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Posted by on Aug 21, 2014 in Uncategorized | 15 comments

The Criterion of Embarrassment

New Testament scholars eagerly want to know the truth about how Christianity began, and gather all the real facts about Jesus’ life they are able to. But they’ve got a problem: as is well-known, the first gospel was written some forty years after Jesus died, and as demonstrated from other religious movements and from clues within the gospels themselves, it’d be foolish of us to naively believe everything we’re told. So, they have established a number of ‘criteria’ to help us sort fact from fiction (or at least, to sort the ‘probably true’ from ‘probably false’ and from propositions whose veracity we can only be agnostic about).

One of these criteria is the criterion of embarrassment: “any passage or saying about Jesus deemed to be embarrassing is more likely to come from the historical Jesus” (James Crossley stated it this way).

The criterion of embarrassment seems intuitive at first glance. In fact, I think all historians use something like the criterion of embarrassment on occasion (The Roman author X said the Romans were defeated? They must’ve been. X would not have said that unless it were the truth). I’ll go even further: I think most of us use something like the criterion of embarrassment in our everyday lives (if someone you know says he or she is gay, they are probably not lying because such a lie would probably never be told). That the criterion of embarrassment has some validity is not under dispute.

However, there are troubling questions we must raise about this criterion. Let’s take an analogy: it is very useful rule of thumb that if someone says something, what they say is probably true unless there is clear evidence they are lying or mistaken. Call this the benefit-of-the-doubt principle. We all live our lives according to the BOD principle, and must do so. However, it is possible to carried away with this principle: if I told you I owned a time machine, would you believe this absent an extensive search of my property showing that I did not, in fact, have one? No. If a pathological liar tells you he ate an egg sandwich for breakfast, would you believe him? Pathological liars lie about all kinds of things, and for no particular reason other than the thrill of it. Any plausible version of the BOD that intends to be applicable to all testimony everywhere is going to come with a long list of exception clauses. In my experience of thinking about various epistemological principles I have come to the conclusion that most principles of inference are in the same position: there’s a long list of exception clauses that go with them.

We should not be surprised to realize the same thing is true about the criterion of embarrassment. I have given two examples in which the criterion applies, but I can think of a number of instances in which it fails. Let me quote myself so as not to misrepresent my own views:

“People invented the Romulus story, and Romulus murdered his own brother. People invented Attis, and he is said to have castrated himself. People invented scientology, and look what a crock that religion is!! The Old Testament reports the sins and follies of David (remember Bathsheba?) Moses (who was prideful) Adam (eating the forbidden fruit under the guidance of his wife! Imagine a patriarchal society inventing that!) and Noah (his son ‘saw his nakedness’ when he was drunk) among others, and yet scholars are in agreement that all of these stories are probably myths.”

It seems like every religion invents things that are embarrassing, and as such, if we apply the criterion of embarrassment to religious documents, we will almost always find things that pass, even if the religion is made up. And that makes it troublesome to apply it to the New Testament.

Even more troublesome, though, is that such arguments fail as a matter of principle. The criterion of embarrassment is really just a special version of the criterion of dissimilarity (since ‘embarrassing’ things almost necessarily entail a conflict of said thing with pre-existing Jewish cultural beliefs). However, prior to the writing of any early Christian material, all Christian traditions passed through a filter: it is a necessary prerequisite that for the tradition to be ‘passed on’ it must serve some purpose for the Christian community, and if the tradition serves a purpose for the Christian community it cannot be said to conflict with the purposes of said community. Think about it: everything the early Christians said must have been said for a reason (for conversion, to illustrate a moral or theological point, etc.). If it was said for some some reason then it couldn’t have been a real embarrassment, or at all ‘dissimilar’ to early Christian interests. It is impossible for any Christian tradition to pass the criterion of embarrassment (or dissimilarity) even in principle. This does not mean all Christian traditions are false, it only means that we cannot use said criteria to affirm the truth of such traditions.

Here’s another problem with applying the criterion of embarrassment to the gospels: the gospels have invented numerous things. Even the earliest gospel (Mark) invents a worldwide darkness, the Sea of Galilee (he got away with inventing a Sea!), the tearing of the temple veil, the Barabbas narrative, and the empty tomb,* among other things. In short, he invented so much that if someone raises the question: “Why wasn’t something else, perhaps something ‘less embarrassing,’ invented instead of this?” The only response that need be given is that if the author had wanted something else, he would’ve written something else. After all, he has already made up quite a bit.

