Why the Criterion of Embarrassment is Inadequate

This is precise my point and one I have said over and over.  This is why the criterion of embarrassment fails to meet even a cursory examination.  I thank Mark Goodacre for highlighting it so well, and so concisely:

I am writing a piece at the moment on the criterion of multiple attestation in Historical Jesus research and I came across this nice piece of wisdom in a quotation in an article by John Lyons:

“I can’t help thinking that one cancels out the other. If everyone, Q, an independent Thomas, Mark, Matthew, Luke all have this same material, who is embarrassed about it? The multiple attestation is itself an argument against embarrassment” (W. J. Lyons, “A Prophet Is Rejected in His Home Town (Mark 6.4 and Parallels): A Study in the Methodological (In)Consistency of the Jesus Seminar”, JSHJ 6 (2008): 59-84 (79).

It turns out that it’s something I once said here on the NT Blog while I was reflecting on an SBL session that used the criteria of multiple attestation and embarrassment side by side. I am grateful to John for drawing attention to the passing comment (and, incidentally, for his article, which is an excellent discussion of the problems with the way that the Jesus seminar uses Historical Jesus criteria) because I think there may be something in it.

What other area of the humanities would manage to come up with something so counter-intuitive as criteria that apparently contradict one another? When we are embarrassed about something, do we keep repeating the information? If members of the early church were seriously embarrassed about John’s baptism of Jesus, for example, why did they keep repeating it, even celebrating it? Would multiple witnesses really begin their accounts of the “good news” by trumpeting something they all found embarrassing?

If a tradition is multiply attested, it is a tradition that on some level the evangelists were proud to repeat. When they were embarrassed about things, they could easily omit them.

via NT Blog.

To quote Richard Carrier on the same subject:

The Criterion of Embarrassment : “Since Christian authors would not invent anything that would embarrass them, anything embarrassing in the tradition must be true.”

Major Premise 1: Christians would not invent anything that would embarrass them.
Minor Premise 1: The crucifixion of Jesus would embarrass Christians.
Conclusion 1: Therefore, Christians did not invent the crucifixion of Jesus.

Major Premise 2: A report is either invented or it is true.
Minor Premise 2 (= Conclusion 1): The crucifixion of Jesus was not invented.
Conclusion 2: Therefore, the crucifixion of Jesus is true.

Another way to test rules of inference is to try them out on contrary cases. For example:

Major Premise 1: Cybeleans would not invent anything that would embarrass them.
Minor Premise 1: The castration of Attis would embarrass Cybeleans.
Conclusion 1: Therefore, Cybeleans did not invent the castration of Attis.

Major Premise 2: A report is either invented or it is true.
Minor Premise 2 (= Conclusion 1): The castration of Attis was not invented.
Conclusion 2: Therefore, the castration of Attis is true.

RESULT: This is obviously not a credible conclusion. We have no good reason to believe there was ever an actual Attis who was castrated and it is commonly assumed the story was invented for some particular symbolic reason. The same, then, could be true of the crucifixion of Jesus. Tacitus reports that the castration of Attis was indeed embarrassing (it is grounds for his disgust at the religion), yet the castration of Attis is not a credible story, therefore the criterion of embarrassment is in some manner fallacious.

An example within the Christian tradition is the astonishing stupidity of the Disciples, especially in the earliest Gospel of Mark. Their depiction is in fact so unrealistic it isn’t credible (real people don’t act like that), which means Mark (or his sources) invented that detail despite its potential embarrassment. Hence the flaw in the criterion of embarrassment is in assuming that historical truth is the only factor that can overcome the potential embarrassment of some reported detail, when in fact moral or doctrinal or symbolic truth can also override such concerns.

For example, Dennis MacDonald argues this attribute emulates the equallyunrealistic stupidity of the crew of Odysseus and thus stands as a marker of the same things that their stupidity represented. That may be true. But I also argue it furthers a literary theme found throughout Mark of the Reversal of Expectation.2 Thus everything that seems embarrassing in Mark might be an intentional fabrication meant to convey a lesson. Mark echoes the gospel theme that “the least shall be first” in his construction of all his stories: although Jesus tells Simon Peter he must take up the cross and follow him, Simon the Cyrenean does this instead; although the pillars James and John debate who will sit at Jesus’ right and left at the end, instead two nameless thieves sit at his right and left at the end; although the lofty male Disciples flee and abandon Jesus, the lowly female followers remain faithful, and as a result the least are the first to discover that Christ is risen; and while Mark begins his Gospel with the “good news” of the “voice crying out” of the lone man who boldly came forward as a “messenger who will prepare our way,” he ends his Gospel with several women, fleeing in fear and silence, and not delivering the good news, exactly the opposite of how his book began. So since details that seem embarrassing in Mark might serve his literary intentions, we can’t be certain they’re true.

This final example exposes the importance of testing criteria by comparing them with alternative theories of the evidence. You must ask yourself, what if I’m wrong? What  other reasons might Christians have for inventing potentially embarrassing stories? And how do those reasons compare with the theory that they reported embarrassing stories because they were true? Bayes’ Theorem suits exactly such an analysis.

One Response

  1. […] “multiple attestation” and “embarrassment” in Historical Jesus Research Why the Criterion of Embarrassment is Inadequate Where single attestation is preferable to multiple […]

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