What did Paul Mean by “Unashamed”?

We ain’t ashamed, you can call us lame,
but everybody gotta die and stand in front of the King.

Lecrae, “Unashamed

The 116 Clique, a Reformed hip-hop collective founded by Lecrae Moore, named themselves after Romans 1:16, focusing particularly on Paul’s phrase “I am unashamed of the gospel.” They want to make it clear that they, like Paul, suffer no embarrassment from the gospel of Jesus, even though unchurched rappers and taste-makers might want to make fun of Christians and Christianity as “lame.”

As valorous and commendable as this sentiment may be, does it fully draw out the meaning of Romans 1:16? Are the opening words of the theme statement for Paul’s most characterizing of epistles like something a respectful teenager might say about having his awkward but loveable parents around when his peers ask about them at prom? Did Paul mainly mean that he refused to feel embarrassment concerning the gospel?

Given the fact that nearly all commentators agree that verses 1:16–17 constitute Paul’s theme statement for the whole book of Romans, one would think theologians would have spent quite a lot of time discussing every aspect of these verses, especially their first words. Yet, perhaps because these verses proceed to deal with what seem like far more pressing issues to post-Reformation theologians—like the gospel and righteousness and salvation, theologians have only quite recently given any proper attention to the pivotal ancient idea which opens Paul’s theme: shame.

When they have begun to address the pivotal honor-shame dynamic of ancient cultures, it seems many contemporary commentators have accidentally carted their own prejudices into their conceptions of ancient peoples, lending a modern color to the Pauline concept of honor and shame which does not adequately unpack the force and wisdom of Paul’s words. While I believe the modern, Western conception of honor-shame has some peripheral weight in understanding Paul’s use of “unashamed,” I think he focuses more centrally on the Hebraic concept of shame reflected in the Old Testament, and especially the psalms of lament.

Building on recent socio-rhetorical methods of interpretation, I will attempt here to forward the already sprawling conversation on Romans by making a more careful analysis of Paul’s words in Romans 1:16, comparing them both to his own words elsewhere in the Scriptures as well as to the echoing eschatological and exhortatory texts and concepts of the Psalms. Paul did not write as a Gentile or as a Jew, but as neither and both. And he wrote to both as an ambassador of God’s honor, to the rejection of all human frameworks of collective identity but one—the church as the unified body of Christ experiencing the peace of His salvation.

Understatement?

The traditional interpretation of “unashamed” in Romans 1:16 also qualifies as the least verbose. Apparently, most theologians up until the last half-century or so thought Paul’s theme-opening words were merely a modest and understated bit of theological throat-clearing. Theologians with slightly more rhetorical sensitivity might refer to “unashamed” as an example of litotes, the opposite of hyperbole. Ben Witherington, III, forwards this view provisionally, helpfully defining the device along the way:

Paul begins his discussion with the issue of shame. It could be that we have the rhetorical device litotes, saying in a more reserved and negative way what is meant as a positive, namely, “I am proud of the gospel.”1

John Murray, who holds to this view of understatement more definitely than Witherington, takes some paragraphs to express his initial befuddlement that Paul would begin this most important thesis section of one of his most important arguments in such an underwhelming manner:

We might think that the negative way of expressing his estimate of the gospel . . . is scarcely consistent with the confident glorying which appears on other occasions (cf. 5:2, 3, 11; Gal. 6:14) or with the confidence in the efficacy of the gospel enunciated later in these verses. But when we remember the contempt entertained for the gospel by the wise of this world (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18, 23–25) and also of the fact that Rome as the seat of world empire was the epitome of worldly power, we can discover the significance of this negative expression and the undertone of assurance which the disavowal reflects.2

In recent years, many commentators have begun questioning the litotes angle, possibly because of the social background implied in Murray’s elegant solution to his own rhetorical dilemma. When commentators began to see how pivotal and central honor and shame actually were to Paul and his audience, they began admitting that “unashamed” might have more thematic weight than they first believed. What if Murray’s initial instincts were correct? If a mere understatement would not suffice to open such a book, perhaps this is no simple figure of speech.

Enter Socio-Rhetorical Critique

According to Richard Longenecker, the use of social science to inform the interpretation of the New Testament apparently began as late as 1981 when Bruce Malina published The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology.3 Shortly thereafter, social-scientific categories and concepts began to flood into commentaries, especially in application to the Gospels and Pauline epistles. To give some idea of the success of this hermeneutic, most present scholars would consider a contemporary interpretation of a biblical text that does not take into account socio-historic context grossly inadequate.

