The criterion of embarrassment is just one of the historical criteria used to select the parts of a piece of ancient literature that are likely to be historical. Other things in the source may have happened, but we can’t know them as history. If significant parts of a text are historical, it is possible to accept it as historical until there are specific reasons to say that some part of it is NOT historical.
Here is William Lane Craig’s list of criteria for a saying or event to be historical:
- Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.
- Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source.
- Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.
- Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.
- Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.
- Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.
The criteria is the same for liberal historians and conservative historians, although some historians weight one criteria more than others when trying to evaluate the historicity of different New Testament parts.
What’s amazing is that even liberal historians will give you facts that are embarrassing to the authors as “historical”.
Anyway, here are 8 examples of parts of the New Testament that exhibit the criterion of embarrassment, thanks to theologian C. Michael Patton.
- Jesus’ Baptism
- Jesus’ Family Did Not Believe
- John the Baptist’s Doubt
- The Disciples Doubted After the Resurrection
- Jesus Does not Know the Time of His Coming
- Women are the First to Witness the Resurrection
- Jesus Cursed a Fig Tree
- Death and Resurrection of Christ
I think 6 and 8 are the ones I want you to take away with you when you finish this post.
Here they are:
Women are the First to Witness the Resurrection
This is one that is often brought up. Craig Keener puts it well enough: “The witness of women at the tomb is very likely historical, precisely because it was so offensive to the larger culture — not the sort of testimony one would invent. Not all testimony was regarded as being of equal merit; the trustworthiness of witnesses was considered essential. Yet most of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries held much less esteem for the testimony of women than for that of men; this suspicion reflects a broader Mediterranean limited trust of women’s speech and testimony also enshrined in Roman law.” (Keener, The Historical Jesus, 331)
Death and Resurrection of Christ
This easily escapes our notice since the basic story of Christ is so well known. However, both the death and resurrection of Christ are, from the standpoint of the culture of the day, embarrassing and damaging. Concerning the death of Christ on a cross, Paul sees this problem: “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). The word used for “stumbling block” is skandalon. Louw-Nida defines this as “that which causes offense and thus arouses opposition.” Why? Because the Jews would never have thought their Messiah would have been hung on a tree. “Cursed is one who hangs on a tree” (Gal. 3:13; Deut 21:23). The Greeks thought of the resurrection as foolishness as they were dualist, essentially believing that the material world was evil and the spiritual world good. They would have scoffed at the idea that Christ returned to physical form. This is why later Greeks attempted to adapt the Christ story, doing away with the physical resurrection. Marcion is the most famous promoter of this view (see Docitism).
Now, when you are talking about the New Testament to your non-believing friends, you definitely want to draw attention to passages that are embarrassing to the authors. It will help you to be more convincing when you explain the New Testament like a historian.
By the way, you can read an entire post I did on all the criteria that historians use to evaluate ancient historical documents.