Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment?

Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment? January 28, 2014

Sabio Lantz blogged recently about the criterion of embarrassment, and rather than address merely conservative Evangelical misuse of it, it sounds as though he dismisses the criterion entirely. And since the question of how New Testament historical methods compare to those used in other historical areas also came up here recently, I thought I’d blog about this. Not all historical Jesus scholars find the criterion problematic, when applied in historical appropriate ways, although some do adopt the stance of recommending that all the classic criteria of authenticity be set aside.

To address an example Sabio mentioned, the argument from embarrassment cannot work when there is a long gap between the purported event and the time when the tradition is passed on. Because what it really shows is that the person passing on the tradition most likely did not make it up. The further removed that person is from the point of origin, the harder it becomes to say that similar constraints applied in an earlier context, at the time when the events are supposed to have transpired.

All historical reasoning is imperfect, a weighing of probabilities based on our knowledge and information. As with a trial in a courtroom, the fact that flawed deductions are sometimes drawn does not mean that the methods we use ought to be discarded. Doing our best with evidence, reason, and deduction is better than simply adopting an agnostic stance about everything that has to do with the past. Wouldn’t you agree?

See also Chris Skinner’s recent post on this subject, and Greg Monette’s illustration of the application of the criterion to Mormon history, and the discussions in the comments there.

Of related interest, see (if you are a subscriber) the recent post on Bart Ehrman’s blog about Jesus and historical certainty, an interview with Dale Allison about mythicism and Larry Hurtado’s comments on itNeurologica on Mithras and Jesus, the next installment of Nijay Gupta’s interview with Francis Watson, and Ken Schenck’s thoughts on trends in scholarship.

And don’t miss the discussion of Q that is sweeping the blogosphere, complete with a poll that you are asked to participate in!

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