Monday, May 07, 2012

Criticizing the Criterion of Embarrassment in Historical Jesus studies

Both Loren Rosson and Doug Chaplin comment on my recent NT Pod 60:  The Criterion of Embarrassment and they make some excellent points.  There are also some very helpful remarks from Michael Barber on the post itself.  Here are some further thoughts, partly by way of clarification and summary, on the criterion:

(1) The major difficulty is the term itself, "embarrassment".  I simply do not believe that the evangelists were "embarrassed" about anything that appeared in their Gospels, unless of course one is thinking of the skandalon of the cross that all the early Christians were dealing with in different ways.  The evangelists were not sitting around, dictating the story of John's Baptism, fidgeting uneasily, with red faces.  When I read Mark's account, it's quite the contrary -- a bold proclamation of a theophany that establishes Jesus' identity clearly for everyone listening.

E. P. Sanders prefers the term "against the grain" and this is far more useful than "embarrassment", which sounds so horribly like attempts at pop-psychology of the evangelists. Looking for features in an account that go "against the grain" is what historians do all the time.

(2) The use of this criterion, like the other criteria, is often used too mechanistically. It is invoked, and the invocation is often regarded as sufficient to establish the historicity of the event or saying in question.  As I've been arguing in the recent podcasts, the value of the criteria is in teaching students about how the historian works, especially students who bring with them some confessional agendas that might interfere with the task.

As soon as the criteria become a kind of toolbox for the historical Jesus scholar, they become problematic.  It should give us pause when we remember that other ancient historians do not devote pages of their studies to discussing the special "criteria" for their topics.  Discussion of historical criteria is useful for training students.  Their use in scholarly invocation is the problem.

(3) Historical Jesus scholars seldom give any thought to how the criteria work in concert with one another.  As I have mentioned before, I cannot get my head around the apparent absurdity that the very traditions that are supposed to be "embarrassing" are the very same traditions that are supposed to be "multiply attested".  At the very least, some thought should be given to the contrast between the criteria.  One should inform and correct the other.

The point can be illustrated from the phenomenon of singly attested traditions, like the Blind Man of Bethsaida (Mark 8.22-26).  Scholars commonly provide good reasons for Matthew's and Luke's omission of the story from Mark -- the use of spit, the non-immediate healing.  The fact of the omission illustrates that the evangelists were not reticent about omission when they wished.  If a later evangelist was really "embarrassed" by material he found in an earlier account, he simply omitted it.  By analogy, one can imagine the same thing happening at different stages in the tradition, with different tradents.

At the very least, I would like to underline the problems with the terminology.  If we can talk instead about material that is "too much with the grain" and "against the grain", I suspect that we will improve our historical sensitivity.


James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for posting on this, Mark. The one thing that I think ought to be mentioned is that in some cases, the memory of "embarrassing" or uncomfortable sayings and actions of Jesus may have been kept alive by those who opposed the movement. And so there may be a reason why, in some instances, later authors engaged in damage control rather than simply omitting the story. Some things were well known enough that simply not mentioning them would not be enough to cause them to be forgotten and make the "embarrassment" go away.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, James. Yes, I think there may be something in that, particularly for sayings like "a glutton and a drunkard". I suspect that anything genuinely "embarrassing" has gone away, though, and things that may once have seemed "embarrassing", like the crucifixion, have become matters they are celebrating, not hiding.

James F. McGrath said...

Can we have the "criterion of making a virtue out of a necessity"?

Rick Sumner said...

I think I'd go with "movement against the redactive trend." Just because it sounds like less of a value judgment. The fact that it is nothing more than a value judgment is more of a concern to me than terms, however.

Michelle Qureshi said...

Thanks for this post, Dr. Goodacre. I think it is very helpful in redirecting overzealous and blunt applications of historical criteria.

I was thinking about your statement "If a later evangelist was really 'embarrassed' by material he found in an earlier account, he simply omitted it." I wonder if that is always the case. As you indicated, the classic example is the baptism of Jesus. Mt 3:14-15 seems to indicate that Matthew kept Jesus' baptism though he found it "embarrassing". Something compelled Matthew to keep the baptism, despite the difficulty. Perhaps other "embarrassing" material was also compelling enough for the evangelists to keep? Though the embarrassment is identifiable here by Matthew's disclaimer, are we to assume that the evangelists would add such disclaimers on every occasion?

That said, I certainly agree that the evangelists were not reticent about shaping the story to fit their aims. It seems there is evidence of the evangelists both keeping "embarrassing" material and omitting it. I just have difficulty with the absoluteness of your sentiment: "I simply do not believe that the evangelists were 'embarrassed' about anything that appeared in their Gospels."

But perhaps, as you keep expounding on this topic, you'll change my mind :-) Thanks again for your excellent work, Dr. Goodacre.

Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Mark,

I don't think the term "embarrassment" is inappropriate, only that it's admittedly very rare that we see such embarrassments. Whether one prefers "against the grain" or such is more a semantic quibble, but the baptism and wrong apocalyptic timetable were certainly IMO embarrassing to the evangelists.

If an embarrassment is multiply attested, rare as that is, I'd say that it simply reflects a long cherished tradition which was born at a time when it wasn't embarrassing, as I explained in my post. But we seem to agree more than disagree, because I can't come up with many examples where I really see the criterion applies. And even when it does, it doesn't necessarily point to originating with Jesus himself.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Rick. I think that's a useful way of expressing it, certainly better than "embarrassment" and similar to "against the grain".

