“It is highly unlikely . . . “

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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?

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the changing needs of church propaganda, then one would expect the obsolete and “embarrassing” earlier records to have been replaced by the new versions.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.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

19 thoughts on ““It is highly unlikely . . . “”

  1. Deeply conservative forces made the Gospellers record embarrassing things about Jesus, when they would never have mentioned them if not for the shadowy figures who made them write things against their will.

    This is fantasy.

    1. Its more likely the Catholics wrote embarrassing things (and ones that are mere fiction) into the gospels ON PURPOSE (and I mean real embarrassing things, not these fake examples) in order to parody the gospel of the original Chrestians.

      Some examples of real embarrassing things:

      Matthew’s zombies

      Matthew having Jesus ride on two donkeys at once

      Luke saying that Jesus was a freeloader who was supported by women

      The virgin birth

      The contradiction between Matthew and Luke on the hometown of Joseph and Mary

      The contradiction on whether John the Baptist knew who Jesus was prior to his baptism

      Luke having John the Baptist be related to Jesus thus enabling his testimony to be dismissed as nepotism

    2. Add to that list:

      Matthew turning a historical statement about the Exodus (Hosea 11:1) into a prophecy about Jesus

      Matthew making up a prophecy (“he shall be called a Nazarene” Matt 2:23) out of thing air

  2. Today’s posting reminded me of a short video snippet I saw recently. In it, Christopher Hitchens talked about the Women at the Tomb stories and how they relate to the criterion of embarrassment. He said he found it to be a strong argument, to my dismay (and embarrassment).

    While searching for the video or a transcript thereof, I stumbled on another Vridar post — http://vridar.wordpress.com/2009/11/15/cracked-argument-rhetorical-questions-and-women-witnesses-at-the-tomb/. (Yes, I’m a newcomer, and I have a lot of catching up to do.)

    Hitch frames the argument pretty much the same way that Bock does. Namely, in ancient near-eastern societies the credibility of a female witness was practically nonexistent. Clearly, say the scholars, the event must be true because the gospel writers preserved this embarrassing “fact.” However, I agree with vinnyjh’s comment on the earlier post (see: “Cracked argument…” above). Mark’s gospel almost certainly ends with the hysterical, frightened women not telling anyone. To the question: “If Jesus rose from the dead, why didn’t anyone know about it at the time?” Mark answers, “Silly women.”

    Mark’s invention of the tomb found empty by women became the earliest tradition that the other three gospel writers built on. But it doesn’t appear that Paul knew anything about this tradition. He says Jesus appeared, in order, to (1) Cephas (2) the Twelve, (3) 500 brothers, (4) James, (5) Paul. For all we know, he was talking about a spiritual apparition in all cases. It depends on what exactly Paul meant by a “spiritual body.” He does say that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50), so I think he would not have expected the risen Jesus to have nail holes and a sucking chest wound.

    One more thing. It surprises me how often apologists and credulous scholars fall back on the argument that early NT writers were constrained by living eyewitnesses. Have they read the gospels? When describing what Christians must believe are the two most important events in human history — the death and resurrection of Jesus — the four gospels are all over the map. Scholars focus on the few commonalities in the stories, but the details differ greatly, and not just in perspective or nuance, but in substance.

    Compare the end of John to the end of Mark. If the gospels really were written and circulated while some witness were still alive, then scholars need to come up with a good reason why John and Mark can’t even agree on the day of the crucifixion. They might want also to explain how Matthew can get away with the story of the zombie mini-apocalypse (Matt. 25:51-53). If Mark was constrained by eyewitnesses how can he tell the story of the three-hour-long eclipse?

    Either the gospel writers were writing long after the eyewitnesses were dead, or there simply were no eyewitnesses to begin with.

  3. Surely the gospel authors wouldn’t have invented a character named “Jesus son of the Father” (Barabbas) and then later try to nudge out the name “Jesus” as is attested in the mss tradition. It would be the most embarrassing thing possible if the hero of Christianity were actually a murderous insurrectionist. Therefore, by this “criterion”, Jesus was originally a murderous insurrectionist rehabilitated into a wandering non-violent peace-preaching Jesus.

    I somehow doubt that NT historians would concede this use of their self-serving criterion.

