Tag Archives: Criterion of Embarrassment

Defending the Criterion of Dissimilarity

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 »

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

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment”

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 »

Embarrassing failure of the criterion of embarrassment

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 »

The Embarrassing Honesty of Matthew

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.
Image via Wikipedia
Enhanced by Zemanta