Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment”

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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:

The task of a historian working with written documents starts when he or she finds or takes up such a document and begins to read it. . . . Hence the classical rules of evidence are straightforward. What is this document both physically and as a message? Is it an original, written by the person who composed it? Is it authentic, truly what it claims to be or is it a forgery? Who wrote it, when, or where? Once the answers to these questions are known an internal analysis of the content can proceed. . . . So the analysis of the document itself comes first. (p. 33, Oral Tradition As History, my emphasis throughout)

But to historians dealing with oral tradition the situation is very different. . . . . The questions now are: what is the relationship of the text to a particular performance of the tradition involved and what is the relationship of that performance to the tradition as a whole? Only when it is clear how the text stands to the performance and the latter to the tradition can an analysis of the contents of the message begin. This means that the questions of authenticity, originality, authorship, and place and time of composition must be asked at each of these stages. (pp. 33-34)

And as I remarked then, I make the same comment here:

Well, that looks to me as if Vansina is saying that the classical rules of evidence are not “refined” but that they must be applied more often and at more stages of the historical inquiry.

And in Vansina’s more recent (2009) book this is the exact principle he applies to assess historical probability. It is by the researcher knowing the answers to questions such as authenticity, originality, authorship, place and time of composition/performance that he can draw an informed inference from what might be “embarrassing”. That is, how can the historian know what would be embarrassing unless he or she first knows well the people sustaining the tradition and the specific cultural functions the tradition served?

And this is exactly the point made by Howell and Prevenier in their discussion of how historians ought to approach their sources — whether written or oral — and I quote again from my earlier post:

In order for a source to be used as evidence in a historical argument, certain basic matters about its form and content must be settled. 

[T]he source must be carefully located in place and time: when was it composed, where, in what country or city, in what social setting, by which individual? Are these apparent “facts” of composition correct?  — that is, is the date indicated, let us say, in a letter . . . the date it was actually written? Is the place indicated within the source the actual place of composition? . . . .

[T]he source must be checked for authenticity. Is it what it purports to be . . . Can we tell . . . that the document was not composed where it presents itself as having been composed? . . . . (pp. 43-44)

That is, knowing the provenance is the starting point when assessing any source for its historical worth.

This principle is in fact an application of the most fundamental requirement of all: the need for external attestation:

Historians can place trust in oral sources only to the extent that they can be verified by means of external evidence of another kind, such as archaeological, linguistic, or cultural. (p. 26)

Provenance HAS to be established by some means of external attestation for the simple reason that

The identifications [of time, place, author] provided by the source itself are . . . often misleading. . . . [S]ometimes authors are deliberately faking a source, sometimes they are disguising the real place and date of issuance. (p. 63)

Our parents warned us when we were little children not to believe everything we hear. Don’t take one person’s word for something. Check things out. Don’t have to be no scholar to follow that rule.

So what does this have to do with the “criterion of embarrassment”?

Everything. It renders the criterion invalid as a tool as used by historical Jesus scholars as a number of such scholars have made very clear.

The simple fact is that we have no evidence whatever to support a presumption that the author of the first gospel was embarrassed by the things that troubled later Christians.

Charles Guignebert, 1956, points out that the only grounds for accepting the baptism of Jesus as a historical fact is the argument that amounts to the criterion of embarrassment, but at the same time we must recognize that for the original creators of this story there may have been no embarrassment at all:

We must, moreover, observe, on the other hand, that Q, though including the Baptist and his preaching of repentance, does not appear to have mentioned the baptism of Jesus, and that, consequently, it is not unreasonable to hold that the whole legend, in substance as well as in form, came from the Hellenistic community, which might have composed it under the influence of its own liturgy, to represent the ceremonial investiture of Jesus with the Messiahship. (See Reasonably Doubting)

That is, the criterion of embarrassment only works if we know enough about the provenance of the narrative to know that it really was embarrassing to those who composed it.

Burton Mack looks at the original baptism story and sees it as the most “UNembarrassing” product of the special interests of the time:

As the story stands it serves to link Jesus up with a mythic view of Israel’s history and point up the contrast between Jesus and John: Jesus will not baptize with water as John does, but with the spirit. So the lore is mostly legend to confirm Jesus’ importance as a figure of epic proportions.

