Is the Presence of the Criteria of Multiple Attestation and Embarrassment a Contradiction?

Over at the NT Blog, Mark Goodacre posted on a relevant issue regarding an apparent contradiction between the combination of the criteria of multiple attestation and embarrassment. I did however find myself disagreeing with the conclusion. Because my disagreement lies in the way in which the issue is portrayed, I have decided not to respond on his blog, but rather flesh out the issue more thoroughly in a post. Before I continue, though, I need to say that I do not find the criterion of multiple attestation helpful for identifying historical events. It seems that it only demonstrates that a tradition goes back to the early church, not necessarily a historical event. For many this criterion performs double duty by also affirming events that are singly attested, but as soon as a singly attested tradition is deemed historical or plausible (e.g., Mark 8.22–26), the validity of the criterion comes into question (but this is by no means a death knell for the criterion). Furthermore, and more to the point of this post, I believe these shortcomings show that it cannot function on its own, but functions best in corroboration with other criteria. In the same way that (singular) attestation and embarrassment work together to suggest the historicity of Jesus spitting in the blind man’s eyes, so multiple attestation also needs the corroboration of another criterion. Thus, the purpose of this post is not to provide a defense for multiple attestation, but to show that both the criteria in question (attestation and embarrassment) can define the same event without contradiction. In fact, I would hypothesize more strongly that if multiple attestation is isolated from other criteria, it ceases to be a valid indicator of historicity.

Dr. Goodacre’s post can be found here (a followup post can be found here) and can be summed up in this quote:

I can’t help thinking that one cancels out the other. If everyone, Q, an independent Thomas, Mark, Matthew, Luke all have this same material, who is embarrassed about it? The multiple attestation is itself an argument against embarrassment.

This may be the case in some instances, but the example of Jesus’ baptism by John––which Goodacre provides as an example in the same post––I feel does not provide an adequate example of this “cancellation.”

Regarding John’s baptism of Jesus, it is too simplistic to say that everyone has the same material. While this baptism is retained through multiple traditions (Q [maybe], Mark 1.9–11, John 1.29–34 [?]; Acts 1.21–22 [Peter would be the separate source], Gos. Heb. 2 [?], Ign. Smy. 1.1; and possibly others), each retention is altered in some way, which suggests, in this case, that there was something unsettling about the event. While there are three accounts which explicitly identify John as the baptizer of Jesus (Mark 1.9–11; Acts 1.21–22; Gos. Eb. 4), other traditions are not so eager to portray John as directly baptizing Jesus. Matthew (following Mark, Q, or M) alters the event by having John protest the baptism and by failing to explicitly identify John as the one who preformed the act. In Luke’s account John is in prison (narratively speaking) when Jesus is baptized (3.19–21). In the Fourth Gospel Jesus is never really baptized; rather, John functions as a “witness” to the person and character of Jesus rather than a source of his baptism (1:19, 34). The Gos. Heb. 2, like the Gospel of John, forgoes the baptism and focuses on the theophany. Thus, while the baptism tradition is retained in each of these accounts, each account is altered in such a way as to take the focus away from John and place more attention on Jesus and the theophany.

Noticing a trajectory of the baptismal/theophany event, Robert Webb suggests that there is a gradual ennoblement of the theophany while downplaying the baptism (Baptizer and Prophet, 106). If this is the case, it does not follow that the recurrence of the baptismal event in multiple traditions invalidates the criterion of embarrassment, or vice versa. In other words, while the baptism is a retained Jesus tradition found in numerous accounts from various traditions, it is not promulgated or “celebrated” (a word Dr. Goodacre uses in his post, which I find curious), but instead is quietly and sometimes reluctantly remembered as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Nevertheless, the Baptist must be remembered as he functions as the precursor (Elijah) to Jesus (Messiah).

It seems that the baptism might exemplify other traditions that are multiply attested and ostensibly embarrassing. That is, just because an event is attested by multiple traditions doesn’t mean it is retold in the same way. If, like the baptism, a given event is retold in such a way as to extenuate a particular action or saying within the larger event, then something about the event is demonstrated to be embarrassing as well. Thus, the presence of the two criteria do not necessarily contradict, but rather the presence of multiple attestation can serve (though certainly not always) to define an event as embarrassing. It all depends on how the event is retold.

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