Further, because of social-scientific studies, most commentators consider it commonplace, even passé, to regard honor and shame as one of the most basic values of Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman cultures. According to David deSilva, to almost no contemporary disagreement: “The culture of the first-century world was built on the foundational social values of honor and dishonor.”4 This would appear to mean that Paul’s use of “unashamed” taps into a vital and fundamental feature of the collective first-century psyche, and commentators should begin to take it more seriously.

Robert Jewett, in the vanguard commentary of the social-rhetorical approach to the book of Romans, spends a relatively prodigious amount of space on the honor-shame context for Paul’s writing. Jewett discards the sufficiency of the litotes argument at the outset:

That the claim not to be ashamed was merely a “standard rhetorical device” that implies the forceful opposite that “I am mighty proud of the gospel” sidesteps the precise social issues of shame or honor that orators sought to address in employing the “I am ashamed/not ashamed” formula.5

In other words, “I am not ashamed” is not merely an opening sentiment Paul skates over to get to the more important issues. According to Jewett, the phrase is a crucial rhetorical formula in common classical use for “deliberative arguments”—arguments recommending a course of action on the basis of honorability.6 Jewett takes into account both Paul’s ancient social context (honor-shame) and Paul’s employment of a familiar ancient rhetorical strategy (the deliberative argument), to show the foundational importance of these opening words. According to Jewett, it “sets the tone for the entire letter.”7

One Small Problem or Two

Yet, as powerful as socio-rhetorical tools are, they also have vulnerabilities. For instance, what if the presumed audience turns out to be different than the real audience? What if historians and anthropologists have done a poor job representing the actual cultural environment of the ancient world? Perhaps the surviving texts and artifacts, even by chance, happen to be aberrations from their contemporary norms. Could New Testament authors have had no intention of mimicking rhetorical structures or secular categories? Their words might coincide with conventional forms only like the shape of a bear fits onto the stars of Ursa Major. Are we making too much of this? Did we get it wrong?

Ultimately, many socio-cultural assessments of ancient cultures necessarily involve extrapolations, speculations, and educated guesses based on very limited information. And therein lies the rub: wherever we must supply missing information or interpretation, our accidental personal biases can leak in. I think just these kind of accidental personal biases have crept into New Testament studies, especially of Paul’s epistles and—particularly for our purposes—Romans.

For instance, most socio-rhetorical commentaries on Romans assume that Paul would be more likely to employ adapted Hellenized methods and categories in his gospel presentation to the Gentiles, so these commentaries, like Jewett’s, especially focus on Greco-Roman categories, fitting everything Paul says and does into a fairly recent reconstruction of the Greco-Roman idea-world. But Paul’s machine-gun unloading of Old Testament quotations throughout Romans seems to counter-indicate this assumption. If Paul employed the Old Testament Scriptures to such an extent, could he have employed Old Testament concepts? Paul’s thought world, like the Bible, was bicameral. As W. D. Davies explains:

… Paul was influenced not only by the religion of his fathers, but also by the religious movements of the Hellenistic world of his day; that both Hellenism and Judaism were his tutors unto Christ.8

Fully Jew and fully Greek, Paul likely held a composite conception of honor and shame. We might assume Paul employed a Greek conception for a Gentile audience, but we shouldn’t assert this dogmatically. Further, do we know for certain that the audience of Romans mainly consisted of Gentiles? And, moreover, can we assume that the “ancient” versions of honor and shame we have extrapolated from our spotty evidence actually represent what the average first-century Gentile believed?

Which Honor and Which Shame?

So, we can see that declaring honor the most foundational value of Greco-Roman culture based on extant manuscripts doesn’t give any sure indication of what honor actually meant to that culture. How do we know that what we mean by honor and shame agrees with what Cicero or Seneca or Paul meant?

We should remember also that the Greco-Roman honor concept has been seminal to Western conceptions of honor and shame. Westerners are ideological descendants of the Classical age, after all. Because of this, most theologians very often unwittingly replace or distort ancient Greco-Roman concepts with their own versions. Further, they are far more likely to “see” Greco-Roman concepts in the New Testament than the sometimes just as pervasive Hebraic concepts.

