Category Archives: Criteria: Embarrassment

Mark Goodacre, Criteriology, and the “Appearance” of Science

In his latest podcast Mark Goodacre turns his attention to the problem of applying criteria selectively after the fact:

. . . I think that there can then be problems when one tries to make historical Jesus criteria like multiple attestation, like the criterion of embarrassment, do too much. When you take them beyond the introductory student level, into mainstream work on the historical Jesus — because after all historians don’t work with a great big tool bag of criteria.  Historians don’t, you know, hold up a tradition and say, “OK, let’s kind of dig into the bag and see if we can find a criterion that satisfies this tradition.”  

I just don’t think that’s how historians work a lot of the time.  History’s much more complex than that.  It’s more nuanced; it’s more detailed.  We’re looking at things in all sorts of different ways.  And so I think we have to be a little bit careful about the way that we react to these kind of criteria.  They can be terribly wooden.  They can be excuses often not to think very clearly.

And worst of all, sometimes what historians of the New Testament — sometimes what historical Jesus scholars do — is they’ll take a tradition they rather like the look of subjectively and then they’ll find some criteria that they can use to make it sound like it’s more plausibly historical.  So the criteria are often applied after the fact, rather than before the fact.  So there’s sort of the appearance of science, the appearance of a sort of scientific validity to what they’re doing.  It’s often just an appearance.

This kind of honest discussion is a breath of fresh air.  For years now, Vridar has been the lonely voice in the wilderness, warning that the historical Jesus scholars were using their criteria to do too much. Besides trying to use criteria that were designed to assign relative probabilities to determine absolute historicity, we’ve noted here countless times, again and again, that HJ scholars appear to apply the criteria selectively, after the fact in order to prove what they wish to be true.

Kudos to Dr. Goodacre. Maybe the next time we have another friendly tussle with Dr. McGrath, Mark will come to our defense — you know, on the side of right — instead of coming to the aid of a beleaguered fellow member of the guild who has once again gotten in over his head.

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Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment”

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: read more »

Reasonably doubting that John baptized Jesus — Or how HJ scholars worked before they had Tools

Does it really advance historiography to rename weak arguments "tools"?

There’s something very reassuring knowing you have a tool at hand if you are an archaeologist and hope to dig through layers of earth to find new historical evidence. And if you are a scholar of the historical Jesus you can always feel more secure in what you find digging beneath the texts if you can boast that you are deploying the latest tools in your efforts. Saying you are using a historians’ tools almost sounds as if you are on a level with a doctor using blood tests and blood pressure monitors in order to reach some level of objective assurance in a diagnosis.

One of these tools historical Jesus scholars use is embarrassment. That may sound like a flakey concept for a tool to the uninformed, but it historical Jesus scholars are widely known for explaining the tools they use to reach certain conclusions, and one of their tools is the criterion of embarrassment.

By using this tool these scholars, most of them anyway, can say with quite some confidence that it is a historical fact that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The reasoning is that early Christians would have been embarrassed by their master Jesus being baptized by John as if a common penitent or inferior to the prophet, so it is not a story they would have invented. So the fact that they told the story shows they must not have been able to conceal the fact and were forced to live with, or explain away, their embarrassment. The baptism must thus be an historical event according to the criterion of embarrassment.

But of course the argument about embarrassment existed before historical Jesus scholars agreed not so very long ago to think about certain of their standard arguments as “tools”.

A secular rationalist argument in the pre-tool era

Contrast how this same matter of embarrassment could be handled in an argument before the days it was elevated to its modern technological status. read more »

Embarrassing failure of the criterion of embarrassment

Dome depicting the baptism of Jesus by Saint John the Baptist, and a pagan god in the guise of an old man stands to one side holding a leather bag; Arian baptistry, Ravenna, Italy.
Both symbolic (scroll on image to see the text) and embarrassing (don't double click the image to look at Jesus too closely) baptism scene. Image via Wikipedia

So I hear from commenters that a new foray into demolishing mythicism has been launched by James McGrath with yet one more account of the “criterion of embarrassment”. The curious — yet tedious — thing about this is that while McGrath in particular has faulted mythicists for (supposedly) failing to engage with the scholarship on the historical Jesus, he himself, and some of the other more strident critics of mythicism, have notably failed to engage with the mythicist responses to those scholarly arguments.

