Can We Still Use “Embarrassment” in Some Meaningful Way? (Skinner)

MulletAnyone who reads my posts on this blog (or my previous blog) knows that I have been largely won over by the movement to dispense with the Jesus criteria. However, I’m not completely ready to jettison every potentially good lesson (cultural, literary, historical, etc.) that may have been spawned by discussions about the criteria. I have always been fond of the criterion of embarrassment because I felt that, among other things, it helped us trace historical developments in the gospel traditions. While I think Rafael Rodriguez has made a very strong case that we cannot use this as a means of getting back to the historical Jesus, I’m wondering if we can’t use the concept of “embarrassment” to help us better understand the evolution of certain teachings within the canonical gospel traditions? Let me turn to the paradigmatic example: Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

It has often been said that Jesus’ baptism by John was a source of embarrassment to the early church that is subsequently explained away as the tradition evolves. I think there is something to this, though I don’t necessarily think it “proves” the baptism is historical.

In the Gospel of Mark, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:4) and shortly thereafter, the audience learns that Jesus comes to him and is baptized (1:9). I like to tell my students that after this event, there is no parenthetical note to the audience which reads: “Dear followers of Jesus, do not be dismayed by this turn of events. Jesus was sinless from the foundation of the world. This merely took place as an object lesson for future disciples.” Instead, Mark, simply unaware of later Christological trajectories that would proclaim Jesus as “divine” (e.g. John 1, Hebrews 1, Colossians 1, etc.), proclaims something that was not AT THE TIME embarrassing. Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ baptism only becomes a source of potential embarrassment as the early church engages in sustained theological reflection on the life, vocation, and death of Jesus. It is hard for me to read Mark as an autonomous narrative and not feel that later traditions try to explain (Matthew) or even explain away (John), Jesus’ baptism. For Matthew and John the tradition seemed to be a source of embarrassment, even if Mark had no problem with it.

Recently in one of his podcasts, Mark Goodacre took aim at the criterion of embarrassment, commenting that the early church simply would not have retained something that would have been embarrassing. While I agree with much that he says there, I’d like to suggest a qualification to his point. Many of us make choices at a point in time that is not AT THAT MOMENT, embarrassing, but may prove to be at a later time. To illustrate this, we only need to think back to some of the hairstyles or clothing choices of our younger days. When many of us see photos of our youth we cringe at the sight of ourselves. When I was 21 years old, I had both ears pierced with big gold hoops and hair down to my shoulders. I recently saw a picture of myself from that period and I couldn’t believe how ridiculous I looked. At the time, I thought I looked “cool.” Today I look at myself and wonder, “what was I thinking” (and also, “what was everyone else thinking?”).

My point is this: We often have no way of knowing in the present what we might regret or be embarrassed by in the future. So, perhaps things that were embarrassing to the early church did find their way into the NT, and while we can’t necessarily use those to demonstrate the historicity of a given saying or action in the NT, we can use them to evaluate the historical development of traditions within the canonical gospels. I’m interested in your thoughts on this….



14 thoughts on “Can We Still Use “Embarrassment” in Some Meaningful Way? (Skinner)

  1. Chris, thanks for these thoughts. I largely agree with them and have stated something similar in Jesus’ Literacy–the concept of embarrassment can still be useful in trying to understanding the history-of-effects and interpretive categories that emerge. Historiographically, however, this is very different than using a criterion of embarrassment in order to bypass those categories and assume that one reaches straight to the historical Jesus. I’ll add that I think the concept of embarrassment (not the criterion) is perhaps most helpful when we can put our fingers on ancient Christians or their critics actually being embarrassed about topics and saying as much. I think a clear example of the further complexities you note (and I myself had each ear double-pierced and dyed hair at one point), I think a clear example is Paul–he knows that others find the cross embarrassing, that he SHOULD find it embarrassing, but it’s actually a source of pride for him. As a side note, those of who who aren’t in favor of the criteria aren’t interesting in jettisoning the lessons of previous generations either. I know you don’t think that, but I never cease being amazed that people think, for example, that we, e.g., throw form criticism out the window as if it never contributed anything good. Obviously, I don’t think that and argue that dispensing with the criteria actually highlights some of what was right in form criticism while also highlighting what was wrong.

