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Blog / How the Bible’s Obscure “Coincidences” Demonstrate Its Reliability: An Interview with Lydia McGrew

How the Bible’s Obscure “Coincidences” Demonstrate Its Reliability: An Interview with Lydia McGrew

Lydia McGrewHow do seemingly unrelated details in different books of the Bible come together to form undesigned coincidences that strongly support the eyewitness nature of these books and the overall accuracy of the Bible?

Bible Gateway interviewed Lydia McGrew about her book, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (DeWard Publishing, 2017).

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What do you mean by “undesigned coincidences”?

Lydia McGrew: An undesigned coincidence is an incidental interlocking between reports that points to truth.

Give two or three examples of undesigned coincidences.

Lydia McGrew: It’s often easiest to see what an undesigned coincidence is from examples. In Matthew 14:2 Herod is musing about who Jesus can be, and he says that maybe Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead. Only Matthew mentions that Herod made this guess to his servants. This might make us wonder how Matthew knew what Herod was saying to his servants. Was this detail something Matthew made up? But in Luke 8:3 we find a list of women who were Jesus’ followers and contributed to his ministry, and among these is Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward! This is a very plausible route by which Jesus’ followers might have learned about what was going on behind the scenes in Herod’s household. But Luke isn’t talking about Herod or about John the Baptist. It’s a completely different context. And Matthew doesn’t give any explanation of how he knows what Herod is saying to his servants.

Here’s another: In Acts 18:5 Paul is in Corinth preaching, and at first he’s working as a tentmaker much of the time and preaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. But verse 5 says that, when Timothy and Silas came down from Macedonia, Paul became completely devoted to the word, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. Of course, Paul was always completely devoted to the word, so what difference did the arrival of Silas and Timothy make? Acts doesn’t explain. But over in 2 Corinthians 11:8-9, Paul is pointing out how careful he was not to take money from the Corinthians. He reminds them that he was never a burden to them while he was there and that, when he needed money, the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied it. This means that, while Paul was ministering in Corinth, some men came and brought money to him from Macedonia. This fits beautifully with Acts 18:5. This type of connection indicates that the author of Acts knew Paul’s ministry model at particular times. When Timothy and Silas arrived, Paul could preach every day. He didn’t have to work at his tentmaking during the week, because they brought financial support for him. But we have to infer that from 2 Corinthians. Acts doesn’t mention that they brought a contribution.

Here’s one from the Old Testament: 2 Samuel 15 and following shows Ahitophel as the counselor who cooperated with Absalom in his revolt against David. But Ahitophel had previously been one of David’s own counselors. Why did he turn against him? 2 Samuel 11:3 mentions the small fact that Bathsheba, whom David seduced and dishonored, and whose husband Uriah he killed, was the daughter of Eliam. Then way over in 2 Samuel 23:34-39, we learn from a list of David’s mighty men that Eliam was the son of Ahitophel! So Bathsheba was Ahitophel’s granddaughter, which could well explain why Ahitophel had a grudge and led a rebellion against David eventually. (This coincidence is not in my book, because I’m writing there only about the Gospels and Acts.)

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, The Undeniable Reliability of Scripture: An Interview with Josh McDowell]

How do these coincidences show that the Bible is reliable?

Lydia McGrew: When we start seeing again and again that the accounts fit together in these subtle ways, we’re reasonably confident that they’re reliable. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t expect to find this kind of jigsaw puzzle pattern. That’s what we do find in truthful witness testimony. Reality, of course, fits together, and when different witnesses tell about it, they notice different things and remember different things, and putting what they say together produces a more complete picture. If they were just making stuff up or relying on poor information, this would not happen.

What can we learn about the authors of the books from these coincidences?

Lydia McGrew: We learn first of all that they knew what they were talking about. These accounts aren’t made up of rumors and legends. In some cases, like the Gospels of John and Matthew, the authors may have been eyewitnesses themselves. I think undesigned coincidences support the conclusion that the author of Acts was a companion of Paul.

We also learn that they intended to be truthful in a normal sense of the word. Sometimes one reads that ancient people didn’t care very much about accuracy in reporting and that such a concern, applied to the books of the Bible, is anachronistic. I think that’s false, and undesigned coincidences show that it’s false. The authors of the Gospels and Acts were trying to get it right in the same sense that we might say someone is trying to get it right today.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Why Trust the Bible?: An Interview with Greg Gilbert]

Can you prove that the Bible is true from an undesigned coincidence?

