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’ 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.
Have you ever heard Gary Habermas, Michael Licona or William Lane Craig defend the resurrection of Jesus in a debate by saying that the resurrection is the best explanation for the “minimal facts” about Jesus? The lists of minimal facts that they use are typically agreed to by their opponents during the debates. Minimal facts are the parts of the New Testament that meet a set of strict historical criteria. These are the facts that skeptical historians agree with, totally apart from any religious beliefs.
So what are the criteria that skeptical historians use to derive a list of minimal facts about Jesus?
The other way, more influential in contemporary New Testament scholarship, is to establish specific facts about Jesus without assuming the general reliability of the Gospels. The key here are the so-called “Criteria of Authenticity” which enable us to establish specific sayings or events in Jesus’ life as historical. Scholars involved in the quest of the historical Jesus have enunciated a number of these critieria for detecting historically authentic features of Jesus, such as dissimilarity to Christian teaching, multiple attestation, linguistic semitisms, traces of Palestinian milieu, retention of embarrassing material, coherence with other authentic material, and so forth.
It is somewhat misleading to call these “criteria,” for they aim at stating sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. This is easy to see: suppose a saying is multiply attested and dissimilar but not embarrassing. If embarrassment were a necessary condition of authenticity, then the saying would have to be deemed inauthentic, which is wrong-headed, since its multiple attestation and dissimilarity are sufficient for authenticity. Of course, the criteria are defeasible, meaning that they are not infallible guides to authenticity. They might be better called “Indications of Authenticity” or “Signs of Credibility.”
In point of fact, what the criteria really amount to are statements about the effect of certain types of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events in Jesus’ life. For some saying or event S and evidence of a certain type E, the criteria would state that, all things being equal, the probability of S given E is greater than the probability of S on our background knowledge alone. So, for example, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given its multiple attestation than it would have been without it.
What are some of the factors that might serve the role of E in increasing the probability of some saying or event S? The following are some of the most important:
(1) Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.
(2) 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.
(3) Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.
(4) Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.
(5) Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.
(6) Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.
For a good discussion of these factors see Robert Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” in Gospel PerspectivesI, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 225-63.
Notice that these “criteria” do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same “criteria” are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the “criteria” do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff. Thus we need not concern ourselves with defending the Gospels’ every claim attributed to Jesus in the gospels; the question will be whether we can establish enough about Jesus to make faith in him reasonable.
And you can see Dr. Craig using these criteria to defend minimal facts in his debates. For example, in his debate with Ehrman, he alludes to the criteria when making his case for the empty tomb.
Here, he uses multiple attestation and the criteria of embarrassment:
Among the reasons which have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following:
1. The empty tomb is also multiply attested by independent, early sources.
Mark’s source didn’t end with the burial, but with the story of the empty tomb, which is tied to the burial story verbally and grammatically. Moreover, Matthew and John have independent sources about the empty tomb; it’s also mentioned in the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles (2.29; 13.36); and it’s implied by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church (I Cor. 15.4). Thus, we have again multiple, early, independent attestation of the fact of the empty tomb.
2. The tomb was discovered empty by women.
In patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was not highly regarded. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that they were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully record what, for them, was an awkward and embarrassing fact.
There are actually a few more reasons for believing in the empty tomb that he doesn’t go into in the debate, but you can find them in his written work. For example, in his essay on Gerd Ludemann’s “vision” hypothesis. That essay covers the reasons for all four of his minimal facts.
So, if you are going to talk about the resurrection with a skeptic, you don’t want to invoke the Bible as some sort of inerrant/inspired Holy Book. You want to look at it as a historical book, and use historical criteria to get to some facts that critical historians would accept. From that, it’s possible to make a case for the resurrection, which is the guarantee that the words of Jesus are authoritative. Including the words of Jesus where he describes the Bible as a whole as God’s revelation of Himself to his creatures.
