Category Archives: Criteria: Embarrassment


2014-04-23

Defending the Criterion of Dissimilarity

by Tim Widowfield
Ernst Käsemann

Ernst Käsemann

The limits of historical criteria

Longtime Vridar readers will recall that both Neil and I view the use of criteriology as employed by historical Jesus researchers with a great deal of skepticism. They consistently ask too much of the criteria. We might be able to say, for example, that applying a given criterion can determine the antiquity of a logion (e.g., a traditional saying that may predate both Paul and Mark) but it cannot prove authenticity (i.e., that Jesus said it).

However, I now find myself in the odd position of defending at least one criterion against a detractor. In How God Became Jesus, a book intended to refute Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Michael Bird writes (in a chapter called “Did Jesus Think He Was God?”):

I’ve used [historical criteria] myself at times, but like others I’ve become increasingly aware of their limitations and become convinced that they do not offer a path to an objective history of Jesus. For a start, trying to sort out the authentic traditions from the inauthentic traditions is not really that easy, for the simple fact that the history of Jesus has been thoroughly welded together with the early church’s proclamation of Jesus at every point. (p. 33)

Bird’s definition of the CoD

I would, of course, shy away from the term “the early church,” especially in the singular, because it implies unity within ancient Christianity. But other than that, Bird and I mostly agree. If any history at all lies within the gospels, it will necessarily be entangled with the theological concerns of the evangelists and the proclamation of Christ by Jesus’ early followers. No historical criterion can reliably separate them.

Bird offers up the criterion of dissimilarity (CoD) as a failed example.

For [a] case in point, let’s consider Ehrman’s use of the “criterion of dissimilarity,” which on his account dictates that a given unit in the Gospels is historically authentic if “it is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him.” [Ehrman, 96-97] This criterion is well-known and has received a devastating barrage of criticism to the point that I am, to be frank, at a loss as to why Ehrman continues to use it. It jumped the shark about the same time that the TV show Dawson’s Creek did. (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 33, emphasis mine)

If you’re wondering about that Dawson’s Creek reference, I regret to say that the authors continually veer off into stilted pop culture references. Each time they drag one out, I can’t help but picture an awkward youth pastor in Dockers and a sweater vest trying to sound “hip” for the kids. It’s a constant reminder that we are not their intended audience. Here’s another rib-tickler from Bird:

The background to this saying and the explanation for why Jesus was thought to have committed blasphemy is something like a Jewish version of the TV show Game of Thrones. (p. 43)

read more »


2014-01-28

Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment?

by Neil Godfrey

Dr McGrath posts a brief comment on the criterion of embarrassment at Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment? He makes the following statement that I believe strikes at the core of the methodological flaw in scholarly inquiries into the historical Jesus and Christian origins:

As with a trial in a courtroom, the fact that flawed deductions are sometimes drawn does not mean that the methods we use ought to be discarded. Doing our best with evidence, reason, and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything that has to do with the past. Wouldn’t you agree?

The courtroom analogy is a false one. Courtroom trials deal with known historical events. Something bad happened to someone. The only questions are ones such as “who did it?” and “why?” The courtroom analogy begs the question of historicity.

The next sentence sets up another fallacy — the false dilemma. It goes without saying that “doing our best with evidence, reason and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything”. Of course I agree and everyone else does, too. The question is rhetorical and falsely portrays the alternative as unreasonable silliness.

The core question is summed up perfectly by Todd Penner in his In Praise of Christian Origins when he wrote of the Stephen episode in the book of Acts:

Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.

The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises. read more »


2013-09-10

Who’s “Rejecting Critical Inquiry”?

by Tim Widowfield

Dr. McGrath has taken me to task for my last post on “Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem.” Actually, he’s unhappy about several things. You can tell he’s upset, because he calls me a canard-repeatin’ mythicist. That’s like a Tea Party guy calling you an atheist-Muslim or a communist-Nazi. It’s so bad.

I think I’d rather be called a Jesus minimalist or a Jesus agnostic. But in any case, the issue at hand wasn’t the existence of Jesus but the state of the evidence and what you can and cannot justifiably claim based on that evidence.  Look, I’m willing to entertain the idea that Matthew was embarrassed by what Mark wrote. I don’t think he was, but if you want to argue that, go ahead. But you can’t leap from the theory that Matthew was embarrassed by Mark to the “fact” that the early Church was embarrassed by a historical event.

