At a recent church service the speaker gave a message that used Joseph’s story (of technicolor coat fame) as an illustration of how we need to trust God’s timing. As I contemplated the story, I was reminded just how much the theme of overcoming adversity permeates the stories of the Old Testament. Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah when it seemed impossible (and after they tried to do it their own way), Jacob was the scrawny second-born but received the blessing and becomes Israel’s namesake, young Joseph was discarded by his brothers and then ends up saving them, Moses is a coward but then leads the exodus and David was the diminutive afterthought who slayed the giant, supplanted the tall, handsome king (Saul) and led Israel to prominence in spite of his transgressions. Then there’s the oft repeated prophetic theme of the nation of Israel breaking free from the dominion of the various regional powers – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and, in the case of Daniel, the Seleucid Empire. Israel was a nation beaten down only to stand tall in the end.
A few centuries later, we are introduced to Jesus. Illegitimately born (in a feed trough, no less) to a couple of unknowns in a little out of the way town up north. Rejected by his own people, misunderstood, denied and betrayed by his disciples, and then crucified like a common criminal. But that is not the whole story and, just as it was in the Old Testament, victory belongs to the underdog.
The criterion of embarrassment
Many apologists have latched onto the unflattering elements of biblical texts as evidence for their veracity. Certainly nobody would fabricate, or even embellish, such claims? This form of argumentation, known as the criterion of embarrassment, carries an intuitive appeal. Though few would suggest that it serves as conclusive evidence, it is commonly offered as a stone that tilts the scales toward upholding the truth of biblical claims. A prime example of the modern use of the criterion of embarrassment comes to us in David Instone-Brewer’s recent book “The Jesus Scandals”, for which he offers the following summary:
“If tabloid newspapers had existed during the first century, Jesus would have featured constantly in the headlines, linked with scandals of all kinds. Details of these were recorded in historical documents by both his friends and his enemies. They provide insights into Jesus’ life and teaching that have been obscured by the centuries. They tell us what his contemporaries really thought. These scandals include:
- his parentage and accusations of alcohol abuse and fraudulent miracles
- the dubious status of his followers – poorly educated, ex-prostitutes and the certifiably mad
- his anti-religious teaching on temple practices, eternal torment, easy divorces and judgement in this life
- his thoughts of suicide, shameful execution and impossible resurrection
Faithful to the biblical text, this carefully researched book can be read as a whole or as stand-alone chapters.”
We cannot have it both ways
It is clear that ancient Jewish authors did not always shy away from including less than favorable bits in their hero stories. The criterion of embarrassment would argue that this is an indication that they are true but we often find ourselves drawn to the underdog story. In this regard, the Jews were no different – perhaps most clearly because they were the underdog. In fact, this would appear to be something of a cultural theme that had become entrenched in their identity. As a nation, they constantly found themselves under the thumb of more powerful nations and this engendered a hope which fueled the apocalyptic visions of Israel rising above the ashes. The underdog archetype was alive and well in Jesus’ time and the subjugation to Rome only reinforced it.
So something doesn’t fit. How can we argue that the embarrassing elements of the Jesus’ story only makes sense if they are true while at the same time embracing the corresponding typologies of the Old Testament? We cannot have it both ways.
Though I have never found the criterion of embarrassment especially persuasive, I have also never agreed with those who discount it altogether. While this is still true, my reflection on the presence of the underdog archetype in Jewish tradition has further diminished its power. This is not to suggest that the unsavory details of Jesus life are necessarily fabrications. Rather, my primary concern here is to point out that when the New Testament was authored there was a precedent in place. The story of the victorious underdog was the hope of Israel. We should not think it so odd that the hero of a fledgling Jewish sect would find himself in this role as well.