The New Testament has archaeological and historical evidence in spades, lame pun intended. For example, we have Caiaphas’ ossuary, an inscription of Pontius Pilate, the discovery of the pool of Siloam, and a lot more. We also have external confirmations of Jesus’ existence found in Tacitus and Josephus, among others.
When Christians share this information online, untrained skeptics will snarkily accuse believers of committing the “Spider-Man” fallacy. The ever-reliable and usually offbeat Urban Dictionary defines the ‘Spider-Man fallacy’ like this:
“Often used to illustrate the flaw in the assertion by evangelical Christians that archaeologists unearthing biblical cities today “proves” that the Bible was written by a supernatural force.
The Spiderman Fallacy is committed any time the discovery of a mundane element from a myth, legend, or story is taken to mean that ALL other parts of that story, even the supernatural, are also true.”
But is this really what Christian apologists are doing?
Spider-Man? More like Straw Man
The first problem with the Spider-man argument is that it’s a strawman argument. No one is saying, “we know the Bible is true because Tacitus mentions Jesus.” Or “we’ve discovered a synagogue in Capernaum, so therefore Jesus worked a miracle there.”
What Christian New Testament scholars and apologists are actually saying is much more nuanced than that. For starters, there are not just a couple of facts that confirm the accuracy of the New Testament. It’s dozens and dozens of them. The historian Colin Hemer finds 84 confirmable historical facts alone in Acts 13-28 that would be extremely difficult to derive from other sources.
Luke knows of overland routes, cities, landmarks, political boundaries, sea routes, local religious practices, customs, titles of local officials, local beliefs, languages, dialects, and even slang.
These minute details aren’t easy things to get right without the help of Google. This isn’t like saying “the Bible talks about a city named Jerusalem, so we know it’s accurate.”
So what does this prove? In this instance, it shows that Luke was up close to the facts. It would be difficult to fake this kind of local knowledge if he didn’t actually accompany Paul’s travels. I’m just using The Book of Acts as one example. The Four Gospels get many historical details right, too.
Why historical accuracy with the mundane is important
Why is this important? Well, historical accuracy is a big deal. If an author is consistently correct and honest with things that we can fact check, it should at least raise our trust in other areas that we can’t directly look into. That is unless we have a doctrine against miracles.
Regarding this point of history and miracles, philosopher Lydia McGrew writes:
“If the Gospels are indeed truthful memoirs from those close to the facts, including those who had the opportunity to interview the disciples themselves, then they represent not late traditions or “story-telling.” Rather, they represent what the alleged eyewitnesses themselves claimed, for which they suffered severe, early persecution. This point is presumably why propositions about the dating and authorship of the Gospels are treated by critical scholars as controversial.
For if they are early and reliable memoirs of the life and death of Jesus, if they show us what the disciples themselves claimed about his resurrection, if they make it clear that these accounts came from people in a position to know, and if the disciples were willing to face death for their testimony, this pulls the rug out from under the gentle-sounding but the skeptical theory that nobody told a lie, exactly, but that the miraculous claims about Jesus “grew up” among credulous people telling each other stories. One instead is forced to ask whether the disciples lied about these matters, and if so, why they would do such a thing.”(Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, Kindle location 422)
Skeptical scholars don’t use the Spider-Man fallacy
Dr. McGrew makes a very salient point. Critical, skeptical New Testament scholars like Bart Ehrman don’t use the Spider-Man fallacy the dismissive way atheists on social media do.
To discredit the Gospels and Acts as legendary, Ehrman shows that the documents are written too late to be considered reliable. He also argues that they’re written anonymously and that they make numerous historical errors and contain multiple, glaring contradictions. I don’t think he’s successful in proving that, but that’s another matter. Just search around this blog to see what I have to say about that.
To defend their client, lawyers often employ similar tactics. They’ll try and discredit the eyewitnesses who said they saw their client committing a crime. And if possible, they’ll try and put them elsewhere than at the actual scene of the alleged crime. Skeptical scholars get the implications of us showing that the Gospels are historically accurate.