I gather he didn’t like my crack about quote-fishers either. He thinks I’m doing “some dubious things with Jan Vansina’s work in the realm of oral tradition and history.”  McGrath writes:

The last point is somewhat new and so worth commenting on further. Widowfield suggests that Vansina’s adoption of something like the criterion of embarrassment is radically different than its use by historians working with texts, because in recitations of oral traditions, the embarrassment of the reciter might be seen in their speech and behavior. Historians can respond to this by pointing out that texts too can indicate an author’s discomfort with material, indicating that it did not originate with them. Moreover, historians prefer to have texts that allow us to actually hear testimony from the past, to having a live reciter of oral tradition, our inability to see whether an ancient author’s brow creased when writing certain things notwithstanding.

First, for clarification, by “historian” I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the theologians and doctors of divinity who write books on the historical Jesus. Jan Vansina, who earned his doctorate in history back in 1957, did in fact write about something that sounds like the criterion of embarrassment. A quote-fisher like McGrath could easily have mistaken it for just the sort of thing that John Meier was talking about in volume 1 of A Marginal Jew.

Are they radically different? Yes, radically and categorically. Here’s why.

read more »


2013-09-08

The Parable of the Ropes — Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem

by Tim Widowfield
Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Right for the wrong reasons

A few years back I was on the phone with an acquaintance who is as far to the right politically as I am to the left. At the time the Democratic-led Senate was trying to push through the Affordable Care Act. So he asked me what I thought about the initiative. It turns out we both disapproved.

I explained that I’m for a single-payer solution and that the ACA (now either derisively or proudly called “Obamacare”) would introduce a system that forces citizens to become customers of insurance companies. And since they had dropped the public option from the legislation, I couldn’t support it.

He said he was against it because it’s “socialized medicine.” It isn’t. Sometimes people can agree on something for entirely different reasons. Sometimes you can be right for the wrong reasons.

As I told my brother when he pleaded with me not to vote for Obama because he’s a Marxist! – “You disapprove of Obama because you think he’s a socialist; I disapprove of him because I know he isn’t.”

I was thinking of those conversations the other day when I looked at my notes for Raphael Rodríquez’s “The Embarrassing Truth about Jesus: The Criterion of Embarrassment and the Failure of Historical Authenticity” (in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). On the last page I had scribbled in frustration: “Rodríquez: Right for the wrong reasons.

[See Neil's review of this book, starting here.]

This book, which tantalizes with its title but disappoints with its content, missed a great opportunity to get to the roots of the criteria problem. Instead, the authors were content merely to graze the surface, while taking every opportunity to redirect the blame to the Formgeschichte Frankenstein. Or should we call it the “Bultmann Bogeyman”? When the authors aren’t playing threnodies to the form critics, they’re singing paeans to Morna Hooker.

What do I mean by the “roots” of the criteria problem? Perhaps I can best explain by way of a parable.

read more »


2013-07-28

Jan Vansina and the Criterion of Embarrassment

by Tim Widowfield
Jan Vansina

Jan Vansina

Insults and a failure to comprehend

Awhile back our favorite historicist doctor posted a comment on his own blog:

One can see a similar mythicist combination of insult and failure to comprehend those with whom they disagree at the blog Vridar. Seriously, it is as though I had never written anything about [Jan] Vansina and oral tradition here on this blog, never mind in scholarly publications! (Dr. James F. McGrath, 16 June 2013)

He links his “insult and failure to comprehend” remark to Neil’s post, “Rabbi Jesus and the Phantom Oral Tradition.” Where’s the insult? Probably this:

[I]t quickly became evident that [Dr. McGrath] had not read or understood Vansina’s works, but had himself appeared to quote-mine a single passage, out of context, to lend “support” to a point he was making in one of his articles. My own reading of Vansina and my attempts to point out to the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair what he had failed to notice in Vansina’s work were disdainfully and peremptorily dismissed. The Doctor continues to play the part of the Emperor with no clothes by foolishly and ignorantly asserting that Vansina’s works support the a model of oral transmission that they in fact contradict. (Neil Godfrey, 16 June 2013)

Islands in the stream?

