[Editor’s Comments: Our guest contributor, Alisa Childers, is a former Christian music recording artist, lifelong Christian, and writer of apologetics, theology, and culture. She tackles the tough questions about the truth of Christianity and the Bible. For more information, visit alisachilders.com.]
The Gospel accounts found in the New Testament are embarrassing. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John included some pretty uncomfortable details in their writings. But if you’re a Christian, that’s actually a really good thing.
We humans have a tendency to paint ourselves in a good light — to leave out the bad stuff and exaggerate or embellish the good. If you need proof of this, click over to Facebook and check your newsfeed. You will be bombarded by photos of your friends vacationing at the beach, having ice cream with their children, drinking artisan coffee, and eating mouth-watering delicacies at the new local Bistro. You will read a wife’s birthday tribute to her husband that would convince the most skeptical rationalist that she is married to Superman himself. In short, Facebook is a highlight reel.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing — no one wants to scroll through Facebook and see everyone’s dirty laundry.
But Facebook isn’t exactly an accurate portrayal of history.
When assessing historical documents, there are certain attributes of authenticity that historians are looking for. One of those attributes is called the “Criterion of Embarrassment.” If an author includes details that might be embarrassing to himself or his cause, there is a much greater chance that he is telling the truth. This gives scholars more confidence in the historical reliability of the document.
What about the New Testament gospel accounts? Here are three ways the Gospels are embarrassing, and why those “embarrassing details” actually demonstrate that the authors were telling the truth:
1. Embarrassing Details About Themselves
Let’s say I wanted to make up a brand new religion that wasn’t true, but I was hoping to gain money, power, fame — or all three. If that were the case, I would NOT portray myself as a dim-witted coward who was always getting scolded by my spiritual leader!
But that’s exactly what the writers of the New Testament did.
If they were making the whole thing up, they would have most likely portrayed themselves in a much better light. Here are some of the ways they describe themselves:
- They never seem to “get” what Jesus is talking about. (Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34; John 12:16)
- They fall asleep twice when Jesus urges them to pray. (Mark 14:32-41)
- They get scolded by Jesus. (Mark 8:33)
- They fiercely disagree with each other. (Galatians 2:11)
- They run away and hide like cowards when Jesus is arrested. (Mark 14:50-52)
- They disown Jesus when asked if they know him. (Matthew 26:33-35)
- They constantly doubt Jesus. (John 2:18-22; 3:14-18; Matthew 12: 39-41; 17:9; 22-23; Mark 16:14; Matthew 28:16-17)
- They record that women were the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. (This is embarrassing because back then, the testimony of women wasn’t even admissible in court!) (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20)
2. Embarrassing Details About Jesus
Now back to that “made up” religion. If I was basing my newly invented religion on a spiritual leader such as Jesus, I would make sure that he came off in the best possible light. I would portray him as being respected and admired by all… especially by the most powerful and influential social and political elite.
But that’s not what the writers of the New Testament did.
In fact, they recorded details about Jesus in which he was thought to be morally questionable and even a little crazy:
- He is called “out of his mind” by his own family, who are so embarrassed by him that they try to “seize” him when a crowd gathers at his home. (Mark 3:20-21)
- His own brothers don’t believe in him. (John 7:5)
- He is thought to be “leading people astray.” (John 7:12)
- He is called names like “drunkard” and “madman.” (Matthew 11:19; John 10:20)
- He is called “demon-possessed.” (Mark 3:22; John 7:20, 8:48)
- He is abandoned by many of his followers. (John 6:66)
- In trying to convert the Jews, he ends up almost being stoned by them. (John 8:59; 10:31)
- He is killed by Roman crucifixion, which was the method of execution used only for slaves, low-life criminals, and enemies of the state.
- He is crucified despite the fact that his own Holy Book states that this brings a curse upon a person.
- He is seen with prostitutes, and even allows a prostitute to wipe his feet with her hair, which could have been interpreted as a sexual advance. (Luke 7:36-39)
- He dines with tax-collectors, who were considered by Jews to be the same as traitors. Tax-collectors were Jews who worked for the despised Romans and often cheated people and kept some profits for themselves. (Mark 2:15-16; Luke 15:1)
3. Difficult and Demanding Sayings of Jesus
If I were inventing a guru-type spiritual leader, I would definitely NOT make Him difficult to follow. I would make His sayings emotionally pleasing, welcoming, and all-inclusive. After all, if I was making the whole thing up, I would want as many people as possible to join my movement. I would make sure that no one felt excluded!
But that’s not what the writers of the New Testament did.
Here are some of the difficult things Jesus said:
- Though the Scriptures defined adultery as a sexual act, Jesus said that even lusting in your heart is adultery. (Matthew 5:28)
- He set strict standards for marriage and divorce. (Matthew 5:32)
- He said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” which is seemingly impossible. (Matthew 5:48) He said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
- He labeled people as “Enemies,” (Matthew 5:44) “Pagans,” (Matthew 5:47) “Hypocrites,” (Matthew 6:2) “Thieves,” (Matthew 6:20) “Dogs” and “Pigs,” (Matthew 7:6) “False prophets,” (Matthew 7:15) “Blind guides,” (Matthew 15:14) “Wicked generation,” (Matthew 12:39) “Unclean,” (Matthew 15:20) “Fools,” (Matthew 23:17) “Whitewashed tombs,” and “Serpents,” (Matthew 23:27) “Brood of vipers,” (Matthew 23:33) and “Cursed,” (Matthew 25:41)… and that’s just a few from Matthew’s gospel alone.
If the gospel writers were just fabricating the events of Jesus’ life in an effort to gain followers for their new religious movement, they were not off to a very good start! The truth is that no one would make this stuff up. Their tendency would be to simplify, unify, clarify, and beautify Jesus’ sayings and character — to make Christianity much more simple, broad, easy, and pleasant.
That is, if their motive was anything but telling the truth.
But they were telling the truth. They recorded what they saw: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The Criterion of Embarrassment is just one of the principles scholars use to authenticate historical documents, and the Gospels pass with flying colors.
Are the Gospels embarrassing? Yes, and that’s a good thing!