Fifty years after the Persian Wars ended in 479 BC, Herodotus the Halicarnassian asked numerous eyewitnesses and their children about the things that happened in those years and then wrote a book about it. Though he often shows a critical and skeptical mind, sometimes naming his sources and even questioning their reliability when he has suspicious or conflicting accounts, he nevertheless reports without a hint of doubt that the temple of Delphi magically defended itself with animated armaments, lightning bolts, and collapsing cliffs; the sacred olive tree of Athens, though burned by the Persians, grew a new shoot an arm’s length in a single day; a miraculous flood-tide wiped out an entire Persian contingent after they desecrated an image of Poseidon; a horse gave birth to a rabbit; and a whole town witnessed a mass resurrection of cooked fish!
Do you believe these things happened? Well, why not? …You’ll say, for example, that these sorts of things don’t really happen because nothing like them happens today, certainly never when you’re around. Cooked fish don’t rise from the dead. Rabbits don’t pop out of horses. Temples don’t defend themselves with miraculous weather and floating weapons… You know these things because of your own experience, as well as that of countless other people, especially after centuries of scientific research. But you also know people lie… They also exaggerate, tell tall tales, craft edifying myths and legends, and err in many ways… as we all know, false stories are commonplace. But miracles, quite clearly, are not.
So what is more likely? That miracles like these really happen, while you and everyone else you trust, including every scientist and investigator for the last few centuries, just happens to have missed them all? Or that these are just tall tales? I think the latter. And I suspect you agree.
But that’s just one rule of thumb we all live by. Your doubts become stronger when you can’t question the witnesses; when you don’t even know who they are; when you don’t have the story from them but from someone else entirely; when there is an agenda, something the storyteller is trying to persuade you of; when the witnesses or reporters are a bit kooky or disturbingly overzealous. And so on. We all think this way, and rightly so.
…For all these reasons and more, we rightly dismiss [the miracles described by Herodotus] as fun tales that simply aren’t true.
Well, you can see where this is headed. Now, consider Matthew 27, which says that as Jesus died…
The veil of the temple tore in two from top to bottom, and the earth quaked, and the rocks were rent, and the tombs were opened, and many bodies of holy men who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection they entered into the holy city and appeared to many.
No other gospel or ancient writer mentions these spectacular events. Somehow everybody missed the earthquake and a horde of dead people wandering around the city.
We don’t hear this account from witnesses, and we don’t know their names. We don’t know who Matthew is, or when and where he wrote. We know he copied Mark, embellishing his story “with fantastic details like these.” But we don’t know Mark or his sources, either. Moreover, Matthew writes with a clear agenda to persuade you, and lived in a time even more superstitious and ignorant than our own. Carrier writes:
If this were any other religion, say the Heaven’s Gate cult or a growing sect of Victor Hugo worshippers, then that would be the end of it… if a bunch of well-dressed men went around knocking on doors claiming Victor Hugo rose from the dead, and all they had to prove it were their own creepy convictions, some wild miracle tales written decades after the fact by unknown persons who never even say how they know anything they claim to know, and some vaguely obsessive letters written by one guy who claims he saw Hugo’s heavenly ghost, you’d tell them to go away. And you’d never feel any need to inquire further. Because we all know poppycock when we hear it.
But these are weird times. We live in an age of science and reason, and yet millions of people seriously believe the world’s dead will rise again when an immortal superman flies down from outer space to destroy the earth.
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