Monday, July 18, 2011

On the contradiction between "multiple attestation" and "embarrassment" in Historical Jesus Research

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.


rameumptom said...

Perhaps this is why they are called "apologists"? Seriously, I agree Mark. That the different sources do not perfectly agree is not something to be embarrassed about for them or us. It means that legends or myths, as well as different focus on the history create differing accounts.
Paul shows three accounts of his seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus. Each is different. This does not mean they cancel each other out, but that they are seen from different perspectives by different authors.

Scott F said...

In your example of Jesus' baptism by John, we have no reason to assume that Matthew and Luke had independent sources for the event. Although these two might have betrayed their embarrassment via their portrayal of the event, that does not tell us that Mark found it embarrassing at all. What if the originator of the story failed to see the possible theological embarrassment of having God Incarnate baptized by a mere mortal. Matthew and Luke copy this tale because it seems important and later historians conclude that it must be true because THEY would find it embarrassing and can't imagine that Mark did not likewise.

In my view, "embarrassment" is emblematic of the whole biblical research muddle: a failure of imagination. Because one scholar can not imagine anyone rearranging the Sermon on the Mount, we must conclude that a mythical document exists from which Luke and Matthew drew that material. So much seems to boil down to the inability of various researchers to accept that their literary preferences are not universal, that one is tempted to throw out the whole enterprise and start over.

Mike K said...

Good point Mark. But I wonder if both could work together if an event was too well known in the tradition to be denied, especially if used polemically against the early Christians in their debates with opponents, so different evangelists independently seek different apologetic explanations to account for it. So with the baptism, perhaps it was too firm in the tradition to be denied and may have been a weak spot as early Christians debated with followers of John the Baptist (e.g. Acts 19:1-7; cf John 3:22-30), so each tries to apologize for the embarrassing situation (Mark with the vision and heavenly voice, Matthew by having John the Baptist protest, Luke by putting John in prison before the baptism, John by skipping the act of baptism altogether, the Gosepl of the Hebrews by having Jesus ask what sin he has comitted that he needs to be baptized). Or another example is that Jesus uttered some threat about the temple's destruction (and perhaps its restoration) all over the tradition (Mark, John, Thomas) but there is still some embarrasment that they seek to explain away - so Mark puts the saying that Jesus claimed to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days on the lips of false witnesses at the trial and John 2 allegorizes it as talking about Jesus body.

p.s. saw you in London but you were either working or in conversation so didn't get the chance to say hi, hopefully in San Francisco :)

John said...

Perhaps the 'embarrassment' is more about us than about them.

Academics are using 'embarrassment' in a different otological way to what the early church may have thought constitutes 'embarrassment'.

It's what happen when academics do when they keep trying to push the boudaries of research beyond when it is safe to go.

Doug Chaplin said...

Mark, I don;t disagree that there is a potential for tension at least, I think they can interplay, and the example of the Baptist, as quoted by Mike K is actually one of the better examples.

I commented on this some months back:arguing that the multiple explanations and difficulties of the evangelists offered evidence from embarrassment for historical reconstruction.

Steven Carr said...

'So with the baptism, perhaps it was too firm in the tradition to be denied....'

Trypho taunts Christians with allegations that no Elijah figure has come along to anoint Jesus.

So Justin points out that John the Baptist came along.

I don't think this association of Jesus with John the Baptist was embarrassing to Christians, if they use it to knock down objections to Jesus being the Messiah.

Rather, it would appear that there was a great need to get John the Baptist on their side, as they needed answers to taunts from opponents of Christianity.

Steven Carr said...

Were early church leaders , many of them brothers of Jesus, according to 1 Corinthians 9:5, embarrassed by Matthew 12?

'Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.'

If you were one of the brothers of Jesus , mentioned in 1 Cor. 9, and you read that , that would have had to smart.

Disowned by your own brother, the very person you are worshipping, in a text written by a fellow Christian, who was fully aware of how important the brothers of Jesus were in the church.


Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for the helpful and interesting comments. I don't deny that there is likely to have been some mismatch between the tradition and its appropriation by the evangelists, but I think this is different from saying that the evangelists were "embarrassed" by the tradition they are attempting to rework. In other words, they see the potential in the tradition to serve their evangelistic purposes even if the tradition itself is something that is a against the grain.

