When we read the gospels and Paul’s letters carefully, it becomes apparent that there are lots of details which serve no obvious purpose, but which connect them into a plausible fabric giving a reliable account of events. These have been explored most fully by Lydia McGrew in her books Hidden in Plain View and The Mirror or the Mask.
I recently interviewed Lydia about the idea and its importance.
IP: I really enjoyed reading your book Hidden in Plain View, not least because it offered a really fresh perspective on issues in reading the gospels. What was it that first made you interested in the issue of ‘undesigned coincidences’ in the gospels and wider New Testament?
LMcG: Philosopher and apologist Tim McGrew, my husband, first got me interested in undesigned coincidences. After our 2009 article in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, arguing for the resurrection of Jesus, we were doing research on the reliability of the Gospels, because we knew that that was intimately bound up with our argument there. Tim began looking back into older authors from the 1700s and 1800s and found this argument. He was lecturing about it publicly when I had merely heard of it. We talked about it a lot, and I was thinking about it, though not yet as excited about it as he was. In 2014 I had to take a train journey, and Tim went out and printed and bound William Paley’s Horae Paulinae and gave it to me to read on the train. The Horae Paulinae applies the argument to the Pauline epistles and to Acts. I came home deeply excited about it. We agreed at that time that it was imperative to write a new, book-length treatment that would bring the argument to 21st-century audiences, updating it to take into account various textual issues, the Synoptic problem, and so forth. We also agreed that whoever had the time to write the manuscript first would do it. I was the one who had the time to draft that in the summer of 2015.
IP: Can you explain what the term ‘undesigned coincidence’ means?
LMcG: An undesigned coincidence is an incidental interlocking that points to truth. The coming-together of two statements has an appearance of casualness. The word “undesigned” means, for example, that the author(s) do not appear to be trying to explain one another or allude to one another by giving the facts. And the word “coincidence” means co-incidence—coming together. A classic kind of undesigned coincidences occurs when two different writers or speakers give details of an incident and one of them explains the other without appearing to be doing so intentionally. So here’s a hypothetical example: Suppose you have two people who claim to have witnessed a bank robbery. One alleged witness tells you that the robber tripped when he was running away. The other person tells you that the robber’s shoe was untied. But neither one of them mentions both facts. That increases your confidence in the truthfulness of both of them, because it looks like they are just telling the truth, and because the truth is internally consistent, the two facts fit together—the untied shoelace explains the robber’s tripping.
What’s exciting is that we find these kinds of connections within and between the Gospels in many places and also between Acts and Paul’s epistles.
IP: When I first came across the idea of undesigned coincidences, I was particularly struck by the question to Philip about where to find food at the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6, when John tells us that Philip was from Bethsaida, but only Luke tells us that this was the location of the miracle. Do you have a favourite example amongst all the coincidences you list? And is there one that provokes the most surprise amongst your audiences?
LMcG: C.S. Lewis once said about Charles Dickens that his favorite Dickens novel always seemed to have been the one that he had read most recently. I feel that way about undesigned coincidences. My favorite one always seems to be the one I’ve just recently heard of or thought of, and I’ll give one of those below. But when I’m just reflecting, perhaps I most love some of the ones in Acts and the epistles, because they are unusual and very detailed; it feels like putting together a puzzle with many pieces that is just so right when it all comes together. For example, I love the one where you can tell from I Corinthians 16:5-10 that Timothy has already left for Greece and that Paul expects the letter to get to Corinth before Timothy does. Then you can match that up with Acts 19:21 and a lot of other clues and see that Paul is probably in Ephesus when he’s writing I Corinthians, and you look at a map and see that the letter could be sent to Corinth by a shorter route while Acts says that Timothy was sent into Macedonia. So if he went on to Corinth, he would have gotten there later, by the long route. It’s such a beautiful connection between the two books of the New Testament and the geography.
I’m also excited about some of the new undesigned coincidences that I will be mentioning in the book on John’s Gospel that I’m currently writing. These support the robust historicity of John and the fact that John and the Synoptic Gospels work together rather than contradicting each other. For example, in Mark 10 we find the story of blind Bartimaeus and how he was healed when Jesus was passing through Jericho on his last journey to Jerusalem before he died. Matthew 20 gives this story and tells us that there were two blind men. The blind men call out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on us” when they hear that Jesus is passing by. They are clearly excited and believe that Jesus can heal him. How had they heard that Jesus was able to heal the blind? There are healings of the blind earlier in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but they are all up in Galilee. I don’t really imagine that these blind men traveled normally very far from Jericho, and Galilee is far away. In fact, it’s interesting that we have no miracles at all reported down in the vicinity of Jericho and Jerusalem or Bethany or any of those places in the Synoptics prior to this healing of the blind. The closest geographically is in Luke 17 when Jesus heals ten lepers near the border between Samaria and Galilee, which would have still been quite a ways north.