James McGrath once wrote:

I have not yet seen . . . . a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion.

So when I proceeded to engage E. P. Sanders himself “point by point’ — and one of those points was Sanders’ argument for the historicity of the baptism of Jesus — I was disappointed that there was no response from McGrath. But he can no longer say that he has not yet seen a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion. I still await an opponent of mythicism to engage with the argument for the nonhistoricity of the narrative of the baptism of Jesus that I made in the following posts:

Engaging Sanders Point by Point: John the Baptist

Baptism of Jesus is . . . entirely creative literature

There are many possible reasons why McGrath did not respond to these. But what is not clear is why he would still use the criterion of embarrassment, with the baptism of Jesus as a principle case-study, as if no mythicist argument had ever been mounted against it. Why simply repeat the same argument that mythicists have long since responded to and found wanting? read more »

Jesus Not Being Good Is No Embarrassment

Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me
Image via Wikipedia

Matthew was embarrassed by Mark’s Gospel that had Jesus effectively saying that he was not good. Only God is good

And . . . . a person ran up to [him], and kneeling to him asked him, Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?

But Jesus said to him, Why callest thou me good? no one is good but one, [that is] God. (Mark 10:17-18)

Matthew deftly shuffles the word order to have them come out of Jesus’ mouth with a sleightly different meaning.

And lo, one coming up said to him, Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have life eternal? ‭

And he said to him, What askest thou me concerning goodness? one is good. (Matthew 19:16-17)

Modern theological scholars are also said to be embarrassed by Mark’s Jesus, and no doubt it remains a puzzling point for many other Christians, too: read more »

“It is highly unlikely . . . “

"'My regard for Hartfield is most warm--'. He stopped again, rose again, and seemed quite embarrassed." - Emma misinterprets Frank Churchill. Austen, Jane. Emma. London: George Allen, 1898.
Embarrassment and misinterpretation. Image via Wikipedia

Following on from the 17+ mantras of biblical scholarship —-

It is highly unlikely that the Church went out of its way to create the cause of its own embarrassment. [i.e. the account of the baptism of Jesus]

Once again, it is highly unlikely that the Church would have taken pains to invent a saying that emphasized the ignorance of its risen Lord, only to turn around and seek to suppress it.

Both of these sentences appear on page 169 of A Marginal Jew, volume 1, by John P. Meier (1991).

And both demonstrate how a biblical scholar is subject to the tyranny of the Gospel narrative when framing questions about the narrative’s historicity.

Meier here has fallen into the trap of assuming that there was a single church entity that started out recording certain events on account of their historical nature, but over time came to see some of these as PR liabilities, and accordingly set about re-spinning them.

But his scenario actually raises more questions than it answers, and there are simpler explanations for the existing evidence that it overlooks.

I have discussed the fallacies at the heart of this criterion a number of times from different perspectives. The whole idea of using “criteria” to “discover bedrock evidence” is itself fallacious; this particular criterion stands in conflict with other criteria; and what the evidence points to is the embarrassment was over rival theologies or christologies among different communities, not over what we would call historical facts themselves. All of this has been discussed in previous posts that I have archived here.

But since John P. Meier lists this criterion as # 1 of “primary criteria”, I am adding to those posts a response from a slightly different perspective this time.

Why did “the church” continue to use what it supposedly replaced? read more »

Why early Christians would create the story of Jesus’ baptism – and more evidence the gospels were very late

John the Baptist baptizing Christ
Image via Wikipedia

The historicity of Jesus’ baptism is asserted on grounds that the event would not have been told unless it were true, because it implies views of Jesus that no Christian would invent:

  1. that John was up till that point superior to Jesus,
  2. and/or that Jesus had sins to be buried in the Jordan River.

This is hardly a solid method to determine whether or not an event is historical or not, especially when reasons do exist that could indeed explain why Christians might invent the story.