McGrath’s comment from the 16th ends with a reference to his essay in a scholarly work, “Written Islands in the Oral Stream: Gospel and Oral Traditions.” Indeed, we should note that McGrath’s essay is the first piece in the book (see the link McGrath kindly provided).

In the interest of completeness and fair play, here’s exactly what McGrath wrote in a scholarly publication concerning Vansina:

Particularly important in conjunction with this topic is Vansina’s observation that official traditions tend to be preserved much more precisely over longer periods of time with a higher degree of accuracy than stories preserved by private individuals. [Vansina, Oral Traditions, pp. 85-86] On the other hand, official traditions are also far more likely to have been fabricated or at least falsified to reflect an official viewpoint. For this reason, the fact that a tradition can be demonstrated to have been passed on faithfully for several decades does not immediately indicate the historical reliability of the information. Indeed, it may in at least some instances suggest the opposite. (p. 9)

That’s absolutely correct. What we must stress here is that public, official oral tradition reflects the functions for which it is remembered and transmitted. Oral societies will often transmit such traditions faithfully over many years, but the actual story they tell may not be authentic. Where McGrath goes wrong is in the attempted specific application of Vansina’s work to NT studies.

Those studying oral traditions in contemporary oral cultures have likewise found principles well-known in historical criticism of the Bible to be readily applicable to their work. Vansina notes that it is sometimes possible to demonstrate the unlikelihood that a tradition has been falsified, for example ’where a tradition contains features which are not in accord with the purpose for which it is used.’ [Vansina, p. 83] Vansina then defines a principle that is essentially the same as the criterion of embarrassment used by historians investigating the historical Jesus. The converse principle is also affirmed, namely that ‘facts which do not help to maintain the institution which transmits the tradition are often omitted or falsified.’ [Vansina, p. 84] (p. 8, bold emphasis mine)

Readily applicable?

McGrath has correctly quoted Vansina, but he cannot have fully understood the broad implications of Vansina’s work, or else he would not have used the phrase “readily applicable to their work.” It is not. He also asserts that the criterion of embarrassment in NT studies is “essentially the same” as what Vansina had described. It is not.

[Note: Neil wrote an enlightening piece on this very subject about a year and a half ago. If you haven't read it (like McGrath), you should: "Oral History does NOT support 'criterion of embarrassment'"]

First, let’s state the obvious difference between the study of oral tradition and the study of the New Testament. Vansina talked to real people who were transmitting real oral history to him. That is, he met face to face with the people who were still telling stories. McGrath and his fellow scholars are reading written works whose authors may or may not have transcribed from oral sources. Does this matter? Of course it does.

Vansina writes (Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology) :

read more »


2013-07-05

Joel Watts: Not a Time Lord

by Tim Widowfield

[I edited this post on Friday, July 5. See the Addendum at the bottom of the page.  --taw]

Well, it was fun while it lasted. I was really rooting for the Time-Lord option for Joel, but Samphire has proved, to my satisfaction at least, that Joel did not jump into his TARDIS and return to Wednesday, June 26.

It’s about time

First, let me explain to the Windows users out there how the Macintosh Menu Bar and Dock behave. In Microsoft Windows, each application has its own menu bar. That is, each window usually has its own bar that contains the standard menu items:  File, Edit, View . . . Help. Nonstandard apps like Chrome may break that convention.  Each software vendor has the ability to change these user interface characteristics. It’s a free-for-all. Or perhaps a “mess” is a better description.

It isn’t like that on the Mac. The menu bar “belongs” to the operating system. So when each application (e.g., Firefox, Finder, Microsoft Word, etc.) comes to the foreground, its “File-Edit-etc.” menu is anchored to the same place. Apple touts this behavior as a convention that enhances ease of use.

The Dock on the Macintosh is similar to the Windows Taskbar, but with key differences — one of which is the way minimized windows zoom down to the Dock. They remain in a minimized state, visible as a small icon. As with the Windows Taskbar, you can move the Dock to either the side of the desktop, but I think most users keep it on the bottom of the screen.

