Shame as a modest attitude of women in the book of 1 Corinthians

Since the 1980s, by building upon the works of social anthropologists, biblical scholars started to employ the socio-scientific honour-shame model to analyze New Testament. Under the agonistic culture of the ancient Mediterranean society, Bruce Malina argues that one needs to defend or maintain one’s honour and avoid being publicly humiliated and disgraced. Malina argues that honour and shame are gender-specific, and men are always the guardians of their family’s honour. However, a woman is marked by her passivity and should show concern for the honour of others. In this regard, for women, shame is not associated with strength or competition but is tied to the imagery of privacy and purity. Women’s identity depends on the men’s honour, and women are passive, obedient partners of men.

However, I will examine in this paper, rather than positioning shame as dishonour vis-à-vis honour, shame in the ancient Greco-Roman context is about a middle-way—an attitude of modesty towards community members to promote proper social ethos governing human interaction. By the term “middle way,” I borrow from the idea of mean equilibrium that enables a person to react at the right time, with the right aim in view, and in the right way. Shame as a modest, self-inhibitory emotion enables a woman to know her place in community interaction. Also, adopting an appropriate modest attitude within a community does not necessarily make a person more honourable, but it is simply an appropriate way of behaving.

In this paper, I will investigate how Paul employs shame to shape women’s modest behaviours in a worshipping community (11:2-16, 14:34-35). In contrast to the dominant culture on women’s subordination, I will argue that Paul maintains that men and women are of equal status before Christ and that women are not inferior to men. In contrast to the socio-scientific model of honour-shame, Paul’s purpose of warning the women to maintain a modest attitude during worship is not to protect the honour of men but to maintain a gender distinction as embodied in the creation order.

Then, I will compare Paul with ancient Confucianism and Greco-Roman philosophers. I will point out that all three comparative partners employ shame to refer to a proper modest attitude of women. However, they differ in their opinion regarding the intellectual potentiality of women and their patriarchal hieratical culture. The significance of this chapter is to highlight the problem of the socio-scientific honour-shame model that, while merely positing shame as dishonour vis-à-vis honour, it has reduced the social interaction to a linear agonistic way pursuing honour and avoiding shame. The socio-scientific honour-shame model has then failed to notice how the Aristotelian middle-mean understanding of shame-as-modesty is evident in First Corinthian.

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