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Why the Gospels are embarrassing

Jun 03, 2019 | Wesley Huff

You may have never thought about it before, but if you have ever read the biblical Gospels they’re actually quite embarrassing. Not that the gospel itself is embarrassing, but the four biographies of Jesus’ lifeMatthew, Mark, Luke, and Johnare embarrassing.

While that might sound controversial to some, it’s actually not. The fact that the four biblical Gospels are embarrassing—that is, that their content would have made the early church a little uncomfortable—is one key reason that we know they are reliable and authentic.

This is what historians have termed the “criterion of embarrassment.” In other words, when historians are trying to measure and establish the truthfulness of written historical accounts(1), it is generally accepted that when people fabricate, exaggerate, or embellish stories, they don’t tend to incorporate facts that would make the author or the author’s key protagonists look foolish or leave room for the loss of their credibility.

Fake News

Essentially, when people lie, they don’t tend to tell falsehoods that drag their own character through the proverbial mud.

This is as true in the 21st century as it was in the first century. The tendency in both modern and ancient writing is to smooth over the not-so-pleasant details. In ancient literature it was common practice to omit, leave out, or put a good dose of spin on a story in order to make the community of the author look a little more polished. This was especially true concerning material that would bring shame on the author or those associated with him/her. Ancient historians desired to portray their leaders (and the nations those leaders ruled) in the the most flattering ways.

It all comes down to the fact that, more or less, people want to be perceived in the best possible light. We put our best traits on our resumes, throw a filter on our Instagram pics, and so on. How much more would we expect this in the first century, especially in the case of a fledgling faith like Christianity!(3)

After Jesus’ death the first Christians were desperate to get his message out to the world. Why wouldn’t we see records of the amazing, great, and wonderful things that he did (and has done)? Not to say that we don’t find those details in the Gospel records, however, we also find a good deal more. There are, in fact, some rather embarrassing details recorded by the New Testament authors that, if the story was fabricated, seem rather hard to explain.

The response of Jesus’ family was embarrassing

During Jesus’ ministry many people came to believe in him; they came to believe that he was indeed the coming Messiah (Matt. 16:16; Luke 2:11; John 11:27) and that he was much more (John 20:28). However, in John’s account, we read that Jesus’ own family did not believe. In John 7:5 we read that his brothers would not believe in him. These are the individuals you would think would have a more intimate knowledge of Jesuscertainly about his character. And yet, on numerous occasions, we have record of their dissociation from many of the things he was saying. We even read that at one specific point, they accused Jesus of having “lost his mind” (Mark 3:21).

Despite this, we find out later that James, one of Jesus’ brothers, ends up not only believing in him but becoming a key figure in the movement of the early church! Nonetheless, the reality that a good portion of Jesus’ family did not believe remains an embarrassing blight. Once again, why include such stories as part of your fledgling religion’s Scriptures?

Jesus’ Disciples (a.k.a the Duh-sciples)

When reading the Gospels, it isn’t hard to figure out that during Jesus’ life and ministry, his closest followers, the disciples, really didn’t know what was going on most of the time. They seemed to be confused about nearly everything Jesus said and were constantly asking him to explain his teachings and parables.

After Christ’s resurrection, he told the women whom he saw to gather the disciples and have them meet him in Galilee. Once there, Matthew records, “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17). This would not be too surprising if only one of the disciples doubted, since we know that John records Thomas’ disbelief. But Matthew doesn’t tell us that one doubted; he says some doubted.(4)  And unlike John who shows how Thomas’ doubt is resolved, Matthew leaves it open, admitting that even when the risen Jesus appeared to them, some of Jesus’ followers still didn’t believe. It is hard to know why Matthew would include such a candid piece of information if it were not, in fact, historical. 

Shepherds and Women

Although many famous and important people throughout the Bible were shepherds (Amos and David for example), herdsmen and farmers did not hold a very high status within ancient Israelite society. Shepherds lived very isolated lives, spending the majority of their lives away from their families, leading their flocks and herds from one patch of grasslands to the next. In both the Old and New Testaments, shepherds had a very hard time both adhering to ritual purity (due to their constant proximity to animals) as well as keeping the Sabbath, because sheep needed constant supervision and protection.

