Category Archives: Criteria: Embarrassment


Why early Christians would create the story of Jesus’ baptism – and more evidence the gospels were very late

by Neil Godfrey
John the Baptist baptizing Christ

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The historicity of Jesus’ baptism is asserted on grounds that the event would not have been told unless it were true, because it implies views of Jesus that no Christian would invent:

  1. that John was up till that point superior to Jesus,
  2. and/or that Jesus had sins to be buried in the Jordan River.

This is hardly a solid method to determine whether or not an event is historical or not, especially when reasons do exist that could indeed explain why Christians might invent the story.

I have usually given just one of these possible reasons in other posts, and that is that the author of the Gospel of Mark viewed Jesus as an ordinary man until the moment of his baptism when he was possessed by the Spirit of God and declared at that moment, God’s Beloved Son. Such a view is supported by this Gospel’s depiction of Jesus as far more human than the way he is shown in later Gospels, and also by Mark’s description of the Spirit possessing and driving Jesus into the wilderness. It was this lowly view of Jesus that the later evangelists attempted to re-write: Matthew declaring that John protested that he should not baptize Jesus; Luke only indirectly implying that John baptized Jesus; and John not mentioning the baptism at all.

But there is another evident reason that this scenario might have been invented. This was to fulfill prophetic expectations held among the Jews. One criterion that some scholars (e.g. Robert Funk in “Honest to Jesus”) use to cast doubt on the historicity of any passage in the Gospels is that of intended prophetic fulfillment. If a passage appears to have been written in order to fulfill some “prophecy” of Christ, then the historian must at the very least accept the possibility that it was invented for that purpose.

G. A. Wells in The Jesus Myth alerts us to the evidence that the Jews were expecting the Messiah to be anointed by Elijah. And Mark’s Gospel specifically identifies John the Baptist with Elijah, and that at least one early Christian did point to Jesus’ baptism as another proof that Jesus was the Christ. read more »


Historical Facts and the very UNfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ studies

by Neil Godfrey

Historical Jesus (HJ) scholars have boasted that they use the same sorts of methods as scholarly historians of other (nonbiblical) subjects, but this is a misleading claim. When it comes to the basics of the nature of “facts” and “evidence” this claim is simply not true. Historical Jesus scholars use a completely different standard to establish their basic facts from anything used by nonbiblical historians, as I will demonstrate here by comparing discussions of historical facts by both an HJ and a nonbiblical historian.

Scot McKnight (in a discussion of historiography relating to historical Jesus studies, chapter 1 of Jesus and His Death) notes the importance of a “fact” for HJ scholars:

[F]or our purposes, what kind of history is the historical Jesus scholar doing? First, history begins with “facts” that survive from the past as evidence. (p.20)

So far, so good. McKnight explains that even though it is the values and biases of the historians that guide their choices and interpretations of facts, the facts themselves have a real existence quite apart and distinct from the historian himself.

Cookery and Exegesis

But then McKnight gets murky and ambiguous in his explanation and covers up the multitude of sins of the bulk of historical Jesus scholars. At one level it sounds like he is saying nothing different from how nonbiblical historians work, but he is meaning something quite different behind the same words:

[Facts] genuinely exist even if they have to be sorted out through a critical procedure. . . . To be sure, apart from perhaps archaeological remains, all external facts have been through what Elton calls “some cooking process,” noting that no external facts are “raw.” (pp.20-21)

Sir Geoffrey Elton

This is misleading. Firstly, Elton said the opposite of what McKnight claims for him here. Here is what Elton actually said (with my emphasis):

[It is] at present virtually axiomatic that historians never work with the materials [facts] of the past raw: some cooking process is supposed to have invariably intervened before the historian becomes even conscious of his facts. If that were so — if there were no way of knowing the knowable in its true state — historical truth would indeed become an elusive, possibly a non-existent, thing. (p.53, The Practice of History)

I focus on Elton here because, as McKnight points out, “most historical Jesus scholars are fundamentally Eltonion” (p.16). (I will explain Elton in more detail later.)  What McKnight is doing here is justifying a procedure used by biblical historians to create facts to suit their theories and beliefs. He does this by claiming the HJ scholar’s fact-creation is consistent with what nonbiblical historians do. Nonbiblical historians do not do what McKnight and many HJ historians think or at least seem to say they do. Later McKnight is more specific and explains exactly how HJ historians come to discover these supposedly “existential facts” of theirs. They do so through exegesis of the gospels:

In other word, history involves three steps. . . . They are (1) the discovery of existential facts — in our case the discovery of the gospel evidence by exegesis, or of archaeological data, or of political contexts. Then (2) there is criticism of existential facts. . . . An existential fact often becomes nonexistential at the hands of a skeptical historical Jesus scholar. . . . (pp.23-24) (Point 3 is about interpreting and making meaning of facts.)

