The embarrassing gospel

One of the problems with writing a blog is that you have to keep coming up with something to write about. I think, though, that I’m going to have no shortage of material for the next few days, thanks to our new commenter, Ben, and his arguments from Christian apologetics. Continuing with his second comment, he presents us with the Christian version of the criterion of embarrassment.

The second self-authenticating feature is our justification in applying, to several key details in the Synoptic Gospels, the so-called criterion of embarrassment. This is a principle of historical analysis which states that any detail problematic to an ancient account can be presumed true on the logic that the author would not have invented a detail problematic to his account.

The criterion of embarrassment can indeed be used as a legitimate tool by historians. But, like any tool, it can also be misused, whether by incompetence or malice, much like the same chisel can be used both to carve the sculpture and to destroy it. We thus need to not only identify the use of the tool, but also verify whether it has been applied correctly.

There is one principal determining factor for whether or not a given story satisfies the criterion of embarrassment, and that is whether or not the story is genuinely problematic with respect to the narrative goals of the storyteller. For example, in Matthew’s story about the alleged guards at the tomb, he mentions that there were widespread reports in Palestine that the body of Jesus had been taken by some of his disciples. This satisfies the criterion of embarrassment because it is runs counter to the gospel he wants people to believe. If there were not earlier, widespread, public reports that the body had been removed by entirely mundane means, Matthew would not have invented them, because they undermine his witness. Thus, there is a much higher likelihood that Matthew is telling us the truth when he reports that such stories existed before the gospels did.

By contrast, the criterion of embarrassment can be misused if we apply it to stories that actually advance the storyteller’s preferred narrative, despite the unflattering elements. Stories that build dramatic tension, stories that emphasize the contrast between “before” and “after,” stories that heighten the conflict between the protagonists and their adversaries, are all stories that advance the storyteller’s narrative purpose. They’re a frequent plot device in purely fictional tales, and a common embellishment in personal stories that are being stretched a bit in order to make a better story. It would be a misuse of the criterion of embarrassment to claim that unflattering elements, on their own, eliminate the possibility that the stories are fabricated.

And with that distinction in mind, let us look at the specific examples Ben provides us.

The crucifixion itself satisfies the criterion. The disciples, as Jews, believed that Christ was the Jewish messiah prophesied to overthrow a foreign occupying power and restore the throne of David in Jerusalem. His ignominious execution by the very foreign power they expected him to overthrow was therefore a twofold embarrassment: It contradicted their expectations for his ministry and appeared to confirm the Sanhedrin claim that Jesus was a false prophet accused by God.

Clearly, there would be no resurrection without some kind of prior death, so I think it’s fair to say that the crucifixion plays an essential role in advancing the narrative of the Christian gospel. I myself am inclined to believe that the crucifixion actually did happen, but there’s no denying the narrative impact of the crucifixion/resurrection story. If, as some scholars believe, the Jesus character were entirely fictional, there are still other reasons for a storyteller to tell a story involving a crucifixion. It doesn’t just enhance the dramatic tension, it creates the dramatic tension. How many Disney movies end with an important character seeming to die, and then come back to life? It’s a classic storytelling technique, to the point of being cliché.

So, then, from a  historical perspective, I think the balance of other evidence is still in favor of there having been a real Jesus who really was crucified. Nevertheless, the crucifixion part of the story is not a legitimate application of the criterion of embarrassment, because the crucifixion is not embarrassing to Christians. To say “The disciples would be embarrassed by the cross at the time Jesus was actually dying” is to misuse the criterion of embarrassment, because the story isn’t being told by confused disciples who are still embarrassed. This story is being told by disciples who interpret the crucifixion as a miraculous, ingenious, and unexpected divine victory. It advances the narrative purpose of the Gospel whether or not it actually happened, and therefore the criterion of embarrassment gives us no insight into whether or not the events described reflect actual historical events.

Bear in mind, the apologists who promote this particular apologetic know quite well that Christians are not embarrassed by the crucifixion. Christians are quite proud of it, in fact, and sing songs about it, and write books about it and make movies about it. They have even adopted the cross as the proud symbol of their whole religion. It’s hard to think of a situation where “embarrassment” would be less applicable as a criterion for authenticity.

A second application: After Christ died, one Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body and, after his request was granted, wrapped it in linen cloth and laid it in the tomb. Joseph himself was a member of the Sanhedrin—the Jewish court whose machinations against Christ had led directly to his crucifixion.

This one is interesting, because it highlights a reason why some disciples might want to steal the body. It says that Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple, but secretly. Everybody knew he was part of the court that engineered Jesus’ death, but nobody (or at least, very few people) knew he was really a Christian. To most of the disciples, he would look like a murderer stealing his victim’s body. Recovering the body from the clutches such a villain would be both a loving service to their beloved rabbi AND the correction of a major injustice, perhaps even enough to justify one of the Sabbath exceptions Jesus was so famous for endorsing. Thus, we have the motive, we have the means, and (since Matthew claims the Jews didn’t even ask for a guard until Saturday morning) we have the opportunity.

