Cross Examination: The Cross of Christ in the Roman World
Did you know that those who study the history and culture of the Roman world of the first century affirm that the Roman Empire (consisting of Romans, Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, etc.) was founded on the cultural values of honor and shame? To quote David deSilva, “A person born into [this] culture was led from childhood to seek honor and to avoid disgrace. Honor comes from the affirmation of a person’s worth by peers and society, awarded on the basis of the individual’s ability to embody the virtues and attributes his or her society values” (An Introduction to the New Testament, IVP, 2004, p. 125). Words such as “honor,” “glory,” “praise,” and other synonyms, as well as “shame,” “reproach,” “mock,” and their synonyms, are part of the daily vocabulary of people who live in such a society. One can hardly turn a page of the Bible without finding one of these words, which suggests how an understanding of honor and shame might impact our understanding of Scripture. These articles are meant to be short and so I will not delve into the many ways in which our Bible reading can be enriched by understanding this cultural dynamic. Instead, I want to focus on how our understanding of crucifixion and the cross of Christ is enhanced when seen against this cultural background.
Shame and the Cross of Christ
Although none of us in the western world are exposed to crucifixion as a form of capital punishment, we are aware of the slow and horribly painful death experienced by its victims. But in the Roman world, a painful death was only one reason, and probably not the most important reason, for crucifixion. In a society built on honor, the cross was the most shameful death possible. The cross was not only intended to torture its victim, but to shame them so that no one would want to be affiliated with them. This is why a person was crucified naked, was beaten, mocked, and spit upon (e.g., Matt. 27:29-30, 39-44). If the Jewish leaders had only wanted Jesus dead, they could have sent someone into the throngs that surrounded him to stab him. Jesus’ death, however, was not enough; that would simply make a martyr of him. The Jewish leaders realized that he must die the most shameful death possible so that all of his followers would scatter and it would put an end to his influence. This idea of the shame of the cross is the backdrop for all of the passion narratives in the gospels and for passages such as Acts 18:32; 1 Cor. 1:18; and Heb. 12:2, to name only a few.
The Cross: A Sign of Victory
The fact is, Roman crucifixion was so effective that it quelled every rebellion in the ancient world. Whether we are talking about the slave rebellion under Spartacus, which saw the crucifixion of 6000 men, or the uprisings of would-be deliverers and messiahs, every movement was put down and silenced by the use of the cross. Every movement that is…except for one! The fact that the early disciples went about preaching “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) is an astonishing fact, given the cultural dynamics of honor and shame. No one in this society would think, “I believe I’ll start a new religion and base it on a man who was crucified.” Everyone wanted to stay as far away from the shame of crucifixion as possible. Even if, one person was crazy enough to imagine such an idea, it would never have gained a following. To identify with the cross was to guaranty a life of persecution and shame. This is why Paul said the “message of the cross [was] foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18). How then do we explain the fact that the cross of Christ, not only transformed many lives, but ultimately conquered the Roman Empire itself? The only logical explanation for this phenomenon is that there was a power behind the cross of Jesus that was not of this world; a power that went far beyond human intellect, social mores, and cultural norms. It was in fact, as Paul affirms, the power of God!
As an American, I thought I knew England. After all, I had visited the UK on three occasions. However, when my wife and I moved to England a little over ten years ago, we realized that we had settled into a very different culture. Many have had the experience of being offended or bewildered by the words or actions of a person from a different culture. This is not because that person intentionally sought to offend or bewilder us, but because two people with different culturally conditioned mindsets viewed the same words or actions differently. Our experience with Scripture can be similar. Richards and O’Brien, the authors of, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, state, “We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience” (p. 11). One of their stated goals is “to remind (or convince!), [us] of the cross-cultural nature of biblical interpretation” (p. 12). The authors note that we all carry cultural assumptions which we may not even be aware of––in their words things that “go without being said.” The result can be, “When we miss what went without being said for them [i.e., the biblical authors] and substitute what goes without being said for us, we are at risk of misreading Scripture” (authors’ emphasis, p. 13).
Using the illustration of an iceberg, Richards and O’Brien break their book down into three parts as they explore nine differences between Western and non-Western cultures (3 differences in each section). Part One, the tip of the iceberg represents the cultural differences that are most obvious. Part Two involves cultural assumptions which are just below the surface––they “are visible once you know to look for them” (p. 16). Part Three examines the bottom of the iceberg. These are “cultural issues that are not obvious to all” (p. 16). Readers of New Testament Background material will be familiar with some of these topics such as Individualism and Collectivism (chap. 4), or Honor and Shame (chap. 5). Having previously read Bruce Malina’s The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, and David deSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, I wondered if I was simply going to go over familiar territory on these topics, but Richards’ and O’Brien’s approach is fresh and insightful, frequently suggesting a new route for understanding and applying a difficult verse or passage.
The authors frequently bring their own cross-cultural knowledge to bear. Richards was a missionary to Indonesia and shares some of his experiences there, demonstrating how an eastern culture often has a different perspective on an action or a biblical verse. O’Brien’s wife grew up in southeast Asia and he confesses to drawing on her understandings as a “third-culture kid” (his expression, p. 219), as well as the understandings of friends from other cultures. He also brings his knowledge of Church history to the topic. O’Brien does not mention any experience living in an eastern cultural setting however, and even with Richards’ experience in Indonesia, one can question if everything in Indonesian culture transfers directly to biblical culture.