Well, the blind men in Jericho might have just heard about Jesus’ healings from Galilean pilgrims coming through to Jerusalem for the feasts that year or some earlier year. That’s possible, and if we had nothing more specific, we might have to settle for that. Or we could conjecture that Jesus performed miracles “down south” that the Synoptics just don’t report. John shows that that is not just conjecture; it is true. In John 9 we learn that Jesus had healed a man born blind in Jerusalem, which is much closer to Jericho than Galilee. It made a big stir, and we even find the people referring to it in John 11 when Lazarus has died. They say, about Jesus, “Could not this man who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying?” That healing seems to have been closer in both time and space to the healing of Bartimaeus and his companion in Jericho just before the Passion, and it is a healing of the blind, specifically. It seems quite reasonable to think that they had heard of that healing (and possibly also of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead in Bethany) and that this is why they call out immediately to Jesus when he is passing by, calling him by the Messianic title of “Son of David,” and asking him to heal them.
You can see, too, that there is huge excitement about him at that point in all the Synoptics as well as in John. In the Synoptics a big crowd is following him through Jericho, to the point that Zacchaeus has to climb a tree in order to see him. This is also explained far better in John by his having been down there in that general region, sometimes in Jerusalem and sometimes in the Transjordan, for about six months, preaching and doing miracles, such as healing the man born blind and even raising Lazarus from the dead. John emphasizes that people came to Bethany just to see Lazarus. In John’s Gospel you see the excitement surrounding Jesus and the tension building up more in those last six months before the Triumphal Entry.
That’s the kind of thing that is wonderful to me to see: The Gospels explain one another and fit together so well.
As far as what surprises audiences the most, I don’t know if there is one undesigned coincidence in itself that surprises them the most, because I find that it’s a bit idiosyncratic which one of these strikes one person as opposed to another person. But I think the concept is surprising. When people get it, they may say that they never thought of considering the Gospels in that way. They may have never thought of using their real-world imagination and asking why something happened in one Gospel, then being pleased when another Gospel seems to supply the answer. It’s in some ways a more literal way even than many conservatives are used to approaching the Gospels. It’s not approaching them at first for spiritual applications or anything like that but thinking of them as history. I’ve had more than one person tell me that it has rejuvenated his study and reading of Scripture to have it brought home: These things really happened.
IP: You note that many of these things were observed, by William Paley and others, prior to the rise of ‘Higher Criticism’. Why do you think these insights were lost or forgotten?
LMcG: I think there have been a few quite different movements that probably explain it. First, the rise of higher criticism itself made too many Christians diffident about this type of argument. They may have thought that they could not make it any longer because the higher critics had called so many things into question–traditional authorship of the Gospels, for example. If “all the scholars now know” that these documents are factually embellished and corrupted, written long after the events and at many removes, don’t represent eyewitness testimony, then there’s no point in looking for undesigned coincidences. We can just assume that any such appearance of mutual explanation is an illusion or a coincidence in the pejorative sense. So I think a kind of chronological snobbery kicked in very quickly during and after the rise of higher criticism, so that everything that came before was regarded as permanently obsolete. You just “couldn’t” do this sort of argument anymore, simply because the critics would sneer at it. Of course, that obviously doesn’t tell us anything about the real strength of the argument.
The second cause may have been the emphasis upon inerrancy in the twentieth century in response to the higher criticism. I want to be clear that I am not saying that inerrancy is incompatible with the argument from undesigned coincidences. Far from it. But it was just a different emphasis and tended to supersede a more evidential, bottom-up defense of the reliability of the documents.
The third cause, late in the 20th century, for no one’s noticing this argument was the emphasis upon a “minimalist” approach to defending the doctrines of Christianity and the fact of the resurrection. In this minimalist approach, one doesn’t really make any kind of “root and branch” challenge to the assumptions of higher criticism. Instead, one tries to use the critically approved “criteria of authenticity” to “mine out” passages from the Gospels that one thinks even skeptics will grant are authentic—i.e., historical. Then one tries to use just those passages to defend conclusions such as that Jesus thought that he was divine or that Jesus rose from the dead. It’s really a very different approach from what is represented by using undesigned coincidences. When one uses undesigned coincidences, one is often going for the “big picture.” What kind of authors were these? What kind of documents are these? It looks like these are really strongly reliable whole documents, written by people close to the facts, and it looks like these authors were very honest. I’m always trying to draw those larger, stronger conclusions in Hidden in Plain View. That’s a bold defiance of higher critical approaches, an attempt to refute them completely, that has not been popular in Christian circles, not even evangelical apologetic circles.