Yet another problem is that some things, like a dying messiah, are not even dissimilar to the background of Jewish culture, in spite of the repeated insistence that it is. Scholar Andrei Orlov comments,

“The tradition of the messianic pair, in which each agent has distinctive eschatological roles and functions, is a recurrent motif in Jewish lore. An early example is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls materials in which the messiahs of Aaron and Israel fulfill unique eschatological functions, one cultic and the other royal. Later Jewish materials are also cognizant of the concept of the two messiahs, one suffering and dying and the other victorious. For example, later Jewish sources often speak about the Messiah the son of Joseph (or Ephraim) who will endure suffering to atone for the sins of the Israelites, as well as the Messiah the son of David, who is predestined to be a glorious ruler.”**

As Richard Carrier has suggested, if you combine these two notions of the messiah you get Jesus Christ: all you need is a messiah who suffers and is later a glorious ruler, and this is exactly how Jesus is depicted: Jesus is said to sit at the right hand of God after his death for atonement (Romans 8:34, Hebrews 10:12).

For all of these reasons, we must be skeptical of applications of the criterion of embarrassment in New Testament studies. The way in which Christian traditions were preserved and passed on is such that anything not useful to them would have been filtered out of the tradition, and any piece of useful material could have plausibly been invented precisely for the purpose it was used for (again, this doesn’t the material was made up, it only means that the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity do not allow us to affirm the material). The criterion of embarrassment does not work because nearly all religions contain a few things that are embarrassing (or which could be construed as embarrassing). The criterion of embarrassment does not work because it assumes the author could not or would not have something else had it suited his purposes, and we have no reason to believe this is the case, since evidently a number of things were made up. The criterion of embarrassment fails in many specific incidences because the alleged material is actually not something that would have been considered embarrassing within the time and culture (think back to the dying messiah example).

Now it’s time for a little joke. On James McGrath’s blog, I pointed out that Thomas Brodie, a Catholic Priest for crying out loud, said the Christ myth theory was true. No priest would say such a thing unless it were true. Therefore, the Christ myth theory passes the criterion of embarrassment.

This went over like a lead balloon. One commenter pointed out that the criterion of embarrassment only showed that Thomas Brodie believed Jesus was a myth, not that Jesus was in fact a myth. With which I agree. However, is it more likely that a new testament expert would make an egregious mistake or that he would reason correctly about the facts? After all, we typically assume some given expert (a doctor, say) is more probably correct than mistaken on some given topic.

The above is tongue in cheek. That said, it is impossible to apply the criterion of embarrassment to the new testament without making a similar argument: we must argue that Paul or a gospel writer said X, that he would not have said X unless he believed X because it’s embarrassing, therefore, the author really believed it. We must then argue from a genuine belief in X to the probable truth of X. Granted, it is much easier to imagine a historian living two thousand years later coming to a mistaken belief than it is to imagine Christians in the 30’s to 50’s CE being mistaken regarding something about Jesus that was verifiable to them. That said, it is still really, really easy to imagine early Christians being mistaken about all kinds of things, including even the existence of Jesus. To understand why: note that I said it would be difficult to be “mistaken regarding something about Jesus that was verifiable to them.” Perhaps nothing was verifiable to them. Richard Carrier has a whole book arguing that Christianity arose out of metaphysical beliefs, visions, readings of Old Testament scripture, and not the observable life of a man on earth. But to see the plausibility of the Christ myth theory, you need not imagine very much. We know that Jews of the time were expecting a messiah. Suppose a group got together to form a cult expecting the messiah (who was being expected around 30 CE). The time came and passed. What was the cult to do? What every cult does today: rationalize (there’s a whole literature on cognitive dissonance reduction, and the phenomenon has been documented on the program Inside a Cult). They were expecting a messiah, but they did not see a messiah, so… Maybe the messiah came in secret. There’s a plausible rationalization they could’ve come up with. And guess what? The version of mythicism that I have just postulated could explain a number of odd facts that the historical Jesus theory doesn’t. For example, what I just said would make perfect sense of the ‘messianic secret’ motif. It would make sense of the Ascension of Isaiah, which says Christ was unknown among men. It would make sense out of why Paul offers few details about the life of Jesus (the legends of the messiah were underdeveloped at the time, so there were fewer details). It would make sense out of why the gospel writers seem to have had to invent so much material out of the Old Testament (they did not have abundant oral traditions and accounts like a historical Jesus would have left behind). If you disagree with the hypothesis I just offered, why? What hard facts do you have to show that such a viewpoint is wrong? I am still waiting for an answer on that one.

