Honor and Shame as Background Music in Romans

Honor and Shame as Background Music in Romans June 19, 2019

In writing the New Testament, the biblical authors are much like movie directors. How so?

Think of a movie that made you feel suspense or elation. What caused it? At the moment, it probably was not the plot that immediately evoked the strong emotional response. More likely, the movie’s use of sound or music had an impact on your subconscious.

Without your awareness, background music cued your mind to expect some surprise, a twist in the story, or share in the characters’ emotion. The best movie directors are masters of communicating so much more than what is explicitly stated in the script.

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In essence, Paul accomplishes something similar when he uses the Old Testament in Romans. His allusions to the prophets would have subtle yet significant effects on many early readers. In Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes, I explore the pervasive use of Old Testament honor-shame language, especially in Romans 9-11. I’ll introduce some questions raised in those chapters in the next post.

For now, I want to explain two things. First, how do Old Testament allusions are meant to influence readers? How do they provide indirect commentary? Second, why are interpreters prone to miss the significance of honor and shame when it lies in the background of a passage?

Word studies are not enough

When people consider a concept, they often restrict their study to word searches. So, someone will look for words like “honor” and “shame” to determine whether these are major themes in a book. However, this method only paints a partial picture. This is true for two reasons.

1. Honor and shame are umbrella terms that contain or connect numerous other ideas (e.g., group identity, reputation, etc.).

Accordingly, readers could miss blatant honor-shame terms like “boasting” and “glory.” Furthermore, they will likely overlook subtler ideas that convey honor or shame, such as people being Abraham’s offspring or slaves to sin.

2. When biblical authors quote an OT text, they tend to evoke the broader context of that OT passage.

More obvious examples include Christ’s being an offspring of David and believers being justified before God. Still, we can look deeper.

For instance, several prophetic passages cited by Paul in Romans 9-11 are saturated with both honor-shame language as well as concepts found elsewhere in Romans. By observing the logic of those OT texts, we gain more clues to better interpret Paul’s message to Rome. This underlying logic is akin to the background music that cues an audience to discern the meaning and significance of a story.

Interpreters want Paul to make it easy on them. They want him to be direct, to say things plainly. They can fail to see that direct statements can be misunderstood just as well as indirect ones. Ask countless people who made a comment to their spouse that was mistaken as rude, apathetic, narrow, or whatever else because they were “too direct.” Ironically, I have found that direct statements will often lead people to say something like, “So you don’t think this or that idea?” Or, they accuse the speaker of oversimplifying an idea.

So much knowledge and wisdom must be nuanced to be grasped. This is because of the myriad parts of reality and our lives are inextricably tied together. We need a humble hermeneutic.

The Pervasive Presence of Honor and Shame in Romans

When I scanned Paul’s use of the OT, I observed an unusual density of citations in Romans 9-11. This made me curious. What was going on in Paul’s mind such that he would suddenly string together so many passages from the prophets one after another? It seems he directs attention a bit more to readers with a Jewish background. For this audience, the flurry of texts would evoke an array of connotations and connections.

When I reflected on those OT texts, I noticed honor and shame were ubiquitous themes. Why do scholars typically only address other ideas common to both Romans and the cited OT texts; for example, justification, righteousness, etc. It’s intriguing, however, that those traditional themes are entwined with honor-shame in both Romans and the OT texts.

This observation raises a question. If honor and shame span the OT passages that Paul uses, shouldn’t we expect honor and shame somehow to contribute to the logic of Romans? That will be the subject of the next post.

Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes was just released on June 11th. Click here for a short video introduction).

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