Here is the approach I use when talking to non-Christian co-workers:
Explain the criteria that historians use to get their lists of minimal facts
Explain your list of minimal facts
Defend your list of minimal facts using the criteria
Cite skeptics who admit to each of your minimal facts, to show that they are widely accepted
List some parts of the Bible that don’t pass the criteria (e.g. – guard at the tomb, Matthew earthquake)
Explain why those parts don’t pass the criteria, and explain that they are not part of your case
Challenge your opponent to either deny some or all the facts, or propose a naturalistic alternative that explains the facts better than the resurrection
Don’t let your opponent attack any of your minimal facts by attacking other parts of the Bible (e.g. – the number of angels being one or two, etc.)
And remember that there is no good case for the resurrection that does not make heavy use of the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. That passages is universally accepted as early, eyewitness testimony from Paul, and represents the core of early Christian beliefs about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everyone who takes evidence seriously has to account for that early creed, which passes the historical tests I outlined above.
The best essay on the minimal facts criteria that I’ve read is the one by Robert H. Stein in “Contending with Christianity’s Critics“. It’s a good short essay that goes over all the historical criteria that are used to derive the short list of facts from which we infer the conclusion “God raised Jesus from the dead”. That whole book is really very, very good.
This article from Biblical Archaeology covers all the non-Christian historical sources that discuss Jesus.
About the author:
Lawrence Mykytiuk is associate professor of library science and the history librarian at Purdue University. He holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Studies and is the author of the book Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200–539 B.C.E. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004).
Here are the major sections:
Roman historian Tacitus
Jewish historian Josephus
Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata
Platonist philosopher Celsus
Roman governor Pliny the Younger
Roman historian Suetonius
Roman prisoner Mara bar Serapion
And this useful excerpt captures the broad facts about Jesus that we get from just the first two sources:
We can learn quite a bit about Jesus from Tacitus and Josephus, two famous historians who were not Christian. Almost all the following statements about Jesus, which are asserted in the New Testament, are corroborated or confirmed by the relevant passages in Tacitus and Josephus. These independent historical sources—one a non-Christian Roman and the other Jewish—confirm what we are told in the Gospels:31
1. He existed as a man. The historian Josephus grew up in a priestly family in first-century Palestine and wrote only decades after Jesus’ death. Jesus’ known associates, such as Jesus’ brother James, were his contemporaries. The historical and cultural context was second nature to Josephus. “If any Jewish writer were ever in a position to know about the non-existence of Jesus, it would have been Josephus. His implicit affirmation of the existence of Jesus has been, and still is, the most significant obstacle for those who argue that the extra-Biblical evidence is not probative on this point,” Robert Van Voorst observes.32 And Tacitus was careful enough not to report real executions of nonexistent people.
2. His personal name was Jesus, as Josephus informs us.
3. He was called Christos in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, both of which mean “anointed” or “(the) anointed one,” as Josephus states and Tacitus implies, unaware, by reporting, as Romans thought, that his name was Christus.
4. He had a brother named James (Jacob), as Josephus reports.
5. He won over both Jews and “Greeks” (i.e., Gentiles of Hellenistic culture), according to Josephus, although it is anachronistic to say that they were “many” at the end of his life. Large growth
in the number of Jesus’ actual followers came only after his death.
6. Jewish leaders of the day expressed unfavorable opinions about him, at least according to some versions of the Testimonium Flavianum.
7. Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed, as both Tacitus and Josephus state.
8. His execution was specifically by crucifixion, according to Josephus.
9. He was executed during Pontius Pilate’s governorship over Judea (26–36 C.E.), as Josephus implies and Tacitus states, adding that it was during Tiberius’s reign.
Some of Jesus’ followers did not abandon their personal loyalty to him even after his crucifixion but submitted to his teaching. They believed that Jesus later appeared to them alive in accordance with prophecies, most likely those found in the Hebrew Bible. A well-attested link between Jesus and Christians is that Christ, as a term used to identify Jesus, became the basis of the term used to identify his followers: Christians. The Christian movement began in Judea, according to Tacitus. Josephus observes that it continued during the first century. Tacitus deplores the fact that during the second century it had spread as far as Rome.