It belongs to the later layers of Q, composed not much before the time of Mark, and thus represents a stage of reflection where interest in the founder of the Jesus movements gave rise to biographical depiction.

The biographical narratives do not make a set, do not constitute a memory tradition, and cannot be used to reconstruct the life of Jesus. (See More Reasons)

Others have also found plausible explanations — dramatic irony, adoptionist or separationist christologies, Jewish expectation that Elijah would “anoint” the Messiah, and others — for the pious invention of Jesus being baptised: Leif E. Vaage, William Arnal, E. Meyer, Morna Hooker, et al.

Now no doubt many scholars disagree with these explanations. That’s what scholars do. They disagree with one another. Especially in ideologically dominated disciplines like biblical studies. Majority views come and go when their foundations are interpretations and inferences rather than “hard facts”.

So the point is that with just a little effort one does not have to be content with staring blankly and nodding thoughtlessly at a rhetorical question, “Why would anyone make it up?” Recall Daniel Dennett’s maxim:

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 178)

Or more formally, they often are little more than appeals to ignorance.

Fact: we need to know the provenance — the cultural and philosophical matrix — of whoever produced the initial baptism of Jesus narrative if we wish to make any informed assessment of its historicity. And we need the same fundamental knowledge about a text before we can draw any informed inferences from presumed “embarrassment”.

Fact: we do know that whoever wrote the gospels of Matthew and Luke and John were not comfortable with what they read in Mark or knew of the Markan story. But we do not know the origin of Mark’s gospel itself. Early church fathers associated it with a form of Christianity they branded as heretical. Should we take that “tradition” seriously, too, or at least investigate it?

Dr McGrath has since raised another question

Would you care to explain how, and in what sense, we do not know “the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition” in the Gospels?  Or how our comprehension of the context of the Gospels is any less clear, in your view, than the context of an oral tradition for which we only have a contemporary oral performance? It seems that if anything, an ancient recording of an oral tradition provides a serious advantage for the historian – it was fixed in writing much closer to the point of origin than many of the examples that Vansina and others studying contemporary orality consider.


The first question . . .

Would you care to explain how, and in what sense, we do not know “the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition” in the Gospels?

. . . needs a bit of untangling. Firstly, we are not talking about the canonical Gospels, plural. The question is the origin of the narrative and that means our question is directed to the first known written gospel. There is no question that the authors of subsequent Gospels expressed embarrassment over what they saw in Mark.

Secondly, it is a confusion of concepts to relate “those who are performing the tradition” with what we read in the Gospel of Mark. Whitney Shiner and others can write about oral performances of Mark, but the historian is concerned with the origin of the written source.

So scholars speak about performing the narrative of the written Gospel of Mark, not “the tradition in” the Gospel. However, I think Dr McGrath means, if I am not mistaken, those who performed, that is delivered oral performances of, the traditions before they appeared in the written Gospel.

If so, there are several levels at which to respond to this question.

The assumption that there was an oral tradition of the narratives before they appeared in our written canon is just that, an assumption. There is no evidence, no externally attested testimonials, to indicate that there ever were such oral traditions. Indeed, the evidence we do have — the literary evidence of Mark and the literary documents widely known in the relevant time and place — strongly suggests that the author of Mark was creatively adapting stories from other literature. Those who hold to the assumption of an oral tradition sometimes explain these literary borrowings as the language that came naturally to the oral performers, but this is really beginning to go down the path of multiplying hypotheses by hypotheses. Scholars who dare to draw attention to this simple fact of logic are generally in the minority for obvious reasons. But logic and fact are not decided by majority vote from members of seminaries and of what is probably the most ideological faculty in university campuses.

We simply do not know who wrote the Gospel of Mark, where or when or for whom or why. We can guess, speculate, and apply other knowledge to attempt more informed guesses, but until there are new sources uncovered all we will have are ever changing and ever debatable theories.

