If you have kept up with modern biblical scholarship, you know the significance of what it meant for ancients to live in an honor and shame culture.  The quest for honor and avoidance of shame were primary motivating factors for ancient peoples when the key figures of the Bible lived and flourished.  Even today, honor and shame are determinative factors governing how people in different cultures live their lives. It’s present in western culture, but it sits under the surface.

Oxford University is clearly one of the best in the world.  I wish I had gone there. . .

If you are attuned to issues of honor and shame, you can account for a lot of what happens in the Scriptures.  Jesus is not crucified because he taught a sermon on love; he was crucified on a Roman cross because powerful people wanted to silence him and shame his followers out of existence.

It struck me recently how “honor and shame” are such a pervasive part of modern biblical scholarship. I’ve seen it over and over again.  Soon scholars will gather at the Society of Biblical Literature in San Antonio (November 2016).  They will meet, give papers, enjoy coffee, connect with colleagues and meet new ones.  When scholars meet, there are three questions asked with a canapé in one hand and a glass of wine (for those who imbibe) or water (for those who don’t) in the other.

The first question is:  where did you do your PhD?

The second question is: what have you written?

The third is: where do you teach?

Each question can be posed and interpreted as a challenge to honor.

If you studied at certain schools . . . honor.  If you didn’t . . . well.

If you have written a book I’ve heard of or I know . . . honor. If not . . . well.

If you teach at a prestigious school I’d like to teach in . . . honor.  If not . . . well.

Honor can be expressed subtly in the “honor nod,” a tilt of the head, a knowing smile.  Shame can be expressed in the blank stare or “crickets” (let the reader understand). I’ve often seen good scholars overlooked, passed over, or ignored because they didn’t go the right schools, write a key book or teach in a significant place.

If you didn’t go to one of the top schools, then the assumption is you just wasted your time.  But frankly, you can go to some of the top-rated schools in the world and come away with a second class education. Likewise, you can go to some no-name school and end up with a good education. It all depends on what you do with it there and from there.  I heard a person with a masters degree from Harvard say that Alexander the Great founded the Roman empire.  Really?

For those who are looking for a teaching post, know that the first questions the committee asks will be these same three: did you get your PhD from a prestigious school? What have you written that we should care about?  Where do you teach (if you do) now?  If you are not ranked highly after those three questions, you probably won’t be.  I’m sorry.  That’s just the way it is.

I don’t have any answers for this; it is just an observation.  Biblical scholarship today is an honor/shame society. (By the way, the same can be said of almost every profession: law, medicine, business, etc.).  Make sure you go to the best schools, write the best books, and teach in the best places.  Then you will have honor.


This post is meant to be tongue n cheek, sort of.  Quality scholars are often passed over or not taken seriously because they failed one of the three honor challenges.  

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