I have usually given just one of these possible reasons in other posts, and that is that the author of the Gospel of Mark viewed Jesus as an ordinary man until the moment of his baptism when he was possessed by the Spirit of God and declared at that moment, God’s Beloved Son. Such a view is supported by this Gospel’s depiction of Jesus as far more human than the way he is shown in later Gospels, and also by Mark’s description of the Spirit possessing and driving Jesus into the wilderness. It was this lowly view of Jesus that the later evangelists attempted to re-write: Matthew declaring that John protested that he should not baptize Jesus; Luke only indirectly implying that John baptized Jesus; and John not mentioning the baptism at all.

But there is another evident reason that this scenario might have been invented. This was to fulfill prophetic expectations held among the Jews. One criterion that some scholars (e.g. Robert Funk in “Honest to Jesus”) use to cast doubt on the historicity of any passage in the Gospels is that of intended prophetic fulfillment. If a passage appears to have been written in order to fulfill some “prophecy” of Christ, then the historian must at the very least accept the possibility that it was invented for that purpose.

G. A. Wells in The Jesus Myth alerts us to the evidence that the Jews were expecting the Messiah to be anointed by Elijah. And Mark’s Gospel specifically identifies John the Baptist with Elijah, and that at least one early Christian did point to Jesus’ baptism as another proof that Jesus was the Christ. read more »

Historical Facts and the very UNfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ studies

Historical Jesus (HJ) scholars have boasted that they use the same sorts of methods as scholarly historians of other (nonbiblical) subjects, but this is a misleading claim. When it comes to the basics of the nature of “facts” and “evidence” this claim is simply not true. Historical Jesus scholars use a completely different standard to establish their basic facts from anything used by nonbiblical historians, as I will demonstrate here by comparing discussions of historical facts by both an HJ and a nonbiblical historian.

Scot McKnight (in a discussion of historiography relating to historical Jesus studies, chapter 1 of Jesus and His Death) notes the importance of a “fact” for HJ scholars:

[F]or our purposes, what kind of history is the historical Jesus scholar doing? First, history begins with “facts” that survive from the past as evidence. (p.20)

So far, so good. McKnight explains that even though it is the values and biases of the historians that guide their choices and interpretations of facts, the facts themselves have a real existence quite apart and distinct from the historian himself.

Cookery and Exegesis

But then McKnight gets murky and ambiguous in his explanation and covers up the multitude of sins of the bulk of historical Jesus scholars. At one level it sounds like he is saying nothing different from how nonbiblical historians work, but he is meaning something quite different behind the same words:

[Facts] genuinely exist even if they have to be sorted out through a critical procedure. . . . To be sure, apart from perhaps archaeological remains, all external facts have been through what Elton calls “some cooking process,” noting that no external facts are “raw.” (pp.20-21)

Sir Geoffrey Elton

This is misleading. Firstly, Elton said the opposite of what McKnight claims for him here. Here is what Elton actually said (with my emphasis):

[It is] at present virtually axiomatic that historians never work with the materials [facts] of the past raw: some cooking process is supposed to have invariably intervened before the historian becomes even conscious of his facts. If that were so — if there were no way of knowing the knowable in its true state — historical truth would indeed become an elusive, possibly a non-existent, thing. (p.53, The Practice of History)

I focus on Elton here because, as McKnight points out, “most historical Jesus scholars are fundamentally Eltonion” (p.16). (I will explain Elton in more detail later.)  What McKnight is doing here is justifying a procedure used by biblical historians to create facts to suit their theories and beliefs. He does this by claiming the HJ scholar’s fact-creation is consistent with what nonbiblical historians do. Nonbiblical historians do not do what McKnight and many HJ historians think or at least seem to say they do. Later McKnight is more specific and explains exactly how HJ historians come to discover these supposedly “existential facts” of theirs. They do so through exegesis of the gospels:

In other word, history involves three steps. . . . They are (1) the discovery of existential facts — in our case the discovery of the gospel evidence by exegesis, or of archaeological data, or of political contexts. Then (2) there is criticism of existential facts. . . . An existential fact often becomes nonexistential at the hands of a skeptical historical Jesus scholar. . . . (pp.23-24) (Point 3 is about interpreting and making meaning of facts.)