Many chapters do offer valuable insights and interesting anecdotes. One example of this is chapter 6 entitled, “Sand Through the Hourglass.” This chapter looks at the different perspective on time between eastern and western cultures. Although people may be aware that different cultures view time differently, it may never have occurred to the average Bible reader just how their concept of time affects their interpretation of what they read. The authors point out that our concept of time affects everything from our understanding of the use of wisdom and the interpretation of proverbs, to our understanding of how biblical books were composed. For example, the western reader usually comes with the supposition that a narrative will follow chronological order. It is often confusing when we find things in Scripture that do not follow our preconceived ideas of time. The authors note that eastern cultures do not have the same preoccupation with chronology that westerners do. Richards point out “that telling stories for Indonesians is often more like making a soup: some ingredients had a specific timing, but the other elements just needed to be added in sometime” (pp. 147-148). This different understanding of time also attaches itself to the meaning of the word “soon.” When a man told friends he was having a banquet “soon,” it carried a different meaning for someone in antiquity, than it does for a modern westerner. This made me think of Jesus’ statement, “Surely I am coming quickly” (Rev. 22:20), and how we as westerners can attach a different meaning to the idea of “quickly.”
There are, however, a few things to quibble with in this book. One example is the author’s discussion of honor and shame in chapter 5. There is no doubt that honor and shame is a major cultural difference between western culture and the cultures reflected in Scripture. Understanding this dynamic has opened my eyes to many things recorded in Scripture. However, the authors maintain that in an honor and shame culture all actions are predicated on what is acceptable or not acceptable to that culture. Guilt plays no part; it is all about losing or saving face (p. 118). Their interpretation of the David and Bathsheba story, which they give as an illustration, raises certain questions which the authors do not satisfactorily address. According to their understanding, once Uriah was killed and David took Bathsheba as his wife, he would have considered the matter resolved and “it is likely that David never gave it another thought” (p. 125). My question is, “Isn’t the king supposed to know God’s law? (Deut. 17:18-20). Wouldn’t David be familiar with commandments like, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery?” (Exod. 20:13-14). In other words, does it really take a prophet (Nathan) to come and tell David these things are shameful when God has already spelled out that certain actions are displeasing to Him? Similarly, how does Nathan come to this conclusion if society is saying it’s alright for kings to act this way, as the authors maintain? The Bible clearly demonstrates that God’s law informs what is honorable and what is shameful in Israelite society. All one has to do is read any of the prophets to see that they constantly take their society to task for violations of God’s law. If the group was the measure of honor and shame, this wouldn’t be the case. Richards and O’Brien have made a serious error by ignoring this aspect of Scripture.
For readers unfamiliar with the cultural values of the ancient Mediterranean world, it might be helpful to read some introductory material such as that provided by David A. deSilva in his An Introduction to the New Testament (pp. 111-144), but Richards’ and O’Brien’s book is imminently readable, and therefore suitable for the beginning student of a New Testament Backgrounds course, or a course on Hermeneutics. As noted above, this book is not perfect, but it certainly provides food for thought. Pastors and teachers of the Bible would do well to familiarize themselves with the material in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, as we have all too frequently made some of the mistakes recorded in this book. Ultimately, the authors’ purpose is more laudable than simply saying, “look at the way you’ve misrepresented Scripture,” their desire is to make us aware of the presuppositions that we approach Scripture with. Particularly those presuppositions which are culturally conditioned and, therefore, easily overlooked. As the authors state, “We are not implying that all our Western reading habits are wrong….We want to unsettle you just enough that you remember biblical interpretation is a cross-cultural experience and to help you become aware of what you take for granted when you read” (pp. 21-22). No matter where you may have travelled, the authors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes will take you on a journey that’s worth the trip.
(This copy was provided free of charge by IVP Press in exchange for an unbiased review)
Did you know that the word “nose” is a common way of expressing anger in the Old Testament? The psalmist speaks of the Lord’s anger by saying, “Smoke went up from His nostrils (Ps. 18:8–NKJV). In Ezekiel 38:18 when Gog comes against the land of Israel, the Lord says, “my anger will rise up in my nose” (translation by E. Johnson, TDOT, vol.1, p. 351). In Hebrew thought, there is a connection between the nose and anger.
Elkanah’s Gift Reveals Hannah’s Anger
This observation can help us understand a phrase that has frequently puzzled Bible commentators. In 1 Samuel 1:5 Elkanah is said to give Hannah “a portion for the nostrils.” Our translations usually read something like “a double portion” (NKJV, NIV), indicating that Elkanah is giving Hannah an extra portion of the sacrificial meat. However, the context makes clear that Hannah is very upset because Peninnah (the other woman!) provokes Hannah about her barrenness (1 Sam. 1:6). Elkanah’s “portion for the nostrils” is to calm Hannah down and turn her frown into a happy face. However, an ongoing problem like Hannah’s needs more than a superficial solution. It is only when Hannah turns her problem completely over to the Lord, that “her face [becomes] no longer sad (1 Sam. 1:18).
The same is true for us. Superficial human solutions never resolve deep needs. Only the Lord can provide the permanent cure. By the way, another expression used of the Lord is that He is “long of nose” (e.g., Exod. 34:6). In English this is translated as “longsuffering” or “slow to anger.” When your nose gets “short” or “out of joint” seek the Lord for a solution because He is “long of nose!”