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use of "the criterion of embarrassment" outside of Historical Jesus studies

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  • Jeffrey B. Gibson
    As we all know, there is a tool used in Historical Jesus studies that is called the criterion of embarrassment. It is employed, along with other tools such
    Message 1 of 3 , Jan 21, 2009
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      As we all know, there is a tool used in Historical Jesus studies
      that is called the criterion of embarrassment. It is employed, along
      with other tools such as the criterion of discontinuity and the
      criterion of multiple attestation, as a means to help determine whether
      or not certain actions or sayings by Jesus that appear in the Gospels
      are historically probable. As John P. Meier notes

      The point of the criterion is that the early church would hardly
      have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed
      its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents.
      Rather, embarrassing material coming from Jesus would naturally be
      either suppressed or softened in later stages of the Gospel
      tradition, and often such progressive suppression or softening can
      be traced through the Four Gospels. (A Marginal Jew, Vol 1, 168):


      A notable example of something declared through the use of this tool to
      be historically probable is the Gospel claim that Jesus underwent the
      baptism for the forgiveness of sins that John the baptist called his
      co-religionists to undertake. Why would early Christians invent the
      story since it makes Jesus out as a sinner?

      Does anyone here know of the use of this tool _outside of NT studies_?
      Has it been applied by historians of antiquity to the reputed deeds and
      saying of any ancient figure other than Jesus?

      Jeffrey

      --
      Jeffrey B. Gibson, D.Phil. (Oxon)
      1500 W. Pratt Blvd.
      Chicago, Illinois
      e-mail jgibson000@...



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    • E Bruce Brooks
      To: Synoptic Cc: Crosstalk, GPG In Response To: Jeffrey Gibson On: The Criterion of Embarrassment From: Bruce Jeffrey asks (on both Synoptic and Crosstalk) if
      Message 2 of 3 , Jan 21, 2009
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        To: Synoptic
        Cc: Crosstalk, GPG
        In Response To: Jeffrey Gibson
        On: The Criterion of Embarrassment
        From: Bruce

        Jeffrey asks (on both Synoptic and Crosstalk) if this familiar NT studies
        argument is employed outside NT. I will be waiting with interest for the
        answers to his question. From my own limited reading, I don't recall the
        principle articulated that specifically, but I have seen it used, as it were
        spontaneously, and have used it that way myself.

        For such a principle to become prominent in a given corner of scholarly
        discourse, you need a situation where an originally modest figure has been
        greatly magnified by later tradition, and it is desired (necessarily by only
        a few people) to get back to the historical original. Those situations are
        in a sense common, but sufficiently advanced ones may be few.

        CONFUCIUS

        One parallel that occurs to me is Confucius, where you have a person
        (eventually, a cultural icon) about whom early tradition records a
        hardscrabble youth (lost his father at three, his mother at fifteen; did all
        sorts of odd jobs to get by), but later tradition makes him an expert in
        ritual already in his youth, consulted by the sons of the prominent. The
        parallel with the Later Synoptic "Jesus in the Temple" story seems to me to
        be very close, typologically.

        There is one nice case where an early writer in the Confucian School text,
        the Analects, not only records a hardscrabble youth quote from Confucius
        (died 0479), but goes out of his way to record a verbal variant of it, which
        says the thing in a slightly different way. This was done somewhere around,
        oh, 0410, which was the last time when there were probably still people
        living who had direct memories of Confucius. This "poor youth" image
        evidently was tolerable as late as the end of the 05c, since an effort was
        being made to get it down on paper as accurately as possible. A century and
        a half later (c0253), when claims for Confucius's almost supernatural wisdom
        had become standard, this same c0410 question about Confucius's youth was
        repeated, but a different and more positive answer was given, and other
        sayings were invented to praise Confucius's "dwelling" as something more
        than a royal palace. The earlier poverty of Confucius had by then, but not
        earlier, become an embarrassment to the official custodians of Confucian
        tradition.

        So layered on each other are these increasingly grand estimates of Confucius
        that the 20th century scholar Gu Jye-gang called for analysts to confine
        themselves to "one Confucius at a time." A useful statement. We have tried
        to follow it out in separating layers of the most authoritative written
        tradition; this is the point of our book, The Original Analects (Columbia
        1998). We have a second book in the works, focusing more steadily on the
        Confucius image as such, and carrying the story from Confucius's ancestors
        down into the early Empire. Each later period needed something different
        from Confucius, and got it essentially by inventing it.

        PROBLEM: THE VIRTUE OF HUMILITY

        One problem in the application of this notion is that in some cultures, and
        Chinese culture is one of them, a certain cultural esteem exists for the
        image of the lowly person making it big. Those who watched the recent Obama
        Inauguration will not need to have this decoded for them; it operates
        pervasively in American culture under the name Log Cabin Myth. If a myth is
        developing along these lines, then seemingly embarrassing incidents of early
        life may actually be invented by later tradition, so as to emphasize the
        remarkable quality of the later achievement. More than one ancient
        (pre-Confucian) Chinese sage is given biographical details along these lines
        in later times (see any translation of Mencius, and look up Yi Yin in the
        index). In these cases, the humble is not necessarily the true. The actual
        facts may be the opposite of what someone operating with the Embarrassment
        Criterion would have concluded.

        And there are strata of perception. I know one black female college
        president who liked to brag in public that she had been "a sharecropper's
        daughter" (which played well with certain audiences) until the Board of
        Trustees told her to shut up (it didn't play very well with the special
        audience consisting of potential donors). So one question to ask, of any
        such situation, would be, Embarrassing to whom?