This is all bollocks. It is here where biblical scholars totally jump the rails and part company with nonbiblical historians. McKnight says that facts can cease to be facts when scrutinized by sceptical minds. But nonbiblical historians say that this is true only in the case of “secondary” or inferred “facts” that are derived from other more basic facts. In the case of the basic facts there is no question as to the possibility of their nonexistence. They are there and cannot cease to exist. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 is a basic fact that can never cease to exist. But secondary facts derived from that basic fact, such as the precise course of the battle, or the actions of particular individuals in that battle, may only be able to be indirectly inferred. Such secondary “facts” are often disputable and may not always survive. Secondary facts are derived from some “cooking process”, but Elton is clear that these are not the foundation of historical enquiry. Historical enquiry begins with raw, uncooked, existential facts. (Epistemology, the question of whether these facts are “knowledge” or “belief on the basis of very good reasons” is another question.)

Basic and public Facts versus complex and private “facts”

Here is what historian G.R. Elton wrote about facts, “existential facts”, facts that by definition as facts cannot cease to exist as facts (as McKnight admits HJ “facts” can and do), such as the day on which Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, the occurrence of the war itself:

Without the simple details of accurate chronology, genealogy and historical geography, history would have no existence. And of those simple facts an enormous number are presently known. (p.14)

And here is what he wrote about the other kind of inferred facts (again my emphasis):

read more »


Response 3: that Jesus’ baptism implies historicity

by Neil Godfrey

Continued from Response (2): the Bethlehem-Nazareth fallacies

Baptism of Jesus (Bogojavlenie, ortodox icon)

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(iii) he was baptised by John

This is another of those awkward elements. Mark and Luke tell a story about Jesus going with other people to be cleansed of their sins by being baptised by John. But this story clearly caused problems for early Christians, as it implies that Jesus was a sinner and that he was subordinate to John (who had his own followers long after his death). So Matthew inserts an element in the story where John tries to object to the idea of baptising the Messiah (Matthew 3:13-15), whereas the Gospel of John removes the baptism altogether and simply has John the Baptist see Jesus and hail him as the Messiah.

If this element was awkward enough for Matthew to try to explain it away and John to whitewash it completely, why is it in the story? If Jesus existed, this element makes sense – it’s in the story because it happened. If he didn’t exist, however, why did the people who made him up (whoever they were) insert something so contrary to the expectations of the Messiah? That makes no sense.

This argument fails to address any grounds for the historicity of Jesus, despite its rhetorical questions and appeal to incredulity at the end. (Previous post discussed the fallacies of rhetorical questions and appeal to incredulity.)

As is conceded in the argument itself, not all evangelists demonstrate embarrassment. The argument as written above appears to suggest that Luke is not embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus any more than was Mark. But that Luke was also embarrassed is indicated by his avoidance of any direct claim that Jesus was baptized by John.

But the key question here is, What is it that embarrasses Matthew, Luke and (assuming he knew Mark) John?

What embarrasses them is the story in the Gospel of Mark itself.

The argument concedes this.

Three of the canonical gospels indicate embarrassment over Mark’s story of the baptism.

There is no evidence that Matthew or Luke (or John) were embarrassed by anything other than the narrative they read in the Gospel of Mark. They are responding to Mark’s baptism narrative.

Mark 1

[4] John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
[5] And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
[6] And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
[7] And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
[8] I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
[9] And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
[10] And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
[11] And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
[12] And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.

It is clear that there is not a whiff of embarrassment in Mark’s gospel over the baptism of Jesus by John. It was the absence of embarrassment in Mark’s story that embarrassed the others.

To make this clear:

  1. Mark was not embarrassed to narrate the baptism of Jesus by John
  2. Other evangelists demonstrate apparent embarrassment over Mark’s story by their variations to it

Matthew, for example, adds to Mark’s narrative an excuse to explain why Jesus would undergo a ritual meant for sinners:

Matthew 3:

[13] Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
[14] But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
15] And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.

Luke manages to avoid saying that John baptized Jesus altogether:

Luke 3:

[2] Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
[3] And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;

. . . . . . .

[19] But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done,
[20] Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison.
[21] Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened,
[22] And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.

John does not even admit that Jesus was baptized at all.

John 1:

[32] And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.
[33] And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.

So what biblical scholars sometimes refer to as “the criterion of embarrassment” does not support historicity at all. It only supports their knowledge of Mark’s gospel and their different theological views about what the baptism meant or implied about Jesus.

If Mark was not embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus, and if Mark’s story is the source of the other gospel narratives, then the so-called “awkwardness” of this narrative does not support the historicity of Jesus.

So why was Mark not embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus?

He obviously had a different view of the nature of Jesus. A different christology from what we seen in the other gospels.