(Most scholars will insist that the first Gospel should be dated around the year 70 c.e. but this is nothing more than an ideological interpretation that attempts to tie as closely together as possible the internal narrative referents in Mark 13 with the hypothesis of a historical Jesus — another of the narrative referents. This is circular. As I recently posted, the more scientific way of dating Gospels is through external reference and beginning from the point where we have the most secure evidence.)

Moreover, if we assume oral performers of pre-Gospel traditions, we clearly know even less or “just as guess-work-much” about their provenance, their interests, audiences, etc. We simply do not know what such hypothetical people might have thought or intended when they performed Jesus stories. Were they, like Paul’s converts, speaking from spirit-inspired “knowledge” in order to explain why they met for a regular fellowship meal? Were they relaying stories that came to them in relation to preparations for ecstatic experiences at tombs in commemorations of their lost loved ones? Were they mutating or extrapolating from stories of biblical or other heroes? Did they exist? Who can tell?

What Vansina as well as Howell and Prevenier make clear is that one of the most basic principles for historical research is that we MUST know the provenance of sources — both written and oral sources — in order to know how to interpret them. See the previous posts (linked above) where this is all spelled out as part of a course on “how to do history 101”.

There is a third complication, too, but I will address that in response to the final statement below.

The second question . . .

Or how our comprehension of the context of the Gospels is any less clear, in your view, than the context of an oral tradition for which we only have a contemporary oral performance?

. . . is couched in unsupportable assumptions and curiously overlooks Vansina’s own often repeated explanations.

Vansina makes it abundantly clear that the historian researcher know the contexts in which oral traditions are performed by becoming thoroughly acquainted with the people, their language, their institutions, customs, values, culture. Historians — not even theologians — know anything comparable about the creators and audiences of the first Gospel. Okay, they do know the language(s). And okay, they know other literature that overlaps in certain ways. But everything else is a matter of challengeable hypothesis.

The final statement . . .

It seems that if anything, an ancient recording of an oral tradition provides a serious advantage for the historian – it was fixed in writing much closer to the point of origin than many of the examples that Vansina and others studying contemporary orality consider.

. . . likewise suggests a failure to appreciate Vansina’s larger argument.

Firstly, let’s not overlook that Vansina does also discuss oral traditions of recent origin — a couple of generations, say — comparable to the oral tradition hypotheses of historical Jesus scholars as well as older ones.

Secondly, he writes at length about the problems that arise when the researcher seeks to set an oral performance or content in written form. The problems arise from multiple quarters:

  • What exactly will the act of writing down an oral report achieve? Will the tone or other performance features of the performance that are a vital part of conveying the meaning be lost so that a third party reading the words risks experiencing a distorted understanding of what was originally meant?
  • Will linguistic subtleties and puns that are clear in an oral performance context within the culture be lost and so render a text that misses much of the original meaning?
  • Will the cultural and institutional situations of the performance be lost and so decontextualize the written account and thus affect the way it is understood or interpreted?
  • Will the written report be a singular product or will there also be written reports of comparable oral performances by other more or less related peoples in order to convey the richer background and dialectical appreciations of the written tradition?

Was the Gospel author aware of any of these issues and if not, what sorts of assumptions should we bring to the Gospel before we ask how to interpret it?

But there are more serious questions, too:

  • What is/was the relationship between the one who was to write down the oral tradition and the oral performer?
  • Did the performer know his or her performance was to be written down by an audience member, and if so, did this affect the content and meaning of that was conveyed?
  • Did the performer sharply edit out much that would have changed completely what was understood? Or did the performer wax more fulsomely and creatively to show off? Was there any deliberate deception?
  • Does the scribe have such an intimate relationship with the people of the oral performers in order to truly understand the context, purpose, etc of the oral performance? How well are the people and their traditions and interests truly understood?

