Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The Spider-Man Fallacy Fallacy

Spider-Man comic books
Christians claim that the New Testament gospels are historically reliable. One of the ways we defend that is to point out that the stories accord well with history and archeology — that is, the places where things happened really existed, the rulers named really ruled, and the practices described were what you’d find if you visited that place in that time.

Many skeptics claim when we say that we’re committing what they call the Spider-Man fallacy. What is that, and are we guilty of it?

The Spider-Man fallacy is described like this: in the future, archaeologists find some old Spider-Man comic books, and within those comics are certain facts that are true (such as New York being an actual city). Based on those historical facts, the archaeologists wrongly conclude that Spider-Man must have actually existed, too.

The Urban Dictionary sums up the Spider-Man fallacy:

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.

The skeptics have a point to a certain degree, but they often overstate their case and/or misunderstand ours. What are the problems with the Spider-Man fallacy?

First, it misunderstands genre. Every work of fiction, including comic books, begins with a statement very much like this:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

How does this compare to the way the Gospel of Luke begins?

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (1:1-4)

One of these things clearly claims to be a work of fiction; the other clearly claims to be a work of history. Any archaeologist who failed to read the fine print at the front of the Spider-Man comic books deserves the ridicule he would receive.

Second, this misunderstands our usage. No credible or properly educated Christian apologist (professional or lay) is going to claim that everything in the gospels is true because some elements are historically verifiable. We do not expect people to believe the gospels are true because there was a Tiberius Caesar, Pilate and Herod governed Judea and Galilee during his rule, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene (Luke 3:1). We don’t think people should just accept the gospel because there really was a Pool of Bethesda or because the gospels properly describe backwater Galilean towns.

But those accurate elements do tell us something important. They tell us that these stories were not made up by people who were separated, either by time or locale, from the areas in question. There was no way for the gospel writers to google information about a town halfway across the Roman empire thirty years previous. And the more local those correct facts get, the tinier the detail is, the more it raises our confidence that these stories originated with the people from that area. It is unlikely someone from Egypt or Italy could know the names of the tiny towns mentioned in the gospels or be able to accurately describe the geography of the area.

One of my favorite book series is set in Chicago. Readers of the series who know Chicago are very vocal about the fact that the author does not know Chicago. He gets all kinds of little details wrong. The authors of the gospels cannot be accused of this.

As Peter Williams put it in Can We Trust the Gospels?, the argument “is not that knowledge of these geographical details demonstrates the Gospels to be true, but rather that the idea that they got the story wrong for lack of high-quality information on the location of events is false. Either the Gospel writers themselves or people they interacted with at length were able to describe the locations of Jesus’s activities in detail.” These things are one piece of a cumulative argument. That the gospels are accurate in historical details like geography or their use of names is combined with the criteria of embarrassment and their maintaining difficult teachings to support our claim that these documents are historically reliable. They are not the whole case.

Or, at least, they shouldn’t be. In fairness to the skeptics who bring up the Spider-Man fallacy, some people do claim that the existence of the Pool of Bethesda proves that Jesus healed someone there. Let’s be more thoughtful than that. We must not overstate our case so we don't commit the Spider-Man fallacy.

So don’t be discouraged by those who mock our defense of the gospels. Spider-Man does not have the same historical evidence as Jesus. But be cautious in your defense of the scriptures. Let’s be careful to make our best case.

Image via Pexels

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