The humility revolution
John Dickson explains the Christian origins of the virtue of humility.
On the set of the Life of Jesus documentary, John Dickson explains how the life and death of Jesus caused humility to become a virtue.
JOHN DICKSON: Being here at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem just reminds me how bizarre it is that the gospels say that the Lord of the world was laid in a manger – a manger. And it just strikes this notion of humility. I know today we love the virtue of humility. When our sports stars are humble, we love it. We now prize it. But actually, in the ancient world, in the world of Jesus, humility was not a virtue. The Latin word humilitas basically meant ‘humiliation’; the Greek word tapeinos basically meant the same, sort of ‘slavery’, ‘loneliness’. But here comes Jesus, laid in a manger, striking this theme of humility.
I was involved in a project at Macquarie University a few years ago in the ancient history department, trying to explore the origins of the concept of humility that we now have. And actually, my best friend at the time said, “well, at least you have the objective distance from the subject” – you need friends like that to keep you humble. But what we discovered was that prior to Jesus, prior to the first century, humility before the gods was valued, humility before the emperors was valued, but humility before an equal or a lesser was not valued at all. And then suddenly in the first century you get this story of this man who’s meant to be the greatest man ever, and he’s born, laid in a manger, and he dies on a cross. And suddenly all these notions of power and glory are turned upside down. Suddenly, real greatness consists in this serving, loving, humble path that Jesus exemplified. That’s how we got the notion of humility.