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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  • James, in your experience, is the criterion of embarrassment commonly used by professional historians outside of biblical studies? For example, do historians use the criterion of embarrassment to assess Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, or Pliny the Younger’s letters to Tacitus, or the histories of Herodotus?

    • The reasoning summed up in that way – noting when someone reports something that it would not be in their interest to have concocted – is certainly widely used. I have previously discussed Jan Vansina’s articulation of the principle in his work on oral tradition here on this blog, I believe.

  • Gary

    I’m not so sure the example works all the time. Thinking of the Joseph Smith example. My days of LDS experience was a long time ago, but as I remember…good Joseph had an affair with his young maid (15 or 16, forget the exact age), with his wife in the same house. Solution, not be embarrassed writing about it. Just include a section in the Doctrine and Covenants, or Pearl of Great Price (forget which), saying God told him to do it. Wife was ticked off, but she bought the story. No problem with embarrassment. But we, in our culture, would think he would never write that God told him the maid was one of his true wives in the Celestial Kingdom. So should we assume God really did tell him? I don’t think so. Same for the comments about Moses being rather a goof. Multiple writers, and priesthood rivalries easily explain it, not embarressment providing proof of goofiness, or proof of Moses stories, for that matter. Not saying I don’t buy some of them. Just saying embarrassment arguments seem a stretch.

    • jjramsey

      So should we assume God really did tell him?

      From what you wrote, I’d gather that Joseph Smith really did have an affair, and the bit about God telling him to do it was an attempt to paper over the embarrassment. That would be a fairly typical application of the criterion of embarrassment.

      A “naive” use of the criterion of embarrassment is to identify something purportedly embarrassing and then judge that it wasn’t made up. A better way to go would be to look and see if the author is making excuses or rationalizations for some event or behavior. It’s the excuses or rationalizations that are a possible tell that something is embarrassing to the author. One may also, as Mark Goodacre put it, look for things going “against the grain.”

  • @ James,

    So, you didn’t mention my link to to Mark Goodacre’s criticism of the criterion of embarrassment. So, you disagree with Goodacre?

    Concerning my opinion, you said, “It sounds like Sabio thinks ….” You could always ask me on my blog if you are curious instead of speculate here.

    You also made no mention of my comparison to understanding the Mahabharata — which was the most interesting aspect of that post.

    Well, thanks for mentioning, I guess.

    Sorry you could not have interacted a bit more meaningfully. But mentioning and criticizing me was a good segue for you to link to all sorts of other blogs and possibly get more readers here. So I imagine it served your purpose.

    • Sorry, this is the problem with jotting down ideas for a draft post quickly, and not publishing it until a few days have passed, and the original post that sparked it has become a vague and sketchy memory. Nonetheless, I think that some of my points do in fact get at key points in your post. We simply have no idea how much later the story of the Mahabharata is in relation to any connections with history, or even whether it actually has any such connections at all. That seems to me a significantly different case than having people talking about a figure who had lived in recent memory, and whose followers and relatives were still around. If we are not sure that we are dealing with a historical individual, then there are no bounds to the range of foibles a fictional character might have. The same does not seem to apply to how one talks about a historical figure one admires.

      • @ James,

        The date of the texts and accuracy of the stories was not the point. You need to read more carefully — especially if you are going to criticize.

        The point is, many of the stories of the most beloved characters in the Mahabharata used today in India as exemplar of virtues to be modeled were full of foibles and embarrassing elements.

        The presence of these embarrassments no more make the story more probable of being historically accurate than the Jesus story embarrassment issues.

        Did you not listen Goodacre’s short podcast on the same issue? I will ask again, do you disagree with him?

    • For what it’s worth, Sabio, I linked to your blog from James’ post and thoroughly enjoyed reading your post.

      • Thanx, beau_quilter. I think the point I made on the post was pretty spot on. I appreciate the compliment.