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 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5). In this sixth and final installment, I round off my series by reviewing Carrier’s analysis of what he calls “leading examples” of undesigned coincidences.
The Temple Not Made With Hands
Carrier turns his attention to a selection of what he calls “leading examples” of undesigned coincidences. The first one pertains to Jesus’ resurrection prediction in John 2:18-22. He writes,
Mark 14:55-59 and 15:27-30 repeatedly depicts the Jews accusing Jesus of claiming to destroy the temple; John 2:18-22 “explains” that when Jesus said that, he was talking metaphorically about his body. This is obviously just John explaining his source, Mark. There is no undesigned coincidence here.
John, however, does not mention the later misrepresentation of Jesus’ statement and its use as an accusation against Jesus. Furthermore, the false witnesses in Mark and Matthew don’t accurately represent Jesus’ words (since he said nothing about destroying a man made temple and rebuilding it but not by human hands). But nothing in either of those gospels gives even a hint of what Jesus actually said. Only John gives us the backstory. In fact, in Mark and Matthew the false witness statements are actually unexplained allusions. The reader is left hanging, wondering when Jesus made this statement. It is also alluded to by those mocking Jesus on the cross in Mark 15:29 and Matthew 27:40. This suggests that it was a widely known statement of Jesus (not something the false witnesses came up with out of whole cloth), even though Mark and Matthew do not supply the pretext, and even though Mark and Matthew make it clear that the witnesses at Jesus’ interrogation were giving false testimony against Jesus by this accusation. We therefore have two interlocking accounts that point to their being independently grounded in truth.
John’s expansion of Philip as a character
The Gospel of John picks the Disciple Philip to expand into a bunch of stories (in John 1, John 6, John 12, and John 14), using him to perform story functions where previous authors didn’t. Before this no stories existed about the man (other than maybe one tale set long after the ministry of Jesus in Acts 8, which might not even be about the apostle Philip at all). Yet we’re supposed to be “surprised” that John alone imagined Jesus asking Philip before the feeding of the five thousand near Bethsaida where they could buy food for the crowds, and John alone chooses to place Philip’s home town at Bethsaida (what a coincidence!), when both Mark and Luke—John’s known sources!—had already placed this event near Bethsaida.
Again, Carrier has simply missed the point here. John does indicate that Philip’s home town was Bethsaida, but this is only a passing mention and in a completely different context from the narrative concerning the feeding of the five thousand (John 1:44; John 12:21). If John invented Jesus’ dialogue with Philip in John 6:5, presumably he would have mentioned Bethsaida as the setting of the miracle, and/or indicated in the same context that Philip’s hometown was Bethsaida. Luke, on the other hand, does not mention Philip in this context at all, but Luke does indicate that the event took place in Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). The best and most simple explanation of this coincidence is that the accounts are independently rooted in truth. Carrier’s explanation may well be possible, but it is not at all probable.
Matthew Moves Things Around
Carrier moves on to his next example. He writes,
In Matthew 8:14-16 Jesus cures Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (among several other people of other ailments), then only at evening are some of the demon-possessed brought to him to be healed. McGrew claims this is only explained in Mark 1:21, where we are told this was the Sabbath, which we know ends at evening, so that explains why they had to wait. Of course this already makes zero sense. Why would the demon possessed have to wait, but not all the other people Jesus healed that day? Mark has Jesus heal a demon possessed person in that very same passage he says it was the Sabbath! So clearly Matthew cannot be thinking that only occurred after the Sabbath. Moreover, it is Mark, Matthew’s source, who places more exorcisms at evening that day. Matthew is simply copying Mark. He just left out the synagogue stuff (moving it to other chapters). This is not an undesigned coincidence. It’s not even a coincidence. This is just authorial license, moving things around from the source he is copying.
This is another example which McGrew explicitly chooses not to use (and states her reasons for not doing so). This again indicates that Carrier has not even bothered to read the book he is attempting to review (see part 2 of my series of responses for another example where Carrier makes this mistake). McGrew writes in chapter 3 of her book,
I have been careful not to use a single undesigned coincidence that could be plausibly explained by mere incomplete copying or elaboration of Mark on the part of Matthew or Luke.
