Who Has Fabricated Data — Lydia McGrew or Richard Carrier? (Part 3)

I have been responding to Dr. Richard Carrier’s critique of undesigned coincidences in the gospels and Acts (please see part 1 and part 2). In part 3, I continue my response by reviewing Carrier’s allegation that McGrew has fabricated some of her examples. He writes,

Yet another cause of things McGrew lists as evidence is simply: there is nothing to explain. Some of McGrew’s “examples” are simply fabricated. For instance, she tries to argue that when Mark’s account of the “feeding of five thousand” speaks of the people “coming and going” he “must” mean this was the Preparation for the Passover, and they were “coming and going” because of that, so when John relates the same incident (in fact he is redacting Mark’s account) and adds in passing that “Passover was at hand,” this proves Mark and John must have been there—and Mark merely forgot to mention the Passover was near.

I do not know why Carrier puts quotation marks around the word “must” (since this isn’t McGrew’s word at all). Given that this section of his review is about fabrication, this is quite ironic. Carrier implies (falsely) that McGrew is saying that we “must” take the crowds in Mark to be caused by the Passover. McGrew’s discussion of this is much more modestly worded. Furthermore, Carrier also makes no mention of Mark’s casual allusion to the green grass (Mark 6:39), which further supports this coincidence, since the grass in Palestine is brown throughout the majority of the year save for a narrow window of time (because of elevated levels of rainfall) during the spring, around the time of Passover. Mark doesn’t explicitly tell us that the event took place at Passover, but John 6:4 does. However, John doesn’t mention the people coming and going or the green grass, alluded to in Mark. Therefore, we have an undesigned coincidence.

Carrier continues,

Never mind that Mark places this event on the lakeshore and John places it on a mountain—a discrepancy impossible for eyewitnesses. This is fiction, not witness testimony. 

It may be granted that, if one were to only read John’s account, one would get the impression that Jesus had gone up to the mountainside with His disciples, and it was only then that He saw the crowd that had been following Him. Note that all four gospels mention the mountain in this region (Mt 14:23; Mk 6:46; Lk 9:28; Jn 6:3). Mark, speaking of the crowd that had followed Jesus, says that Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things” (Mk 6:34). In Matthew’s account, we read that “he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Mt 14:14). In Luke, it mentions both that Jesus “spoke to them of the kingdom of God” and that he “cured those who had need of healing” (Lk 6:11). Thus, we are to picture Jesus having been with the crowd for some time prior to the feeding event. In the synoptics, we are told that when it was getting late, they discussed where to find food for the crowd of people. John, however, does not mention the earlier part of the day. It seems, then, that the crowds converged on him while He had slipped away with His disciples. John’s emphasis, though, is on the feeding through the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish. The fact that these accounts, which appear upon first blush to contradict one another, fit together so casually reveals the independence of the accounts.

Carrier goes on,

More to the point, there is no reason whatever to believe Mark imagined this event occurred anywhere near the Passover—in fact his narrative makes that impossible. “This is a remote place,” he has the Disciples say, “and it’s already very late,” so they recommend to Jesus that he “send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But they could not do that if the Passover was at hand: buying and selling would be illegal at sundown. And it could only be described as a “remote” place if it would take quite a long time to walk anywhere even to buy anything (Mark says Jesus and gang had to use a boat even to get there!).

Again here, ironically, it is Carrier who is fabricating data. There are two problems with Carrier’s objection here. Firstly, Jewish interpretations regarding what was and was not permitted on which days is quite diverse. Second, John 6 does not even indicate specifically when in relation to the Passover the feeding of the five thousand fell, only that “the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand” (John 6:4).

Carrier continues,

So Mark is clearly not talking about an event that occurred on the eve of a Holy Day. John simply made that up. And he did that to extend the same metaphor Mark was already developing between these miracles and his desire to presage the Eucharist.

And John also does not indicate that the event occurred on the eve of a Holy Day. Richard Carrier has simply made that up.

Carrier does later come back to this example with a comment about the green grass in Mark 6:39. He writes,

There is no evidence whatsoever here that Mark imagined the grass was green because it was Passover; and as we already saw, quite a lot of evidence against his doing so. In actual fact you could probably find green grass by the Sea of Galilee all year round back then; certainly for a great many months out of any given year; and Mark wasn’t from there so he wouldn’t know when or where grass wouldn’t be green anyway (and worse, the word he chose overlaps with pale and yellow). 

I am curious to know how Carrier knows that Mark was not from around Galilee. Again, with irony given the heading of this section, Carrier has simply asserted something that he cannot back up. Furthermore, Carrier is wrong in asserting that the grass would have been green for many months of the year. The grass throughout most of the year, as noted above, was brown.

