The Parable of the Ropes — Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem

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by Tim Widowfield

Right for the wrong reasons

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity
Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

A few years back I was on the phone with an acquaintance who is as far to the right politically as I am to the left. At the time the Democratic-led Senate was trying to push through the Affordable Care Act. So he asked me what I thought about the initiative. It turns out we both disapproved.

I explained that I’m for a single-payer solution and that the ACA (now either derisively or proudly called “Obamacare”) would introduce a system that forces citizens to become customers of insurance companies. And since they had dropped the public option from the legislation, I couldn’t support it.

He said he was against it because it’s “socialized medicine.” It isn’t. Sometimes people can agree on something for entirely different reasons. Sometimes you can be right for the wrong reasons.

As I told my brother when he pleaded with me not to vote for Obama because he’s a Marxist! — “You disapprove of Obama because you think he’s a socialist; I disapprove of him because I know he isn’t.”

I was thinking of those conversations the other day when I looked at my notes for Raphael Rodríquez’s “The Embarrassing Truth about Jesus: The Criterion of Embarrassment and the Failure of Historical Authenticity” (in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). On the last page I had scribbled in frustration: “Rodríquez: Right for the wrong reasons.

[See Neil’s review of this book, starting here.]

This book, which tantalizes with its title but disappoints with its content, missed a great opportunity to get to the roots of the criteria problem. Instead, the authors were content merely to graze the surface, while taking every opportunity to redirect the blame to the Formgeschichte Frankenstein. Or should we call it the “Bultmann Bogeyman”? When the authors aren’t playing threnodies to the form critics, they’re singing paeans to Morna Hooker.

What do I mean by the “roots” of the criteria problem? Perhaps I can best explain by way of a parable.

The Parable of the Ropes

Once upon a time a rancher asked his two most junior cowhands to check out some adjacent new land he’d recently acquired.

“You know I just bought the old Murphy place, right?” he asked. “I want you guys to drive out, find the property stakes, and try to figure roughly how much new fence we’re going to need to string. I have to go into town now and sign some papers, but I’ll be up a few hours later, around noon, with a map and some chow.”

About a half hour later, the men arrived at the edge of the ranch. Just past the scrub brush they saw Murphy’s rundown cabin and the overgrown fields beyond. Andy, the younger of the two, said, “It’s worse than I remember.”

“Yup. Poor old Mr. Murphy’d been sick a long time,” said Bill. “Well, we’d better get started.”

The men walked to the back of the pickup truck and pulled back the tarp. They had expected to find surveying equipment, but instead they found four coils of rope.

“What do we do with these?” asked Andy. They brought the coils out and laid them on the side of the road.

Bill tipped his hat back and said, “I’m guessing that we should use these three ropes, the ones with the knots, to measure the distance around the perimeter.”

Andy pointed to a coil of white nylon rope with no knots. “What about this one?” After some discussion, they decided it was for some other purpose, not related to the other three, and they laid it aside.

“Notice,” Bill said, holding the oldest coil of hemp rope and letting it slowly play out, “how there’s a knot every so often? I think that’s about a yard between knots.”

Andy nodded. “But this newer coil here is longer, and the distance seems more uniform between the knots. I think we should use this one.”

After a short silence, Bill said, “Yeah, but this is the oldest rope. They probably measured out the yardage on it first, then transferred those measurements to the other ropes. So this one is the one we should use.”

“But if it’s the oldest,” Andy said, “then the hemp may have stretched. I mean, it could be older, but less accurate.”

“Good point. Maybe we should find the average length of each segment and use that as our measure.”

Andy thought for a minute. “I don’t know. Just because it’s the average length doesn’t mean it’s right.”

“Hey!” Bill interrupted. “This white rope has marks on it.” He began to pull on one end and walk with it.

“Yeah,” Andy said, touching the faint lines. “Only the length between marks is nothing like length between the knots on the hemp ropes. So what does that mean?”

They discussed the problem as the sun climbed higher in the sky. They devised several intricate theories as to how and when each rope was created, imagining many elaborate “histories,” until finally they reached a consensus.

Just then, the rancher pulled up in his truck. “Did you find the stakes, boys?”

“Not yet, sir,” the older ranch hand said. “We were just about to take these ropes out to go measure the perimeter.”

