The Criterion of Embarrassment And The Women At The Tomb

Why do female witnesses serve as powerful evidence for the existence of the empty tomb?

From the very beginning of our investigation into the Resurrection of Jesus Christ there has been one thing I’ve wanted to emphasize above all: everything about the Resurrection of Jesus is contrary to what the culture of the period believed and expected. Furthermore, the Resurrection wasn’t merely different, it was downright offensive. 

Historians have set criteria they refer to when the reliability of a particular historical writing is called into question. One of those principles is the Criterion of Embarrassment. A writer who is aiming to twist history to fit his/her agenda or propaganda will not invent or include something that would put them or what/whom they’re defending or promoting in a bad light.

Let’s say I was visiting a new fast food joint established by the father of a good friend of mine. I enter the restaurant with the intention of giving it a good review, however, I end up getting food poisoning from the meal and wind up sick in bed for a week. Despite this, I continue to write a glowing review to support my friend. Of course, I could write my review anonymously and readers would be none the wiser but if more cases of food poisoning were to appear my positive review would be rightfully called into question. A negative review would be trusted because I had no reason to write so poorly about my friend’s restaurant unless I really did get food poisoning.

The example of the Resurrection is even more pronounced. I could potentially get away with writing a glowing review if I was the only one to get food poisoning. That wasn’t an option for the Christians. If something offensive or contrary to accepted custom was written and released publically it was going to spread. If that something was the central claim of a movement that was growing at an astonishingly rapid pace it was going to be scrutinized.

The Criterion of Embarrassment is the foundation of a thesis formulated by apologist James Patrick Holding known as The Impossible Faith. For me, this was the knockout and what settled, beyond a reasonable doubt, the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’ve got a bit to go before we dive into the thesis explicitly but the attentive reader will see that it has been woven throughout every piece of evidence we have examined thus far.

This brings us back to the empty tomb. We’ve seen why the shameful burial of Jesus is such a powerful piece of evidence to consider (readers can read more in link 1 below) but the offensive nature of this event does not stop there. A popular apologetic for the empty tomb is the record of the women witnesses who first discovered it. A few of these women were,

  1. Joanna (wife of Chuza) (Luke 24:10)
  2. Mary Magdaline (Mark 16:1, John 20:1)
  3. Mary, the mother of James and Joseph
  4. Salome (Mark 15:40)

There were also others not named, as found in Luke 23:27-56. The mention of these women is significant because, in ancient times, women were believed to be unreliable witnesses. On the words of the Jewish historian Josephus, New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham notes,

What Josephus offers is a “version of the common ancient prejudice that women are less rational than men, more easily swayed by emotion, more readily influenced, all too prone to jump to conclusions without throughtful considerations.” In particular, women were considered gullible and prone to superstitious fantasy in religious matters, and excessive in religious practises.” Bauckham, Richard (Eerdmans: 2002), Gospel Women, p. 82.

This mindset is considered outrageous and misogynistic in today’s world, and rightfully so, but it was a stereotype in ancient times that had been firmly established for centuries.

Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women. (Talmud, Sotah 19a)

But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment. (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15)

Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer), also they are not valid to offer. This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman. (Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 1.8)

Despite this view of women as public witnesses, all four Gospels record the same thing: women were the first to discover the empty tomb. This is why the disciples reacted as they did in Luke 24:11. This is a rather hilarious admission because the writer of the Gospel turns the stereotype on its head: the women were telling the truth but the men disbelieved them and were made to appear as fools! As an invention, this admission is not only a confounding blunder, this is what we would expect if the authors had every intention to destroy Christianity, not boldly proclaim it!

Time and time again I have seen online skeptics argue that the ancients would have blindly accepted any superstition that came their way. At the mention of the empty tomb they would have accepted the Christian claim with simple-minded faith and naivety. Such an argument is errant and preposterous given the social and cultural context of the period.

Why were the crucifixion, the shame of the burial, and the women at the tomb such stumbling blocks for non-believers of the time? In the introduction to this series I noted,

The crucifixion of Jesus was a shameful death, thus the Resurrection was a restoration of Jesus’ honor and identity as Messiah and the Son of God, in addition to being a vindication of His message and Lordship against His condemners (link 1 below).

Christ’s Resurrection was a claim of honor and vindication. Honor, in their social rubric, was a limited good, and if you were going to claim the highest amount of honor you were going to be challenged for it and admissions like these offended that sensibility entirely. Yet, these embarrassing admissions are exactly what we find in the Gospels and nothing else has ever been uncovered. From the earliest writings, these shameful admissions were clearly seen. So we go back to the unavoidable conclusion: Christianity would not have survived if what it claimed had never happened.

Link 1: The purpose of the Resurrection

Link 2: The Messianic Secret and an honor-oriented culture.