Friday, January 14, 2011

Undesigned coincidences

Here is an exceedingly interesting talk by Esteemed Husband, given in New Orleans last Sunday, on undesigned coincidences in the Gospels. This is an argument that was well-known in the nineteenth century but has, for no really clear reason, simply been forgotten as time has gone on. It is a cumulative case argument that the Gospels reflect, to an important extent, independent knowledge of actual events. Please note that this argument is quite independent of one's preferred answer to the synoptic question. That is to say, even if, e.g., Mark was the first Gospel and others had access to Mark and show signs of literary dependence on Mark, the argument from undesigned coincidences provides evidence for independent knowledge of real events among the Gospel writers. There are many more of such coincidences beyond those given in the talk.

Hopefully there will eventually be links to two talks given at New Orleans Baptist Seminary on Sunday night and Monday morning, including some of the same material and a good deal of additional material. My understanding is that there may be a small fee for those downloads when they become available.

Cross-posted to W4


John Fraser said...


This is great. I came across Paley's book on undesigned coincidences between Paul's letters and Acts (Horae Paulinae)last spring and leafed through some of it. I thought there were some good arguments, though I noticed that W. Ward Gasque expressed some caution about some of Paley's arguments. But just finding the book was quite interesting to me - I didn't know Paley had done anything like that.

I'm quite interested to see that you guys have picked up this theme also. In terms of the connection between Luke and Paul, it greatly strengthens the argument that the author of Luke-Acts was a companion of Paul, and Luke certainly fits the bill.

I'm looking forward to listening to this (after tomorrow - I'm procrastinating on a sermon right now!).

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, undesigned coincidence examples come in all flavors, varieties, and degrees of strength. As a rule of thumb (all caveats about rules of thumb apply) I consider the argument stronger in proportion as the absence or presence of a detail in account A (which is supplied or explained by account B) is surprising taken by itself and would be surprising in a forgery. So, for example, consider the "Lovest thou me more than these" example. If John were simply making up the incident, it is surprising that he would have Jesus picking on Peter in this particular way, in what is clearly an allusion to Peter's earlier boast, without including the boast. If you're going to fake a story and tie it in with other accounts to which you have access, you will be likely to make that tie-in and make your story run smoothly rather than leaving your own account choppy. In the absence of Peter's boast, Jesus' particular question seems quite unnecessarily mean. If John were the sort of person who had no qualms about making up a resurrection story (aka "elaborating"), and if he were going to include an allusion to Peter's boast, he would of course have put the boast in at the right place earlier in the story before the crucifixion so that his own account was complete and tidy. That's the literary thing to do, and it's what would make sense in a literary as opposed to factual account.

On the other hand, if someone is just telling a story as he remembers it, he isn't particularly trying to make it tidy. The story-teller of a true story isn't making things up as literary allusions to other texts used as sources; he's telling what he remembers. In that case, it can often happen that the story-teller remembers _that_ something was a certain way or _that_ someone said something but does not remember to tell his listeners or his readers _why_ it was that way or _why_ someone said a thing exactly that way.

John's leaving out Peter's boast but including Jesus' allusion to it is a good bit more probable on the hypothesis that he was telling something he actually remembered than that he was writing up an account including faked events.

A somewhat weaker undesigned coincidence concerns a verse in one Gospel where it says that Herod asked his servants about Jesus. This does seem to dovetail with other verses in other books indicating that there were followers of Jesus among Herod's servants.

I would not say that this is valueless. It's an interesting coincidence and worth something. But how strong it is seems to me to depend on how surprising it would be for Herod to ask his servants about Jesus. Might someone have included that as a detail just because it sounded good? I think I would have to know more about Herod's court and his relationships with his servants to be more confident that this requires explanation at all or even that Herod would have been likely to know if there were followers of Jesus among his servants. (After all, if he didn't know it or wouldn't have known it, then the fact that there were followers doesn't explain his asking his servants anyway.)