Genre is important
That said, I think the biggest failure of the Spider-Man argument is that it fails to understand the genre of the Gospels. Two of the four gospels explicitly claim to tell us what Jesus said and did based on eyewitness testimony. (Luke 1:1-4, John 21:24)
Saying that the Gospel writers didn’t intend to give us historical truth ignores that ancient biographers insist they are recording the truth about what someone said and did. Catholic NT scholar Brant Pitre gives us a few examples of this from ancient history around the time of Jesus in his book The Case for Jesus that I’ll share here.
First, Lucian gives us a biography of Demonax, the philosopher. He is quick to point out that he was a disciple of Demonax himself and an eyewitness to his life:
“I speak with reference to the Boeotian Sostatus…and to Demonax, the philosopher. Both these men I saw myself, and saw with wonderment: and under them, Demonax, I was long a student.”(Life of Demonax 1)
Lucian wrote a book titled ‘How to Write History’ where he stresses the historian’s obligation to tell the truth:
“The historian’s task is one: to tell it as it happened…This is the one peculiar characteristic of history, and to truth alone must sacrifice be made.”(How to Write History, 39, 40)
Josephus does a similar thing in his autobiography, writing:
“Having reached this point in my narrative, I propose to address a few words to Justus, who has produced his own account of these affairs, and to others who, while professing to write history, care little for truth, and either from spite or partiality, have no scruples about falsehood. The procedure of such persons resembles indeed the forgers of contracts, but, having no corresponding penalty of fear, they can afford to disdain veracity…But veracity is incumbent on the historian”(Life, 336-39)
Scholars can debate about whether Lucian or Josephus actually told the truth. But what they can’t dispute is the genre that’s being used, which is historical biography. Comparing Lucian or Josephus to a Spider-Man comic would be laughably absurd.
The Gospels claim to report eyewitness testimony
This is relevant to the Gospels because they tell us what kind of books they claim to be, and that’s eyewitness reportage. Let’s now read Luke’s prologue:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”(Luke 1:1-4)
So why would Luke emphasize eyewitnesses if he’s writing a legend or myth? It seems clear that he wants his readers to know that what he’s saying about Jesus can be verified by those who knew him. When he writes Acts, Luke refers back to his Gospel as an account of “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” (Acts 1:1)
His single purpose is to tell us what Jesus really said and did. And Luke uses both Matthew and Mark as sources, so he must have had good reasons to trust their accounts.
John’s Gospel also insists that it’s based on eyewitness testimony. Here’s John 19:35:
“He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.”
He plainly signals to his readers that he’s writing historical biography, not folklore. See also John 20:30-31 and John 21:24 for the same type of claims.
CS Lewis and the Spider-Man fallacy
While CS Lewis best-known for The Chronicles of Narnia and works of theology, he also held academic positions in English literature at both Oxford University and Cambridge for nearly 30 years. In his essay ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,’ Lewis wrote a withering critique of those who said the Gospels weren’t meant to be understood as historical biographies.
“I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text, there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be a narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.”
I love it when Lewis refuses to pull any punches. And he’s right. Historical fiction wasn’t something that was invented until the Renaissance at the earliest.
The Spider-Man fallacy should be more dead than Uncle Ben
I think the Spider-Man fallacy is hopeless. It’s a strawman argument that’s based on a false analogy. Skeptics that trot out this lousy argument are simply not familiar with how normal New Testament scholarship is done.
It seems that the assumption is that if an account contains miracles it must be fictional. Miracles and “spidey-sense” are in the same category according to the average internet atheist.
But this is just intellectual laziness on their part. If you’re going to attack the New Testament, it would be better to read the best of what scholarship has to say on both sides and then draw your conclusions. And while you’re at it, actually read the New Testament for yourself.
But just tweeting at someone and saying, “Dude. New York City is a real place. Does that prove Spiderman exists? LMBO.” is a terrible way to argue. No one is saying that about the New Testament. Just stop it. Educate yourself first.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.