        EXAMPLE: BAPTISM

        JEFFREY: A notable example of something declared through the use of this
        tool to be historically probable is the Gospel claim that Jesus underwent
        the baptism for the forgiveness of sins that John the baptist called his
        co-religionists to undertake. Why would early Christians invent the story
        since it makes Jesus out as a sinner?

        BRUCE: Was John's baptism specifically for "forgiveness of sins?" I thought
        that repentance was the way John proposed to have people's sins forgiven,
        and that baptism (never spelled out liturgically in any early source I know
        of) was something of an emblem of the resulting state of purification. My
        guess would be that the baptism story was there in Mark because it was
        historical in Jesus, and Mark was written by people who had some direct
        knowledge of Jesus (they were not library researchers, like us). But later,
        as it seems to me, these things happened: (1) the early Christians adopted
        the Johannine custom of baptism; it is explicit in gJn, if you trust it, and
        implicit in gMk, which I do trust, that Jesus himself never baptized. (2)
        Having adopted it, the early Christians ascribed to it a meaning that it had
        not originally had. It was certainly in part a ritual of membership, but
        baptism may also have been thought to confer sinlessness of itself, which I
        think would probably be a growth beyond John B's idea. (3) At this point,
        but not necessarily earlier, the idea that Jesus was baptized *came to be*
        problematic, since it could always be inferred by malicious persons that
        Jesus had thereby acknowledged his own sinfulness. But that same tradition,
        which was a long way down the path to the deification of Jesus, also
        emphasized the sinlessness of Jesus. (4) At that point, but probably not
        earlier, would come the embarrassment, or more precisely the tension between
        the two claims, the one liturgically late, so to speak (baptism as a cure
        for sin), and the other theologically late (the original and permanent
        sinlessness of Jesus). (5) That tension was resolved as we see it done,
        first in Matthew (who makes the Baptism explicitly pro forma, but otherwise
        retains it from Mk), then in Luke (for whom the Baptism itself is an
        offstage event, and all attention is transferred instead to the Descending
        Bird, which is made so real that the audience would have been aware of it -
        Luke is always concerned with the historian's question: Who could have
        witnessed this event?), and still further in John (who himself proclaims
        Jesus as sinless, and does not baptize him within the narrative, but does
        himself attest the Descending of the Bird, this reifying Luke's implications
        that there were indeed eyewitnesses to the theologically positive part of
        the episode). This I call the Baptism Trajectory: the tendency to treat the
        Baptism of Jesus as an increasingly problematic event.

        For Mark, it is on the contrary a major validating event. According to the
        Accretional Mark model, that validation (the voice from Heaven) was actually
        added to the mere routine baptism in a second layer of text. I think I
        earlier expounded that segment of the model: each of the first three layers
        has its own idea of the climactic Beginning, Middle, and End of Mark. To
        pursue this further would be to expound the Accretional Model of Mark, which
        is not the present subject. The Synoptic Model, I think is sufficiently
        convincing. It shows two elements: the Baptism per se, which gets
        progressively shelved, and the Voice from Heaven, which gets progressively
        emphasized and amplified.

        It gets complicated, doesn't it. Complicated, I think, is exactly what it
        is. And the nuances of people's reactions to what the Synoptists tell (and
        not all people would necessarily have the same reactions) are some of the
        major complications.

        Bruce

        E Bruce Brooks
        Warring States Project
        University of Massachusetts at Amherst
      • Chuck Jones
        Jeffrey (and all),   Is there anything like the synoptic record for another ancient figure?  I m not aware of one.   Rev. Chuck Jones Atlanta, Georgia ...
        Message 3 of 3 , Jan 21, 2009
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          Jeffrey (and all),
           
          Is there anything like the synoptic record for another ancient figure?  I'm not aware of one.
           
          Rev. Chuck Jones
          Atlanta, Georgia

          --- On Wed, 1/21/09, Jeffrey B. Gibson <jgibson000@...> wrote:

          From: Jeffrey B. Gibson <jgibson000@...>
          Subject: [Synoptic-L] use of "the criterion of embarrassment" outside of Historical Jesus studies
          To: Synoptic@yahoogroups.com
          Date: Wednesday, January 21, 2009, 2:02 PM






          As we all know, there is a tool used in Historical Jesus studies
          that is called the criterion of embarrassment. It is employed, along
          with other tools such as the criterion of discontinuity and the
          criterion of multiple attestation, as a means to help determine whether
          or not certain actions or sayings by Jesus that appear in the Gospels
          are historically probable. As John P. Meier notes

          The point of the criterion is that the early church would hardly
          have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed
          its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents.
          Rather, embarrassing material coming from Jesus would naturally be
          either suppressed or softened in later stages of the Gospel
          tradition, and often such progressive suppression or softening can
          be traced through the Four Gospels. (A Marginal Jew, Vol 1, 168):

          A notable example of something declared through the use of this tool to
          be historically probable is the Gospel claim that Jesus underwent the
          baptism for the forgiveness of sins that John the baptist called his
          co-religionists to undertake. Why would early Christians invent the
          story since it makes Jesus out as a sinner?

          Does anyone here know of the use of this tool _outside of NT studies_?
          Has it been applied by historians of antiquity to the reputed deeds and
          saying of any ancient figure other than Jesus?

          Jeffrey

          --
          Jeffrey B. Gibson, D.Phil. (Oxon)
          1500 W. Pratt Blvd.
          Chicago, Illinois
          e-mail jgibson000@comcast. net

          [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

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