On this blog, we spend a lot of time shooting down the criticisms, myths, and outright lies that anti-Christian authors spread about Christianity and the gospels. This upcoming series of short articles (about 10-12) does not focus on the critics.
Instead, it focuses on one type of positive evidence for historical accuracy: Undesigned coincidences within the gospels.
What are undesigned coincidences? We’ll answer that question shortly.
First, it’s important to note that this series of articles is based on an excellent presentation by Dr. Timothy McGrew (Philosophy Chair, Western Michigan University) called Internal Evidence for the Truth of the Gospels and Acts. Dr. McGrew’s presentation, which is based on earlier work by Edmund Bennett and John James Blunt, is embedded below.
We liked McGrew’s presentation so much, that we decided to break it into bite-sized chunks and write a series of articles about it. Incidentally, McGrew has also developed a series of other presentations on the historical accuracy of the gospels, which can be found here.
What are Undesigned Coincidences?
There are four gospel accounts. As we all know, they often tell the same stories about Jesus and his disciples. Sometimes, they even use the same—or similar—words. Some critics argue that these similarities indicate that later gospels were simply copied from earlier ones.
Deeper study, however, can rule out the idea that the authors just copied from one another. You see, the accounts are not 100% the same. Not even close. In many of the stories that appear in multiple gospels, the authors shared different details and emphasized different things.
That’s what we would expect from independent eyewitness accounts of the same events. But, it gets more interesting than that. In a lot of cases, those different details, when analyzed closely, actually interlock in ways that provide
- A fuller, more detailed story
- Mutually supporting evidence of accuracy and authenticity
As McGrew shares in his presentation:
Sometimes two works by different authors interlock in a way that would be very unlikely if one of them were copied from the other or both were copied from a common source.
For example, one book may mention in passing a detail that answers some question raised by the other. The two records fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Fictions and forgeries aren’t like this.
- Why leave loose ends or raise questions that you do not have to?
- How can you control what other people will write to make it interlock with what you have written?
But we would expect to find such interlocking in authentic, detailed records of the same real events told by different people who knew what they were talking about.1
Point #2 above is absolutely critical, and makes this all the more interesting. If this seems a little hard to follow, don’t worry. It will become clear when we begin to go through some examples.
Demonstrating the historical truth of Christianity is a cumulative case. It builds and builds, one brick at a time. Then, after you’ve been at it a while, you notice just what an overwhelmingly impressive edifice the case for the gospels really is.
An Example of an Undesigned Coincidence
For our first example, let’s consider a passage from Matthew 8:14-16 (NIV):
14 When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. 15 He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.
16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.
Let’s think about this passage for a second. If word had gotten around about Jesus healing people, then why did the folks in town wait until evening to come for healings and exorcisms? If I had a serious illness and heard that a guy down the street could heal me, then I’d go right away instead of waiting until later. Why didn’t they go to Jesus as soon as they heard?
Matthew does not answer the question anywhere in his gospel. But Mark’s gospel does. Take a look at Mark 1:21, 29-32 (NIV). Incidentally, for those readers who are not aware, Simon in the passage below…and Peter in the passage above…are the same person (“Simon, who was called Peter”):
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach…
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.
32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.
So what’s the answer? Well, as verse 21 tells us, it was the Sabbath, which didn’t end until sundown (evening). During the Second Temple period of Judaism, Jewish people were very strict about keeping the Sabbath. That meant that they couldn’t do anything that could be construed as “work” on that day, which would have included traveling across town to a healing. They had to wait until sundown if they wanted to keep the Sabbath.
So, Mark unintentionally explains Matthew. This is just one small example of an undesigned coincidence. As we go forward with this series, keep a point made by Tim McGrew in mind:
One undesigned coincidence might be an accident—like having two unrelated pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fit together, just by chance.
But if we discover numerous undesigned coincidences crisscrossing the documents, it becomes ridiculous to insist that they are all just accidental.2
As we’ll see, there are many undesigned coincidences crisscrossing the documents, and we’ll just hit a sampling. Until next time…
- McGrew, Timothy (Ph.D., Professor and Philosophy Department Chair, Western Michigan University), Internal Evidence for the Truth of the Gospels and Acts, presentation to St. Michael Lutheran Church, delivered 27 February 2012, slides 9 and 10
- Ibid, slide 15