External Coincidences and Acts of the Apostles: Responding to Richard Carrier (Part 5)

I have been reviewing a recent article by Dr. Richard Carrier where he provided a critique of the argument from undesigned coincidences in the gospel accounts put forward in Dr. Lydia McGrew’s book Hidden in Plain View (please see part 1part 2part 3 and part 4). In this fifth installment, I discuss Carrier’s dismissal of coincidences involving the gospels and external secular sources, and his dismissal of undesigned coincidences in the book of Acts.

External Coincidences

Carrier begins this section by stating,

I won’t bother, however, with what the McGrews call “external” coincidences, which are merely authors knowing things about their own history (like who ruled where and when, what titles they held, and what they were like). Authors knew those things about their history the same way we know those things about ours: they read books and inscriptions, listened to lectures and speeches, and absorbed longstanding cultural knowledge from their parents and peers. The only “coincidences” that have any chance of being “undesigned” are what the McGrews call “internal” coincidences, meaning from Gospel to Gospel, not from Gospel to pop history.

That is not a very accurate definition of what the McGrews mean when they talk about external coincidences. Rather, external coincidences function in a similar way to internal coincidences except they involve external secular sources rather than other New Testament accounts. In a similar way, the accounts interlock in a way that points to truth. For example, consider John 2:18-20, which recounts a dialogue between Jesus and some Jews following the cleansing of the temple:

18 So the Jews said to [Jesus], “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?”

Take note of the date given by the Jews — “it has taken forty-six years to build this temple…” We can thus discern the approximate date at which this dialogue must have taken place, since Flavius Josephus helpfully tells us when Herod the Great began to rebuild the temple. It was in the 18th year of his reign, which landed in approximately 19 B.C (Antiquities of the Jews 15.380). Forty-six years on from 19 B.C. (bearing in mind there was no 0 A.D.) lands us in 28 A.D. Now, according to Luke 3:1, when did Jesus commence His public ministry? It was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Augustus Caesar died in 14 A.D., but two years prior to that (the fall of 12 A.D.), according to the historian Suetonius, Augustus appointed Tiberius as co-emperor, in order to ensure a smooth transition of power. The 15th year of Tiberius, then, lands us in 27 A.D., corresponding to Jesus’ baptism and ministry commencement. The cleansing of the temple would have taken place the following Passover (John 2:13), placing it in the spring of 28 A.D. Thus, by two independent methods, and using information drawn from John, Luke, Josephus, and Suetonius, we have been able to confirm the date on which Jesus cleansed the temple. This sort of coincidence is best explained by the sources being rooted in truth.

Furthermore, typically when we look to external secular sources to provide confirmation of the New Testament accounts we are talking about cases where the New Testament authors got hard things right — things which, in a pre-technological age, would have been difficult to know without being close up to the relevant facts. For example, consider Acts 23:1-5:

And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” 2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” 4 Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” 5 And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” [emphasis added]

This raises an interesting question. How is it that the apostle Paul did not know who the high priest was? This Ananias was the son of Nebedinus (Antiquities 20.5.3), who occupied the office of high priest when Quadratus (Felix’ predecessor) was president of Syria. Josephus reports that he was sent bound to Rome by Quadratus in order to give an account of his actions to Claudius Caesar (Antiquities 20.6.2). As a result of the intercession on their behalf by Agrippa, they were dismissed and returned to Jerusalem. However, Ananias was not restored to his former office of high priest. Ananias was succeeded by Jonathan, as is indicated by the fact that Josephus refers to one called Jonathan occupying the office of high priest during the government of Felix, which would imply that Ananias’ high priesthood was interrupted (Antiquities 20.8.5)Jonathan himself was assassinated inside the temple. Josephus writes (Antiquities 20.8.5),

Felix bore an ill-will to Jonathan, the high priest, because he frequently gave him admonitions about governing the Jewish affairs better than he did, lest complaints should be made against him, since he had procured of Caesar the appointment of Felix as procurator of Judea. Accordingly, Felix contrived a method by which he might get rid of Jonathan, whose admonitions had become troublesome to him. Felix persuaded one of Jonathan’s most faithful friends, of the name Doras, to bring the robbers upon him, and to put him to death.

Following Jonathan’s death, the office of the high priest was not occupied until Ismael, the son of Fabi, was appointed by King Agrippa (Antiquities 20.8.8). The events that are recorded in Acts 23 took place precisely in this interval. Ananias was in Jerusalem and the office of the high priesthood lay vacant. It seems, then, that Ananias acted, by his own authority, in the assumed capacity of the high priest. This, then, illuminates Paul’s words in Acts 23:5: “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest.” Luke doesn’t even take the time to explain the historical backstory in his account of this event. The sources interlock in a way that points to the truth of the narrative we find in Acts. Carrier, therefore, would do well to meaningfully engage with the actual arguments rather than straw men thereof.

Undesigned Coincidences in Acts

Carrier continues,

I also won’t bother with the second half of McGrew’s book that expresses irrational amazement at correspondences between the book of Acts and Paul’s Epistles. Obviously the author of Acts used those Epistles as a source text, and when it contradicts them it does so deliberately. The author of Acts is writing revisionist history; every change they make has obvious explanations in that author’s needs and intentions. This is so mainstream a conclusion now I see no need to beat that horse dead. Richard Pervo’s Commentary on Acts already covers all this, with bibliographies to the scholarship; and some examples are summarized in his short monograph The Mystery of Acts. So I’ll stick here with the Gospels. And in each case, the alternative I propose is either better evidenced in particular or more frequently attested as a cause in general, than what the McGrews propose.

