Criterion of embarrassment
The criterion of embarrassment is a type of critical analysis in which an account likely to be embarrassing to its author is presumed to be true as the author would have no reason to invent an account which might embarrass him or her. Certain Biblical scholars have used this as a metric for assessing whether the New Testament's accounts of Jesus' actions and words are historically probable.
The criterion of embarrassment is one point listed in the Criteria of Authenticity used by academics, the others being the criterion of dissimilarity, criterion of language and environment, criterion of coherence, and the criterion of multiple attestation.
The criterion of embarrassment is a long-standing tool of New Testament research. The phrase was used by John P. Meier in his book A Marginal Jew; he attributed it to Edward Schillebeeckx, who does not appear to have actually used the term. The earliest usage of the approach was possibly by Paul Wilhelm Schmiedel in the Encyclopaedia Biblica (1899).
The assumption of the criterion of embarrassment is that the early church would hardly have gone out of its way to create or falsify historical material that embarrassed its author or weakened its position in arguments with opponents. Rather, embarrassing material coming from Jesus would be either suppressed or softened in later stages of the Gospel tradition. This criterion is rarely used by itself, and is typically one of a number of criteria, such as the criterion of discontinuity and the criterion of multiple attestation, along with the historical method.
The crucifixion of Jesus is an example of an event that meets the criterion of embarrassment. This method of execution was considered the most shameful and degrading in the Roman world, and advocates of the criterion claim this method of execution is therefore the least likely to have been invented by the followers of Jesus.
The criterion of embarrassment has its limitations and is almost always used in concert with the other criteria. One limitation to the criterion of embarrassment is that clear-cut cases of such embarrassment are few. A full portrait of Jesus could never be based on so little data. Clearly, context is important, as what might be considered as embarrassing in one era and social context may not have been so in another. Embarrassing details may be included as an alternative to an even more embarrassing account of the same event. As a hypothetical example, Saint Peter's denial of Jesus could have been a substitution for an even greater misdeed of Peter.
An example of the second point is found in the stories of the Infancy Gospels. In one account from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a very young Jesus is said to have used his supernatural powers first to strike dead, and then revive, a playmate who had accidentally bumped into him. If this tradition had been accepted as worthy of inclusion at some key juncture in the formation of the Christian Bible (and hence integrated in one way or another among the canonical Gospels), arguably many modern Christians would find it quite embarrassing—especially strict believers in biblical inerrancy. But as is suggested by the existence of this early non-canonical pericope, it must not have been embarrassing to some early Christians.
A further limitation is the possibility that what could be classed as embarrassing could also be an intentionally created account designed to provoke a reaction. For instance, Saint Peter's denial of Jesus could have been written as an example of the consequences of denial. Matthew 10:32-33: "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven."
A still further limitation is the fact that of all the criteria to evaluate authenticity, the criterion of embarrassment may be the most easily forged. A person who knows that having extra witnesses will bolster their credibility still has a lot of hard and uncertain work to do before they will have those witnesses on their side. A person who knows that including embarrassing details will make them more believable need do no more work than invent some embarrassing details.
- Catherine M. Murphy, The Historical Jesus For Dummies, For Dummies Pub., 2007. p 14
- Tatum, W. Barnes (1982). In Quest of Jesus. Nashville: Abingdon Press. p. 106.
- Stanley E. Porter, Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research (Continuum, 2004) pages 106-7.
- Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia, The Logia of Yeshua, Washington, DC 1996.
- John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Yale University Press, 2009
- N.S.Gill, Discussion of the Historical Jesus Archived March 16, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Blue Butler Education, ''Historical Study of Jesus of Nazareth - An Introduction''". Blue.butler.edu. 2005-03-04. Retrieved 2018-04-16.
- John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Yale University Press, 2009. p 170
- Cameron, Ron (1982), The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts, Home Base, New York: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 124–130
- Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Oxford, 1999. pp 90–91.
- John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Doubleday, 1991. v. 1, pp 174–175, 317
- Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research: Previous Discussion and New Proposals Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
- Gerd Thiessen & Dagmar Winter. The Quest for the Plausible Jesus: The Question of Criteria, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
- Meier, John P., A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Doubleday: 1991. vol 1: p. 168-171.