What embarrassment?

August 2008
Updated March 2017

(A visitor to an atheism forum that no longer exists tried to prove a point about Jesus using the criterion of embarrassment. The following is a slightly edited version of my response to him.)

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This is on the topic of your initial post originating this thread. In particular, it is some observations about the criterion of embarassment, which you define thus:

It states that the later church would not invent statements of Jesus that prove to be self-embarrassing. Therefore, an embarrassing statement in the tradition is early and most likely goes back to Jesus.

This seems to presuppose that all inauthentic sayings were invented by the later church, or at least that the church accepted them as canonical despite knowing they were inauthentic. The argument proves little or nothing until, just to begin with, we establish what is to be meant by "later church." When did it start to exist? 100 CE? 200 CE? With Constantine? Did Ignatius or Irenaeus belong to it?

The cogency of the argument further depends on various postulates about how and when the gospels were produced. It presumes, in particular, that they are records mostly if not entirely of oral traditions that originated as eyewitness accounts of Jesus' ministry and then accreted various layers of embellishments. The conventional thinking among skeptics, as well as many Christians who have rejected inerrancy, is that those embellishments included legends, exaggerations, and some pure invention intended to advance various doctrinal agendas that were developed during the first and second centuries.

It is not certain how much time there was for the embellishments to accumulate, except that it was at least nearly four decades. Mark's gospel is the earliest by consensus, and most scholars seem satisfied that it was written during or just after the first Jewish War. Matthew and Luke are thought to have been written over the following two decades, and then John sometime in the 90s.

The existence of none of them, though, is unambiguously attested before the mid-second century. The conventional dating just outlined depends on several assumptions based on giving maximum credence to various traditions of historically orthodox Christianity. It we treat those traditions with appropriate skepticism, then we cannot be certain that any gospel existed in its present form before the late second century. This does not prove the conventional dating is wrong. It only demonstrates that it rests more on dogma them on reliable evidence.

Trying to minimize our assumptions, then, we're assuming that there was a historical Jesus, that stories of various sorts and various degrees of credibility were told about him after he died, that the stories evolved over several years -- possibly a century or so -- before they were put in writing; and that once they were published, the Christian communities in which they circulated tended to accept them as factual histories about the origins of their religion. This all has to be assumed, because there is no clear evidence for any of it. We assume the gospels were accepted right away, whenever they were published, because there is nothing in the surviving documentary record that says otherwise. We assume transmission by oral tradition because there is no other way we know of for the authors to have learned any of the things about which they wrote. And we assume a historical Jesus because almost no reputable historian dares not to.

The point is that these assumptions are made by nearly everyone in the scholarly community, and that for the sake of this discussion I am not challenging them. And so the question then becomes: Without assuming anything else, do these assumptions plausibly allow for the gospels to include inauthentic sayings that would embarrass the orthodox church? They do, if we allow the possibility that some aspects of orthodoxy evolved independently of the gospel traditions. And on the historicist assumption, that seems not just possible but probable.

Except in the gospels, there is no significant reference to Jesus' biography during Christianity's first century except to affirm that he was crucified. The undisputed Pauline letters are famously exemplary of this. And the silence continues well into the second century. For about the first hundred years after Jesus' death, no Christian seems even aware that he had a ministry or a band of disciples. The attention is solely on his divinity, his salvific death by crucifixion, and his resurrection from the grave. The exceptions to this pattern are rare and late. They are not sufficient to contradict the observation that throughout its formative century, Christianity was just about a god-man who was crucified and resurrected to save the world from the consequences of sin and who did not do or say anything else during his presumed sojourn in this world.

And then along came the gospels.

We do not know why they were accepted as historically reliable, because the patristic writers do not say why. All those writers tell us is that they were accepted, and apparently without question. If any questions were raised within the Christian community, no document recording them has survived.

The church at this point, whenever the point was, was thus committed on the one hand to the divine Christ of Pauline Christianity, and on the other hand to the man from Galilee. They were believed to be the same Jesus Christ, because various men within the church who mere considered authoritative had said so. The dogma of scriptural inerrancy had not been enunciated yet, but it was already at work. Paul's writings were inerrant because the church authorities said, in effect if not in so many words, that they were inerrant. So too were the gospels, for the same reason.

And so the church declared the documents authoritative, for reasons no longer discoverable. If there were apparent inconsistencies between church dogma and any of the documents, or between Paul and the gospels, or between one gospel and another, then that was a problem for the church authorities to solve, but it was not evidence that the authorities might have made a mistake in evaluating the documents' authenticity.

The criterion of embarrassment presupposes that the religious community from which orthodox Christianity evolved had some means of knowing with reasonable confidence what at least some of the facts were about Jesus of Nazareth. The surviving historical record, though, provides no grounding for that presupposition. The paper trail shows no clear linkage from Jesus to Paul, Paul to the gospel authors, or the gospel authors to the patristic writers. Connections are alleged, but none is substantiated. Without those linkages, the criterion of embarrassment, as a means of determining the true teachings of Jesus, is without foundation.

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(This page last updated on March 20, 2017.)