Thursday, December 22, 2005

'criterion of dissimilarity'

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.


Matt Brown said...

I don't know if this blog is still active but i noticed this in a google search. I think you are confusing two different criteria. I believe that you are conflating the criterion of embarrassment and the criterion of dissimilarity. I see this is also something that was conflated by the person who you were responding to.
The criterion of embarrassment of embarrassment states that: If an account contains records that are embarrassing to the author or anyone or anything that the author has a vested interest in, then the account has a higher probability of being historical than if the account didn't contain an embarrassing record.
The criterion of dissimularity: If an account records a(n) event/idea/set of words that are dissimilar to contemporary events/ideas/sets of words and is also dissimilar to the events/ideas/sets of words of that which followed the the account, then it has a higher probability of being historical than if the account is similar to either their contemporaries or following events/ideas/sets of words.

The criterion of dissimilarity is one that has been used my the most liberal of scholars. For example, The Jesus Seminar relies heavily on this criterion. The reason why scholars take it so seriously is because it is by its nature a radically skeptical criterion. It is specifically an especially powerful criterion against the mythic hypothesis. The mythic hypothesis suggests that the idea of the person Jesus grew out of the stories and religions of the surrounding 1st century culture. The data that is gathered from the criterion of dissimilarity about Jesus flies in the face of this assumption by the mythicist's assumption.

The criterion of embarrassment also provides a powerful argument against the mythic assumption that the gospel stories about Jesus were complete fabrications. If the gospel stories were made up, apparently to spread the christian religion, then the question arises: why are these embarrassing things in the gospels.? One example of this is that in all four gospels the first witnesses to the empty tomb and in Matthew and John they are the first witnesses to have seen Jesus alive. Critical scholars take this seriously because of the perceived unreliability of women testimony for 1st century Jews. As evidence of this I offer the following references.

[A "prayer" or "benediction" to be said by a Jewish man every day: "Thank God for not making me a Gentile, a woman or a slave."]
(Menachoth 43b-44a).

“But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex;…”
(Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15).

“Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer) … “
(Talmud, Rosh Hashana 1.8c).

Therefore, the accounts given in the gospels of women being the first witnesses to the empty tomb and resurrection would have been embarrassing to the early Christians. Now there are open question in terms of history, but the historicity of Jesus is not one of them.

I will close with the words of N.T. Wright.
“As historians we are obliged to comment that if these stories had been made up five years later, let alone thirty, forty, or fifty years later, they would never had had Mary Magdalene in this role. To put Mary there is, from the point of view of Christian apologists wanting to explain to a skeptical audience that Jesus really did rise from the dead, like shooting themselves in the foot. But to us as historians this kind of thing is gold dust. The early Christians would never, never have made this up”
– N.T. Wright, in There is a God (2007), p. 207

Anonymous said...

Wow, Matt. Thank you for the effort you made in your comment.
And I must say: this situation of looking at a seven-year-old post of mine is a bit awkward. It took some moments to even recall making it!

Well, looking-up 'criterion of embarrassment' (on wikipedia--and yes: |eyeroll| ...we all know its limitations...) it is revealed that the origin of the concept is from a supposition made by Will Durant in a book called "Christ and Caesar" which, oddly enough, I have a copy of myself. Anyway, it is simply a supposition. How strange it is that for some scholars it has over time seemingly taken on the aura of a 'Golden Rule'. It is simply ridiculous to consider it to be anything of the sort.

So, if I were in court on the witness stand under oath, and I were to include a few embarrassing 'facts' about myself, that automatically means my entire testimony should now be considered unquestionably accurate and devoid of any ulterior motivations or agendas?
How silly.

Any grand assumptions made based upon what is merely a supposition will not be a bandwagon upon which I will jump... lol.

I don't mean to be dismissive of your well written and thoughtful post. It's just that I honestly feel very little respect for the relevance or applicability--or even the fundamental basis for--this 'criterion of embarrassment'. I have a similar attitude towards the criterion of dissimilarity, for that matter.