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.
*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).