This is all bollocks. It is here where biblical scholars totally jump the rails and part company with nonbiblical historians. McKnight says that facts can cease to be facts when scrutinized by sceptical minds. But nonbiblical historians say that this is true only in the case of “secondary” or inferred “facts” that are derived from other more basic facts. In the case of the basic facts there is no question as to the possibility of their nonexistence. They are there and cannot cease to exist. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 is a basic fact that can never cease to exist. But secondary facts derived from that basic fact, such as the precise course of the battle, or the actions of particular individuals in that battle, may only be able to be indirectly inferred. Such secondary “facts” are often disputable and may not always survive. Secondary facts are derived from some “cooking process”, but Elton is clear that these are not the foundation of historical enquiry. Historical enquiry begins with raw, uncooked, existential facts. (Epistemology, the question of whether these facts are “knowledge” or “belief on the basis of very good reasons” is another question.)

Basic and public Facts versus complex and private “facts”

Here is what historian G.R. Elton wrote about facts, “existential facts”, facts that by definition as facts cannot cease to exist as facts (as McKnight admits HJ “facts” can and do), such as the day on which Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, the occurrence of the war itself:

Without the simple details of accurate chronology, genealogy and historical geography, history would have no existence. And of those simple facts an enormous number are presently known. (p.14)

And here is what he wrote about the other kind of inferred facts (again my emphasis):

read more »

Response 3: that Jesus’ baptism implies historicity

Continued from Response (2): the Bethlehem-Nazareth fallacies

Baptism of Jesus (Bogojavlenie, ortodox icon)
Image via Wikipedia

.

(iii) he was baptised by John

This is another of those awkward elements. Mark and Luke tell a story about Jesus going with other people to be cleansed of their sins by being baptised by John. But this story clearly caused problems for early Christians, as it implies that Jesus was a sinner and that he was subordinate to John (who had his own followers long after his death). So Matthew inserts an element in the story where John tries to object to the idea of baptising the Messiah (Matthew 3:13-15), whereas the Gospel of John removes the baptism altogether and simply has John the Baptist see Jesus and hail him as the Messiah.

If this element was awkward enough for Matthew to try to explain it away and John to whitewash it completely, why is it in the story? If Jesus existed, this element makes sense – it’s in the story because it happened. If he didn’t exist, however, why did the people who made him up (whoever they were) insert something so contrary to the expectations of the Messiah? That makes no sense.

This argument fails to address any grounds for the historicity of Jesus, despite its rhetorical questions and appeal to incredulity at the end. (Previous post discussed the fallacies of rhetorical questions and appeal to incredulity.)

As is conceded in the argument itself, not all evangelists demonstrate embarrassment. The argument as written above appears to suggest that Luke is not embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus any more than was Mark. But that Luke was also embarrassed is indicated by his avoidance of any direct claim that Jesus was baptized by John.

But the key question here is, What is it that embarrasses Matthew, Luke and (assuming he knew Mark) John?

What embarrasses them is the story in the Gospel of Mark itself.

The argument concedes this.

Three of the canonical gospels indicate embarrassment over Mark’s story of the baptism.

There is no evidence that Matthew or Luke (or John) were embarrassed by anything other than the narrative they read in the Gospel of Mark. They are responding to Mark’s baptism narrative.

Mark 1

[4] John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
[5] And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
[6] And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
[7] And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
[8] I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
[9] And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
[10] And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
[11] And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
[12] And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.

It is clear that there is not a whiff of embarrassment in Mark’s gospel over the baptism of Jesus by John. It was the absence of embarrassment in Mark’s story that embarrassed the others.

To make this clear:

  1. Mark was not embarrassed to narrate the baptism of Jesus by John
  2. Other evangelists demonstrate apparent embarrassment over Mark’s story by their variations to it

Matthew, for example, adds to Mark’s narrative an excuse to explain why Jesus would undergo a ritual meant for sinners:

Matthew 3:

[13] Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
[14] But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
[
15] And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.

