The criterion of embarrassment

How can a Christian answer the question, “Why, or how, do you believe the Bible is true? How do know it wasn’t just made up?” One of the most compelling answers I have to a question like that is the criterion of embarrassment.

The Criterion of Embarrassment

The criterion of embarrassment says that the writers of the Bible include “embarrassing” stories because they’re true stories. They want truthfulness more than they want to seal off the loose ends.

But a 5-minute google search of “criterion of embarrassment” will lead you to a few critiques. Not everyone is convinced that this criterion, or way of looking at the Bible, proves very much. These critiques point out the ways in which this criterion often gets misused and stretched. And it’s true. It has weaknesses and limitations. In order to explain what exactly the criterion of embarrassment is (for those who’ve never heard about it), and to address these critiques before moving on, I’ve given three qualification or limitations below.

Limitations

A Greek manuscript of Matthew’s Gospel

  1. The criterion of embarrassment doesn’t argue that every embarrassing story is true. If this were the case, we could go to one of the “apocryphal” gospels (gospel of Judas, gospel of Thomas), find a really strange story about Jesus, and argue for it’s truthfulness this same way. But it wouldn’t work. Here’s why:

  2. The criterion of embarrassment is like a table top that supports conclusions only if it is supported by sturdy legs: the witness of the church. This is crucial. A story’s truthfulness can only be established if the eyewitness of the events themselves, the early church, already witnessed and fought for a story’s place in the scriptures. Once you combine #1 with #2, you get this principle:
  3. Stories aren’t necessarily true because they’re embarrassing, but embarrassing stories must have been true if they were deliberately included in the scriptures. Truthfulness and witness is at the foundation of this criterion. Not necessarily embarrassment. So you can’t go to an embarrassing story and say it’s true simply because it’s embarrassing. I could make up a lot of stories about Jesus and say they should be included because they’re embarrassing. But you can (and should) go to an “embarrassing” story, one that reflects badly on the disciples for example, and ask of it, “why is this here? Why wasn’t it taken out? Why was it defended?” That’s the strength of this criterion.

All that is pretty theoretical. So here’s a real example.

Peter’s Embarrassment

Peter was one of the first followers of Jesus and later became a major leader in the early church. When he followed Jesus and heard his teaching, he frequently misunderstood. Luke tells us about a time when Jesus asked his 12 closest followers:

And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.”

We know, from the end of the story, who Jesus claims to be: the Christ, the Savior of the world. His conclusion about himself is clear enough. But he turns the question on his followers:

 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” [Luke 9:18-20 ESV]

Peter seems to have the answer right. He seems to know who Jesus is. But later we find out that he actually doesn’t. When Jesus tells Peter that he (Jesus) will eventually be crucified by the Romans, this happens:

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him [Jesus], saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” [Mark 8:32-33 ESV]

Peter thinks that Jesus is out of his mind for all this talk about suffering, being rejected, and being killed. And he’s got it completely wrong. He’s totally misunderstood Jesus’ mission and message. And his mistake is now recorded in the Bible for us to remember, almost 2000 years later.

Why This Matters

This is an embarrassing story for the early church. They have to admit that one of their leaders didn’t really understand who Jesus was. There’s a lot of things you could make mistakes about and still be alright; but Jesus’ identity isn’t really one of those.

Is this really the guy that you want to head up your made-up/make-believe church? (In Acts, the “history book” of the early church, Peter is one of the major leaders) If you were making this all up, wouldn’t you smooth out this minor (…major) mistake of his?

You would. If you were making it all up. And that’s the point. If the church didn’t have such an overwhelming desire to be truthful and honest, they would’ve simply removed this story. But here it is.

When you consider the limitations above, and apply that important qualifier of “the witness of the church,” you can form a statement like, “I know that this story isn’t true just because it’s embarrassing, but why wouldn’t the church remove this embarrassing story if they could’ve? Why was it defended and included in the Gospels?”

I think the only conclusion to that question would be to say that it really is a true story. The criterion of embarrassment is a good reason to believe that the what we read in the Bible really, actually, happened.

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