Perhaps more than anything it is a question of the over-simplification that the use of criteria encourages. It seems simply absurd to me to talk about people being embarrassed about something that they are all apparently celebrating and forefronting.

Johan said...

What about something like the home town of Jesus? That it is Nazareth is multiply attested but there also seems to be some embarrassment that it is not Bethlehem.

The people reading the gospels may sometimes have had doubts or been aware of anti-Christian polemics so the evangelists could not just decide to avoid mentioning every potentially problematic piece of tradition.

An apologist today might decide to address the problem of evil head on for example, or the problems with a literal reading of the creation stories, since they can hardly count on their audience being unaware of the these challenges to the Christian faith.

Jim Deardorff said...

It’s good to see a blog, Mark, that gets back to dealing with a specific issue.

Embarrassment is a worthy criterion for use within redaction criticism, but has long persisted within NT scholasticism itself. Embarrassment was a key source of multiple attestation.

In the example of Jesus' baptism by John, the writer of Mark could upgrade John being unworthy to carry Jesus’ sandals in Matthew to his being unworthy to even stoop down to untie them. This is but one of many examples of early “historical reconstruction” so as to minimize embarrassment, assuming the early church fathers were correct that Matthew had come first. With Matthew first, the Baptism was already too well known to be denied in Mark.

Most embarrassing is Mark’s blatant anti-Semitism against Jews in general, not just the disciples. A key example is Mark’s overemphasis of Matthew’s “messianic secret”: The good news was to be carried to the gentiles, but denied the Jews. What could be more embarrassing for scholars of the past two centuries? The only solution was to place Mark first and remain silent about the main reason for doing so. And to seek possible reasons for justifying this, most of which are easily reversible.

Re Mt 13:54, the lack of mention of Nazareth is well explained by its writer desiring to “punish” Nazareth for having taken offense at Jesus. The writer of Mark, in Rome, saw no reason to alter Matthew in this respect.

rameumptom said...

Is there anything good that cometh out of Nazareth? That's what Nathanael's initial reaction was.
That Jesus birth had to be verified and re-verified as being in Bethlehem, and then to make it seem as though it was a secret held by only a few, while all others believed him to be from Nazareth IS an interesting point.
The reality is, history is messy. Very messy. And especially when it is based upon distant memories or oral traditions. Changes occur, as one gets in playing the telephone game.
Why should it have been any easier for early Christians to explain their history than it is for us to do so today?

Steven Carr said...

Why did it take so many decades before Christians realised that they had to have Jesus born in Bethlehem, even though he came from Nazareth?

When Josephus wrote about James being the brother of Jesus called the Christ, was that his way of making sure that his readers knew he was talking about Jesus of Nazareth?

Rick Sumner said...

What other area of the humanities would manage to come up with something so counter-intuitive as criteria that apparently contradict one another?

I'd guess most would. Look how many psychologists are keen to pretend that determinism by environment is somehow less deterministic than determinism by innateness. Harlowe and Skinner are both determinists.

Cicero is still right: Humanities in general, and history in particular, are the realm of the rhetor; criteria are, in most respects, just hand waving intended to convince people that one's guesses are the best guesses possible.

Nihil Obstat said...

One of my profs was a Jesus Seminar member. So, in a sort of defense ...
Well, there are embarrassing facts that cannot be denied. I.e. Jesus was a disciple of John. They must be repeated, reprocessed and reinterpreted. A similar thing happens in Mark 15 and Colossians 1 where the crucifixion is transmogrified into the victorious manifestation of divinity. Then there are embarrassing things no one knows for sure. There are embarrassing doubts. What were the circumstances of Jesus' birth? They must be creatively hedged against. I.e. Jesus is like Melchizedek, no one knows about his birth. There are also embarrassing things that only became embarrassing with the passage of time. I.e "not even the Son of Man knows" (not repeated in Luke). The problem, of course, comes when we try to reconstruct "History" from our midrashic Gospel stories. Finally there are embarrassing things that were first embarrassing, then were reinterpreted as a badge of honor, i.e. whether or not Jesus said he would tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, but are they "embarrassed" by these traditions if they keep repeating them? If I'm embarrassed about something, I prefer to shut up about it. One of your examples is a case in point. Do any of the texts actually say that Jesus was a disciple of John, or have you inferred that on the basis of other material?

