Overview:

Why would New Testament authors make embarrassing claims unless they were true? This is the popular Criterion of Embarrassment, but it’s not so easy to apply properly.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Historians confronted with differing versions of ancient manuscripts have developed helpful principles of Bible criticism. These are simple but powerful ways scholars use to better understand the Bible (or any book from history). For example, multiple historical sources are better than a single one, and independent sources are better than sources that all copied from a single authority. Or: older documents are probably better than newer. Or: eyewitness testimony is better than secondhand.

Here’s a clever one: a passage that is embarrassing is more likely to be true than a variant interpretation that makes the heroes of the story look good. This is the Criterion of Embarrassment (CoE).

Consider this example from Mark 1:40–41.

Now a leper came to [Jesus] and fell to his knees, asking for help. “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” he said. Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing. Be clean!”

A tiny minority of manuscripts replaced “moved with compassion” with “moved with anger” or “indignation.” If no other factor were present, scholars would go with the majority reading, “compassion.” But the powerful Criterion of Embarrassment asks us to imagine two possibilities. It’s easy to imagine the original being “anger/indignation,” which was then changed by a scribe to “compassion.” But if the original reading were “compassion,” that’s almost impossible to imagine being changed to “anger” or “indignation.” Why would a scribe do that?

Conclusion: anger/indignation—the more embarrassing option—is the likelier original word.

William Lane Craig’s use of the CoE

Apologist William Lane Craig illustrates a related way to use the CoE.

Because the early Christian church believed in the deity of Christ, you’d expect that if the Gospel accounts were largely the product of the church rather than accurate records of the life of Jesus, the Gospels would suppress or omit embarrassing or awkward traces of Jesus’ weakness and humanity. But they don’t! (Source)

Craig lists some of the gospels’ embarrassing incidents.

  • Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, which suggests that Jesus was the lesser figure who needed forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:9).
  • Jesus didn’t know when he would return. He said that only God knew (Matthew 24:36).
  • His own family thought he was crazy (Mark 3:21).
  • He couldn’t do miracles in his hometown (Mark 6:5).
  • He needed two tries to make a blind man see (Mark 8:22–5).
  • A man called Jesus good. Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone.” (Mark 8:10)
  • How important can the Trinity be when it’s not clearly explained in the Bible?
  • Jesus was betrayed by one of his own followers.
  • He was crucified as a common criminal.

Here’s Craig’s reaction:

These are not the sort of features someone who believed in Jesus’ deity would just invent. They are therefore indications of the historical credibility of the accounts in which they appear.

No, we’re not talking about someone deliberately making up parts of the gospel story. Rather, it’s easy to imagine the Jesus story as decades of legendary embellishments on the story of a first-century Jewish teacher. Everyone will agree that legends and Jewish teachers exist, and it’s easy to imagine that combination creating a supernatural result. This is a much likelier explanation of why the gospels say what they say than that the gospels’ supernatural claims are true.

You can’t make a case for the Criterion of Embarrassment without being embarrassed!

Jesus as messiah—embarrassing?

Here Craig talked about another fact that embarrasses Christians, that the idea of Jesus as messiah—a king who would kick the occupying Romans out of Israel—is incompatible with the gospel story.

The crucifixion of Jesus was a disaster for the disciples, not simply because their beloved master was gone, but because it exposed any Messianic pretensions that he might have had as being utterly vacuous and unfounded.… How do you explain the origin of the disciples’ belief in this very un-Jewish and outlandish idea? … When you look at the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, they give virtually no clue that Messiah isn’t going to be this triumphant warrior king that was expected. (Source)

He’s again using the Criterion of Embarrassment: how could the gospel authors call Jesus messiah, referring to the Old Testament’s idea of a conquering king, and yet document his complete defeat through crucifixion? That’s not the Old Testament’s promise.

What do other scholars say?

Other scholars see the conflict as Craig does. Atheist Bart Ehrman said,

Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to suffer horribly for the sins of others and be raised from the dead?  Not according to ancient Jews.

Christian C.S. Lewis also looked for an optimistic view of the Bible’s embarrassing claims.

The evangelists have the first great characteristic of honest witnesses: they mention facts that are, at first sight, damaging to their main contention.

The damaging facts that Lewis was responding to were (1) Jesus promising that “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” when Jesus’s promised end still isn’t here, and (2) Jesus appealing to God from the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?”