Seeing the puzzled look on his employer’s face, Bill said, “I can explain,” and he proceeded to him how they had “done a little detective work” and figured out the best way to use the measuring ropes.

“Measuring ropes?” the rancher repeated slowly and rubbed his chin. “What are you talking about? These are rope swings I cut from the big oak next to the swimming hole. Remember we had to chop it down last month? Well, those three came from the tree, anyhow. I’m not even sure where that white rope came from. Is that nylon?”

The meaning of the parable

If we do not know what something is and we do not have external corroborating evidence to confirm or deny our presuppositions, then our conclusions will always be tentative and probably wrong.

The rancher had expected Andy and Bill to find the property stakes and pace off the edge of his new land. But left to their own devices, the ranch hands constructed a fantasy world, imagining a set of circumstances that did not exist. It didn’t matter how many different ingenious criteria they assembled to attack the problem, because they lacked sufficient information from the very start.

Their analysis hinged on presuppositions that were completely wrong. Moreover, no amount of internal, albeit clever, reasoning would ever lead them to the right conclusion. They could not correctly explain the relationships among the ropes, because they did not know, in the first place, what they were. Unfortunately, until their boss showed up they lacked any external corroborating evidence to confirm their presuppositions. Yet they had convinced themselves that they had solved the problem — to the point that it never occurred to them that they lacked crucial information.

Now I realize that this is an imperfect analogy, but the historical analysis of the gospels has similar problems. Please understand that my criticisms of historical Jesus criteriology have nothing to do with mythicism. Instead, the question at hand, is — irrespective of whether he existed or not — whether the gospels contain any reliable historical information at all about Jesus. And if they do, can we separate that information from the mythical and legendary material beside which it is buried?

As we’ve said here countless times, we know nothing about the gospels’ provenance. I would submit, however, that worse than not knowing who wrote them, when, and where is the fact we still have no real consensus around their genre. If we do not know what something is and we do not have external corroborating evidence to confirm or deny our presuppositions, then our conclusions will always be tentative and probably wrong.

Rodríguez’s objections

In his examination of the criterion, Rodríguez gets many things right, in the same way that we would be correct in noticing that a totaled automobile needs a new radio or a cigarette lighter. That is to say, he’s correct, but maddeningly misdirected. Yes, it’s true that Mark may have found nothing embarrassing in the baptism of Jesus. Sure, it’s possible (if not probable) that Mark had a vendetta against the Twelve.

But more to the point: Can the criterion stand up to rigorous analysis of its basic claims? Rodríguez missed the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate John P. Meier’s original description of the criterion as we find it in the first volume of A Marginal Jew. Instead, after recapitulating Meier’s definition, he writes:

The logic here is so straightforward and so common-sensical that the omission of our criterion from a number of significant criteriological discussions should occasion some surprise. (Jesus, Criteria, etc., p. 134, his italics)

Most NT scholars who dabble in history have reacted in the same way — it’s just “so obvious,” that it must be valid. In a footnote Rodríguez quotes James Breech from The Silence of Jesus: The Authentic Voice of the Historical Man:

This criterion of embarrassment is our basic critical tool in arriving at relatively certain conclusions. (Silence, p. 23, 2007 ed.)

Breech continues by examining the material in the gospels surrounding the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. He then argues for the authenticity of the Q saying in Matt. 11:16-17/Luke 7:31-34 — “We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed for you and you did not mourn” — alleging that it is “the most informative saying of Jesus historically.” (p. 22, emphasis mine)

Breech follows Meier’s methodology to the letter, and arrives (rather breathlessly) at what he considers rock-solid, authentic, historical conclusions. In a nutshell, he found a saying in Q that appears to conflict with later church doctrine or praxis. Therefore, he concludes, it has to be authentic.

Meier’s thesis

To understand how scholars can reach such historical conclusions based on literary analysis, we need to take another look at Meier’s original proposition. He wrote:

The point of the criterion [of embarrassment] is that the early Church would hardly have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents. Rather, embarrassing material coming from Jesus would naturally be either suppressed or softened in later stages of the Gospel tradition, and often such progressive suppression or softening can be traced through the Four Gospels. (Marginal, p. 168, emphasis mine)

Pardon my clumsy way of drawing your attention to the problem. Meier here implies that there was one early Christian church that evolved over time along a particular trajectory. This fallacy reminds me of Ehrman’s fantasy of a “proto-orthodox” group. We do not have a situation wherein “the early church” was embarrassed by its traditions, but we have instead several early, contemporaneous Christian factions who disagreed with one another on many critical points. The Orthodox compromise created unity out of a movement that was fragmented and disparate from its very inception.

