The underdog archetype and the criterion of embarrassment

The Babylonian ExileAt 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 Details of these were recorded in historical documents by both his friends and his enemies.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.


10 thoughts on “The underdog archetype and the criterion of embarrassment

  1. you’re absolutely right. Richard Carrier does a nice systematic examination of this criterion in Proving History that you may in of interest. Story elements get retained because they are useful, not true. The benefit of inclusion to the story has to outweigh the liability if they are to be retained. But if the benefit outweighs the liability, then there is sufficient reason for those elements to be fabricated as well.

    • That is a good point, though I wonder if it’s fair to assign deliberate fabrication the same probability as “telling it like it is” under those circumstances.

      • Fabrication can of two types: deliberate or organic. Organic fabrication is the most common in a growing legend. This is a case where people aren’t lying, but they also aren’t telling the truth/facts. Just community “big fish” stories getting bigger. The point is that the organic mechanism includes its own unconscious filter. And then the storyteller decides which of the local community stories to include in the paper copy. No overt deception attempts required.

  2. I think its a valid point that this theme arose quite often before Jesus. But it seems that nevertheless the Jews of Jesus’ time were not expecting the messiah to come in that form. I say it “seems” based on rather loose bits and pieces from scholars (I think Ehrman makes this point and I think Timothy Johnson does as well) and tidbits of scripture old and new. But I have not really done a thorough examination of other Jewish texts myself.

    Like you I never really found the argument that big of a deal to really examine the basis.

    • Yes, there certainly is little evidence that the suffering messiah was expected (though Israel Knohl thinks there’s evidence of this in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hazon Gabriel tablet) but when I reflect on the presence of this underdog archetype in Jewish culture it becomes clear that the adoption and embrace of such a motif for the messiah is not as unexpected as many apologists would like us to believe. This, in turn, means that the presence of material which fits under that theme carries little weight with regard to determining its veracity.

      • I just think I would need more information. Sure the scriptures talk of Jews who in the past overcame odds. Every culture tends to hold onto similar histories/battles. But was the messiah supposed to be killed like a common criminal? Clearly some people accepted it could happen and they became Christian. But it seems many who accepted this were not actually Jews. Its unclear to me 1) whether christianity really made much headway with Jews (despite the fact that according to Acts Paul would customarily start at the synagogues.) and 2) If they didn’t make much headway why? Was this issue of a suffering messiah the problem or was it something else?

        I think we would need to examine the sources(Jewish christian and secular) for specific answers these questions first. if they say they rejected Christianity because he was the wrong kind of messiah I think that would be support for the apologist argument. If however we see that was not a factor for why they rejected Christianity then I think it cuts against the apologists argument.

        If we can’t find the answers specifically addressed either way (or not sufficiently addressed) then I think we could appeal to general themes.

      • It think it’s quite clear that he was perceived as the wrong kind of messiah, but less so because he suffered and more so because he didn’t establish Israel’s world dominance. Even the earliest Christians couldn’t accept a messiah that didn’t do this and so they worked around it by postulating an imminent second coming to finish the job. This is cognitive dissonance reduction at its finest – they expected the restoration of Israel but then when Jesus was killed something had to change. Paul called the crucified messiah a “scandal” but he also rested on the hope of his imminent return, which vastly overshadows the scandal and completes the story in the underdog theme. I suspect that things would have played out very differently if he and others had known that we would still be waiting 2000 years later.

  3. “Even the earliest Christians couldn’t accept a messiah that didn’t do this and so they worked around it by postulating an imminent second coming to finish the job.”

    They didn’t postulate it. They were told by Jesus he would come again. 😛 Of course you are assuming the Gospel accounts are not true and I am assuming they are true.

    In any event if “even the earliest Christians couldn’t accept a messiah that didn’t dominate” then you are basically agreeing with the Apologist’s position. Bottom line is that despite the fact that several heroes of Jewish scripture were underdogs this description did not fit. I tend to think it did not fit either. But either it did fit, or it didn’t. If it didn’t fit then the apologists have a point. Although I agree the weight of the point is debatable.

    • They didn’t postulate it. They were told by Jesus he would come again.

      If he did, then he certainly didn’t make it very clear to them.

      Of course you are assuming the Gospel accounts are not true and I am assuming they are true.

      To be clear, I am assuming that they are not necessarily 100% true and were written by humans after the fact, which makes them subject to any number of issues – just like every other writing. I do think that there is a historical foundation in the gospels.

      In any event if “even the earliest Christians couldn’t accept a messiah that didn’t dominate” then you are basically agreeing with the Apologist’s position

      Not at all. This would only be the case if they accepted a version in which there wasn’t a victory in the end. The apologists say that the “embarrassing” bits wouldn’t be accepted at all, I’m saying they would be accepted because they are part of the motif. They are the precursors to the hope; the end victory that triumphs over the past.

      • “If he did, then he certainly didn’t make it very clear to them.”

        Its interesting that the gospels show the apostles to not really get the obvious. But yes Jesus was often not very direct either. After all the miracles it’s interesting Peter denied Christ 3xs. Whether it is just a story or true, either way I think it’s interesting.

What do you think?

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