That the Jews would create Moses, a seemingly Egyptian character, for their hero, seems unlikely. Particularly given that the Egyptians were their adversaries in the Exodus narrative. The criteria of embarassment demands that this be regarded as traditional material.
This argument, of course, seems somewhat absurd. Yet I've seen this argument used (some time ago in the BAR, in a response to an article in Harpers Magazine I can't get at my books, much less five year old magazines, so I apologize, for the umpteenth time, for a lack of more specific references). And as an employment of the criteria of embarassment, it's tough to fault. Moses' Egyptian adoption and Jewish birth seem to mask an Egyptian heritage.
But it seems from other evidences that this is extremely unlikely. They [i]did[/i] make up the character, and indeed the entire narrative. So how did embarassment go wrong?
We'll turn now to some common applications of the criteria in the NT, as pertains to the "Quest for the Historical Jesus." Firstly, we'll look at one I think is a false positive, and we'll look at why I think it so. Raymond Brown (among others) has suggested that the Petrine denial be viewed as historical by virtue of embarassment--why would Mark, sympathetic to Peter, make that up?
The first problem with this is the silence of Paul. Surely in his attack on Peter's hypocrisy, he would have benefitted from mention of Peter's supreme hypocratic act--the denial of Jesus himself. So why doesn't he?
This is not enough, IMO, to rule out historicity. But we can explain both Paul's silence and Mark's creation of the event without an historical kernel, which I think amounts to a substantial weight against: many of Mark's characters are a window into Mark's audience, and that is what we find here. Peter's denial is not the denial of Peter, rather it is the stumbling of the Christian more contemporary to Mark. The message is clear: Even Peter failed, and was forgiven.
A more solid positive can be found in the baptism, at least IMO. While some have argued that the baptism is representative of a Messianic annointing, I must confess that this strikes me as rather forced. Possible, I suppose, but not, to my view, terribly likely. I can't explain it outside of historicity, and because of that I think embarassment is successful here--it has arrived at a conclusion that is historical.
Which leads to the question: What makes the baptism different from Moses? Like the baptism, I candidly can't explain why Moses was made a seeming Egyptian. I could probably come up with some possibilities, but none that seem terribly persuasive to me. Without the benefit of archaeological evidence (as is the case in the baptism), we could quite justifiably conclude that Moses was, in fact, an historical character who was an Egyptian. We don't even have the benefit of other textual evidence to assess, like in the case of the denial. So what makes it different?
Which, as near as I can see, makes embarassment quite reversible (like so many other criteria. . .probably all of them). Yet it's still what I'd consider the single strongest evidence for historicity of a given passage: If I can't explain why they made it up, it's probably true.
I think, generally, too much emphasis is put on maintaining some sort of consistent methodology. This isn't science, and what it ultimately boils down to what one considers as having the most explanatory power. Such subjectivity may well be wrong. Unfortunately, I don't think there is much of an alternative. It is, of course, a double-edged sword as well. Negative criteria are frequently just as reversible. So what can we say with any measure of certainty?
While my reconstructions would tend toward the more conservative side, I paradoxically think the answer to that question is "Not much." I think it's pretty likely that the gospel authors were more or less familiar with the gist of Jesus' message and mission, so accord them some measure of accuracy on that general front. But specifics? Not a chance. The more I see efforts to establish these specifics, the more convinced I am that such efforts are quite thoroughly bankrupt.
The criteria I consider strongest can be reversed; really, what does that leave me?