The Criterion of Embarrassment: Origins and Emendations

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by Tim Widowfield

A Long-standing Tool

While searching for other things, I stumbled upon this paragraph in a Wikipedia entry.

The criterion of embarrassment is a long-standing tool of New Testament research. The phrase was used by John P. Meier in his book A Marginal Jew; he attributed it to Edward Schillebeeckx, who does not appear to have actually used the term. The earliest usage of the approach was possibly by Paul Wilhelm Schmiedel in the Encyclopaedia Biblica (1899).* (Wikipedia: Criterion of embarrassment, emphasis mine)

* Stanley E. Porter, Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research (Continuum, 2004) pages 106-7.

Having read Schillebeeckx, I was taken aback. Didn’t he mention the term “embarrassment” in Jesus: An Experiment in Christology? In a post from 2013, we quoted him:

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. (Schillebeeckx 1981, p. 91, emphasis mine)

Hey, Porter!

Perhaps I had a false memory. It wouldn’t be the first time. Could he have discussed the mechanics of the criterion without ever using the word itself? I turned to Porter, who in a footnote wrote the following: 

[John P.] Meier (Marginal Jew, I, p. 168) attributes the term criterion of ’embarrassment’ to Schillebeeckx, but gives no specific reference (it is presumably Jesus, pp. 91-92, although Schillebeeckx does not use the term ’embarrassment’ here in the English version). This criterion perhaps had its earliest formulation by P. W. Schmiedel, ‘Gospels’, in T.K. Cheyne and J.S. Black (eds.), Encyclopaedia Biblica: A Critical Dictionary of the Literary, Political and Religious History, the Archaeology, Geography and Natural History of the Bible (4 vols.; London: A. & C. Black, 1899-1907), II, cols. 1761-898, esp. cols. 1881-83, according to I.H. Marshall, I Believe in the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977 [current edition, 2001]), pp. 205-206, 213.

Is that true? Did Meier cite Schillebeeckx without a specific reference? Let’s check. Meier wrote:

The criterion of “embarrassment” (so Schillebeeckx) or “contradiction” (so Meyer [referring to Benjamin Franklin Meyer]) focuses on actions or sayings’ of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church. [see endnote 8, p. 187] (Meier 1991, p. 168)

Endnote 8 contains no information about either B. F. Meyer or Edward Schillebeeckx. However, in fairness to Meier, he didn’t need to, because the careful reader will have noticed the previous citation on the same page.

Scholars seem to vie with one another to see who can compile the longest list of criteria. [see endnote 7, pp. 186-187]. (Meier 1991, p. 168)

Endnote 7 starts with the apt observation:

The reader who follows up the bibliographical references will soon discover a wearisome repetition in much of the literature. (Meier 1991, p. 186, emphasis mine)

Meier’s General Reference

Meier’s notes and bibliographical references could keep a person busy for months, and he’s right — much of the relevant literature is an echo chamber with scholars repeating one another, adding little or nothing to the discussion. Granted, Meier provides an appallingly large list of general criteria references here. But a careful reader (viz., a scholar or his grad students) ought to have noticed Meier’s Schillebeeckx reference on p. 187.

Rather than Porter’s presumption about the reference coming from pp. 91-92, we should instead read pp. 81-100. Even so, if Porter had read just one page further, he would have seen the following:

This criterion of the elements in Jesus’ message and conduct that have no parallel in either the Judaism of his time or the early Church is in one respect strengthened, that is, where primitive Christianity is really rather embarrassed by certain traditions and yet despite that, and despite a variety of interpretations, does not suppress the facts but passes them on: [see endnote 40, p. 679] for instance, Jesus submitting to John’s baptism, his being brought to trial and execution, utterances like ‘Why do you call me good?’ (Mk. 10:18), the fact that the Baptist is presented as the inaugurator of a new era (Mt. 11:12-13) and so on — elements which, it is said, the Church could not possibly have invented. (Schillebeeckx 1991, p. 93, bold emphasis mine)