Doug Chaplin said...

Mark, I wonder if part of the question is whether "embarrassment" is the best name for some of what we're talking about. Would criterion of "awkwardness" actually be better?

It seems to me that in all sorts of ways the gospels offer different ways of dealing with their received tradition that disciples of the Baptist became the first disciples of Jesus and believed they were pointed that way by the Baptist, with the received tradition of others that the Baptist did not point clearly and unambiguously to Jesus as the purpose of his ministry. Hence multiple attestation and awkwardness combine.

Mark Goodacre said...

Yes, the term "embarrassment" is definitely a large part of the problem, as I see it, Doug. I much prefer E. P. Sanders's term "against the grain", which is far more conducive to reflecting critically on the make-up of the Gospels. It's remarkable and disappointing how little impact Sanders's discussion of the criteria has made.

mikew1584 said...

Mark, it seems that most of the objections to the so called embarrassment criteria are based not on the concept being flawed but that the embarrassing episode is not in fact embarrassing. For instance here it is argued that if something is attested to multiple times, then it is not embarrassing. That would seem to say that the criterion does not apply, not that it is incorrect. While some think the notion is a silly concept dreamed up for NT studies, it is used in other areas where truth assessment is sought. For instance in a court trial, it is often pointed out that witness who have nothing to gain from their testimony are more reliable than those who are being rewarded for it.

Scott F, I love imagination, but only drips fail to support a evidence backed theory because of there may be something out there we can't imagine. After all we could imagine we all live in a Playstation 58 of the future, but without evidence we have to rely on what our observations tell us.

On against the grain and awkwardness, haven't we heard dissimilarity? And these criterion aren't here to tell us what happened but what is more likely and vise versa. Going back to John, mark shows no embarrassment about Jesus being baptized, either because the implications were not thought of, or no one expected the messiah to be sinless. Moses and David weren't. That may be the fetish of those who thought Jesus a god. But they do think he is the messiah, so if they simply wanted to tie Jesus to John's very popular movement, we might expect a pore positive statement from John, who in mark never addresses Jesus. We are not given the impression that Jesus was anything but one of many who came to the Jordan to confess their sins. It is the Narrator that leaves us with the impression that Jesus is the one fore-told. Is there any indication that Jesus was an important part of John's movement until the Gospel of John?

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, mikew1584. I agree with much of what you say. In general the term "embarrassment" is a great deal more problematic than the term "against the grain" though even with the latter I am suggesting that we temper all such claims by considering just how popular (multiply attested) the supposedly against-the-grain traditions often are.

Jay Medenwaldt said...

I know it's been a while sine this was posted, but I just stumbled on it. The thought that the two criteria contradict each other is worthy of consideration. On one level, they certainly do seem to contradict. When thinking about it practically, I'm not sure the contradiction holds. I say there because there would be several reasons for someone or multiple people to share something embarrassing and we see this happen all the time.

For instance, rape victims are often too embarrassed to even go to the police to file a police report, yet many still do it. They do it because it is the truth and they want to see the perpetrator pay for his actions. Granted, there are false accusations, but those are rare. But even so, we must ask, why would someone make a false accusation? They do it for a variety of reasons, but those likely boil down to some sort of selfish gain. What would the gain have been for the authors of the NT? It doesn't seem as though there was any gain so it wouldn't make sense for them to have made up embarrassing details.

I've also heard many people who've had affairs, committed crimes, or done other regrettable things in their past and have talked about them. Some people may make these things up for whatever reasons, but these are the exceptions, not the rule. If multiple people say the same thing that is embarrassing, it is even more likely to be true then. Why else would multiple people say something embarrassing about themselves or their beliefs? The only reason I can think of would be to gain something, but the early Christians didn't really gain anything. They didn't get honor or wealth. They became poor and were persecuted.

As for the "against the grain" title, I think a better one might be "counterproductive statements," which includes embarrassing statements, difficult statements (e.f. looking with lust is adultery, sell everything and follow me, etc.), and easily falsified statements (e.g. Jesus bodily rose from the dead rather than just saying He spiritually rose from the dead.). Essentially, anything that would seem to be counterproductive to spreading a lie would fit into this category.