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. However, one neglected feature of shame is that the complex social-human interaction is reduced to a linear agonistic way of pursuing honour and avoiding shame. Also, the agonistic honour-shame model has failed to notice that shame itself is an inhibitory emotion on how one relates to others in an appropriately modest way. As I will examine in this paper, rather than positioning shame as dishonour vis-à-vis honour, shame 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.
In this paper, I will argue that this modest attitude associated with shame serves Paul’s purpose to redefine the nature of the Corinthian community, that believers exist not as individuals but with inter-subjective reciprocal relations. To do this, I begin by identifying the close connection between shame and modest reciprocal attitudes in ancient Greek literature. I will point out that the socio-scientific honour-shame model has failed to recognize that the shame word groups contain polarized meanings of both “to shame” and “to respect” in the ancient context. By engaging with the work of Douglas Cairns, I suggest that shame is an inhibitory emotion enabling one to be sensitive to their proper place in society.
Then, I examine how Paul employs the modest attitude of shame to shape the social ethos of the Corinthian community. I study passages related to the issue of lawsuits among believers (6:1-11) and the issue of the abuse of the Lord’s supper (11:17-34). I argue that in both passages, Paul’s primary concern is to protect the unity and integrity of the community. Paul’s use of shame aims to admonish the believers to show a self-inhibitory attitude towards the weaker members and guard against incorporating the dominant society’s values into the community.
Last, I will compare Paul with ancient Confucianism and Greco-Roman philosophers. I will argue that all three comparative partners conceptualize shame as a self-inhibiting modest attitude, and they all point to the same idea of mean equilibrium of behaving. At the same time, unlike Paul, Aristotle and ancient Confucianism use shame to solidify the status quo of the upper class to maintain their privilege. The Stoic vision of community lies closer to Paul as they both value the importance of treating each community member impartially.
The significance of this paper 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 of pursuing honour and avoiding shame. The SSHSM has then failed to notice how the middle-mean equilibrium understanding of shame-as-modesty is evident in First Corinthian.