Date & Time Preference Panel

Screenshot 1: Date & Time Preference Panel on My MacBook

“Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman

One feature the latest versions of Windows and OS X have in common is the ability to synchronize time with a trusted network host. In the old days, we used to synchronize our servers with “tick” and “tock”: two Network Time Protocol (NTP) servers run by the U.S. Navy. But nowadays, most people in America either use the NTP servers run by NIST or the vendor-operated NTP servers like time.windows.com or time.apple.com.

And that brings us back to the question of time. As you can see from the screenshot of my Macintosh (see Screenshot 1), which shows the Date & Time Preference Panel, I’m letting Apple’s time server act as the trusted date and time reference for my system. You can see that the main application running in the foreground is System Preferences. If I minimize the Date & Time window, it’ll get sucked down into the Dock.

Screenshot 1: Minimized Date & Time Preference Panel

Screenshot 2: Minimized Date & Time Preference Panel

The System Preferences application is still considered to be “in the foreground.” (Incidentally, that’s why we still see the words “System Preferences” next to the Apple icon in Joel’s desktop screen capture.) However, the Date & Time panel is tucked away until I need it again.

In Screenshot 2, you can see that the minimized icon for the Date & Time Preference Panel is actually a snapshot of exactly what it looked like before I minimized it. And you can tell that it belongs to the System Preferences application, because of the tiny “gears” image pasted in the icon’s lower right-hand corner.

So now that we have all that background knowledge out of the way, let’s take a look at the new evidence that Samphire has just now brought to light.

Watts up, Dock?

Samphire wrote:

I went to Watt’s own full screenshot displayed on his webpage and found that down at the bottom right of his screenshot the minimised icon of the Date & Time icon could be seen (it’s pretty distinctive even when minimised) sitting on the Dock.

Let’s take a closer look for ourselves.  Here’s Joel’s desktop image again — cropped and enlarged:

read more »


2013-07-03

Joel Watts: Lunatic, Liar, or Lord?

by Tim Widowfield

I have to thank Manoj Joseph for pointing out some date/time oddities in Joel’s testimony concerning exactly when he emailed Neil about the DMCA takedown. With all the work I had to do to bring Vridar back to life, I barely had time to skim a handful of the relevant posts around the web.

But now with the passage of couple of relatively peaceful days, I think it’s time to reflect on what happened. In particular, we should look more carefully at those screenshots that Joel so graciously provided. I just checked his site, and they’re still there, but just in case he catches on to his mistake, you will still be able to find them in various web caches.

Watts the story?

Joel says he warned Neil on the 26th. Explaining his actions, he begins by showing a screen capture of a comment by Neil. He writes: “I then sent an email to him, shortly there after [sic] . . .  Note the time difference. I know he’s in Australia.

Comment by Neil

Comment posted at 12:43 AM local to Joel’s blog.

That’s a curious little side note from Mr. Watts. The WordPress administrator tool in the screen capture shows a local time (EDT) of 12:43 AM. WordPress doesn’t show you the local time of the sender; that would be insane. No, this is Joel’s local time: Eastern Daylight Saving Time.

Joel's Sent Mail

Comparing the system time to the sent time

So what’s this business about a “time difference“? Joel wants to prepare us for a little con job that he’s about to foist on us. It reminds me of short-change artists who confuse you with their nonsensical patter just before they coax you to give them an extra 20-dollar bill.

Nothin’ up my sleeve

Next, Joel kindly shows us an image capture of his desktop. Looking at his Sent Items folder, we’re led to believe that he sent an email to Neil at 12:56 PM on the 26th. So, Neil posted shortly after midnight (EDT) on the 26th. Joel allegedly sent his mail “shortly there after [sic]” — I guess 12 hours is a “short time” in Joel’s mind. No matter.  It is, after all, the same calendar day.

