Both Loren Rosson and Doug Chaplin comment on my recent NT Pod 60: The Criterion of Embarrassment and they make some excellent points. There are also some very helpful remarks from Michael Barber on the post itself. Here are some further thoughts, partly by way of clarification and summary, on the criterion:
(1) The major difficulty is the term itself, "embarrassment". I simply do not believe that the evangelists were "embarrassed" about anything that appeared in their Gospels, unless of course one is thinking of the skandalon of the cross that all the early Christians were dealing with in different ways. The evangelists were not sitting around, dictating the story of John's Baptism, fidgeting uneasily, with red faces. When I read Mark's account, it's quite the contrary -- a bold proclamation of a theophany that establishes Jesus' identity clearly for everyone listening.
E. P. Sanders prefers the term "against the grain" and this is far more useful than "embarrassment", which sounds so horribly like attempts at pop-psychology of the evangelists. Looking for features in an account that go "against the grain" is what historians do all the time.
(2) The use of this criterion, like the other criteria, is often used too mechanistically. It is invoked, and the invocation is often regarded as sufficient to establish the historicity of the event or saying in question. As I've been arguing in the recent podcasts, the value of the criteria is in teaching students about how the historian works, especially students who bring with them some confessional agendas that might interfere with the task.
As soon as the criteria become a kind of toolbox for the historical Jesus scholar, they become problematic. It should give us pause when we remember that other ancient historians do not devote pages of their studies to discussing the special "criteria" for their topics. Discussion of historical criteria is useful for training students. Their use in scholarly invocation is the problem.
(3) Historical Jesus scholars seldom give any thought to how the criteria work in concert with one another. As I have mentioned before, I cannot get my head around the apparent absurdity that the very traditions that are supposed to be "embarrassing" are the very same traditions that are supposed to be "multiply attested". At the very least, some thought should be given to the contrast between the criteria. One should inform and correct the other.
The point can be illustrated from the phenomenon of singly attested traditions, like the Blind Man of Bethsaida (Mark 8.22-26). Scholars commonly provide good reasons for Matthew's and Luke's omission of the story from Mark -- the use of spit, the non-immediate healing. The fact of the omission illustrates that the evangelists were not reticent about omission when they wished. If a later evangelist was really "embarrassed" by material he found in an earlier account, he simply omitted it. By analogy, one can imagine the same thing happening at different stages in the tradition, with different tradents.
At the very least, I would like to underline the problems with the terminology. If we can talk instead about material that is "too much with the grain" and "against the grain", I suspect that we will improve our historical sensitivity.