Lydia McGrew: I wouldn’t say “prove,” because I would tend to reserve the idea of proof for something like a deductive or mathematical demonstration. What we can say is that even a single undesigned coincidence is evidence for the truth of the accounts involved.

What do you mean when you say that the argument from undesigned coincidences is cumulative?

Lydia McGrew: A cumulative case is a set of evidence that comes together to support a particular conclusion. Sometimes just one item in the set might not be enough by itself to make you highly confident in that conclusion, but each item makes its own contribution in some way, and the whole case put together can be very strong.

These are arguments we make unconsciously for all kinds of facts in daily life, bringing together many small indications to make a strong case all together. The undesigned coincidences are like that. Each coincidence brings together various accounts, and that provides some evidence for the truth of the events involved and also for the reliability of the Bible.

Then we also see all the different coincidences coming together as well to provide more and more evidence that these accounts are trustworthy. Even if one single undesigned coincidence doesn’t fully convince you, when they keep piling up, you should be convinced.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Why God Uses Metaphors to Describe Himself: Guest Post by Lauren Winner]

Could these coincidences actually not mean anything?

Lydia McGrew: There’s always the logical possibility of a pure coincidence, but often this is pretty improbable. It’s possible that it’s just a coincidence that Matthew mentions what Herod was saying to his servants and that Luke mentions Chuza, Herod’s steward, as the husband of Jesus’ follower Joanna. But that’s not the way to bet.

This is also related to the cumulative case aspect. How many times does one want to say that this is just a coincidence? It gets very implausible after a while.

Could these coincidences be faked by later authors reading earlier authors?

Lydia McGrew: As a bare possibility, that can’t be deductively ruled out, but all the evidence is against it. This is partly because they’re so subtle.

If John, for example, faked a coincidence with Luke, he sometimes had to write his own story in a puzzling way. In John 18:33, Pilate asks Jesus if he’s the king of the Jews, but John hasn’t recorded any accusation that Jesus said he was the king. Why does Pilate ask this question? We find out only in Luke, an earlier Gospel. Luke mentions that the Jewish leaders said that Jesus was putting himself forward as a king. So the earlier Gospel explains the later one. It would be very convoluted for John to put in Pilate’s unexplained question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” just in case a reader might notice that Luke tells why Pilate asked that.

So these are really too indirect to be of much use to someone trying to create a fake. In several cases it’s taken about 2,000 years for them even to be noticed! Those kinds of dovetailings happen naturally if the different accounts are true and reflect the incomplete memories or interests of those telling what happened.

What do you mean by “reclaiming the forward position”?

Lydia McGrew: In many apologetic circles it’s been common for some time to argue for Jesus’ resurrection by appealing only to things that are acknowledged by a majority of scholars of all stripes and ideologies. I think that limiting ourselves to “consensus facts” in our argument is far too constraining, because the field of biblical studies has some major problems, and we should just acknowledge that openly.

An example of limiting ourselves would be avoiding appealing to the book of Acts to talk about what the disciples said from the beginning. There’s a lot of gingerliness about just looking directly at Acts 2 and saying, “This is what Peter was testifying publicly within 50 days of Jesus’ death,” because there’s all this worry that maybe we can’t treat the sermons in Acts as accurate. So people will go instead to the first few verses of 1 Corinthians 15 as being the earliest statement of the truth of the resurrection. Well, it isn’t! Peter’s speech on Pentecost is a much earlier public proclamation. Peter’s sermon was probably not written down in the book of Acts before 1 Corinthians was written down, but I don’t think that should be the standard, since we have good reason to believe that Acts is an historically accurate record of the early church written by a companion of the Apostle Paul.

There are other examples like that, especially the tentativeness with which too many apologists will treat the details of the resurrection accounts in the Gospels. They tend to avoid appealing, for example, to the claim that Jesus supposedly ate with the disciples, because the authenticity of those passages is questioned by some scholars who will say that we don’t know if that really came from the disciples or was a later accretion.

I think instead we should argue on historical grounds for the truthfulness of the Gospels and Acts as (at least) accurate records of what the disciples claimed they experienced and then ask the skeptic to explain those accounts. And I think the evidence will support that approach. In that way we don’t weaken our argument but strengthen it by including all the available evidence rather than treating good evidence as weak or tainted merely because it isn’t granted by the consensus of scholars in a very contentious field.

