Monday, June 26, 2006

Embarassment, Moses and Reversibility

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?

11 comments:

J. J. Ramsey said...

I'd say that the example of Moses is faulty because it presumes that "Moses' Egyptian adoption and Jewish birth seem to mask an Egyptian heritage." If the story in question seemed to strain in order to explain away Moses seemingly being Egyptian, then the embarassment criterion would make sense. However, such strain is not evident.

In the case of the Petrine denial, one problem is in assuming that Mark was all that sympathetic to Peter.

Rick Sumner said...

I think you've got it backwards. What's assumed is that the Egyptian family of Moses would be embarassing. Interpreting it as an apologia is the exegesis born of that assumption. Which is really how embarassment generally works.

By way of analogy, many suggest that Mark.7.35 is an apologia to account for a tradition that Jesus was not Davidic. It is assumed that such a tradition would be embarassing, and thus such exegesis is carried out to reach that assessment of the passage.

Or, for another example, it is assumed that John would be embarassed by Jesus' being baptized. Because of that assumption, we conclude that this is why he has omitted the baptism narrative, and that likewise 4:2 is reflective of the desire to distance Jesus from existing traditions that were embarassing to John. The assumption that it would be embarassing precedes the interpretation of the passage.

There is nothing wrong with this: It's the only way, in the vast majority of instances, that we are going to be able to employ embarassment in the first place. Sometimes it's easier than that--for instance, ascertaining what Matthew thought of the baptism is fairly simple, because we know what his source on the matter looked like. More often it's not. How can we know what Mark thought of his sources, or how he treated them? He doesn't betray much in the way of discomfort with the baptism, rather we assume it would be as embarassing to him as it was apparently to others.

The problem is in establishing what is "embarassing enough," to justify a claim of historicity. And with the Moses example, if we did not have the external vector of archaeology, it would not be out of line to suggest that it was. One might or might not find it ultimately persuasive, but that's no different than any other application of it. Arnal, for example, has argued on XTalk against the historicity of the baptism and his rejection of embarassment pertaining to it.

There is a better than passing case to be made that Moses' Egyptian family is "embarassing enough." And that case would, on the basis of external evidence, ultimately be wrong. But where would we be if we didn't have that information?

As to Mark and Petrine sympathies, to call it an "assumption" is perhaps to understate the mark (no pun intended) a bit. It's not assumed, it's obtained from the texts. I might offer a post on that at some point after I've moved.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

I do think that "embarassment" is a valid criterion, but using it requires some finesse, because the simplest and easiest way to deal with embarassment is silence. That a potentially embarassing bit of information was preserved raises the issue of just how embarassing it really was; otherwise, it would not have been preserved.

Rick Sumner said...

This response has always seemed to me to be a double-edged sword though. The more embarassing something is, the more likely it is to be retained by opponents, and the need for an apologia becomes greater. I've always thought the "three days" prophecy authentic on those grounds--it was sufficiently embarassing to be retained by naysayers, and subsequently handled by Mark.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"As to Mark and Petrine sympathies, to call it an "assumption" is perhaps to understate the mark (no pun intended) a bit. It's not assumed, it's obtained from the texts."

Except that Peter isn't treated all that sympathetically.

"I think you've got it backwards. What's assumed is that the Egyptian family of Moses would be embarassing. Interpreting it as an apologia is the exegesis born of that assumption. Which is really how embarassment generally works."

If I understand you correctly, it is assumed that the story of Moses' adoption was an apologia based on the assumption that the Egyptian family of Moses would be embarassing. This, though, is what I see as the problem. A better application of the criterion of embarassment would be to use tensions, inherent problems, or other signs that the story is "spun" to show that it was an apologetic, and then work from there to see what it was an apologetic for. That may not be how scholars always use the criterion, but it is probably a better way to use it.

Rick Sumner said...

