and his father’s good moral character. He was not shy to lay out his honor credentials. All this stands in rather stark contrast to what one finds in the Gospels, and elsewhere in the NT, as we shall see.