Mark Roberts' response is particularly interesting for its scope and depth, but also for its unstated assumptions, which we'll examine below. In a phrase, Roberts answers bias with bias.
Clearly there are other alternatives that Meacham should have considered. If a text intends to relate what really happened, even if the text shapes that event in terms of the author’s perspective, then a literal reading of the text might in fact be the most historical reading. When I read an account of the latest Dodger game in the newspaper, am I being unhistorical if I take it literally? No. (Unless of course I know that it was written by a Giant fan. Then extreme skepticism is warranted.)Here is a perfectly broken-down analogy, and an argument that undercuts Roberts' point. First, the gospels aren't newspapers, and make no pretense of objectivity, actual or intended. Second, the presumption of bias would cut across both sets of fans, not just one side. Third, the essence of the claims also sets bullshit detectors in action. If you read a newspaper report that angels had grabbed the Dodgers centerfielder and hoisted him high enough to catch a seeming home run, you have every right to a double-take. A simple principle of doubt is that it is directly proportional to the outlandishness of the claim. If partisanship warrants "extreme skepticism," then miraculous tales recorded by True Believers merit just such skepticism.
But, nevertheless, we do have a significant historical test available to us, one that Meacham and other writers often minimize or ignore. The fact is that we have in Matthew and Luke two independent accounts of the birth of Jesus. The vast majority of scholars, both conservative and liberal, believe that these gospels writers were not familiar with each other’s work. So we can test the historical accuracy of Matthew by comparing it with Luke, and vice versa.I find this claim interesting, because it's not the tack taken by those who dispute the Q hypothesis (the idea that Luke and Matthew drew from a common source); such writers (like these examples) usually claim that Luke drew from Matthew, which makes the differences in their narratives no less interesting, but hardly "independent." (It does seem, at times, like Luke is "correcting" Matthew, so that thesis seems plausible.) What evidence do we have for their complete independence? The claim that "Matthew and Luke... were not familiar with each other's work" is the sort of mind-reading that cuts both ways.
The primary problem, as Roberts acknowledges, is this: the historical "accuracy" of the Gospels only goes so far as proof of their religious validity. If we start with the premise that miracles are impossible, then we must dismiss reports of miracles a priori; let us keep an open mind, Roberts rightly adjures. However, Roberts stumbles when trying to prove the converse. If we start with the premise that a "god" exists who conceivably could use such miracles, must we leap logically to the conclusion that we have to take the New Testament at face value?
Such a move comes at great cost, for we then have poor grounds to dismiss every other religious writing that makes historical claims. Let us use the example of Joseph Smith. Let us assume:
1. It is conceivable that God works miracles in the world.
2. Joseph Smith witnessed many miraculous occurrences.
3. These events were independently verified, and well within the decades separating the death / ascension of Christ and the writing of the Gospels.
4. Millions believe Smith's revision of Christianity, and have even sacrificed their lives for their beliefs.
5. Because people do not likely die for something they know to be false, and because of the independently verified and therefore historical testimony, we can presume that Smith's visions are trustworthy, and his religion true.
It is, to use a favorite metaphor of C.S. Lewis, "sawing off the branch you sit upon."
On a lighter note, I would like to start my own Echo Chamber, and propose my first assignment: find compelling evidence that 1. Matthew and Luke were eyewitnesses and 2. Had no knowledge of each other's work. To work, Decorabilians.