Again, I want to pause and say thanks if you if you’ve been following along in these blogs but don’t think of yourself as a Christian. I truly hope they are helpful to your spiritual journey.
This is part six in my series of short arguments for the historical Jesus. In the prior post I asked what we are to make of the differences and discrepancies in the Gospel accounts.
In this post I want to note the presence of some odd, troublesome material in the Gospels. The “criterion of embarrassment,” as it’s often called, is used by historians in general and New Testament (NT) scholars in particular to help evaluate the reliability of historical reports. *
In higher education they say that history is written by the winners.
If that’s the case, we can expect the winners’ version of history to be pretty one-sided:
- Their causes always true and just.
- Their leaders noble, heroic, idolized.
- Their own roles in the stories sanitized of all flaws.
Yet, the Gospel stories contain plenty of material that seems counter-productive to its goal of convincing readers to believe in Jesus. A small sample:
- Jesus’ hometown people reject him and limit his ministry of miracles (Mark 3:3-6).
- His family thinks him “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21).
- His own brothers don’t believe in him (John 7:5).
- His dies at the hands of Israel’s sworn enemy, Rome (John 19:16).
None of this material makes much sense as a fabrication but only as facts of the matter.
The same could be said of those who wrote down the stories of Jesus: the disciples. They are often portrayed in the gospels as foolish and obstinate. They vie for power, fall asleep on the job, deny and betray. Careful Bible readers over the centuries have asked, “If you were an apostle (a member of the twelve chosen to be Jesus’ closest disciples), why would you allow your name to be so tarnished? Why would you write yourself into the story in such unflattering ways?”
Most likely the Gospel of Mark was influenced heavily by Peter, the chief apostle who later became bishop of Rome. Yet in chapter eight of his Gospel, Mark reports that Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him for setting his course toward Jerusalem and certain execution. For Peter, Jesus as long-awaited messiah – if that’s what he was – absolutely could not be defeated by Roman tyranny. The Messiah must overthrow the empire and set Israel free, establishing an earthly kingdom of peace and righteousness, perhaps with Peter and his companions set up as rulers.
So Peter calls out Jesus. Imagine that. Calling out the Son of God as if you know anything compared to him. Well Peter did it. Jesus’ response represents one of the most embarrassing moments for a disciple in all the NT: “Get behind me, Satan!” he yells at Peter. The early church, which revered Peter as the greatest apostle, let the story stand as is. Peter himself let the story stand in Mark’s account. Best explanation: it most likely happened. Otherwise, why let it stand? Why allow yourself to be called the devil’s name for all to see and hear?
In the previous post I mentioned that the Gospels are not airbrushed to perfection. Honestly, they’re messy. But if you were fabricating the life of Jesus, you wouldn’t have him descended from questionable lineage or born in a barn or entering Jerusalem atop a donkey (see Luke 19), or suffering a criminal’s death on a cross between two thieves. You probably wouldn’t have him yelling at his right hand man, either, calling him Satan.
Historians use the presence of such counter-productive material – or lack thereof – as a “criterion of embarrassment” to assess the reliability of historical accounts. The more polished the accounts and their characters, the less they sound like real history. The more the authors honestly include the flaws of themselves and their heroes, the more authentic they likely are.
I wouldn’t call this any kind of proof of Jesus Christ. As mentioned, history deals only in probabilities. The Gospels meet the criterion of embarrassment in maximal fashion, uncomfortably so, in my view. This raises significantly the probability of their reliability, and I commend this argument to you as a small but important brick in the wall I’m attempting to build for the Gospels as believable stories.
* “This is the very sort of self-damaging material historians typically look for in assessing the veracity of ancient works, and [the Gospel of] Mark is literally packed with it.” – Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, The Jesus Legend: The Case for the Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, p410. See the authors’ discussion of the criterion of embarrassment on p410-11.