Defending Inter-Synoptic Undesigned Coincidences: A Response to Kurt Jaros

In a previous article, I wrote a response to a presentation by New Testament scholar Dr. Kurt Jaros on the alleged “synoptic problem for undesigned coincidences.” Over at his website, Dr. Jaros has published a reply to what I wrote. If you have not read my previous article responding to Jaros, then I recommend reading that one before continuing to read this one. And if you are not familiar with the basic argument from undesigned coincidences for the reliability of the gospels and Acts, then I recommend reading through some of my other previous articles on the subject. In this article, I offer a response to Jaros’ defense of his original lecture.

I have to say, I am disappointed with Jaros’ reply to my article. Jaros simply repeats the very same mistakes he made in his original post — mistakes that I specifically called out and addressed in my previous article. Jaros does not seem to appreciate the value of casualness. He fails to understand how an undesigned coincidence can occur in the same document, or how a writer might provide information that unintentionally corroborates (in a manner that can be detected) some fact that the said author is also aware of. However, this is absurd. An author may read another source and then at a later time mention something in his own writing, drawing from his own independent knowledge, that serves to corroborate a detail in the source he had read, without deliberate intent. How would such an undesigned corroboration be recognizable to another person reading the two sources? The features that allows detection of the two sources is the appearance of casualness and unconnectedness. Jaros consistently ignores this, as we shall see.

Before delving into the specific examples that Kurt discusses, I will begin by noting a few issues that pervade Jaros’ article. The first is that Jaros apparently thinks that he can quite literally invent (without any evidence) the content of a source such as ‘Q’ and explain the inter-synoptic undesigned coincidence by hypothesizing that one or more of the evangelists edited out that content. It is not at all clear to me how this sort of scenario would pertain only to inter-synoptic coincidences, and not also to those between the synoptics and John’s gospel. 

Second, Jaros believes that postulating an “editorializing” theory where one synoptic gospel makes an intentional addition to another synoptic gospel, presents a special “synoptic problem” for undesigned coincidences. However, this is simply a variant on the idea that the person made something up which just so happened to give the appearance of fitting together with something reported in another gospel. 

Third, Kurt seems to not understand the difference between an author incorporating a piece of information into a given text, and said author incorporating a piece of information into the text for the purpose of illuminating, explaining or completing the information found in another source. This is an important distinction to make.

Fourth, Jaros seems to erroneously think that if we can demonstrate the existence of a factor we lack which, if we possessed, would make the undesigned coincidence even stronger, this entails that we do not have a valuable undesigned coincidence. This is a common mistake. We can certainly grant that if it were the case that one author was totally unaware of what another author had written, then this would significantly bolster the case from undesigned coincidences. However, from this it does not follow that this feature — though it would certainly help — is required in order to have a strong example of an undesigned coincidence. Jaros therefore greatly exaggerates the relevance of synoptic dependence to the overall strength of undesigned coincidences.

I will now address the specific examples raised by Jaros. I will not, as I did in my previous article, summarize what the undesigned coincidence is in each case. If you are not familiar with these already then I suggest reading my previous article.

The Paired Disciples – Matthew 10:1-4, Mark 6:7

In response to my comments on Jaros’ proposed explanations of the coincidence involving the paired disciples, Jaros writes,

McLatchie’s responses to either of the two plausible solutions are wanting. For Markan priority, he says “the pairing of the twelve disciples in Matthew’s list does not explain anything in Mark, since Mark explicitly indicates that the disciples were sent out in pairs. What is there, then, for Matthew to explain?” The answer to that is simple: How the disciples were paired.

Jaros’ response here is exceedingly weak. A reader of Matthew would not naturally wonder who among the disciples was paired with who. And if that was truly Matthew’s intent then why is it that Matthew does not mention that the disciples were sent out in pairs, as does Mark? This is a possible explanation, but the much more natural and obvious explanation is that the two accounts fit together so well because they are both grounded in truth. On Jaros’ proposed hypothesis, if it is to escape the implication of being rooted in truth, Matthew would have to have invented the pairings of the disciples found in Matthew 10:1-4, all for the purpose of illuminating Mark who tells us that the disciples were sent out in pairs — even though Matthew doesn’t mention them being sent out in pairs. This is extremely ad hoc.