Perhaps the most extreme statement of the CoE is this one, which throws reality out the window. It is attributed (probably wrongly) to second-century church father Tertullian:

The Son of God died: it is wholly believable because it is absurd; he was buried and rose again, which is certain because it is impossible.

Craig is trying to take lemons and make lemonade. Yes, the gospel stories are at odds with the promise of a messiah, but the gospel authors plowed ahead anyway, knowing their Jesus didn’t fit. Why record that embarrassing mismatch if it weren’t true?!

But he wants it both ways. If the gospel story has embarrassing claims that conflict with the Bible’s earlier promises or with modern Christian tenets, those must be true! And if there is no conflict—as when Matthew points to Isaiah to say that Jesus was born of a virgin and to Micah to say that he was born in Bethlehem—that must also be true! Craig wins when the Bible is embarrassing, and he wins when it’s not.

Problem 1: make sure it really is embarrassing

Apologists often stumble over two problems with the CoE.

Take the well-known story of Peter’s denial of Jesus. In all four gospels, Jesus predicts that Peter will deny knowing him. Peter insists that he won’t but then does it three times to avoid capture by the Romans.

That’s quite an embarrassing element to include … unless you don’t like Peter. The New Testament documents the friction between Christians allied with Peter and those allied with Paul. It’s easy to imagine a Pauline faction adding this story.

Another embarrassing Bible story is unreliable women finding the empty tomb on Sunday morning. Once again, apologists attack the idea of anyone making this up. Who would invent the idea of women at this critical moment of the story if they were seen as poor witnesses? It’s awkward and therefore true.

But I don’t think it was made up. In fact, if anyone is going to discover an empty tomb, it would be women since women were typically responsible for tending to the dead in this culture. Women finding the empty tomb isn’t surprising—it’s necessary.

Lesson 1 for using the CoE is to make sure that the story really was embarrassing to the source.

Problem 2: you must pay to use the CoE

You can’t make a case for the Criterion of Embarrassment without being embarrassed! That is, you must pay a price when using the CoE. This is obvious, and yet apologists never seem to acknowledge this.

William Lane Craig wants to use the CoE when he confronts embarrassing facts like Jesus being baptized by John, his inability to do miracles in Nazareth, and no Trinity in the Bible. It’s embarrassing that the gospels imagine Jesus as messiah—a butt-kicking king who will expel the Roman occupiers—and yet they document Jesus’s humiliating death by the Romans, just like countless other criminals. These are embarrassing incidents, so they must be true.

But hold on. We’re all on the same page. Craig is admitting what the rest of us can see, that these incidents and many more are embarrassing to the Christian. There must be payment for playing the CoE card, and that payment is admitting that the Bible story doesn’t hang together. One story collides with another. If Jesus is messiah on one hand but glaringly doesn’t fit the Bible’s description on the other, the entire religion is called into question. The CoE won’t get you out of this bind, and the New Testament looks like just another manmade collection of books.

Apologists like Craig refuse to acknowledge the embarrassment, but this isn’t how it works. You can’t say that something is embarrassing and therefore likelier to be true without confronting the fact that it’s embarrassing. If the Bible is reliable, then you can’t hide from its telling you that Jesus really ought not have been baptized by John; he should have been able to do miracles anywhere; the relationship between Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit should be evident in the Bible; and Jesus wasn’t the messiah.

Lesson 2: make sure that playing the CoE card costs something.

The naturalistic explanation

Why does the Bible have internal clashes? Because it was written over the course of a thousand years by dozens of people with differing agendas. The Bible isn’t even a fixed target. The Protestant Bible has different books than the Roman Catholic Bible, and both are different from the Georgian Orthodox Bible. Of course the books contradict.

With a naturalistic interpretation, the power of the Criterion of Embarrassment vanishes. It was never an honest ally to apologists when they refused to admit what it cost them. And on the other side of the coin, no longer is it a spell that turns an embarrassing contradiction or admission into truth. The naturalistic explanation is the better explanation.

See also: Stupid Arguments Christians Should Avoid #50: The Argument from Biblical Consistency

Argument from Divine Embarrassment.
If you were God,
looking upon your earthly representatives,

Wouldn’t you want to hide?
Ergo: God exists.
— Maarten Boudry

Avatar photo

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...