Have John Nelson and Josh Parikh Refuted the Reportage Model?

A couple of weeks ago, an episode aired on the skeptical Doubts Aloud podcast, featuring John Nelson and Josh Parikh, in which they offered a critical appraisal of the high-resolution reportage model of the gospels, advocated by myself, Tim and Lydia McGrew, Peter J. Williams, Wesley Huff, and other scholars. Nelson and Parikh are both professing Christians, though this puzzles me given that they apparently do not believe the gospels are reliable or that one can make a robust argument for Jesus’ resurrection.  I am thus curious on what basis they affirm the truth of Christianity. The podcast participants contended that we do not sufficiently engage with mainstream critical scholarship when developing our arguments for the high reliability of the gospels. The episode focused largely on only one of our arguments — namely, undesigned coincidences in the gospels — and did not discuss the book of Acts at all. The podcast essentially recapitulated the criticisms made of undesigned coincidences by John Nelson in a blog post that I addressed at the time. It has since come to my attention that Nelson has re-published the article with some significant revisions, in which he credits Josh Parikh for helping him rework the piece. Essentially all of the criticisms made in the podcast are also found in Nelson’s blog article, and so I am publishing a revised version of my earlier blog post that will address Nelson’s update to his article.

What Are Undesigned Coincidences?

As background for newer readers, it may be helpful to give a short definition of an undesigned coincidence. Undesigned Coincidences occur when two (or more) works by different authors intersect with each other in a way that points to the truth of both. The classic form of undesigned coincidence is when one source mentions in passing a detail that incidentally answers a question raised by another account. That is to say, the two sources fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The concept of undesigned coincidences was first put forward by William Paley, who documented numerous examples between the book of Acts and the epistles of Paul. [1] Subsequently, John James Blunt developed the argument further by cataloging many examples between the gospel accounts, and also between books of the Old Testament. [2] In more recent times, the argument has been championed by Dr. Lydia McGrew, in her book Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts [3] and in Testimonies to the Truth — Why You Can Trust the Gospels (chapter 3) [4]. The argument has also been defended by Dr. Peter J. Williams, in Can We Trust the Gospels? (chapter 4). [5]

I have written and spoken extensively on this site and elsewhere on the subject of undesigned coincidences. See this page for a catalog of my articles concerning the subject, including my extensive six-part rebuttal to Dr. Richard Carrier’s attempt to discredit the argument.

Does McGrew Set Aside the Apparatus of Critical Scholarship?

Nelson begins his article by giving an accurate summary of the basic argument from undesigned coincidences, as well as its history. Nelson does state that he agrees with the evidential significance of undesigned coincidences in principle. However, he does not believe that most undesigned coincidences that are found in the gospels are properly categorized as such. He then notes,

[C]loser examination of the gospels reveal that ‘undesigned coincidences’ are easily explained by redactional interests, compositional practices, or points of context which have been traditionally highlighted by gospel scholars. Here, they are not a hallmark of eyewitness testimony or reportage.

One might expect that these sort of explanations would be treated in the recent presentation on the argument, since much has happened in the last two centuries of gospels scholarship which is worth exploring. Unfortunately, McGrew deliberately “[sets] aside the apparatus of critical scholarship” in presenting her argument.6 Rather than testing her case against competing scholarly hypotheses for the origins of the same data – hypotheses which are posited to explain features of the Gospels which go well beyond any alleged ‘undesigned coincidence’ – she instead engages primarily her own imagined, alternative scenarios for how an undesigned coincidence might have arisen. This neglect is to the detriment of the argument.


Reading the brief quotation from page 15 of McGrew’s book out of context may lead readers to erroneously think that McGrew is not interested in interacting with critical scholarship in the field of Biblical studies. However, it is important to read what McGrew wrote in context:

“I am suggesting that the reader consider the question of the historical reliability of the Gospels and Acts from a new angle. Instead of getting involved in the specifics of alleged contradictions and proposed resolutions to them (not a bad enterprise in itself), instead of tackling these books from the perspectives of source and redaction criticism with the assumption that they represent multiple redactors, layers, and “developments,” instead of thinking and speaking of Jesus or Paul as if they are literary characters in fictional works, I suggest that the reader take seriously the hypothesis that they are what they appear to be prima facie and what they were traditionally taken by Christians to be—historical memoirs of real people and events, written by those in a position to know about these people and events, either direct eyewitnesses or friends and associates of eyewitnesses, who were trying to be truthful. I suggest that we take this hypothesis for a test drive while setting aside the apparatus of critical scholarship. Suppose that these were such memoirs. What might they look like? How does the occurrence of coincidences that appear casual and unrehearsed between and among these documents support that hypothesis? When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I suggest that we expand our toolkit.” [emphasis added]


