Friday, March 1, 2013

My Problem with the Criteria of Embarassment

The depiction of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, in great distress and praying that the cup pass from him, is one that it is hard to imagine being invented by the later church, after they had made sense of the cross as the decisive salvific event in human history. Would they invent Jesus asking for that not to occur?  James McGrath
The question isn't whether the later church might invent the story.  The question is whether anyone might invent the story.

We know that the Luke had no qualms about changing details in Mark in order to tone down the distress that Jesus experiences in the face of death.  For example, he changes Jesus' last words from  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."  Is there any reason to think that Mark would had some qualms about altering the stories that he heard in order make whatever theological points that he wanted to make?

If we accept that the evangelists felt free to alter the stories, then we have to accept that anything in the stories is there because it served the author's rhetorical purposes.  Mark could have thought it important to detail Jesus' human frailties in order to emphasize the transformative effects of the resurrection.  It doesn't mean that Mark's story can't be true, but I don't see how we can base our conclusion on the notion that he would have been reluctant to change the stories as they came to him.


  1. Who was there to hear Jesus's supplication to God? I thought he was all alone at this point, having left the company of Peter, James and John.

    Here's two possibilities:

    1. The Holy Spirit informed Mark as to what happened.

    2. Mark created the incident from his rather splendid literary imagination.

    I just can't decide which is more likely...

  2. I think James McGrath would say that not only could the disciples hear that prayer, but everybody in Jerusalem could hear that prayer.

    As everybody knew that Jesus had prayed such a prayer, Mark had no choice but to include it, despite how embarrassed he was when he talked about it with non-Christians.

    But it was too late. All non-Christians had heard Jesus's prayer in that garden so the Gospellers could not hush it up.

  3. If Jesus spent half his life doing things the early church found embarrassing, why the Hell did they worship him?

  4. Why would they invent a story about Jesus saying “My Power, My Power, why hast thou forsaken me?” on the cross, instead of reliance on God? Why would they invent a story about Jesus killing a boy who bumped into him? Why would they invent a story about Jesus going to Rome to be crucified again? Why would they invent the curious statements in the Gospel of Thomas? Why invent the additional endings to Mark & John?

    Eventually everyone agrees at least some stories were made up about Jesus at one time. (Unless they agree Jesus appeared to the Mesoamericans? And he still appears in Trees, birthmarks and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches?) Any attempt to differentiate by means of “embarrassment” when discussing a completely different culture can be seen as, “I think this would be embarrassing to me so it would be embarrassing to the church.”

    We can only begin to apply this method once we understand the actual culture, and even then in a very limited fashion.

  5. Dagoods,

    As a litigator, how many times have you heard a witness tell a story you knew to be false and said to yourself "the truth would have been better than an idiotic story like that"? It seems to me that there is nothing odd about a person failing to notice the problems in a story they have invented. I think that there are perfectly plausible reasons for Mark to have described Jesus' distress in the face of death, but even if I didn't, that wouldn't let me rule out invention.

    1. Great comment; great disproof of the Criterion of Embarassment.

      Edit it just a bit; cite your own legal credential here more directly - and quote it constantly!

  6. Even McGrath seems to be showing some signs of coming around at times; his review of Candida Moss' book acknowledges some "fictive" moments it seems in Christian ideas of martyrdom. But he's yet to acknowledge some fundamental problems in the Criteria; in spite of his personally meeting Drs. LeDonne and Keith, who published a book criticizing the Criteria.

    But Christians in effect, pose as martyrs - to indeed, disguise the fact that they themselves are the persecutors, often. In fact, McGrath just censored me; kicked me off his blogs. And what is more, exactly and precisely when I became too effective; and was giving yet another scholarly source for criticisms of the criteria.

    In this case, I was trying to suggest that the following might be useful in looking at early objections to the criteria: Stanley E. Porter's google book, "The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical Research," pub. 2000 AD Sheffield Academic press.

    I wasn't able to read it all online; but did begin to find some comments about fairly early implied criticisms of the criteria. Like this reference to a criticism by the famous Kasemann, on Porter's page 73:

    "Kasemann as much as admits to the limitations imposed by this criterion when he states, regarding his attempt at analysis of Jesus, 'In doing so we must realize beforehand that we shall not,from this angle of vision, gain any view of the connecting link between Jesus, his Palestine environment, and his later community'" (Porter, p. 73; ref. Kasmann, Das Problem des Historischen Jesus, 1954; trans. Problems of the Historical Jesus, p. 37).

    Granted, this isn't much. But I suspect this book has some more severe criticisms of the criteria too. If I had access to an academic library, I could find better stuff too I'm sure.

    In the meantime, thanks for your efforts. For now, I'm the victim of persecuting Christians. Like most right-wingers, their method is to pull the plug on you and censor you, the exact moment you become too effective. As I found out from years of talking to right wing radio hosts, etc..

    Dr. Moss is right: the perpetrators of repression and censorship, often pose precisely as martyrs; as the victims.

    Rene Salm (SP?) by the way has just opened up a goodlooking Mythicist blog.

    - Brettongarcia, Ph.D.