The important thing about undesigned coincidences is that they are like snowflakes--each one can be small by itself, they can be of different shapes and sizes, but when you get enough of them, you have ten feet of snow.

It's important when reading a book with a lot of them (and there are such books, because this type of argument was a fave with the old apologists) not to be put off if some of the individual examples don't grab you. There are enough that are significant to make a tough web of evidence indeed.

Anonymous said...

Lydia, is there a simple answer to Ed Babinski's claim that Markan priority and the evangelists' sloppy copying adequately explain the examples Tim gave - or is it necessary to address the examples one by one in order to refute him?

Lydia McGrew said...

(To the last commentator: Having clicked on your URL, I hope you won't mind my calling you "Mike." It would be hard to address you by your handle.)

Mike, see if this helps:

The simple answer is that Babinski literally doesn't seem to understand why this argument has force.

"Sloppy copying" is a terrible "explanation," for one thing, because in many cases the later gospels contain things that aren't in Mark at all. They would have to "just happen" to leave out a detail that would explain something they _deliberately chose to make up and add_. Think about that. If you were deliberately elaborating, making something up, and what you were adding was puzzling and unexplained without something in a book you were also copying, wouldn't you take care to copy the part that explained what you added? The "explanation" on the skeptic side here is just chance, chance, chance. It's no explanation at all. Luke, for example, is obviously not just engaging in "sloppy copying" when he says that the disciples didn't tell anyone about the transfiguration, because that isn't in Mark at all! And it's quite a striking coincidence that Luke would just _happen_ to leave out, sloppily, Mark's statement that Jesus told them to tell no one when that would make sense of what he (supposedly, on the "everything that isn't in Mark is made up" view) made up out of whole cloth and added, which is otherwise hanging out there and unexplained.

The more you work with these examples, the more you see how this works, so, yes, going over individual examples helps a lot. Perhaps my further discussion of the John example, above, will help as well.

Or consider the example about Philip's being from Bethsaida. There's nothing to do with sloppy copying here, or even elaboration of the same story, because John's statement that Philip was from Bethsaida *doesn't show up in the feeding of the five thousand at all*. It isn't there. It can't be an elaboration of that story. Luke mentions that it took place near Bethsaida and that Jesus asked Philip where they could buy bread. John in a *completely different place* mentions that Philip was from Bethsaida. This can't have anything to do with anybody's sloppily copying anybody else. Oh--and John doesn't even mention that Jesus says that to Philip! So we have a later Gospel incidentally, and in a different location, supplying a detail that explains a combination of details in an earlier Gospel! Babinski doesn't even _get_ this or the force of it.

So, yes, you do have to understand why the examples provide an argument for independence. It is therefore helpful to go through them and understand them on an individual basis. But once you get the hang of it, you'll see why someone who says the kinds of things Babinski is saying is literally not addressing the argument. His idea of "there's no argument here" is "I can make up some poor, ad hoc, purely chance hypothesis for this, and that satisfies me."

Lydia McGrew said...

Correction: That should be "Luke doesn't mention" that Jesus asked Philip. Luke mentions that the feeding took place in Bethsaida. Both the statement that Philip was from Bethsaida and that Jesus asked Philip where to buy bread are found in John, but *in different places*. If this is "elaboration," we would have to have John sort of coyly mentioning that Jesus asked Philip and then "planting" in a totally different location in his own Gospel the fact that Philip was from Bethsaida, but for some reason not mentioning "for he was from Bethsaida" (or something like that) in his account of the feeding, though that would make the tie-up clear. Presumably he would have had to plant these details in different places in his Gospel as a ploy, hoping some alert person would later notice the tie-up even though it was left scattered and obscure within his own Gospel. Once again, this is a worse explanation of the evidence than is the explanation that the event actually _happened_ in Bethsaida, that Jesus really asked Philip, and that John reports both that fact from memory and, elsewhere, the fact that Philip was from Bethsaida, but that John isn't making up either of them. This is, again, how ordinary people do recount events--that kind of casual confirmation and interconnection that comes out in conversation.

