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Review of The Honor-Shame Paraphrase Series

Author: Michael L. Sweeney
Published: 2020

MD 11

Article Type: Review Article

The Honor-Shame Paraphrase Series. n.p.: Timē Press. eBook.

Jayson Georges.

1 Peter: An Honor-Shame Paraphrase. 2017. 28 pp. $2.99

Esther: An Honor-Shame Paraphrase. 2017. 28 pp. $2.99

Psalms: An Honor-Shame Paraphrase of 15 Psalms. 2018. 75 pp. $3.99.

Malachi: An Honor-Shame Paraphrase. 2019. 20 pp. $2.99.

Daniel K. Eng.

James: An Honor-Shame Paraphrase. 2018. 31 pp. $2.99.

One of the most powerful memories from my years working as a Bible translator in Papua New Guinea was the time when, looking for something different to read, I grabbed Bruce Malina’s The New Testament World off of my shelf. I had not looked at it since graduate school. However, as I sat there, in the middle of the jungle, reading about the cultures from which the Bible was written, and thinking about the notions of limited good, honor and shame, purity, and the role of kinship structures, I came to the shocking realization that the people in my village understood these concepts far more naturally than I did. Regardless of my years of theological education, my mind still went into default Western mode when reading the Bible. I had to force myself to override my assumptions about the social dynamics behind the text. But the people I worked with, most of whom had less than a 6th grade education, understood those dynamics instinctively.

Probably the most powerful cultural values of the New Testament era were honor and shame. Knowing one’s place in society, living up to the expectations of that station, giving respect and loyalty to those above you, behaving charitably to those beneath you, and keeping your reputation unstained before others, was all part of the biblical world, just as it is for the vast majority of cultures today. However, Western Christians, with our bent toward individualism and egalitarianism, have trouble identifying with those values, which means that Western Christians are apt to miss much of what happens between the lines of our biblical texts. This paraphrase was written to help Western readers fill in that cultural gap.

Jayson Georges is the publisher of this series and the author/paraphraser of four of the five published books. He has years of experience working with people from honor-shame cultures and, as a help to other cross-cultural workers, created the website In the series, which made its debut in 2017, we can now read the books of Esther, Psalms ( 15 of them so far), Malachi, 1 Peter, and James, the last authored by Daniel K. Eng. According to the website, more books are scheduled to be released soon, including Ruth, Obadiah, 2 Peter, Romans, The Parables of Jesus, and The Life of David. All of those published so far are available digitally; only Psalms is available in paperback.

In addition to bringing the elements of honor and shame to the forefront, and in an effort to move past the kind of theological jargon that causes people to read without engaging their minds, the authors avoid religious terms such as holy, Christ, and faith—tired words Westerners tend to misinterpret. Instead, and more in line with what would have gone made sense from the original readers’ honor-shame perspective, they use phrases like entirely acceptable, God’s exalted King, and complete loyalty. As an example, in 1 Pet 1:14 a very literal translation might be, “As children of obedience, do not be conformed to your previous, ignorant desires.” But the honor-shame paraphrase says, “Remember your status as obedient and loyal children of God. Do not resort to previous habits like deceptively saving face or aggressively defending your reputation – those actions reflect a distorted view of honor.”

The publisher underscores that the intention is not to present us with yet another English translation of the Bible but to give a “socio-cultural exposition that seeks to illuminate . . . the Bible” (Series Preface). The idea is less to bring us something new than it is to blow away the cultural fog that prevents modern Western readers from understanding what would have been assumed by the original readers..

Since we are dealing with a series of paraphrases, it may be helpful to look at an example to see how it compares with one of the more popular English translations.

Here is James 1:5–8 in the NRSV: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”

Now for the Honor-Shame paraphrase: “If anyone asks the Benefactor for wisdom, he will be glad to give it as a gift. But that family member must ask in loyalty to God alone, without wavering back and forth. Because someone who wavers and holds back from full allegiance to God is like an unpredictable wave, being tossed by the wind. That person has shown himself to be disloyal, and should not expect that the Benefactor will give him a gift. He has divided loyalties; he is a double-crosser. He cannot decide with whom his allegiance lies. He is two-faced and has no fidelity in anything he does.”

Notice the striking difference in the dynamics of the text. In the NRSV, God is just “God,” and that follows the Greek very closely. However, in the Honor-Shame paraphrase, God is twice mentioned as the Benefactor, an image of one who graciously and mercifully gives to those under his authority. Almost certainly, people in the first century would have viewed God in this light. Look also at the way the paraphrase treats faith and doubt. In the NRSV, our Western ways of approaching these terms throw us into the realm of emotions or cognition. “Ask in faith, never doubting.” This sounds like people must give themselves a pep talk to believe, unwaveringly, that God will answer their request in the affirmative, and if any doubt arises, God’s negative response will be on the doubter’s head. However, keeping the dynamic of honor and shame in mind, we find that the issue is not one of cognitive belief versus unbelief, but of allegiance versus faithlessness. The problem is not about involuntary doubts that nag at a person, but about a decision to recognize God as the only master worth following. The two understandings are worlds apart.

I am looking forward to collecting more of these paraphrases as they become available. I would especially like to see an Honor-Shame Paraphrase of one of the Gospels, although this will be a considerably larger task than the books that have been produced so far. However, just with the books that have already been published, I have found myself repeatedly thinking, “Of course! That’s exactly how they would have understood that back then!”

Anyone with an interest in more deeply understanding the implicit world behind the text as well as a perspective shared by most cultures today would do well to keep these titles on their electronic shelf. The Honor-Shame Paraphrase Series promises to open our Western eyes to the Bible in a way that no English translation or paraphrase has done.

Michael L. Sweeney

Professor of World Mission and New Testament

Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan

Milligan, TN, USA

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