Sunday, May 03, 2015

An undesigned coincidence involving John 6

Those who read my apologetics work know my fondness for the so-old-it's-new argument from undesigned coincidences. I'm feeling too lazy right now to scare up the links to all the posts that I and Esteemed Husband have written on this subject, so I'll have to leave it to readers to Google them or use the "evidentialism" and "apologetics" tags here and at W4 to find mine. Some of my older ones have links to a series of six posts that Tim did on undesigned coincidences (in Acts). I have more written work in the pipeline on this argument--one scholarly article using probability theory and possibly a layman-level book manuscript.

As I have been filling out further a chart originally begun by my husband Tim on undesigned coincidences in the gospels, thinking about what to include in a longer manuscript, I have hesitated to include in such a book-length treatment the UC I plan to discuss in this post. The reason for my hesitation is that this particular UC involves us immediately in some intra-Christian disagreement about interpretation.

I was always taught as a Baptist (both in church and at Bible college) that Jesus' discourse on "eating his flesh" and "drinking his blood" in John 6 had nothing whatsoever to do with Communion. It was just an elaborate metaphor for believing in him with saving faith, and nothing more, period.

In part, my change from memorialist to sacramentalist on the significance of Holy Communion was occasioned by the realization that this insistence is simply interpretively insupportable. To argue that Jesus meant nothing about the Last Supper and hence Communion by the discourse in John 6 is to assert that his use of the same terminology in both places is pure coincidence. But from the sheer perspective of human communication, this must be false. There is no way in the world that Jesus just happened to speak of eating his flesh and drinking his blood in both places, but that in one place it referred purely to believing on him, without even mysteriously foreshadowing his later establishment of the rite of Communion, while in the other place it referred to taking Communion as (on the memorialist view) a purely symbolic act showing one's remembrance of his death.

It seems beyond doubt that the disciples, who must have thought the John 6 discourse very odd (some previous followers forsook Jesus altogether over it), would have remembered his words when he later spoke almost exactly the same words at the Last Supper. In the former case he stresses the importance of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In the latter case he actually hands them bread and wine and tells them to go ahead and eat and drink, because this is his body and blood. It is extremely likely that the disciples at the Last Supper would have thought something like, "Aha, this must be telling us more about that weird stuff he was saying a couple of years ago about eating his flesh and drinking his blood." Even without any worked-out sacramental theology, they would of course have associated the two sayings of Jesus and would have taken them to be about the same thing.

Moreover, we know that Jesus often did say things that his disciples only understood later. For example, his reference to Jonah in the belly of the whale was a prophecy of his resurrection. His reference to raising up the temple after three days was likewise a reference to the resurrection. His teaching about the Comforter was probably confusing to them, though not unclear in itself, prior to the day of Pentecost.

It would be possible for a memorialist to acknowledge that the disciples would have back-solved the John 6 discourse as an allusion to Communion while retaining his memorialism. Presumably such a memorialist would say that, yes, it was about the Lord's Supper, but it was simply about the particular memorial act of obedience in the Lord's Supper.

I do not think that is satisfactory as an interpretation of John 6 either, because of the peculiar urgency and explicitness of Jesus in his discussion. Jesus insists that you have no life in you if you don't do this act, whatever it is, of eating his flesh. But memorialists don't believe anything like that about the urgency and theological importance and efficacy of taking Communion, even though of course they can be very respectful and solemn about it. (Some memorialists are even more respectful of Communion than some in allegedly sacramental denominations, but I'll say no more about that right now.)

But regardless of whether I consider that a satisfactory interpretation of John 6, it is at least not crazily, wildly implausible, as is the insistence that John 6 isn't about Communion at all at all no no no.

This leads me to the slightly wan hope that I could give this undesigned coincidence to any audience, whether memorialist or sacramentalist, and have it seen as valuable rather than as divisive. But probably not.

So I'll just give it in this post, because I think it has merit. And it is just this: It's a remarkable fact that the Gospel of John does not record the institution of the Lord's Supper. It's amazing how many years I was a Christian without realizing this. John, of all authors! John the theological, John the observant, John who tells us so much else about the night in which Jesus was betrayed, does not record the institution of the Lord's Supper. Instead, John gives a vivid account of Jesus' act of washing his disciples' feet, which is found nowhere in the synoptic gospels. On the other side, the synoptic gospels all contain an account of the institution of the Lord's Supper, including Jesus' words "this is my body" and "this is my blood" and his injunction to the disciples to eat and drink thereof, but they do not contain any parallel of the passage in John 6 in which Jesus says that you have no life in you unless you eat of the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood (vs. 53).