Luke manages to avoid saying that John baptized Jesus altogether:

Luke 3:

[2] Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
[3] And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;

. . . . . . .

[19] But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done,
[20] Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison.
[21] Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened,
[22] And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.

John does not even admit that Jesus was baptized at all.

John 1:

[32] And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.
[33] And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.

So what biblical scholars sometimes refer to as “the criterion of embarrassment” does not support historicity at all. It only supports their knowledge of Mark’s gospel and their different theological views about what the baptism meant or implied about Jesus.

If Mark was not embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus, and if Mark’s story is the source of the other gospel narratives, then the so-called “awkwardness” of this narrative does not support the historicity of Jesus.

So why was Mark not embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus?

He obviously had a different view of the nature of Jesus. A different christology from what we seen in the other gospels.

Mark’s gospel has either an adoptionist or separationist view of Jesus. Adoptionists believed that Jesus was an ordinary man who was “adopted” by God as his Son when he was baptized by John. Separationists believed that the divine person of the Son of God possessed or inhabited the body of the ordinary man Jesus, so that there were two bodies in Jesus, his physical body/person and the spirit person within him. The Spirit person left the human person at the crucifixion. The evidence for this is well known in the scholarly literature and is a separate discussion.

So it is quite possible that Mark had absolutely no reason to be embarrassed by the baptism story. He may even have actually needed it to add weight to his adoptionist or separationist belief about the nature of Jesus.

That is, the first account of the baptism narrative that we know of could well have been written to explain a particular theological or christological interpretation of the nature of the Son of God and Jesus.

Other evangelists demonstrate a different theological understanding of Jesus that conflicted with Mark’s.

But the only gospel they had was Mark’s. So they set to work to re-write it to suit their own doctrines about Jesus.

This explains:

1. Why the first gospel indicates no embarrassment over the baptism of Jesus
2. Why the later gospels do indicate embarrassment over that first gospel’s lack of embarrassment, and why they attempted to re-write Mark’s version in the ways they did.

They are not evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

The baptism narratives are evidence of theological differences among early Christians.

.

(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)

The Embarrassing Honesty of Matthew

Updated with a new para near the end, Or if we take John 20. . .

In response to a few comments on previous posts (Funk’s mix and Cracked argument) I have been giving a few moments to reflect on “embarrassment” as a criterion to establish historicity of a narrative.

In Matthew’s gospel, after Jesus has been born of a virgin, performed all his miracles, preached good things, fulfilled prophecy and been crucified and resurrected, he makes one final appearance to his (presumably eleven) remaining disciples. But some of them doubted (Matt. 28:17). Not all of the remaining eleven disciples believed a resurrected Jesus really did appear to them. Some original disciples did not believe that they had ever witnessed Jesus resurrected.

That is surely an embarrassing admission for a Christian author to make at the conclusion of his gospel. The admission could do nothing to assist the cause of Christianity. It is a damaging admission. One must therefore assume (if we take the criterion of embarrassment seriously) that this is one of the truest of true facts facing the disciples and church after the death and burial of Jesus.

We cannot help but wonder how many is meant by Matthew’s “some”. John’s gospel gives as reason for thinking “some doubters” amounted to as many as four persons. In his last chapter he relates — again with surely stark embarrassment — that the response of the faithful disciples remaining, only seven in total, after supposedly seeing the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem was to think, “Well, that was an interesting little adventure. Fun and pain while it lasted. But now time to get back to real life and resume fishing.” The resurrected Jesus then appears to these seven. The author refers to this appearance as “the third” one to “his disciples”. Nowhere does the Gospel of John inform readers that the resurrected Jesus actually appeared to all eleven remaining disciples.  In chapter 21 John quietly passes over the missing four in silence.

The Gospel of Mark, likewise, is vague about the final fate of the disciples. It’s ending, like several other details in the gospel, is ambiguous at best. (I am assuming that verse 8 is the original ending. Also here.)

So, in summary, if we are taking the “criterion of embarrassment” seriously, here is how the different evangelists responded to the bedrock certain fact that “some” of the original disciples doubted the resurrection of Jesus.