Mike said...

Thank you very much, Lydia, for the explanation.

And, yes, "Mike" is fine. I didn't understand the mechanics of this platform well enough to get my name to show up instead of my URL the first time.

By the way, I have a theory but I don't know how much scholarly support there might be for it. I am hoping you can tell me and point me in a direction.

The theory is that the apostles' mission from the beginning was an oral, not a literary, mission. This is confirmed by the book of Acts which only shows writing involved beginning with the Jerusalem council and then with Paul's letters (ironically tracing back to Paul's effective use of letters of authority to support his persecuting of Christians). Thus the stories of the days of Jesus' flesh were transmitted orally. They were written when they were written (that is, late) for three reasons: 1) Because of impending martyrdom and because of their advancing ages, it was decided that getting their testimony down in writing was important, 2) the oral tradition has spread to enough locations to generate interest in written versions and 3) the effectiveness of Paul's letters had by then demonstrated the value in ministering through written word. (The first reason being the most important of these three.)

Thus I believe that all four gospels were written independently but from a common oral tradition. This accounts for both their similarities and dissimilarities. The one tweak I have to this view is that John may have been familiar with one or more of the synoptics (or of the possible other gospels which Luke mentions in his preamble) and that this accounts for his different approach, emphasizing different things. To be more specific, I think the synoptics were all written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and John was written after - which largely accounts for the difference in emphasis.

So, what can you tell me about any scholarly support, or lack thereof, for this hypothesis? Thanks.

Lydia McGrew said...

Mike, I'd prefer to put you in touch with Tim and, as he has time, have him give you further info. That's a lot of scholarly issues you're raising. One thing to realize is that the field of NT studies is pretty profoundly messed up, so the mere fact that a majority of NT scholars think this or that means a lot less than it would in a more objective field.

As far as I know, it's certainly true that at the very outset the apostles were engaging in an oral ministry. I have some questions about saying that their ministry became literary only "late," but of course it depends upon what one means by "late." But consider that Luke gives us his reasons for his historical work, and they don't have to do with anyone's approaching death but rather with getting well-documented information to a catechumen.

I am definitely under the impression that the arguments for dating the synoptics post-70 have problems with them. To date them pre-70 is, however, often considered to be dating them "early," so again it's a question of how one thinks of "early" or "late." The patristic tradition regarding Mark is that it was taken down from Peter's preaching in Rome. A lot depends on when that preaching was going on.

Yes, certainly, there was a lot of oral memorizing, etc., that went on.

One interesting theory is that what is often referred to as Q may have been an early, Aramaic version of Matthew.

I have no problem with some dependence among the synoptics--with two having access to one, possibly Mark, and making use of that material. Luke, after all, makes it clear that others had written before he had, so there's no reason to think that he wasn't making use of that material.

The great thing about undesigned coincidences, though, is that they show that whatever dependence there was of that kind was cojoined with a significant amount of independence in sources--for example, Luke was probably interviewing people other than the writers of the other synoptics.

I think you're spot-on concerning John's apparently attempting to _avoid_ simply repeating what had already been done in the synoptics, and I know that Tim has some fascinating additional evidence on this point that I had never heard before.

Mike said...

Lydia, thanks for the very thoughtful reply.

I'm looking forward to whatever Tim has to say on the subject.

Just to clear up my definition of "late," I only mean not immediate. I certainly don't mean any of the goofy dating that puts the writing beyond the lifetimes of the apostles. To be specific, Wikipedia puts scholarly consensus on dating of Mark at 60-70, Matthew at 60-85, and Luke at 60-90. By "consensus" I assume (hope?) they mean a consensus of liberal and conversative scholars (as opposed to liberal only).