True, Schillebeeckx never uses the exact terminology “criterion of embarrassment,” but he does appeal to the motivation of embarrassment when discussing editorial phenomena of the evangelists who follow Mark. He introduces the idea early on, arguing that Peter’s denial is historical and not some post-Easter theologoumenon:

The question in that case is: What could have been the incipient Church’s motive for inventing this fact — so very embarrassing for its mainstays and first ministerial leaders — only to play it down again afterwards? For we can see how, in the four gospels at least, this happening, which they are unwilling to pass over in complete silence, is gradually extenuated. (Schillebeeckx 1991, p. 32, bold emphasis mine)

Later, on p. 131, he argues yet again that the baptism of Jesus had to be historical, because it embarrassed the early church, and yet they could not suppress the story. They revered the tradition; they could only try to put a new spin on it.

On this point the facts as recalled in the New Testament have been given a Christian colouring, although the Christian interpretation is not meant to negate or cover up the remembered evidences of history. Anyone who for apologetic reasons wanted to do that would have done better to ignore John’s baptism of Jesus altogether. Yet none of the early Christian congregations suppress this fact, even if they are set (not without some embarrassment, apparently) on giving it a new, Christian interpretation. (Schillebeeckx 1991, p. 131, bold emphasis mine)

Sources of Embarrassment

Going further, Porter quotes a reference cited by I. Howard Marshall, which comes from the Encyclopaedia Biblica, a reference that also occurs in Schillebeeckx’s Jesus. In endnote 40, to which we referred above, he writes:

Kasemann, Besinnungen, I, 205. P. W. Schmiedel in particular called this the ‘pillar argument’ – ‘foundation-pillars for a truly scientific life of Jesus’ (I) — in Biblical Encyclopaedia 1901, vol. 2 (1761-1898), 1847, cited by M. Lehmann, Quellenanalyse, 174-5. (Schillebeeckx 1991, p. 679, emphasis mine)

Where Porter quoted Marshall (1977/2001), Schillebeeckx quoted Martin Lehmann (1970). (See the WorldCat entry for Synoptische Quellenanalyse und die Frage nach dem historischen Jesus.) In both cases the authors relied on previous scholars for the citation. Fortunately for us, works like the Encyclopaedia Biblica are available online at archive.org. We can read the originals without leaving home.

Schmiedel argues in section 139: Absolutely credible passages, subsection (a) About Jesus in general that in certain pericopae the human character of Jesus shines through — especially in some of the well-known verses in Mark’s gospel wherein Jesus appears to be somewhat fallible, not omniscient, sometimes angry, clearly human.

Schmiedel insists:

[These passages] prove not only that in the person of Jesus we have to do with a completely human being, and that the divine is to be sought in him only in the form in which it is capable of being found in a man; they also prove that he really did exist, and that the gospels contain at least some absolutely trustworthy facts concerning him. If passages of this kind were wholly wanting in them it would be impossible to prove to a sceptic that any historical value whatever was to be assigned to the gospels; he would be in a position to declare the picture of Jesus contained in them to be purely a work of phantasy, and could remove the person of Jesus from the field of history, all the more when the meagreness of the historical testimony regarding him, whether in canonical writings outside of the gospels, or in profane writers such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny, is considered. (Encyclopedia Biblica, col. 1881, emphasis mine)

That’s an astonishing conclusion. Of all the criteria for authenticity we’ve talked about here on Vridar, I think embarrassment has taken the most serious beating. Yet here we have Schmiedel putting all his historical eggs in the embarrassment basket. What could cause such a passionate reaction?

The Search for Authentication and the Anxiety of Historicity

The study of the New Testament as a work of history rather than a source of confession ultimately leads to deep angst, followed by a mad scramble to find a methodology that proves historicity.

If we look closely at the material preceding Schmiedel’s insistence on a “scientific” study of the gospels and the supposed proof that they contain nuggets of undeniable history, we’ll find the answer. Years of scholarly research had demonstrated that certain parts of the gospels were fabricated, while others were questionable. He admits, for example, that the ending of Mark is “not genuine.” (see col. 1880)

Today, we should probably replace the word scientific with “historical-critical.” We would recognize Schmiedel’s arguments as the application of criteria to sift authentic (genuine) material from inauthentic material. And we’re seeing it in action here, nearly two decades before the flowering of form criticism.

