British actress Miranda Hart once said, “Life is a series of embarrassing moments which leave you feeling alone in your confusion and shame.” Oftentimes, our embarrassing moments make us so ashamed that we tend to hide our feelings from the public.
That being the case, why would anyone deliberately publish writings that expose their most unflattering moments, particularly if they were making up a new religious movement? The criterion of embarrassment can help in determining the answer.
History Is Written By The Victors
Churchill once said that “history is written by the victors.” He’s not wrong. Think of ancient kings like Cyrus the Great and the Cyrus Cylinder, which describes the conquest of Babylon. The Cylinder contains descriptions of: Cyrus as the “ruler of the world” (appointed by Marduk); the inhabitants of Babylon as elated that he was their new king; and details of many other positive exploits. In fact, many historians liken the Cyrus Cylinder to an ancient form of propaganda.
At church this past Saturday, my pastor was going over Isaiah 43:22-28 and particularly in verse 27, God says to the Israelites, “From the very beginning, your ancestors sinned against me – all your leaders broke my laws.” (NLT)
My pastor made an off-the-cuff remark about how, if he was going to make up a story, he certainly wouldn’t include information that would make him look bad. That got me thinking about what some in apologetic circles call the Criterion (or Principal) of Embarrassment.
The Criterion of Embarrassment
The criterion of embarrassment is described as a tool employed by some historians to affirm the authenticity of a historical account by determining if the story would in some way embarrass the author. If the story would embarrass the author for publishing it, the probability of the story’s veracity increases.
Does that sound weird?
Let me put it this way: think of the most embarrassing moment in your own life. Now, would you want that story published and distributed to hundreds or thousands of people? Probably not. If there are events in our lives that tend to wound our pride, we usually keep them to ourselves, or go out of our way to diminish those events by puffing up our accomplishments.
While embarrassing testimony is alone not enough to ensure historical reliability—early, eyewitness testimony is also necessary (which the New Testament has)—the principle of embarrassment is even more pronounced in the New Testament. The people who wrote down much of the New Testament are characters (or friends of characters) in the story, and they often depict themselves an extremely unflattering light. Their claims are not likely to be invented.
Vishal Mangalwadi worked through this process of understanding the criterion of embarrassment in his publication, “The Book That Made Your World“:
“…Our folk history told us of great and glorious rulers. This Jewish book, in contrast, told me about the wickedness of Jewish rulers. Why?…”
One could even argue that Christianity itself was an “embarrassing” belief in the first and second centuries . While discussing 1 Corinthians 1:18 and the Koine Greek word “ἐσταυρωμένον” (i.e. “crucified”), Dr. James White pointed out:
“…that verb was almost considered…off-color language by many people in the first century. It conjured up images of such disgust in the minds of so many people, that in polite company, there were some people who would never even use it…I mean, when I hear people talking about how Paul made up this religion and all the rest of this stuff…I just have to laugh. It’s so foolish. It is so foolish for anybody to think that this would be an attractive thing in the days of Paul.”
Not An Exact Science
The criterion of embarrassment isn’t perfect. For example, many believe the story of Romulus and Remus to be mythology. Yet, Romulus was said to have killed his brother. That’s certainly embarrassing, but it certainly doesn’t help establish a case for the story’s historicity. In fact, regardless of “embarrassing testimony” we know the story of Romulus and Remus to be fictional.
In the case of the Bible and the New Testament, however, the case is strengthened by archaeological finds that support the New Testament narrative on a historical level. (See here, here and here for just a few examples.)
To be sure, all by itself, the fact that the Bible recorded embarrassing details about the people within its pages doesn’t prove anything in and of itself. However, it’s just another layer in the cumulative case for the truth of Christianity.