The Ring of Truth: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels [Oct. 14, 2020] was presented by Professor Timothy McGrew of Western Michigan University at the 2020 annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics (NCCA). Prof. McGrew discusses a number of cases where something which is perhaps puzzling in one gospel is explained by a passing observation in a different gospel. These instances support the view that substantial eyewitness testimony lies behind each of the four gospels. I will summarize his case in mainly his words, and reserve my commentary until the end.
He notes that a straightforward explanation for the substantial agreement among the gospels is that one author simply copied from another. There is certainly merit to that explanation. Indeed, it is widely believed that Mark was the earlier gospel, and the Matthew and Luke drew on Mark or on whatever verbal tradition lay behind Mark.
Prof. McGrew suggests, however, that copying is less likely in the case of “Undesigned Coincidences” – – where one book mentions in passing a detail that answers some question raised by the other book. Such interlocking would be unlikely if one of them were simply copied from the other, or both were copied from the same source, or the later book simply added a bunch of legends to the former.
EXAMPLE #1: MATTHEW 14:1-2
This verse raises the question of how the early Christians could have possibly known what the Herod said in his royal court to his servants. One answer to this question might be “We just don’t know.” That is a reasonable, acceptable answer. There are lots of things that ancient authors wrote without rigorously documenting and footnoting their sources.
This question is not answered in Matthew. But we can find an explanation in a completely unrelated passage in a different gospel, where Luke notes some of the early auxiliary followers of Jesus, including. “…Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager” (Luke 8:3). This shows that Jesus’ followers had family in the highest ranks of Herod’s service, and so now it is not a mystery how later Christians would know what Herod had said to his servants.
This is an undesigned coincidence between Matthew 14 and Luke 8. Just one such a design coincidence may just be an accident. However, if there are numerous criss-crossing undesigned coincidences, it reveals a pattern.
EXAMPLE #2: John 18:10-11
As Jesus is being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter pulls out a sword, starts fighting to defend Jesus, and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant:
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:10-11).
Here Jesus refers to his suffering and death as a “cup”, which was ordained by God. This raises the question of where the metaphor of the cup came from. It appears nowhere else in the gospel of John. John does not mention the “cup of suffering” in his description of Jesus’ final prayer.
However, the explanation shows up in Matthew. In Matthew 26 we find that just scant minutes before his arrest Jesus was praying earnestly to his father, concerning the cup:
Matthew does not mention the healing of the priest’s servant, and John does not mention his prayer regarding the cup of suffering.
EXAMPLE 3: THE TRANSFIGURATION (LUKE 9:28-35)
In this passage, the three disciples who accompanied Jesus witnessed some amazing things:
It would be natural for Peter, James, and John to tell of what they had seen. We know the disciples were a competitive bunch, so being privy to this experience would give these three disciples bragging rights. Also, what a way to convey to the crowds what a great leader the disciples had. But according to Luke, “And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen” (Luke 9:36). That seems odd, but no explanation for their silence appears in Luke.
However, an explanation for their behavior does show up in Mark: “And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:9).
Mark gives us the command, but doesn’t say whether they obeyed it, and Luke records they were obedient, but omits the command. This indicates this is not just one author copying from another.
At this point, we have a growing network of explanations, where Mark explains something in Luke, Luke explains something in Matthew, and Matthew explains something in John:
Note that the explanatory arrows are not going all one way, so it is not just that three gospels are copying from the fourth. Even if Mark is the first gospel written, this pattern indicates that each gospel had unique material in it which happens to explain things in other gospels.
EXAMPLE 4: INVENTING A GOSPEL STORY
Prof. McGrew here poses a challenge, to invent (forge) a miracle story about Jesus and pass it off as an authentic account. At the beginning, you’re going to have Jesus ask one of his disciples a question. The setup for the miracle story is going to have to do with money and food. So which disciple would you pick?
Two natural picks would be Judas, since he had the team’s money bag, or Matthew, since he had been a tax collector and was used to handling money. Or maybe, Peter because he’s everywhere in the gospels and he’s kind of a leader. Any of those would be a good choice.
But here is what actually happened, according to John 6:
Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” (John 6:5)
Why Philip? He is pretty much a non-entity in the gospel narratives. After the original calling of The Twelve, Jesus speaks to Philip exactly one time, which is here.
To explain this, we have to connect multiple dots. First, Luke tells us where this event happened, in the region of Bethsaida:
And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. When the crowds learned it, they followed him… (Luke 9:10-11)
Six chapters later in John (John 12), it mentions that Philip was from “Bethsaida in Galilee” (John 12:21). And now it makes perfect sense why Jesus would have asked Philip, a native of that region, about the prospects of obtaining enough food there on short notice to feed a crowd of five thousand people. As Prof. McGrew puts it:
EXAMPLE 5: GREEN GRASS FOR FEEDING THE FIVE THOUSAND
Another interlocking detail regarding the feeding of the five thousand has to do with the state of the grass at that time. Mark is the only gospel which records that the grass was green: “Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass “ (Mark 6:39). That is not the norm, since in the arid climate of Palestine the grass is usually brown and dry, except during or just after the brief rainy season. Mark also stresses that big crowds were tracking Jesus and his disciples all over the place, so that “they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31).