Most recently, a few voices have begun to nuance our (i.e., Malina’s) picture of the Greco-Roman concept of honor and shame, exposing Western biases and projections along the way. For instance, Zeba Crook points out that

The problem with Honor Virtue is how introspective it requires ancient Mediterranean people to have been. The whole idea of “individual conscience” is questionable in such a collectivistic culture. And to be sure, this is not a claim that they had no sense of self nor that they did not feel things internally. “Individual conscience,” however, is much more than this; it refers to an introspective model of behavioral control that is not typical of collectivistic cultures. 9

In other words, we are individualistic and guilt-ridden, so we interpret honor and shame for the ancients in similar terms. As a corrective to this introspective individualism, Crook recommends altering Malina’s famous terms for the two ancient categories of honor:

In order to complete this shift in focus from the individual to the PCR [“public court of reputation”], I recommend that we replace Malina’s terms “ascribed honor” and “acquired honor” with new terms: attributed honor is the honor that the PCR attributes to people when they are born. A person’s family name, ethnicity, and gender are attributes of each person. Conversely, distributed honor is the honor that the PCR distributes whenever someone outwits another, when a benefaction is made, or after any kind of public challenge and riposte.10

Western Subjectivism Still Misses the Point

Though Crook does an admirable job of eschewing Western individualism, she does not avoid its subjectivism. To her, the most important arbiter of honor and shame in the ancient world was the human group (or groups)which distributed honors based on its own standards. David deSilva, one of the other major figures in this conversation, expands on this idea:

Honor is a dynamic and relational concept. . . . it is the recognition by the person’s group that he or she is a valuable member of that group. While the powerful and the masses, the philosophers and the Jews, the pagans and the Christians all regarded honor and dishonor as their primary axis of value, each group would fill out the picture of what constituted honorable behavior or character in terms of its own distinctive set of belief and values, and would evaluate people both inside and outside that group accordingly.11

According to deSilva, this dynamic dependence on conformity to a group identity left many ancient Christians in a bind. They could not be honorable in the society of both Jews and Gentiles simultaneously. So they had to choose. And their respective groups developed strategies to pressure “‘deviants’ back into conformity with Greco-Roman or traditional Jewish values.”12

Paul’s Honor and Shame

But that’s where applying the Greco-Roman concept of honor and shame falls short in interpreting Romans. Paul does not desire to press the honor of the Jewish PCR or the Greek PCR, simply because he does not grant the “public” the ultimate honor of dispensing honor. He refuses to be conformed to the human honor or shame of any group. So, the question remains: why would Paul bring in this idea of honor and shame—so central to ancient cultures however you define it—at the beginning of his argument?

Again, I am thankful to Jewett for presenting a compelling argument that Paul used rhetorical structures and social concepts familiar to the Greco-Roman world, but I must insist that any exclusive focus on Greco-Roman cultural categories (even collectivist ones) will still end up largely in the same place as Murray’s dilemma. If Paul is most interested in God’s glory, and he has no desire to function in the honor-shame system of any public court of opinion, what do his words in Romans 1:16 mean? Are they just Paul’s individual feelings of shamelessness, after all?

It does not seem that Jewett’s position actually accomplishes much more than the traditional view. He spent more words on it, certainly, but it still carries the same sense of the underwhelming, even the superfluous. Jewett’s solution (that “I am not ashamed” is a rhetorical formula in a deliberative argument) certainly makes the phrase indispensable. But it also makes it generic, conventional, and merely utilitarian.

So what did Paul mean? As I alluded to earlier, we begin to experience the greater fullness and weight of Paul’s words when we realize they can be interpreted in both their Hellenistic and Hebraic contexts, because, as Davies pointed out, Paul wrote from both places. I have not yet seen much discussion, however, on how Paul’s Jewish assumptions come through in the theme statement for Romans, and this lacuna should be remedied.

Paul Interpreting Paul

To begin, by comparing the various ways Paul uses cognates of “shame [αἰσχός, aischos]” in the rest of Romans and the other Pauline epistles, you can clarify the semantic range of what Paul means by “unashamed” in Romans. In most cases in Paul’s usage, one experienced a lack of shame when one’s stated expectation (e.g., a boast or a hope) agreed objectively with assured present or future circumstances. This implies an eschatological exhortation for a present trial. Notice how this overtone rings through the rest of Romans. Later, Paul says, “and hope does not disappoint [καταισχύνω, kataischunō]” (5:5). His usage of a shame cognate in 6:21 concludes with “for the outcome [τέλος, telos—“end”] of those [shameful] things is death.” His next use of “shame” is in a quotation from Isaiah: “And he who believes in him will not be ashamed” (Rom. 9:33). He repeats this same quotation in 10:11 and does not use the word again in Romans.