  4. What’s stopping someone using the embarrassment criterion in, for example, the story of Noah? Noah is obviously a well thought of individual (after all, God chose him and his family to live whilst everyone else was annihilated). So bearing this in mind, who would invent the later story of Noah getting drunk and passing out cock naked, to be discovered by his children? This incident, then, must have happened. I think we’ve found some of that “bedrock” evidence that HJ scholars look for.

    Ok, a bit facetious.

    1. Since most of the stories in Genesis are about embarrassing things happening to early patriarchs you can use this method for almost any of them. Jacob and Esau, for example, must have been real individuals because who would make up the story of a founding patriarch being such a malicious trickster as Jacob was?

      Also – why would the Athenians make their founding hero figure Theseus such an ass that he abandons Ariadne at Naxos after everything she did for him on Crete? This is an embarrassing detail that no one would have made up about a founding hero so the story of Theseus and Ariadne must be based on real events as well. Also Herakles murdering his own family. Clearly this was also an embarrassing detail that no one would have made up about a founding hero/god figure like Herakles, so it must have really happened. And the fact that those who recorded the story took the effort to blame his actions on a madness caused by Hera, well that shows that they were embarrassed by his actions and needed a scapegoat to take the guilt off of Herakles (as later writers attempted to do with Theseus by adding Dionysus to the story to absolve Theseus of the guilt of abandoning Ariadne).

  5. The bottom line is, once again, “criteriology” as a means of “discovering” “facts” instead of first starting with known facts and then using criteria to interpret those facts.

    Biblical scholarship too easily flatters its enterprise by assuming that their gospel narratives are as valid sources of information about historical events as, say, the writings of Julius Caesar and his contemporaries. All many of them seem to think they have to do is sort out the propaganda from the fact. They overlook that narratives that have external primary evidence to support the historicity of the core of the narrative are one thing, but that narratives that lack any such external control are quite another.

    1. Your Criteriology Critique is classic. It needs to be shoved in the face of every NT scholar who says he or she *knows* something factual about the historical Jesus.

      On the subject of Roman history and validating documents with external evidence, I recall that when we read Livy in college, the professors were quick to point out that his stories of the early Roman kings were legendary and mythological. We know almost nothing about the early Roman kings, except that they existed and apparently their succession was not based on heredity. We don’t know how many there were or when the ruled. And nobody felt the need to use a set of circular, self-serving criteria to sift “facts” out of Livy’s myths. It was enough to say, “We don’ know, and we’re OK with that.”

      1. I’m doing a refresher of my long-ago undergraduate studies of medieval European history by reading “God’s Philosophers” (by James Hannam) at the moment and am struck with the similarities of modern biblical scholars use of reason and the constrained use of it by eleventh and some twelfth century lights who also found reason kind of okay but only when it came up with the right answers in favour of the church. If you used it to come up with the “wrong answers” you were a heretic or outcast from society. Maybe will post something on this if I can find the time.

        (A major difference between then and now is The State! It was easier for “heretics” to avoid the final penalties of censure by flitting around among the many political entities that offered themselves then. Today, it’s pretty much “one thought” wherever you go — and this has much to do with the new technologies and political entities we have to function within today, I think.)

  6. Bart Ehrman gives a superb presentation on how real historians do real history.


    Of course, Biblical historians like James McGrath and James Crossley do Biblical history.

    They should watch the Ehrman video and see why their methodology is trashed by real historians.

    1. Of course Ehrman claims that the Gospels were telling stories that Christians had been telling for many years.

      But gives not one shred of evidence for this faith position.

      The stories can only be traced back as far as ‘Mark’.

      Some are so embarrassing to later Christians that they must have originated with Mark as they do not show the results of years of spin that the later Gospels show, let alone the results of decades of spin.

      1. Touche! On listening to the first part I thought, Wow, he really does get it? I didn’t think Erhman was so straight with historical methodology. But then he goes and blows it totally by falling into the same trap as those he’s criticizing. He can see where those who accept the narrative of the resurrection as historical are wrong, but then without any more basis — on the same faulty lack of evidence as the resurrectionists — he simply declares the earlier chapters of the same books to be magically historical. And on what basis? On the same grounds that others say they believe the resurrection stories are historical — crafty “oral tradition” that leaves no evidence to work with at all.