But hang on.  Compare the wall clock time on Joel’s Macintosh to the time on the email. Remember: These are all local times of the sender. Outlook doesn’t show the local time of the recipient; that would be crazy.

read more »


2013-02-01

Myths about Christopher Columbus: Why Would Anybody Make Them Up?

by Tim Widowfield
Face Christopher Columbus

The face of Christopher Columbus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What an odd thing to say!*

Recently, while catching up with the second edition of James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, I noticed something I had missed earlier while reading the chapter on Christopher Columbus. The first time I read the book, now over a decade ago, the grisly stories of conquest and genocide, along with the subsequent whitewash and heroification took center stage. But this time I was struck by the number of myths that at first glance might seem unflattering to Columbus. People inventing stories uncongenial to the hero? How could this be?

History as practiced by NT scholars places a great deal of faith in what can most accurately be described as a thought experiment. That is, if you can’t imagine why anybody would make up a story, then it is probably true.

As Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? (DJE) puts it:

It seems unlikely that Jesus’s later followers would make up the claim that his friends were chiefly outcasts and prostitutes, so this may indeed have been his reputation. (DJE, p. 236, Nook ed.)

And:

Since Nazareth was a tiny hamlet riddled with poverty, it is unlikely that anyone would invent the story that the messiah came from there. (DJE, p. 219, Nook ed.)

NT scholars find this line of reasoning very compelling. Quoting Ehrman once again, this time from Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (AP):

“Dissimilar” traditions, that is, those that do not support a clear Christian agenda, or that appear to work against it, are difficult to explain unless they are authentic. They are therefore likely to be historical. (AP, p. 92, Oxford paperback ed.)

But how well does this criterion hold up under scrutiny?

From such humble beginnings

Columbus’s origins are obscure. He may have been from Genoa, as your high school history text told you, or he could have been a recently converted Spanish Jew or a Polish heir to the throne. As Loewen notes:

Many aspects of Columbus’s life remain a mystery. He claimed to be from Genoa, Italy, and there is evidence that he was. There is also evidence that he wasn’t: Columbus didn’t seem to be able to write in Italian, even when writing to people in Genoa. (Loewen, p. 48)

The lack of hard facts did not deter Washington Irving from invention. In A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus he constructs a story of humble beginnings from which our hero rises on his own merits. His is the archetypal Great Man. And herein lies the reason for the myth. Irving’s aim was to provide a legendary example to follow. Americans, from humble origins, could achieve greatness if they would simply “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.”

The humble-origin myth resonates in American history (think of Abe Lincoln as a boy reading by candlelight), but it is also quite common in Biblical legends. Having given up on Saul, God tells Samuel to pick the new anointed king from the sons of Jesse. And so David, the youngest son, a humble shepherd from the village of Bethlehem eventually rises to take the throne.

read more »


2012-02-29

Mark Goodacre, Criteriology, and the “Appearance” of Science

by Tim Widowfield

In his latest podcast Mark Goodacre turns his attention to the problem of applying criteria selectively after the fact:

. . . I think that there can then be problems when one tries to make historical Jesus criteria like multiple attestation, like the criterion of embarrassment, do too much. When you take them beyond the introductory student level, into mainstream work on the historical Jesus — because after all historians don’t work with a great big tool bag of criteria.  Historians don’t, you know, hold up a tradition and say, “OK, let’s kind of dig into the bag and see if we can find a criterion that satisfies this tradition.”  

I just don’t think that’s how historians work a lot of the time.  History’s much more complex than that.  It’s more nuanced; it’s more detailed.  We’re looking at things in all sorts of different ways.  And so I think we have to be a little bit careful about the way that we react to these kind of criteria.  They can be terribly wooden.  They can be excuses often not to think very clearly.

And worst of all, sometimes what historians of the New Testament — sometimes what historical Jesus scholars do — is they’ll take a tradition they rather like the look of subjectively and then they’ll find some criteria that they can use to make it sound like it’s more plausibly historical.  So the criteria are often applied after the fact, rather than before the fact.  So there’s sort of the appearance of science, the appearance of a sort of scientific validity to what they’re doing.  It’s often just an appearance.

This kind of honest discussion is a breath of fresh air.  For years now, Vridar has been the lonely voice in the wilderness, warning that the historical Jesus scholars were using their criteria to do too much. Besides trying to use criteria that were designed to assign relative probabilities to determine absolute historicity, we’ve noted here countless times, again and again, that HJ scholars appear to apply the criteria selectively, after the fact in order to prove what they wish to be true.