Mark’s gospel has either an adoptionist or separationist view of Jesus. Adoptionists believed that Jesus was an ordinary man who was “adopted” by God as his Son when he was baptized by John. Separationists believed that the divine person of the Son of God possessed or inhabited the body of the ordinary man Jesus, so that there were two bodies in Jesus, his physical body/person and the spirit person within him. The Spirit person left the human person at the crucifixion. The evidence for this is well known in the scholarly literature and is a separate discussion.

So it is quite possible that Mark had absolutely no reason to be embarrassed by the baptism story. He may even have actually needed it to add weight to his adoptionist or separationist belief about the nature of Jesus.

That is, the first account of the baptism narrative that we know of could well have been written to explain a particular theological or christological interpretation of the nature of the Son of God and Jesus.

Other evangelists demonstrate a different theological understanding of Jesus that conflicted with Mark’s.

But the only gospel they had was Mark’s. So they set to work to re-write it to suit their own doctrines about Jesus.

This explains:

1. Why the first gospel indicates no embarrassment over the baptism of Jesus
2. Why the later gospels do indicate embarrassment over that first gospel’s lack of embarrassment, and why they attempted to re-write Mark’s version in the ways they did.

They are not evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

The baptism narratives are evidence of theological differences among early Christians.


(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)


The Embarrassing Honesty of Matthew

by Neil Godfrey
Updated with a new para near the end, Or if we take John 20. . .

In response to a few comments on previous posts (Funk’s mix and Cracked argument) I have been giving a few moments to reflect on “embarrassment” as a criterion to establish historicity of a narrative.

In Matthew’s gospel, after Jesus has been born of a virgin, performed all his miracles, preached good things, fulfilled prophecy and been crucified and resurrected, he makes one final appearance to his (presumably eleven) remaining disciples. But some of them doubted (Matt. 28:17). Not all of the remaining eleven disciples believed a resurrected Jesus really did appear to them. Some original disciples did not believe that they had ever witnessed Jesus resurrected.

That is surely an embarrassing admission for a Christian author to make at the conclusion of his gospel. The admission could do nothing to assist the cause of Christianity. It is a damaging admission. One must therefore assume (if we take the criterion of embarrassment seriously) that this is one of the truest of true facts facing the disciples and church after the death and burial of Jesus.

We cannot help but wonder how many is meant by Matthew’s “some”. John’s gospel gives as reason for thinking “some doubters” amounted to as many as four persons. In his last chapter he relates — again with surely stark embarrassment — that the response of the faithful disciples remaining, only seven in total, after supposedly seeing the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem was to think, “Well, that was an interesting little adventure. Fun and pain while it lasted. But now time to get back to real life and resume fishing.” The resurrected Jesus then appears to these seven. The author refers to this appearance as “the third” one to “his disciples”. Nowhere does the Gospel of John inform readers that the resurrected Jesus actually appeared to all eleven remaining disciples.  In chapter 21 John quietly passes over the missing four in silence.

The Gospel of Mark, likewise, is vague about the final fate of the disciples. It’s ending, like several other details in the gospel, is ambiguous at best. (I am assuming that verse 8 is the original ending. Also here.)

So, in summary, if we are taking the “criterion of embarrassment” seriously, here is how the different evangelists responded to the bedrock certain fact that “some” of the original disciples doubted the resurrection of Jesus.

Matthew openly admitted it. Most honest of all. Does this mean that some of the disciples Jesus sent out were actually false apostles, even from the original twelve? Presumably so.

Mark can be said to be playing with words, leaving readers to make of his narrative what they will.

John passes over the failures in silence. But he implies that only seven of the original Twelve were reliable witnesses. This did not stop him from expecting readers to believe his narrative even though four of Jesus’ real life companions appear not to have believed.

(Or if we take John 20 as the original concluding chapter of this gospel, then the situation is no better. The last we hear of Peter there is that he went home after seeing the empty tomb and not knowing what to make of it (John 20:10). We are given no hint about how many disciples were later in the locked room for fear of the Jews when Jesus supernaturally appeared before them. An early reader unfamiliar with other gospels might well conclude that Peter could not have been among them since he no longer had reason to be in fear of the Jews, having denied Jesus three times. Nor does John’s gospel suggest Peter had any remorse over his denials. Peter does not weep after the cock crows in John’s gospel – 18:26.)

Luke simply lies and implies they all believed. Well, not quite, maybe. He does say that “they could not believe for joy”, whatever that might mean exactly. Either way, they were all sent out by Jesus to preach in his name. Well, not quite that either. Luke for some reason remains quiet about the activities of all but Peter, James and John after Jesus left the earth.