And more still:

  • Oral performances are not told for the sake of preserving the historical past for its own sake. Oral performances are always addressing the current needs of the community. Stories that have no relevance in one generation are simply lost to that and all subsequent generations. So we must ask what was the reason — the meaning — of each oral tradition to each subsequent audience? Did it change? How did it change? Was what was written a couple of generations later comparable in meaning to what was there at the beginning?
  • (This brings us back to Bultmann and form criticism. If Vansina’s precepts are valid and if the narrative units in the Gospels had a pre-literate oral history, then it follows that form criticism is the most valuable tool for understanding the history of those narrative units.)
  • What was the writer looking for or interested in? Was it historical information? If so, how conscious was the writer aware that the oral traditions were not performed to convey historical information for those with an interest in the past but were performed for those who were seeking confirmation of a present need?
  • (Again this brings to mind the frequently heard guess as to why the Gospels were first written so late. It is often said that it was persecution that drove them to write things down lest they be lost. But that explanation is not consistent with Vansina’s research about the reasons for oral performances and traditions.)
  • If the writer was seeking historical information to record then what measures did he take to check that what he heard really was historical and not fabrication? Vansina explains that this requires external attestation of some kind. Did the writer seek independent corroboration of what he heard? Did any independent corroboration exist or were the traditions entirely the product of a closed group, a kind of secret knowledge?

Now all of these are problems for modern historians of oral history and are discussed by Jan Vansina in his books. But they alert us to potential issues, unknown unknowns, that affect the transition from oral performances to written reports. We simply don’t know who the author of the first Gospel was or what his relationship to hypothetical oral performers might have been.

Dr McGrath’s concluding statement is glib and naive and, given that it presupposes an oral source for the Gospels, begs the question.


The “criterion of embarrassment” only works if we know enough about the provenance of the narrative to know that it really was embarrassing for those who composed it. In fact it is misleading to call it “a tool”. Tools are made to perform a task in a consistent and reliable manner.

All we are talking about is making inferences from what we know about embarrassment as a human condition. We need a secure, solid base from which to draw those inferences. That is where the basic principles explained by Howell & Prevenier as well as Vansina kick in. That secure starting point — the sine qua non from which we begin any interpretation of a document and assessment of it as a historical source — is the externally supported provenance of the source. Without that scholars are just chasing their tails, as Philip R. Davies writes in another context.


By the way, Vansina has the scholarly integrity to acknowledge that his own arguments for assessing probability even by these means are more sanguine than some anthropologists would admit. In his 1985 book he particularly addresses the views of T. O. Beidelman who believes nothing of historical worth can be assumed from any oral tradition. Vansina thinks such arguments are too extreme. The point I am making is that Vansina is not necessarily a monolithic and unchallenged authority in studies of oral history and should, like any academic, be questioned, tested, debated. But for purposes of this post, and given I am no expert in oral history and have not read all the to’s and fro’s in the various debates, I am speaking of Vansina’s point of view as one that is entirely supportable.


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16 thoughts on “Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment””

  1. ‘There is no question that the authors of subsequent Gospels expressed embarrassment over what they saw in Mark.’

    ‘Dr McGrath’s concluding statement is glib and naive and, given that it presupposes an oral source for the Gospels,’

    So where was this oral tradition if they were using a written text?

    How can McGrath presuppose an oral source for the Gospels, when his arguments depend upon inferences showing that the unknown authors of Luke/Mark were using a written text as their source – a written text that they found embarrassing but used anyway? Why didn’t they just abandon Mark’s text and use these alleged oral sources that exist in the minds of NT scholars?

  2. With respect to NT studies, the criterion of embarrassment (COE) has at least two fatal flaws. First, as you point out, it remains to be shown that Mark was embarrassed by Jesus’ baptism or crucifixion.

    The second flaw is the assertion that the creators of a story would not invent embarrassing events. HJ scholars contend that the crucifixion must be true because nobody would invent such an embarrassing story. Yet, as you’ve written, we have many examples from antiquity in which the hero triumphs over adversity and humiliation. And who can imagine a greater triumph than to be crucified and then exalted — lifted up to the right hand of God? Jesus goes from the lowest low to the highest high. Moreover, we have evidence of ancients inventing very embarrassing stories, events, rituals, etc. — e.g., the castration of the priests of Serapis — because they serve a particular cultural purpose.

    So I think it’s fine to fault the COE on the grounds that we can’t assess the actual embarrassment of ancient authors. However, it’s also important to debunk the COE by opposing it head-on, demonstrating that the underlying premise is false. People can and do create embarrassing stories. It all goes back to understanding “thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions” in which those stories were created.

