Tim McGrew lectures on undesigned coincidences in the Bible

Dr. Tim McGrew
Dr. Tim McGrew

I have an interesting lecture for you to listen to today, by Dr. Tim McGrew. He is a professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University.

The MP3 file is here.

I do not have a summary of the lecture, but I do have an article that explains what undesigned coincidences are.

Lydia McGrew explains the concept of undesigned coincidences on her blog:

Undesigned coincidences in the Gospels … 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.

Basically, this argument finds cases where the same story is in two sources, but where some important detail is left out of one account so that something about the story seems out of place. But the other source has the missing detail that unlocks the mystery. This supports the view that the sources are independent witnesses of the same events. Multiple attestation is an indicator that the material is historical.

My favorite example of undesigned coincidences is the Philip example from John 6.

Lydia explains that example here:

As I was listening to Tim’s examples, I was struck by all the reasons there might be for a real eyewitness not to fill out the explanation for a detail. Think for example how tedious it is to listen to someone who goes back to explain every little detail he mentions in a story.

[…]Similarly, as John is telling the story about the feeding of the five thousand, it would be quite natural for him to say that Jesus asked Philip where they could buy bread if he were really an eyewitness–that is, because he remembered that Jesus did ask Philip. (Tim talks about why it was Philip in the interview.) But John himself might have had to stop and think for a moment if someone had asked him, “Why did Jesus ask Philip rather than any of the other disciples?” Presumably when John told the story, he wasn’t particularly thinking about some special reason for Jesus to select Philip for the question. But if someone were forging the story as fiction, he would have a reason for choosing to use a given disciple as a character at that point in his fictional narrative, and therefore he would be unlikely to choose that character without making the reason clearer to his readers.

All sorts of such things can happen when one is telling a true story, especially a story one has witnessed. One gets caught up in what one actually remembers and drops in incidental references to small facts, which facts are to some extent selected randomly by the memory as one brings the scene back to memory. This is typical of real memoirs but not of elaborate forgeries.

If you think this is interesting and useful, then give the lecture a listen.

5 thoughts on “Tim McGrew lectures on undesigned coincidences in the Bible”

  1. This makes me think of the process of statement analysis where investigators listen or read what was said and what was left out in order to determine whether the story being told is true or not. There is a distinct science to the method and someone who knows the principles can very accurately pick out the truth even in statements that seem inconclusive or mundane. Looking forward to listening to the interview.


  2. WK,

    I don’t know if anyone is familiar with the individuals who attempted to create a Gospel Harmony text., like the Diatessaron (see the following link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diatessaron). If so, then are there any modern or contemporary editions? If there are gospel harmony texts, then would they be considered heretical? I don’t believe this gospel harmony text should replace the Bible, but it would be an interesting read?


    1. RWL,

      Tatian’s Diatessaron blends elements from all four canonical Gospels into a single narrative. It certainly is an interesting read, though most scholars think that Tatian has made some faulty assumptions about order and length of time in the way that he puts the material together.

      The other sort of harmony of the Gospels arranges the complete texts of all four Gospels in parallel columns. It is well illustrated by A. T. Robertson’s Harmony of the Gospels for Students of the Life of Christ, which you can download here:

      Click to access harmonyofgospels00robe.pdf

      It is a valuable work to have at one’s elbow when studying the Gospels.


  3. Interesting lecture, Tim. I would have been interested in the mathematical expression of the cumulative force: is there a source you’d recommend?
    I am a fan of the overall approach, if nothing else because it encourages Christians to read their Bibles carefully!
    I do have some feedback on your specific claims in this presentation, however:
    You are constantly contrasting your approach with the claim that the Gospels are fiction or forgery. Does this run any risk of a false dichotomy? You also reiterate the idea that there are different authors, writing independently–but that seems a bit of begging the question. Both of these claims or themes seem to leave out the issue of the relationships among the Gospels, which is far more common than the position that they are outright forgeries. If one Gospel used another as a source, or two Gospels used a common source, then interrelations between them are not independent but are rather a function of redaction tendencies. Here’s how that plays out in a couple of your examples:
    1. The detail about blindfolding is in Mark as well. If Matthew is using Mark as a source, then the relation between Matthew’s account and the blindfolding detail is not independent, but rather depends on the tendency of Matthew’s use of Mark as a source. In fact, Matthew could be the one including detail relative to his source, since Mark records simply “Prophesy,” which seems odd and incomplete without the content of the demanded prophecy, i.e., “who hit you?”
    2. Matt. 8 is in the same category: if Matthew is using Mark as a source here, then he is simply summarizing Mark’s account and streamlining details, but again they would not be independent interlocking accounts.

    Your comparison to fiction is also a bit off at one point: looking for connections between Moby Dick and Treasure Island is, to be blunt, a pretty poor analogy to the topic at hand, since they are about completely different events and characters, unlike the Gospels. But if we were to take fictional accounts of the same character, there might very well be interlocking details–which could be a function of later authors filling in details that seemed to them missing from earlier sources. Perhaps some more rigorous examination of fictional sources that are truly analogous to the Gospels would improve this and strengthen the case.

    Anyhow, thanks again for this kind of work. I’m simply trying to suggest ways in which the approach could be strengthened.


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