When read in context, McGrew’s intended meaning becomes apparent. She does not want to get distracted from the book’s thesis by being sidetracked onto discussions of such things as alleged contradictions in the gospels and proposed harmonizations (she covers this in fact in her more recent book, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices [6]). Similarly, she doesn’t want to devote a portion of her book to having to deal with various scholarly perspectives on source and redaction criticism. Rather, McGrew chooses in her book to unabashedly appeal directly to the common-sensical reader by looking at the accounts in the gospels and Acts, and asking the sorts of questions given at the end of the paragraph quoted above. In her book, McGrew was trying to appeal to a particular audience–one capable of seeing the direct appeal of undesigned coincidences. For that purpose, and for the length of the book, taking a significant detour to discuss all of those theories (which are addressed in plenty of other books) would bog down the argument.

One may add, however, that the book does show awareness of theories such as the two-source-hypothesis, etc, and has various comments along the way that show how undesigned coincidences open up new avenues of approaching the synoptic puzzle. Thus, the book is by no means uninformed about contemporary scholarship.

Does Consideration of Redactional Interests Undermine Undesigned Coincidences?

Nelson writes,

“How then might one explain undesigned coincidences? Some coincidences fade when one considers how the evangelists compiled their sources and shaped their narratives – their ‘redactional’ interests. Take the timing of the feeding of the five thousand in Mark and John. John tells us this was around Passover (6:4), which is apparently corroborated by Mark’s note that ‘many were coming and going’ (6:31). But the crowd’s following Jesus is a Markan trope (found in 3:7–9) and Passover is not an uncommon setting to John. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, which features only one Passover event, John has three, around which most of his narrative revolves. It is therefore unsurprising that John’s feeding account is placed around Passover.


These explanations seem to be, however, quite contrived. The hypothesis about Mark allegedly inventing the green grass in order to allude to the fertility of the Messianic age and John simply inventing the timing of the event to reflect the pervasive Passover symbolism does not explain at all why they fit together. It is not difficult to come up with creative explanations for just about any detail given by the gospels. Another popular explanation of the green grass is that it is intended to allude to Psalm 23:1: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” But, again, this does not provide an explanation for why Mark and John fit together so casually. As for the crowds following Jesus being a Markan trope, Mark 6:30-31 merely says that “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” The phrase “coming and going” suggests that there was a general hustle and bustle, not that these crowds were specifically following Jesus. This indicates that Galilee was particularly busy, which makes a lot of sense in light of it being close to the Passover feast (John 6:4) where many Pilgrims would descend upon Judea for the festival, with many passing through Galilee. It is not until after Jesus and his disciples have set off for a desolate place by themselves that they are recognized by the crowds who run on ahead of them on foot.

There is a danger I think in taking a ‘hyper-symbolic’ view of the text of the gospels. It is a mistake to look for theological symbolism in all mundane details. Indeed, real events can happen when the grass is green! Such an approach to Scripture parallels in some ways the tendency on the part of many to over-push the extent of Messianic typology in the Old Testament, and find Christ in every small detail of the Hebrew Bible. The green grass is mentioned in Mark 6:39 so casually, and also ties in well with the crowds coming and going (Mark 6:31). Both of those casual details fit very neatly with what we read in John 6:4, that “the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” Likewise, John’s statement that the event took place near Passover, in the spring, connects well with his mention of Barley loaves (John 6:9).

I note that Nelson has removed his claim, which was present in the previous version of his article, that “the Passover setting of John may simply serve to make explicit latent Passover symbolism in the early feeding accounts.” As I noted in my earlier article, it is not at all obvious to me that such pervasive Passover imagery exists in the feeding narrative. In his more recent version of his article, he replaced this argument with the statement that “Passover is not an uncommon setting to John. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, which features only one Passover event, John has three, around which most of his narrative revolves. It is therefore unsurprising that John’s feeding account is placed around Passover.” It is true that there are three Passovers in John (2:13, 6:4, 13:1). But not every event reported by John transpires at the time of Passover. For example, chapters 7 and 8 are set at the feast of booths, which begins on the fifteenth day of Tishrei (i.e., late September or early October). There is also another unspecified feast mentioned in John 5. The events of John 10:22ff are set during the Feast of Dedication (also known as Hanukkah), which is celebrated for eight days beginning on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev (i.e., late November or December). 

Moreover, even granting that the green grass and the timing of the event at Passover have symbolic meaning (a view that I am not convinced of), it does not follow from that that the event must be a-historical. In fact, the author may simply have chosen to highlight that true detail because to the author it carries some underlying symbolic meaning. We also know of other well established events that are rich in symbolic or theological import. For example, Jesus’ death on Nisan 15th, the day of Passover (or, first day of Unleavened Bread), is highly significant given the perspective of the New Testament writers of Jesus as our Passover Lamb. However, the evidence supporting that Jesus really was killed on that day is very strong.