Jaros continues,

He [McLatchie] asks (again, rhetorically): “If Matthew was trying to enlighten his readers about whose partner was which among the twelve disciples, then why does he fail to mention that the disciples were sent out in pairs?” Matthew would not need to explicitly mention they were sent out in pairs in order for him to corroborate Mark’s details. A Designed Corroboration simply requires that the author makes a conscious decision to include a piece of information missing from the published Gospel he had read. A cognitive thought by the author to include some missing piece of information from another Gospel negates the feature of undesignedness. Odd, it would be, if McLatchie were to suggest that for any independent information appearing in partially dependent narrative, that the author would have no inkling of a thought to provide that further information. 

Jaros suggests that it would be “odd” if an author would include additional details without the intention of explaining the content of another source. Jaros presumes that anything included in the gospel accounts that explains the material in another source must have been included with the other source in mind and with the intention of explaining the other source. This comes rather close to begging the question against undesigned coincidences. For sure, Jaros’ proposal is a possible explanation. But is it a probable explanation? Not really.

Jaros goes on,

This leads us to the Matthean priority scenario. If Matthew wrote first and Mark had a copy of Matthew, then perhaps Mark intentionally described to us how the disciples were sent out (since Matthew’s Gospel did not explicitly mention it). Interestingly enough, in setting up the situation for the reader, McLatchie writes, “Mark’s gospel however, fills in the missing detail ….” This is fascinating because on the Design Corroboration hypothesis, Mark does fill in the missing detail! But it is done so intentionally. So the DC advocate concurs with the wording of McLatchie’s remark! Except, in this case, McLatchie does not believe Mark intentionally “fills in” the missing information. He thinks “two-by-two” is not a summary of the parings by Mark. It would be a summary of the manner in which they were sent, assuming Mark seeks to briefly corroborate Matthew’s list. Indeed, Mark had already provided a list of names and to provide said list with the pairings in the style of Matthew would have been redundant. Additionally, McLatchie makes an accurate point that “there is no need” for Mark to summarize. But it was not argued that Mark needed to summarize; just that he did (or might have, more accurately stated).

If Mark invented the detail about Jesus sending out the disciples two-by-two in order to explain Matthew’s pairing of the disciples in his list in Matthew 10:1-4 then it seems odd that Mark does not group the disciples into pairs in his own listing of the disciples in Mark 3:16-19. Mark’s mention of Jesus sending out the twelve two-by-two does not naturally cause the reader to think of Matthew’s list of the Twelve, nor does Matthew’s pairing of the Twelve in his list naturally draw the readers’ mind to Jesus sending the disciples out two-by-two, reported in Mark. The appearance of casualness and non-deliberateness is what makes this an undesigned coincidence.

Herod’s Servants (Matthew 14:1, Luke 8:3)

On the second example Jaros discusses (i.e. Herod speaking with his servants about Jesus), Jaros had previously offered two scenarios as an alternative to identifying it as an undesigned coincidence. Jaros summarizes,

First, I noted that if the information came from Joanna in “a written account (notes) or simply were the source of an oral tradition” then Matthew could have provided the detail of the servants, but Mark (6:14-29) and Luke (9:7-9) redacted it.

Jaros retracts the latter possibility since, he acknowledges, “mere oral tradition would be insufficient as a defeater for the concept of the UC.” He, however, reasserts that,

If, however, there were a written source containing both details, that would cause a problem of the UC. In difference to McLatchie, that written source would not need to include the listing of women who followed Jesus from Galilee. It would just have to mention that Joanna is the source of the content from Herod’s court. The authors edit that detail out and there would only be the appearance of independence in the text (like how the blindfolding of Jesus example shows appearance of independence between Matthew and Luke, but once you include Mark, all of that gets tossed out). This plausible scenario (with admittedly no evidence) seems less likely than the preferred option: Matthew editorializes Mark 6:14-29. The proposal here is that, given Markan priority, Matthew transfers a statement from one person to Herod in order to compress the account.

