Jan Vansina and the Criterion of Embarrassment

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by Tim Widowfield

Jan Vansina
Jan Vansina

Insults and a failure to comprehend

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

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

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

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

Islands in the stream?

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

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

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

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

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

Readily applicable?

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

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

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

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

In Burundi, it is admitted that a battle was lost and a king killed, etc. Here, too, the events described are diametrically counter to the purposes the tales are meant to fulfil, and a certain amount of embarrassment is noticeable whenever events of this kind are recalled. One may take it that traditions such as these can be relied upon, and fortunately they are to be met with, it would appear, in a large number of societies. (p. 83, emphasis mine)

NT scholars must infer embarrassment by comparing writings by later evangelists or later church fathers to earlier writings by, say, Mark. Vansina observed embarrassment by the storytellers who mentioned events that reflected badly on their ancestors.

This point might seem trivial, but it is not. The story of the loss of the royal drum in Rwanda was, we can be certain, always embarrassing. Neither the first witness nor any of the subsequent carriers of the tradition ever thought differently.

Hence, we have two enormous problems that face scholars who would think they could “readily” apply Vansina’s criterion. First, they are not dealing with oral tradition (at least not directly). Second, they are not dealing with observed embarrassment, but implied embarrassment.

Private traditions

Next, we must note that McGrath neglected to explain some important contextual details in the Vansina’s book (in the chapter ominously titled: “Testimony as a Mirage of Reality”). What you might never have guessed by reading Vansina through the smokey lens of New Testament scholarship is that the embarrassing details Vansina was talking about were not part of the public record. Here is the full context from which McGrath quote-mined:

On the other hand, sometimes it is possible to provide proof that a given tradition is unlikely to have been falsified. A case in point is where a tradition contains features which are not in accord with the purpose for which it is used, such as the Bushongo tale about a battle which they lost and at which one of their kings was killed; or another which tells of the death of a king called Mboong aLeeng, who was ambushed by the enemy, and killed by a poisoned arrow. In neither of these tales are the facts likely to have been falsified. They are part of the tribal tradition, but are only transmitted in secret, precisely because they go against the purpose of the tradition, which is the enhancement of national prestige(p. 83, emphasis mine)

The first section in bold above is what McGrath copied. The rest of the paragraph contains important contextual data that McGrath omitted, probably because they were “not in accord with the purpose for which” McGrath was using them.

Vansina clearly explains throughout his works that there are different kinds of oral tradition. In many cultures, the private tradition (probably more reliable tradition) of clans is kept from public consumption, while the public tradition of the tribe or nation reflects a sanitized, “official” version. What is the New Testament? What are the gospels? They’re certainly not oral history, nor are they private.

Now we have three differences that would hinder NT scholars from “readily” applying Vansina’s research. Vansina talked to living people who could show embarrassment. He was listening to actual oral history. And these embarrassing stories were “transmitted in secret” — within family traditions maintained in private.

Functions and purposes

Beyond these contextual stumbling blocks, we have Vansina’s most important point. When evaluating the authenticity of an oral tradition, you have to know “the functions of the testimony and the purposes of the informant.” He writes:

A major source of error and falsification is the influence exerted on the contents of a testimony by the functions of the testimony and the purposes of the informant. Functions and purposes ultimately derive from the social structure of the society being studied. The distortions caused by them can be detected by the historian. They occur both in the testimonies of the chain of transmission, which are more directly conditioned by society, and in initial and final testimonies, where personal motives have the greater influence. (p. 95)

And herein lies the greatest stumbling block of all. Vansina had the luxury of talking to living, breathing humans and learning about a society that existed in the present. Therefore, he could make judgments about the purpose and function of traditions. More than that, he could observe people living and acting within the culture and gain a deeper understanding of their societies.

How do we know about first-century Christianity? By reading the New Testament. Trying to discern the functions and purposes of the NT by reading the NT would be like Vansina trying to guess the functions and purposes of tribal oral tradition by studying only the oral tradition itself. He needed an external control, namely the “social structure of the society being studied.”

Interestingly, Vansina held that oral traditions that hadn’t been obviously distorted should be accepted (at least provisionally) as authentic.

Sometimes, however, he [the historian] may be unable to find any definite indications of distortion, in which case he must apply a methodological rule that is valid for all historical sources: In the absence of any indications of distortion, he must accept the text as being reliable. (p. 95)

And sadly, we’ve hit another stumbling block in NT studies. There are clear signs of distortion throughout the gospels. Yet we have no external information concerning the communities that created these works that would help us determine how to understand their functions. Sure, we have theories. But we’re still arguing over basic ideas like what a gospel is.


In conclusion, McGrath is incorrect to hold out Vansina’s work as in any way applicable to the study of the New Testament. The NT is a written work, which can only be assumed to have oral antecedents. We have no way of accurately knowing whether anyone was embarrassed about any story they were telling, because they are written works from an unknown society by unknown authors, written in unknown locations at unknown times.

Furthermore, McGrath either knowingly excluded important contextual details in Vansina’s work, or he is simply incapable of understanding those details. For clarity, here are those points again:

  1. Vansina observed embarrassment in the individuals telling the stories.
  2. Such embarrassing details were always embarrassing (e.g., ignominious defeat in battle).
  3. The stories in the very paragraph from which McGrath quoted were private traditions.
  4. Vansina argued that to understand the sources of falsification, a historian had to understand the social structure of the community that created and maintained the stories.

McGrath quoted Vansina as writing that we could show a tradition was probably not falsified, if it “contains features which are not in accord with the purpose for which it is used.” Vansina properly understood that the only correct way to understand that “purpose” is to understand the society that produced it. Without external information to explain those purposes, we’re left with mere conjecture and baseless assertions.

[Follow-up comment about 30 minutes after publication:

After re-reading McGrath’s statement about embarrassment in his scholarly publication, I think I may have misread something. Because Vansina was writing in 1961, it had not occurred to me that McGrath might think experts in oral tradition would find principles in Biblical criticism “readily applicable in their [i.e., real historians’] work.”

I have never found a reference concerning the criterion of embarrassment in Biblical studies before 1980. Furthermore, it is apparent from Vansina’s writings that he is describing a method that he learned from experience in the field, not by reading journals from seminaries.]

If I misinterpreted McGrath as saying that NT scholars could find “readily applicable” principles in Vansina’s work, then I am in error. The important point, however, is that the principle of embarrassment Vansina described is not the same as the criterion employed in historical Jesus studies, for the reasons I laid out above.]

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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