Life of Jesus by Gaudenzio Ferrari

The Resurrection Series Part VIII – Embarrassing Evidence



By Corbin Croy

The criteria of embarrassment is important. Every Christian should take it seriously, and so should every historian. It is a rather simple and intuitive synthesis of information. Its basic principle is that no one will admit to something embarrassing unless they have really good reasons. The reason why the criteria for embarrassment is so important is because it is often cited as proof that Jesus existed. Atheists and other faith scholars will use the criteria for embarrassment to agree with the Christians that Jesus existed.

One such argument goes something like this: if Jesus did not exist, then why would his creators pick Nazareth as his hometown? The assumption made here is that Nazareth is a pretty embarrassing place to come from if you are a religious leader. Not because it was sinful, like Sodom, but because it was virtually unknown. So we can attribute some historicity to the claim that Jesus actually existed because if he had been concocted, then his creators would most likely have chosen a different birth place or home.

The criteria of embarrassment can be tricky, though. As can be imagined, the first response to this method is often “how do we know whether or not something would actually be embarrassing?” Without realizing it, in using the criteria of embarrassment we may just be employing circular reasoning, over-burdening our argument with complex causation, or projecting our own cultural biases into the narrative. So caution does need to be used when considering the criteria for embarrassment, because it is essentially a subjective critique.

Consider the example we just used above. We have further evidence in the narrative to suggest that Jesus’s Nazrareth heritage would have been an embarrassment. First, if Jesus’s entire existence were made up, then the place of his birth would have also been his home. There would be no reason whatsoever to make Jesus be from Nazareth, and then twist the story so he could be born in Bethlehem. Also, Jesus is mocked in the gospels themselves for being from Nazareth, and for all intents and purposes Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth rejected him. The gospel writers had every motive to hide where Jesus came from if they were going to manufacture his entire existence, but the inclusion of such embarrassing material suggests that what they were writing had a sense of history to it, and that who they were writing about actually existed.

We can extrapolate this argument and suggest that because the Gospel writers would have been embarrassed by women witnesses at the empty tomb, we can be relatively certain that such a thing actually did happen. The argument is suggesting that there is no good reason to “make up” a story about women witnesses, because the gospel writers would have been too embarrassed by this. If the empty tomb was intended as a literary construction, then the players and characters in the story would have had much more impressive social attributes. Women were looked down upon and were not believed to be reliable witnesses.

This is a very convincing argument, and it has many great features. The first is that the criteria we have selected is used to determine other historical facts. It is a commonly used tool. The second is that it is relatively intuitive, and the third is that, if successful, it provides a reason to think that the empty tomb was actually a historical event. If, indeed, the gospel writers had no good reason to construct a literary narrative about women discovering an empty tomb, then they would have had to either be outright lying (which we ruled out on a prima facie basis) or have been describing actual history.

Unfortunately, though the argument of criteria for embarrassment is great, the women witnesses argument fails on many accounts to live up to expectations. The first is that the criteria for embarrassment is generally best applied to non-specific historical events. When we used the criteria for Jesus’s existence, we were not interested in specific things Jesus had done, his teachings, or anything else about his life. The criteria was successful in that case because it was being applied to a very non-specific claim. The more specific the claim gets, the harder it is to apply the criteria.

Think of it like this. Imagine that, 2,000  years into the future, a new civilization has emerged on our planet and brings with it new technology, art, culture, and science. They are deeply interested in past civilizations, which helped form their own evolution, and they come across a document called the Declaration of Independence. Now, when they come across the term “Nature’s God,” they could think that the writers were deists, but another man could object and say that making such a document refer to a deistic God would have been too embarrassing at that time, and so it could not be written to deists. Thus, it must actually be directed toward the Christian God. Both assumptions could be seen as fallacious, one being a hasty generalization, and the other being a false dichotomy. Either way, the fault in the criteria applied was that the arguer was making too specific a claim. He could rightly say that referring to a deistic God would have been too embarrassing at that time, however there must have been some agreements and cooperation between deistic and Christian believers at that time. This conclusion is very non-specific and relates to a general truth that is probably true at most points in democratic history. To acknowledge that at the birth of democracy people were cooperating is not too crazy an assertion. So the assertion that the criteria for embarrassment can be applied to such a specific historical event could be overburdening the argument.

The next failure is a big one. Why would it be embarrassing for women to have discovered Jesus’s tomb? The criteria typically is able to note clear reasons why something could be embarrassing, but it is hard to think why such a thing actually would be embarrassing. The typical argument is that women were looked down upon in patriarchal or misogynistic ancient societies and that a woman’s testimony was not allowed in a court of law. This being the case, the argument is still highly oversimplified and becomes a weak analogy. Unless the advocates of the COE (criteria of embarrassment) viewpoint are willing to argue that the gospel writers intended for their gospels to be presented in a court of law as evidence, then the fact that a woman’s testimony was not allowed is hardly relevant.

Additionally, while women may have been looked down upon in ancient cultures, this was not necessarily as misogynistic as it would be today. Women had roles, and these roles may have been unfair, but there is no reason to think that just because ancient societies had a modern injustice for women means that in all matters a woman was simply cast aside. Nor does it mean that it would be embarrassing if a woman actually did something outside of her role to contribute to the development of society. Even in ancient pagan cultures there were women deities, and the roles selected for women were believed by the men to be the most beneficial for the woman. In ancient religions women were often seen as a source of life, vitality, and prosperity. In the seasonal sacrifices, tribute was made to the goddesses of fertility. None of this suggests that at point blank women were categorically shunned from the male-dominated society. So there is no prima facie reason to establish that such an embarrassment existed.

If we can find textual evidence, then perhaps we could reverse our prima facie understanding. Just as we saw in the Gospel narratives, Jesus’s hometown was an embarrassment to him. We have more than just the fact that the story says he was called Jesus of Nazareth. The story also says that Nazareth was small and ridiculed and that the Nazarenes rejected Jesus. So do we see indicators in the Gospels that would suggest that the women’s discovery would be an embarrassment? We do not. In fact, we see the opposite.

The Gospels are some of the most feminist books in the Bible. In these books, we see women who get to be disciples of Jesus. We see Jesus spending almost the same amount of time with women as he does with men. We see Jesus not being coy or overprotective of women. He gives them the same harsh treatment as he does the men, and he praises them and applauds their courage when they stand their ground. Jesus also shows compassion towards prostitutes, which was unparalleled in the NT. If the gospel writers were embarrassed by women gaining recognition, then it does not show in any of the gospel stories.

The women witnesses COE argument lacks non-specific generality, a prima facie justification for the embarrassment to exist, and a contextual synthesis to support it. But more than that, if the COE were true for the women witnesses, then that would make the writers of the gospels, and potentially Jesus and his disciples, condoners of misogyny. Why is this a good thing? Why do we feel the need to disparage the character of the biblical writers in order to make the resurrection more historical?

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