Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Oh Embarrassing Embarrassment

I read a book awhile ago on the history of Rome, and can't for the life of me remember what it was.  But it contained two interesting items.  In discussion of both the Gallic Sack and Cannae, it suggested that the absence of archaeological evidence wasn't a huge problem, since the Romans are unlikely to have made up a story of their own massive defeat.

This actually doesn't work for Cannae, since the Romans, if anything, exaggerated the scale of their defeat.  Not really the mark of the shamed, right?  But it works a little better for the Gallic Sack.  All of this is besides the point, of course, what's interesting isn't whether or not the argument works, it's what the argument is.  You might recognize it, it's a version of the ineptly named criterion of embarrassment.

See, over on Vridar you'll often read that the criteria is some sort of modern NT Scholar exclusive.  But it's not, and never has been.  To be sure, they could no doubt find reasons the above instances are different.  And they are different; different sources bring different problems that require modifications of the tools.  Unless we all start studying the same thing, it seems unlikely that historians are going to have some sort of universal toolkit to deal with specific problems.

Of course, we could try that.  Maybe all go back to the Annales School?  Lots of charts and numbers and 500000 words on the longue duree even when it isn't relevant that nobody did more than skim through?  I doubt anyone wants that, least of all the folks at Vridar, who share my wholly appropriate admiration for E H Carr.

So the specifics aren't important.  What is important is that the form, intent, and reasoning behind the tool similar enough to be considered variants of the same tool.  And why not?  It makes such intuitive sense that it finds its way as far afield as the courtroom, where more credence is given to statements against interest.  The general principle is sensible:  People don't intentionally make problems for themselves.

Something struck me in the most recent post on this topic over there.  Apparently they are unable to find the criteria of embarrassment in the study of the New Testament before 1980.  I find this bizarre.  They can't have looked very hard, because the argument has been in use almost since the genesis of Christianity.  See, at first it looked like this:

"Crucifixion is shameful, therefore resurrection."

Now we've become more critical in our use.  Instead we say this:

"Crucifixion is shameful, therefore crucifixion."

The cross is, in fact, almost the archetype of the criteria of embarrassment, and always has been, even before we called it the criteria of embarrassment.  Perhaps they have confused the origin of the reasoning with the origin of the (admittedly bad) term?

Now, unfortunately I can't remember my reference above, which is fine.  There's another one that escapes me regarding Livy and Patricians.  I come across it a fair bit, and then forget where I saw it because it isn't in my primary interests.  That's too bad.  What isn't too bad is Neil's post a couple months ago, discussing historians of Islam.

Contrast Christian scholarship that has relied upon the criterion of embarrassment to find “historical authentication” on the basis of the most unlikely of witnesses.

See, this isn't too bad because now I don't have to remember my reference.  Wikipedia already has it in their entry on the Satanic Verses

 Since William Muir the historicity of this episode has been largely accepted by orientalists. William Montgomery Watt and Alfred Guillaume claim that stories of the event were true based upon the implausibility of Muslims fabricating a story so unflattering to their prophet: "Muhammad must have publicly recited the satanic verses as part of the Qur'ān; it is unthinkable that the story could have been invented by Muslims, or foisted upon them by non-Muslims." This argument resembles the criterion of embarrassment, an analytical tool used in assessing the historicity of Biblical accounts of Jesus, which holds that material that would seem to be "embarrassing" to scriptural figures such as Jesus but is nevertheless included in the canon is likely to be true.

Footnote 18.  I've checked it, I encourage you to do the same.

This isn't just like the criteria of embarrassment, this is the criteria of embarrassment.  In one of those scholars of Islam.  Who don't engage in that sort of thing.  Oh dear.

Now if you asked me whether or not it works, or whether there are particular difficulties in our material that make it less likely to work, my sentiments will be much closer to those at Vridar.  But the suggestion that it is some invention of the late twentieth century New Testament scholar is simply not true.


Peter Kirby said...

What is more apparent in the last few decades is the rise in the use of the words criteria and criterion. There is greater interest in sussing out the reasoning behind our reasoning. The informal arguments are themselves, for the most part, as old as argument itself.

Rick Sumner said...

This appraisal seems accurate to me. What's interesting is the positivist turn occurs concurrently with the general movement in the study of history toward greater recognition of the role of the historian as an author. Even more interesting, those who grapple most explicitly with the problem (I think here of Crossan, Wright and Meier particularly, though there are others) took the largest steps in that direction. It's as though they addressed the attack by putting their fingers in their ears.

This is particularly odd with Crossan, who really can't be described as an historical positivist, despite his call for a positivist flavor of rigor.

It's just strange. The more I've grappled with theory the more bizarre it seems to me.

Ian said...

I've had a surreal experience where someone derided me on the criteria of embarrassment (which I think is useful, but really can only be said to support one or two claims about Jesus at the most), saying it is stupid, made up and totally spurious. The same person went on to say that they thought the Lord's Supper was based on a Mithras ceremony because Papias (I think - it was a year ago) condemns Mithras worshippers for copying the Lord's supper, and he wouldn't have done that if their ceremony hadn't been exactly the same.

It seems lots of folks have a gut reaction to the name, but no problem with using the technique to back up their views.

VinnyJH57 said...

Whenever there are conflicting versions of events, the historian considers the motivations behind the various accounts in trying to determine the likely truth of the matter. Frequently the question of a witness's self-interest comes into the analysis. This is just the criteria of embarrassment by another name. However, usually the historian is applying the criteria where he knows something about the people giving the various accounts and the circumstances in which they are being given.

The problem with applying the technique to the gospels is that we know next to nothing about the context in which the stories were created or who created them. We are not saying "John Smith would not have made up this particular story at this particular time for this particular reason." We are saying "During decades of oral transmissions over an unknown geographical expanse by unknown people, no one could have possibly thought that the rhetorical purposes served by this particular story outweighed its shortcomings."
That seems like a bit much to me. (It also makes me skeptical about that Roman historian's conclusions.)

Rick Sumner said...


It really is just a stupid name though. I like Sanders' "Against the grain" much better, though that doesn't sound pretentious enough for a monograph. So "Movement against the redactive trend" might have been a better pick.


I agree that it is problematic, but I'm not addressing its application, only the charge that it is an invention of the modern exegete.

I'd be careful transferring problems wholesale across like that though. Roman sources are writing histories, such that we can speak with some confidence in general terms about Roman historiography. The gospels don't have that--they don't start on even footing.