Jaros here seems to think that he can just hypothesize — with no evidence at all — that something was in a common source and was subsequently edited out by the author. He draws a comparison to the blindfolding and striking of Jesus, an undesigned coincidence between offered by some apologist (such as J. Warner Wallace), but which the McGrews and I do not use, since Mark contains both pieces of the coincidence and hence it can be quite readily explained by incomplete copying. However, the fact that we find both sides of that coincidence in Mark does not make it reasonable to make up the idea, without any evidence whatsoever, that both parts of some other undesigned coincidence were in some common source that we do not possess. This is the very definition of an ad hoc fallacy.

Jaros continues,

In reply to this theory, McLatchie writes, “In Mark, then, it is ‘some’ who are saying that Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead. They are not the ones to whom it is being said. It seems like a stretch, therefore, to think that the reference to ‘some’ in Mark 6:14 would have caused Matthew to conjecture that Herod was talking at all, much less that he was having a conversation with his servants.” It is not a stretch if there are other examples in the Gospels where one author transfers a statement from one person and places it as if someone else had said it. For example, between Matthew and Luke, we have Matthew stating words in the Centurion’s mouth whereas in Luke the words are stated in the mouths of emissaries (Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10). In this case, Matthew, knowing the true story, likely kept it simple by removing the emissaries from the narrative he knew. Reportage model advocates like McLatchie do not like this sort of literary editorializing, and perhaps will opt to say that there is an error on the part of the author. In this case, maybe they would say that Matthew made an error because it was not Herod who said those things. I have no problem with an author seeking to shorten the story but being reliable in conveying the main points. We do this today when newspapers or tv reporters tell us what a politician said (when it may have been one of the staff members of the politician who wrote the press release). In this case, Matthew is removing some details but needs to retain the critical points of the story, so Matthew credits Herod for the important point which came out of Herod’s court.You see Matthew’s use of compression of details and statements in this very pericope later on (“Prompted by her mother.” Cf. Mark’s description) and you also see Matthew’s compression of other Markan accounts elsewhere (e.g. Jairus’s daughter and the healing of the woman).

Jaros here uses the word “transferral” as a technical term for Matthew having fictionalized his statement that Herod was speaking, even though this involves no relationship of a messenger or agent. In Mike Licona’s book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? [1], Licona invokes transferral when it comes to one person acting as an agent of another (such as in the case of the variation in the reporting between Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 involving whether it was — as in Matthew — the Centurion, or — as in Luke — his emissaries that came and spoke to Jesus). This is attractive to people because they view it as harmless and non-fictionalizing (in a similar way to how we might view the statement that Pilate flogged Jesus, even though it was in fact his soldiers). However, Licona also uses the word where there is no agent/emissary relationship at all, to refer to cases where — in Licona’s mind, a person’s words or deeds are arbitrarily transferred to another person for no obvious reason. This is how Jaros is using the term here, but he talks as though he has independent corroboration that this is the sort of thing that Matthew does elsewhere. All Jaros has done is to put the word “transferral” onto the assertion that Matthew made up something for which he had no factual warrant. Jaros also fails to address the fact that, even if his invention scenario for “to his servants” is correct, it does not explain why Matthew and Luke fit together at all. Jaros doesn’t appear to understand the value of apparent casualness and the lack of design in the way that these two otherwise unrelated pericopes fit together, especially given that Luke’s reference to Joanna appears in a completely different context from the death of John the Baptist (and in a different book altogether from “to his servants”).

