Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels: A Reply to John Nelson

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]. I have written 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.

In this article, I will respond to another critic of the argument from undesigned coincidences, namely, John Nelson, who holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from the University of Nottingham, as well as a Masters degree in theology from Magdalen College, Oxford. In late December last year, Mr. Nelson published a short article, which you can read here, in which he attempts to respond to the argument from undesigned coincidences in the gospels. Mr. Nelson is himself a Christian, but from what I understand from personal interaction with him, he has fideistic tendencies when it comes to religious epistemology.

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,

One might expect that these sort of explanations would be treated in the recent work on the argument — after all, much has happened in the last two centuries of gospel scholarship which is worth exploring. And it is always useful to test the reasons for why any coincidence may appear so. But unfortunately, McGrew’s work involves “setting aside the apparatus of critical scholarship” (p.15). Why McGrew does not wish to test her hypothesis against critical scholarship is unclear. Is she not aware of it? Or does she not think it is worth her attention? Either way, I hope to show that its 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 doesn’t 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 [4]). 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,

Some ‘undesigned coincidences’ fade when the interests of the evangelists in the way they have compiled their sources and shaped their narratives — their ‘redactional’ interests — are considered. Take the timing of the feeding of the five thousand in Mark and John as an example. John tells us this was around Passover (6:4), which seems to be subtly corroborated by Mark’s note that ‘many were coming and going’ at that time (6:31). The difficulty with viewing this as an undesigned coincidence is that the crowd’s following Jesus is a Markan trope (3:7–9); and the Passover setting of John may simply serve to make explicit latent Passover symbolism in the early feeding accounts. McGrew and Williams note that the ‘green grass’ (6.39) also corroborates a Passover setting, since Passover falls in Nisan (March/April), after months of rainfall. Yet can facticity be so easily assumed from verisimilitude? Perhaps not. As Graham Twelftree notes, the ‘green grass’ may serve as a reminder of the fertility of the desert in the Messianic age, or allude to the good Shepherd leading his flock through green pastures, a point Mark has already made (6:34).

These explanations seem to be, however, to be quite contrived. The hypothesis about Mark allegedly inventing the green grass in order to allude 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. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem at all obvious to me that such pervasive Passover imagery exists in the feeding narrative. 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 6:5, 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).

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, 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.

Does Oral Tradition Undermine Undesigned Coincidences

Nelson continues,

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 into ‘twos’ can be variously explained, by Matthew’s well known redactional interest in doublets, or 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. Whatever the case, the hypothesis which seems lacking in plausibility is that which says the coincidence is due to a direct retrieval of information from eyewitnesses. 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 doesn’t 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.

What about Matthew’s “well known redactional interest in doublets”? 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 I am not sure exactly how Nelson believes this to 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 might 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. There, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, we find the exact term as the one used by John: ἄρτους κριθίνους (artous krithinous) — barley loaves. This dependence upon the Jewish scriptures may also help to explain why John — who is already interested in feasts — 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 don’t see it.

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’? The fourth evangelist may simply have composed the discourse using the language of the last supper. This would be in keeping with the compositional practices on ancient biography, where more-or-less invention of speeches is natural. Moreover, 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 moderns would write a gospel. But the ancient authors were not moderns.

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

McGrew is aware of this objection, but responds by asking “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?” (p.45) 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. McGrew spends nine pages in the book exploring the absence of Joseph (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 are still today 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.

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 the water into wine.

Other ‘undesigned coincidences’ do not concern two reports of 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 the 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, 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 direct or indirect 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. 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.

Conclusion

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. Firstly, even if the gospels possessed a number of undesigned coincidences, it would not support the conclusion that the gospels were sourced directly or, at one-step-removed, by eyewitnesses. Almost no one but the most ardent sceptic doubts that material in the gospels goes back to an eyewitness (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 traditional paradigms which McGrew is explicitly seeking to negate. In other words, even if we have plenty of undesigned coincidences, much more work still needs to be done to firm up 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 confirms that the gospel accounts are based on the testimony of credible eyewitnesses and that the authors are habitually truthful. Other lines of evidence, however, may 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,

Secondly, it seems to me that McGrew’s testing of the gospels for ‘undesigned coincidences’ assumes a similar stance to testing eyewitness 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 authors, working with different source material, with their own redactional interests, with their own 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 of the reasons why John Henry Newman was cautious about Paley’s ‘courtroom’ apologetic. The evidence is slim. The unknowns are great. And this history will not often bend to the courtroom’s demands.

For detailed responses to these claims 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.

Footnotes

[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. Chillicothe, OH: DeWard Publishing Company, 2017.

[4] Lydia McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary DevicesChillicothe, OH: DeWard Publishing Company, 2020.

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