So again, this one might also be true, and (unlike the crucifixion) it also has the advantage of undermining the Christian Gospel. On the other hand, a couple things keep this story from satisfying the criterion of embarrassment. First of all, I don’t believe that the gospel writers really realized the implications of having a Sanhedrin member take possession of the body, as far as motivating the disciples to steal it. So while it is indeed something of an embarrassment to the gospel, that embarrassment would have had no influence on how early Christians told the story.

Secondly, it has the same flaw as the crucifixion story: no matter how embarrassed the disciples might have been at the time, this story isn’t being told by embarrassed disciples. This story is being told by disciples who believe that Joseph was a secret disciple who did not consent to Jesus’ death. The story itself tells us this. That means that the element of embarrassment does not exist for the storyteller, except perhaps as a narrative device to enhance the dramatic tension. So once again, the criterion of embarrassment is not really applicable.

A third: It is well known that Judas betrayed Christ, Peter denied him, and the disciples as a group all scattered in fear from the scene of the crucifixion leaving only the women as witnesses; and women again were the first to see the empty tomb and the resurrected Christ. In first century Jewish culture, women were held in such contempt that their testimony was not even admitted in a court of law. According to the criterion of embarrassment, it is impossible that all these details were fabricated.

Same problem, plus a new one. The stories about disciples betraying Jesus, denying Jesus, and abandoning Jesus, all serve to advance the storyteller’s narrative purpose. They enhance the dramatic intensity of the story, they emphasize the storyteller’s point about how much Jesus suffered at the hands of all men, even his best friends and most trusted disciples. And of course they make the dramatic climax of the resurrection that much more dramatic: the blacker the backdrop, the brighter the candle appears.

This is a very common embellishment, even in ordinary everyday human stories. We undergo some kind of trial, and we want somebody to come help us, and they can’t or won’t, and ever afterwards, when we tell the story, some of us make it a point to complain, in great detail, how the people we were counting on let us down. (Divorce court judges get to hear a lot of stories like that.)

But again, the story of the disciples falling away isn’t being told by disciples who only know about the falling away. This is being told by disciples who believe that the crucifixion/resurrection was a life-defining turning point. The pre-Pentecost failures of the disciples are the “before” in a before-and-after story—the more unflattering the “before,” the more dramatic the “after.” That’s why people in diet commercials deliberately adopt the most unflattering poses possible for the “before” shots. So again, the falling away of the disciples may be more or less true (maybe more, maybe less), but since the story itself has such a strong narrative purpose in advancing the storyteller’s goals, we can’t really use the criterion of embarrassment to determine how true the story is.

The bit about the women is a nice touch, but again, it’s misleading at best. If women were the only ones who believed they had seen a resurrected Jesus, and if the Gospels all agreed that Jesus only appeared to women and was never seen by men, then the criterion of embarrassment would allow us to conclude that women were the only ones who claimed to have seen a resurrected Jesus. This would indeed be a continuing, problematic embarrassment to the Christian narrative, and we would be justified in concluding that Jewish males would not have fabricated a story about women having been the only witnesses.

That, however, is not at all what we have here. Notice, for example, that in John’s gospel, Mary finds only an empty tomb. She then runs and gets Peter and John, and then John, on seeing the empty tomb, believes that Jesus has risen from the dead. Mary’s vision of Jesus happens only after a man concludes that Jesus is alive.

Other gospels tell it differently, of course, but even then, women are not the only witnesses. They allegedly see him and speak with him (or with an angel, or with two angels), but they have to go get a male to confirm that they’re not just imagining things. The stories have a narrative purpose in that they build dramatic tension by raising questions about whether Jesus is really alive again or not, but they’re not an embarrassment to the storyteller, or problematic to his goals, because the storyteller isn’t relying on women to make the point that Jesus has allegedly risen from the dead.

Thus, we see a consistent pattern in the Christian apologist’s use of the criterion of embarrassment. Ordinary, unflattering elements are classified as “embarrassing” just because they are unflattering, without considering how these elements relate to the storyteller’s narrative purpose. Stories that actually advance the storyteller’s goals, are presented as though they were problematic, and stories that are genuinely problematic are not considered at all.

The end result is misdirection, misrepresentation, and unjustified claims that the Gospel would be “impossible to fabricate” because the writers would be somehow “embarrassed” by things like the crucifixion that they’re actually quite devoted to.


  1. Bruce says

    It’s embarrassing when a married man is discovered to have had an affair, especially with a much lower status woman. Thus, by the criterion of embarrassment, we can conclude that the ancients truly believed that the married God named Zeus really did have an affair that produced the half-Human named Hercules.
    But I don’t believe in these characters any more than in the character Jesus.
    The criterion of embarrassment is discussed as if the myth idea was invented deliberately, all at once. But if the myth developed over decades, it cannot be embarrassed that way. What if one detail were invented in 40 a.d., while its implication were not realized until 70 a.d.? Paul would not be bothered, as he died before 70 a.d. I believe.
    Most details of the Christ myth came from reading the book of Daniel, with some from Isahah, and assuming they were true prophecies. If there was no actual person corresponding with anyone in the gospels, then reinterpreting Daniel, according to these old scriptures, was their only source of information.
    So their top criterion was assuming Daniel prophecy was valid. There was no need to worry about embarrassment, because how could the holy scripture of Daniel reveal any false prophecies?