I consider even the earliest of those dates "late," because one of the common objections I encounter regarding the reliability of the gospels is that they were written decades after the events described. In some people's minds, this immediately discredits the gospels and connotes that people other than the apostles wrote them and that the gospels therefore could not possibly include eyewitness accounts at such a late date. As I was saying, I think there are good reasons why the gospels may not have been written until two or three decades after Christ rose without discrediting them in the least.

Of course, yet another reason for the apostles "putting off the writing of gospels" until later is you could reach so many more people so much more rapidly face to face than you could by writing. Modern skeptics have a hard time appreciating this priority because the opposite is true today.

Therefore, I meant "late" by 21st Century standards, not by 1st Century standards.

Thanks again for your time.

Lydia McGrew said...


Several different interesting things you raise, here, and I'm very largely in agreement.

On "scholarly consensus," two points:

First, even those NT scholars whom someone might call "conservative" within the field are not therefore automatically considering all options in a manner that isn't unbiased by what might be considered "liberal" sources or assumptions. For example, they may themselves be relying on earlier scholars whose insistence on (say) a post-70 dating was a result of the assumption that Jesus couldn't really have foretold the fall of Jerusalem; hence, that must have been a later addition. A living "conservative" scholar doesn't necessarily follow all that up when he adopts someone else's brisk summary of what "scholarship shows" or something like that. And that's just one example. The field is very, very badly messed up, and I wouldn't lay a lot of bets on a "conservative" label being a reliable indicator of consistently "conservative" approaches and due skepticism about the rest of the field. (I have known of an ostensibly "conservative"--indeed, quite conservative, even inerrantist--graduate with a NT degree who casually opined that "John changed the date of the crucifixion for theological purposes.")

Second, even those who wd. be designated as conservative NT scholars are only a small proportion of those in the field and have relatively little influence on what gets recorded as the consensus.

All of this just to insinuate the need for a grain of salt about the "consensus in NT studies."

But as far as your larger point, I am solidly in agreement that skeptics shd. not be allowed to get away with saying "decades" as if this somehow impugned the reliability of eyewitness character of the gospels. I was just making this point independently in an e-mail to someone recently before you said it. Quite right. If, for example, Mark really was taken down from Peter's preaching, then it's an eyewitness account regardless of its being written down "decades" (whoop-de) after the events. The same with Matthew and John. And Luke is an _incredibly_ careful historian and apparently a companion of Paul. If for some reason he waited until after Paul's death to write Luke-Acts (which I think he probably didn't, but waiving that), he's an extremely careful historian, companion of Paul, and a friend and interviewer of eyewitnesses anyway! The attempt to use the term "decades" as if it means that we have *no idea* who wrote the Gospels, where they got their information, or whether they are historically reliable is simply laughable, and you are quite right to question it.

If you will go here and get my e-mail address from that author page, you can e-mail me, and I'll put you in touch with Tim for some of that additional info. about the dating of the synoptics, John's "walking around" the synoptics, etc.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


I'd be very interested in the results of your e-mail interactions with Tim for your comments are thoughtful. Both Tim and Lydia are my friends, I dare to say; so I'm sure Tim would not mind if you reported (here or via e-mail) on the results of your interaction, or if you even forwarded it to me ("v" dot my surname AT "centrum" dot "cz").


Your comments on the args. from scholarly consensus in the NT studies and about even the conservatives sometimes relying on suspicious assessment of evidence seem just right to me (although I am a colt in the field).

Edward T. Babinski said...

I am composing a response to Tim.

I don't mind what he wrote, even when criticizing my "hobby horse," or the "sound and fury" of my piece, as he saw it. His allusion to Shakespeare was sweet, and Tim's C. S. Lewis-like manner of riposte was also a delight to read, especially when compared with the things that pass for riposte on the web these days.

So, please stay tuned,



Mike Gantt said...

Good comment, Ed.

I can't imagine what you'll bring in the way of defense, but your grace in the face of current circumstances is laudable.