Endnotes:

*On the Sea of Galilee being an invention, see Dennis R. MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7. On the empty tomb being invented, 1 Corinthians 15 fails to mention an empty tomb even though Paul drags up every Tom, Dick and Harry to attest to Jesus’ resurrection. The silence of this author is strong evidence that the story is a myth. Moreover, the story is basically just variant on ancient ‘apotheosis’ narratives, which were common inventions of the time. See Richard C. Miller, “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity,” Journal of Biblical Literature, v. 129, no. 4 (2010), with support in Robert M. Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, chapter 14. The invention of the Barabbas narrative is documented on pages 402-408, Richard C. Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, as well as in Jennifer K. B. Maclean, “Barabbas, the Scapegoat Ritual, and the Development of the Passion Narrative,” Harvard Theological Review, v. 100 / 03, July 2007, pp 309-334, the abstract is well-worth reading on its own. The others I mentioned are fantastic events that were viewable by thousands of people and yet are not documented anywhere in the ancient literature even though they would have been if they had happened (A worldwide darkness would have gotten people’s attention just as it would today). As such we can be sure they are myths.

** Pages 26-27, Andrei A. Orlov, “The Messianic Scapegoat in the Apocalypse of Abraham” (forthcoming, available to read here).

15 Comments

  1. I wonder why so many NT scholars have this blind spot. We see Ehrman make the same mistake in his latest book as Crossley does above. Clearly, the criterion of embarrassment is a deductive argument couched in inductive language. One cannot simply present an informal syllogism and then tack on the claim that one’s example is “more likely” without having a data base to back it up. Yet you demonstrate that a simple overview of history shows that that data base disconfirms the premise. What they are actually doing is using probabilistic language to buttress intuition. It’s sloppy and doesn’t inspire confidence.

    • It’s always nice to see another human being who sees this (provides strong bayesian confirmation for the hypothesis that I am sane).

      New Testament scholarship, I think, resembles Freudian psychology in many ways. They use bankrupt, unverifiable methods to reach conclusions and won’t budge on any of it.

      I hate to come to this conclusion (it makes me feel almost like a tin-foil hat conspiracy theorist), but there isn’t much else I can conclude. I have seen problems with their methods. I have repeatedly attempted to ask experts how such problems might be answered, and have repeatedly not seen an answer.

      My experience with evolutionary biology was much different, and much better. When I asked questions about how we know species can change, what evidence there was for common descent, and so on, I was given plenty of solid evidence that logically entailed evolution with a very strong level of certainty.

      Numerous experts in biology and geology took creationism seriously and responded to it effectively, and yet I don’t know of any new testament scholar who has done that with mythicism. Bart Ehrman tried, but the centerpiece of his book (his ‘two key data’) were (a) the crucifixion, which I addressed above, and (b) “James the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians. To be fair, the Galatians passage does add some weight to historicism, I think, but there are a number of considerations that render the passage modest evidence at best.

      • I agree with your assessment of the state of evolution vs. the state of (at least) the Jesus Studies field. In fact, it was learning about the philosophy of science that allowed me to quickly recognize the problem with the criterion of embarrassment. People within the field should be able to see that they have a major problem when there are so many distinctly different presentations of the historical Jesus in contemporary scholarship.

        The “James the brother of the Lord” passage is probably the strongest evidence for the historicity of Jesus but I am having a hard time accepting historicism when there is so much in the Pauline corpus (and to a lesser extent Hebrews) that is very problematical for the position. Carrier is right that, when reading Paul, if one puts aside the inherited Gospel narrative (that came later) traditional interpretations become much more problematical. Traditional Jesus studies programs in the next generation are going to have to deal successfully with the growing information about celestial Jewish theologies in the period and the way in which Paul appears to be influenced by such.

  2. Thanks for the Orlov link. I haven’t read it all yet, but…

    “For example, later Jewish sources often speak about the Messiah the son of Joseph”

    I think your argument is fatally undermined by Orlov’s footnote

    “There are several opinions about the provenance of this messianic figure [Messiah ben Joseph]. John Collins suggests that “while the origin of this figure (Messiah the son of Joseph) is obscure, he most probably reflects in some way the defeat and death of Bar Kokhba, whom Rabbi Akiba had hailed as messiah.” Collins, The Scepter and the Star, 126. Yet, Israel Jacob Yuval argues that the Messiah b. Joseph is best understood as a reflection of Jesus.”

    Thus, the possibilities Orlov cites for the origins of this figure are either a) a person who post-dates Christianity by 100 years, or b)…. JC himself! What you’re citing as evidence for mythicism looks to me like exactly the reverse!