Kudos to Dr. Goodacre. Maybe the next time we have another friendly tussle with Dr. McGrath, Mark will come to our defense — you know, on the side of right — instead of coming to the aid of a beleaguered fellow member of the guild who has once again gotten in over his head.

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2012-01-18

Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment”

by Neil Godfrey
A traditional Kyrgyz manaschi performing part ...

Oral performance of an epic poem.

Contrary to the understanding of a few theologians oral historian Jan Vansina does NOT use the “criterion of embarrassment” in the same way as a number of historical Jesus scholars do. His discussion of embarrassment in fact supports the arguments of those scholars who argue the criterion is invalid!

I asked Dr McGrath for a page reference in Vansina that supported his claims that historical Jesus scholars draw from oral history their justification for their use of the “criterion of embarrassment”. He replied with Oral History, pp. 83, 84. (I can tell immediately he has read this book because he did not put its title in quotation marks — a sure giveaway.) This in fact is not the same book I read or quoted from but another, more recent, one (2009), much of which is available online. So I replied with this:

Thank you for the reference. This is not from the book or edition I was quoting or the one I have at hand (1985) but your reference refers to the title available online. . . . [I leave interested readers to consult the relevant pages I discuss below for themselves.]

You would have been more informative in your post had you pointed out that what Vansina is saying on page 83 of the work you cite is that an oral tradition is unlikely to have been falsified if it runs counter to the purpose for which the tradition is told. Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence. And on page 82 Vansina explains how important it is to know thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions where the oral tradition is found. So how does one know the purposes for which the oral tradition is told? Answer: By knowing the provenance of the oral tradition. That is, knowing (Vansina would say knowing intimately) the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition.

This is exactly the argument against the validity of the criterion of embarrassment. Scholars who critique the validity of this criterion point out that we do not know the details — the provenance — of the original composition of, say, the baptism of Jesus. What was clearly embarrassing for later authors and institutions may not have been embarrassing for the original composers of a tale.

But thank you for a stimulating exchange.

But reading Vansina’s reference to logical inferences from embarrassment in the larger context of his entire argument — not just cherry picking convenient references from a page or two, but understanding those pages in the context of the argument of the entire book — makes it as clear as day that Vansina is assessing historical probability with the aid of standard historical “tools” commonly applied by historians generally. Vansina is relying on the very same “tools” as used by historians dealing with written sources. Embarrassment is not one of these tools but is an inference drawn from the application of the basic tools. I quoted his plain statement to this effect in my previous post and repeat it here: read more »


2011-12-06

Reasonably doubting that John baptized Jesus — Or how HJ scholars worked before they had Tools

by Neil Godfrey

Does it really advance historiography to rename weak arguments "tools"?

There’s something very reassuring knowing you have a tool at hand if you are an archaeologist and hope to dig through layers of earth to find new historical evidence. And if you are a scholar of the historical Jesus you can always feel more secure in what you find digging beneath the texts if you can boast that you are deploying the latest tools in your efforts. Saying you are using a historians’ tools almost sounds as if you are on a level with a doctor using blood tests and blood pressure monitors in order to reach some level of objective assurance in a diagnosis.

One of these tools historical Jesus scholars use is embarrassment. That may sound like a flakey concept for a tool to the uninformed, but it historical Jesus scholars are widely known for explaining the tools they use to reach certain conclusions, and one of their tools is the criterion of embarrassment.

By using this tool these scholars, most of them anyway, can say with quite some confidence that it is a historical fact that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The reasoning is that early Christians would have been embarrassed by their master Jesus being baptized by John as if a common penitent or inferior to the prophet, so it is not a story they would have invented. So the fact that they told the story shows they must not have been able to conceal the fact and were forced to live with, or explain away, their embarrassment. The baptism must thus be an historical event according to the criterion of embarrassment.

But of course the argument about embarrassment existed before historical Jesus scholars agreed not so very long ago to think about certain of their standard arguments as “tools”.

