Artless Similarities: Another Category of Evidence for the Reliability of the Gospels

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 [1] and J.S. Howson [2], 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.

Whoever receives

  • 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.
Ask and you will receive

  • 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.
Moses and the prophets

  • 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?
I told you so

  • 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.
Many additional examples could be given, but the examples offered above should give you a sense for the casual unity of the portrayal of Jesus across the four gospels and across different episodes in His life. The casualness of the presentation of this unity is, in my opinion, best explained by the accounts concerning this individual being rooted in real historical episodes involving Jesus of Nazareth. But the evidence from unity of personality does not stop at Jesus, but can be extended to other New Testament characters as well. Next, I will discuss the unity of the personality of Mary and Martha.

Unity of the Personality of Mary and Martha
 
I now want to discuss the similarities of Luke’s and John’s presentation of Mary and Martha. This example is also discussed by Tyndale House scholar Dr. Peter J. Williams, in his book, Can We Trust the Gospels? [3]

In Luke 10:38-42, we read of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha:

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.”

Compare this to the episode, reported only by John, where Jesus makes a trip to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. We pick up John’s account after Jesus’ arrival at Bethany and initial conversation with Martha. We read in John 11:28-40,

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?”

In both Luke and John — and bear in mind, these are two entirely different episodes — Mary sits while Martha is the one who acts and does the welcoming. In John 11:17, we are told that “when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house.” This strikingly parallels the account in Luke 10:38-42 — though a completely separate incident — where Mary was the one sitting listening to Jesus’ teaching while Martha was the one busy with serving food. In John 11, following Martha’s initial interaction with Jesus, she sends a secret message to her sister Mary that Jesus is calling her. Mary arises quickly and comes to Jesus, falling at his feet — just as she had been at Jesus’ feet in Luke. Upon Jesus’ request to remove the stone from the tomb, Martha says to Jesus in John 11:39, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” This reflects Martha’s concern over practical matters.
 
Thus, again, when we compare the character portrayals between the gospel accounts we see remarkable unity of personalities, of a sort that points to the truth of the narratives.
 
Unity of the Personality of Peter

Dr. Lydia McGrew, in her recent book The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices, draws attention to artless similarities pertaining to the portrayal of the character of Peter across the four gospels [4]. She observes “the most noteworthy characteristic of Peter” being “his impulsive, emotional, and at times boastful nature.” She notes that “though his emotion sometimes takes the form of expressions of humility as well as boasting, his extravagance is the same across all the stories.” On occasion, she observes, “this trait takes the form of physical action” (such as Peter throwing himself at the feet of Jesus following the first great catch of fish, saying “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” (Luke 5:8), an episode reported only in Luke’s gospel. The impulsive character of Peter comes to the fore in things that Peter says as well. J.S. Howson remarks [5],

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.

Peter is the disciple who requests that Jesus ask him to walk toward Jesus on the water, only reported by Matthew (14:28-31). This reflects Peter’s impulsive nature. Howson remarks [6],

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.

At the transfiguration scene, Peter impulsively asks that they construct three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Mark 9:6 adds, “For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Howson comments, “[We cannot imagine this utterance coming from any other of the Twelve Apostles.” [7] Peter likewise boasts at the Last Supper that he was the most faithful of Jesus’ disciples and would never forsake him, even if all the other disciples did, and even if it meant having to die with Jesus (Mark 14:29). Howson remarks [8],

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.

Similar to the above, in an episode reported only by John, when Jesus has just indicated that “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward,” Peter responds, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37). Peter is also seen to act rashly in the scene at Gethsemane, reported in all four gospels, where he strikes off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest (Matthew 26:51; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:50; John 18:10).

Peter is the first to rise with the disciple whom Jesus loved to run to the tomb on Easter morning (John 20:3). Peter is the one who dives into the water from the boat when Jesus, following the resurrection, is seen walking by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:7).

Peter is also portrayed as argumentative and impatient. McGrew explains [9]

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.

For example, prior to the great catch of fish, Peter protests, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets,” (Luke 5:5). When Jesus predicts His impending brutal death, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him, saying “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22; cf. Mark 8:32). McGrew notes that this reveals once more “the combined forwardness and affection in Peter’s nature” [10]. Likewise, when Jesus comes to wash Peter’s feet at the Last Supper, Peter protests that “You shall never wash my feet.” (John 13:8). When Jesus says He must wash Peter’s feet, or Peter has no part with Him, Peter replies, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

McGrew concludes [11],

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.

Summary

In summary, I have sought to illustrate how the argument from artless similarities provides evidence for the historical credibility of the gospel accounts. This is only the tip of the proverbial ice berg. Such subtle consistency on so many character portrayals in the gospels can scarcely be accounted for by chance, and the subtlety or casualness of the parallels argues against these being the result of design. Thus, this category of evidence, though seldom discussed in contemporary apologetics literature, contributes to the cumulative case for the substantial trustworthiness of the gospel accounts.

Literature Cited

[1] Stanley Leathes, The Witness of St. John to Christ (London, Oxford and Cambridge: Rivingtons, 1870).

[2] J.S. Howson, Horae Petrinae, or Studies in the Life of St. Peter (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1883)

[3] Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), kindle loc. 1529-1556.

[4] Lydia McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices (Tampa, FL: DeWard Publishing Company, 2020).

[5] Ibid, 141.

[6] Ibid., 145.

[7] Ibid., 7.

[8] Ibid., 147-148.

[9] Lydia McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices (Tampa, FL: DeWard Publishing Company, 2020), kindle loc. 7135.

[10] Ibid., kindle loc. 7144.

[11] Ibid., kindle loc. 7162-7172.
 

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