From this report we can learn several facts, both explicit and implicit, concerning Christ and the Christians who lived in Rome in the 60s A.D. Chronologically, we may ascertain the following information.
(1) Christians were named for their founder, Christus (from the Latin), (2) who was put to death by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilatus (also Latin), (3) during the reign of emperor Tiberius (14 37 A.D.). (4) His death ended the “superstition” for a short time, (5) but it broke out again, (6) especially in Judaea, where the teaching had its origin.
(7) His followers carried his doctrine to Rome. (8) When the great fire destroyed a large part of the city during the reign of Nero (54 68 A.D.), the emperor placed the blame on the Christians who lived in Rome. (9) Tacitus reports that this group was hated for their abominations. (10) These Christians were arrested after pleading guilty, (11) and many were convicted for “hatred for mankind.” (12) They were mocked and (13) then tortured, including being “nailed to crosses” or burnt to death. (14) Because of these actions, the people had compassion on the Christians. (15) Tacitus therefore concluded that such punishments were not for the public good but were simply “to glut one man’s cruelty.”
And from Josephus he gets this:
(1) Jesus was known as a wise and virtuous man, one recognized for his good conduct. (2) He had many disciples, both Jews and Gentiles. (3) Pilate condemned him to die, (4) with crucifixion explicitly being mentioned as the mode. (5) The disciples reported that Jesus had risen from the dead and (6) that he had appeared to them on the third day after his crucifixion. (7) Consequently, the disciples continued to proclaim his teachings. (8) Perhaps Jesus was the Messiah concerning whom the Old Testament prophets spoke and predicted wonders. We would add here two facts from Josephus’ earlier quotation as well. (9) Jesus was the brother of James and (10) was called the messiah by some.
So when you are reading the New Testament, these facts are the framework that you read within. It’s a good starting point when dealing with people who have never looked into who Jesus was and what he taught and what his followers believed about him, right from the start.
What I often see among atheists is this tendency to set up expectations of how God would have acted and then complain that he doesn’t met those expectations. I don’t think that this is a good way to argue against a religion, because it’s subjective. God isn’t obligated to comport with atheist expectations. A much better way of evaluating religions is to test the claims each makes against evidence.
So in this post, I wanted to show how a reasonable person can evaluate and reject different worldviews using evidence.
Falsifying a religion using science
Consider this argument:
Hindu cosmology teaches that the universe cycles between creation and destruction, through infinite time.
The closest cosmological model conforming to Hindu Scriptures is the eternally “oscillating” model of the universe.
The “oscillating” model requires that the universe exist eternally into the past.
Notice how the oscillating model is falsified by mathematics and experimental evidence. Remarkable, when you remember how the public schools would play Carl Sagan videos which promoted this no-Creator model of the universe.
The absolute origin of the universe out of nothing is also incompatible with atheism, Buddhism, Mormonism, etc. because they also require an eternally existing universe.
Atheism in particular is incompatible with the universe “coming into being”, because that would be a supernatural cause – a cause that created the natural world. According to the Secular Humanist Manifesto, atheism is committed to an eternally existing universe, (See the first item: “Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.”). If something non-material brought all existing matter into being, that would be a supernatural cause, and atheists deny that anything supernatural exists. The standard Big Bang theory requires that all the matter in the universe come into being out of nothing.
Falsifying a religion using history
Consider this argument:
To be a Muslim, you must believe that the Koran is without error.
“Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.” Gert Lüdemann
“That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.” J.D. Crossan
“The passion of Jesus is part of history.” Geza Vermes
Jesus’ death by crucifixion is “historically certain”. Pinchas Lapide
“The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion.” Paula Fredriksen
“The support for the mode of his death, its agents, and perhaps its co-agents, is overwhelming: Jesus faced a trial before his death, was condemned, and was executed by crucifixion.” L.T. Johnson
“One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Ponitus Pilate.” Bart Ehrman
That’s 7 famous historians: 3 atheists, 3 Jews and 1 moderate Catholic. The atheists, Ludemann, Crossan and Ehrman, have all debated against the resurrection of Jesus with William Lane Craig. Johnson is the moderate Catholic, the rest are Jewish historians. The Koran was written in the 7th century. That is why no professional historian accepts the Koran as more authoritative than the many earlier Christian and non-Christian sources for the crucifixion story. Many of the sources for the crucifixion are dated to the 1st century. It’s not faith. It’s history.