These solitary persons came to be viewed, in the first century at least, as peculiar. On the social scale, they were very near the bottom, which makes the angelic appearance to the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:8) not only strange for the original audience, but a remarkable reminder of how God was turning the world upside down.

Women in ancient Judaism were also among the poorest in the world in Jesus’ day. We read in Rabbinic sources that although divorce was very rare, women nonetheless could not initiate divorce whereas men were allowed to divorce their wives for everything from a burnt meal(5) to adultery(6). As New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger puts it, “They [women] had become second-class Jews, excluded from the worship and teaching of God with status scarcely above that of slaves.”(7) Women did not hold a very good place within Greco-Roman society in the first century either. In fact, it was common practice within first century culture to say a prayer of thanksgiving (found in both Roman and Jewish sources) where a man would thank God (or the gods) that he was not born a slave, a leper, or a woman.

It is in this context that we see the first witnesses to the resurrection being very oddthey were all women. If this story was being fabricated, or even simply written to sound convincing to a non-Christian audience, these are not the witnesses one would record. Unless, however, you were so committed to telling the story truthfully that even a detail as difficult as this one were left in for the sake of the accuracy and integrity of the truth.

Death & Resurrection of Christ

We hear the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection so frequently that we barely stop to think about it. However, both the death and the resurrection of Jesus are, from the perspective of his day and culture, quite embarrassing. Paul himself admits this in his letter to the church in Corinth: “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). And this played out in real-time in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death. Christians were mocked for their belief in a “crucified God.” We even have Ancient Roman graffiti mocking Christians and their admittance and acceptance of Jesus’ crucifixion. A piece known as the “Alexamenos graffito” is a satirical piece of first century vandalism that shows a man worshiping a crucified donkey with the inscription: “Alexamenos respects his god.”

The idea of the Messiah (God’s anointed one) being crucified was scandalous to Jews. The Jewish concept of the Messiah in the first century was that this figure would come and liberate Israel from the tyranny of the Romans, not be crucified by them. Likewise, the Greeks thought of resurrection as foolishness as they held a belief that the physical world was evil and the spiritual world was good. Death, they believed, was an escape, a release from the physical prisons in which the soul resides. The idea of a bodily resurrection was nonsense to the Greek ear, and to have Christ return physically would have been viewed as counterproductive and idiotic. 

Concluding the embarrassment

The criterion of embarrassment doesn’t prove that the Bible is the word of God. However, it is hard to believe that the Gospel authors would have invented these facts considering how they would have been perceived in the context of their own day. If the four Gospel accounts were nothing more than fabrications, it would have seemed completely nonsensical to include the facts and details listed above they just would not have added any level of credibility to their cause.

Yet we do find these facts, and many more that I did not list, all of which add an underlying sense of authentication to their historical validity. These stories are not only reliable but true! And the truth of them speaks to us two millennia later in their original embarrassment. We, like Jesus’ family and immediate followers, often misunderstand and misconstrue what God is doing and communicating. The reality of God choosing such unlikely witnesses from marginalized groups reassures us that “people look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). And that in the “foolishness” of the cross, God subverts our expectations and creates a beautiful display of love, self giving, and salvation that no onethen or nowcould have seen coming.

Notes: 

[1] Stanley E. Porter, Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research, Continuum. (2004), pg. 106-107. 

[2] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Yale University Press, 2009.  

[3] D. A Hagner, former professor of New Testament at Wheaton and Fuller posits that the “some” – the article οἱ in the original language, possibly represents the doubt of all the disciples (Matthew [WBC], 2.8840.

[4] This rule is recorded in the Hillel writings of the Mishna.

[5] This rule is recorded in the Shammai writings of the Mishna; B.M. Metzger & M.D. Coogan, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, (1993), 806-818.

About the Author

Wesley Huff

Wesley Huff was born in Pakistan and spent his childhood in the Middle East. He works, writes and speaks for Ultimate Questions, an apologetics initiative of Power to Change-Students, and is currently a PhD student in New Testament at the UofT. He enjoys canoeing, archery, and cats (although not all three at the same time). Wes lives in Toronto with his wife Melissa and their newborn son.

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