An atheist with whom I was in dialogue last week tried to support his disbelief in Jesus through the use of the “Spiderman fallacy”, which is a contrived argument that has been defined in the following way by Urban Dictionary:
Archaeologists 1,000 years from now unearth a collection of Spiderman comics. From the background art, they can tell it takes place in New York City. NYC is an actual place, as confirmed by archaeology. However, this does not mean that Spiderman existed.
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.
Let me explain why I believe atheists should not use this argument to try to support their skeptical position on the Bible and/or whether Jesus actually existed.
Why Historical Accuracy Matters
Perhaps there are Christians who argue along the lines of “because Jerusalem exists, Jesus also existed…”, but no Christian apologist or theologian I’ve ever listened to has argued in this manner. The Spiderman fallacy argument misstates the true argument that good apologists make, which is this: We tend to trust people who get their facts straight.
Take for example the author of the gospel of Luke and Acts. By all standards of measure, he shows himself to be a top-notch historian, a fact demonstrated by such credible scholars such as Colin Hemer in his work The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History.
Of Luke, historian and archaeologist Sir William Ramsay said: “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statement of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense; he fixes his mind on the idea and plan that rules in the evolution of history, and proportions the scale of his treatment to the importance of each incident. . . . In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”
Why are such accreditations important? Because historical accuracy matters; an author who shows him/herself to be correct in matters that can be falsified should be granted trust in matters that cannot be directly investigated.
F. F. Bruce puts it like this: “Now, all these evidences of accuracy are not accidental. A man whose accuracy can be demonstrated in matters where we are able to test it is likely to be accurate even where the means for testing him are not available. Accuracy is a habit of mind, and we know from happy (or unhappy) experience that some people are habitually accurate just as others can be depended upon to be inaccurate. Luke’s record entitles him to be regarded as a writer of habitual accuracy.”
This is the direct argument of Christian apologists where the New Testament is concerned. The Spiderman fallacy takes a big misstep right out of the blocks in misrepresenting this fact.
A Fundamental Misunderstanding
I loved comic books as a kid, and, truth be told, I was quite a collector. In fact, I continued collecting comic books into early adulthood and still have my full collection (including many Spiderman issues) safely tucked away in my basement.
But here’s the thing: no clear thinking individual including myself confuses a comic book with a history book. Why? We understand they are of two different genres.
What is a ‘genre’? Ben Witherington explains: “The word ‘genre’ means a literary kind or type. It refers to a sort of compact between author and reader whereby the author, using various literary signals, indicates to the reader what sort of document is being read and how it should be used. The genre signals in the text provide the reader with a guide to the interpretation of the text. To make a genre mistake is to make a category mistake, which skews the reading of the document.”
When the atheist tries to compare a Spiderman comic – which is clearly of the fantasy genre in the comic book world – with the New Testament, they commit the category mistake that Witherington identifies. In a very real way, the atheist shoots themselves in the head in trying to use the Spiderman argument because it is they who are committing a logical fallacy (category mistake) vs. the Christian.
Some skeptics, though, try to argue that the Gospels do not belong in the genre of history and point to statements such as those made by the Jesus Seminar who said: “The gospels are now assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church’s faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracles workers firsthand.”
However, such thinking has been discredited due to the work of a number of scholars, most notably Richard Burridge and his work What are the Gospels – A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. Burridge, dean of King’s College in London, is a classicist who originally set out to disprove the thesis that the Gospels fit within the genre of ancient biography, but during his research, the evidence he uncovered caused him to reverse his opinion.
Those who think the Gospels don’t match the category of ancient historical biography confuse our current models of biography with those of the ancient world. Ancient biographies were not the huge page-turner’s available today, but instead were much shorter/to-the-point works. An ancient biography oftentimes skipped over major parts of a character’s life and limited the material to key events or speeches, with the end goal many times being to encourage the readers to emulate the virtuous life of the biographical subject. Mark Roberts, who received his Ph.D. in New Testament at Harvard, says: “When seen in this light, the New Testament Gospels fit quite nicely within the genre of Hellenistic biography.”