I think you're still missing me. In the case of Moses, we do start by looking for such "tensions" (we find Moses not starting as an Egyptian, a strained narrative of his adoption to get him there. We find an adoption by Egyptians sympathetic to the slaves. We find Moses killing an Egyptian, identifying with Jews despite his Egyptian upbringing). We move from that to the conclusion that it's an apologia. But we get nowhere without the assumption that such a thing would be embarassing. It's a pretty reasonable line of thought, it's just wrong.

Working from your end--attempting to identify it as an apologetic with no inkling what it might be an apologetic for--would be largely hopeless in most instances. It's difficult to spot a defense without recognizing first what's being defended.

J. J. Ramsey said...

I wouldn't call Moses' adoption account strained. The plot device used to get Moses to Pharaoh's daughter is straightforward and has an element of danger (leaving baby Moses somewhat exposed to the elements) that makes for interesting drama.

"Working from your end--attempting to identify it as an apologetic with no inkling what it might be an apologetic for--would be largely hopeless in most instances. It's difficult to spot a defense without recognizing first what's being defended."

True, but certain defense strategies are common regardless of what is being defended, such as deflecting blame for failure onto others, reporting the failure as being less of a failure than it actually was, or the "we/God meant to do that" defense. These are especially telling if the execution of these defenses is botched or isn't quite coherent.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

This response has always seemed to me to be a double-edged sword though.

I think that's basically how Arnal argues for the non-embarassment of the Baptism.

The finesse has to come in being able to identify an apologia. People don't usually defend what's not being attacked -- unless the defense is putting up a strawman. But then again, whoever said historical criticism was easy?

Stephen

Chris Weimer said...

I don't see how Moses ex aegypto is embarrassing? In fact, it appears reverse. Moses singularly represents the entire Hebrew people - though oppressed in a foreign land, they still conquer it and return home. It's a common motif in epic literature.

Rick Sumner said...

Apologies for the delays (and days of 'blog neglect, which will continue. Moving sucks).

J. J.
If the Mosaic birth isn't strained, how much less so is the baptism in Mark? Mark gives no hint of anything that could even fairly be interpreted as apologia. On the contrary, his recipients had a problem with it that he seems to be unaware of.

Stephen
I think Arnal's argument is stronger in this particular instance because Mark doesn't seem to be embarassed. I don't know that the "They wouldn't have preserved it" argument holds up as well, for example, on Jn.7.42

Chris
Your reading is, of course, correct (and should have occurred to me immediately). But it still seems to run into the same problem: How do we tell the difference between Moses as a plot device, and the baptism as historical, without relying on whim of the exegete? I note again that I've always found the "annointing" analogy to be strained, but some people don't. What's different?

J. J. Ramsey said...

"If the Mosaic birth isn't strained, how much less so is the baptism in Mark? Mark gives no hint of anything that could even fairly be interpreted as apologia."

That isn't quite true. Matthew makes explicit the inherent tension in the story: Someone who is sinless undergoing a ritual for purification from sin. In the Markan account, attention is drawn away from this tension by John's words about Jesus and the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. Nonetheless, Matthew still notices the tension implied by Mark's account, and, unlike Mark, deals with it explicitly. Moreover, this tension serves no dramatic purpose, and instead of being highlighted, it is defused. By contrast, the tension between Moses' Jewish blood and Egyptian upbringing is emphasized and drives some of the early drama in the Exodus story--especially the part where he kills the Egyptian.

Now one can certainly see Mark using the baptism as the occasion to show Jesus' adoption as the Son of God. If that is all Mark's thrust was, though, he could have created a story that did not include the tension that Matthew noticed. For example, he might have had Jesus be anointed literally, or perhaps had Jesus cross the River Jordan after he came out of the wilderness and have the Spirit descend on him after coming out of the water. (That would make for even stronger echoes with Exodus.) If, however, there was some embarassment about Jesus being baptized, then Mark has killed two birds with one stone; he makes his theological point and diffuses the embarassment all at once.

IMHO, the key to a good argument from embarassment is showing how the purported embarassment is defused. If a purported embarassment is highlighted and drives the drama of a story, as is the case with the story of Moses' early years or the story of Peter's denial, then it is probably not an embarassment at all.