And of Paul’s 500 witnesses to the resurrected Jesus? We are not informed how many of these believed such an appearance was the real thing. Given Matthew’s frankness we should not assume as fact what Paul implies. We do “know” that Paul was quite capable of suppressing uncomfortable details: in his resurrection chapter he hides the fact that the resurrected Jesus first appeared to silly women.

Saint Matthew, from the 9th-century Ebbo Gospels.
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Honest to Jesus: Robert Funk’s mix of good, contradictory and overlooked “rules of evidence”

by Neil Godfrey

Jesus Seminar co-founder Robert Funk has a lot interesting insights into the gospel texts. But he (along with probably a vast majority of his biblical studies colleagues) also carries a few assumptions that set his historical studies a world apart from the methods of historians of nonbiblical themes.

But first the good rule that just about any historian of nonbiblical topics would support. It should be so obvious that it should not even need to be spelled out.

. . . storytellers may take their listeners to the time and place of the event and allow them to see and hear what went on — all by means of words, of course. . . . Because [this description seems] realistic — the words of participants in the story are quoted and their actions are described, sometimes in graphic detail — it is often assumed to be more historically reliable. That assumption is misleading: writers of fiction know how to narrate realistically . . . , and when they do a good job of it, readers willingly accept as true what they are being told. To be convincing, writers of fiction must of course achieve a high level of plausibility. (p. 3 of The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus — also somewhere in Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium)

Actually Funk does not list that as a “rule” but more as a base awareness before studies begin.

Before discussing the Passion Narrative Funk does indeed list “rules of evidence”. Here are the first two — and I will show how they actually contradict each other if applied consistently. (And if not applied consistently, they are Lenin pie crust rules made to be broken.)

Rule number one

This is the good old “criterion of embarrassment”: read more »


Manufacturing “evidence” for the historicity of 12 apostles

by Neil Godfrey

An illustration of how evidence is manufactured to support historicity in biblical studies:  the twelve disciples

(The following criteria are taken from John Meier’s defence of the historicity of the Twelve, JBL, 116/4 (1997) 635-672 that promises to apply “with rigor” “the criteria of historicity” (636). This post is also in one sense a complement of my earlier post on the meanings of the names of the twelve disciples — a list that badly needs updating to incorporate a wider range of scholarly views.)

Criteria of multiple attestation

Attestation 1: It can be reasonably inferred that the author of Mark’s gospel knew of a list of names of twelve close followers of Jesus that he chose to edit and adapt to incorporate in his narrative. This is because of certain syntactical oddities in the list of names. John Meier writes of the Gospel of Mark’s list of Twelve (3:13-19) that

various repetitions, parenthetical explanations, and disruptions of syntax . . . create the overall impression that Mark is reworking and explaining an earlier tradition” (p. 645)

I don’t know if the author really was working from an earlier list, but I can accept that this is a reasonable argument to propose. read more »


Embarrassing or stereotypical narrative details? (Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend)

by Neil Godfrey

I had been assured by a number of fundamentalists and book reviews that the Eddy and Boyd book (The Jesus Legend) was a cut above the rest of apologetics in its scholarly critique of sceptical arguments and buttressing of the veracity of the gospel text as it is. So far I have been disappointed in my search for something seriously challenging. In their discussion of what many call the “criterion of embarrassment”, there is nothing new, and it seems they studiously avoid the most obvious and well-known literary tropes to which the New Testament gospels were indebted.

On page 408 Boyd and Eddy write:

The presence of self-damaging details in a document usually suggests to historians that the author was willing to risk damaging his own cause for the sake of remaining faithful to history.

They continue,

early Christians would not have invented material that was counterproductive to their cause — material that put Jesus of themselves in a negative light . . .

After discussing the “embarrassing” account of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, Boyd and Eddy list 15 other supposedly self-damaging details, all from Mark’s gospel, to demonstrate “the prevalence” of this “honesty-at-all-costs” type of material.

Before looking at some of these 15 “self-damaging” points, a note on the “embarrassing nature” of Mark’s baptism narrative. What is embarrassing about Mark’s scene of the baptism of Jesus is that it flies in the face of later orthodox doctrine. Mark presumably believed that Jesus was a mere man who was possessed by the spirit only after his baptism, and it was only at that point that he was declared to be a “son of God”. The subsequent embarrassment is one over theological beliefs, not historical facts, about Jesus and his nature. But this is a discussion requiring a post of its own.