In fact, in footnote 15 of chapter 3, McGrew specifically lists this very example as one she deliberately chose to omit because of its ability to be accounted for by incomplete copying. She writes,
There are three coincidences I have left out of my discussion for this very reason: The “who struck you” coincidence between Luke 22:63-64 and Matthew 26:67-68, since Matthew could have been merely including one piece of information from all the information contained in Mark; the “waiting until evening” coincidence between Matthew 8:16 and Mark 1:21, since Matthew may have merely included incomplete information from Mark; the coincidence concerning the command to the disciples to tell no one about the Transfiguration until after the resurrection, from Matthew 17:9 and Luke 9:36, since all of the information may be found in Mark 9:10, depending upon one’s translation of the Greek in Mark. [emphasis added]
The Disciples Keep a Secret for a Bit
Carrier then goes on to make the same mistake a third time. He writes,
In Luke 9:28-36 after the transfiguration we’re told, “The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.” But in Luke’s source, Mark 9:9-10, we’re told “Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Why does Luke leave out the reason the disciples kept this to themselves? Because he wanted to. Luke dials back Mark’s repeated theme of the “messianic secret.” When Jesus orders someone to keep quiet in Mark, Luke sometimes scrubs that detail from his account. That’s simply what Luke does as an author. He wanted to soften that. And so he does the same here. That’s why Luke changes it into the disciples deciding on their own to keep the secret. But otherwise he conveys the same information he gets from Mark: they kept quiet until later (“at that time” picks up “until the Son of Man has risen”). There is no coincidence here to explain. This fits Luke’s already-documented redactional tendencies.
You will notice that in the quote I provided from McGrew’s book she gives this example as the third example she has deliberately chosen not to use, and yet Carrier cites it as one of her “leading examples.” Has Carrier actually read McGrew’s book? It seems doubtful.
What Was John the Baptist Talking About?
The Gospel of John alone (1:15 and 1:30) has John the Baptist claim Jesus existed “before” him. McGrew irrationally thinks he means “was born six months before” him as depicted in Luke, when obviously he means, existed since the dawn of time, as the Gospel of John had just informed us (1:1-7), indeed even reminds us in the preceding verse! (1:14)
Here, once again, Carrier has well and truly missed the point. John the Baptist is alluding to the pre-existence of Jesus. That is precisely the point McGrew raises. It is John the Baptist who is six months older than Jesus, not the other way round as Carrier erroneously asserts. But if you didn’t know the Luke story you might wonder, “How does John the evangelist know that John the Baptist isn’t just saying that Jesus is older than he is?” John the evangelist assumes that John the Baptist means that Jesus is pre-existent. This is the only possible interpretation precisely because John the Baptist (Jesus’ cousin) and John the evangelist are both aware that Jesus in fact was younger than John the Baptist, a detail found in the synoptics but not in John.
How Does John the Baptist Know Stuff?
Likewise when John deletes the baptism scene because he abhors its adoptionism: McGrew thinks this makes no sense of how John knows Jesus is the Son of God; as if the entirety of scripture wasn’t full of prophets who knew such things because the Holy Spirit informed them. John has no need of theatre to depict John the Baptist as the well-known prophet he was. He is simply compressing his source’s narrative and making it more magnificent. In Mark, John never learns Jesus is the Son of God; in Matthew and Luke, he asks Jesus later on but we’re never told if the answer persuaded him; the next step of embellishment: John prophetically knows from the get go! This is Johannine redaction tendency, not an undesigned coincidence.