John happens to mention that this event happened around the time of the Passover: “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand” (John 6:4). The Passover festival falls in the growing season, and thus this verse from John explains why the grass was green (from Mark).
So now John explains something in Mark. Every gospel explains something in another gospel. This verse from John also illuminates why there were huge crowds mobbing Jesus instead of being home working in their shops or fields, namely, that it was the time of the Passover festival:
EXAMPLE 6: PILATE’S REACTION TO JESUS’ CLAIM TO BE A KING
In Luke’s account of Jesus before the Roman governor Pilate, the local religious leaders accuse Jesus of various things, but the one that catches Pilate’s attention is Jesus claiming to be king. This is a serious political threat. In that region at that time, only the emperor could make somebody a king. Even if your father was the king, and willed the kingdom to you, you had to travel to meet with Cesar and get his personal endorsement.
Jesus gives a very terse (just two words in the Greek), enigmatic answer to Pilate which does not deny that he considers himself to be a king – – but nevertheless Pilate declares him to be innocent. This is somewhat puzzling. Here is the full text of the exchange as given in Luke 23(1-4):
Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.”
Here is Prof. McGrew’s take on this passage:
However, in John 18 there is a more extensive account of the Jesus-Pilate interaction:
Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” …So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”…Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. (John 18:29-38)
This account includes Jesus’ clarification (“My kingdom is not of this world”) that he was not promoting violence to attain some political end, and that his mission was to bear witness to “the truth”. This apparently convinced Pilate that Jesus was some sort of harmless philosophical sage, and on that basis Pilate declared, “I find no guilt in him.”
In John’s account Pilate’s question seems to come out of nowhere, but Luke explains where that question came from. Luke gives the accusation, but not the full answer;
John gives the full answer but not the accusation. And so:
Much of this material was originally published by John James Blunt in The Veracity of the Gospels and Acts (1829), which was later republished with large additions under the title Undesigned Coincidences. Prof. McGrew has made this book, along with many other classic apologetics works, freely available on his web site, historicalapologetics.org. Also, his wife Lydia McGrew has published an updated treatment of this subject, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (2017).
I’ll start by putting my literary critical cards on the table. On the one hand, I see no firm reason to assume that the gospels are free from any sort of minor historical error or inconsistency. Modern Christians have built various cases for that level of inerrancy, per modern Western literary standards, but that does not seem to be what the earliest Christians thought. They were not perturbed, for instance, if some events in some gospel were out of proper chronological order (see notes in The Historicity of Jesus).
Luke gives us a fairly elaborate description of how he went about composing his gospel (Luke 1:1-4), and he does not claim to be writing under some supernatural unction. Rather, he is simply doing the most diligent job he can as a historian, working with the various eyewitness accounts and previous writeups, to piece together an “orderly account”.
That said, a plethora of confirmed historical details in his companion piece, the Book of Acts, gives us confidence in Luke’s general competence and integrity as a historian. While there are a few controversial historical references in Luke’s gospel, on the whole this work fits well with what we know from other historical sources. John gets a wealth of geographical details correct, and Mark’s gospel was probably written around 65-70 A.D., while some eyewitnesses of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (c. 30 A.D.) were still alive and available.
We know from a passing reference by Paul (I Corinthians 9:5) that various disciples of Jesus (including Peter), and also Jesus’ brother James, travelled around the Eastern Mediterranean world, sharing their eyewitness experiences in nascent Christian communities around 50-60 A.D., and perhaps some years later as well. It was in that timeframe that Paul’s letters to Corinth, Rome, and Galatia were written. Paul does not write much about Jesus’s earthly life, but what he does mention (birth as a Jew, being betrayed, instituting a memorial meal of bread and wine, and that he was crucified, buried, raised from the dead and appeared to his followers) matches what is portrayed in much more detail in the later gospels (probably written around 65-90 A.D.).
It is reasonable, then, to give the benefit of the doubt to the gospel narratives. Nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century (mainly) German scholars devised elaborate scenarios of “schools” of Christians passing down and reworking and inventing stories about Jesus, from generation to generation to generation, before these narratives were finally committed to writing in some fanciful garbled form in our present gospels. Modern authors such as Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) have debunked these speculative, overly skeptical schemes.
According to J. Warner Wallace, a professional homicide detective in California (Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels), it is a hallmark of genuine, independent eyewitness testimony that eyewitnesses will differ on minor factual details and on the order of events, while agreeing on the big picture. If you interview four witnesses to an automobile collision after a month has passed, you will get four differing stories, but that does not mean no collision occurred. This observation applies to the four gospels. They present many differing details, but agree on key points.
Multiple independent accounts which stem from reliable reportage may also be expected to display some instances of “undesigned coincidences”, where some detail mentioned in passing in one account sheds light on something in a different account. Prof. McGrew presented a number of such instances, and apparently more of these are described in the references he cited.