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?
If gospel narratives were being re-written to meet the changing needs of church propaganda, then one would expect the obsolete and “embarrassing” earlier records to have been replaced by the new versions. Yet by the middle and late second centuries it is clear that nothing had been replaced.
Supposedly older texts that had apparently been re-written to accommodate changing PR needs of the church continued to be supported by significant segments of the Church. How can this be explained if the Church took measures to revise and replace them?
By the later part of the second century Irenaeus is able to draw on the four gospels in an effort to catholicize the gospel-narrative. So the gospel of Mark that we are told contained so many embarrassing details that it had to be re-written continued to be used by “the church” all the same. It was there to be clustered alongside the more ‘politically correct’ revisions. Irenaeus asserted an equivalent type of validity for all four gospels.
The answer should be clear enough. If any one found elements of the Gospel of Mark “embarrassing”, it was not “The Church”.
Christianity was evidently anything but a monolithic entity. Some Christians clearly were not so embarrassed by Mark’s narrative details and preserved this gospel so that it was there, willing and waiting, with a ready support base, when Irenaeus declared that it was entitled to be seen as one of THE four gospels to serve as something of a canon for his idea of a more “catholic (universal) church”.
The people (or trajectory or community of people) who composed Mark were evidently not the ones who revised Mark with Matthew or Luke or John.
The different gospels stood in dialogue with one another. Perhaps the dialogue was not always particularly cordial. But they each maintained their own identities as significant works in their own right. In Justin’s writings (mid second century) we read of “memoirs of the apostles”, and many scholars have taken this as a reference to the four gospels. Justin’s student, Tatian, composed a harmony of the four gospels.
So it appears that we have the four gospels existing side by side from their earliest reception. There is no external evidence to suggest that some general community chose to revise one of them with a view to seeing it superceded by the new version. On the contrary, the evidence points to the four gospels maintaining their independent integrities and co-existing in some sort of dialogic relationship.
The controversy, and the dialogue amongst the gospels, was over theological views about the nature of Jesus, not about history fact. Historical witnesses are not called upon to justify the revisions. The revisions are theological in nature, as has been discussed in relation to specific example in earlier discussions of the criterion of embarrassment.
Meier’s explanation misses the mark and builds hypothesis upon hypothesis
Meier explains this evidence that the no gospel was superceded by more accommodating ones . . . . No, hang on. He does not explain this at all. What he does attempt to explain is why the embarrassing details were not eliminated from later gospels, but only repeated with a new spin. He gives examples: the baptism by John, the betrayal by Judas, the denial by Peter, the crucifixion by the Romans.
And these details, he claims, would have been retained because of original eye-witnesses who would have acted as a check on fertile imaginations that might otherwise have presumably dispensed with them. But how many eye-witnesses would there have been to exert such pressure by the time Matthew is commonly said to have been composed — around 80 ce.? Meier infers that eyewitnesses would have exerted this controlling pressure at the time the revisionist history was being imagined. But by the time revised spins were being authored there were no eye-witnesses remaining. And if we think Paul’s letters are an example of how “orthodox” apostles checked those who taught “other Christs”, we must admit that we see no indication at all that eyewitness testimony played any role in checking such apostles. Even though Paul himself was not an eyewitness, he at no time even points to the existence of eyewitnesses to verify any deed or word in the career of Jesus up to the time of his crucifixion.
Meier extends his explanation beyond the time of eyewitnesses and speaks of a strong conservative tradition that would have continued their controlling influence in subsequent years. But again Paul’s testimony does not lend any support to such a hypothesis. By the time we read Justin Martyr’s proofs of the gospel narrative, he appeals to the prophecies of the Jewish Bible as proofs. The only information he infers in his First Apology that the eyewitnesses carried to the rest of the world were the church traditions they had been taught by Jesus after his resurrection, and the command to live righteously.
Meier’s explanation is not supported by any extant evidence.
Examples of this criterion are steadily whittled down
Meier gives examples of “embarrassing events” that he speculates were kept alive in Church memory by conservative forces that held in check revisionist authors who might otherwise have written them out of the record altogether:
- the baptism by John,
- the betrayal by Judas,
- the denial by Peter,
- the crucifixion by the Romans.
Others have also been included, such as the indications of a rift between Jesus and his family.
But note Meier’s comments:
One built-in limitation to the criterion of embarrassment is that clear-cut cases of such embarrassment are not numerous in the Gospel tradition; and a full portrait of Jesus could never be drawn with so few strokes. Another limitation stems from the fact that what we today might consider an embarrassment to the early Church was not necessarily an embarrassment in its own eyes. (p.170)
Meier cites as a prime example the cry of dereliction of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
True, the cry of dereliction does not fit the later theological agendas of Luke or John. But form-critical studies of the Passion Narrative show that the earliest stages of the passion tradition used the OT psalms of lamentation, especially the psalms of the suffering just man, as a primary tool for theological interpretation of the narrative. By telling the story of Jesus’ passion in the words of these psalms, the narrative presented Jesus as the one who fulfilled the OT pattern of the just man afflicted and put to death by evildoers, but vindicated and raised up by God. . . .
The cry is by no means so unedifying or even scandalous as moderns might think. . . . The very bitterness of the complaint paradoxically reaffirms the closeness the petitioner feels to this God he dares confront with such boldness. . . .
Granted the roots of the Passion Narrative in the psalms of lamentation, as well as the bold address to God in those psalms — well understood by early Christian Jews but often misunderstood since — there is not reason for thinking that the earliest Christians (Jews who knew their Scriptures well) would have found the “cry of dereliction” at all embarrassing. (pp. 170-171)
Now if one can so clearly see that there is no embarrassment here in the original narrative here, and that on the contrary the narrative portrays Jesus as fulfilling an OT pattern, then surely it follows that the other examples cited by Meier as “embarrassing events” will also be eliminated by the same principle!
The baptism of John is most explicitly told as a fulfilment of Malachi and Isaiah, and John is explicitly said to be Elijah in this context. Jewish tradition as noted by Justin Martyr (Trypho, 49) held that Elijah was to precede and announce the Christ.
The betrayal of Jesus by his closest followers, and rejection by his family, are also typical of the OT godly characters of old who suffered the same, as we see beginning with Abel, and continuing with the Patriarchs, Joseph, Moses, David, the psalmists, and others.
As for the crucifixion itself, we have the testimony of Paul that this was no embarrassment, but a boast! (Gal. 6:14) The martyred righteous one is a trope as old as Abel. And among Second Temple Jews were those who even saw Isaac being offered up, literally slain and resurrected again, so his blood could serve as an atonement for the sins of Israel. See my Levenson archive for details. So the crucifixion itself scarcely qualifies as an “embarrassment” if we are to give more weight to evidence than to speculation.
Once we follow the logic of Meier through and apply it to the remaining examples he cites, we are left with precious few, if any, events that were clearly embarrassing for their original authors and audiences.
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