Again, unfortunately Carrier misses the point here. John doesn’t give a narrative of Jesus’ baptism. All John says about the matter is this (John 1:32-34):
32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
Why would John infer from the sight of the Spirit descending on Jesus that Jesus is the Son of God? John’s gospel leaves this unexplained. The special revelation given to John the Baptist is given in verse 33, and all it says is that he was told that “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” There is nothing there about the one on whom the Spirit descends being the Son of God. However, when we turn over to the synoptic gospels we learn the missing piece of the puzzle. We read in Matthew 3:16-17:
16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Suppose for a moment that John the evangelist were not giving a reliable, partly independent, factual account of events, including the testimony of John the Baptist. Suppose that, for example, he were putting words in John the Baptist’s mouth, telling about the baptism partly fictionally and partly based on accounts in the earlier Gospels. That hypothesis does not explain the omission of the voice from heaven from John the Baptist’s words in John. If the Gospel author were inventing a speech for John the Baptist based upon other accounts of events, he would at least be expected to make the speech complete, not to write it in a way that raises unnecessary questions. John the Baptist’s account would also be even more dramatic and theologically profound if it included the voice from heaven, and it would have been simple to include the voice in a single additional sentence. John the Baptist could have been made to say, ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. And I heard the mighty voice from heaven that said, ‘This is my beloved Son.'”
Moving Metaphors Around
Carrier goes on,
The same thing happens with the Eucharist: contrary to McGrew’s naive amazement, John does not need to depict its Passover inauguration as his sources did; by then all Christians were already fully familiar with that tradition. So that he relocates it in history to unify it with the feeding narrative is simply his authorial license; not evidence of some undesigned coincidence.
Carrier’s explanation is possible, but not the most probable. Talking to a group of people (especially a Jewish audience) about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, without any further explanation as to what exactly he meant, is extremely peculiar (John 6:35-59). However, Jesus later, in a story not reported by John but only in the synoptics, explains what he meant, when he institutes the Lord’s supper. As McGrew summarizes,
The institution is recorded only in the Synoptics, and Jesus’ discourse on himself as the bread of life and on the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is recorded only in John. The answer to the question [of why Jesus talked to the people about such an odd thing as eating his flesh and drinking his blood] is that he spoke this way in John 6 in anticipation of instituting the Lord’s Supper at the end of his ministry, expecting his followers to put it all together later if they persevered in disciplesship (as contrasted with those who fell away in John 6:66-67).
Further, Carrier writes,
And the same thing happens again with the cup metaphor: John’s sources have Jesus talk about drinking the cup of his fate in his Gethsemane prayer; John simply moves the metaphor to his rebuke of Peter for resorting to violence at his arrest. He does so entirely in accord with his redactional tendency to remove all evidence of a wussy Jesus doubting and worrying and begging to be dismissed from his mission, and replacing it with the bad-ass tough-man Jesus he depicts throughout; this is one more example of that trend.
The point here is that Jesus’ use of the cup metaphor in John 18:11 (“Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”) is curious given that Jesus nowhere else in John uses the metaphor of a cup to allude to God’s judgment (the metaphor is derived from various Old Testament passages such as Psalm 75:8). However, in the three synoptic gospels Jesus had just prayed that same night in those very terms, asking that, if it were possible, that God might remove the necessity of enduring His wrath, calling it the “cup.” When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Jesus accepted this as indication of the Father’s decision to give Him the cup, hence he says, “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” John has omitted the context of Jesus praying that night in terms of the cup metaphor. The synoptic gospels, on the other hand, do not include Jesus’ acknowledgment of the Father’s decision to give Him the cup. The accounts therefore fit together in a way that points to truth as the best explanation.
It’s the same when John chooses to exclude Luke’s unique “correction” to Mark’s story of the servant’s earlobe being severed by having Jesus heal it (weirdly, to no one’s amazement). It’s clear that John simply preferred Mark’s version. No further explanation required. That John alone has Jesus explain his mission is peaceful is no coincidence at this point; all the Gospels communicate that point about Jesus, each in their own way. John is simply doing it his way, expanding on Jesus’s denial of leading a rebellion, by having Jesus explain what he means by that. Previous Christians didn’t need it explained in the text; it was explained to them in person.