IP: Richard Bauckham has argued, on slightly different grounds, that the assumptions and conclusions of Form Criticism no longer stand up to scrutiny. How do your examples of undesigned coincidences relate to Bauckham’s argument?
LMcG: Bauckham is talking about assumptions such as that the Gospels were corrupted over time and written down at many removes from the original events. He calls this the assumption that the Gospels consist of units passed down in the communities anonymously, which the communities treated “more or less creatively,” and he rejects that assumption based upon his own research. My undesigned coincidences argument supports his conclusion there very strongly. If the Gospel accounts had been changed as in a “telephone game” (that’s one of Bart Ehrman’s favorite claims), we would not expect to find them confirming one another again and again in these subtly interlocking ways.
I would say that my conclusions support something even stronger than what Bauckham concludes. It’s also worth pointing out, as Bauckham does, that much other criticism (such as redaction criticism) takes for granted the assumption that he is rejecting about creative passing on of the stories. So what he calls the death of form criticism is bound to have implications for these other critical views as well. My conclusions also provide evidence against certain theories associated with redaction criticism. Often in redaction criticism a critic will notice that, say, Matthew has an account that is verbally very similar to Mark’s. Based on what is known as the theory of Markan priority—that Mark wrote first and Matthew made use of Mark—the critic will sometimes then conclude that Matthew had no other information about that event than what is found in Mark. Then if there are some verbal or factual differences in that passage between Matthew and Mark (such as that Matthew adds some information), the critic will assume that Matthew added it without historical evidence—that he just made it up. Now that of course doesn’t follow just from saying that Matthew used Mark, even in that passage. Unfortunately, Bauckham does not accept traditional authorship of Matthew, and he also doesn’t really take on those kinds of wrong uses of redaction criticism. So I would say that we can take Bauckham’s argument that the Gospels come from eyewitnesses and are reliable and go even further with it than he does.
IP: In Hidden in Plain View, you specifically state that you are not going to address issues around the apparent contradictions between the gospels. But to what extent are you wanting us to read the gospels more closely as a harmony?
LMcG: Very much so. Hidden in Plain View strongly supports what I have subsequently dubbed the reportage model of the Gospel, which is the idea that they are honest, highly accurate reports from people close to the facts. If that’s true, then we should very often expect to be able to put them together. When I set aside the question of contradictions in Hidden in Plain View, what I was trying consciously to do was to make harmonization more plausible by placing it in the context of all of this positive evidence. If you already have reason to believe that the Gospels are accurate reports, then you have more reason to harmonize them when there is some appearance of discrepancy. I do get into a lot of those alleged discrepancies in my new book that just came out, The Mirror or the Mask. Even though I am not insistent on always finding some harmonization at all costs, I find that, just as we would expect with highly reliable documents, there is often quite a reasonable way or even more than one reasonable way that both accounts could be correct even when there is some initial appearance of discrepancy.
IP: Out of your research, you have disagreed with scholars who defend the importance of literary creativity on the part of the gospel writers. Can you give an example which demonstrates what is at stake here?
LMcG: In my research both before and after I completed Hidden in Plain View, I’ve been examining the work of some evangelical scholars who think that the evangelists were literarily creative in the sense that they were changing the facts about what happened while appearing to narrate completely realistically. A relatively “mild” example there would be the idea that John moved the Temple cleansing by more than three years, deliberately “making” it happen early in Jesus’ ministry in John’s “story world,” even though (according to the theory) it really happened only one time, in Passion Week. An example that someone might think of as more radical, put forward by Michael Licona and Daniel Wallace, is that John changed the words on the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” found in the Synoptic Gospels into, “I thirst.” Jesus, in other words, didn’t really say, “I thirst” on the cross, but John made that up. Another example is the theory that Luke moved the first appearance that Jesus made to his disciples geographically from Galilee to Jerusalem. That was actually quite a distance in those days and would make a difference to various things such as our evidence for the resurrection. It’s quite unlikely that Doubting Thomas would have walked to Galilee before he saw Jesus. John locates the Doubting Thomas sequence very firmly in Jerusalem. So it’s difficult to fit that sequence in if Jesus really first appeared to his disciples in Galilee. There are many, many more examples, and what a particular person will think of as mild or radical or in between will depend on that person’s individual preferences. These involve changing other days and times, adding people in scenes where they weren’t really present, putting words into Jesus’ mouth that he never recognizably uttered at all, and so forth.