    • Thanks for responding, Chris. Yes….didn’t intend to suggest that you or the others want to jettison all value that could have come from previous form critical conversations. Just trying to be clear that I didn’t think that way. Sometimes people can/will misread a post without such qualifications.

      • Holy crap. I just now re-read that response. Clearly, I was thinking more quickly than I was typing. I would try to find a way to edit all the typos and grammar errors in it, but I’m kind of impressed with myself at just how awful it is. Sorry about that.

  2. Thanks Chris (and Chris).

    Without a doubt I think, Chris S is correct that what could be ’embarrassing’ to one time period is not necessarily embarrassing (at all) to an earlier time period.

    Yet one thing that has always bothered me personally is the idea, that Chris S notes from MG, that “the early church simply would not have retained something that would have been embarrassing.” On the face of this, it’s just not true when we look at the sociology of groups. Some groups (as Chris K mentions re:Paul) actually revel in holding to ideas and cultural practices that are known to be embarrassing to the larger culture–and they don’t care. It also does not take into account cross-cultural situations; some things are not embarrassing to Westerners but can be embarrassing to Westerners in other non-Western cultures (and vice versa). While I think the criterion of embarrassment has some usefulness, it runs into very large (and sometimes unadmitted) problems in both time (different generational viewpoints) and space (different groups/cultures).

    Most importantly, for the record, I also had some hair, etc, styles that sometimes seem embarrassing and sometimes just seem funny–depends on who sees the photos! Painting past issues with any type of definitive, one-aspect-only brush is always problematic.

  3. Dear Chris, I would like to take issue with your suggestion that Mark does betray any sensitivity to some of the potentially embarrassing conclusions that could be drawn from Jesus’ baptism by John, being quite happy with the Mullet as it were. It is true that he does not do so in the manner of Matthew (or Luke or John), but that does not mean that Mark, as Mark, does not signal a certain sensitivity to at least one of the potential issues involved. In Mark 1:4-5 we read: “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.” In Mark 1:9 we then read: “And it came about in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” There is obviously a notable difference between these two statements. It could, of course be merely an abbreviating technique or an accident that has resulted in the fact that Mark has left out the equivalent to “in the Jordan River confessing their sins” in Mark 1:9 (as the omission of “in the Jordan could suggest), in which case the reader would be invited to supply “in the Jordan confessing his sins” in 1:9, but I think it is (much) more likely that the omission of “confessing his sins” is intentional and that this omission does reflect Mark’s Christology, according to which Jesus is not assumed to need to confess any sins. In other words, I think that Mark had already trimmed the Mullet before Matthew pulled out his razor.

    • Wayne, kudos to you for using my metaphor so brilliantly to make your own point! I do think you could be accused of making a bit of an argument from silence. I think I could just as easily argue (from silence) that Mark uses the phrase, “being baptized by him…and confessing their sins,” to describe a default posture taken by his baptismal candidates. So, when he adds no further qualifications or nuances to the description of Jesus’ baptism, it *might* be possible to make such an assumption about Jesus. I think both of these arguments are equally plausible. The point I would make though, is that Matthew, especially, clearly had issues with this whole scene and felt the need to add the conversation in the water between John and Jesus.