Nelson further writes,

“McGrew notes that Mark’s ‘green grass’ (6.39) also corroborates a Passover setting, since Passover falls in Nisan (March/April) after months of rainfall. Yet the time-span for ‘green grass’ is not so narrow as she implies. Mary Ann Beavis comments: “[for] members of the audience familiar with the Palestinian climate, the reference to greenery situates the incident in the rainy season, October to early May [emphasis added].”8 Most rain fell through November to February.9 It is unclear, then, that Mark’s account specifically indicates a Passover setting.”


Here is a chart from Peter J. Williams’ book, Can We Trust the Gospels?, which shows the rainfall for a nearby town of Tiberias (data from https://en.climate-data.org/asia/israel/north-district/tiberias-28706/). [7]

This allows us to tighten up the time frame more than the quote from Mary Ann Beavis suggests. As can be seen from the above chart, the month of October is not even one of the five months with a significant amount of rainfall. There is also a need for sunshine following the rain to allow for the “greening up” of a large space, as indicated by Mark. Spring time is when one might expect to see a large amount of green grass. Taken together with the allusion to the many coming and going (which supplies the motivation to move away to a deserted area to eat), these two details fit very well with the reference in John 6:4 to the Passover feast being at hand.

Nelson also summarizes the undesigned coincidence concerning Philip:

“Another much-loved coincidence in the feeding narrative concerns its location. In John’s account, uniquely, Philip is asked by Jesus where to find bread, Luke alone mentions the miracle took place in Bethsaida (9:10) and John tells us in a completely separate place that Philip was from Bethsaida (1:44). Piecing these together, Jesus seems to be asking the local boy, Philip,  where to find bread.”


In response to this, Nelson remarks,

Yet there are several  difficulties. Luke’s depiction in Bethsaida is discrepant with Mark’s earlier account, in which the disciples cross over the sea (of Galilee) ‘to Bethsaida’ (6:45) after the feeding. There have been many attempts to reconcile this with Mark, but none are satisfying. So how did this discrepancy arise? Mark Goodacre finds a plausible explanation in ‘editorial fatigue.’ This occurs when a writer – in this case, Luke – is dependent upon another (Mark), but failed to sustain their editorial activity. In this case, Luke’s hand is betrayed when he resets the feeding in ‘a city’ but has Jesus describe the surroundings as ‘a desolate place’ (9:12).


The following map will be helpful as we consider this objection:

The first thing to note is that we have independent confirmation that the event occurred in a deserted area near Bethsaida, based on two undesigned coincidences, including the one that Nelson has summarized in the quotation given above. The other concerns Jesus’ denouncing of the unrepentant cities in Matthew 11:21: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” The reader is left wondering what miracles were performed in these cities. We are not told in Matthew’s gospel. It is only in light of Luke’s account of the feeding of the five thousand (chapter 9), in which we are told of the event’s occurrence in Bethsaida, that this statement begins to make sense. Although Matthew 14:13-21 does narrate the feeding of the five thousand, no mention is made of Bethsaida. Furthermore, Matthew, who often arranged his material thematically rather than chronologically, gives his account of the feeding of the five thousand some three chapters subsequent to the pronouncement of woe upon Bethsaida. Only by comparing the account in Luke do we discover that the feeding of the five thousand in fact transpired before the woes were pronounced by Jesus upon Bethsaida. Luke 9:11 also indicates that, at this event, Jesus also performed various healing miracles. 

John’s gospel also indicates that the feeding of the five thousand took place on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, since after the feeding, the disciples “went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum,” (John 6:16-17). As you can see from the map above, Capernaum is on the northwestern side of the Sea of Galilee. Across the sea from the region of Bethsaida is indeed in the direction of Capernaum.

There is, in fact, evidence that is internal to Mark’s gospel itself  that suggest the feeding of the five thousand took place on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee (as opposed to the northwest side). Mark indicates that the disciples did not even have leisure to eat before the feeding, because there were “many coming and going” (Mark 6:31), and that they got into the boat to get away from the crowds. As previously mentioned, this fits well with the indication in John 6:4 that the feast of Passover was at hand (in particular, if Jesus and the disciples were in or near Capernaum, which was a major center. If they departed Capernaum by boat, it is not implausible that they ended up in the vicinity of Bethsaida (going along the top of the Sea of Galilee), which is what is indicated by Luke 9:10. Mark, in fact, explicitly says that they landed at Gennesaret when they had crossed over (Mark 6:53)! Gennesaret is geographically very close to Capernaum. Thus, this actually, far from contradicting, confirms the idea of which direction they were going. If they were really crossing over “to Bethsaida” as if to land at or near Bethsaida, they could not have landed at Gennesaret (see the map above)! Thus, πρὸς Βηθσαϊδάν, even within Mark itself, cannot be taken to mean that the feeding of the five thousand occurred in a radically different location from the region of Bethsaida named explicitly in Luke and otherwise confirmed by undesigned coincidences. Therefore, there is good reason to believe that the feeding of the five thousand miracle took place in Bethsaida.

