Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. A Jewish preacher being the human incarnation of an all-powerful being, dying on a cross and being resurrected from the dead, is probably one of the most extraordinary claims ever made. But a collection of ancient documents like the Gospels is everything but extraordinary evidence.
In my opinion, documents like the gospels could never be sufficient to establish such an extraordinary claim beyond reasonable doubt. And this has nothing to do with a “bias towards naturalism”. I also don´t believe extraordinary claims which do not violate the laws of nature in any way, simply because an ancient document claims they happened.
To give you an example, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote an account of the second Persian invasion of Greece, in which he claims that the Persian king Xerxes led an army numbering more than five million(!) people (yes, this is the Xerxes featured in the historically wildly inaccurate movie 300). This claim does not violate the laws of nature in any way, but it beggars belief that the Persians were able to handle the logistics of such a gargantuan army. Therefore, I would never believe this claim without evidence that is at least as extraordinary as the claim itself (historical and archaeological research has shown that the second Persian invasion of Greece did in fact happen, but Herodotus´ numbers were grossly exaggerated).
Now, imagine that Herodotus would instead have reported that Greece was invaded by an army of huge fire-breathing dragons – would you not require some very impressive evidence before believing that this indeed happened, something much more impressive than an ancient historian saying that it did? (and this is still not nearly as extraordinary a claim as the human incarnation of an all-powerful God being crucified and resurrected from the dead….)
But even if we assume that an ancient document like “The Histories” by Herodotus or the Gospels could be, without any further evidence, sufficient to establish such extraordinary claims – are the Gospels historically reliable? I don´t think so, for many reasons. I´d like to focus on one reason here, of which I was reminded by Jonathan´s post about Matthew´s account of the guards at Jesus´ tomb.
11While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened.12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money,13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’14 if this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
Think about that for a second. Matthew reports a private conversation between conspirators that was “brought into circulation” by a completely unknown source and was told and retold for decades, before it reached an unknown guy living in a different country and speaking a different language who then wrote it down.
Imagine a hypothetical Afghan scholar reporting a private conversation between George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld about them conspiring to fake the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to start the war in Afghanistan – without mentioning any source beyond “this story has been widely circulated in Afghanistan to this very day”. Now imagine that the hypothetical scholar would report this in the year 2050. Who in their right mind would try to defend the plausibility of such an account before asking questions like:
– Who the hell brought this alleged private conversation into circulation?
– Did Bush or Rumsfeld reveal their conspiratory to someone? And if they did – to whom did they reveal it and why don´t we know about that from any other source ? If they didn´t, how could anyone possibly know what they talked about?
– How many different versions of this story are in circulation?
– How could the hypothetical scholar possibly know that this story is accurate after fifty years(!!) of telling and retelling?
Are Christians really not bothered by the Gospels reporting private conversations based on nothing but hearsay? Just imagine the chain of events that would have had to happen for the author of Matthew being able to accurately report the conversation between the guards and the chief priests:
– Either the guards or the chief priests would have had to accurately reveal their conspiracy to outsiders (and thus incriminate themselves for no apparent reason)
– The story is brought into circulation, but the details of who exactly revealed this conspiracy are not mentioned by anyone or are forgotten (if somebody told you about a private conversation between others, wouldn´t your first question be “How do you know that if it was a private conversation??”)
– The story is accurately preserved over decades of telling and retelling it (remember that Matthew does not claim to have a written source or eyewitness accounts – he specifically refers to a “story that is widely circulated among the Jews to this very day”).
It simply beggars belief – this story screams “made up out of thin air”.
And the same applies to many other private conversations reported in the Gospels – no disciple was present when Jesus was (allegedly) on trial before the Sanhedrin (according to Mark, Peter only followed to the courtyard) and no disciple was present when the Sanhedrin brought Jesus before Pilate. So how did the disciples learn the details of the trial and what the high priest and Pilate said to Jesus and what Jesus replied?
Try to find a single historian who is considered to be a reliable source and who reports private conversations that happened decades ago, based on nothing but hearsay and without any explanation for how he got that information. And if they did, an epic degree of gullibility would be required to believe them without any evidence.