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Jewish culture at the time of Christ did not exist in a vacuum. It was situated in the midst of a diverse collection of cultures centered on the Mediterranean Sea, all of which had been influenced by the Greek and Roman empires. There were distinctive elements to each culture—maybe especially with the Jews and their radical monotheism and long heritage—but there were also many cultural aspects that these people groups shared. We might compare this to the unity and diversity within American culture today: there are many distinct subcultural values, but commitments such as freedom of speech, the possibility of financial advancement, and constitutional legal rights are valued by nearly every American.

We can identify several key cultural values of the ancient Mediterranean world that were shared by Jewish people as well.

honor and shame

Sociologists and anthropologists have long recognized that, unlike most modern Western cultures, many societies in the ancient world functioned on the central social categories of honor and shame. Theologian David deSilva defines honor as “the public acknowledgment of a person’s worth, granted on the basis of how fully that individual embodies qualities and behaviors valued by the group.” In honor-shame societies, honor is like a currency that gives people status and power (much as money does in modern Western societies). Honor is granted according to what the society values. Conversely, one receives shame by not conforming to the established standards of good and bad. Shame is not the same thing as our modern sense of personal guilt but is a recognizable social value that determines one’s success in society. Honor-shame cultures use key ideas such as reputation, glory, name, boasting, and “face.” Honor-shame cultures tend to be more cohesive and collective than individualistic. Group identity is dominant, with honor and shame as the primary means of social behavioral control.

While operating within an honor-shame culture, Jesus regularly upends and redefines what is honorable and what is shameful.

Understanding these dynamics deepens our understanding of much of the language and many of the ideas in the New Testament. While operating within an honor-shame culture, Jesus regularly upends and redefines what is honorable and what is shameful. The New Testament often challenges what their surrounding cultures deemed honorable versus shameful: the first become last (Matt. 19:30), the persecuted and ridiculed are honored (5:10–12), and the lame and blind and poor are welcomed and lifted up (Luke 14:15–24). Most radically, sinners and religious people, wealthy and poor, educated and uneducated, Jew and gentile, can all have equal honor by becoming part of Christ’s community (Gal. 3:28).

patron-client relationships

The ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman world was economically structured very differently from Western societies today. A small percentage of the population—determined almost entirely by birth—owned nearly all the wealth and resources, and typically these people served as rulers. Nearly everyone else in these ancient societies lived very meager lives, always potentially on the precipice of disaster, with little safety net except their family relationships. There was no large middle class, free-market economies, government welfare, or possibility of social or financial upward mobility.

Instead, the social structures and the economy worked together in a strongly hierarchical system of patrons and clients or benefactors and dependents. Everyone had a clearly defined place in society. Everyone was dependent on those above them, who had almost unlimited power. Patrons might provide money, grain, employment, land, or social advancement. In exchange, the client was obligated to express gratitude to publicize the favor of the patron and thereby contribute to his reputation. Naturally, giving thanks and showing honor were among the highest virtues, while ingratitude was a great vice. Thus, the honor-shame culture contributed to and perpetuated the patron-client relationship, with goods and resources flowing down the ladder and with honor flowing up in response.

This deep-seated cultural reality is manifested in the New Testament in many of the stories that reflect this kind of socioeconomic system, often in the form of agricultural and financial parables. There is a very real sense in which God Himself can be considered the good and perfect patron, providing for His dependent creatures all that they need, with their proper response being honor and gratitude (Rom. 1:18–25). Failure to give appropriate honor is the great sin (2:23). At the same time, we can see through Jesus’ teachings and actions that He often challenged certain aspects of this patron-client structure, emphasizing God’s exorbitant giving while also encouraging those with power to become lowly, with His own sacrificial death as the prime example (Phil. 2:5–11).

family and kin

Many aspects of family life are universal across all cultures, while many other aspects are not. Societies have varying customs about marriage, parenting, children, siblings, and extended families. In terms of family and kin relationships, there were many ways that Jewish and broader Greco-Roman cultures overlapped significantly. Biblical teachings and the Greco-Roman moral philosophers said many similar things about life as a family.

Much more so than in the modern West, a person’s family of origin and ancestry formed his primary identity. To be the “son of” someone—either positively or as a vulgar criticism—was the starting point for one’s place in the world. Individuals were first a part of an extended family or kin group before they were individuals. One’s reputation and standing in society were primarily determined by one’s ancestry, unless one greatly shamed or distinguished oneself. Ancient households typically consisted of extended relations, all of whom worked together in some trade or industry, sharing their resources and their reputation and seeking to protect and promote their own kin before anyone else. One difference in marriage practices was that Jewish people tended to marry within their extended kin group to preserve inheritances and lineage, whereas Romans often sought to marry outside their kin for strategic and economic reasons.

In the New Testament, we see that the family serves as one’s primary identity with this important twist—for the Christian, his or her identity is now the family of God gathered around Christ. The most frequent metaphor used to describe Christians is “brother and sister.” This family language is very purposeful, teaching Christians to realign their allegiances around their new identity as the children of God.

Understanding these cultural values and practices is valuable for our reading of the New Testament because so many of the teachings of Christianity simultaneously affirm and transform the culture. Christianity always starts within a given culture and then over time reforms that culture through alternative practices, allegiances, and habits that align with the kingdom of God.


Editor’s Note: Portions of this article are adapted from Reading the New Testament as Christian Scripture: A Literary, Canonical, and Theological Survey by Constantine R. Campbell and Jonathan T. Pennington, © 2020 Baker Academic ( Used by permission.

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