In previous articles, I have discussed at length undesigned coincidences as a category of evidence supporting the substantial reliability of the New Testament accounts. In this article, I want to introduce another category of evidence for the trustworthiness of the gospel biographies of Jesus’ life — a pattern that I call artless similarities. Artless similarities refer to the casual consistency with which a character is portrayed across different episodes involving the character, and across the four gospels. Indeed, the evidence from unity of personality in the gospels is a category of argument that was advanced by apologists in the 19th century, such as Stanley Leathes  and J.S. Howson , but is regrettably seldom used today. I am indebted to my friend and colleague Dr. Lydia McGrew for bringing this form of evidence to my attention.
Like undesigned coincidences, artless similarities are best explained by offering examples, and it is to those that I now turn.
Unity of the Personality of Jesus
The portrayal of Jesus Himself shows remarkable unity across the four gospels. Here, I will consider a handful of examples. Consider this episode from John 7:21-23, when Jesus has been challenged by the Jewish authorities about his practice of healing on the Sabbath:
21 Jesus answered them, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it. 22 Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. 23 If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?
Compare this reported incident to a similar but different episode from Luke 13:15-16, where Jesus responds on a separate occasion to Jews who accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath following Jesus’ healing of a disabled woman:
15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”
Take careful note of the similarity between Jesus’ response on those two occasions. In both episodes, Jesus highlights the Jews’ hypocrisy concerning Sabbath practice, and uses a pun. The pun implies that Jesus has done something that is far more important on the Sabbath than is permitted by the Jewish customs (which went beyond the law of Moses). In John, the pun concerns circumcision (i.e. cutting off part of a man) on the Sabbath vs. Jesus’ making a man whole on the Sabbath. In Luke, the pun compares “untying” an animal on the Sabbath vs. Jesus’ “loosing” the woman who had been bound for eighteen years and was in such a predicament that she was unable to stand upright.
Let us take another example, this one pertaining to the consistency with which Jesus is portrayed as turning away compliments. For example, according to the gospel of John, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews, came to visit Jesus by night. Nicodemus made an attempt to butter up Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). To this, Jesus immediately replies in verse 3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ remark seems to come from nowhere, and the reader may fairly ask here, “Where did that come from?” Likewise, in Matthew 8:19-20 and Luke 9:57-58, a man came up to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” How does Jesus respond? He says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Again, this remark seems to come out of nowhere. Similarly, in Luke 11:27-28, Jesus turns away a compliment again. Luke tells us that “As [Jesus] said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” How does Jesus respond? He says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Another episode is when Jesus is approached by a rich young man who “ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17; cf. Luke 18:18). And what was Jesus’ reply? “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19). Yet again, we see Jesus, across different episodes and different gospels, turning away compliments.
Shared language can also provide evidence of unity across the gospel narratives. Consider the following parallels, which are drawn from different scenes and settings in the gospels.
A servant is not above his teacher
- Matthew 10:23-24: When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.”
- John 15:20: Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
- Matthew 10:40: Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.
- Mark 9:37: Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.
- John 13:20: Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.
- Matthew 7:7: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
- John 6:24: Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.
- Luke 16:29-31: But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’
- John 5:45-47: Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?
- Mark 13:23: But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.
- John 14:29: And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe.
- John 16:1-4: I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.
38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” Jesus Raises Lazarus 38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
Most men find it difficult to be silent at critical moments of their lives. And all this is particularly true of vehement and impulsive natures. Such persons speak promptly and speak unaffectedly, when they are under emotion. And such a character was St. Peter’s.
He is prompt and forward alike on the good side and on the bad side. On the one hand, a strong impulse of vigorous faith is displayed; on the other hand, he manifests a very wilful presumption.
We remember, as we ought to remember, the sin which followed this presumption. But we ought not forget the true, honest, ardent faith which inspired his rash promise.
There is nothing remotely literary about this aspect of Peter’s personality. We feel that we know him in this respect. He is like the annoying student who so often thinks he knows better than the teacher. In Peter’s case, this touch of arrogant aggressiveness is intertwined with his overwhelming love for Jesus. The combination is unmistakable, unique to Peter, and (again) consistent across all the Gospels.
It would be incredible if the Gospel authors had contrived to portray Peter again and again in ways that show such consistency of personality across such a variety of incidents. It is one thing to copy a story from someone else. It is another thing for several different authors to make the reader feel that he recognizes the character portrayal in entirely different scenes. This is the mark of historical memoirs. It places a stamp of truthfulness upon the reports.