Matthew openly admitted it. Most honest of all. Does this mean that some of the disciples Jesus sent out were actually false apostles, even from the original twelve? Presumably so.

Mark can be said to be playing with words, leaving readers to make of his narrative what they will.

John passes over the failures in silence. But he implies that only seven of the original Twelve were reliable witnesses. This did not stop him from expecting readers to believe his narrative even though four of Jesus’ real life companions appear not to have believed.

(Or if we take John 20 as the original concluding chapter of this gospel, then the situation is no better. The last we hear of Peter there is that he went home after seeing the empty tomb and not knowing what to make of it (John 20:10). We are given no hint about how many disciples were later in the locked room for fear of the Jews when Jesus supernaturally appeared before them. An early reader unfamiliar with other gospels might well conclude that Peter could not have been among them since he no longer had reason to be in fear of the Jews, having denied Jesus three times. Nor does John’s gospel suggest Peter had any remorse over his denials. Peter does not weep after the cock crows in John’s gospel – 18:26.)

Luke simply lies and implies they all believed. Well, not quite, maybe. He does say that “they could not believe for joy”, whatever that might mean exactly. Either way, they were all sent out by Jesus to preach in his name. Well, not quite that either. Luke for some reason remains quiet about the activities of all but Peter, James and John after Jesus left the earth.

And of Paul’s 500 witnesses to the resurrected Jesus? We are not informed how many of these believed such an appearance was the real thing. Given Matthew’s frankness we should not assume as fact what Paul implies. We do “know” that Paul was quite capable of suppressing uncomfortable details: in his resurrection chapter he hides the fact that the resurrected Jesus first appeared to silly women.

Saint Matthew, from the 9th-century Ebbo Gospels.
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Honest to Jesus: Robert Funk’s mix of good, contradictory and overlooked “rules of evidence”

Jesus Seminar co-founder Robert Funk has a lot interesting insights into the gospel texts. But he (along with probably a vast majority of his biblical studies colleagues) also carries a few assumptions that set his historical studies a world apart from the methods of historians of nonbiblical themes.

But first the good rule that just about any historian of nonbiblical topics would support. It should be so obvious that it should not even need to be spelled out.

. . . storytellers may take their listeners to the time and place of the event and allow them to see and hear what went on — all by means of words, of course. . . . Because [this description seems] realistic — the words of participants in the story are quoted and their actions are described, sometimes in graphic detail — it is often assumed to be more historically reliable. That assumption is misleading: writers of fiction know how to narrate realistically . . . , and when they do a good job of it, readers willingly accept as true what they are being told. To be convincing, writers of fiction must of course achieve a high level of plausibility. (p. 3 of The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus — also somewhere in Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium)

Actually Funk does not list that as a “rule” but more as a base awareness before studies begin.

Before discussing the Passion Narrative Funk does indeed list “rules of evidence”. Here are the first two — and I will show how they actually contradict each other if applied consistently. (And if not applied consistently, they are Lenin pie crust rules made to be broken.)

Rule number one

This is the good old “criterion of embarrassment”: read more »

Manufacturing “evidence” for the historicity of 12 apostles

An illustration of how evidence is manufactured to support historicity in biblical studies:  the twelve disciples

(The following criteria are taken from John Meier’s defence of the historicity of the Twelve, JBL, 116/4 (1997) 635-672 that promises to apply “with rigor” “the criteria of historicity” (636). This post is also in one sense a complement of my earlier post on the meanings of the names of the twelve disciples — a list that badly needs updating to incorporate a wider range of scholarly views.)