If John had made up the discourse in John 6, it seems undeniable that he did so as a deliberate parallel to the institution of the Lord's Supper found in the synoptics. But in that case, why did he not include the fulfillment of Christ's words? One would, in fact, almost expect him to include not only the Last Supper but some sort of allusion back to what Jesus had said earlier, tying the two passages together. But John's selection interests are different, he is not writing a piece of literary fiction but a piece of memoir-like history, and he includes the discourse but not the Institution. This is to my mind a strong indication that the discourse really occurred and that John included it because he knew that it really occurred. The discourse and the Last Supper fit together as question and answer. Why did Jesus say these strange things in John 6? Because, as was his wont, he was both stretching his audience with somewhat mysterious utterances, demanding that his followers trust him that all would be made clearer in time, and foretelling his institution of the Lord's Supper and teaching its importance in the life of the Church and the individual believer. The discourse itself answers a different kind of question: Would Jesus do something so cryptic as institute the Lord's Supper in the words he used without giving the disciples any more teaching on the matter? Of course, John himself emphasizes that Jesus did and said many things that are not recorded, many more than could be recorded, and it is entirely possible that Jesus taught the disciples more, perhaps during the forty days after his resurrection, about how they were to practice the Lord's Supper and baptism after his ascension. I consider that entirely plausible. But if we actually have teaching from Jesus about the Lord's Supper in John 6, that passage itself partly fills the apparent gap left by the brevity of his remarks on Maundy Thursday.

So the synoptic accounts of the Last Supper and the discourse in John 6 fit together in the classic way that we find in many undesigned coincidences--missing pieces supplied by each passage to fill out the whole picture, questions raised by one passage and answered in the other.

This is, like it or not, evidence of the veracity of the gospel accounts. While one will have to decide on a case-by-case basis when to include it or leave it out in any given presentation, it deserves to be examined and known, despite its apparently anti-ecumenical implications.


Anonymous said...

Is there a site containing a complete (or near-complete) list of undesigned coincidences? I've always wondered how many there were.

Lydia McGrew said...

Not that I know of, because there are so many. Also, different authors emphasize different books. However, Paley's Horae Paulinae has a near-complete list for the Pauline epistles and Acts, and Blunt's gospel section of his book Undesigned Coincidences has a near-complete list for the gospels. (With Blunt, I don't agree with all of them. For example, there is one that is based on a probable textual error--things like that.)

Lydia McGrew said...

I don't think I have seen this one listed anywhere else. As far as I recall, I'm the first one to publish it. This may be because the older authors urging the UC argument were Protestant, but I think at the most this would have made it less likely that they would have noticed it. I don't think they would have suppressed it had they noticed it. Moreover, Blunt was Anglican and may not have been a strict memorialist.

Joost said...

Really interesting, Lydia, and good to hear that you publish this argument. I regard the argument from undesigned coincidences as the most straightforward argument for the Gospels being independent eyewitness accounts, and it's a good thing that it gets more attention - I always wondered what someone like Craig Keener or Richard Bauckham would think of the argument?

Another example of an undesigned coincidence in John's account of the Last Supper is John's mentioning of the washing of the feet by Jesus, whereas Luke mentions (Luke 22:24) that 'a dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.' The washing of the feet seems to be the affirmation of the words of Jesus, only stated in Luke, that He is among the disciples as 'one who serves.'

I do not recall whether Blunt mentions this undesigned coincidence, though.

Lydia McGrew said...

It looks like Blunt does not have that one, Joost, about the foot washing. I have it in a chart that was given to me by Tim. I don't know if Tim found it himself or found it in a different old book.

That one is neat because it can be thought of as a double whammy: Luke explains why Jesus washed their feet. John explains why Jesus says, in Luke, "I am among you as one who serves." One might otherwise take it just to be a general claim Jesus was making as recorded in Luke, but in fact it explicitly refers to what he has just done--clothing himself as a servant and washing their feet.

Another double whammy undesigned coincidence is also found in the accounts of Jesus, the Jewish leaders, and Pilate in Luke and John. Luke shows Pilate asking Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus does not deny it but gives an ambiguous (or cheeky) answer, "Thou sayest." Pilate then says that he finds no fault in him! Only John explains that Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world." In the other direction, John records that Pilate asks, "Are you the king of the Jews?" but does not show why Pilate would ask such a thing, while Luke records that the Jewish leaders had accused him of declaring himself to be a king.

Patrick said...


When and where will your article and your book be available?

Lydia McGrew said...

