Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment?

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by Neil Godfrey

Dr McGrath posts a brief comment on the criterion of embarrassment at Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment? He makes the following statement that I believe strikes at the core of the methodological flaw in scholarly inquiries into the historical Jesus and Christian origins:

As with a trial in a courtroom, the fact that flawed deductions are sometimes drawn does not mean that the methods we use ought to be discarded. Doing our best with evidence, reason, and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything that has to do with the past. Wouldn’t you agree?

The courtroom analogy is a false one. Courtroom trials deal with known historical events. Something bad happened to someone. The only questions are ones such as “who did it?” and “why?” The courtroom analogy begs the question of historicity.

The next sentence sets up another fallacy — the false dilemma. It goes without saying that “doing our best with evidence, reason and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything”. Of course I agree and everyone else does, too. The question is rhetorical and falsely portrays the alternative as unreasonable silliness.

The core question is summed up perfectly by Todd Penner in his In Praise of Christian Origins when he wrote of the Stephen episode in the book of Acts:

Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.

The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises.

Shelly Matthews (Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity) picks up from Penner’s point and goes one step further to a more positive view of what can be done by the historian. We have no way of knowing if the Stephen story is based on an historical event or if it was a literary construction from the get-go. But that does not mean the historian cannot do history. What it means is that the historian is obliged to ask questions of the evidence that it is capable of answering. Historical enquiries must be framed according to the nature of the evidence available. That’s why historians of ancient times cannot explore in depth the same sorts of questions historians studying recent events can. The latter have much more evidence and are therefore in a position to explore a wider range of questions.

First of all, Matthews, like Penner, shows that scholarly efforts to “peel away” supposed authorial redactions in order to uncover supposed historical data beneath the narrative is, ultimately, a rather arbitrary exercise in this instance. I began to discuss her work recently and will continue to do so again soon.

Secondly, Shelly shows us that the historian needs to work with the documents as the primary evidence — to treat Acts itself, its narrative, as the evidence that needs explanation. If we try to find our way behind the narrative, to find what bits of the narrative we can toss out, and supposedly find some bedrock event beneath, we are, really (in my view) playing a fool’s game that is — as Matthews and Penner seem to recognize — unique to biblical studies.

The historical questions to be asked of the evidence are:

  • What sort of document is the Acts of the Apostles (or Gospels)?
  • What does its narrative content and artifice, and the relationship of these to other literature known at the time, tell us about the historical circumstances of the author and his presumed audience?
  • What is the meaning of the narrative to the people of the time? What is its function in the history of Christian origins?

If the answer to the first question can, by means of external controls of some kind, lead us to believe that the narrative does indeed attempt to portray real historical events, then we have an added bonus and can open gateways to new historical questions.

That is what happens when we look at the sorts of documents produced by Polybius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Suetonius, Livy, and so forth. But Acts (and the Gospels) leave us with more questions than answers and are not supported by controls in a way that can lead us to conclude they are based on historical events.

That does not mean, as Penner says, that there is no history behind them. It means that we have no way of knowing. And that does not mean, as McGrath unfortunately concludes, that we are left in a nihilistic agnosticism. It means the sorts of history we can do is different from what we expected or from what our personal faith my desire.


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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment?”

  1. Neil, First, again thank you for maintaining such an important and intriguing resource. And here is a proposal: It could be that “mythicists” and “historicists” must just agree to disagree about the origins of Christianity. It is much like social science departments that either qualitative or quantitative (long live mixed methods!). We all are not talking the same language. The tools of either may or may not be flawed and we can argue that to the end of days (of course, all tools and instruments of data collection are inherently flawed, anyway…). Valuable insights into the murky origins of Christianity can be obtained from either standpoint. However, the approach one takes to the source data depends, in part, on from which school one is coming. Delving into early Christian thought using Paul as a source yields different outcomes whether one assumes a historical crucifixion of one Jesus of Nazareth or whether we assume, instead, that “Christianity” resulted from an evolution and amalgamation of Jewish and Greek thought (which is where I lean, partially because the insights seem to yield a more verdant field in which to play). These are apples and oranges. Mythcism needs to establish itself as a separate academic strain apart from “Jesus studies” or “New Testament studies.” That’s a long term issue and without substantial funding to establish departments, its foothold is unlikely in the academic world except perhaps as an offshoot of comparative religion. I have gone on too long. Your criticisms of the establishment are spot on. Exploring mythicism as a challenge to the operating paradigm is intriguing. Keep up the great work!

    1. When I read Thompson’s work on the literature of the Old Testament and Penner’s on Acts, I am left wondering why “mythicism” per se needs to be addressed at all.

      No-one disagrees that the Gospels are “myth”, or that the Christ of the Gospels is not “the historical Jesus”.

      What makes sense to me is addressing historical inquiry to those documents as they stand and seeking to understand their meaning and function in their own day and beyond. The question of historical origins then becomes one of explaining the origins of the evidence we have — the documents themselves.

      No other historical discipline tries to find out “what events happened” or “what persons existed” by peeling away layers of fiction without the aid of any external controls. (By controls I mean firm evidence for historicity of this or that outside the text in question. Not that every event or person will have its own specific control, but that we can assess degrees of confidence in a text’s documentation of real history insofar as we see a number of such controls confirming it.) That method really is unique to biblical or New Testament studies. It’s not how real history is done in any other area that I know of.

      Once we do history — whether as a post-modernist like Shelly Matthews or as a traditionalist in the wake of the Geoffrey Eltons — as its practiced anywhere else, then the question of Jesus’ historicity becomes irrelevant. It’s like the question of whether God made the universe or whether Jesus really was physically resurrected. All of that can be covered by faith. The faithful will always believe what they do, but the questions and inquiries of history are about what we can know from the evidence. Not from what we supposedly see “beneath” or “behind” the narratives we have.

  2. Dale Allison gives away the game in the linked interview:

    “Given this, and if I may presume to speak for the scholarly community, my guess is that most New Testament scholars are more annoyed than anything by the renewed debate. It’s always a pain to reopen things you learned as a graduate student and that you’ve taken for granted your whole career: you don’t want to entertain the possibility that you’ve built on a faulty foundation. Too scary. So it’s natural to assume or hope or wish that nothing terribly new is being said. My guess is that, for this reason, the new books are not being much .”

    Most New Testament Scholars aren’t even reading Jesus mythicist books because they are too scary. Allison admits he didn’t even read Ehrman’s book. He claims that Jesus is better attested than Simon bar Kochba, who we have extant letters from. His clincher for his argument reads like he read Ehrman’s book … Jesus had a brother, sez Paul. However, Allison is a Zoroaster and Buddha agnostic.

    1. Yes, I wondered if I were misreading Allison when I saw those words. Was he really admitting that?

      Within the range of conventional wisdom when scholars resurrect a question that has long been neglected or was thought to be resolved long ago, then they will usually think, “Ah, so it was not resolved back then at all! There are still outstanding issues! Or new aspects not previously addressed!”

      What has happened, we well know, is that past efforts at debunking mythicism were not very much better than Bart Ehrman’s attempt or even James McGrath’s blog pretensions. The question is generally ridiculed, sidestepped and ignored. And as you noted, Allison tells us why!

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