Carrier further claims,

Mark probably contrived the detail for its symbolism (such as echoing the shepherd Psalm or simply to evoke a pleasant scene), not because he was there or anyone told him what color the grass was. Instead, McGrew just “invents” a fact (her own reason why Mark said there was green grass), then uses that as “evidence” of an amazing “coincidence.” And this inspired her whole book. This borders on batshit crazy.

Unfortunately, Christian writer John Nelson (who should know better) recently made this exact same argument in a blog article critiquing undesigned coincidences, an article which Carrier cites approvingly. This is the sort of bad scholarship that unfortunately has become too prevalent in Biblical studies. Carrier and other scholars are capable of weaving far fetched symbolic theories for any factual detail that arises in the gospel accounts, and thus cut themselves off from being able to recognize evidence of historical reportage. On this methodology, how would one recognize a factual narrative, given the ease with which Carrier is able to employ his fertile imagination to make up far fetched symbolic meanings for absolutely anything found in the sources? This sort of approach is totally unfalsifiable.

Carrier goes on,

Likewise because John wanted to expand Mark’s one year narrative (which could not have imagined a Passover in the middle of Jesus’s ministry) into a three year narrative, a goal John achieves specifically by inventing four Passovers for Jesus to attend (John 2:13, 6:4, 11:55, 19:14). This is simply his second invented chronological marker. There is no evidence even suggesting otherwise. So McGrew simply has no data here. She is making things up that aren’t even in Mark’s Gospel. Fabricated data, to reach a fabricated conclusion.

Of course, I would argue that at least two Passovers in Mark’s gospel are explicit, and the silence about other Passovers is not a denial. The two that are explicit are reported in Mark 14 as well as the earlier one in Mark 6, as indicated by the presence of the green grass (indicating the time of year being around the time of the Passover) and the coming and going crowds. Again, it is Richard Carrier who has fabricated a conclusion without any supporting evidence, namely, that John expanded a one year narrative in Mark into a three year narrative.

Carrier goes on,

Another “non example” is McGrew’s claim that Luke and John each assume things about the trial hearing for Jesus that are spelled out in the other. Here she completely ignores the demonstrable redaction history of the text. Mark has the Jewish elite hand Jesus over to Pilate and immediately Pilate asks “Are you the king of the Jews?” Mark doesn’t explain why Pilate thinks to ask that. It’s simply assumed that the reader would find it obvious that’s what Jesus was being charged with—his whole story has been building up to this, from the triumphal entry representing him as a claimant to the throne, to the Jewish elite charging him for claiming to be the Anointed One, which meant, king. This happens immediately before Jesus is handed over to Pilate. So why would anyone be confused?

This paragraph is fraught with problems. For one thing, in her book, McGrew identifies this as an instance where Luke explains John. Curiously, however, John has somehow dropped out of the equation in Carrier’s discussion. The point is that the scenario appears to be quite odd in John. Pilate asks the crowd, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” (John 18:29).  The Jews respond in verse 30, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” Then Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (verse 33). If we only had John to go on, it could appear that Pilate attempts unsuccessfully to get them to state a charge but then somehow knows what question to ask Jesus anyway. Pilate even seems to be quite frustrated. In verse 35, he asks, “What have you done?” It is interesting that John is the later gospel, and one might expect him to be more elaborated. However, John in fact leaves out a crucial aspect of the dialogue between the crowd and Pilate. Thus, the issue isn’t a matter of assuming the gospel readers would know this or that detail. Rather, it is the oddity of the dialogue as reported.

Furthermore, in the above-quoted paragraph, Carrier claims that McGrew “completely ignores the demonstrable redaction history of the text.” But what demonstrable redaction history is he referring to? Yes, Mark’s account is less complete than Luke’s. But so what? Is his claim that Luke made up the fact that the Jews made such a charge against, Jesus, which Mark had merely assumed? What is Carrier’s evidence for this “demonstrable redaction history”? Again, with irony given the heading of this section of his article, Carrier has fabricated a claim that he cannot demonstrate.

Carrier further writes,

There are no “undesigned coincidences” here. All we see is a simple myth told by one author, that gets embellished by the next author redacting him, and embellished again by the next author redacting them, and embellished yet again by the next author redacting them. What we are looking at here is a telephone game, wherein more and more each subsequent author tries to make the story sound more plausible or realistic, and less like fable (a trend widely documented as typical of legendary development: On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 480-81). And yet each is copying whole lines and words from the previous author they are redacting. This is evidence of fiction, not eyewitness testimony. McGrew has no evidence at all to argue the contrary.

What is Carrier’s evidence for such a claim of redaction? The alternative, much better evidenced, scenario is that each of the four evangelists had access to their own independent information concerning the events they narrate in the gospels. Why do we need to assume that variations in level of detail between the gospels must be explained by redaction and embellishment? Not to mention of course that Carrier’s scenario, even if true, looks nothing like the telephone game, which involves a non-deliberate garbling of the original statement, as it is whispered from one individual to the next.