    • The two possibilities listed are, by Orlov’s own admission, just two opinions out of *several.* Moreover, I think there is conclusive evidence that Jesus was not intended (I may blog about this in the future, a clue to why I think this is found in the very next footnote).

      I’m unsure how I feel about the Bar Kokbah link. If it was Bar Kokbah, I wonder if that indicates that a pre-existing messiah ben Joseph tradition existed and was *applied* to Bar Kokbah. Otherwise, the Jews wouldn’t have stolen from the Christians (not just because of their repulsion at Christianity but also because Christianity was far too small and fringe to constitute a major influence, plus the fact that the messianic scheme would have had to have been stolen and then reworked dramatically in order for Christian-to-Jewish influence to work), and the deep similarities between the two traditions are too unusual for us to posit independent development.

      • Again, the two examples Orlov actually discusses do not provide any evidence that a dying Messiah was part of pre-Christian Jewish culture. Orlov *might* have some pre-Christian alternative in mind, but if so, it’s odd that he doesn’t mention it, and it seems unlikely given the context of materials later than the DSS.

        You *cannot* reasonably use Orlov as if he is disproving McGrath on this point, because he simply isn’t. As I said, at best Orlov is is no use to you, at worst he’s confirming exactly the kind of thing that McGrath and co say – I.e. that a dying Messiah is a Christian or post- Christian innovation.

        A reason I have little time for mythicists is that they riducle the practices of NT scholars, but then commit worse mistakes themselves, their claims of methodological or intellectual superiority seem hollow. I should add, incidentally, that I’m neither a NT scholar nor a Christian.

        Failing to spot that the footnote to a source you’re citing shows that the source doesn’t prove what you want it to is a mistake on your part. We all make mistakes, of course… However, trying to argue against Jesus or Bar Kokbah as origins for the dying Messiah, without acknowledging the mistake might be fine as a debating tactic, but stinks if you’re trying to get me to take your historical views seriously.

        With respect, I think you should acknowledge the error and update your original post.

        • “However, trying to argue against Jesus or Bar Kokbah as origins for the
          dying Messiah, without acknowledging the mistake might be fine as a
          debating tactic”

          Fair enough. I had not read that footnote when I posted this.

          What I did do, though, is read further on the topic before I responded to your previous comment (some of Orlov’s citations are available on google.books and you can read pretty large sections of the material).

          I’m going to take my time reading and deliberating on this issue more before I blog about it, but so far the various things I have read seem to show that the dying messiah is probably pre-Christian. Maybe I’ll change my mind before I’m finished reading on all this, but I’d caution you that the issue is not as cut and dried as McGrath has led you to believe and further that there are many scholars who have studied the issue and have concluded that there was indeed a pre-Christian dying messiah.

          • Yeah, I had a bit of a read of Orlov’s citations. I’d be interested to read your follow up post, but one point: James McGrath hasn’t “led me to believe” anything.

            I have my own mind (and a first class degree in Religious Studies) and I’m quite capable of making an evaluation of the evidence for myself. If you can show me that my reading of the evidence is inadequate, or if you present some different evidence that better supports your case, then I’ll be happy to reconsider my views: I don’t think it’s impossible that Christians applied a pre-Christian dying Messiah motif, I just think that the evidence I’ve seen doesn’t support this possibility. But in the interests of polite debate, please don’t imply that I’m letting someone do my thinking for me.

  3. “The criterion of embarrassment fails in many specific incidences because the alleged material is actually not something that would have been considered embarrassing within the time and culture”

    My apologies, but I can sympathise with McGrath’s frustration with your comments on his blog on this topic. John P Meier, whom I understand popularized the term “criterion of embarrassment” wrote as follows:

    “Like all the criteria we will examine, however, the criterion of embarrassment has its limitations and must always be used in concert with the other criteria. One built-in limitation to the criterion of embarrassment is that clear-cut cases of such embarrassment are not numerous in the Gospel tradition; and a full portrait of Jesus could never be drawn from so few strokes. Another limitation stems from the fact that what we today might consider an embarrassment to the early Church was not necessarily an embarrassment in its own eyes.”

    So what you wrote above isn’t a **failure** for the CoE, but part of its (known) limitations. And every explanation of the CoE I’ve read includes such caveats on its usage. I’m not a fan of the CoE since I agree it is very difficult to determine what was “embarrassing” (or “against the grain”, as I think EP Sanders put it.) But it is applied to very few passages in the NT for that reason.

