Untangling a Web of Confusion

A common objection found on the internet today is something called, the Spider-Man Fallacy. There are several variations of it depending on who is using it, but the fallacy goes something like this:

The Spider-Man comic book records real cities like New York, and other things that exist, but no archaeologist or historian concludes that Spider-Man existed in the real world. Bible believing Christians are guilty of committing this fallacy when they try to prove that the Bible is true – or that Jesus existed and rose from the dead.

The charge or criticism may also sound something like this – “Sure! No one doubts that Pontius Pilate may have existed, but this doesn’t prove any of the miracles recorded in the New Testament, or that Jesus rose from the dead.”

Aside from the resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels, this fallacy can, and often has been applied to passages in the Old Testament as well. In this article, we will answer the charge of this fallacy made against those who believe in the Bible’s historical accuracy and trustworthiness, and offer some additional thoughts and clarifications.

STRAW MAN FALLACY (Not to be confused with supervillain, The Scarecrow of DC Comics)

First, the charge of the Spider-Man Fallacy itself, commits the straw-man fallacy. The Straw-man fallacy is essentially setting up a weaker form of your opponent’s argument, and then easily dismantling it. But no Bible believing scholar, historian, or archaeologist (that I know of) argues that archaeological evidence of Pontius Pilate’s historical existence proves that Jesus rose from the dead or that God parted the Red Sea in the book of Exodus.

FALLACY OF GENRE

Secondly, those who charge Bible believers with the Spider-Man Fallacy are confusing actual historical primary sources, with modern fantasy-fiction genre. The source of the fictional character Peter Parker and his alter-ego, Spider-Man can be traced with a high degree of certainty to writer Stan Lee and comic book artist, Stan Ditko in 1962. The same is true for one of my personal favorite fictional characters, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones. Dr. Jones, as we all know, originated in the mind of writer and producer, George Lucas. Serious historical scholars, and archaeologists don’t use comic books as primary sources because they know that they are fantasy.

HISTORIOGRAPHY & VERISIMILITUDE

When investigating historical questions, historians and archaeologists carefully analyze, scrutinize, and debate the value of historical primary sources in their work, and the Bible has a proven track record as a historical primary source. For well over a century the Bible has been a valuable primary source for historians and archaeologist working in the ancient Near East.

Modern scientific archaeology was launched in the nineteenth century when the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann began investigating the ruins of Hissarlik (ancient Troy) in Turkey. Homer’s Greek epic, The Iliad and Odyssey contained fantastical stories of Greek gods (Zeus, Athena, etc…), and monsters like the cyclops, Cerberus, chimera, & others. But, the epic also contained detailed descriptions of real places and cities. What Schliemann discovered in his investigation is that there was indeed a historical kernel of truth in the writings of the Iliad and Odyssey.

It was around this same time that the discipline of Biblical Archaeology got its start from a couple of different places. First, was in the work of Egyptologist, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942). Petrie was the first scholar to bring rigorous scientific-excavation techniques (stratigraphy and ceramic typology) to bear on an archaeological study of biblical sites in Israel (at Tel el-Hesi). In 1896 while excavating in the ancient Egyptian temple at Luxor at a funerary temple of Amenhotep III, Petrie and his team discovered a large stele now known as the Merneptah stele. The stele contained one of the first and earliest references to ancient Israel outside the Bible.

Merneptah Victory Stele – mentions Israel by name located in the the Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Then in 1909, another German archaeologist and Assyriologist, named Hugo Winckler made another interesting discovery, also in Turkey at a place called Hattusha. After several years of digging Winckler eventually unearthed over 10,000 clay tablets. The tablets were inscribed in HittiteAkkadian and Sumerian hieroglyphics. Akkadian was a language familiar to scholars of that time. Other tablets discovered, however, were written in a language unknown to Winckler. We now know that the unknown language inscribed on the tablets Winckler excavated was ancient Hittite. According to Mark Wilson, “Decipherment of the Hittite script took decades of work by linguists, and today, many tablets remain untranslated”

The famous “Lion’s Gate” at Hattusa – capitol of the Hittite Empire (Wikipedia)

Throughout the late-nineteenth century many other artifacts with the same unknown language (i.e. Hittite), were discovered throughout Asia Minor, Northern Syria and Turkey. As more artifacts came to light from Hattusa, a scholar named A.H. Sayce, and a missionary working in Damascus named William Wright, suggested that the inscriptions were from the ancient Hittite Civilization mentioned in the Bible. 

