Criterion of Embarrassment

Embarrassed ManLots of Christians love the “Criterion of Embarrassment” to bolster supposed evidence for the credibility of their sacred  documents. It seems (see Wiki) that this approach dates from the 1800s. The argument goes like this: if the Jesus story were fabricated, it wouldn’t have all sorts of embarrassing details like Jesus being an illiterate laborer, or Jesus being killed as a common criminal. The approach is highly limited, but like many bad arguments (consider Pascal’s wager), we hear it recycled constantly by Christians.

Even New Testament confessional Christian scholar Mark Goodacre has done a fine short podcast showing the weakness of this mistaken criterion.

Clapham, one of my Evangelical commentors, just applied the same criterion of embarrassment on his blog comment to try and add credibility to the stories in Jewish Tanakh (his “Old Testament”). Here is what Clapham said:

Sure they [the OT stories of Moses and Abraham] could have been made up – but why would you only make up those bits? Abraham generally comes across as a cowardly muppet, Moses similarly hardly covers himself with glory. If you were going to make it up surely you do it properly?

I replied with yet another criticism of the flimsy criterion of embarrassment by using a comparative religion approach and said:

In the Mahabharata [Hindu scripture written around the same time as the Tanakh], the stories of the heroes are full of their foibles, mistakes, wrong doings and more. If I remember correctly, it is the same with the Iliad and the Odyssey (Greek) — written close enough to a similar time.

So the data shows fiction is often written with imperfections and such to make the story believable, more interesting, relatable and more. Well, certainly back then. Well, unless you believe the Mahabharata and Odyssey the same way you believe the ancient Jewish stories.

Clapham generously replied:

having less knwoledge than you on those subjects I’m not going to try make a comparison, but I do take your point.

I hope he and other readers will reconsider this faulty criterion. The criterion of multiple attestations is another favorite of Evangelicals and is likewise horribly mistaken. But mistakes can be stubborn — take astrology, for instance.  Marc Goodacre has another podcast criticizing it too, btw.

I have taken this conversation to my blog because Clapham’s thread was becoming unwieldily due to nasty hierarchy. 🙂



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

6 responses to “Criterion of Embarrassment

  1. Yes, I’ve seen this excuse rolled out on a number of occasions. An odd “defense” if there ever were on

  2. thanx for droppin’ in John. Actually, I use to buy into this criteria at one time — maybe even as a non-believer years ago, but with a bit of thought, its problems became more obvious. I have a Math post I am thinking about to show how easily we are all tricked, consciously or unconsciously. All of us.

  3. Interesting, from a Christian viewpoint, I would argue that those imperfections are shown to prove that God doesn’t need us, that he can work through anybody, regardless of how flawed.

  4. @ Mike
    Right, that is one spin too.

  5. Ian

    There’s a stronger form of the CoE that I’m inclined to think does provide useful data. When a text confesses something embarrassing, and then tries to explain how that was somehow not what it looked like.

    I’m inclined to think that Jesus was a disciple of John, and that he was born in Nazareth for that reason. In both cases a potentially embarrassing admission is ‘explained away’ by different writers, in different ways. What they agree on is the need to find an explanation.

  6. Good point, Ian. Thanx.

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