I think that these examples show what is at stake. If one thought that the evangelists really felt free to make these kinds of changes, it would make a big difference to how we view the Gospels and whether we take them at face value. As Tom Gilson of The Stream has pointed out at his personal blog, Thinking Christian, if you’re a pastor and you are going to preach on Sunday morning on some teaching or action of Jesus in the Gospels, it would seem then that you would have to go to the experts to find out if that was authentic, before you could preach on it and say that Jesus said or did this. The “experts,” of course, don’t even always agree among themselves on that question. Part of the conservative evangelical approach to the Gospels is to take them to be far more straightforward in their narration as far as the events that happened. That doesn’t automatically mean that these fact-changing views are wrong, but it does mean that the theorists can’t just say that this doesn’t matter, that nothing is at stake. It would make quite a large difference if they were right, because a lot more that the Gospels report would be historically questionable. Of course, you can see that the research I’ve done on undesigned coincidences is leading me to a very different conclusion.
IP: Hidden in Plain View was published in 2017. Where has your further study led you from there; what are you working on now?
LMcG: My research since Hidden in Plain View has been related to the literary device views that I discussed above. These are advocated by Dr. Michael Licona; he’s written a whole book on them called Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? They are also promoted by Craig Evans and Craig Keener, and William Lane Craig has advocated a couple of these theories as well as deferring to Licona more generally. These are all, of course, known as quite conservative scholars and apologists. The idea is that the Gospel authors felt free at times to alter the facts in their stories. I had to delve into the theories a bit to find out what it was all about, and I realized that these weren’t supposed to be just some kind of known conventions, like our saying “once upon a time,” where we all know that at that point the story that follows is not historical. Nor are they like figures of speech, such as, “I have a frog in my throat.” Instead they are supposed to be seamlessly narrated and very realistic, more like scenes in our biopics or movies, and then the idea is that the original audience didn’t mind that things had been changed, even if they were just guessing where they were changed. Once I understood this, I realized right away that this would make a pretty radical difference to our view of the high reliability of the Gospels, as just discussed.
I knew that if I was going to respond to these ideas in a credible way, I would have to investigate the claims that scholars make to bolster them—about Greco-Roman literary devices and the Gospels’ genre and so forth. I found upon investigation that the argument does not stand up and in fact that there is even more positive evidence that the Gospels are what they present themselves as being prima facie, which is historical reports of what happened. The result of that is my new book, The Mirror or the Mask, which just came out on December 10, 2019. That book both responds to the literary device views in detail and presents evidence for a nuanced, positive reportage model of the Gospels. I’m working right now on a follow-up book entirely on the Gospel of John, because John comes in for a lot of additional skepticism about the literal nature of his reportage. That is to be called The Eye of the Beholder. There is quite a bit of Johannine material in The Mirror or the Mask, but given the additional objections that get raised about John—again, even by some scholars viewed as conservative—I thought that an entire book on John was important.
When I get additional mental space to think, I’m also toying with some ideas in formal epistemology concerning witness testimony and contradictions, but I’m so involved right now in promoting The Mirror or the Mask and drafting The Eye of the Beholder while also home schooling my daughter that that new research is in a fairly embryonic state. I am quite determined to continue working in secular, formal theory of knowledge. It’s been fun to see how my work in that area fits together so well with my work on the Gospels.
IP: Thanks very much for your time in answering these questions. And thank you for your fascinating work in exploring these undesigned coincidences.
Lydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher and the wife of philosopher and apologist Timothy McGrew. She received her PhD in English from Vanderbilt University in 1995. She has published extensively in the theory of knowledge, specializing in formal epistemology and its application to the evaluation of testimony and the philosophy of religion. Her articles in philosophy have appeared in such journals as Ergo, Philosophical Studies, the Journal of Philosophical Research, and Erkenntnis. She and Timothy McGrew co-wrote the article on the resurrection of Jesus for the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009), and she wrote “Historical Inquiry” for the Routledge Companion to Theism (2012). In 2017 she published Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, which defends the reliability of the New Testament using a long-neglected argument from incidental details. She has recently published on the proper analysis of independent attestation in the biblical studies journal Themelios. Her new book, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels From Literary Devices (2019), defends the historicity of the Gospels against recent theories that they contain deliberate factual alterations.
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