    When HJ scholars retreat behind the rhetorical question, “Why would anybody make it up?” I can’t help but think of Intelligent Design advocates. The also “can’t imagine” many things. They can’t imagine a transition species between lizards and turtles. They can’t imagine how complex features like bacterial flagella or mammalian eyes could arise over time by means of natural selection. They can’t imagine how speciation can occur naturally, without the aid of a divine designer.

    But their lack of imagination is not proof. It isn’t even an argument.

  3. Reading this reinforces my opinion that the dogmatic acceptance of a first century date for the gospels is a necessary apologetic technique. Once we accept the first century date, then we can drag in the oral tradition concept. It is the camel’s nose under the tent. Once we accept the oral tradition concept, we drag in the historical Jesus. Once we accept the historical Jesus, we accept the historical crucifixion. But the primary reason to accept the circa 70 CE dates are apologetic, they are not scholarly:

    Blackwell’s companion to modern theology:

    “In fact, most biblical scholars the world over are religious believers themselves, though not always of a very orthodox kind…for most people who study the Bible the concern remains, as it has always been, to yield results that are helpful and informative for religious believers.”

    1. It is no accident that they tend to date all the gospels within the first century. They want to be able to say: “They gospels were all written in the first century.” It sounds so nice. But there’s also pressure to move them out a few decades from the supposed crucifixion, because there’s all that annoying evidence of antidocetic anxiety.

      He really did die. He really was human. He really did suffer. No, listen. He wasn’t an illusion. Thomas stuck his finger in the spear-hole, for Pete’s sake!

      How would it be possible for docetism — surely the earliest known heresy — to take hold within the first few decades after 30 CE when the disciples were still alive? “Dude! I met the guy’s mom. He wasn’t a spirit!” So they’re obliged to push the dates out a bit, preferably after the fall of Jerusalem.

      They also need to explain contradictions and christological diversity within the canon. How could you explain Mark’s differences with John’s if they both were writing in, say, the 40s and 50s, with access to living witnesses?

      So it turns out that 70 CE to 99 CE is the NT Goldilocks Zone.

      That’s not to say that I think the gospels are early. Not at all. I’m reasonably convinced they’re second-century writings. However, the accusation that I hold to late datings because I “want” them to be false is silly. If you could prove the gospels were all written before 60 CE then you’d be stuck with trying to reconcile the contradictions and to explain away the large number of early, self-professed Christians who believed that the earthly Jesus was an apparition.

      1. It should be pointed out that “1st century” is an artificial date range. Surely, when the gospels were written, the concept of some hard and fast delineation between “1st century and 2nd century” didn’t exist. The fact that most scholars date the gospels to the “1st century” surely shows how deep the biases go.

        If someone suggests that the gospel of John (for instance) was written in 99 CE then almost no one objects. But if someone were to say that John was written in 105 CE — a mere 6 years later — all sorts of hell breaks loose because it’s in the arbitrarily defined “2nd century”; the NO ZONE.

  4. Just for the record I am posting here a response I made in McG’s blog to his puerile mocking claim (anything to avoid actual engagement with the arguments) that I had in this post finally acknowledged that historians use “the criterion of embarrassment”. I don’t know what McG thinks of his peers who have published on the logical invalidity of this, but I don’t think he has much time to keep up with wider scholarly interests given his need to feed his students with material for their sci-fi and religion “intersect” courses. (The Boobs in the comment refers to one who used to comment on this blog quite a lot — until I banned him — while advertizing himself through his avatar as a lover of boobs. I think he would like the nickname.)

    Interesting that I have been accused of misrepresenting McGrath by quoting his words in full, and misrepresenting some historians by quoting them in some detail. Now McG and Boobs are accusing me of saying something I never said and for which they curiously provide no quotation. Would providing a quotation to prove their assertions be too much to ask?