The point here is that Jesus’ statement (only found in John’s gospel) that “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews,” (John 18:36) is striking given that the very same gospel depicts Peter as striking off the right ear of the servant of the high priest, an act that presumably counts as fighting to prevent His being delivered over to the Jews (John 18:10). However, only in Luke, which does not report Jesus’ statement before Pilate, do we read that Jesus in fact healed the ear of the high priest’s servant (Luke 22:51).
Carrier gives another example:
Similarly, when Matthew tries to add women and children to the count of the “five thousand” miraculously fed, no other author liked the idea of doing that, so they didn’t. There is no “coincidence” to explain, much less with a weirdly elaborate theory Lydia McGrew concocts involving women and childcare procedures.
Once again, it would appear that Carrier has not taken the time to engage at a serious level with this example. He doesn’t even represent what McGrew argues in relation to the number of people who were miraculously fed. Matthew tells us that the five thousand refers specifically to the number of males: “And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children,” (Matthew 14:21). Mark 6:44, Luke 9:14 and John 6:10 also indicate that there were 5000 men fed, although they don’t add “besides women and children.” How was this number calculated? The solution is found in Mark 6:39-40: “Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties.” Similarly, we read in Luke 9:14-15, “And he said to his disciples, ‘Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ And they did so, and had them all sit down.” Sorting the crowds into groups made it possible to get an idea of how many were present. But that still doesn’t answer the question of how they knew the number of men, excluding women and children, who were present. John’s gospel gives no indication of the groupings by hundreds and fifties, but he does give us an important piece of information. In John 6:10, we read, “Jesus said, ‘have the people sit down’. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number [emphasis added].” Jesus, then, instructs the disciples to have the people sit down in groups (stated by Mark and Luke), but it is the men who actually sit down (as John alone indicates). This, therefore, illuminates how the number of men could be approximated.
Seeing things that aren’t there?
Similarly, when a subsequent author of the Gospel of John added a second ending to the original one, and invented a strange dialogue between Jesus and Peter restoring Peter’s status as supreme disciple, nowhere in that dialogue does Jesus indicate any remaining disfavor toward Peter. So McGrew’s claim that we need other Gospels to explain why Jesus is being “mean” to Peter here is a fabricated coincidence. Jesus is not being mean to Peter here. Period. And that Peter needed redeeming and knew it, John himself already records. So no other Gospel is needed to interpret what John is signaling by this new mythical narrative.
Again, Carrier seems rather oblivious to what the point is here. The point is that in John 21:15, Jesus says to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” This seems a rather strange thing for Jesus to ask — why is Jesus asking Peter whether he loves Jesus more than the other disciples do? The answer is not provided by John, but the synoptic gospels record (though John does not) Peter’s boast that he was the most faithful of the disciples (Matthew 26:35; Mark 14:31; Luke 22:33). This backstory, provided by the synoptic gospels, then illuminates Jesus’ question to Peter in John 21:15, “do you love me more than these?”
Carrier goes on,
In the same way, that Mark already imagines Jesus separating the Disciples into pairs, already explains why Matthew listed them as pairs and why Luke, who almost certainly employed Matthew as a source, and John who clearly employed Luke as a source, kept that up. No further explanation is required.
Carrier once again seems unaware of the point that is being made. Matthew 10:2-4 lists the twelve disciples:
2 The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. [emphasis added]
I have emboldened the word “and” to highlight Matthew’s grouping of the twelve disciples into pairs. However, nothing in Matthew’s gospel explains why the twelve are grouped into pairs like this. It is only when we turn over to Mark’s gospel that this is illuminated. In Mark 6:7, we read, “And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” The fact that Jesus sent the disciples out two by two illuminates why Matthew groups the twelve into pairs in his list in Matthew 10:2-4. Mark’s gospel also lists the twelve disciples in Mark 3:13-19, but his list does not group them into pairs. Matthew also reports the sending out of the disciples (Matthew 10:5-15). However, he does not indicate that they were sent out in groups of two. Therefore, Matthew and Mark fit together in a way that is best explained by their being independently rooted in truth.
Who has missed the point?