Burridge shows this to be the case as he takes great care in presenting the openings, internal and external features, characteristics, and evidence of ancient biographies. Graham Stanton of Cambridge, who wrote the forward to Burridge’s book said: “I do not think it is now possible to deny that the Gospels are a subset of the broad ancient literary genre of ‘lives,’ that is, biographies.”
This being true, the skeptic who tries to compare a Spiderman comic book to the New Testament biographies of Jesus just ends up looking uninformed.
The Real Crux of the Matter
At its core, I believe what drives the use of the Spiderman fallacy is the same thing that is at the heart of the atheistic worldview: a refusal to acknowledge the possibility of the supernatural. Because of their naturalistic presuppositions, atheists think along the lines of “Spiderman is portrayed as having superhuman powers. So is Jesus. Having supernatural abilities is impossible. So since Spiderman is fictitious, so is Jesus.”
Such is the end result when someone falls prey to the faulty analogy logical fallacy. Analogies are only good when there are strong similarities and nonessential differences, and such is not the case in comparing a universally acknowledged fantasy comic book hero with the historical Jesus.
Regarding the stories of miracles in the New Testament and the skeptic, Bruce remarks: “For many readers it is precisely these miracle-stories which are the chief difficulty in the way of accepting the New Testament documents as reliable. To some extent it is true to say that the credibility of these stories is a matter of historical evidence. If they are related by authors who can be shown on other grounds to be trustworthy, then they are worthy of at least serious attention by the historian. . . . No doubt, the historian will be more exacting in his examination of the evidence where miracles are in question. But if the evidence is really good, he will not refuse it on a priori grounds.”
But is there “really good” evidence along the lines of what Bruce refers to that helps the skeptic in this area – that links miracle accounts with historical confirmation? I believe there is. While space prohibits a thorough treatment on this topic, let me provide just one example.
The miraculous resurrection of Lazarus is recorded in John 11-12. Of this event, the late Professor A. T. Olmstead, a leading authority on ancient Oriental history, says he views the narrative as having, “all the circumstantial detail of the convinced eyewitness” and “told by an un-doubted eyewitness-full of life, and lacking any detail to which the sceptic might take justifiable objection.”
Is there historical substantiation of this event that lends support to it being true? Yes, there is. The tomb of Lazarus was uncovered on Larnaca, Cyprus in A.D. 900. I used to work with a software engineer who lived on Larnaca that could literally hit the site of Lazarus’ tomb with a rock from his flat. If you go there today, you will see the same words written in Greek that greeted the discoverers of Lazarus’ tomb: “Lazarus. Four Days Dead. Friend of Christ.”
One other thing worth noting as an aside is that it is not only the New Testament that reports Jesus performing miracles, but other historians reference it as well. Josephus cites Jesus as doing extraordinary feats (in his historically accepted version of Jesus in Antiquities); the Talmud refers to Jesus and His miracles as originating from sorcery, as does work from Celsus, the ancient critic of Christianity in the second century. So there are historical sources outside the New Testament that add weight to the claims as well.
Lastly, those confident in their denial of the supernatural should give attention to the words of Mark Roberts who provides good advice to those on both sides of the debate: “If your worldview excludes the possibility of miracles, then you have an intractable problem with the historicity of the Gospels. But your acceptance of such a worldview is a matter of faith. There’s no way you can prove that miracles don’t happen, even as there’s no way I can prove that they do. There’s an irreducible element of faith on both sides of this argument.”
So in the end we see that the Spiderman fallacy as applied to Jesus (1) misstates the true position maintained by Christian apologists where historical accuracy and the Bible are concerned, (2) misunderstands the essential and meaningful genre differences of the New Testament and fantasy comic books, and (3) is handicapped by its naturalistic presuppositions so that it rules out the witness of the New Testament in a priori fashion.
There are good arguments that atheists bring against the existence of God in general and Christianity in particular, which deserve good recognition and debate. The Spiderman fallacy argument isn’t one of them.
 Mark Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), pg. 85.
 Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels – A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), pgs. viii-ix.
 A. T. Olmstead, Jesus in Light of History (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), pg. 206.
 Roberts, pg. 194.