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Re: [Synoptic-L] use of "the criterion of embarrassment" outside of Historical Jesus studies

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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 1 of 1 , 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.


      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

      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.


      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?


      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.


      E Bruce Brooks
      Warring States Project
      University of Massachusetts at Amherst
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