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    The stories about disciples betraying Jesus, denying Jesus, and abandoning Jesus, all serve to advance the storyteller’s narrative purpose.

    By the time the Gospels were written, Christianism (or Judeo-Christianism, as the new cult was in many ways still a faction within what was left of Judaism after the rebellion of the late 60s) had divided into multiple competing/antagonistic subgroups. Accounts of the often discrediting behavior of the “original twelve” apostles seem very likely to have been written specifically to attack their followers by propagandists for “outside” blocs.

  3. says

    Pierce R. Butler hits on something very important: There were multiple Christian sects, with quite diverse views. What was embarrassing to one group might have been perfectly acceptable to another. You simply can’t talk about the criterion of embarrassment without specifying who’s being embarrassed.

    Since we know that the gospels were written from very different viewpoints and with different agendas, we should be careful about jumping to conclusions about any given story, especially when lacking any supporting evidence.

  4. Ed says

    Another point is that it’s not normally seen as embarrassing for a fictional character or real person to be hated and mistreated by enemies the audience is supposed to join them in despising.

    The proto-Christians were rivals of the Roman and mainstream Jewish authorities of the day. Thus the fact that “bad” people hate them (and feel threatened by them) is good for the story. That Jesus is killed in the most humiliating and painful manner available makes him more sympathetic than if he had just been killed with a sword as Roman soldiers and Temple guards stormed the Garden of Gethsemene.

    The claim that the disciples stole or were planning to steal the body is presented as an unconvincing lie spread by the bad guys. That Jesus’s followed were often low status people with serious flaws reinforces the populist aspect of his message as well as their flaws and eccentricities making the story more interesting.

    Yet another problem for orthodox Christian apologists (as opposed to people who simply believe in strong historical evidence for the general gospel scenario and its main characters) is that even if there really was a powerful radical rabbi named Jesus who was accepted as the Messiah by many and was executed for sedition and blasphemy, it wouldn’t prove that the supernatural parts of the story are true.

    Many historical figures in the pre-modern world had magical and miraculous stories attached to their biographies. The Roman emperors were gods. Medieval European kings were said to have a healing touch. Why not take these things at face value, too?

  5. Kevin Kehres says

    Of course, the problem I have with the “cruci-fiction” story is that it’s historically implausible. To the Nth degree.

    According to the myths, Jesus was arrested by the religious authorities, who charged him with the crime of blasphemy. They had plenty of evidence of this…they also had evidence of him working on the Sabbath, and of interfering with the lawful execution of another person as well. None of those things were crimes of Roman law — all were crimes of Jewish law. And the Jewish authorities had it within their authority to execute a person for those crimes. For example, the woman who was to be stoned to death for adultery! So any claim that they couldn’t kill Jesus on their own authority is belied by the NT itself. It’s right there staring at you.

    There was zero need to send Jesus to Pilate. Just stone him for any number of crimes and have done with it. Period.

    Adding the Pilate story only adds an embellishment of a “man without sin” who was executed unfairly. It’s a fictional ruse even the most simple-minded can see through if they’re looking at it from the view of an outsider.

    And if Pilate did indeed find Jesus “not guilty” of breaking any Roman law … well, there would not have been an execution. Because what we know of Pilate was that he was not particularly fond of having his authority questioned.

    And how then does this “mob” suddenly appear demanding that an innocent man be executed for no-crime? You can say the Jewish authorities ginned up a mob — but they had NO NEED TO because they could have executed Jesus without Roman consent or participation. Hand each one of those people in the mob a stone, and the deed is done. The Romans would have yawned and saved the nails for something important.

    And let’s not get started on the implausibility of Jesus being executed by crucifixion. That was reserved for seditionists (which Pilate said he wasn’t), and for slaves who ran away or murdered their masters. The thieves next to Jesus on the cross would have had a hand chopped off, or be run through with a sword — not crucified. So there’s another obviously fictional embellishment to make the theological point that it’s never too late to be “saved”. Quite convenient, that.

    And THEN, there’s the additional implausibility of taking Jesus down from the cross after he was dead. The whole POINT of crucifixion was to have someone die an agonizing death, and then be left on the cross as a lesson to others — watch the crows peck out his eyes and eat his liver.

    The practice of leaving someone to rot in view of the populace (eg, the gibbet) didn’t die out until the 1920s!!! But suddenly for this crucifixion these 3 guys get a “decent” burial? It’s laughable.

    No, the only embarrassment is believing that any of this myth-making is somehow plausible.

  6. says

    Hope I’m not resurrecting a zombie here (honest to god, no pun intended…i’d be embarrassed…shit I did it again)

    “women were held in such contempt that their testimony was not even admitted in a court of law”

    is actually factual bullshit.

    Yes, women were not trusted witnesses when it came to matters of opinion, cos’ it was thought they couldn’t think as well as men.
    However, when it came to matters of fact; who said what to whom, who did what, what was seen, women were considered fine upstanding witnesses.
    Their eyes and ears worked much better than their brains apparently.

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