    Here is what I have said about the logical inferences we can draw from embarrassment from the beginning, this one from a post April 2010: http://vridar.wordpress.com/20

    Now I fully grant that the criterion of embarrassment, when applied to
    certain kinds of basic and public and indisputably “existential”
    evidence (e.g. the evidence for the fact of the battle of Waterloo in
    1815, including diaries or other records of those involved) can very
    well be useful for assessing the probability of a secondary or private
    fact, such as whether or not a particular soldier on a battlefield
    retreated in cowardice from the enemy or not. But it cannot be used to
    attempt to extract basic and public evidence (e.g. of whether there was a
    battle in the first place) from a source (e.g. Lord of the Rings) that speaks of an event that has absolutely no external corroboration at all.

    And that’s exactly the sort of example Vansina himself uses. I spoke of the retreat in cowardice of a soldier and he spoke of the death of a king. It also sits exactly with Vansina’s reliance on provenance being the touchstone by which any such subjective inference can be drawn.

    But it seems that any concept that requires expression in more than a single simple sentence is beyond the ken of those who have no wish to “take a mythicist seriously” and are looking only for opportunities to scoff and ridicule. Even the concept of provenance is clearly beyond the comprehension of some here even though they read it in detail from historians I quoted. But of course when I quoted them I must have been misrepresenting them.

  5. According to Mark, the Jews were so impressed by John the Baptist, they thought Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead.

    How embarrassing to have people think the Baptist was the one favoured by God so much that he was resurrected.

    If only there had been evidence that Jesus and John were different people. That would prove that Jesus was not John the Baptist raised from the dead.

    But how could Christians produce evidence that Jesus and John were different people? If only they had been seen together…

    1. You should collect these “epigrammatic”? lines into a single book and publish them. They are much more enjoyable to read, and harder hitting, than my long-winded prose. You demolish historical Jesus studies with wit and style.

      1. Steven’s apothegms deserve their own name — like “Carr-bon mots,” “Logic a la Carr,” “So-Carr-tic Dialogs,” or something. “Carr-pe Dictum,” anyone?

        Steven, if you publish them, I hope you include the many hilarious responses from people who just didn’t get it.

  6. Some people are confused by this topic and one person in another venue objected to my remarks by insisting of Vansina

    but clearly he uses the criterion of embarrassment just as NT scholars do.

    So to try to make it just a little clearer I responded with this. It didn’t make it clearer for the one I was addressing but maybe it can clarify it a little more for anyone not familiar with the background:

    Baloney. NT scholars take a text of unknown provenance (okay, some like to say its provenance is known — it’s Christianity) and decide that its narrative details such as the baptism of Jesus and J’s rejection by his family and his crucifixion are all historical because by the “criterion of embarrassment” no-one would have invented these things. They were so well-known that no evangelist could avoid including them in the gospel despite their embarrassing nature.

    Therefore, by the criterion of embarrassment Jesus was baptized, rejected by his family, crucified, etc.

    We have no way of knowing if Mark’s account was in the least embarrassing to him. Just because later evangelists were embarrassed by his account and modified it accordingly we cannot say that Mark was likewise embarrassed by such things. It is more reasonable to think that it was Mark’s lack of embarrassment about the way he told certain things that embarrassed the later evangelists. John was so embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus he didn’t mention it at all.

    There are perfectly coherent and plausible explanations for the original story of the baptism, family rejection and crucifixion to have been invented. Paul boasted in the crucifixion — he was certainly not embarrassed by it. All of these things are in the literature that McGrath reads so he knows the arguments and I have repeated them many times.

    We have absolutely no reason to assume that poor Mark felt compelled against his wishes to write things that were embarrassing to him.

    Vansina does not have a “criterion tool” that he uses as a rule to create facts the way HJ scholars do as above. He is simply drawing an inference from his knowledge of the people he is working with. He knows what was embarrassing to them because of all the things he knows that are external to the oral tradition. He can therefore say certain things are unlikely to have been invented.

    Note that: He only knows what is unlikely to have been invented because of all he knows about the people that have nothing to do with the story itself. Notice Vansina speaks of the purpose and interests of the people. He only knows that by studying the people, not the narrative of a story. Then armed with this “external” knowledge he knows how to interpret the story.

