Some Christian bloggers got together and published a free ebook called Is Christianity True? This is my smackdown of one chapter in that book: "The Gospels Tell Me So" by Vocab Malone and Paul Adams. (See pages 109 to 114 in the book to see the chapter I'm responding to).
In a nutshell, the authors argue that since the gospels say that certain miracles happened, we ought to believe them because we usually believe what ancient authors wrote (if they intended to record history). Now let me be very clear: I agree that in general we ought to believe ancient historians. But what about in the specific case of miracles? In the present day, we've investigated lots of miracle reports and found them to be mistakes, frauds, or not credible in some way. See the work of James Randi or Joe Nickell if you don't believe me. That tells us that most of the time, perhaps all of the time, when someone reports a miracle it did not happen. Therefore, when it comes to miracle reports in the gospels, they ought to be considered false until rigorously proven otherwise. This standard is no different from the standard we apply to other ancient authors. After all, most of us wouldn't believe tales of witchcraft occuring in Salem, Massachusetts or ghost stories from the ancient world.
I have some doubts about whether the gospel writers even intended to record history. Though some of what is in the gospels may reflect actual events, large portions of it that at a glance look like historical reporting turn out on closer examination to be symbolic stories. For example, the temple curtain is reported to be torn at Jesus death. The temple curtain was what separated man from God, as the sanctuary was the dwelling place of God himself. Jesus figured in Christian theology as a mediator between man and God (1 Timothy 2:5). So the tearing of the curtain is a removal of the separation between God and man, which occurs when the one who mediates between God and man dies. Anthony Harvey's Companion to the New Testament (Published by Cambridge University Press) page 99 documents this (I've also found a handy webpage with plenty of scripture references that show this). Jennifer Maclean published an article in Harvard Theological Review which argues that the Barabbas narrative in the gospels is symbolism based on the Levitical scapegoat ceremony. In a nutshell, the scapegoat ritual in Leviticus 16:6-10 prescribes that (a) We take two goats (b) release one (c) sacrafice the other for remission of sin. Now look at Mark's Barabbas narrative. Little known fact, Barabbas means "son of the father" and Jesus, of course, is a "Son of the Father." The plot of the story is that (a) We have two sons of the father (b) One is realeased (Barabbas) (c) The other (Jesus) is sacraficed for remission of sin. Spooky, isn't it? The cursing of the fig tree is yet another instance of symbolism. So much symbolism in the gospels introduces a decent chance that any other story there is mere symbolism, too, even if we aren't able to see it (after all, these are cult documents from 2,000 years ago; we may not know what they had in mind when they were writing simply because our knowledge of the time and the authors is limited).
Malone and Adams tell us "Luke’s prologue is clear that he interviewed eyewitnesses before assembling an accurate account of Jesus’s life."
No, it's not clear. Read Luke 1:1-4: "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled [The NIV says that this can also be translated as "have been surely believed] among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word." In other words, Luke said this information was "handed down" to him. By whom? Most scholars believe that there was an oral tradition about Jesus and his life that was passed down over the generations, and so this is possibly what Luke means, that is, if he is not referring to his source documents, Mark and Q. In any case, Luke is so vague on this point that it cannot be asserted that he went around interviewing eyewitnesses. At best, he got it from people who got it from eyewitnesses. Otherwise, why would he have copied Mark so much? It gets worse, because for all we know, Luke got it from someone who heard from their neighbor who went to church with someone who was the nephew of the supposed eyewitnesses.
Malone and Adams trot out a few tired old examples of gospel reliability based on archaeological evidence, but archaeological evidence doesn't prove a miracle occurred and the level of confidence we can place in a historian based on the fact that archaeology corroborates his writings is weak. As I've written before:
"Herodotus, who was an educated, careful, and generally reliable historian, reports all kinds of fantastic tales, such as a fortress that magically defended itself with armaments. But no one would believe any of Herodotus' wild tales... Herodotus has recieved some fantastic corroboration, and even some corroboration for issues about which some historians thought he was full of it. His fantastic tale of giant ants, for example, probably refers to something real (!), he correctly identified the first pharaoh and the builders of the pyramids, he correctly reported that Medes was overthrown by Cyrus, and he's been vindicated by various topological and archaeological surveys, as has been reported in the Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writings."
In short, Malone and Adams have made an argument which is not only logically unsound, at odds with the facts, but also terribly unconvincing. However, I would like to thank them for the opportunity they gave me to write something fun and interesting for other people. You should too.