Woe to Bethsaida (Matthew 11:21, Luke 9:10)

In relation to the coincidence involving the woes to Bethsaida, Jaros writes,

McLatchie believes that Luke’s failure to mention the miracle at Chorazin is evidence against the possible Designed Corroboration (i.e., that Luke would intentionally add a city in a miracle narrative to corroborate the woe passage from Matthew): “Luke may have been expected to also think it worthwhile to mention what mighty works were done in Chorazin as well, though he does not.” How so? How does it follow that Luke leaving out a miracle from one city is evidence against the idea that he chooses to identify one city where a miracle occurred? Specifically, if Luke uses Matthew’s Gospel and wanted to include a miracle event from Bethsaida, an event which occurs in Matthew’s Gospel, then this would be a Designed Corroboration. If Luke intentionally added the city to enhance the details for the sake of thoroughness (since Matthew’s account of the miracle did not provide the location and Mark’s location is questionably in error), then it is no longer undesigned. If Matthew and Luke were dependent upon Q, the same problem arises about Matthew’s redaction of the location. Or, in the very unlikely scenario of Matthew using Luke (Lukan priority), Mathew redacts the city out of Luke’s account of the feeding of the 5,000. Thus, the thesis stands: The Synoptic Problem does pose a concern for the alleged inter-Synoptic UC.

Not only is Luke’s mention of Bethsaida as the location of the feeding found in a different context from the woes; it is found in an apparently unrelated context — that is, the pericope in which it occurs has absolutely nothing to do with the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus simply refers generally to the mighty deeds performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida. There is nothing in the immediate context to suggest that Jesus is making an allusion to the feeding of the five thousand.

As stated in my previous article, the fact that Matthew contains no information about any miracle performed in Chorazin does undermine Jaros’ suggestion that the reason Luke mentions Bethsaida as the setting of the feeding of the five thousand miracle is to fill in the missing information in relation to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 11:21. It does not refute Jaros’ scenario, of course, but it does tend to suggest that it is not what Luke’s purpose here is, since we might have expected Luke, on Jaros’ scenario, to mention the miracles performed at both Bethsaida and Chorazin.

Ownership of a New Tomb (Matthew 27:59-60, Luke 23:53)

Jaros’ final example pertains to the Joseph of Arimathea’s ownership of a new tomb. He writes,

Implicit in McLatchie’s response to me is his understanding that the Synoptic Problem does pose a concern for some UCs: “most scholars argue that Luke was written after Matthew, and so Matthew would not have had access to Luke, since it would not have been written at the time of his writing. And Mark, which predates Matthew (at least on the consensus view of Markian priority) does not mention the facts, provided by Luke and John, that the tomb was new and that nobody had previously been laid in it.” Here McLatchie recognizes that the order of the Gospels (and whether an author had access to other account(s)) would affect the value of the UC! To the particular case, the role that oral tradition plays in this scenario is Matthew’s intentionality in mentioning that the tomb belonged to Joseph, because that fact is not explicit in Mark (perhaps implicitly, though). So even if Matthew was “close up to the facts and are reporting either what they had seen and heard” on this point, his choice to include the detail would not have been undesigned.

On this example, I am inclined to agree with Jaros that one’s solution to the synoptic puzzle will affect the strength of the coincidence, and this coincidence is stronger given the assumption of Matthean priority (the consensus view) than it is on the assumption of Lukan priority.

Jaros continues,

It’s possible to read Mark 15:42-47 as implicitly stating the tomb was Joseph’s. After all, what’s the likelihood that the guy who wants Jesus’s dead body would lay him in a tomb cut out of the rock that belonged to somebody else? And how would Joseph have access to a tomb that belongs to someone else? There could be some editorializing here by Matthew, given Markan priority. And, in the unlikely case of Lukan priority, Matthew could intentionally confirm a detail from Luke’s account, making it a Designed Corroboration. But, of course, if Matthean priority were the case, then this UC-candidate is strengthened because Matthew would do no editorializing. Hence, my thesis stands.