A secular rationalist argument in the pre-tool era

Contrast how this same matter of embarrassment could be handled in an argument before the days it was elevated to its modern technological status. read more »


2010-12-25

Embarrassing failure of the criterion of embarrassment

by Neil Godfrey
Dome depicting the baptism of Jesus by Saint John the Baptist, and a pagan god in the guise of an old man stands to one side holding a leather bag; Arian baptistry, Ravenna, Italy.

Both symbolic (scroll on image to see the text) and embarrassing (don't double click the image to look at Jesus too closely) baptism scene. Image via Wikipedia

So I hear from commenters that a new foray into demolishing mythicism has been launched by James McGrath with yet one more account of the “criterion of embarrassment”. The curious — yet tedious — thing about this is that while McGrath in particular has faulted mythicists for (supposedly) failing to engage with the scholarship on the historical Jesus, he himself, and some of the other more strident critics of mythicism, have notably failed to engage with the mythicist responses to those scholarly arguments.

James McGrath once wrote:

I have not yet seen . . . . a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion.

So when I proceeded to engage E. P. Sanders himself “point by point’ — and one of those points was Sanders’ argument for the historicity of the baptism of Jesus — I was disappointed that there was no response from McGrath. But he can no longer say that he has not yet seen a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion. I still await an opponent of mythicism to engage with the argument for the nonhistoricity of the narrative of the baptism of Jesus that I made in the following posts:

Engaging Sanders Point by Point: John the Baptist

Baptism of Jesus is . . . entirely creative literature

There are many possible reasons why McGrath did not respond to these. But what is not clear is why he would still use the criterion of embarrassment, with the baptism of Jesus as a principle case-study, as if no mythicist argument had ever been mounted against it. Why simply repeat the same argument that mythicists have long since responded to and found wanting? read more »


2010-10-23

Jesus Not Being Good Is No Embarrassment

by Neil Godfrey
Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me
Image via Wikipedia

Matthew was embarrassed by Mark’s Gospel that had Jesus effectively saying that he was not good. Only God is good

And . . . . a person ran up to [him], and kneeling to him asked him, Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?

But Jesus said to him, Why callest thou me good? no one is good but one, [that is] God. (Mark 10:17-18)

Matthew deftly shuffles the word order to have them come out of Jesus’ mouth with a sleightly different meaning.

And lo, one coming up said to him, Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have life eternal? ‭

And he said to him, What askest thou me concerning goodness? one is good. (Matthew 19:16-17)

Modern theological scholars are also said to be embarrassed by Mark’s Jesus, and no doubt it remains a puzzling point for many other Christians, too: read more »


2010-06-21

“It is highly unlikely . . . “

by Neil Godfrey
"'My regard for Hartfield is most warm--'. He stopped again, rose again, and seemed quite embarrassed." - Emma misinterprets Frank Churchill. Austen, Jane. Emma. London: George Allen, 1898.

Embarrassment and misinterpretation. Image via Wikipedia

Following on from the 17+ mantras of biblical scholarship —-

It is highly unlikely that the Church went out of its way to create the cause of its own embarrassment. [i.e. the account of the baptism of Jesus]

Once again, it is highly unlikely that the Church would have taken pains to invent a saying that emphasized the ignorance of its risen Lord, only to turn around and seek to suppress it.

Both of these sentences appear on page 169 of A Marginal Jew, volume 1, by John P. Meier (1991).

And both demonstrate how a biblical scholar is subject to the tyranny of the Gospel narrative when framing questions about the narrative’s historicity.

Meier here has fallen into the trap of assuming that there was a single church entity that started out recording certain events on account of their historical nature, but over time came to see some of these as PR liabilities, and accordingly set about re-spinning them.

But his scenario actually raises more questions than it answers, and there are simpler explanations for the existing evidence that it overlooks.

I have discussed the fallacies at the heart of this criterion a number of times from different perspectives. The whole idea of using “criteria” to “discover bedrock evidence” is itself fallacious; this particular criterion stands in conflict with other criteria; and what the evidence points to is the embarrassment was over rival theologies or christologies among different communities, not over what we would call historical facts themselves. All of this has been discussed in previous posts that I have archived here.

But since John P. Meier lists this criterion as # 1 of “primary criteria”, I am adding to those posts a response from a slightly different perspective this time.

Why did “the church” continue to use what it supposedly replaced? read more »