At the turn of the 20th century, Anglo-American scholars, lagging behind the continent (as always) were still largely writing apologetic books about “Saint Paul,” “Saint Peter,” and “Our Lord.” The English-speaking world would never lose its fascination with source criticism, but it probably reached its apex with Streeter’s The Four Gospels in 1924.

The study of the New Testament as a work of history rather than a source of confession ultimately leads to deep angst, followed by a mad scramble to find a methodology that proves historicity. Our friends the Memory Mavens would like to blame form criticism for the rise of criteriology in historical Jesus research, but it happened well before K. L. Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann rose to prominence. And their attempts at erasing the concept of authentic vs. inauthentic while replacing criteriology with what’s essentially a non-method will not suffice. As long as the search for the historical Jesus continues, the desperate desire to authenticate parts of the canonical gospels will persist.

More Than Embarrassment

Finally, before we wrap up this post I’d like to point out that Marshall called it the “criterion of unintentionality.” He explains:

Its origins go back to P. W. Schmiedel who drew attention to various pieces of evidence which had survived, as it were, contrary to the intention of the tradition. Thus the early Christian tradition plainly attached great importance to the aspects of Jesus’ character which indicated that he came from God and had a supernatural character . . . (Marshall 1977/2001, pp. 205-206, emphasis mine)

I think this terminology probably reflects what Schmiedel was getting at — not that later Christians were particularly embarrassed by the material, but that it didn’t fit in with their agenda. In such cases as Jesus’ baptism, the subsequent evangelists did not so much feel embarrassment over the event, as the need to incorporate the received tradition into their own theological framework. However, contrary to Schmiedel, they didn’t preserve the tradition because the baptism was necessarily historically true, but that it was confessionally true. Can things be both? Yes, but it is a distinction with a significant difference.

Marshall, who was a rather conservative chap, ends his chapter on “The Historical Jesus” by saying:

To undertake the task of historical study is not to embark on a forlorn venture, bound to lead to ignorance and scepticism. On the contrary, historical study can be the servant of faith. (Marshall 1977/2001, p. 211, emphasis mine)

Naturally. The ultimate purpose of history is to search for the truth. But for apologists, the truth is already known. They do not discover it; they receive it. They can safely let history into the sanctuary, since the “servant of faith” can only prove the truth they already know.

That said, in the previous paragraph he wrote:

This approach admittedly carries with it the possibilities that in some cases it may not be possible to prove that the tradition has a historical basis, and that on occasion what is reported about Jesus may not correspond with historical reality; sayings ascribed to Jesus may turn out to have been created or modified by the early church as it recorded the impression which Jesus had made on it and presented him afresh to successive generations. These possibilities must be frankly admitted, even if we may suspect that the amount of such activity was slight. (Marshall 1977/2001, p. 211, emphasis mine)

Marshall allowed for the existence of hairline cracks in the historical Jesus facade. But such cracks exposed to the elements can become yawning crevices or even “ugly broad ditches.” By the end of the ’70s, the Second Quest had pretty much run out of gas — not quite dead, but coasting slowly and aimlessly around a circular track that leads nowhere.



Marshall, Ian Howard

I Believe in the Historical Jesus, Regent College Publishing, 2001

Porter, Stanley E. 

Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research, Continuum, 2004

Schillebeeckx, Edward

Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, Crossroad, 1981

Schmiedel, Paul Wilhelm

“Gospels” in Encyclopaedia Biblica: A Critical Dictionary of the Literary, Political and Religious History, the Archaeology, Geography and Natural History of the Bible, columns 1761-1899

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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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11 thoughts on “The Criterion of Embarrassment: Origins and Emendations”

  1. Ugg… this is all so bad it makes my head spin. It’s infuriating that these people are viewed as “experts”. Experts in stupidity.