Eight of the fifteen points of “embarrassment” or “self-damaging honesty” in the narrative of Mark’s gospel that Boyd and Eddy (pp. 410-411) list are:

  1. Jesus’s own family questioned his sanity (3:21)
  2. Jesus could not perform many miracles in his own town (6:5)
  3. Jesus was rejected by people in his hometown (6:3)
  4. some thought Jesus was in collusion with, even possessed by, the devil (3:22, 30)
  5. Jesus’s disciples were not always able to exorcise demons (9:18)
  6. Jesus associated with people of ill-repute (2:14-16)
  7. The disciples who were to form the foundation of the new community consistently seemed dull, obstinate, and eventually cowardly (8:32-33; 10:35-37; 14:37-40, 50)
  8. Jesus was betrayed by an inner-circle disciple (14:43-46), and Peter denied any association with him (14:66-72)

I will address these separately from the others because they all belong to the same literary trope found in Hebrew (and non-Hebrew) literature to characterize the godly hero as stereotypically rejected by his own, misunderstood, burdened with uncomprehending “followers”, etc.

The other points listed by Boyd and Eddy are, for most part, no less readily explicable as UNembarrassing parables or anecdotes to teach particular theological or spiritually symbolic lessons.

  1. Jesus at times seemed to rely on common medicinal techniques (7:33, 8:23)
  2. Jesus’s own healings and exorcisms were not always instantaneously successful (8:22-25; 5:8)
  3. Jesus seemingly suggested he was not “good” (10:18)
  4. Jesus was sometimes rude to people (7:27)
  5. Jesus seemed to disregard Jewish laws, customs, and cleanliness codes (2:23-24)
  6. Jesus “often” (sic) spoke and acted in culturally “shameful” ways (3:31-35)
  7. Jesus cursed the fig tree despite it not being the season for figs (11:13-14)

These points require a separate discussion from the eight above. Suffice to remark here that (a) Jesus’s suggestion that he was “not good” sits equally with the observation I made with Mark’s portrayal of the baptism of Jesus;  (b) why would any early gentile Christian see it as an “embarrassment” that Jesus disregarded Jewish customs? and (c) — what do fundamentalists do with passages that seem to show Jesus as being rude and insulting? From the way some correspondence has gone with them I wonder if some of them see this portrayal of Jesus as offering licence to likewise be rude and insulting. But back to the first set of eight.

Why presume that an author who portrays Jesus as rejected by his own is somehow embarrassed by this fact and that he only records it because of his compulsion to be “true to the facts”? He would never fabricate such a portrayal of Jesus?

Why not? Since the first story of the martyrdom of Abel the Jewish literature portrays in both narrative and wisdom-sayings form the stereotypical notion of the true “man of God” always being alone in this corrupt world.

The Old Testament narratives would actually suggest that any story of a righteous — or a chosen — godly man would, for the sake of “ringing true”, of necessity have to depict him as misunderstood and rejected by his own.

  • Righteous Abel was rejected and betrayed by his brother.
  • Righteous Abraham had to endure and go out of his way to get along with his self-seeking kinsman, Lot
  • Isaac was hated by those in his own household
  • Jacob was hated by his brother and had to flee as a fugitive for his life
  • Joseph was hated by his brethren for the favour he found with God, and was betrayed by his close brethren.
  • Moses was rejected by his Israelite kin and had to flee into the wilderness
  • Jephthah was hated and rejected by his kin
  • David was not esteemed by his family, parents or brothers.
  • David associated with a band of undesirable fugitives from the law
  • David was thought to be mad by some of his enemies.
  • Like Joseph, David was falsely accused and betrayed by his closest kin
  • Elijah was persecuted and hated
  • Elisha had to patiently bear with an uncomprehending and failing disciple
  • Jeremiah was accused of being a false prophet
  • Daniel was falsely accused before kings

The portrayal of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is, I suggest, in complete synch with the Jewish tale of the stereotypical righteous chosen one: misunderstood, hated, even by family, betrayed, persecuted. . . .

The trope of uncomprehending disciples is also as old as literature iteself, perhaps. It is a multi-millennial old technique for enhancing the superiority of the heroic leader. We find it used as early as the Epic of Gilgamesh (Gilgamesh has his Peter, the wild-man Enkidu), Homer’s Odyssey (Odysseus has his wayward crew led by the devoted but rash Eurylochus); Jason’s Argonauts; Buddha’s followers . . .

Rather than being “embarrassing” details such points were the badges of honour, the signs of being truly an elect of God. The point of such details is, as the author of Hebrews would have understood, to show that “the world is not worthy” (11:38) of the divinely chosen hero. Even the chosen followers are “scarcely saved”, if at all.

An audience that has chosen the way of being rejected from their own kin and of being cruelly misunderstood or accused, such an audience needs a like hero with whom they can relate for assurance.

Most Christians I know and whom I have discussed it with absolutely adore the gospel accounts of Peter’s failures. Peter gives them hope, not embarrassment. Why would it have been any different among the first generations of would-be martyrs?