Again, this only demonstrates, once more, that Carrier has not taken the time to engage with the argument on a serious level. The coincidences in Acts are in fact often even more impressive than those in the gospels. And no, they cannot be explained by a hand-waving allusion to Luke’s dependence on the Pauline epistles. For illustration, I will consider one example.

Consider the following two texts from the first letter to the Corinthians from Ephesus.

  • 1 Corinthians 4:17: That is why I sent you Timothy… 
  • 1 Corinthians 16:10: When Timothy comes… 

Now, we know that Paul was writing from Ephesus because in 16:8 he says “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost” and in 16:19 he sends greetings from Aquilla and Priscilla, who had met him in Corinth and who traveled with him as far as Ephesus, as we learn from Acts 18). Ephesus is directly across the Aegean sea from Achaia (where Corinth is). So presumably Paul would have sent his letter directly by boat from Ephesus to Corinth.

From the two texts given above, it is evident that Timothy had already been dispatched by the time of his writing, but nonetheless that he expected his letter to arrive before Timothy got to Corinth. We therefore can infer that Timothy must have taken some indirect route to Corinth, in the manner shown on the map below.

When we turn over to Acts 19:21-22, which concerns Paul’s stay in Ephesus, we read,

21 Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia [where Corinth is] and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” 22 And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.

Thus, Timothy (accompanied by Erastus) did take such an indirect overland route to Corinth from Ephesus. This artless dovetailing is best explained by the historical reliability of Acts on this detail. The map below shows the respective locations of Ephesus and Corinth and the route taken by Timothy through Troas and Macedonia. Notice that Luke doesn’t even mention Corinth as Timothy’s destination. Luke’s account interlocks with Paul’s in a way that points to truth.

The number of coincidences between Acts and the Pauline epistles is so numerous that one can document more than 40 examples in Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians and Galatians alone (even more than McGrew documents in her book). And there are plenty in the remaining Pauline letters as well.

Contradictions Between Acts and the Pauline Epistles?

Despite having reviewed the claims of contradiction between Acts and Paul’s letters (alluded to briefly in Carrier’s blog post but without specific examples, although he does provide them in his book On the Historicity of Jesus) I remain quite unimpressed. Here, I will only consider two example. The first is the one example that Carrier brought up in his debate with me a couple of years back, so we can assume (since it is an example Carrier leads with) that it is one that he considers to be among his strongest. It pertains to Paul’s travel itinerary according to Acts and Galatians. In Galatians 1:16-20, Paul tells us,

I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 

Bart Ehrman summarizes the objection succinctly (chapter 2 of Jesus Interrupted). He writes,

This emphatic statement that Paul is not lying should give us pause. He is completely clear. He did not consult with others after his conversion, did not see any of the apostles for three years, and even then he did not see any except Cephas (Peter) and Jesus’ brother James. This makes the account found in the book of Acts very interesting indeed. For according to Acts 9, immediately after Paul converted he spent some time in Damascus “with the disciples”, and when he left the city, he headed directly to Jerusalem, where he met with he apostles of Jesus (Acts 9:19-30). On all counts Acts seems to be at odds with Paul. Did he spend time with other Christians immediately (Acts) or not (Paul)? Did he go straight to Jerusalem (Acts) or not (Paul)? Did he meet with the group of apostles (Acts) or just with Peter and James (Paul)? 

Let us read Acts 9:23-25 more carefully:

“When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.” 

Now, how long a period of time is denoted by “…many days…”? Take a look at 1 Kings 2:38-39, where “many days” in Hebrew is immediately glossed as three years. But what about the trip to Arabia? Luke is silent on it, but does Luke contradict Paul’s claim that he went to Arabia? I would place Paul’s trip to Arabia within the “many days” of Acts 9:23. Paul also informs us in Galatians 1:17 that he “returned again to Damascus”, so it isn’t surprising then that his subsequent trip to Jerusalem is from Damascus.

Let’s take one further example. Dr. Bart Ehrman again summarizes this example succinctly in his book Jesus Interrupted (chapter 2). Ehrman writes,

According to Paul’s account, [the Jerusalem council] was only the second time he had been to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18; 2:1). According to Acts, it was his third, prolonged trip there (Acts 9, 11, 15). Once again, it appears that the author of Acts has confused some of Paul’s itinerary – possibly intentionally, for his own purposes. 

The problem is that Galatians does not say that at all. Paul writes in Galatians 1:18-19,

18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 

That would be Paul’s first trip to Jerusalem following his conversion. In Galatians 2:1, Paul writes,

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.

Where does the text say that this was only Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem? In fact, we learn from Acts 11 that between those two journeys Paul had gone to Jerusalem to bring aid to the saints affected by a famine. There would have been no purpose in Galatians for Paul to have mentioned this trip, as it did not relate to conferring with the apostles about the gospel he was preaching.

For readers who are interested in hearing a solid response to the most popular claims that Luke contradicts Paul, I refer you to Dr. Timothy McGrew’s webinar he did for my Apologetics Academy on the subject.

In the sixth and final part of this series, I will review Carrier’s response to what he refers to as McGrew’s “leading examples” of undesigned coincidences. Stay tuned!