This still leaves unanswered the question of what Mark means in 6:45. The Greek text says that the disciples were to enter into the boat and προάγειν εἰς τὸ πέραν πρὸς Βηθσαϊδάν. Lydia McGrew argues that the Greek preposition πρὸς can mean “over against” (or “across from”). [8] However, I am at this point unpersuaded by this translation. While one of the possible meanings of πρὸς is “against” (e.g. Mt 4:6; Mk 12:12; Lk 4:11; 20:19; Acts 6:1; 9:29; 19:38; 23:30; 24:19; 26:14), I have been unable to find any instances, in either the New Testament or the Greek Septuagint, where the preposition unequivocally means geographically “opposite to”, as would be required by McGrew’s interpretation.

Another possibility is that, in going over to the other side (to the Capernaum side) they were going to pass Bethsaida — that is, that the actual location of the feeding was slightly to the east of Bethsaida itself (recall that the event actually took place at a desolate area, in proximity to Bethsaida — Mt 14:13; Mk 6:32; Lk 9:12). Indeed, the stated location of Bethsaida, I would argue, is being used in a regional sense (in the same way that someone today might say that he or she lives in Boston even though technically they only live in a suburb of Boston). Hence, when they left in Mark to go to the other side, they could have been going “toward” Bethsaida, which would be a legitimate understanding of the preposition πρὸς.

A yet further option, and the one that I lean towards myself, is that Mark’s source, quite plausibly the apostle Peter, misspoke a single word when reporting the event. This is not antecedently implausible. Misspeaking a single word on occasion is something that anyone experienced in public speaking is all too familiar with.

Whatever the actual explanation, this apparent discrepancy points to the literary independence of Mark and Luke, thereby bolstering the evidential significance of the undesigned coincidences relating to the event.

As for editorial fatigue, Mark Goodacre defines “a phenomenon that will inevitably occur when a writer is heavily dependent on another’s work. In telling the same story as his predecessor, a writer makes changes in the early stages which he is unable to sustain throughout.” [9] Goodacre claims that the best example of this phenomenon pertains to the feeding of the five thousand accounts. He cites Mark 6:35-36 and the parallel in Luke 9:12.

  • Mark 6:35-36: And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
  • Luke 9:12: Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.”

Goodacre comments [10], 

The adjective used by both Mark and Luke is ερημος, lonely, desolate, abandoned. Clearly it is nonsense to say ‘we are here in a desolate place’ when in the Lucan setting they are not. After all, if the crowd were in a city, they would not need to go to the surrounding villages and countryside to find food and lodging. Further, since in Bethsaida food and lodging ought to be close to hand, Luke’s comment that the day was drawing to a close lacks any relevance and, consequently, the feeding lacks the immediate motive that it has in Mark. In short, by relocating the Feeding of the Five Thousand, without being able to sustain the new setting with its fresh implications throughout, Luke has spoilt the story.


This argument, in my opinion, is exceedingly weak. Goodacre has succeeded in creating a problem where there isn’t one. The disciples’ statement concerning the surrounding places where the people could go to purchase food indicates that the “desolate place” was not far from those surrounding villages and countryside. As stated previously, the stated location of Bethsaida is being used in a regional sense. This is the most natural way of reading Luke’s account. Furthermore, Matthew — which most scholars agree was independent of Luke, though utilizing at times common source material — also indicates that they were in a desolate place (Mt 14:13,15). Furthermore, there is also the independent evidence, discussed above, that the location of the feeding of the five thousand as indicated by Luke is correct.