Carrier goes on,
In like fashion, Mark never imagined Joseph of Arimathea was a “disciple” of Jesus; to the contrary, Mark’s point is precisely to construct the irony that a disciple is not the one who dutifully attends to Jesus’s burial (Mark employs numerous ironies of this kind, as I have often written about). So we don’t need to look to John’s embellishment of the Arimathean’s mythology by making that detail up just to explain why Mark imagines Joseph having to muster the courage to ask Pilate for Jesus’s body. Mark already provides us with his imagined reasons: it was too soon for Jesus to be dead (causing quite a fluster for Pilate), and the Sabbath was fast approaching (leaving little time for a burial). No undesigned coincidence here.
Yes, there are potentially other factors which could have contributed to Joseph’s nervousness in approaching Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body. Presumably, given Pilate’s character portrayal in the ancient sources, it would have required quite some courage to approach Pilate in general. For this reason I consider this to be among the weaker examples of undesigned coincidences. Nonetheless, Mark’s mention that Joseph “took courage” and went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body does fit in very well with Matthew 27:57, which indicates that Joseph was one of Jesus’ disciples — a detail not provided by Mark. This is the point that McGrew makes in her book. Perhaps Mark’s source (possibly Peter) had observed Joseph agonize at the thought of presenting himself before Pilate as a disciple of the man whom Pilate had just had executed, and so Mark mentions in passing that he “took courage”, without explaining (as does Matthew) that Joseph himself was a disciple.
Not Paying Attention to What an Author Has Done?
Likewise when Matthew has Jesus say great deeds were done in Bethsaida, McGrew says Matthew must be anticipating Luke’s subsequent placing of the feeding of five thousand near Bethsaida. But Matthew never says that. So obviously that’s not what he was thinking. Matthew tells us what he was thinking: “Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent.” Asked and answered. No further explanation required. Contrary to McGrew, it wasn’t Luke who set the feeding of the five thousand near Bethsaida; it was Matthew’s source: Mark, who in fact put two miracles there. But Matthew chose to place his condemnation story (which he probably invented) before the feeding, and to relocate the healing of the blind somewhere else entirely, thus he had to lead the condemnation story with a generic reference to “most of his miracles.” That’s called a designed coincidence.
The point here is that Matthew’s report of the feeding of the five thousand is given in Matthew 14, some three chapters after Jesus’ denunciation of the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida for not believing in Him due to the miracles He performed in those towns (Matthew 11:21). Matthew narrates less chronologically than Luke. Furthermore, Matthew doesn’t even tell us that the feeding of the five thousand took place in Bethsaida. Only Luke explicitly says this. Since the feeding of the five thousand was a very public miracle (involving some five thousand men, in addition to women and children), this would be an ideal candidate for a miracle that ought to have left the people living in Bethsaida without excuse for not accepting the evidence of Jesus’ Messianic credentials. It is quite possible, though not certain, that Jesus’ feeding of the four thousand (Matthew 15:32-39) took place in Chorazin, the other unrepentant town denounced in Matthew 11:21. After this event Jesus got into a boat and went to the region of Magadan (Matthew 15:39), a region across the sea of Galilee from Chorazin (as well as Bethsaida).
Carrier next claims that certain coincidences can be explained as the product of legendary development and embellishment. He writes,
Similarly, McGrew is amazed at how later Gospels embellish the story of how Joseph of Arimathea had a tomb handy to place Jesus in. But that’s simply how legends get embellished over time. There are no coincidences here.
Again, Carrier has failed to interact with what the coincidence actually is. So, allow me to flesh it out. In John 19:41-42, we read,
41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
How did they come to have access to this new tomb in the garden? Nothing in John tells us. However, when we turn over to Matthew 27:57-60, we read,
57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away.