3 ‘criteria for authenticity’ (“Fabricating Jesus” / Craig Evans contd)

by Neil Godfrey

In Fabricating Jesus Craig Evans writes:

Some of the criteria used for supporting the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings apply in the case of his mighty deeds. (p.140)

The criteria for authenticity that he cites in this context are: Multiple Attestation, Dissimilarity and Embarrassment. Elsewhere he lists additional criteria that he says are also useful for assessing the authenticity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus (e.g. Historical Coherence), but will look at those separately in another post.

Multiple attestation

By this is meant “two or more independent sources” for a particular event, suggesting that the event was “not invented by a single writer”, so the event is deemed to have a more reliable documentation for its historicity. (p.48 )

Comment 1: What can reports themselves logically tell us?

All multiple attestation can really tell anyone is what beliefs or stories were circulated widely via a number of sources. The question of the historical authenticity of the content of those stories is another matter entirely. Surely this is simple logic. How many independent sources have there been for the miracles of Aesclepius or the miracles at Lourdes or for the experiences of alien abductions? We have several ancient “reports” testifying to the existence of the Phoenix, but only one first hand report of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

No historian worth their salt will make use of reports, however numerous they be, uncritically. The interests and purposes of the authors of the reports need to be assessed; as also their sources of information. This means making judgments about reports that take into account their provenance, their social and cultural or political (or religious) matrix, their authors. This is all part of “the training of a historian” that Craig Evans speaks dismissively of in relation to those who are sceptical of fundamentalist claims about the Bible. read more »


‘Fabricating Jesus’, Craig Evans fabricating scholarship — marked F pending . . .

by Neil Godfrey

If Craig Evans had been in my class when I was a high school history teacher and if he handed in his essay on “Criteria for evaluating the Gospels” (as published in his Fabricating Jesus) I would have liked to have given him fair marks for his description of some of the criteria, but would have held back any mark at all until I had

  1. questioned him orally on his comprehension of what he had just described;
  2. and required him to repeat his assignment and resubmit it without the glaring contradictions that left a reader confused over whether he was arguing for against the criteria.

How could any senior high school teacher accept an essay that began:

Thoughtful people rightly apply criteria in evaluating claims . . . .

So also historians apply criteria for assessing the historical worth of documents. . . .

Over the years, biblical scholars have developed historical and literary criteria for assessing biblical literature. . . .

But concluded:

Here is where I think many skeptical scholars, especially among the prominent members of the Jesus Seminar, go wrong. They not only misapply some of the criteria (such as dissimilarity) and ignore or misunderstand others . . . , they tend to assume that sayings and deeds not supported by the criteria must be judged as inauthentic. This severe, skeptical method leads to limited results . . .

Either this student has not understood what he was writing about, or he wrote very late at night and went off the rails under addling weariness. Earlier he had chastized Robert Price’s conclusions and methods for not being acceptable to anyone “trained in history”. Yet here Evans concludes a discussion on historical criteria, tools of historians, with a statement implying that the best historical standards will discard them if they do not support his religious beliefs!

Or maybe he was just playing a game of Let’s Pretend at the beginning of his essay, pretending to sound as if he did agree with the logic underpinning the criteria and the functions they served. Maybe then his third person “historians” were in his mind very much a very distant third party far removed from anything he himself felt affinity with. But under weariness he finally let his guard down and it became clear that the only criterion he really understood as a budding historian was the authority of the Bible. If the criteria don’t support a particular biblical narrative, so much the worse for the criteria! They suddenly become a false method, no longer “thoughtful criteria”, but instruments of “severe scepticism”.

If the latter, he would have to be confronted for his intellectual dissembling.

Criteria problems nonetheless

Not that I don’t have some qualms with such criteria myself and how easy it is sometimes to read too much into them. I will discuss them in future posts, hopefully, along with the apparent “necessity” for them in the absence of primary sources. (Compare discussion in previous post on historical methods.)

Meanwhile, I should leave the reminder that would best be whispered in Evans’ ear on the side (to avoid embarrassment for all) that he was overstated his complaint by claiming scholars do not as a rule deem “inauthentic” words and deeds unsupported by the criteria, but rather as unable to be assigned as authentic. Perhaps in his evangelistic enthusiasm he got carried away and way overstated his case (to the point of unfortunate misrepresentation) unintentionally.

But till then, I by no means deny that the criteria do have some merit. For example, if I were to advise anyone wishing to write an historical novel I could do no better than to direct them to these “criteria for authenticity” and advise them to construct only fictional scenes that complied with any number of them. A novelist who did so would have the flavor of unassailable authenticity guaranteed.

Criterion of ignorance

Meanwhile, the teacher in me skimmed ahead through the later chapters looking for this student’s use of the criteria but found little that stood out.

