Why Jesus Scholars Should Still Use the Criterion of Embarrassment: Mormon History as a Test Case

Posted by Greg Monette on January 18 2014

One of the most influential historical Jesus scholars of this past generation has been the great Roman Catholic Historian John Meier (Professor of New Testament at Notre Dame). He’s written a series of volumes (titled: A Marginal Jew) on what historians can know about Jesus by applying a strict set of historical criteria. The purpose of these criteria is to put the Gospel stories through a battery of tests by which a select remnant of details would remain that could then be used to construct a portrait of the historical Jesus. One of these criteria is the so-called ‘criterion of embarrassment.’ Meier explains that this criterion “focuses on actions or sayings of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church.” (A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 1 (ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1991), 168.) 

Some examples of possible embarrassing stories pertaining to Jesus include his being accused of being in league with Satan in order to have the power to do exorcisms (Mark 3:22. cf. John 7:20, 10:10). It’s difficult to imagine first century Christians fabricating a story where the Son of God was thought of getting his power from the devil. Another example is the fact that Jesus’ own family members thought he was crazy (Mark 3:21, 33-35; 6:3; John 7:1-10). How about the crucifixion of Jesus? The apostle Paul says that the crucifixion of Jesus was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to non-Jews (1 Cor. 1:23). It’s nearly impossible to imagine what benefit it would have been to the first Christians to create a fictional account of the "Messiah" being executed by the Romans instead of conquering them in battle. Again, most scholars agree that Mark was the first Gospel composed and that Matthew and Luke depended on Mark to some extent. It’s interesting to note the parts of Mark that Matthew and Luke leave out. For example they both leave out the stories in Mark that involve Jesus using spit to heal people. In Mark 7:31-37 Jesus spits on a man to heal him. In Mark 8:22-26 he puts spit on a person’s eyes and has to heal him twice because the first time it didn’t entirely work. They both leave out the account of a young man who runs away naked at Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:51-52). All these stories and many more (like Jesus’ baptism by John the baptist for the remission of “sins”) are difficult to imagine the first followers of Jesus concocting out of thin-air. 

However, in recent times a number of scholars have begun to question the merit of the criteria of authenticity that historians have used when studying the historical Jesus. One of these scholars is Dr. Rafael Rodríguez (Associate Professor of New Testament at Johnson University). Rodríguez has written a very interesting article titled, “The Embarrassing Truth About Jesus: The Criterion of Embarrassment and the Failure of Historical Authenticity” in the book Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (eds. Chris Keith & Anthony Le Donne). I recommend this chapter. That being said, I’m not willing to discard the use of this criterion altogether. In personal conversation with Dale Martin (Professor of New Testament at Yale University) he reasoned that whatever set of criteria scholars used for studying the stories in the New Testament concerning Jesus should be useful for studying any other figure or event in history. I believe Martin makes an excellent point. In the next couple of paragraphs I’m going to use Mormon history as a test case to show why this criterion can still have merit in certain circumstances. Please note that I don’t think any historical criterion works all the time. Criteria are tools that need to be used properly. 

I’ve been reading an excellent little book published by Princeton University Press titled The Book of Mormon: A Biography. In this interesting biography on the history of the Book of Mormon, Paul C. GutJahr explains that when Joseph Smith was translating the supposed golden plates he depended on the help of a man named Martin Harris. Gutjahr writes:

“From April through June of 1828, the two men sat at a table with a curtain dividing them as Joseph used the “interpreters” to painstakingly dictate the plates’ message. By the middle of June, they had translated 116 pages of what later became known as the Book of Lehi. The work was so arduous , and Joseph’s claims at times so unbelievable, that Harris began to question once again whether Joseph was indeed translating ancient plates or simply making a fool of him in order to swindle him out of his money. As the word proceeded, Harris repeatedly asked to see the plates and repeatedly Joseph refused. Not even granted a glimpse of the plates, Harris began to doubt the entire endeavor. Nursing his own doubts and stinging from the persistent skepticism of his wife, Harris began to beg that he might at least be permitted to take the manuscript [the translation) home to show his family…At last Joseph relented…Harris [took] a solemn oath that he would carefully guard the work and reveal it only to the five people he had named…. The decision proved a disastrous one….In a matter of days, the manuscript disappeared. No one is sure what became of it, but Joseph’s mother, Lucy, suspected Harris’s wife of stealing the manuscript to destroy it or alter it in such a way that if Joseph chose to retranslate the section she would be able to expose the work as a fraud by pointing to discrepancies between the original translation and a later one…. As they neared the end of their work on the plates, Joseph once again had to confront Harris’s loss of 116 manuscript pages. After praying for guidance concerning how best to handle these lost pages, Joseph reportedly received a revelation that he was not to retranslate this particular portion of the plates. Doubters might use contradictions between manuscripts to discredit  the work as a whole if the missing 116 pages ever reappeared. Instead, Joseph was instructed to translated a new set of plates he later identified as the “Small Plates of Nephi.” (Paul C. Gutjahr, The Book of Mormon: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 20-25.)

As I read this it smacks of being historically reliable. Why on earth would Mormons have preserved this tradition unless it were true? I find it extremely difficult to imagine a loyal follower of Mormonism fabricating a story of Joseph Smith deciding not to retranslate the golden plates at the point where the 116 manuscript pages had gone missing. This gives ammunition to skeptics of Mormonism. One could argue very easily that if Joseph was truly translating the plates with the help of the “interpreter” or the seer stones (which he claimed to have access to for interpreting the ancient markings on the “plates”) that he would have been able to retranslate the plates where he had already previously done so where the 116 pages went missing. This is a prime example of how the criterion of embarrassment still has value for modern day historians when studying historical documentation from the past. If this criterion can work for studying Mormonism it can also work for studying the history of the crusades, the rise of the Roman Empire, the life of Mahatma Gandhi, and that of Jesus of Nazareth.   

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