That Joseph of Arimathea was rich, and that Joseph laid Jesus in his own tomb, are details only provided by Matthew’s gospel. This material unique to Matthew helps to illuminate the account in John, suggesting that Matthew has access to independent information of the account in Mark concerning Jesus’ burial. Matthew also explains the gospel of Luke, since Luke also does not explicitly tell us that the tomb belonged to Joseph. Matthew indicates that the tomb was new, although he does not say that nobody had yet been laid in this tomb, a detail found in Luke and John. However, it doesn’t seem likely that Luke is simply inferring from Matthew’s word “new” that nobody had previously been buried in the tomb, since Luke’s account seems to be quite independent of Matthew. For example, Luke highlights the goodness of Joseph, which, if he were copying from Matthew, makes it rather striking that he doesn’t mention that the tomb itself belonged to Joseph. Luke also includes details not found in Matthew, such as that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin and was waiting for the kingdom.
John also appears to be independent of the other gospels, as his gospel includes unique material, such as the role of Nicodemus, Joseph’s secret discipleship, the proximity of the tomb to the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, the location of the tomb in a garden, and the quantity of burial spices used. John and Luke agree that nobody had previously been buried in this tomb. However, it is Matthew alone who indicates how it was that Joseph had access to this tomb.
Likewise, she is amazed the only Gospels who mention another Joseph as the father of Jesus are the only two Gospels who have nativity narratives requiring the mention of his father. Of course she won’t accept the obvious reason this is the case: Luke is rewriting Matthew’s narrative. And Matthew made this name up—no doubt to conform to Rabbinical lore that the messiah’s father would be named Joseph, and not just any messiah, but specifically the messiah who would die and be resurrected to signal the end times (On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 73-75). The same goes for why John adds things like the name of the servant Peter mutilates (remember how it’s typical in legendary development for names to get added to minor characters?).
Again, Carrier has simply missed the point of McGrew’s argument. The point is not simply that Joseph is present only in the nativity and childhood narratives in Matthew and Luke (the last we see of him being during the trip to Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 years old in Luke 2). More than that, Joseph is consistently absent from the narrative, even when Jesus’ mother, brothers and sisters are present. For example in Mark 3:20-21; 31-35, we read,
20 Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” […] 31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” [emphasis added]
Or consider Mark 6:1-3:
He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”
Or John 2:12:
12 After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.
Furthermore, mention of Joseph is absent in scenes when you would definitely expect mention of Joseph to be made. For example, in John 19:27, Jesus says from the cross to the beloved disciple, “Behold your mother!” We are then told that “from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” Why would Jesus trust the care of His mother to a disciple rather than to his own father?
In Acts 1:12-14, we also read,
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. 14 All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
Again, Joseph is completely absent.
John, however, is clearly aware that Jesus had had a father named Joseph, since Joseph is briefly alluded to in John 1:45 (“We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”) and John 6:42 (“They said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?'”).
Nowhere are we told what happened to Joseph. There is consistent and silent presumption of his death without any positive affirmation of that fact. This suggests that the gospel authors knew more about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ father Joseph than they explicitly tell us in their accounts. This is a hallmark of truthful reportage which I call the uniformity of expressive silence, a term coined by John James Blunt.
The Approach to Bethany Six Days Before Passover
Carrier’s next example pertains to John’s extraneous detail about Jesus’ approach to Bethany taking place six days prior to Passover (I flesh this out in my article here). He writes,
How does John know the day before the triumphal entry was six days before the Passover? Because he is using Mark as a source and pays close attention to how many days Mark signals as passing in this interval (Historicity, pp. 423-24). This is the exact opposite of an “undesigned” coincidence.
While this explanation is possible, it is wildly implausible for a number of reasons. For one thing, Mark telescopes the narrative in Mark 11, and does not reveal that Jesus’ entrance into Bethany occurred the evening before His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. If you were to read only Mark you might come away with the impression that Jesus entered Bethany and Jerusalem on the same day, but this is contradicted by John, which gives further information (Jesus spent the night in Bethany before entering Jerusalem). Further, Mark 13 does not explicitly state that the olivet discourse took place in the evening, but this is something that may be inferred from the fact that Jesus’ accommodation for the evening was in Bethany (a detail supplied by John but not Mark) and the fact that the mount of olives is midway between Jerusalem (where Jesus had been all day) and Bethany where His accommodation for the evening was. Another fact that argues against Johanine dependence on Mark here is that John appears to place the anointing of Jesus’ feet at Bethany on the Sunday before Passover (John 12:1-8), whereas Mark appears to place it on the Wednesday prior to Passover (Mark 14:1-9), suggesting that either Mark or John (I would lean towards John) made a minor ‘good-faith’ mistake on this point.