The Hittites are mentioned over 60 times in the Old Testament. 2 Samuel 11 states that Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah was a Hittite. Additional references to the Hittites include, Genesis 26:34Joshua 1:41 Kings 10:29 and 1 Kings 11:1 as well asmanyothers. The common Hebrew word to denote the Hittites hittî is based on the name Heth (Gen. 10:151 Chon. 1:13). Abraham encountered the Hittites at Hebron (Gen. 23:3-20); Esau married three Hittite women (Gen. 26:34; 36:2-5). The Hittites are also included in the standard list of seven people groups in Palestine (Deut. 7:1) and subsequently also one of the groups Israel fails to drive out of the land when they entered it (Judges 3:5). 

Up until the early 20th century the only known historical reference to a civilization called the Hittites was in the Old Testament. Egyptology and Assyriology was still in its beginning phase, but as monuments and inscriptions from those cultures began to be translated, they also provided additional confirmation & verification of the existence of the Hittites (for more, see our article on the Hittites here)

The main point in citing these two examples is simply to state that the Old and New Testament have been, and will continue to be used by archaeologists to verify and investigate what they excavate in the ground or translate via historical inscriptions – in short, it has verisimilitude – a 1:1 correspondence with what we find in the ground.

Comic books, or fantasy books (even the Gnostic Gospels) do not have verisimilitude. I am not aware of any historical scholar in the world who is looking for the lost city of Gondor, the foundations of the Tower of Orthanc, or remnants of Helms Deep because they know that J.R.R. Tolkien invented them. They are purely fictional places and don’t exist except in the imagination.

HISTORY & MIRACLES

Finally, a word about history and miracles. Admittedly, the core message of the New Testament is the physical, bodily (historical), resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – a grand miracle indeed! That miracle is recorded in a historical document (the New Testament) which accurately records, real people, real places, & real cities. But the question arises whether historical reliability alone can prove the resurrection (or miracles)? At Epic Archaeology we follow the Classical Apologetic model – which states that the case for Christianity is built on arguments from classical theism, then provides evidences from history, science, and archaeology. So a bare bones argument goes like this:

  1. Truth exists (the law of non-contradiction)
  2. God exists (a spaceless, timeless, immaterial Being who created all that is)
  3. Miracles are possible (Supernaturalism is true & naturalism is false)
  4. The New Testament is historically reliable (evidenced through manuscripts, historical inscriptions & archaeology)
  5. Therefore, Jesus rose from the dead.

So, what this means is that biblical historical reliability is only a part of the overall argument for Christianity. It is not the entire case. Logically, God must exist if miracles are possible. No God? – then no miracles – no resurrections, no Moses staff turning into a serpent, or Jesus healing the man born blind.

If a historian (or anyone) doesn’t believe that God exists, or that miracles occur today, objectively looks at the historical and archaeological evidence for the New Testament they will likely not come away believing, simply because they will filter all the historical and archaeological evidence they see through a naturalistic lens. C.S. Lewis makes this very point very powerfully in his book, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (1947).

If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we shall always say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is useless to appeal to experience before we have settled as well as we can, the philosophical question…  …For if they [miracles] are impossible then no amount of historical evidence will convince us: and since history never provides that degree of evidence for any event, history can never convince us that a miracle occurred. If, on the other hand, miracles are not intrinsically improbable, then the existing evidence will be sufficient to convince us that quite a number of miracles have occurred. The result of our historical enquiries thus depends on the philosophical views which we have been holding before we even began looking at the evidence. The philosophical question must come first. …Those who assume that miracles cannot happen are merely wasting their time by looking into texts: we know in advance what results they will find for they have begun by begging the question.

– C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York, London: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 10-11.

Archaeological research and the historical investigation of the Bible has been going strong now for well over a century, and every year new discoveries come to light which affirm that it is indeed, a historically reliable document of the highest order. No major NT scholar or historian of Roman history doubts that Jesus existed, or that He was crucified. But, whether or not He rose from the dead can only be true if there is a God who is there and intervenes in the affairs of the world – in space and time.  

Historical evidences can only go so far, but when one steps outside the disciplines of history and archaeology, one enters the realm of philosophy and logic, where there is amazing evidence that God exists and that He is unimaginably powerful, wise and good. Taken together, a compelling case can be made for the trustworthiness of the Bible in all matters – especially the resurrection of Jesus!