Patrick, no idea right now. The article is finished. It is intended for an anthology involving probability and further arguments for the resurrection, but the editors of that anthology are seeking an interested publisher right now. If no volume publisher is forthcoming, I will probably seek publication in a journal; however, it is very long, so that could be a problem.

The potential book as yet exists more in my mind than in actuality. I've barely begun chapter 1 and have no idea what success I will have finding a conventional publisher, especially since I am not on the speaking circuit (and have no desire to be).

Patrick said...


Are there in your article undesigned coincidences that have not yet been published elsewhere?

Lydia McGrew said...

Patrick, it depends on what you mean by "published." Tim in his talks certainly discusses the UC concerning the charge against Jesus in Luke and Pilate's saying that he "finds no fault" in Jesus in John, though I have been unable to find this UC in any book. Tim doesn't recall right now where he found it first. So in that sense, that and several others that Tim gives are unpublished, and some of these are in my article. Even more would be in a book-length treatment.

Most of them are "out there somewhere," either in the form of Tim's talks on Brian Auten's Apologetics 315 page, in Blunt or Paley or one of the other old authors, or on this blog, as in the case of this entry and the one that I just put up today concerning the UC I just found last night using the NASB translation.

These are scattered here and there, though.

Patrick said...


I’m only interested in undesigned coincidences that are published in books or articles. I’ve already found a number of such contributions. If you don’t mind I would like to know the title of your article and to which categories of Biblical books (Gospels, Book of Acts, Pauline letters, other New Testament letters, Book of Revelation) the undesigned coincidences in it refer. The contributions I’ve mentioned are the following ones:

William Paley, Horæ Paulinæ, or The truth of the Scripture history of St. Paul evinced, By a comparison of the epistles which bear his name, with the Acts of the Apostles, and with one another, London 1790.

Richard Graves, Lectures on the four last books of the Pentateuch; designed to show the divine origin of the Jewish Religion; chiefly from internal evidence. In three parts, 8th ed., London 1850, pp. 1-103.

J. J. Blunt, The Veracity of the Gospels & Acts of the Apostles, argued from the undesigned coincidences ... 1. with each other and 2. with Josephus, London 1828.

J. J. Blunt, The Veracity of the Five Books of Moses, argued from the undesigned coincidences to be found in them, when compared in their several parts, London 1830.

J. J. Blunt, Hulsean Lectures for the Year 1831: The veracity of the historical books of the Old Testament, from the conclusion of the Pentateuch to the opening of the Prophets, argued from the undesigned coincidences to be found in them ... Being a continuation of the argument for The Veracity of the Five Books of Moses, London 1832.

Edward Biley, A Supplement to the Horæ Paulinæ of Archdeacon Paley; wherein his argument from undesigned coincidences is applied to the Epistle of Hebrews and the first Epistle of Peter; and shewing the former to have been written by the Apostle Paul, London 1845.

William Paley and T. R. Birks, Horæ Paulinæ; or, The truth of the Scripture history of St. Paul evinced, By a comparison of the epistles which bear his name, with the Acts of the Apostles, and with one another, by William Paley, D. D. With notes and a supplementary treatise entitled Horæ Apostolicæ, by the Rev. T. R. Birks, A. M., London 1850.

J. J. Blunt, Undesigned coincidences in the writings of the Old and the New Testament, an argument of their veracity: with an appendix, containing undesigned coincidences between the Gospels and Acts, and Josephus, 9th ed., London 1869

A. R. Fausset, Studies in the CL. Psalms: Their undesigned coincidences with the independent Scripture histories confirming and illustrating both, London 1876.

Edmund H. Bennett, The Four Gospels from a Lawyer’s Standpoint, Boston and New York 1899.

Adolf Harnack, Lukas der Arzt: Der Verfasser des dritten Evangeliums und der Apostelgeschichte (Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Neue Testament 1), Leipzig 1906.

Theodor Zahn, Einleitung in das Neue Testament, vol. 2, 3rd ed., Leipzig 1907.

Adolf Harnack, Die Apostelgeschichte (Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Neue Testament 3), Leipzig 1908.

Adolf Harnack, Neue Untersuchungen zur Apostelgeschichte und zur Abfassungszeit der synoptischen Evangelien (Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Neue Testament 4), Leipzig 1911.

Alfred Wikenhauser, Die Apostelgeschichte und ihr Geschichtswert (Neutestamentliche Abhandlungen 8/3-5), Münster i. W. 1921.

Henry J. Cadbury, The Book of Acts in History, London 1955.

Richard Glover, “’Luke the Antiochene’ and Acts”, in: New Testament Studies 11 (1964), pp. 97-106.