Moreover, there are significant difficulties with Goodacre’s argument. For example, there is no obvious reason at all why Luke would make this change. And are we really to envision Luke becoming fatigued and forgetting what he just wrote two verses earlier? Moreover, the great size of the crowd (being five thousand men — Luke 9:14) is not changed in Luke’s account. Does Goodacre believe that Luke thought of the town of Bethsaida as being capable of accommodating a crowd of five thousand people all sitting down together and being fed in some large open area? Furthermore, Goodacre’s statement that “if the crowd were in a city, they would not need to go to the surrounding villages and countryside to find food and lodging” is nonsense. We are talking about a crowd of five thousand men, besides women and children (Matthew 14:21) here. Imagine having five thousand men, in addition to women and children, descend upon your local superstore. They would max the place out (let alone ancient markets!). It is not at all obvious, therefore, that such a crowd, if it were in the city, “would not need to go to the surrounding villages and countryside to find food and lodging” — particularly given that the day was drawing to a close (Luke 9:12). For a detailed discussion of this alleged example of editorial fatigue, I refer readers to Lydia McGrew’s video on the subject.

Nelson continues,

“Why, then, might John imagine Philip as having talked to Jesus, if he was not preserving eyewitness memory? If John knew a tradition that Philip was from Bethsaida, and was following Luke’s account over Mark’s (as he sometimes does), John may have imagined Jesus as naturally turning to the local boy. Or Philip may have been chosen more or less at random. While Philip may seem an odd choice to us, his character is more prominent role in John than in the Synoptics, and he is a significant figure in Christian apocrypha. Thus, John would not be the only author who decided to fill in Philip’s role among Christian writers.”


In this case, one might expect John to make the connection more explicit in his narrative — that Jesus turned to Philip since he was from Bethsaida. The whole point of the argument from undesigned coincidences is that the accounts fit together casually and subtly, in a manner that is missed by most readers. Nonetheless, the setting of the event near the region of Bethsaida makes sense in light of Jesus’ turning to Philip, who was from the region of Bethsaida. It is also noteworthy that Andrew (who is also from Bethsaida, according to John 1:44) gets involved in the reply in John 6:8. We can imagine Jesus turning to Philip and Andrew, since both were from the region of Bethsaida.

Does Oral Tradition Undermine Undesigned Coincidences

Nelson writes,

Other ‘undesigned coincidences’ fall away once the processes of oral tradition are considered. Take, for instance, the lists of the Twelve in the gospels. McGrew finds an ‘undesigned coincidence’ between Matthew’s list, which groups the names in twos (10:2–4), and Jesus’ sending out of the disciples in twos in Mark (6:7). Yet this grouping in ‘twos’ may be better explained by the processes of oral tradition. If the lists had to remembered, grouping the list into couplets may have functioned as a mnemonic device as the list was passed on, with certain pairs naturally lending themselves to each other (e.g. Simon & Andrew; James & John). Whatever the case, a hypothesis which seems lacking in plausibility is that which says the coincidence is due to a direct retrieval of information from eyewitnesses, close up the facts. If this is to be maintained, it becomes difficult to see why so basic a point as the names on the lists differ, or even why a list of names should feature in such an artificial manner at all.


Interestingly, the twelve disciples are only grouped into pairs in the gospel of Matthew (10:1-4). They are not grouped into pairs in Mark 3:13-19 or Luke 6:12-16. This seems to count as evidence against Nelson’s idea that grouping the twelve into pairs was part of the oral tradition. Even if the coupling of the disciples into pairs was part of the oral tradition, the reason for them being grouped into pairs could still be because Jesus sent out the disciples in pairs. The oral tradition may simply reflect those couplings that were initially prescribed by Jesus. Positing the hypothesis of oral tradition does not really help to explain undesigned coincidences, since in that case you would simply have a case of an undesigned coincidences across different oral traditions. Presumably the oral tradition behind Mark 6:7, which indicates the disciples were grouped into pairs by Jesus (a detail not found in Matthew) is independent of the oral tradition behind Matthew 10:1-4, the only list of disciples recorded in the gospels where the names of the disciples are grouped into pairs. Personally, I don’t think that there is a lot of oral tradition that lies behind the gospel narratives. I think the gospel authors (whom I take to be Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — for reasons discussed here) were close up to the facts, and were either eyewitnesses themselves or people who were connected with those who were.

As for the variation in names between the lists, this is actually evidence for independent access to the list of the twelve. For example, Mark 3:18 lists Simon the Zealot (Καναναῖον) as a member of the Twelve. Luke 6:15 also lists this disciple but instead disambiguates him using the word Ζηλωτὴν. These words are synonyms in Greek, both meaning Zealot or Nationalist. Nonetheless, the different disambiguators used by Mark and Luke suggest independence. Luke also omits Thaddaeus from his list of the Twelve (c.f. Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18) but includes Judas the son of James (Luke 6:16). Presumably, these are different names for the same individual (which was not at all uncommon). There is even independent evidence for the historicity of this Judas in the reference in John 14:22 to “Judas (not Iscariot)” who speaks a single time in John’s gospel, in the upper room discourse. Lydia McGrew comments on this: “[T]here was no reason for [John] to attribute this saying to so obscure a disciple, much less a disciple who unfortunately shared a name with the traitor and hence required a disambiguator to pick him out. It would have been easier to attribute the saying to a different disciple. There seems no reason other than reportage for John to make this note.” [11]

In his recent revision to his article, Nelson removed his statement (present in the previous version) that the grouping into pairs can be explained by “Matthew’s well known redactional interest in doublets.” As I explained in my previous essay, doublets in the gospels are usually understood to be sections of texts that appear in two different places in the same gospel (for example, in Matthew 10:6, Jesus says, “but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”; In Matthew 15:24, Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”). So it is not at all clear how this would be relevant to the listing of disciples in Matthew 10:1-4.

