I didn’t think to write a second part of this article, but there is an issue with mythicists in general that really upsets me, and it has to do with their criticism of the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity as possible pointers toward Jesus’ historicity.
The argument in general as advocated by Robert Price and Richard Carrier, among others, goes like this (and I hope not to misrepresent their positions):
The arguments from embarrassment and dissimilarity are seriously flawed, because if the Gospel writers were “embarrassed” by the information they were sharing or told something that contradicted their narrative, they would not have included it in the text. Actually, if it was included, it is because it proves a point that the Gospel writer is trying to make.
Here is a fuller description of this rejection. I disagree with this statement, but to illustrate my point, I want to show how it is used, not only in New Testament criticism, but in actual historiographical labor regarding other historical subjects.
Eusebius and an Angry Constantine Not Caring about Christ
It is known and very well established by scholars that Eusebius of Caesarea is not exactly the best reliable source in the universe if you want to know anything about the actual history of Christianity or what happened during the Emperor Constantine’s reign. Recently, Donald Robertson wrote an excellent article on how Eusebius seems to have made up the persecution against Christians supposedly engaged by Marcus Aurelius. The statement agrees fully with what scholars have found about stories of martyrdom in early Christianity, and which have been publicized by Candida Moss’ excellent book, The Myth of Persecution. In his article, Robertson quotes Eusebius himself when he states in one of his writings:
“That it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment.”
Jakob Buckhardt, the nineteenth century historian of Antiquity, is famous for characterizing Eusebius as a compulsive liar, needless to say that for him, the description of Eusebius as “historian” does not fit well, but rather “propagandist”.
Therefore, if you want to read a book such as Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, we should expect more propaganda than and actual systematic objective narrative. For instance, most people think that Constantine’s apparition of the Cross in the heavens as told by that book is historical, and that it was the point where he converted to Christianity. Yet, when we go to the Arch of Constantine, which commemorates his victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge, there is no sign of Christ anywhere, nor of the Labarum, nor the chi-rho symbol that supposedly he saw with the Labarum, nor do his soldiers appear with it inscribed in their shields. We see evidence, though, of an homage to Sol Invictus. Needless to say that Constantine used Sol Invictus’ symbolism everywhere, from his statue, to coins, to legislation, etc. In fact, no one else knows Eusebius’ account of his conversion (notoriously different from Lactantius), and he says that Constantine told him the story in secret and under oath (!) (see Book 1, ch. 28). Yes we agree that the chi-rho sign was distinctive of Constantine’s reign and we have evidence for it (and the use of the Labarum), but is it clear that it is a Christian symbol? Some scholars dispute it, given that the earliest account of an actual vision apparently as told publicly by Constantine himself, occurred in 310 CE, where the Sol Invictus and the goddess Victory handed him a military standard with the description of a symbol that is suspiciously similar to the chi-rho sign. Of course, nobody was able to ask Constantine about any of the claims of the apparition of the Cross, given that when Eusebius’ book was written, the “sole eye-witness who swore this under oath to him and no one else” was dead.
Yet, not everything that Eusebius wrote about Constantine is a lie. Some of the facts he tells us did happen, perhaps not in the way he portrays it. Besides, there are many aspects where Eusebius seems to be surprisingly honest. For instance, when he reproduces Constantine’s own letters and official documents. How do we know that he didn’t distort them? Mainly because of … the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity. AS in the case of the Gospels, these letters actually served Eusebius to make an immediate point in his narrative, BUT by using this information, he reveals Constantine’s true attitudes towards Christianity that do not serve the author on other grounds.
If Eusebius’ writings are apologetic to the core, then we must ask, what was the purpose of his Life of Constantine? Apparently, from reading the text, and what we know about his exaggerated claims and omission of information, we can infer that Eusebius wanted to show Constantine as a Christian model, following the archetypal path of Biblical figures such as Moses and David. That is what we see page after page of Eusebius accounts. There is no question about it in the realm of scholarly Antiquity. Yet, in order to tell us about the Council of Niscea, and Constantine’s role in it, he has to tell us about Alexander and Arius’ dispute about the nature of Christ: Was Christ a lower divinity in the same nature as the Father, but not God Himself? Or was He as God as God the Father, coeternal and cosubstantial?