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Nabeel, for your helpful comments and your kind words. I think that if Matthew found the baptism story "compelling", it is unlikely that he also found it "embarrassing". What we see is a tradition that is against the grain (why would Jesus come to be baptized by John?) which Matthew found compelling because of the "Son of God" epiphany. The latter provides the perfect introduction, for him, to the Temptation story. One of my basic points is that pop-pscychologizing the evangelists' moods is less effective than analyzing the redactional trends (thanks, Rick), or reading "against the grain" (Sanders).

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Loren. I think it's a little more than a semantic quibble. The words that we choose are often helpful in how we craft our scholarship and our attitude to the texts. In the case of the criteria, the key task -- it seems to me -- is the training of new students in the historical task. In that process of training, one of the key things is to represent the data and the issues as fairly and clearly as possible and I think that talking about the evangelists being "embarrassed" about stuff is much less helpful than talking about certain traditions being against the grain. The latter is key in all forms of historical enquiry; talk about "embarrassment" can easily be taken to imply some kind of mind-reading of the evangelists.

I like your idea of a long cherished tradition that had its origins in embarrassment, and to some extent that is what happened with the crucifixion -- not just embarrassing but shameful, humiliating, scandalous, and yet ultimately celebrated and central. But the terminology of "long cherished" to some extent illustrates my point. By the time that the evangelists are cherishing the baptism tradition, they are no longer embarrassed by it -- it's just become part of the story, a convention so marked that it even flits across the surface of John's narrative in spite of his attempts to keep it out.

Good points too about this simply proving antiquity and not necessarily authenticity. Shades of Bultmann there -- he was only ever able to reconstruct the earliest preaching and not necessarily what Jesus himself taught.

The eschatological point is a good one. There is already some "against the grain" in 1 Thess. 4 -- grappling with contemporary reality that does not cohere with the eschatological expectation of some of those present. (And there too, Paul is not embarrassed by the teaching that he goes on to repeat).

Loren Rosson III said...

Some good points here, Mark.

I see the baptism as falling in a different category than the crucifixion, because the latter was so central to the faith that it can't be considered substantively embarrassing. That's rather where the shame and scandal was the whole point to the Christian sect. In a similar way, as you noted in the podcast, the cry of derelection on the cross was precisely to Mark's point.

The baptism, on the other hand, is IMO different, less the crux of anything, probably historical, but at least originating at a time when it wouldn't have been scandalous (unlike the crucifixion which was always so), but then becoming increasingly embarrassing as Christology was pumped up higher and higher, requiring increased defensiveness or evasiveness. Of course, the evangelists weren't literally "red-faced" about the baptism, but that's a bit caricaturizing, isn't it?

I can meet you halfway about the semantic issue. And I agree we need to acknowledge these criteria are less useful, and don't necessarily give us what we want, in training students. I think the recent works of Dale Allison and Pieter Craffert point to a positive trend in HJ studies that rely less on criteria and more on recurring NT themes that point to a vague sketch of the HJ more than a categorical figure based on specific sayings and deeds. But in rare classic cases like the baptism, the old school (or what's hopefully becoming the old school) doesn't need to be discarded entirely.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Loren. Yes, agree that the baptism is in a different category from the crucifixion, but thought it useful to develop the analogy, as it were. The weird thing about the baptism as we have it is that it is such a fascinating blend between high and low christology. One might, of course, suggest that Mark overlays a high Christology on a tradition with a low Christology, but I doubt that that is how things worked. What if the earliest traditions already reported this as some kind of theophany? Pride at the theophany is actually far more important, especially in the early stages, than any possible shame at John baptizing Jesus. So it is pride and not embarrassment that gives the tradition its traction, albeit a tradition that has an element in it that -- on closer inspection -- might have caused some people, like Matthew, to have asked a few questions.

Of course on the 2ST, the tradition is present with its theophany in Q too, at least for most Q theorists, and so that package predates Mark. That is all less clear on the Farrer Theory, though.

I don't think that "red-faced" is caricaturing. "Embarrassment" suggest a tradition that the evangelists were uneasy, ashamed, red-faced about. That gets to the heart of my problem with it. I don't think they are red-faced about any of their material, but they are limited by their traditions; they can spin them, add to them, create new ones and so on, but they are still working with traditions they inherit, some of which are a little against the grain, or feature elements that are against the grain. My guess, though, is that Mark's attention (at least) was on the dazzling nature of the theophany -- it's absolutely key to the way that he gets his Gospel going.

Agree about the current trend away from some of the old-school though I tend to feel that if only people had paid more attention to the giants like E. P. Sanders, then we would never have got into the criteria mess in the first place.

Paul D. said...

I think Robert Price — who always has good things to say about Dr. Goodacre, by the way — is correct when he says the criterion of embarrassment is of little use in evaluating the gospels, since everything in there was put in and kept in by someone who wasn't embarrassed by it, but to the contrary, felt it was useful for evangelism or didactic purposes. As noted, the gospel writers had no compunctions about deleting or modifying anything they didn't agree with.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mark. Yes, I'm much happier with "against the grain" than "embarrassment" – it's also easier to spell!

And I agree wholeheartedly with not treating criteria like a checklist.

I find this post a very helpful clarification.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Doug. Good point on spelling. These things should not be treated lightly. If only there were alternatives for "canon" and "anointing" too to stop students spelling them "cannon" and "annointing"!

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Will you be reading Richard Carrier's Proving History, where he tries to take these at times ill-defined and contradictory criteria and put them on a firmer probabilistic footing?

Loren Rosson III said...

I dug up Donald Akenson's Saint Saul, which over a decade ago slammed the classic criteria. On the criterion of embarrassment, he considers (1) Jesus' crucifixion, (2) his denial by Peter, (3) the betrayal by Judas, (4) the baptism by John. "Of these," he says, "I can see only the fourth as a true embarrassment." (p 191). I essentially agree.