Can Undesigned Coincidences be Explained by Literary Imitation?

Nelson continues,

“Some coincidences can be explained with reference to the use of literary imitation — that is, the creative rewriting of some well-known text; in the case of the gospels, the Jewish scriptures. To return to the feeding of the five thousand, Williams notes that John’s interlocking timing at Passover is further subtly supported by the mention of ‘barley loaves’ (6:9). In this case, however, the whole scene should be viewed as a literary imitation of the scene of Elisha feeding one hundred men miraculously with twenty loaves, in 2 Kings 4:42–44 – a prominent explanation commanding wide scholarly approval.16 There, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, we find the exact term used in John: ἄρτους κριθίνους (artous krithinous) — barley loaves. This dependence upon the Jewish scriptures may also helps to explain why John sets this event at Passover, for the Elisha story is set around Passover too.”

McGrew would contest this connection altogether as a case of parallelomania (that is, where people see parallels between two texts where none likely exists). I tend to think, however, that there is a good case for drawing the connection between the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding scene in 2 Kings 4:42-44. John the Baptist is clearly presented in the gospels as the new Elijah, and John the Baptist as the new Elisha. For example, Mark 1:6 describes John the Baptist using the same language as 2 Kings 1:8 describes Elijah (i.e. as being clothed with camel’s hair and wearing a leather belt around his waist). The connection here, in my opinion, is too striking to be coincidence. This connects well with what Jesus Himself says in Matthew 11, speaking of John the Baptist, “he is Elijah who is to come.” This idea is itself rooted in the Old Testament, since Malachi 4:5 identifies the forerunner of the Lord’s coming (who was spoken of in Malachi 3:1 as well as Isaiah 40:3) as Elijah. I would suggest that John the Baptist is identified as Elijah in the same sense that the Messiah could be described as Israel (e.g., in Isaiah 49:3) and as David (e.g., in Jeremiah 30:9). Just as Elijah prepared the way for Elisha, so likewise John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. In view of this intended parallel, therefore, I do think it is striking that Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand parallels Elisha’s feeding of the one hundred in 2 Kings 4:42-44, especially given that in both accounts someone asks how so little can be set before so many (2 Kings 4:43 and John 6:9) and both accounts indicate that some was left over (2 Kings 4:43-44 and John 6:12-13).

However, simply because there is a parallel between an event in Jesus’ life and the Old Testament does not, I think, provide grounds for thinking the event was invented by the author. Indeed, if God/Jesus were deliberately orchestrating things to draw out that parallel then what’s the problem? I do not see it. I had made this same point in my article addressing Nelson’s previous version of his essay. In the Doubts Aloud podcast, Josh Parikh responded, “I think we have to remember they’re claiming to be unbiased historians here. They’re just unbiased historians and they are looking at the evidence in an unbiased way. If we are unbiased historians we know that this kind of thing…happens across second temple Jewish literature. It happens all the time.” Thus, “we’re not treating this like a secular text anymore. We’re letting our existing commitments drive our scholarship.” Parikh seems to have a quite naive view of how historians approach ancient texts (and, for that matter, how scholars approach any matter). Nobody approaches an inquiry with a completely blank slate, without any background assumptions. I have never claimed to be an unbiased historian. Bias is unavoidable, since nobody approaches any of these questions in a vacuum. If we have strong reason to think Christianity is true (and, therefore, that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the ancient prophets), then it is not particularly surprising that some events in the life of Jesus may resemble events in the Hebrew Bible that Jesus is supposed to be fulfilling. Josh Parikh and John Nelson both claim to be Christians, so this objection is quite puzzling to me. If Jesus is indeed the greater Elisha, why shouldn’t there be parallels between his life and Elisha’s? Moreover, the various points of confirmation of the feeding of the five thousand narrative indicate that the text is not being fictitiously woven from the threads of the Hebrew Bible, though the way the story is related may at times intentionally evoke memory of episodes from the Hebrew Bible, such as Elisha’s feeding of a hundred men.

