Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts--a sample

Here is a recording of a talk I gave on March 29 about undesigned coincidences in the gospels and Acts.


James Pate said...

Thank you for sharing this presentation, Lydia! I have four points. Two are actually questions.

1. You are arguing against the view that the Gospel authors are fabricating stories and making characters do things; at one point, you differentiate a Gospel (John, I think) from a novel. That said, do you still think that ideology or literary considerations may be shaping how the Gospel authors select, organize, and present their material? They may be drawing from facts, but could Matthew be selecting and organizing the facts in such a way that it conforms to his distinct view on Jesus, etc.?

2. This next question follows from (1.): is the choice between all or nothing? Could the Gospels contain facts, and that would explain the undesigned coincidences, but also things that are not factual?

3. I checked out the grammar John 21:15 ("do you love me more than these?"). "These" is in the genitive. I came across an article----J. Harold Greenlee, "'More Than These?', John 21:15," Journal of Translation, Volume 1 (2005) 19-20----and it argues that the passage more likely means "Do you love me more than your fishing business." The "these," in that case, would refer to the fish and the wealth they can bring.

4. I am not surprised that fundamentalist churches would pick up on undesigned coincidences. As you say, some are not obvious. But a fundamentalist trying to understand Paul's reference to Timothy in a letter would probably check what Acts says, since he or she considers that historical.

Lydia McGrew said...

In answer to 1, my answer is that the authors of course select material for particular reasons. As John said, the whole world couldn't contain the books if everything Jesus did and said were written down. But I would contend that we have _zero_ evidence that they ever organize, select, or present material in a way that is _deliberately misleading_ concerning a matter of fact. For example, I don't think that one author shortens up a story in a particular way *trying to give the impression* that the details he left out *didn't happen*. I don't think that we have any evidence that a gospel author deliberately tries to "make it look like" some event happened at a time when either a) he knows it didn't happen or b) he has reason to believe it didn't happen. So at this point I'm cautious about giving an unqualified "yes" even to your question #1 because I believe that there are even fairly conservative scholars out there (or so they are thought of) who are taking that kind of thing and running with it in what I would consider a "fictionalizing" direction. There's a difference, for example, between collecting Jesus' sayings on a particular topic without making any attempt to give the impression that he said them all at the same time and "displacing" a saying of Jesus in a deliberate attempt to imply that he said it at a different time. I think all those distinctions have to be carefully maintained.

To answer your number 2: In terms of strict logical possibility, it is _possible_ for some book to contain both facts and also fiction. However, I believe I answered a question like this in the Q & A. I will have to check to see if it made it into what was recorded. In brief, what I said there is that we have undesigned coincidences _all over the place_ in the gospels--in various parts of Jesus' ministry, various types of events, miracles and non-miracles, and so forth. At that point we have every reason to believe that we have a representative sample. It becomes at that point incredibly difficult to think what there could be that is some "historical core" that explains such _detailed_ coincidences concerning such a _variety_ of data points while holding that the gospels also contain deliberate fictionalization. If they do, where is it? Does it just _happen_ to be in the places where we don't have undesigned coincidences? That would be sort of like saying that if you sampled a loaf of bread from the back, the front, and several places in the middle and found it all good, that maybe, just maybe, the parts you just _happened_ not to sample were riddled with mold. It becomes an arbitrary claim.

To #3: The fact that "these" is in the genitive should actually argue _for_ the more widespread (and I think correct) interpretation that Jesus is asking about Peter's love as contrasted with that of the other disciples. The verb, agape, takes the accusative, and that is the case of "me." If "these" were some other object of the verb that Peter might love more, it should also be in the accusative.

To #4: I'm not surprised either. That was my point, which I might not have made perfectly clear: If anyone were going to reinvent the wheel on this, it would be those really steeped in the text. The only countervailing consideration is that most fundamentalist churches tend to be presuppositionalist nowadays, so they would be less likely to think of the coincidences as apologetically valuable. They are rather just matters of "cool" Bible knowledge.

James Pate said...

You could be right on #3, albeit for different grammatical reasons. I did a search on pleion (which I should have done before making my first comment), and I came across Luke 21:3. The point there is that the poor widow gave more than the others gave. That would be consistent with your interpretation of John 21:15.

I'm still processing your responses to my first two questions. I may comment later.

Unknown said...

This isn't precisely on topic, but I was wondering what a probability theorist would think of this article that gives a probabilistic argument against miracles:

"...if Jesus’s resurrection is the ‘disease’ and the witness report is the ‘test’, we can now do the algebra to decide whether to believe in the resurrection. The base rate for the resurrection is (let’s say) one in 1 billion. The witnesses go wrong only one time in 100,000. One billion divided by 100,000 is 10,000. So, even granting the existence of extraordinary witnesses, the chance that they were right about the resurrection is only one in 10,000; hardly the basis for a justified belief."

I'm not familiar with probability theory so I can't tell where his reasoning goes wrong.

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, it's not on-topic, but I'll answer it here. (In the future, feel free to look up my e-mail address on my author page at What's Wrong With the and send me an otherwise OT question by e-mail.)

The author goes wrong because the resurrection was not, if it occurred, some sort of spontaneous but random event the probability of which is set by a "base rate," like a disease. If it occurred, it was a personal act of God. This argument would be like talking about the number of times you propose to some woman or other in the population, setting a "base rate" by that means, and then disbelieving your fiance because you were so unlikely to propose to a randomly selected woman, so (allegedly) you were unlikely to propose to her! She must have just made a mistake. (People do make mistakes sometimes, yada, yada.) The prior probability for the resurrection should thus be decided on the basis of completely different considerations, such as what other evidence we have about Jesus, whether Old Testament Judaism has independent support, whether Jesus seems to have been the Messiah (based on other evidence aside from the reports of the resurrection), and so forth.

The author also goes wrong because the question of whether the witnesses made an error should _also_ not be estimated in some off-the-cuff fashion concerning "how often witnesses go wrong." Rather, the specific circumstances of _these_ testimonies have to be taken into account to see if _these_ testimonies are well-explained by their "going wrong." That gets us into discussing alternative hypotheses such as hallucination, error, lying etc., which do a terrible job of explaining these testimonies in this historical context.

Thomas Henry Larsen said...

// Should we believe someone who claims to have witnessed a miracle if his or her testimony has a chance of only one in 100,000 of being wrong? //

// The base rate for the resurrection is (let’s say) one in 1 billion. The witnesses go wrong only one time in 100,000. One billion divided by 100,000 is 10,000. So, even granting the existence of extraordinary witnesses, the chance that they were right about the resurrection is only one in 10,000; hardly the basis for a justified belief. //

Additionally, it appears that Shapiro ignores differences in evidential weight of testimonies of multiple witnesses compared to the single testimony of a single witness.

Tony said...

The base rate for the resurrection is (let’s say) one in 1 billion.

The base rate for coming alive after having been dead is, in today's world, considerably higher than 1 in 1 billion. There are, at a low-ball estimate, at least 500 persons in the US, UK, and Australia who have experienced this. At the time of Jesus's resurrection, there had recently been 2 cases just within Israel alone, probably 2 in less than 2 million.

If Shapiro means resurrection with a glorified body, of course, there is no extant example available for study. But when there are no examples, you can't say that the number is 1 in a billion, or 1 in 100 billion, you can't say. When there are no examples, it is not true that the correct odds are 0 in 7 billion, the correct statement would be "we don't know".

But the better answer is what Lydia says: the author is making a category mistake between random events and miracles.