How many undesigned coincidences have you found, and how difficult was it to find them?

Lydia McGrew: I’m always a little hesitant to answer the “how many” question, because in several cases in my book there are multiple coincidences packed into a single numbered item. In my book I discuss 27 numbered items for the Gospels and 20 between Acts and Paul’s epistles. But some of these could be considered “twofers” or “threefers,” so there are more than that in my book, and there are more in other books out there that I didn’t include.

For many of these it was very easy for me to “find” them, because I didn’t find them all by myself. I wrote my own arguments for them and presented them in a fresh form to a 21st-century audience. Nearly all of the coincidences I discuss between Acts and the epistles were given by William Paley back in the 1700s and some by his editors. Most of those in the Gospels were found by J. J. Blunt in the 1800s. Some more were found by my husband, Timothy McGrew, in various commentaries or on his own. So I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. For a few in the book, I actually did find them for myself.

They can be quite difficult to notice consciously, though I think they add to the air of truthfulness in the books that we may be cueing to unconsciously. Those of us who know the Gospels very well often have trouble noticing undesigned coincidences because we know the whole story, harmonized from various Gospels. We forget that John, for example, doesn’t mention that Peter boasted that he would never deny Jesus even if the other disciples fled. That’s in Matthew and Mark, and it features in an undesigned coincidence that dovetails with John 21.

So you have to learn to see how different documents contain different puzzle pieces. Since my book has come out I’ve had readers send me some additional candidates for inclusion that they’ve noticed themselves, and some of these are very good.

What impact do you want your book to have on its readers?

Lydia McGrew: I’d like it to give them confidence when people suggest that we have no idea where the Gospels and Acts came from, or whether they’re just late and legendary. I’d like to think that after reading Hidden in Plain View, you’ll have something to say when you hear that accusation. For those who are inclined to think that these are shaky accounts, I’d like it to make them stop and think. I also hope that it will cause Christians to realize that they really can take that “forward position” on the reliability of these books.

This argument is so old, it’s new. It’s been largely forgotten for over a hundred years, and I hope to bring it back.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Lydia McGrew: I’ll sneak two in here, though of course there are many. I love Hebrews 11:13-16 in the great faith chapter where it says that the heroes of the faith confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims and that they desire a heavenly country. It adds, “Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”

And in Galatians 2:20 Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ: Nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

I would relate those passages to each other and say that, if we’re crucified with Christ, if we hide ourselves behind the cross so that any of our accomplishments are Christ working in us, then we’ll confess that we’re strangers and pilgrims on this earth, and God will not be ashamed to be called our God.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway app?

Lydia McGrew: I use a PC for all my writing, and I use the Bible Gateway site all the time to locate passages and quote them in my research. I have a lot of Scripture in my head from my Baptist upbringing, but in research I want to quote word-for-word, get the reference precisely correct, and have the option of using a solid modern translation like the ESV. I used the ESV for virtually all the Bible quotations in Hidden in Plain View. I used Bible Gateway a lot while researching for the book, because it allows me to call up a passage quickly, compare translations, and copy and paste it into something I’m writing. It’s very useful. I also used Bible Hub a great deal, especially for looking up the Greek text of specific verses or looking at one verse laid out in many different translations.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Lydia McGrew: I want to emphasize that the argument from undesigned coincidences is highly accessible. You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to understand it and appreciate it, though scholars can certainly profit from it. I strongly encourage people who are interested, no matter who they are, to get hold of a copy of Hidden in Plain View (Kindle ebook available) and dive right in.

Bio: Dr. Lydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher who specializes in classical and formal epistemology, probability theory, and philosophy of religion. She is the co-author (with Timothy McGrew) of Internalism and Epistemology: The Architecture of Reason (Routledge, 2007) and of the article on the argument from miracles in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009). Her articles have appeared in such journals as Erkenntnis, Theoria, Acta Analytica, Philosophia Christi, and Philosophical Studies, and she is the author of the entry on historical inquiry and theism in The Routledge Companion to Theism (2012). She home schools, and in her spare time, she blogs about apologetics, Christianity, culture, and politics. She lives in southwest Michigan with her husband and children.

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Filed under Apologetics, Books, Interviews, Introduction to the Bible