On his blog, Jim West (here) pointed to a email roundtable discussion found on the Slate website - here.
The first email in this discussion was by Alan Segal and he raised a point that I have an issue with: this 'criterion of dissimilarity' and its usage here.
"One criterion is that the story has to have a context in Judaism, as Jesus was born and died a Jew. Another criterion is that multiple sources in the early New Testament must attest to the story. But the most important arrow in the scholarly quiver has been and remains "the criterion of dissimilarity." The criterion sets a high standard: For scholars to arrive at an undoubted fact about the life of Jesus, they must eliminate as possibly biased everything that is in the interest of the early church to tell us. Conversely, for a fact about Jesus to be deemed historical, it must not be in the interest of the church to report it. It must be, in effect, an embarrassment for the early church. Thus, the criterion of dissimilarity is sometimes called the criterion of embarrassment."
.... and ....
"For all the rigor of the standard it sets, the criterion demonstrates that Jesus existed."
Well. Hmmm... I can't help but disagree with this conclusion.
The "criterion of dissimilarity", it seems to me, can only demonstrate that the story of Jesus, as passed down to us, includes details that were probably embarrassing to the early Church. It really does nothing more than this, because it is not able to do anything more. Is it not limited to stating that we indeed, have a story with some embarrassing details?
(If I am missing something crucial here, please let me know, because of course, it is very possible...) But it seems to me that making assumptions about the gospel story in general, based on the 'criterion of dissimilarity', such as making the statement that "the criterion demonstrates that Jesus existed" seems quite a stretch.
First of all, we have to take into account: just because a detail must have been embarrassing, does not make the detail true. When faced with the existence of such a detail, all we can safely say is that the Church was unable to successfully combat it, eradicate it, or expunge it — but whether it is 'true' or an accurate 'fact', we still cannot say for certain.
Any one of these 'embarrassing' details has survived to this day almost certainly because of other, quite straightforward reasons. One possibility is that the traditions surrounding each of these enduring embarrassments were too strong; the Church had met too much resistence whenever it tried to eradicate them. Another possibility, (perhaps more likely than the first), is that the structure of extant religious tradition was too dependent upon these particular details. The removal of even one of these offending story-features would too drastically effect the overall structure and require far too much re-working and re-interpretation, so the embarrassing details have been reluctantly tolerated.