John Wenham, “Did Peter go to Rome in AD 42?”, in: Tyndale Bulletin 23 (1972), pp. 94-102.

Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (WUNT 49), Tübingen 1989.

F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introdution and Commentary, 3rd ed., Leicester 1990.

F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, 8th ed., Leicester 2003.

If you know some more I would be very grateful if you let me know.

Lydia McGrew said...


I have just looked over the article. One of the UCs in it was taken from the Birks Horae Apostolicae, included as an appendix to Birks's edition of Paley. The two surrounding Jesus' trial and concerning Jesus and Pilate have not been published in any book or article *that I was able to find find*, though Tim talks about them frequently and is pretty sure he did not find them de novo.

In several places I have expanded or modified Blunt's or Paley's arguments even when they give the core of a particular UC.

My article concerns the gospels and Acts. I keep the number of UCs limited in order to spend some time doing a probabilistic analysis of their confirmation of the hypothesis that the gospels and Acts are memoirs.

My rather boring working title of the article is "A Probabilistic Consideration of Some Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts." It is unclear whether the volume for which it is intended will be published. A publisher for the volume as a whole is still being sought.

Patrick said...


Thank you very much. As for the two yet unpublished UCs in your article I presume the one about Jesus and Pilate is the one you’ve presented in your third comment here. Could you please tell me what the content of the other one is?

Patrick said...

As for contributions containing UCs presented above in some of them there are just a few UCs scattered in the respective books. Here are the page references to these UCs:

Adolf Harnack, Lukas der Arzt: Der Verfasser des dritten Evangeliums und der Apostelgeschichte (Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Neue Testament 1), Leipzig 1906, pp. 2, 14.

Theodor Zahn, Einleitung in das Neue Testament, vol. 2, 3rd ed., Leipzig 1907, pp. 248, 249f.

Adolf Harnack, Die Apostelgeschichte (Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Neue Testament 3), Leipzig 1908, p. 103.

Adolf Harnack, Neue Untersuchungen zur Apostelgeschichte und zur Abfassungszeit der synoptischen Evangelien (Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Neue Testament 4), Leipzig 1911, pp. 20f.

Alfred Wikenhauser, Die Apostelgeschichte und ihr Geschichtswert (Neutestamentliche Abhandlungen 8/3-5), Münster i. W. 1921, pp. 230f, 233f, 239, 258-260, 263, 264f.

Henry J. Cadbury, The Book of Acts in History, London 1955, p. 125.

Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (WUNT 49), Tübingen 1989, pp. 181-190.

F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introdution and Commentary, 3rd ed., Leicester 1990, pp. 48-52.

F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, 8th ed., Leicester 2003, chapter 4.

The last book mentioned here contains an UC in the chapter about the Gospels. It is presented in the following quote from the book:

“In fact, John's record, by its recurring mention of periodic festivals, provides a helpful chronological framework for the Synoptic narrative, which is lacking in chronological indications for the period between Jesus' baptism and His last visit to Jerusalem. Mark does mention that there was much 'green grass' around when the five thousand were fed (vi. 39); this accords well with the statement of John vi. 4 that this took place shortly before the Passover (of 17 April, AD 29).”

The books written by Zahn and Harnack have been translated into English, the one written by Wikenhauser hasn’t. All of these books written in German contain UCs of the kind Paley could have published, in fact in Wikenhauser’s book there is on p. 239 a UC that is identical to one that Paley presented in his Horæ Paulinæ. However it seems to me that none of these authors was aware of his book. At least there is no reference to it in any of these books and nowhere does the expression “undesigned coincidences” turn up. This is not true with respect to the other books mentioned here. Cadbury, Bruce and Hemer knew Paley’s book.

Lydia McGrew said...

It looks like I gave both concerning Luke-John, Jesus and Pilate, in that comment, though I admit that the way they fit together might make them seem like one. Here's how they are two:

1) Luke's gospel raises the question, "Why does Pilate say that he finds no fault in Jesus, even though Jesus does not deny the charge that he is the king of the Jews, which should have been a problem that Rome had to take note of?" John answers this question by the portion of the dialogue not recorded in Luke in which Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world and that his servants are not going to fight.

2) John leaves out the charge of sedition altogether, yet has Pilate ask Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" This raises the question, "Why does Pilate ask this question if no such charge has been brought?" Luke answers the question by showing the Jewish leaders telling Pilate that Jesus has forbidden to give tribute to Caesar and has said that he himself is a king.

Anonymous said...

Dear Lydia and Tim,
Your work in this area is very encouraging and helpful- many thanks :)
Jean-Marc Alter