A pattern emerges here. Paul emphasizes hope in the future through troubles, and the deliverance of God which will come with His righteous judgment to those who trust in Him until He comes. This does not evince a particularly Greco-Roman version of honor and shame. For one, Paul drew most of these words directly from the Old Testament, but, even when he didn’t, he assumed Old Testament concepts, especially in his eschatological expectations.

And this eschatological hope or boast holds for many of the other uses of “shame” cognates in the Pauline epistles. Philippians 1:20 says, “according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything.” Quite regularly, Paul implies that shame relates to trusting in something that doesn’t come through for you.

Notice 2 Corinthians 7:14, “For if in anything I have boasted to him about you, I was not put to shame; but as we spoke all things to you in truth, so also our boasting before Titus proved to be the truth” (cp. 2 Cor. 9:4; 10:8; Phil. 1:20). This idea of shame runs far deeper than just a feeling of personal embarrassment. For Paul, a lack of shame involved a harmony between objective reality and an expected outcome. Paul held a steadfast hope in the vindication of God’s righteous character and the incontrovertible power of God’s deliverance.

And when it comes to the gospel, the promise of the good news, Paul mainly concerns himself with proving God trustworthy in His promise. Much of the whole book of Romans centers on proving God trustworthy. Romans 1:16 does not concern Paul’s honor, but God’s. It’s not about climbing the social ladder of honor for Paul. It’s about theodicy.

Old Testament Roots

This usage of “unashamed”—as a confident trust in a certain future vindication or rescue—fits perfectly with the LXX usage of “αἰσχός” cognates to translate the Hebrew verb בושׁ (būsh). Though Paul’s concept of honor and shame addressed, and even directly challenged, his Hellenistic context, Paul’s saturation in the Old Testament, especially the psalms and prophets, anchored his conceptual framework. David, like Paul, often used this word “ashamed” in the Psalms to refer to something more than an experience of personal disgrace and embarrassment:

To You they cried out and were delivered;
In You they trusted and were not ashamed. (Psa. 22:5)

… none of those who wait for You will be ashamed. (Ps. 25:2)

In You, O Lord, I have taken refuge;
Let me never be ashamed;
In Your righteousness deliver me. (Ps. 31:1)

As J. Clinton McMann argues, “waiting for God (or hoping in God’s steadfast love or God’s word) is one of the Psalter’s important ‘theological perspectives’ or ‘theological themes.’”13  It’s also one of Paul’s, and for the same reason. Paul’s declaration of “I am not ashamed” sounds more like a hope of David than a trope of Seneca. And viewing the phrase from the vantage point of Old Testament hope, you recognize that Paul declares something far more profound than merely a personal sentiment, a figure of speech, or a rhetorical formula. Since God has staked His reputation on the efficacy of the gospel, the gospel holds forth a promise that will not and cannot disappoint.

By echoing the hope of the psalmists and prophets, Paul taps in to an objective honor. As we said, though Zeba Crook escaped the individualism of the West in her conception of honor, she did not escape its subjectivism. Because she still placed the court of reputation somewhere on earth. In an article that deserves even more fleshing out of its central premises, Jackson Wu hints at this fascinating and under-explored concept of objective honor: 

Contrary to common perception, honor and shame have both subjective and objective dimensions. People are familiar with the subjective side of honor-shame. For example, psychologically, a person can feel “ashamed.” Or, one personally feels a sense of honor. However, there is another aspect of honor-shame. Objectively, we—as sinners—dishonor God and “shame” his name before a watching world. Likewise, our peers might (dis)honor us (regardless of our personal feelings). Within our community, we may have an objective high status … quite independent of our subjective, psychological state.14

God’s attribution and distribution of honor are the only objective attributions and distributions there are. Paul, like David and the prophets, appealed to the heavenly court for his assessment of honor, not to the court of men. He didn’t go before kings to defend his own honor. He went to defend God’s. Like David says, “I will also speak of Your testimonies before kings / And shall not be ashamed” (Ps. 119:46; cp. Acts 9:15).