I did expect he was about to discuss the criteria, however, when I came to this passage:

When the gospel writes that Jesus said “No prophet is without honor, except in his own country” (Mark 6:4), we can likely trust this to be truly historic because “it is hard to understand why early Christians would make up a saying implying that Jesus’ relatives and acquaintances did not treat him with respect.” (p. 224)

Unfortunately no. Rather, this student of mine was guilty of the most unforgivable sloppy laziness. He knew very well the arguments explaining why Christians would most certainly “make up” such a saying. Or maybe he was asleep and did not do his homework on those earlier lessons. I’ll have to remind him of the basics and require him to discuss in his re-written essay the arguments for and against the following well-known reasons for such a passage in Mark:

The author of the gospel was portraying Jesus with the same motifs as were used of the most prominent chosen people of God in the past — family rejection. Remember Joseph? Remember David? Both were deemed unworthy of any special status by their brethren. I would have thought Craig Evans would have known Psalm 27:10 well and would have taken it to be a Psalm of David, and would have taken Jesus to be a son of David, and would have been moved by David’s proclamation in that Psalm that even his mother and father rejected him. Not to mention the more colorful narrative of how David’s father and brothers never thought him worthy enough to be thought kingship material.

It is hard to understand why this student, Craig A. Evans, would put to writing a statement implying that early Christians saw no reason to think that Jesus’ relatives and acquaintances might have been unlike those of Joseph or David, especially when such comparisons are regularly drawn even in weekly church sermons without the aid of any scholarly apparatus. With all his learning, has he just lost sight of the necessary scholarly balance beneath the mass of data he as accrued for his faith-based purposes?

Criterion of biblical authority

There was another opportunity for Evans to appeal to a discussion of some or even one of the criteria of authenticity again, but again he failed to seize his opportunity.

Beginning on the same page Craig Evans complained about those scholars who see in the gospels’ use of the title “rabbi” for Jesus an anachronism, since “rabbi” did not become a title till after 70 c.e. (Although Evans refuses to use the c.e. designation, insisting throughout, for reasons not hard to imagine, on the anachronistic and theologically charged A.D. Stubborn pupil. Obviously thinks he is above scholarly conventions and norms.)

And what is Evans’s argument contra? Well, simply that the Gospels use it of Jesus, therefore it cannot have been anachronistic after all. In other words, the Gospels are true and all other so-called evidence should be evaluated in the light of literalist and fundamentalist interpretation of them. Gospels do not need any further corroboration — faith is all they need. Scholarly controls are useful for other textual studies, but are “misguidedly suspicious” if applied to the Gospels!

Evans says “the use of rabbi in the Gospels is informal and evidently reflects Jewish usage in the first century, before its later, formalized usage.” He does not, however, offer the reader an example to demonstrate his claim that the word is used “informally” in the Gospels. It simply isn’t. Nor does he discuss the Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus forbidding the use of the term for his disciples (Matt. 23:9) — clearly he considered it a formal term, even “in the first century”!

How could bible-believing Evans have honestly overlooked this passage? Will he need to be confronted for his intellectual dishonesty on this count too? Stressful. Teachers have enough stress without having to confront situations like these.

Nor does he offer any evidence that it reflected informal Jewish usage in the first century. One witness — even an anonymous witness that has been dated anywhere between the mid first century and the early second century, what we know as the canonical Gospel of Matthew — is enough, he thinks, to settle his claim. In other words, Evans seems to be trying to slip into this classroom essay a view something like:

The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!

I will have to have a talk with the principal and then with Craig’s parents to see if he really should continue in a school that seeks to inculcate a “training in history” in all its students – a matter discussed in this previous post.


Spong on Jesus’ historicity: The Nazareth connection

by Neil Godfrey

I am not sure if Bishop John Shelby Spong believes in god (he speaks of a “god experience”, and of atheism as being defined as not believing in a “theistic definition of god”, which definition he also rejects) but he does believe in Jesus. This, according to his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (2007). After acknowledging, even arguing the case of, the many theological and mythical constructs that have built up a non-historical figure of Jesus as found in a surface reading of the New Testament, he laments that some go one step too far and reject belief in the historicity of Jesus altogether.

So in chapter 19 Spong devotes the equivalent of a full 4 pages out of a 315 page book to establish the reasons for believing Jesus was, nonetheless, an historical person. He gives 4 reasons that he believes establish this historicity:

  1. No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth . . . in Galilee”
  2. Jesus “clearly began his life as a disciple of John the Baptist”
  3. He was executed
  4. “Paul was in touch with those who knew the Jesus of history”

This post addresses Spong’s view that no mythical character like Jesus would have been assigned a hometown like Nazareth. (I have so many loose threads on this blog I am still meaning to put up on this blog that I’m reluctant to say I will address the other points of Spong here “soon”.) read more »


Mark, The Embarrassing Gospel

by Neil Godfrey

The criterion of embarrassment is a “rule” commonly appealed to by scholars to argue that certain events must be historical because they were so well-known and undeniable that, although gospel authors were clearly embarrassed by them, they nevertheless could not avoid addressing them. One example is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Why would gospel authors say that Jesus was baptized by his inferior unless it really happened? Surely it was not in the interests of presenting Jesus as the superior to John the Baptist to publicize such an event. The only explanation could be that the event was so well known that the authors had no choice but to report it and put the best spin on it that they could muster.