Assumed Knowledge in the Gospels

Nelson continues,

“Other undesigned coincidences disappear when the assumed knowledge of an audience is brought into view. Consider the so-called ‘bread of life’ discourse in John 6, where Jesus uses the enigmatic language of ‘eating the flesh’ and ‘drinking the blood’ of the Son of Man (6.53). McGrew supposes that this is explained in an uncontrived way by the institution of the eucharist which appears in the Matthew and Luke (but not in John). But how is this coincidence ‘undesigned’? According to the canons of ancient biography, in which invention of speech is not unusual, the fourth evangelist may simply have composed the discourse using the language of the last supper. This explanation is supported by the fact that a debate about whether ‘the Jews’ will eat and drink communion smacks of a later concern which has been retrojected back into the ministry of Jesus. This may not be the way that modern authors would write a gospel. But the evangelists were not modern historians.”

Nelson acknowledges that McGrew does discuss this in Hidden in Plain View. He writes,

“McGrew is aware of this objection, but responds, “Why did John not include the institution of Communion in his own Gospel? Why does he leave the odd and difficult bread of life discourse dangling, using eucharistic-sounding language but without making any connection to the very passage from which he borrowed the language?” Yet the answer to these questions should be plain. John’s Christian audience is already aware of the language; they are already aware that what Jesus is speaking about is the ubiquitous ritual of the eucharist. It is for this very reason that John does not need to include the institution of the eucharist in his gospel; he has already treated it in his own fashion in John 6. There is no coincidence here to be found.”

What is interesting, however, about this undesigned coincidence is that John does include an account of the last supper. However, the institution of the last supper is missing from John’s account of the event, which leaves Jesus’ words in John 6:53 unexplained. John seems willing to include parallel accounts of other events in the synoptics, so the fact that the institution of the Lord’s supper is present also in the synoptic gospels is not by itself a reason why John would not have included this detail in his gospel, especially when it would have made sense of what he had written in John 6:53.

One way in which one might think about this issue is like this. Let us suppose for argument’s sake that the Bread of Life discourse were not historical. Let us suppose that the entire incident was invented by John. What, in that case, would be the probability that John would invent such a theologically charged discourse without even mentioning the institution to which he is intending to allude? Nelson suggests that the probability is high, since John could take his readers to be already acquainted with the institution of the Lord’s supper. However, this would leave John’s own gospel theologically incomplete. It would have been easy for John to include a narrative concerning the institution of the Lord’s supper in order to complete the allusion to it in John 6.

The Absence of Joseph

Nelson goes on,

“Some phenomena in the gospels are interpreted by McGrew as ‘undesigned coincidences,’ but they only fit by expanding the definition so wide as to negate its significance. For instance, McGrew spends nine pages in the book exploring the absence of Joseph (pp. 99–107). The argument runs that if any of the writers were fabricating material, they may well have included Joseph — but they do not. This is a subtle corroboration of their gospels. But hardly anyone is claiming that the gospels are unhinged from history. Not even the form-critics, who remain a common object of conservative critiques, were claiming such a thing. The normal explanation for why Joseph appears in none of the texts is compelling: he was not around in the ministry of Jesus, and the oral traditions and source material which came down to the evangelists reflect this fact.”

On this point, Nelson seems to concede that the uniformity of expressive silence concerning Joseph’s absence in the gospel narratives bears a hallmark of verisimilitude. In particular, it is worth noting here that Joseph is conspicuously absent in scenes in the gospels even when Jesus’ family (including mother, brothers and sisters) are conspicuously present (e.g. Mark 3:20-21, 31-35; Mark 6:1-6; John 2:12; Acts 1:12-14). Furthermore, on the cross, Jesus entrusts the care of his mother Mary not to his father Joseph, but to the beloved disciple (John 19:27). This sort of pattern — consistent presumption of a fact with no positive affirmation of that same fact — points to the truth of the narrative.

The Empty Water Pots

Nelson continues with a discussion of the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee, where Jesus turned water into wine:

“Other ‘undesigned coincidences’ mentioned by McGrew are so tangential as not to concern the same event. McGrew ponders why the water jars are empty in John’s account of the wedding in Cana (2:6–7), and finds an answer in Mark’s explanation of Jewish ritual practices (7:3). The answer that they had already been used before the feast emerges. But this isn’t an undesigned coincidence; it is a point of well-known context. Whether John 2 is historical, partly historical, or not historical at all – as Andrew Lincoln’s analysis suggests22 – someone aiming at verisimilitude could have plausibly composed such an account. These, I think, are the sorts of undesigned coincidences one can find scattered all over fiction. One will only find in them proof of eyewitness testimony if that is what one has already established in one’s own mind.”