Criteria of multiple attestation

Attestation 1: It can be reasonably inferred that the author of Mark’s gospel knew of a list of names of twelve close followers of Jesus that he chose to edit and adapt to incorporate in his narrative. This is because of certain syntactical oddities in the list of names. John Meier writes of the Gospel of Mark’s list of Twelve (3:13-19) that

various repetitions, parenthetical explanations, and disruptions of syntax . . . create the overall impression that Mark is reworking and explaining an earlier tradition” (p. 645)

I don’t know if the author really was working from an earlier list, but I can accept that this is a reasonable argument to propose. read more »

Embarrassing or stereotypical narrative details? (Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend)

I had been assured by a number of fundamentalists and book reviews that the Eddy and Boyd book (The Jesus Legend) was a cut above the rest of apologetics in its scholarly critique of sceptical arguments and buttressing of the veracity of the gospel text as it is. So far I have been disappointed in my search for something seriously challenging. In their discussion of what many call the “criterion of embarrassment”, there is nothing new, and it seems they studiously avoid the most obvious and well-known literary tropes to which the New Testament gospels were indebted.

On page 408 Boyd and Eddy write:

The presence of self-damaging details in a document usually suggests to historians that the author was willing to risk damaging his own cause for the sake of remaining faithful to history.

They continue,

early Christians would not have invented material that was counterproductive to their cause — material that put Jesus of themselves in a negative light . . .

After discussing the “embarrassing” account of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, Boyd and Eddy list 15 other supposedly self-damaging details, all from Mark’s gospel, to demonstrate “the prevalence” of this “honesty-at-all-costs” type of material.

Before looking at some of these 15 “self-damaging” points, a note on the “embarrassing nature” of Mark’s baptism narrative. What is embarrassing about Mark’s scene of the baptism of Jesus is that it flies in the face of later orthodox doctrine. Mark presumably believed that Jesus was a mere man who was possessed by the spirit only after his baptism, and it was only at that point that he was declared to be a “son of God”. The subsequent embarrassment is one over theological beliefs, not historical facts, about Jesus and his nature. But this is a discussion requiring a post of its own.

Eight of the fifteen points of “embarrassment” or “self-damaging honesty” in the narrative of Mark’s gospel that Boyd and Eddy (pp. 410-411) list are:

  1. Jesus’s own family questioned his sanity (3:21)
  2. Jesus could not perform many miracles in his own town (6:5)
  3. Jesus was rejected by people in his hometown (6:3)
  4. some thought Jesus was in collusion with, even possessed by, the devil (3:22, 30)
  5. Jesus’s disciples were not always able to exorcise demons (9:18)
  6. Jesus associated with people of ill-repute (2:14-16)
  7. The disciples who were to form the foundation of the new community consistently seemed dull, obstinate, and eventually cowardly (8:32-33; 10:35-37; 14:37-40, 50)
  8. Jesus was betrayed by an inner-circle disciple (14:43-46), and Peter denied any association with him (14:66-72)

I will address these separately from the others because they all belong to the same literary trope found in Hebrew (and non-Hebrew) literature to characterize the godly hero as stereotypically rejected by his own, misunderstood, burdened with uncomprehending “followers”, etc.

The other points listed by Boyd and Eddy are, for most part, no less readily explicable as UNembarrassing parables or anecdotes to teach particular theological or spiritually symbolic lessons.

  1. Jesus at times seemed to rely on common medicinal techniques (7:33, 8:23)
  2. Jesus’s own healings and exorcisms were not always instantaneously successful (8:22-25; 5:8)
  3. Jesus seemingly suggested he was not “good” (10:18)
  4. Jesus was sometimes rude to people (7:27)
  5. Jesus seemed to disregard Jewish laws, customs, and cleanliness codes (2:23-24)
  6. Jesus “often” (sic) spoke and acted in culturally “shameful” ways (3:31-35)
  7. Jesus cursed the fig tree despite it not being the season for figs (11:13-14)

These points require a separate discussion from the eight above. Suffice to remark here that (a) Jesus’s suggestion that he was “not good” sits equally with the observation I made with Mark’s portrayal of the baptism of Jesus;  (b) why would any early gentile Christian see it as an “embarrassment” that Jesus disregarded Jewish customs? and (c) — what do fundamentalists do with passages that seem to show Jesus as being rude and insulting? From the way some correspondence has gone with them I wonder if some of them see this portrayal of Jesus as offering licence to likewise be rude and insulting. But back to the first set of eight.

