Tag Archives: Undesigned Coincidences

What are undesigned coincidences, and how are they used in apologetics?

Air Force TACPs confirm target locations with their map
Air Force TACPs confirm target locations with their map

When you’re reading the Bible, you may find passages in one book that are mysterious on their own, but then they make sense if you add missing details from a parallel account from a different source inside or even outside the Bible. I think these “undesigned coincidences” are helpful for answering the question of that skeptics often ask: “is the Bible history or myth?” Let’s see some examples.

So, there are two kinds of undersigned coincidences. In the “internal” kind, the clearing up is done by another source in the same book. In the external kind, the clearing up is done by a source outside the same book.

Here’s an article from Apologetics UK with some internal examples:

In John 6:1-7, we are told:

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Now, Philip is a fairly minor character in the New Testament. And one might, naturally, be inclined to wonder why Jesus hasn’t turned to someone a little higher in the pecking order (such as Peter or John). A partial clue is provided in John 1:44: “Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.” Likewise, John 12:21 refers to “Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee”

And what is so significant about Philip being from the town of Bethsaida? We don’t learn this until we read the parallel account in Luke’s gospel (9:10-17). At the opening of the account (verses 10-11) we are told, “When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.”

And so, we are informed by Luke that the event was actually taking place in Bethsaida — the town from which Philip was from! Jesus thus turns to Philip, whom, he believed, would be familiar with the area. Notice too that Luke does not tell us that Jesus turned to Philip.

But it gets even more interesting still. In Matthew 11, Jesus denounces the unrepentant cities, saying, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” The reader is left wondering what miracles were performed in these cities. We are not told in Matthew’s gospel. It is only in light of Luke’s account of the feeding of the five thousand (chapter 9), in which we are told of the event’s occurrence in Bethsaida, that this statement begins to make sense!

This one is pretty clever:

In Matthew 2 6:67-68, we read, “Then they spat in His face and beat Him; and others struck Him with the palms of their hands, saying, “Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is the one who struck You?”” This raises the natural question, why are they asking “Who hit you?” It is not until we read the parallel account in Luke’s gospel (22:64) that we learn that they had blindfolded him, thereby making sense of their taunts “Who hit you?”

Another one:

In Luke 23:1-4, w e read,
Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”

So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”
On the surface, this seems to be a rather strange declaration to make. Jesus has just declared Himself to be a King, and has been charged with subverting the nation and opposing paying taxes to Caesar. Why has Pilate found no basis for a charge against him?

The answer lies in the parallel account in John’s gospel (18:33-38):

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.

It is only when you read John’s account that you learn that Jesus had told Pilate that “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

And the same article has some external undesigned coincidences:

In Matthew 2:22, we are told:

But when [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being waned by God in an dream, he left for the regions of Galilee…

Josephus’ Antiquities 17.3.1 tells us that the domain of Herod the Great was divided among his sons, with Archelaus having authority in Judea but not in Galilee, which was governed by his younger brother, Herod Antipas.

We also know that Archelaus had acquired quite a bloody reputation (e.g. Antiquities 17.13.1-2 and 17.9.3). The latter of these references describes how Archelaus slaughtered 3,000 Jews at Passover. Thus, Joseph decides not to return to Judea and, instead, goes further north to the regions of Galilee, governed by Herod Antipas.

And another one:

In Matthew 2:22, Archeleaus is reigning as king in Judea; in Matthew 27:2, Pilate is governor of Judea; in Acts 12:1, Herod is king of Judea; and in Acts 23:33, Felix is governor of Judea. This becomes extremely confusing.

But here’s the thing: Josephus attests to the accuracy of every one of these titles. Herod the Great was made King of Judea by Mark Anthony. Archelaus was deposed in the year 6 A.D., after only a ten-year reign, and a series of procurators ruled over Judea (of whom Pilate was fifth). The Herod of Acts 12 is Agrippa I. He was made king by Claudius Caesar. After his death, Judea was, once again, placed under the government of procurators (one of them being Felix).

And another one:

When Luke tells us of the riot in Ephesus, he reports that the city clerk tells the crowd that “There are proconsuls”. A proconsul is a Roman authority to whom a complaint may be taken. Normally, there was only one proconsul. Just at that particular time, however, there seems to have been two as a result of the assassination of Silanus (the previous proconsul) by poisoning in the Fall of AD 54, by the two imperial stewards at the urging of Nero’s mother. This event is independently documented by Tacitus in his Annals (13.1). Indeed, Luke’s accuracy has allowed historians to date the event which Luke narrates with incredible precision since we know when Silanus was poisoned.

If you think that these are clever, then share this post, and encourage your non-Christian friends and family to consider one of the many reasons why so many scholars have considered the New Testament books to be so reliable.

I wish that Christian parents and pastors were more thoughtful about how they present the Bible to young people. Instead of just saying “the Bible says” and praising blind faith acceptance of the Bible, why don’t we think a little harder, and look for some confirmation of the Bible from historical methods like undesigned coincidences, and from non-Biblical authors, and from archaeology, etc.? Surely adding more evidence for taking the Bible seriously is the right approach, if the goal is to be persuasive? It’s not like we’re see good results from the current “blind faith” approach to raising Christian children, right?