Meier’s “prime example” of the criterion of embarrassment is Jesus’ baptism by John. Following the story from Mark, to Matthew, to Luke, and finally to John (whom he imagines was in “a struggle with latter-day disciples of the Baptist who refuse to recognize Jesus as the Messiah”), Meier concludes:

Quite plainly, the early Church was “stuck with” an event in Jesus’ life that it found increasingly embarrassing, that it tried to explain away by various means, and that John the Evangelist finally erased from his Gospel. It is highly unlikely that the Church went out of its way to create the cause of its own embarrassment. (Marginal, p. 169, emphasis mine)

Meier’s first volume spans 484 pages, so we can safely assume that he does not shy away from detail. Yet his argument for the later evangelists’ supposed embarrassment is remarkably sparse. He tells us what Mark wrote. He tells us how Matthew added to it. He tells us how Luke rewrote the event and told it in a flashback. Finally he tells us that John erased the baptism from history. (Note: It is an odd thing to argue that they were “stuck with” a historical event that they could not deny, when John did exactly that.)

He then leaps to the conclusion that “the Church” was embarrassed by a historical event. Meier has skipped over several steps in his logical argument.

The undeniable fact is that in recounting the baptism, Matthew’s gospel differs from Mark’s gospel. But before we can say, “Matthew changed Mark,” we must first establish that Mark is prior to Matthew and that Matthew used Mark as a source. Granting that presumption, we can only say Matthew changed Mark, and even then only that Matthew added to Mark. To say anything more than that is unsupportable.

If Matthew added material to Mark (namely, the conversation between the Baptist and Jesus just before the immersion), why did he do it? We can safely assume that he is providing material he thought was important for his readers to know, but it is difficult to detect any embarrassment in the text. Do we really have to remind scholars that what follows is a theophany? God breaks open the firmament, peeks through the crack, and shouts: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

I’m reminded of what Joe Biden said on the day the ACA became the law of the land:


Theophanies do not occur every day. This baptism was a big dunkin’ deal.

Our problem lies not with our tool set, our approach, or our methodology; it lies rather with the nature of the evidence itself.

Even if we accepted that idea that Mark’s story embarrassed Matthew (and I do not), that conclusion is still a far cry from saying “the early church was embarrassed by a historical event.” Recall that Jan Vansina, widely quoted in NT scholarship but universally ignored, explained that the way to detect embarrassment and thereby argue for authenticity is not by comparing stories but by referring to external evidence. Vansina observed the behavior of storytellers who looked embarrassed, and judged their behavior and the content of the stories against his own studies of their culture as well as independent, external historical records.

Just as an aside, the way Vansina’s work is cited in NT scholarship is worse than quote-mining. We need a new term. “Mining” suggests that people are digging through the material, looking for something useful. It’s more like quote-fishing — they drop the hook blindly into the water and see what they can drag out, while they remain cheerfully oblivious to what lies beneath the surface.

What Vansina required is exactly what we do not have, and that’s the dirty little secret in historical Jesus scholarship. For all of the clucking about “wrong tools” and bleating about the form critical “error” of examining pericopae in too much isolated detail (as if they invented it), what Rodríguez company really got wrong is this: Our problem lies not with our tool set, our approach, or our methodology; it lies rather with the nature of the evidence itself.

What Schillebeeckx “proved”

Meier cites Edward Schillebeeckx as an early proponent of the criterion of embarrassment. I’ve often seen references that Schillebeekx used the criterion, but not how he used it, so I bought his book, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. It turns out Schillebeekx was less naive about the diversity within early Christianity than Meier. He notes that different factions had different interpretations of Jesus.