Why presume that an author who portrays Jesus as rejected by his own is somehow embarrassed by this fact and that he only records it because of his compulsion to be “true to the facts”? He would never fabricate such a portrayal of Jesus?

Why not? Since the first story of the martyrdom of Abel the Jewish literature portrays in both narrative and wisdom-sayings form the stereotypical notion of the true “man of God” always being alone in this corrupt world.

The Old Testament narratives would actually suggest that any story of a righteous — or a chosen — godly man would, for the sake of “ringing true”, of necessity have to depict him as misunderstood and rejected by his own.

  • Righteous Abel was rejected and betrayed by his brother.
  • Righteous Abraham had to endure and go out of his way to get along with his self-seeking kinsman, Lot
  • Isaac was hated by those in his own household
  • Jacob was hated by his brother and had to flee as a fugitive for his life
  • Joseph was hated by his brethren for the favour he found with God, and was betrayed by his close brethren.
  • Moses was rejected by his Israelite kin and had to flee into the wilderness
  • Jephthah was hated and rejected by his kin
  • David was not esteemed by his family, parents or brothers.
  • David associated with a band of undesirable fugitives from the law
  • David was thought to be mad by some of his enemies.
  • Like Joseph, David was falsely accused and betrayed by his closest kin
  • Elijah was persecuted and hated
  • Elisha had to patiently bear with an uncomprehending and failing disciple
  • Jeremiah was accused of being a false prophet
  • Daniel was falsely accused before kings

The portrayal of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is, I suggest, in complete synch with the Jewish tale of the stereotypical righteous chosen one: misunderstood, hated, even by family, betrayed, persecuted. . . .

The trope of uncomprehending disciples is also as old as literature iteself, perhaps. It is a multi-millennial old technique for enhancing the superiority of the heroic leader. We find it used as early as the Epic of Gilgamesh (Gilgamesh has his Peter, the wild-man Enkidu), Homer’s Odyssey (Odysseus has his wayward crew led by the devoted but rash Eurylochus); Jason’s Argonauts; Buddha’s followers . . .

Rather than being “embarrassing” details such points were the badges of honour, the signs of being truly an elect of God. The point of such details is, as the author of Hebrews would have understood, to show that “the world is not worthy” (11:38) of the divinely chosen hero. Even the chosen followers are “scarcely saved”, if at all.

An audience that has chosen the way of being rejected from their own kin and of being cruelly misunderstood or accused, such an audience needs a like hero with whom they can relate for assurance.

Most Christians I know and whom I have discussed it with absolutely adore the gospel accounts of Peter’s failures. Peter gives them hope, not embarrassment. Why would it have been any different among the first generations of would-be martyrs?

3 ‘criteria for authenticity’ (“Fabricating Jesus” / Craig Evans contd)

In Fabricating Jesus Craig Evans writes:

Some of the criteria used for supporting the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings apply in the case of his mighty deeds. (p.140)

The criteria for authenticity that he cites in this context are: Multiple Attestation, Dissimilarity and Embarrassment. Elsewhere he lists additional criteria that he says are also useful for assessing the authenticity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus (e.g. Historical Coherence), but will look at those separately in another post.

Multiple attestation

By this is meant “two or more independent sources” for a particular event, suggesting that the event was “not invented by a single writer”, so the event is deemed to have a more reliable documentation for its historicity. (p.48 )

Comment 1: What can reports themselves logically tell us?

All multiple attestation can really tell anyone is what beliefs or stories were circulated widely via a number of sources. The question of the historical authenticity of the content of those stories is another matter entirely. Surely this is simple logic. How many independent sources have there been for the miracles of Aesclepius or the miracles at Lourdes or for the experiences of alien abductions? We have several ancient “reports” testifying to the existence of the Phoenix, but only one first hand report of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

No historian worth their salt will make use of reports, however numerous they be, uncritically. The interests and purposes of the authors of the reports need to be assessed; as also their sources of information. This means making judgments about reports that take into account their provenance, their social and cultural or political (or religious) matrix, their authors. This is all part of “the training of a historian” that Craig Evans speaks dismissively of in relation to those who are sceptical of fundamentalist claims about the Bible. read more »