  4. Yes. We completely agree on your major point, which shows that Matthew was not fully satisfied with Mark’s narratives and made sure to rework/retell/redact the story in such a way to make sure that it could not be read in certain ways (an argument that Mark Goodacre also convincingly advanced in his SBL paper in Baltimore). I just think that in doing so he develops further a trajectory that was partially anticipated in Mark (at least in this case), i.e., I find my interpretation of what Mark is most likely doing more persuasive than the possible alternative that you mention, which is, however, not clearly closed off by what Mark writes, so that it is possible to make assumptions about Jesus that I think Mark himself would have opposed based on my overall reading of his portrayal of Jesus and based on what he does not say in 1:9 (I recognize it is something of an argument from silence but Mark often invites the reader to fill out the silences: what is the leaven of the Pharisees? who is this that wind and waves obey him? etc. whereas Matthew tends to dot the i’s and cross the t’s – then they understood that he was speaking about the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees, truly this is the Son of God). I think something similar is happening with the “who touched me” exchange in the woman with a blood flow story: Mark’s point is that Jesus (and the woman) KNOW something (someone touched him) whereas the floundering disciples do not know it (how can you say “who touched me”), but since this point is expressed in a way that could be taken to show that Jesus didn’t know something (who touched me?), Matthew retells the story in such a way that there is no suggestion that Jesus might not have known who touched him. Ok. I had better get back to work =). Thanks for a good post and discussion!

    • This is an interesting suggestion, Wayne, and one that I will have to give more serious thought to. Thanks for taking the time to respond. I agree with you that Mark often invites readers to fill in those gaps. You may be on to something….

  5. I happen to like what wmcoppins is saying. Then again, I tend to see Mark’ prologue (1:1-13) as a chiasmus: ~ wilderness, baptism, John’s teaching, baptism, wilderness. The arrangement in my view calls for the 2 baptisms to be thought about together (eg., compared and contrasted) and I do consider the contrasts significant. Whereas, the masses are baptized for the forgiveness of sins, no mention of sin is mentioned re. Jesus. Rather, Jesus sees the heavens open, the Spirit like a dove, and a voice from heaven commending him. Wow! Quite a contrast. If … (IF!) … Mark wrote his prologue as a chiasmus he would have been aware of what was ‘in’ and ‘not in’ each of these sections – ie., how they compared and/or contrasted. … Hey, just saying. :-).

    Thanks for this post. Nice.

  6. Thanks for this Chris Skinner. The big problem with the concept of embarrassment though is its subjectivity: “whose embarrassment”, the writer’s or ours? So for instance, the example you cite regarding Jesus’ baptism in Mark, we really cannot say for sure that by his elaborations, Matthew was embarrassed, or by his less emphasis, John was embarrassed. There are many other more testable explanations for the qualifications and/or elaborations of Gospel accounts by later the writers.

    I am also not completely sure if one could correctly say, as you put it, that “Mark, simply unaware of later Christological trajectories that would proclaim Jesus as “divine” (e.g. John 1, Hebrews 1, Colossians 1, etc.), proclaims something that was not AT THE TIME embarrassing”. Mark 1:1, 1:11, and the link the evangelist makes with Isaiah 40 in the whole passage at hand undermines that notion. Certainly, it seems to indicate the evangelist’s awareness of higher Christological categories even as he describes the baptism of Jesus (see Marcus).

    • Annang, many thanks for your comment. I think you are much more optimistic than I am about Mark’s awareness of (what I deem to be) much later Christological developments. I think (along with Marcus and others) that Mark was aware of high Christological categories….in fact, I think Mark’s Christology is much higher than is often admitted by Markan scholars. However, I don’t think Mark conceived of Jesus as “divine” in the same way he is envisioned in places like John 1, Hebrews 1, and Colossians 1. Mark can certainly have a high Christology and still not be aware of traditions held by much later works.

  7. Hi, I think that the “embarrassment” of Mark is pretty clear on Mk 1:7,8
    In such passage (unless someone wants to consider it “historical”) the evangelist seems concerned to clarify that Jesus is superior to John, and Jesus’ baptism is superior to John’s baptism.
    I think this as a valid argument to consider such episode “embarrassing” for Mark, and possibly historical. More than this, we could even argue that Jesus baptized as well.

    Worst case, for those Gospels’ accounts where Church “embarrassment” only happened at later times, we may at least conclude that the “the Church” carefully preserved and transmitted its “holy texts” 🙂


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