    HJ scholars are working with nothing but an unprovenanced narrative. We do not know who Mark’s “people” were or what they thought (okay, they were “Christians”, but the evidence we have of earliest Christianity is that it is extremely diverse in beliefs — even in Paul’s time. The things that embarrassed John or Luke or Matthew clearly did not embarrass Mark.)

  7. In any of these discussions of oral tradition, is there examination of the effect of audience feedback? It seems to me that any element found in an oral tradition is there because some audience responded well to it at some time. It is there because some performer found it effective. The very fact that a story continues to be passed along in an oral tradition would seem to me to be pretty good evidence that the performer wasn’t embarrassed by it since he would have continuous feedback from his audience.

    If someone is putting something into writing, aren’t they more likely to be concerned about embarrassing details than they would be in an oral performance where they can simply tell the story a little differently the next time?

    1. The presumed transmission process works like this:

      Actual historical event –> Oral tradition –> Written gospel

      The details of this process are sketchy, but it appears the consensus among scholars is that the oral tradition was kept alive by the transmission of very small units that more or less correspond to the pericopae of the synoptic gospels. There is some dispute, however, regarding how much the evangelists invented and how much “oral tradition” they simply “passed on.”

      Several earlier critical scholars envisioned a process in which the oral tradition consisted mainly of sayings, perhaps merely the “punchline” of the pericope. And the theory would be that Mark threaded these tiny pearls of wisdom onto a narrative string of his own contrivance. (Apologetic, conservative scholars, of course, view the evangelists more or less as stenographers and downplay creativity of the gospel writers.)

      I only bring all that up because your question about continual feedback during oral transmission depends greatly, I think, upon whether there is an actual story involved. If the logia of the Christos are being remembered, perhaps even memorized word-for-word, without a narrative context, then the amount of audience feedback would be minimal. For example, if the teachings of the Lord were preserved in the form of Q or the Gospel of Thomas, then they were practically devoid of any historical or narrative context.

      Hence if the worship service consisted of the agape meal, readings from the OT, and remembrances of the sayings of Jesus, followed by some sort of exegetical sermon, then audience feedback — the kind that would foster embellishment or redaction — would be slight. On the other hand, if complete stories were transmitted in the oral tradition, then I can imagine storytellers changing the details to fit the situation, editing or embellishing as needed.

      I tend to think the oral tradition was probably almost completely like Q, a list of aphorisms, a compendium of cherished sayings of Jesus. I also think that the sayings were presented the way Thomas introduced them, i.e., in the present tense: “Jesus says . . .” If that’s the case then Mark is responsible for a great deal of embellishment, not just the invention of the narrative gospel genre and the first known telling of the crucifixion story, but much more. It means that the gospel of Mark is more mortar than brick.

      But the truth is we just don’t know. Did Mark, for example, create the story of the disciples walking through the fields on the Sabbath, gleaning corn, etc., out of whole cloth? Or did he take a well-known saying — “The Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath — and build a story around it? Or was the entire pericope a well-rehearsed story in the oral tradition?

      Perhaps Steven Carr would remind us that the “Lord of the Sabbath” saying was so well known that no epistle writer in the NT ever mentioned it, because everyone already knew it. And the author of the fourth gospel omitted the story because he knew that Matthew, Mark, and Luke had already used it in their gospels, even though he was totally independent of the synoptics, which he never read.

      1. I can see how the aphorisms might be less subject to to embellishment than narratives, although I wonder whether they might not be more likely to get lost altogether. It sometimes seems to me that more than 95% of sermons concerning Jesus are based on less than 5% of the verses in the New Testament. I periodically come across passages that seem brand new to me either because I never noticed them or I long since forgot about them. I never hear sermons or read blog posts about them. In an oral tradition, I would expect those passages simply to be lost.

        1. Yeah, I know what you mean. Personally, I’ve never heard a sermon on “Everyone will be salted with fire.” But I suppose you have to imagine a Sitz im Leben wherein such aphorisms have currency. Once committed to paper, they’re condemned to haunt the hallowed halls of scripture forever. Divorced from context, they shuffle about at aimlessly, groaning and muttering in the dark.

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