Unexplained Allusions and the Credibility of the Gospel Accounts

In previous articles, I have discussed undesigned coincidences and artless similarities as categories of evidence supporting the substantial trustworthiness of the New Testament accounts. In this article, I want to introduce a third category of evidence: unexplained allusions. An unexplained allusion refers to when a source mentions superfluous details that are not relevant to the story. Typically, when inventing a story, one would want to minimize unnecessary details, especially if those unnecessary details are subject to investigation. Furthermore, writers of fiction tend to not leave loose ends hanging and typically seek to clarify confusion rather than create it. Here, I will offer some examples from the gospels and Acts.

Who are Alexander and Rufus?

Mark 15:21 describes the scene where Jesus was being led to His execution site to be crucified. Mark tells us 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.” This raises a curious question: Who were Alexander and Rufus? Indeed, they are simply name-dropped as though we are supposed to know who they were. Presumably, those individuals would have been familiar to the original readers of Mark’s gospel, but they are not known to us. They are not mentioned anywhere else in any of the four gospels. The fact that Mark name drops them here is highly suggestive of the truth of the narrative. It invites Mark’s first century readers to inquire with Alexander and Rufus who presumably would be able to corroborate their father’s involvement. It is quite possible that the Rufus mentioned here is the same individual as the Rufus to whom Paul sends his greetings in Romans 16:13, especially given the early church tradition that the gospel of Mark was composed in Rome. Whether he is the same individual or not, however, the fact that Mark mentions those individuals with no further elaboration as to their identity has a distinct ring of verisimilitude.

Jesus’ Allusion to Recent Events

Another example may be found in Luke 13:1-5:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

The allusions made by Jesus in this text to apparently recent events (the Galileans whom Pilate had killed and the 18 people who were killed by the collapse of the tower in Siloam) would have been understood by Jesus’ original audience, since Jesus used known events for the purposes of illustration. It is in fact characteristic of Jesus throughout all four gospels to draw lessons from His surroundings or, as in this case, from known events. There is no reason, however, to believe that Luke’s audience would have been familiar with the events of which Jesus speaks in this text. In an age before the internet and ease of access to information, they probably didn’t, and Luke makes no effort to explain. In a very realistic manner, Luke simply records what Jesus said.

The Visit to Capernaum

In John 2:12, following the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, we read,

After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.

John informs us that Jesus and his mother and brothers traveled to Capernaum and stayed there for a few days. No further elaboration or explanation is given. From the reader’s point of view, this seems like an utterly pointless thing for John to include. It seems to allude to some business that Jesus’ family had to attend to in Capernaum, but no further explanation is given.

A Dispute Over Purification

In John 3:25, we read

25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

In verse 25, we learn about a debate that was taking place between some of John’s disciples and an unnamed Jew concerning purification rites. John the Baptist’s disciples approach John the Baptist in verse 26 and the reader may be expecting that they are going to ask him to arbitrate the debate or to ask him a question about the topic under dispute. However, John’s disciples do not ask him a question at all. Rather, they tell him that Jesus is baptizing more people than he is and is gaining quite a following. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the dispute with the other Jew over purification rites. If there is any connection between the debate and what John’s disciples said to him in verse 26, it is extremely cryptic. Thus, the mention of the debate over purification in verse 25 is unexplained.

Go and Sin No More

In John 5:14, following Jesus’ healing of a crippled man, we read,

Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”

No explanation is provided of the man’s sin, and we are told in John 9:3 that Jesus did not believe illness to generally be a punishment for sin. Thus, this allusion to the healed crippled man’s sin in John 5:14 is an unexplained detail.

The Greeks Who Wanted to See Jesus

In John 12:20-23, we read,

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Thus, we learn that at the feast of Passover, some Greeks (probably Hellenized Jews) say to Philip that they would like to talk to Jesus. Philip tells Andrew, and the two of them in turn tell Jesus. Verse 23 says that Jesus “answered them.” However, what Jesus says has no obvious connection to the request of the Greeks to see Him. He says that the hour has come for Him to be glorified and makes a comment about a grain of wheat dying and bearing much fruit. But what does this have to do with the request? Did Jesus see the Greeks who had asked to have an audience with Him? Why was this Jesus’ answer to their request to see Him? This is all left unexplained.

The False Allegation

Sometimes, unexplained allusions can also be classified as undesigned coincidences when considered alongside some additional source. In Mark 14:56-59, Mark writes that during Jesus’ trial before the chief priest,

56 For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. 57 And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” 59 Yet even about this their testimony did not agree.

No elaboration or explanation is given of this allegation. In a first century Judean context, this is an extremely serious allegation. What statement of Jesus could the false witnesses possibly be referring to? It doesn’t seem like something invented out of whole cloth, but is more plausibly a garbled version of something Jesus actually said, particularly in view of the reference to “three days”, which is an expression often accompanying Jesus’ predictions of His resurrection.

In Mark 15:29-30, we further read of the verbal insults that Jesus had hurled at Him as He hung from the cross:

29 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!”

Both of the above accusations are also paralleled in Matthew 26:60-61 and 27:39-40, but Matthew, like Mark, also provides no pretext for those accusations.

John’s account provides the pretext for the accusation, and thus the other half of the undesigned coincidence. In John 2:18-22, we read,

18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Thus, we learn that Jesus did not in fact say that He would destroy this man-made temple and build another not by human hands. Rather, He spoke of His resurrection from the dead, comparing His body to a temple, since it was the very dwelling place of God Himself.

The Sons of Thunder

Another example of an unexplained allusion which also contributes one part of an undesigned coincidence is found in Mark 3:7, where Mark tells his readers in passing (while listing the names of the twelve disciples) that Jesus called James and John, the sons of Zebedee, “Boanerges”, meaning, “sons of thunder.” Mark provides no explanation as to why Jesus gave this title to the sons of Zebedee.

However, if we read Luke 9:51-56, we are given some insight into the personalities of the sons of Zebedee:

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village.

Thus, Luke’s gospel, in describing a completely different episode, casually illuminates why Jesus might have given the sons of Zebedee the title of “sons of thunder.” This casual interlocking between Mark and Luke points to the truth of both.

Paul Shaves His Head

There are also examples of unexplained allusions in the book of Acts. My favorite one is found in Acts 18:18-19, in which we read,

18 After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow. 19 And they came to Ephesus…

Here, Luke simply throws in the random detail that Paul was under a vow and had cut his hair at Cenchrae. No further elaboration or explanation is given, and the reader is left wondering, “What was that about?” We are not told. Luke simply includes this extraneous detail and then immediately moves on with the story.

Conclusion

To conclude, unexplained allusions contribute to the cumulative argument for the substantial trustworthiness of the gospels and Acts. Fiction writers tend not to leave threads untied, or pieces hanging in their narrative. Forgers tend to minimize unnecessary details, since the more detail that is provided the more potential there is for an inquirer to poke holes in the narrative. Taken together with undesigned coincidences and artless similarities (and other evidences that I will discuss on this site in future articles), we are on very strong grounds in saying that the New Testament accounts are very reliable indeed.

2 thoughts on “Unexplained Allusions and the Credibility of the Gospel Accounts”

  1. its because of you guys that we run apologetics pages in instagram. keep up the good work.
    Greetings from India (south)

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