    This is the dumbest approach for trying to determine if something is true I could ever imagine. But what’s worse is that it still hasn’t actually been rejected. Biblical scholars still appeal to this as though it makes any sense.

    The two most idiotic things are #1 the criterion of embarrassment and #2 the criterion of multiple attestations. You have “serious scholars” say with a straight face things like, “That Jesus cleared the temple is sure to be true because it is attested to by all four evangelists.” I mean, OMG, that’s just embarrassing, and yet the “leading experts” of biblical studies say these things.

    I mean basically biblical scholars say things like the fact that the Gospel of Mark portrays the disciples in a negative light proves that the narrative is true, because why else would the founders of Christianity make up a narrative that embarrasses the founders of the movement, so it must be true!

    I mean, the starting assumptions here are just so absurdly naive its comical. Maybe the story wasn’t intended to be foundational to Christianity? Maybe the goal was to embarrass the disciples because it was written by a different faction? (which is the case, it was written by a pro-Pauline faction and Paul was largely against the other leaders) I mean there are so many possibilities.

    Why would anyone write that Jesus was baptized by the lesser John the Baptist? Well as it turns out because John the Baptist plays the role of Elijah in the story and Jesus the role of Elisha, that’s why. And even if not, I mean just look at Paul’s theology and that of Hebrews; Jesus clearly was meant to be humbled and brought low, for mocking, suffering, and abasement, as we find in all manner of Palestinian theology of this period. I mean what an utterly stupid idea. That so-called “scholars” in this day and age are really so unable to get out from behind the Roman lens is just mind boggling.

    Like really? You can only view the scriptures through the lens of 4th century Roman Catholicism? WTF? I mean to me this really shows just how poor this field of scholarship is, because a lay-person should not be able to come in and take one look at your methodology and see glaring errors in it, yet that is exactly the case with biblical scholarship. The funny thing is, when you tell people this fact they assume you must be an idiot or conspiracy theorist because it’s impossible for people to conceive that an established field of scholarship such as this could possibly be so inadequate. “Like, seriously, you are telling me all of these professors at Harvard and Yale and Cambridge, etc., are just a bunch of morons using flawed logic that any middle schooler could pick apart? That can’t be right, you must be an idiot!”

    And yet, here we are….

    1. R.G.: But what’s worse is that it still hasn’t actually been rejected. Biblical scholars still appeal to this as though it makes any sense.

      It’s one thing not to have abandoned it by now; it’s another to keep it as your central argument. Ehrman et al. still argue that the crucifixion must have happened, because nobody would ever have made it up.

    2. Are you seriously going to question the expertise of someone called “Schillebeeckx”?

      Anyone who can make up a name like that (you can’t convince me he got it from his father) deserves considerable respect.

      1. In Dutch, nearly any combination of letters and sounds is fair game. That’s why when you tell a friend from the Netherlands that you’re trying to learn Dutch, they ask, “Dear God, why would you do that to yourself?”

  2. In Mark, Jesus and his followers travel through Palestine following very bizarre paths, which would have been embarrassing to those members of the Early Church who were familiar with the geography.

    Thus, by CoE I conclude that those trips are historical.

    1. Truly. Given the massive additions, deletions, emendations and fresh fabrications marking the differences between the Synoptics (not to mention between them and GJohn) it would appear that the version of intellectual integrity universally sported by literate believers didn’t promote a featured embarrassment over said integrity’s lack!

  3. I find this distinction between ‘historically true’ and ‘confessionally true’ to be a very succinct statement of the problem I find with the sorts of arguments that are put forward along the lines of the embarrassment criterion or statements against interest. The notion that among communities of faith there exists a devotion to what we might call material facts that endangers dogma flies in the face of everything I have ever encountered.

    AFAICT early christian literature is not aimed at people who would have any clue about conditions in Judea at the time the story of Jesus’s ministry on Earth is set. How do people living in Syracuse, Thessalonika, or Ephesus know John baptised Jesus independent of what a christian missionary tells them? These allegedly embarrassing undeniable facts are being spread by the christians themselves. It stands to reason that these story elements serve a purpose in the narrative.

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