Each of these gospels has its own theological viewpoint, revealed by structural analysis no less than by disentangling of redaction and tradition. Via their respective eschatological, Christological or ecclesiastical perceptions they give away their theological standpoint through the selection they make of stories reporting the sayings and acts of Jesus, as also in the way they order and present the material. Consequently, whenever they hand on material not markedly in accord with their own theological view of things, we may take this to be a sign of deference in the face of some revered tradition. (Experiment, p. 91, emphasis mine)

He notes, for example, the tendency within the Q tradition against the idea of a theios anèr or “divine miracle man.” Yet we still see reports of miracles in Q. He concludes that since the community that gave rise to Q “reacts against” such Christology,

then there is good reason for regarding those miracles as ‘authentic’; and in conjunction with other criteria this can yield historically warrantable certainty. (Experiment, p. 91, emphasis mine)

Schillebeeckx thus proved the authenticity of the miracle stories in Q by determining that:

  1. A theoretical, reconstructed document, Q, has an internally consistent Christology.
  2. This Christology (which is itself a reconstruction of a reconstruction) downplayed miracles.
  3. Hence, the presence of miracles in Q is un-Q-like. Note well what he’s saying: A thing present in Q is somehow anti-Q.
  4. Finally, the only reason the author(s) of Q would keep the miracle stories is that they really happened.

I must restrain myself from using this ridiculous conclusion based on whimsical logic as an argument for the abolition of the embarrassment criterion. For the problem is not so much the tool as it is material. Granted, Schillebeeckx builds a teetering Jenga tower based upon layers of supposition and guesswork, but the core issue is the fact that we have no external corroborating evidence. So our options are clear: either we admit it and stop pretending or we can continue to manufacture history out of circular logic.

“Global patterns” and “mnemonic trajectories”

Giving up the charade is clearly not an option for HJ scholars. Rodríguez writes:

Dale Allison explores one potential means of putting this perspectival shift [i.e., seeing the gospels as a kind of “memorial artifact”] in effect by examining global patterns within the tradition, patterns whose authenticity we must accept or else give up historical inquiry into Jesus of Nazareth in toto. (Jesus, Criteria, etc., p. 150, emphasis mine)

In the margin I wrote, “Option B, please.” But no such luck. Unsatisfied with their war on history and logic, today’s NT scholars have now set their sights on language as their next victim. And so we get polished turds like this one:

Anthony Le Donne traces the development of mnemonic trajectories in order to triangulate earlier (and perhaps even the earliest) shape of the memory of Jesus. (Jesus, Criteria, etc., p. 150)

If that hurt you as much to read as it did me to type, I apologize. However, it’s important to know the state of affairs. Rodríguez lauds these scholars and thinks they’re on the right track.

If nothing else, these approaches take seriously and explore deeply the nearly universal recognition that historical sources from antiquity convey the “gist” of historical events or figures rather than their precise details. (Jesus, Criteria, etc., p. 150-151)

Once again, we have an unquestioned preconception. Are the gospels “historical sources,” and if so sources of what? Neil and I have argued that all we can safely say is that they are early records of Christian belief. Other than a strong desire for it to be true, what evidence do we have that they are anything else?


The current trend in historical Jesus scholarship is to jump from one sinking ship to another. Rodríguez and company have switched their perspective from focusing on the micro level to looking at the big picture. It wasn’t their fault that scholars had wasted so much time with the now-discredited criteria, they would argue, because they had been bamboozled by those nasty old form critics.

In the end, however, without some set of criteria we are left with facile statements like “that sounds like something Jesus would say or do.” And for all the fluffy talk about “trajectories” and “gist,” and despite their half-hearted protests that they’re searching for “memories” and not “histories,” this is indeed simply another phase in the quest for the historical Jesus, a phase that will end like all the others — with a fizzle of regrets and disappointment.

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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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9 thoughts on “The Parable of the Ropes — Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem”

  1. We do not have a situation wherein “the early church” was embarrassed by its traditions, but we have instead several early, contemporaneous Christian factions who disagreed with one another on many critical points.

    Even if we accepted that idea that Mark’s story embarrassed Matthew (and I do not), that conclusion is still a far cry from saying “the early church was embarrassed by a historical event.”

    One more probable (and perhaps unique) alternative, I suspect, is that ”the early church was embarassed by an other (earliest and/or rival? ) church”.


  2. Criterion of Embarrasment?

    First Meier:

    It is highly unlikely that the Church went out of its way to create the cause of its own embarrassment. (Marginal, p. 169)

    Now here’s what I think.

    Actually they could have invented the Baptism to get around the embarassment that if there ever were an historical Jesus, no one’s ever heard of him as late as 138 CE! Quoting Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho:

    Trypho: ….But Christ—if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing.(Dialogue with Trypho 8, emphasis mine)

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