I have seen debates with Muslim scholars, and I have never once heard them cite a non-Muslim historian to the effect that Jesus was not crucified. To my knowledge, there is no (non-Muslim) historian who denies the crucifixion of Jesus in his published work.
Can Christianity be falsified by science or history?
Yes. If you prove that the universe is eternal than would falsify the Bible’s claim that God created the universe out of nothing. That would be a scientific disproof. If you could find the body of Jesus still inside a tomb, that would falsify the Bible’s claim about a resurrection. That would be a historical disproof. The nice thing about Christianity is that we make lots of testable claims. When someone claims to be a Christian, it’s a good thing if they can show how they arrived at that conclusion. Being able to square God’s existence with science, and Jesus’ resurrection with history are two crucial steps to showing the reasonableness of Christianity.
Here is Dr. William Lane Craig giving a long-form argument for the historical event of the resurrection of Jesus, and taking questions from the audience.
The speaker introduction goes for 6 minutes, then Dr. Craig speaks for 35 minutes, then it’s a period of questions and answers with the audience. The total length is 93 minutes, so quite a long period of Q&A. The questions in the Q&A period are quite good.
Many people who are willing to accept God’s existence are not willing to accept the God of Christianity
Christians need to be ready to show that Jesus rose from the dead as a historical event
Private faith is fine for individuals, but when dealing with the public you have to have evidence
When making the case, you cannot assume that your audience accepts the Bible as inerrant
You must use the New Testament like any other ancient historical document
Most historians, Christian and not, accept the basic minimal facts supporting the resurrection of Jesus
Fact #1: the burial of Jesus following his crucifixion
Fact #1 is supported by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
Fact #1 is supported by the early Passion narrative which was a source for Mark’s gospel
Fact #1 passes the criterion of enemy attestation, since it praises one of the Sanhedrin
Fact #1 is not opposed by any competing burial narratives
Fact #2: on the Sunday following his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by some women
Fact #2 is supported by the early Passion narrative which was a source for Mark’s gospel
Fact #2 is implied by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
Fact #2 is simple and lacks legendary embellishment, which argues for an early dating
Fact #2 passes the criterion of embarrassment, because it has female, not male, witnesses
Fact #2 passes the criterion of enemy attestation, since it is reported by the Jewish leaders
Fact #3: Jesus appeared to various people in various circumstances after his death
Fact #3 is supported by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
Fact #3 is supported by multiple, independent reports of the events from all four gospels
Fact #3 explains other historical facts, like the conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother James
Fact #4: the earliest Christians proclaimed their belief in the resurrection of Jesus
Fact #4 explains why the earliest Christians continued to identify Jesus as the Messiah
Fact #4 explains why the earliest Christians were suddenly so unconcerned about being killed
Dr. Craig then asks which hypothesis explains all four of these facts. He surveys a number of naturalistic hypotheses, such as the hallucination theory or various conspiracy theories. All of these theories deny one or more of the minimal facts that have been established and accepted by the broad spectrum of historians. In order to reject the resurrection hypothesis, a skeptic would have to deny one of the four facts or propose an explanation that explains those facts better than the resurrection hypothesis.
I listened to the Q&A period while doing housekeeping and I heard lots of good questions. Dr. Craig gives very long answers to the questions. One person asked why we should trust the claim that the Jewish leaders really did say that the disciples stole the body. Another one asked why we should take the resurrection as proof that Jesus was divine. Another asks about the earthquake in Matthewand whether it is intended to be historical or apocalyptic imagery. Dr. Craig is also asked about the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, and how many of the minimal facts he accepts. Another questioner asked about the ascension.