Who are Alexander and Rufus?
Is Mark’s Rufus based on Paul’s Rufus? Of course not. Paul does not link his Rufus to either Cyrene or an Alexander or a Simon. Without that, coincidences of a single name are inevitable and thus require no explanation. Rufus was a common name.
The connection between the Rufus of Mark 15:21 and Romans 16:13 is plausible but not definite. Supporting this connection is the fact that early church tradition maintains that Mark’s gospel was written in Rome and the book of Romans was addressed to the church in Rome. Rufus also was obviously a well known Christian to Mark’s original audience, since he is name-dropped in Mark 15:21 as if Mark’s readers already know who he is and thus do not require an introduction.
Mark 15:21 contains an unexplained allusion, since Mark alludes to the fact that “they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.” We are not told who Alexander and Rufus are, but since the original audience evidently did, it seems very unlikely that they would have been name dropped like this unless the event Mark was describing was grounded in truth. Forgeries tend to minimize unnecessary details, not name drop persons with no relevance to the story.
The Miraculous Catch of Fish
Carrier presents his final example as the miraculous catch of fish, where John stresses that the net was not torn (John 21:11), recalling a previous episode reported only in Luke (but not in John) where the nets did break (Luke 5:6). Carrier writes,
And McGrew strains to argue that John’s miraculous catch story is not simply a redaction of Luke’s, but ignores everything we know about how redaction operates, despite our having hundreds of examples across ancient literature to learn by. Obviously John is simply rewriting Luke (Historicity, pp. 488, 505), just as Luke’s nativity is rewriting Matthew’s, each exactly as he pleases (Historicity, pp. 472-73).
Of course, Carrier doesn’t actually provide any evidence to indicate that John is redacting Luke’s account. In fact, McGrew actually addresses this hypothesis in chapter 1 of the book. Having listed numerous differences between the account given in Luke and John, McGrew writes,
These details do not fit an hypothesis that John is exaggerating the earlier miracle and thus producing a made-up miracle in his own Gospel. If anything, the fact that the catch of fish in Luke not only broke the nets but also began to sink two boats might mean that the number of fish in Luke is greater than the number in John 21. But given that John 21 also says that they could not haul the catch into the boat because of the quantity of fish (v 6), it is difficult to tell which number is supposed to be greater. This is exactly what we would expect if the events actually took place. One account isn’t copied, magnified, or manipulated from the other. One isn’t meant to look like a greater or lesser miracle than the other. Rather, they are just different — two accounts of two different events that vary in random details as two different, but in some respects similar, events might vary. And John, remembering that earlier catch and mentally noting the contrast, mentions, ‘The net was not torn.’
As he so often does, Carrier has assumed, without demonstration, that differences between gospel accounts must be the result of redaction rather than the gospel authors having independent access to truth.
In summary, Carrier demonstrates he has not read McGrew’s book, Hidden in Plain View (at least not carefully), despite claiming to review the book. This is shown by his utilization of three examples which McGrew explicitly states she has deliberately chosen not to use and in fact gives her reasons for not using them. Carrier also fails to cite any of McGrew’s blog posts where she interacts with many of the points he raises in his article. He also gets various of his facts simply wrong. I expect Carrier’s article to become a ‘go-to’ atheist resource for dealing with undesigned coincidences, since not many scholars have attempted to give a detailed critical appraisal of this type of argument. If this is the best critique of undesigned coincidences, we have grounds for increased confidence in the merits of this style of argument. I hope this article series may be used as a resource for those seeking to reach atheists with the evidences for the gospel, as they utilize the argument from undesigned coincidences.