What are undesigned coincidences, and how are they used in apologetics?

Air Force TACPs confirm target locations with their map
Air Force TACPs confirm target locations with their map

When you’re reading the Bible, you may find passages in one book that are mysterious on their own, but then they make sense if you add missing details from a parallel account from a different source inside or even outside the Bible. I think these “undesigned coincidences” are helpful for answering the question of that skeptics often ask: “is the Bible history or myth?” Let’s see some examples.

So, there are two kinds of undersigned coincidences. In the “internal” kind, the clearing up is done by another source in the same book. In the external kind, the clearing up is done by a source outside the same book.

Here’s an article from Apologetics UK with some internal examples:

In John 6:1-7, we are told:

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Now, Philip is a fairly minor character in the New Testament. And one might, naturally, be inclined to wonder why Jesus hasn’t turned to someone a little higher in the pecking order (such as Peter or John). A partial clue is provided in John 1:44: “Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.” Likewise, John 12:21 refers to “Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee”

And what is so significant about Philip being from the town of Bethsaida? We don’t learn this until we read the parallel account in Luke’s gospel (9:10-17). At the opening of the account (verses 10-11) we are told, “When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.”

And so, we are informed by Luke that the event was actually taking place in Bethsaida — the town from which Philip was from! Jesus thus turns to Philip, whom, he believed, would be familiar with the area. Notice too that Luke does not tell us that Jesus turned to Philip.

But it gets even more interesting still. In Matthew 11, Jesus denounces the unrepentant cities, saying, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” The reader is left wondering what miracles were performed in these cities. We are not told in Matthew’s gospel. It is only in light of Luke’s account of the feeding of the five thousand (chapter 9), in which we are told of the event’s occurrence in Bethsaida, that this statement begins to make sense!

This one is pretty clever:

In Matthew 2 6:67-68, we read, “Then they spat in His face and beat Him; and others struck Him with the palms of their hands, saying, “Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is the one who struck You?”” This raises the natural question, why are they asking “Who hit you?” It is not until we read the parallel account in Luke’s gospel (22:64) that we learn that they had blindfolded him, thereby making sense of their taunts “Who hit you?”

Another one:

In Luke 23:1-4, w e read,
Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”

So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”
On the surface, this seems to be a rather strange declaration to make. Jesus has just declared Himself to be a King, and has been charged with subverting the nation and opposing paying taxes to Caesar. Why has Pilate found no basis for a charge against him?

The answer lies in the parallel account in John’s gospel (18:33-38):

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.

It is only when you read John’s account that you learn that Jesus had told Pilate that “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

And the same article has some external undesigned coincidences:

In Matthew 2:22, we are told:

But when [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being waned by God in an dream, he left for the regions of Galilee…

Josephus’ Antiquities 17.3.1 tells us that the domain of Herod the Great was divided among his sons, with Archelaus having authority in Judea but not in Galilee, which was governed by his younger brother, Herod Antipas.

We also know that Archelaus had acquired quite a bloody reputation (e.g. Antiquities 17.13.1-2 and 17.9.3). The latter of these references describes how Archelaus slaughtered 3,000 Jews at Passover. Thus, Joseph decides not to return to Judea and, instead, goes further north to the regions of Galilee, governed by Herod Antipas.

And another one:

In Matthew 2:22, Archeleaus is reigning as king in Judea; in Matthew 27:2, Pilate is governor of Judea; in Acts 12:1, Herod is king of Judea; and in Acts 23:33, Felix is governor of Judea. This becomes extremely confusing.

But here’s the thing: Josephus attests to the accuracy of every one of these titles. Herod the Great was made King of Judea by Mark Anthony. Archelaus was deposed in the year 6 A.D., after only a ten-year reign, and a series of procurators ruled over Judea (of whom Pilate was fifth). The Herod of Acts 12 is Agrippa I. He was made king by Claudius Caesar. After his death, Judea was, once again, placed under the government of procurators (one of them being Felix).

And another one:

When Luke tells us of the riot in Ephesus, he reports that the city clerk tells the crowd that “There are proconsuls”. A proconsul is a Roman authority to whom a complaint may be taken. Normally, there was only one proconsul. Just at that particular time, however, there seems to have been two as a result of the assassination of Silanus (the previous proconsul) by poisoning in the Fall of AD 54, by the two imperial stewards at the urging of Nero’s mother. This event is independently documented by Tacitus in his Annals (13.1). Indeed, Luke’s accuracy has allowed historians to date the event which Luke narrates with incredible precision since we know when Silanus was poisoned.

If you think that these are clever, then share this post, and encourage your non-Christian friends and family to consider one of the many reasons why so many scholars have considered the New Testament books to be so reliable.

I wish that Christian parents and pastors were more thoughtful about how they present the Bible to young people. Instead of just saying “the Bible says” and praising blind faith acceptance of the Bible, why don’t we think a little harder, and look for some confirmation of the Bible from historical methods like undesigned coincidences, and from non-Biblical authors, and from archaeology, etc.? Surely adding more evidence for taking the Bible seriously is the right approach, if the goal is to be persuasive? It’s not like we’re see good results from the current “blind faith” approach to raising Christian children, right?

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.

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.

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.