Paul called upon and trusted YHWH to vindicate and to deliver. And he had good reason to. God had promised to do it. And God is faithful. He possesses more than sufficient power to keep His promises, so no one ever loses face trusting Him. If God honors you and vindicates you in the end, no other court of reputation (public or otherwise) matters. So even if one group or another rejects you, casts you away or punishes, persecutes, or pressures you, YHWH will not disappoint you if you wait on and trust in Him.

In Romans 1:16, in so few words, Paul communicates that: “There is an eschatological court date to declare the objective status of every person, and the righteous judgment of the heavenly court is already being revealed in power to those who trust in God’s promise to vindicate and deliver them, so my trust in the promise of the gospel will never be disappointed. And yours will not be either.”

Conclusion

A few other commentators have hinted at how a Hebraic eschatological hope informed Paul’s particular version of the honor-shame dynamic. For instance, David deSilva comes very close to incorporating the Old Testament conceptual framework into his Pauline interpretation:

Paul believes that God will surely vindicate those who remained faithful: “No one who believes in him will be put to shame” (Rom. 10:11; cf. 2 Tim. 1:8, 12). Endurance now means incomparable honor eternally (2 Cor. 4:17–18).15

Richard Hays also detects Old Testament eschatological echoes in Romans:

. . . Israel in exile is consoled by the promise of God’s mighty act of deliverance. This act will be a manifestation of God’s righteousness (dikaiosynē) because it will demonstrate, despite all appearances to the contrary, God’s faithfulness to his covenant people; the promised salvation will constitute a vindication of God’s name and of his people who have trusted in him through their suffering and exile.16

But so far, the majority of commentators focus nearly exclusively on Greco-Roman honor-shame concepts filtered through the contemporary Western lenses of individualism and subjectivism. Such an exclusive focus does no justice to the incisive, multivalent purposes of Paul’s brilliantly framed theme statement.

I hope that, by correcting some of the biases of our socio-rhetorical hermeneutic, we will begin to integrate a greater circumspection in what we can and cannot know from sources beyond the Bible. Pauline interpretation can still gain the most from searching the Scriptures first, as mundane as this might seem to an academic system constantly seeking for the public honors of novelty.

There is no doubt that the Greco-Roman socio-rhetorical analysis of Paul has borne some great fruit, but the Hebraic picture of the eschatological hope lifts Romans 1:16 out of the doldrums of being merely an underwhelming rhetorical device or a sentimental understatement. I think any interpretation of Romans 1:16 that focuses first on a subjective or individual human feeling misses the point. I am sure Paul intended more than one thing with his choice of words, but from the beginning, Paul’s central motivation remained the honor and trustworthiness of God.

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Cone of Shame
  1. Ben Witherington, III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 50. F. F. Bruce is less provisional in his commentary: Romans: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 74.
  2. John Murray, Epistle to the Romans: The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), I:26.
  3. Richard Longenecker, Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul’s Most Famous Letter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 332.
  4. David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 24. See also Halvor Moxnes: “Competition for honor among members of the elite was a major characteristic of life in the Hellenistic city,” in “The Quest for Honor and the Unity of the Community in Romans 12 and in the Orations of Dio Chrysostom,” in Paul in His Hellenistic Context, ed. Troels Engberg-Pedersen (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), 204.
  5. Robert Jewett, Romans, A Commentary: Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007), 136.
  6. Ibid., 137.
  7. Ibid., 136.
  8. W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (London: SPCK, 1955), 1. See also David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 19–20f4, where he expands this bi-cultural influence to the early church at large.
  9. Zeba Crook, “Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 128, No. 3 (Fall, 2009): 597.
  10. Ibid., 610.
  11. David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 25. DeSilva makes the emphasis on the group more explicit in 35–36. The tension between competing group values in a multi-cultural context on pp. 38–40.
  12. Ibid., 45.
  13. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “Waiting for God: The Psalms and Old Testament Theology.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 44, no. 2 (2017), 161.
  14. Jackson Wu, “How Christ Saves God’s Face … and Ours: A Soteriology of Honor and Shame,” Missiology 44, no. 4 (2016), 377.
  15. deSilva, Honor, 70. See also: “The fact remains, however, that God’s judgment is impending: when it arrives, those who now in ignorance oppose the Christian movement will be made aware of their error and their shame while the ‘children of light’ enter into their honorable destiny” (deSilva, Honor, 62).
  16. Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 37.

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