For Constantine, this was not a trivial matter, but not because he was bothered subjectively regarding this Christian conviction. He was worried because the dispute was generating a level of conflict that literally was tearing apart his Empire, the one he fought so hard for so many years to unify. Eusebius tells us that when he knew about this dispute, he was deeply saddened by it. In order to find unity among Christians, he wrote a letter calling Arius and Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, to peace. Because the letter itself could not resolve this dispute, Constantine called for a Council to decide this debate once after all. In this sense, the letter served Eusebius’ point, that Constantine cared for the peace and unity of Christians (a real Peacemaker with a capital “P”), especially by calling for a Council that decided what was the Truth (with a capital “T”).
Yet, if we read the letter itself, we can see Constantine’s true attitude towards the whole subject. His motives were political, not doctrinal in any sense. He couldn’t care less about whether Arius or Alexander was right. He wanted a unified Empire. This is transparent in the letter. Here are some observations about it (if you want to read the letter in its entirety, see Book II, chs. 64-72). From the letter we get that Constantine condemns Arius and Alexander, both, for disputing about a subject he describes with these words:
- “… having made a careful inquiry into the origin and foundation of these differences, I find the cause to be of a truly insignificant character, and quite unworthy of such fierce contention” (ch. 68, my emphasis)
- “I should say, that you [Alexander] asked them something connected with an unprofitable question, then you, Arius, inconsiderately insisted on what ought never to have been conceived at all, or if conceived, should have been buried in profound silence” (ch. 69, my emphasis).
- “For those points of discussion which are enjoined by the authority of no law, but rather suggested by the contentious spirit which is fostered by misused leisure, even though they may be intended merely as an intellectual exercise, ought certainly to be confined to the region of our own thoughts, and not hastily produced in the popular assemblies, nor unadvisedly entrusted to the general ear. For how very few are there able either accurately to comprehend, or adequately to explain subjects so sublime and abstruse in their nature?” (ibid., my emphasis).
- “For as long as you continue to contend about these small and very insignificant questions, it is not fitting that so large a portion of God’s people should be under the direction of your judgment, since you are thus divided between yourselves. I believe it indeed to be not merely unbecoming, but positively evil, that such should be the case.” (ch. 71, my emphasis)
- “But let us still more thoughtfully and with closer attention examine what I have said, and see whether it be right that, on the ground of some trifling and foolish verbal difference between ourselves, brethren should assume towards each other the attitude of enemies, and the august meeting of the Synod be rent by profane disunion, because of you who wrangle together on points so trivial and altogether unessential? This is vulgar, and rather characteristic of childish ignorance, than consistent with the wisdom of priests and men of sense.” (ibid., my emphasis)
- “And this I say without in any way desiring to force you to entire unity of judgment in regard to this truly idle question, whatever its real nature may be. For the dignity of your synod may be preserved, and the communion of your whole body maintained unbroken, however wide a difference may exist among you as to unimportant matters” (ibid., my emphasis)
- “For while the people of God, whose fellow-servant I am, are thus divided among themselves by an unreasonable and pernicious spirit of contention, how is it possible that I shall be able to maintain tranquility of mind?” (ch. 72, my emphasis)
And HERE is where the criterion of embarrassment (and also dissimilarity) kicks in!
Does this letter serve Eusebius? Again, yes, it does! Read in its totality, it serves to point out how much of a peacemaker he was towards Christians, and how concerned he was for “true peace” within the one true Catholic Church.
Yet, it also contains elements that do not favor the main thesis of his book! How likely is it, that Eusebius would make up a letter that has so much unflattering things to say about both sides of the discussion (including the “orthodox” side represented by Alexander)? There is next to no chance, since we know that Eusebius is notorious for distorting facts to his brand of Christianity. How likely is it that Eusebius would make Constantine regard the issue as “unimportant”, “a trivial and foolish verbal difference”, “positively evil”, and so on? Minute, almost non-existent. Yet, these elements are there for one reason… and one reason only: because historically, Constantine did write the letter, and because he did not care about Christology. This is the criterion of embarrassment in action! This is why it is useful in the field of history.
We are still left with a question. Why couldn’t he just forge the letter? For one simple reason: that he is still living in a time where Constantine just died, but his advisers, his friends, his militia, his scribes, Arian friends of the Emperor (like Eusebius of Nicomedia), and so on, were still living. He would have been caught with the forgery if that happened.
In general, it is unlikely that Eusebius could have made up material that would be contrary to his intent of presenting Constantine as a devout Christian, and in such “embarrassing” levels. Yet, he still used the letter, because despite of some of its content, it “proves” that Constantine was a Peacemaker.
Is this criterion a sort of the criterion of dissimilarity? Yes. And all of the above shows that these criteria are useful in History as a discipline.
The Criteria of Embarrassment and Dissimilarity in New Testament Scholarship
How does this apply to the New Testament? In our previous post, we saw that Jesus’ baptism was an inconvenient factor for all of the Gospels’ authors. They are not properly speaking “embarrassed” on the whole of the story, in the sense that it deals with how Jesus was actually declared Son of God at the moment of his baptism. As a matter of fact, the whole episode in the Synoptic reads like a prophet anointing a new king (just like Samuel anointed David). This is emphasized apparently in Luke, in whose original text (or at least according to some scholars) the Holy Spirit appears pronouncing the verses of Psalm 2, regarding the king being begotten as the Son of God (Ps. 2:7; Lk. 3:22).
But still, any attentive reader should feel nagged by the premise of John’s baptism: this is a baptism of confession and repentance of sins! That’s why people were being baptized by him. Why did Jesus go there? Why not just begin his ministry separately from John the Baptist. The historical answer is that Jesus began as John’s disciple. In order to eliminate the inconvenience of this undeniable fact, the Gospel writers (specifically Mark’s Gospel) changed the meaning of his baptism: Jesus’ is not a baptism of confession and repentance of sins; in this particular case, it was an “anointing” by a known prophet. Then, according to Mark, Jesus had a vision and knew that he was the Son of God … even though he never said that publicly!
An this fact is another inconvenience. What is the evidence that Jesus was the Son of God? The problem, Mark would say, is that when he was recognized as the Son of God by demons or others, he ordered them to shut up; but his disciples were supposed to know, yet never understood him. There is no debate among scholars that this claim, as absurd as it sounds, is the literary motif of that Gospel. Don’t believe me? Read that Gospel from beginning to end! That’s the whole idea! Even after his resurrection, the women never told the disciples about those news (remember that the Gospel actually ends in Mark 16:8, the rest of the verses were a later addition).
Why? Again, Mark wanted to explain why Jesus historically never appeared to have called himself Son of God in public, and wanted to explain away why the Messiah, who knew since his baptism that He was the Son of God, never revealed it publicly: because he either shut people up about it, or he was misunderstood by his disciples.
If we go to the other synoptic Gospels, we find another inconvenience for both of their authors. This time, their common source, the Q text, tells us about John’s reaction when he heard the news about Jesus’ activity. According to Q (or at least what it supposedly should have said, Q is a hypothetical document):
The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” ’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me’ (Lk. 7:18-23; Mt. 11:2-6).
Of course, this served both Matthew and Luke regarding their immediate point: to confirm the authors’ conviction that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the miracles that he carried out proved without a doubt that he was “the one who is to come”. Yet, now a question nags: “But, wait a second! According to Matthew, John actually did know that Jesus was the Messiah (Matt. 3:14)! And in Luke, even when John didn’t baptize Jesus, he was a close relative of his and should have known all of the fantastic stuff that happened to Joseph, Mary, Zechariah, and his mother Elisabeth, and he must have known that Jesus was the Messiah, right? (Lk. 1-2)” If you follow both Gospels, John should have known better than to ask that inconvenient question, and yet, historically speaking, John seems not to have known that Jesus was “the one to come”. Still with that problematic issue, both Gospel writers used it to prove their immediate point, that Jesus’ activity did show that he was the Messiah, and THAT was included in Jesus’ reply to John. This is the reason why scholars think that most probably this event of John sending his disciples to ask Jesus actually took place.
Now, why didn’t any of the Gospel writers follow the path of the Gospel of John, of omitting (or even denying) that Jesus was baptized? Very simple! Because Mark’s account, which is the basis for both Matthew’s and Luke’s, apparently collected early traditions among Christians. Besides, through critical scholarly analyses, we know that during the first century, John the Baptist also had disciples, and his sect gradually became confrontational with Christians. This can be shown in John’s Gospel, when (apparently responding to this sect) states clearly that John was not the Light, but he was a “witness to the Light” (John 1:6-8). Also, it was widely known at the time, that the custom of Baptism in Christianity had its roots from John’s activity as a baptizer. The author of the Gospel of John is far enough from that historical moment in order to omit (or deny?) that Jesus was ever baptized by John. Not so in the case of the earlier Gospels, whose writing took place when a wide variety of people, including Christians, did know that Jesus was baptized by John. Besides, the Gospels reflect an admiration for John that was shared by all Christians … they just think that Jesus was greater than John.
Note: If you want to read how can scholars have an idea of the disputes between Christians and the followers of John the Baptist, read Raymond Brown’s book, The Community of the Beloved Disciple.
So, they didn’t change the fact of the event initially, but rather changed the meaning of the event. This was at the beginning, but as I showed in my previous post, at least from a literary point of view, the first account of Jesus’ baptism shows him being baptized by John; in the second account (Matthews’) we see a bit of an effort of the Gospel writer to explain this fact; then in the third account (Luke’s) Jesus’ baptism is dissociated from John; until finally (in John’s Gospel0, Jesus was not baptized by John, nor baptized at all.
Everything in all four Gospels points at some level of “embarrassment” regarding these issues. The only explanation for why they initially had to tell the story, is because historically Jesus was baptized by John, and everyone knew that. If THAT is the case, then Jesus is not a fictional or mythical character of a story, and most probably (to the point of almost absolute certainty) he truly existed.
The Limits of the Criterion of Embarrassment
Is this criterion infallible? Absolutely not. There are cases where it fails, and mythicists are right that it can fail often. Yet they forget some important factors:
- To discard this criterion because it fails sometimes does not mean that it will fail all of the time. We can see in this article at least four cases where it clearly shows that it does help us obtain some historical information: 1. that Jesus was baptized, 2. that he never claimed to be the Son of God, 3.that John didn’t know about Jesus being “the one to come”, and 4. that Constantine wrote a very unflattering letter to Christians and didn’t care about Christology.
- They give the public the impression that these limits are not being discussed among New Testament scholars.
Regarding this second point, this is simply untrue. The limits of the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity are widely discussed by scholars in the field and are very well known (see here, here, here and here). However, we have several good news:
- Although these criteria have a subjective degree that it cannot be denied, their discussion with scholars who hold very different points of view on the matter help refine their methodological use, given that they cannot be mechanically applied to everything (e.g. to Jesus’ cry of Psalm 22 on the Cross).
- These discussions also help combining these criteria with several others (criteria of coherence, consistency, social and cultural context, literary style and message, etc.)
- Mythicists often complain against these criteria saying that many ancient writings contradict themselves. Yet, what they miss is that often these contradictions are examined by critical scholars and historians in order to explain them. When it is a appropriate, guess which two criteria (among many others) do they have in mind when they examine them?
In all this discussion, let’s remember that not only the NT reconstruction of the “historical Jesus”, but also all of the History is this incredibly difficult process of arming a coherent jigsaw puzzle that takes the bits and pieces left to us from the past (documents, archaeological discoveries, etc.) and reconstruct the past into the best picture we are able to. This is the reason why people often we see historians “revising” history. This is not because there was an original infallible picture of what happened in the past, and then those “damned liberal” historians want to distort it … History is rather an ongoing process of refining its methods, reevaluating the evidence, and refining their historical theories using criteria (all of themfallible) to formulate the best theoretical picture we have of what actually happened in the past.
Like the natural sciences, this happens frequently. Unlike the natural sciences, this is not an exact hard discipline like Physics. Finding an accurate picture of the past is a lot harder and includes a lot of things that Physics doesn’t have to deal with: for example, cognitive science, sociology, economics, political science, and so on.
So, if anything, we have shown once again the validity of the arguments of embarrassment and dissimilarity, and saw how they point at the fact of an actual historical Jesus.