The point of this coincidence is that Mark 7:3 includes a parenthetical statement that “the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders.” This then illuminates why at the wedding in Cana there were six empty stone water pots — since the wedding feast had already started and so the Jews would have engaged in the practice of ceremonial washing (John 2:6-7). Personally, I think this is one of the weaker examples of undesigned coincidences in McGrew’s book because this practice would have been widely known in the region prior to 70 A.D, and it is not one that I use myself. However, of note, the majority of scholars would date the gospel of John to well after 70 A.D., generally to 90-95 A.D.


Nelson concludes his discussion by raising some principled points pertaining to the argument from undesigned coincidences. He writes,

“Coming into land, some more remarks on eyewitness testimony are perhaps due. First, even if the gospels possessed a number of undesigned coincidences, it would not support the conclusion that the gospels were sourced more or less directly by eyewitnesses. Almost no one but the most ardent sceptic doubts that material in the gospels goes back to eyewitnesses (even if there is a dispute about how much). That we should find different reports which interlock in ways which support their testimony is natural, even on the modern canons of scholarship which McGrew is seeking to abrogate. In other words, even if we have plenty of undesigned coincidences, much more work would still need to be done to confirm the conclusion that the gospels were sourced, directly or indirectly, by living eyewitness.”

The argument from undesigned coincidences — especially insofar as it confirms irrelevant and peripheral details in the gospel accounts — provides, in my opinion, strong cumulative evidence for taking the gospels as a whole to be substantially trustworthy sources, written by authors who are close up to the facts of which they speak. I would argue that this evidence (together with other categories of evidence, such as unexplained allusions, artless similarities, external confirmations, and so forth) confirms that the gospel accounts are based on the testimony of credible eyewitnesses and that the authors are habitually truthful. Other lines of evidence may also be adduced to confirm that the gospel authors are indeed those to whom the gospels are traditionally ascribed (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). I discuss some of that evidence in my article linked here.

Nelson further writes,

“Second, it seems to me that McGrew’s testing of the gospels for ‘undesigned coincidences’ assumes a similar stance to testing eyewitnesses in a court-case scenario. To perform this testing, she needs almost no other tools but classic detective questioning: if this, why that? But the history of terse, ancient texts, will often not co-operate with such an analysis. We have four anonymous authors, working with different source material, with their own redactional interests and compositional techniques, who are writing to different audiences, sometimes decades apart. It is really unsurprising that the complex process of ‘writing a gospel’ should give rise to apparently undesigned coincidences? This was one reason why John Henry Newman was cautious about Paley’s courtroom apologetic.23 The evidence is slim. The unknowns are great. And history will not often bend to the courtroom’s demands.”

Nelson assumes that the gospel authors had redactional (i.e., fact-changing) agendas. But this is precisely the question that is at issue. For detailed responses to these claims, and other objections to undesigned coincidences, I refer readers to my six-part series responding to Richard Carrier on these subjects. These can be found at the following links.

In summary, Nelson has not offered compelling reason to reconsider the use of undesigned coincidences in the cumulative argument for the substantial reliability of the gospels, and the Scriptures more broadly. One important nuance of the argument to bear in mind is that it is not being argued, either by myself or Lydia McGrew, that undesigned coincidences “prove” the pertaining detail(s) to be historical. Rather, the claim is that the existence of these undesigned coincidences is more probable on the hypothesis of historicity than on its falsehood. It may be granted that alternative explanations for undesigned coincidences, such as those offered by John Nelson, are possible. The question with which we ought to concern ourselves, however, is which is more plausible. In my opinion, the simplest and most parsimonious explanation for undesigned coincidences is that the relevant details are grounded in actual historical events, especially in view of the casualness with which the pieces of the various undesigned coincidences so often fit together.


[1] William Paley, Horae Paulinae or, the Truth of the Scripture History of St. Paul Evinced (In The Works of William Paley, Vol. II [London; Oxford; Cambridge; Liverpool: Longman and Co., 1838]).

[2] John J. Blunt, Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings both of the Old and New Testament (London: Woodfall and Kinder), 1853.

[3] Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (Tampa, FL: DeWard Publishing Company), 2017.

[4] Lydia McGrew, Testimonies to the Truth: Why You Can Trust the Gospels (Tampa, FL: Deward Publishing Company, 2023).

[5] Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

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

[7] Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 93.

[8] Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (Tampa, FL: Deward Publishing Company, Ltd, 2017), 22.

[9] Mark Goodacre, “Fatigue in the Synoptics,” New Testament Studies 44 (1998), 45-58.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Lydia McGrew, The Eye of the Beholder: The Gospel of John as Historical Reportage (Tampa, FL: Deward Publishing Company, 2021), 488.