(This reasoning sounds so “self-evident” that it deserves to be kept in mind when reading the scholarly explanations for why Paul does NOT mention so much about Jesus for the reason that it was “so well known that there was no need to address it” — even if to do so would (a) support his position, or (b) require spin to get around how Jesus embarrassed Paul’s position.)

But there is a problem. One of those canonical gospels demonstrates not a single ounce or gram of embarrassment over Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist, nor any of the other episodes to which spin has to be plied by the other gospels to get around various “embarrassing but unavoidable historical facts.” The Gospel of Mark simply waltzes in and unashamedly offers us a point by point account of how John the Baptist baptized Jesus (his superior)! read more »


Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 5a

by Neil Godfrey

5. The Twelve

The role of named individuals in the formulation and transmission of traditions of Jesus’ words and deeds largely disappeared from the normal awareness of New Testament scholars as a result of the form-critical movement in Gospels scholarship in the early twentieth century. (p.93)

Bauckham continues with Birger Gerhardsson’s dismissive tone of critics who “did not think much of the information which the ancient church provides concerning persons behind the Gospels”. This is quite astonishing given what is known about the methods and agendas and selective survival of writings of ancient church authors. read more »


Jesus, the ideal Greek-Roman hero? (No embarrassment criterion here)

by Neil Godfrey

I pulled out again my copy of “Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity” (ed. by Dennis R. MacDonald) thinking to write a layman’s review of its collection of contributions but got sidetracked (again) on re-reading Gregory J. Riley’s chapter, “Mimesis of Classical Ideals in the Second Century”. Some of Riley’s work totally rivets me with comments that provoke new thoughts; some of it leaves me totally flat. This chapter is one of the former. I will have to do a fuller discussion of this asap.

Till asap comes along, I am currently rethinking possibly the earliest surviving literary episode in the life of Jesus, his baptism as told in the Gospel of Mark. John the Baptist there is portrayed as someone of utmost “greatness”: he functions way out in the wilderness, yet despite that “all the land of Judea” went out to see him and submit to him in baptism. Now that is a graphic scene. It is no doubt fictional, or some might wish to say it contains a core of historical truth in that the exaggeration hints at least “lots” of people went out to the wilderness to be baptized. But Mark is telling the story and he creates a picture of the “whole land of Judea” coming out to John in the wilderness, to a man standing outside and in opposition to the city life (“and those from Jerusalem”) with his camel cloak and wild honey diet.

But his message escalates this scene of a truly remarkable man.– His message is about one “who is even greater” who is yet to follow after him! He underscores the point: he, such a great man, will not even be worthy to stoop to loose the sandal of the super-great one to come.

And that even greater one is, of course, the one we know will be from the beginning, from heaven itself even, declared the beloved Son of God himself.

What does all this have to do with a Greek-Roman classical ideal?

Riley writes, “a righteous and powerful Son of God is persecuted by unjust authorities, divine and human, faces his own horrible death with courage, and overcomes. This is not an Israelite story, but it is the oldest and most inspiring plot-line in Greco-Roman literature.” (p.95)

Dare we see the opening scene in Mark as yet another one of “the oldest and most inspiring plot-lines in Greco-Roman literature”? The opening scene of the Iliad was about a son of a goddess (a man-god), Achilles, whose refusal to submit, despite repeated pleas, to the greatest king, Agamemnon, one greater in authority despite Achilles being the far greater in parentage and ultimate personal worth and nobility of (Greek classical) character.

If so, then surely the “criteria of embarrassment” arguments in the literature that attach themselves to the baptism of Jesus beg for re-evaluation at least. Mark demonstrates NO such embarrassment at all. In fact he pushes as hard as he can into the readers/hearers’ faces that the Greater is submitting to the Lesser here!

There is so much to elaborate on here. I know, I have tossed out idle spec on this scene elsewhere, but I would love to do up a much fuller exploration of this and the other ideals expressed in the Christian myth that clearly repackaged and presented anew some of the highest ideals of classical antiquity. (As Burton Mack and others have written, it also included in that package much that was ruinous, too.) But I’m keen to follow through Riley’s argument in this and other aspects of the founding myth of Christianity.


(P.S. It seems almost flippant to comment (i know, again) here that that opening book in the Iliad, iirc, concludes with Agamemnon ordering the ritual washing of all his armed followers — the only one who removes himself from the camp and does not comply is, of course, Achilles.)

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