    I’m also a little shocked that Carrier uses the castration of Attis as an example of how the CoE fails. Does he go into any details on how he is applying the CoE to Attis? If it is just “it’s embarrassing therefore it must be true” I’d be very disappointed.

    • Do New Testament scholars control for the limitations that Meier had noted? If so, how have they controlled for such limitations? I’m willing to learn on this issue, I just have not yet seen any scholar do this (which may reflect nothing more than my own lack of knowledge, I’d just like to see the scholarly arguments on that note.

      I feel like the Castration of Attis is a good example. Castration is an emasculating, and therefore shameful, process. Having the center figure of your religion castrated is really no less embarrassing than having him crucified. And that is a point that is difficult to escape.

      Of course, James McGrath likes to point out that the death of a messiah (whether by crucifixion or by some other means) was contrary to Jewish thought, and it is allegedly this that makes the big difference between the two. I think this is on the wrong track because dying messiahs are probably not incongruent with the Jewish thought of the time, or at least not as incongruent as McGrath thinks (there are examples of ‘suffering messiahs’ in ancient Jewish thought, though whether any die or not is a little harder to decide). I will write more on this topic in the future, though if you’re interested Carrier has a blog post called ‘The Dying Messiah Redux’ in which he makes some interesting points on that matter.

      • “Do New Testament scholars control for the limitations that Meier had
        noted? If so, how have they controlled for such limitations?”

        That really should have been your starting point for criticism of the CoE: how NT scholars actually use it, rather than being critical of it using an example that scholars would never use (Attis). Yes, Meier for example uses the CoE with various criteria on the divorce laws.

        “I feel like the Castration of Attis is a good example.”

        I agree that it COULD be a good example, depending on the texts being used, their closeness and relevance to the source of the idea, etc. Xor writes above that Carrier does provide textual support for its applicability as an example, so that is good. Where I’ve seen him use the Attis example on his blog and on Youtube clips, he hasn’t done that. So maybe I’m being unfair, and he has built a case for the CoE’s applicability on the castration of Attis that NT scholars would use.

        “I think this is on the wrong track because dying messiahs are probably not incongruent with the Jewish thought of the time”

        Nick, that is an important point. If it is not incongruent, then the CoE doesn’t apply. But here is the thing: if the CoE isn’t a useful criterion, why does it matter whether it is incongruent or not? Either the CoE is a useful criterion (even though limited, as most scholars point out), in which case the argument is about what premises are required to feed into the criterion; or it is not useful at all, in which case it doesn’t matter what premises feed into it.

        Take the example of the castration of Attis: Can the CoE be used there *at all*? If so, what do we need to know beforehand before we can apply it?

        • “if the CoE isn’t a useful criterion, why does it matter whether it is incongruent or not?”

          I don’t think the CoE is *absolutely* worthless. As I said in the post, I think that we make similar arguments in other historical investigations all the time (for instance, if a Roman author X said the Romans were defeated? They must’ve been. No Roman author would not have said that unless it were the truth).

          I see the CoE as problematic within new testament studies because it seems like so much was fabricated that we cannot assume there were any constraints on the story-telling, which makes applying the CoE tricky. Not impossible, but tricky.

          My point on the dying messiah was that *even if the CoE was entirely unproblematic as a matter of principle* it often doesn’t apply because the facts are such as to render the ‘embarrassing’ material not embarrassing. This is a point that does not critique the CoE itself so much as its problematic application.

    • As a sidenote: Carrier does give evidence for why the castration was embarrassing by ancient standards (and no it’s not the only evidence for why Attis was likely mythical). Many ancient elite scholars mocked Attis followers for castrating themselves showing that it wasn’t respectable for the time.

      As it stands I’m not sure if we clear evidence that crucifixion was even embarrassing to early Christians.

      • “As a sidenote: Carrier does give evidence for why the castration was embarrassing by ancient standard”

        Thanks Xor, that’s good to know. I’ll be buying OHJ when it becomes available on Kindle, and that is one thing I’ll carefully check.

        “As it stands I’m not sure if we clear evidence that crucifixion was even embarrassing to early Christians.”

        That’s an important point for the applicability of the Criterion of Embarrassment. If a crucified Messiah wasn’t embarrassing (i.e. “against the grain”), then the CoE doesn’t apply. (As I noted to Nick, the CoE doesn’t *fail* because of that, it simply doesn’t apply.) So the lack of clear evidence here is a valid point for the use of the CoE in that particular case.

        • Sure thing, although the evidence was on an online article, I’m not sure if Carrier cites it in his book.

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