It is probably going too far that it was Joseph of Arimathea would have access to the tomb if it did not belong to him. A more modest statement would be that is a reasonable possibility that the tomb belonged to Joseph, and this is why Joseph of Arimathea was able to lay Jesus in the tomb. This, however, is still an indirect connection. Mark provides some reason, by indirect inference, to believe that Joseph of Arimathea may have possessed the tomb, but this is not the only possibility. For instance, it may have been owned by Nicodemus, who John 19:39 tells us was involved in the burial. In fact, the tomb could have been owned by any wealthy follower of Jerusalem who did not want to make his affiliation with Jesus a matter of public knowledge — perhaps Chuza, Herod’s household manager and a follower of Jesus, could have been the owner of the tomb for instance. That the tomb was in fact possessed by Joseph is confirmed directly by Matthew. It thus looks like Matthew had independent information. However, since, based on the information given in Mark, it is a reasonable possibility that the tomb belonged to Joseph, I personally consider this to be one of the weaker examples of undesigned coincidences. This does not mean, however, that it has no evidential value at all.

Conclusion

To conclude, I do not think Jaros has provided substantive objections to the argument from undesigned coincidences between the synoptic gospels. Like others whom I have addressed on this site, Jaros fails to appreciate the evidential value of casualness, and how literary dependence between sources does not preclude the existence of undesigned coincidences. It is ad hoc, and in violation of Occam’s razor, to arbitrarily invoke the presumed content of underlying sources, without any evidential basis, for the sole purpose of escaping the inference that the undesigned coincidences exist because the multiple accounts are grounded in truth.

Literature Cited

[1] Michael Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? (Oxford University Press, 2016).

1 thought on “Defending Inter-Synoptic Undesigned Coincidences: A Response to Kurt Jaros”

  1. Dr McLatchie, thanks for the article. I had one comment on the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea mentioned in your response. I think that Byron McCane, Craig Evans, and others have made compelling arguments that Jesus would have been dishonorably buried in the Sanhedrin’s graveyard for condemned criminals. This seems to line up with most of Mark’s account, since 1) Jesus is buried not by the women, but by a Pharisee and is not given burial in Jesus’s family tomb and 2) He is not publicly mourned. Both of these seem to be more consistent with dishonorable Jewish burial as laid out by the Mishnah, Tosefta, etc. After a year, Jesus’s bones would have been allowed to be collected by his family and moved to a proper and honorable burial place, in accordance with Jewish customs of secondary burial, as per Mishanh 6.5-6.6. Of course, this wasn’t done presumably because the tomb was found empty.

    Mark’s account of the burial seems consistent with this view. Matthew and Luke seem to imply that the tomb belonged to Joseph and was new, although this to me seems like an embellishment in order to make the burial look more honorable. Although having an unused grave would technically be a legal alternative to being buried in a criminal’s graveyard, it seems unlikely to me that Joseph would be willing to give up his own family tomb. One could argue that this detail in the other Gospels could be added due to attempted fulfillment of Isaiah 53:9. It may be the case that this tomb, at least as Mark reports it, was part of the criminal tombs owned by the Sanhedrin. This has been pointed out by Jeffrey Jay Lowder,”dishonorable burial probably included tomb burial in first-century Palestine…the evidence makes it highly likely that the condemned were buried in public tombs, not shallow earth graves.” ( “Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story” in Price, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Prometheus Books. 266) and Raymond Brown, “member[s] of the Sanhedrin,… may have had access to [stone-cut] tombs that served for those whom the Sanhedrin judged against.” ( Death of The Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave. Anchor Bible. 1994. 1249.) So is it more plausible that Joseph was burying Jesus in a criminal’s grave?

    If that is the case, Jaros may be incorrect in saying “It’s possible to read Mark 15:42-47 as implicitly stating the tomb was Joseph’s.” One could argue that if the tomb was owned by the Sanhedrin, then technically Joseph as a member of the court could technically “own” the tomb, at least in part. You sort of imply this when you write, ”it may have been owned by Nicodemus, …In fact, the tomb could have been owned by any wealthy follower of Jerusalem.” Although I still don’t know if we can say it is historically likely that Joseph was a “follower” of Jesus. At the very least, he may have simply been concerned with enforcing Jewish laws like Deu. 21:23.

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