    2. Over a century ago, William Wrede wrote:

      “[I]t is indeed an axiom of historical criticism in general that what we have before us is actually just a later narrator’s conception of Jesus’ life and that this conception is not identical with the thing itself. But the axiom exercises much too little influence. As a rule it is remembered only when certain things shock us; which means essentially (1) where we find strictly miraculous features, (2) where there are manifest contradictions in the same source, and (3) where one report clashes with another. Where such shocks do not occur we feel, without going very deeply into it, that we are on firm ground in the life of Jesus itself, that we are through with criticism when by dint of work on the sources and reflexions on the subject we have arrived at the oldest account.”

      That quote is from the 1901 introduction to The Messianic Secret. Not much has changed since then.

  7. just been reading Ehrman’s sketch of the historical Jesus in his NT textbook. I like him a lot, but the phrase ‘this is something early Christians would not have made up’ appeared a bit too often in justifying an event’s historicity. He also seems to lay great emphasis on ‘historical plausibility’ as a criteria for judging whether something happened. But isn’t there’s a difference between saying something is ‘historically plausible’ and ‘historically probable?’ It’s ‘historically plausible’ that a man called Clark Kent worked as a newspaper journalist in the first half of the 20th century, but that doesn’t mean, etc etc etc…

    1. In Bart’s defense, he is presenting the mainstream position. However, I agree with you that saying something is probable simply because it’s hard to imagine people (who lived thousands of years ago in a culture we understand perhaps only superficially) inventing it is a weak argument.

      It’s also a bit disingenuous. I’ve yet to read any serious (or, like me, serio-comedic) scholar posit that Paul was consciously writing fiction. Hell, I’d even be willing to grant that the author of Mark, as he quarried the 22nd Psalm for Passion-story-fodder, thought he was writing what must have really happened. It isn’t a case of early Christians “making things up”; it’s a case of early Christians accepting on faith things they believed had to be true — whether they received them via prophetic visions or dreams, or discerned through close and diligent study of the sacred scripture.

      1. I appreciate your point Tim. A textbook (an excellent one, at that) is probably not the place for esoteric theories on the historical Jesus. He mostly followed his Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium book in portraying his Jesus. I guess it’s still the most popular historical view of Jesus, so it’s probably the right one for a textbook introduction to the NT.

  8. Before one can say “the early Christians” would not have made something up, one of course has to clearly identify the exact nature of those “early Christians”. I suspect that if this attempt were made, the circularity of the “they would not have made it up” argument would become more obvious.

    On gospel authors mining the OT for their understanding of what happened, I suggest this is not necessarily all that different from the way Greek poets would call upon the Muses for inspiration to reveal to them the past adventures of great heroes. It appears to have been what Justin was certainly doing in his “proofs” to Trypho.

    As for “plausibility”, I have just completed reading the Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels, and have decided that no-one should be allowed to undertake serious NT studies until they first read these novels. Here we see:

    • the stories explain why there is no surviving record of this “historical” SH in the papers — he always eschewed public fame, and always honoured the local constabulary or detectives by allowing them to take the credit for his work.
    • the narrator explains how he must necessarily keep some geographic and personal names, even some dates, obscure, simply because a public identification of the main characters would create a public scandal and ruin the reputations of famous people.
    • real street names and numbers, real towns, real train services, real political situations, royal families, etc etc are all part of the warp and woof of the stories.
    • SH is not perfect, but his embarrassing flaws are also included, such as his failure to save a client at times, his deceitful treatment of a young lady by pretending to love her and seek her for a wife, and his drug habit.
  9. Who exactly are the ‘early Christians’ that scholars generally appeal to in these circumstances i.e. the criterion of embarrassment? Are they from the Pauline mission? Acts? Eusebius? Ignateus? Those that wrote the Didache?

    Hector Avalos, in The End of Biblical Studies, highlighted the Jesus Seminar’s flawed methodology in this regard, i.e. they decided what early Christians’ views were, and then looked for a Jesus that generally contrasted with this construct. It all seems very circular. We just don’t know about the years 30-50 CE, and it’s perhaps a bit unwise for scholars to base so much on so little evidence.

    If HJ scholars actually said what they were doing was just speculation, it might be ok (although sheer speculation is not really very productive in the long run). But most HJ scholars simply do not do this…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading