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The Criterion of Embarrassment

There’s an element of purposeful perversity in Jesus scholarship that’s both entertaining and provocative: that the claim that the way you have most confidence that Jesus actually said something, is that it seems to be something that he never would have said, which makes perfect logical sense.  That is, that if there’s, if there’s a statement or tradition…most famous one is that Mark, the Gospel of Mark, begins with Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John the Baptist (or the John the Baptizer, as some like to call him). 

And, clearly, if you’re making a case that this guy is God, this guy is the unique, anointed one, the Messiah, you really wouldn’t want him to be playing second banana at any point in his life to someone else.  So the claim is, if that hadn’t actually happened, if that wasn’t a well-established tradition, you would never invent it; that wouldn’t be something that you would make up as a story.  Therefore, it’s as likely as anything to be a kernel, a nub of real, historical authenticity. 

So, that practice—and it extends, of course, to Jesus’ sayings—the hard sayings are likely to be true, then [as opposed to] the lovable sayings because you would always invent a lovable saying and you wouldn’t invent a hard saying; that’s a striking and as I say, both amusing and very persuasive line of argument. 

The complaint about biblical scholarship always and especially New Testament scholarship, is that it’s improvised at the moment’s need. That is, on the one hand you have a criterion of multiple attestation—the more people who say it, the likelier it is to be true.  On the other hand, you say, the more improbable it is, the likelier it is to be true.  These are very different, these are very different criteria; and you can make either one a persuasive case.  You can say, well, you wouldn’t have kept in a hard thing, so that must be true. 

On the other hand, if everybody says that something happened, the crucifixion itself, let’s say, then it must have happened! And, of course, the arguments (to the degree that there are arguments for the miraculous side of the New Testament stories) all rest, essentially, on multiple attestations, saying, well, they wouldn’t all have said that they saw him after he was dead unless they’d actually seen him.  Whereas the skeptic’s response to that, is: but that’s exactly the kind of story that gets repeated and echoed.  There is a kind of echo-chamber effect in all legendary stories; the more you say them, the more they’re set.

  • Adam Gopnik

    Adam Gopnik is a staff writer for The New Yorker  magazine. His recent books of essays include Paris to the Moon (2000) and Through the Children’s Gate (2006).