In a recent episode of the NT Pod (mp3 here), Mark Goodacre takes a swipe at the criterion of embarrassment, suggesting that it makes little sense that the gospel writers were embarrassed by anything they reported, especially by accounts like Jesus’ baptism by John which are found in all four gospels. “If I’m embarrassed by something,” says Mark in an earlier episode, “I prefer not to talk about it, quite frankly.”
But I don’t think it’s necessarily true that avoidance is always the answer to embarrassment, especially if the gospel writers represent communities to which they are hostage. Within those communities, surely some believers were more embarrassed than others. The baptism tradition may have also had an important catechismal function for the early Christians. The evangelists had creative license, to be sure, but they didn’t write in a vacuum; they were kept in check by deeply entrenched traditions. I don’t see a problem with the idea that beliefs can remain cherished despite a nervousness owing to other evolving beliefs. Human beings are bundles of contradictions in any case, especially in the religious realm. In my view, Jesus’ baptism by John remains a classic case where the apologetic process, and nervous trajectory across the gospels, is so obvious to be a given.
Having said this, I nevertheless agree with many of Goodacre’s cautionary flags, in particular his discussion of Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is thought by many to be embarrassing, but which actually squares cleanly with (gospel writer) Mark’s agenda of consoling and vindicating those who suffer as Jesus did. Goodacre also rightly notes how scholars often use the criterion uncritically, or suspiciously seem to apply it after the fact, as if going in with the intention to prove something they like in the gospels. It’s as if criteria like embarrassment are used as conveniences from a grab-bag, instead of really testing them critically. Mark says, scoldingly:
“You don’t take texts at face value; you don’t just look at the propaganda of the texts and accept them. What you do is you cross-examine them; you treat them as a hostile witness. And then you try and work out from looking at those texts the information they don’t particularly want to yield up, but which we can tease out of them.”
In fact, I have to confess that having defended what I take to be an obvious case of embarrassment (John’s baptism of Jesus), there aren’t many other instances where the criterion really works.
But furthermore, even in the rare cases where the gospel writers are embarrassed by something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it stands a strong chance of going back to Jesus. It just means that it goes back — to a time when the idea wasn’t embarrassing. My favorite case in point is Jesus’ foolish prediction that the end would come in his lifetime (“I say to you that there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power”, Mk 9:1). That’s truly embarrassing, for it makes Jesus wrong, and the gospel writers of course tried making lemonade out of it with the transfiguration. But does this imply so strongly that it’s historical? Not really, in my view; it only slightly increases the likelihood. For a saying like this could just have easily been created in a first-generation church that was getting impatient for Jesus’ return as its members were dying off. Mk 9:1 would have then served as an “assurance” text, somewhat like I Thess 4:13-18 or I Cor 15:51-53, where in each case instruction, assurance, and consolation are given in response to particular concerns. In this case, the answer is, “Don’t worry, Jesus is indeed coming again, and some of you will still be alive when it happens.” Only at the point when all disciples and first followers died off would the saying become scandalous.
The case of Jesus’ baptism by John is embarrassing like the failed prophecy: Mark decorates the baptism, Matthew gets defensive over it, Luke evades it (by removing John as the baptizer), and John outright censors it. That’s embarrassment — with all due respect to Mark G. — or I don’t know the meaning of the word. But does that mean it’s historical? In this case, probably. Unlike the mistaken prophecy of Mk 9:1, I can’t think of a compelling reason why early Christians would have wanted to invent the idea of their “sinless savior” undergoing a ritual that served the purpose of washing away sin. There may have been a good reason, of course; those early years are murky, and we simply don’t know when Jesus became viewed as so pure. But as likelihoods go, I think this one stands the test of time.
Disagreeing with Mark Goodacre (in part, at least) is a bit fun, since I rarely get a chance to do it. Too often I share his skepticism of things taken for granted in NT studies. But do listen to his podcasts and make up your own mind.