Carrier continues,

Likewise, when McGrew tries to claim it’s an “undesigned coincidence” that Mark pauses to explain to his Gentile readers that Jews ceremonially wash before eating and John puts six pots of such water at a wedding. There is literally no connection between these passages whatsoever. Mark is not talking about a wedding, he’s not even describing a scene but explaining a custom that Jesus is merely talking about; and though John borrows from Mark the explanation of why some of those pots are at a wedding, he never has Jesus discuss the point Mark does, or anything whatever about the purpose of the pots.

Again, Carrier has simply missed the point. 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). The fact that Mark 7:3 is not describing the same event has no relevance. 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.

Carrier goes on,

Finally in this same category we can count genuine coincidences, that signal nothing. Timothy McGrew, for example, leads his debate with Bart Ehrman with the example of how Matthew records secret court conversations with Herod Antipas (in fact, Mark did that; Matthew just copies that and tweaks it up by making the conversation specifically between Herod and “his boys,” meaning slave attendants), while Luke separately reports a woman named Joanna attended Jesus and the Disciples, adding the peculiar detail that she was the “wife of Chuza, Herod’s business agent” (a position that could be in close contact with Herod’s slave household…although not necessarily: state leaders had scores of procurators attending to all manner of separate business). McGrew says this is an unplanned coincidence: Luke didn’t know he was revealing Matthew’s (actually Mark’s) source for the story about that conversation with Herod! There could at least be a coincidence here: the two passages are unconnected, yet one can imagine a connection between them. But neither Luke nor Matthew knows of any such connection: neither one says they had any information (much less this information) from this Joanna. So the connection still has to be invented in Tim McGrew’s mind. It doesn’t exist in any of the evidence.

Carrier again misses the point with this one. He notes that “neither Luke nor Matthew knows of any such connection: neither one says they had any information (much less this information) from this Joanna.” But that is the whole point. Luke illuminates how Matthew and the other disciples could come to know what Herod Antipas was saying to his servants behind closed doors (and also why Herod would be speaking to his servants concerning Jesus), something which otherwise is unexplained.

Furthermore, contrary to Carrier’s assertion, Luke does in fact tell us explicitly that the disciples received information (though not this information) from Joanna. In Luke 24:10, we are told, “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles,” [emphasis added].

Moreover, I would agree with Dr. Richard Bauckham that there is evidence internal to the gospels that the women did serve in the capacity of eyewitness informants (see his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses). On page 48, he writes,

In the Synoptic Gospels the role of the women as eyewitnesses is crucial: they see Jesus die, they see his body being laid in the tomb, they find the tomb empty. The fact that some of the women were at all three events means that they can testify that Jesus was dead when laid in the tomb and that it was the tomb in which he was buried that they subsequently found empty. All three Synoptic Gospels repeatedly make the women the subjects of verbs of seeing: they “saw” the events as Jesus died (Matt 27:55; Mark 15:40; Luke 23:49), they “saw” where he was laid in the tomb (Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55), they went on the first day of the week to “see” the tomb (Matt 28:1), they “saw” the stone rolled away (Mark 16:4), they “saw” the young man sitting on the right side (Mark 16:5), and the angel invited them to “see” the empty place where Jesus’ body had lain (Matt 28:6; Mark 16:6). It could hardly be clearer that the Gospels are appealing to their role as eyewitnesses.

Carrier finishes this section by adding,

But we might not even have to stop there. Tim McGrew thinks there is no way this can be a designed coincidence; although I’m not so sure. How coincidental is it that a woman with the exact same name as John the Baptist (Joanna merely being the feminine of John), whom Luke’s sources (Mark and Matthew) repeatedly connected to both Jesus and Herod, who is then connected with both Jesus and Herod, and moreover, through a seer or prophet (the meaning of Chuza), who is in turn connected to Herod’s court—just as in Matthew’s nativity, which Luke didn’t like and chose to completely rewrite (just as he did Matthew’s account of Judas’s suicide). Is this authorial creativity at work? Luke “keeping” or “inspired by” some of the clever ideas in Matthew’s nativity that Luke had abandoned narratively, and just as Luke did in his nativity, cross-linking it with John, all to construct a new character never heard of before in any prior source? That’s not so farfetched considering all the evidence of creative story construction we have across all four Gospels (see Chapter 10 of On the Historicity of Jesus). Still, I’d say we have no more evidence of this than McGrew’s contrary fancies—or vice versa—so again it’s a wash. But a wash is a wash: we end up with no evidence either way.

And here we go again with Carrier’s fanciful hidden meanings behind the text that just simply aren’t there and in fact undermines the whole basis of establishing anything in the gospels as being historically true, even if it is. Both John and Joanna are extremely common names. In fact, John was the fifth most common male Jewish name in first century Palestine. Joanna was also the fifth most popular female Jewish name.

In part 4 of this series, we will consider whether, as Carrier suggests, redaction is usually the better hypothesis. Stay tuned.