Undesigned coincidences—an exciting new apologetic argument? Or an uninspired artifact of manmade literature that cuts both ways?

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Searching for undesigned coincidences is an exciting new pastime within Christian apologetics. Well, maybe not new—it’s an exciting revived pastime. Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings Both of the Old and New Testament was published in 1854, and other books preceded it.

So what is an undesigned coincidence?

Example 1: “Prophesy!”

Here’s an example. In Matthew 26:67–8, we read about Jesus being arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council. After the high priest concludes that Jesus has spoken blasphemy,

Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, “Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?”

Huh? Why is prophecy mentioned here? And why demand that Jesus identify who hit him when they were all standing right there?

But turn to Luke 22:63–4, and we get more details.

The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, “Prophesy! Who hit you?”

Aha! Jesus was blindfolded—that’s why prophecy is mentioned. They were mocking Jesus’s inability to identify who hit him. Surely a “Son of God” could see even if blindfolded. Now the incident in Matthew makes sense.

But note that the surprise vanishes if you just read them in the opposite order. Luke reports the blindfold, and the reader will then correct the omission when reading Matthew.

More important, these two gospels don’t tell the same story. In Matthew, the beating comes from members of the Sanhedrin, at the end of the trial. But in Luke, it’s guards who beat Jesus, and then he’s taken to the Sanhedrin.

Perhaps apologists should avoid drawing attention to incompatibilities between two versions of a story, because that often just makes the Bible look more flawed.

So what is an undesigned coincidence? Tim McGrew defines it this way:

Sometimes two works written by different authors incidentally touch on the same point in a manner that cannot be written off as copying or having a copy made from some third source.… The two records interlock like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Let’s look at another couple of examples.

Example 2: Feeding the five thousand

In the story of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus was teaching a large crowd. It was late in the day, and Jesus wanted to give them food (one Christian source explores this here). In Mark 6:39, we read:

Then Jesus directed [the disciples] to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.

Green grass—that’s an interesting detail. Isn’t this the desert? Should we expect green grass?

But this is explained in John’s version of the story when he adds this detail:

The Jewish Passover Festival was near (John 6:4).

The Passover is always shortly after the March (spring) equinox, spring is when it rains in Palestine, and rain makes the grass turns green. Like a jigsaw puzzle with a piece neatly added, the mystery is solved.

Okay, but grass must be green sometime, even if there’s a dry season. The Bible frequently mentions livestock, so it’s no surprise that the grass must periodically be green to feed them. Is this much of an aha?

Example 3: Philip of Bethsaida

Early in the gospel of John, we read that Philip was from Bethsaida (John 1:44). A few chapters later is John’s version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Jesus asks Philip where to buy bread for the crowd (John 6:5–7). But why Philip? He seems a random choice—he’s not a prominent disciple, and he wasn’t in charge of the money.

But read the parallel story in Luke, and we find that the gathering takes place at Bethsaida (Luke 9:10–17). So that’s why Jesus asked Philip—being from that town, he might know the best place for bread (source).

What’s the big deal?

Let’s accept that one story might be incomplete but that a clue far from that context (in another chapter or even in another book) plausibly explains some small puzzle. So what? Sure, let’s say that the books of the New Testament have omissions. That makes them look like ordinary books written with no supernatural oversight. How does this help the apologist?

Here’s one apologist’s answer:

Once you have considered the massive weight of the evidence from untold numbers of undesigned coincidences, can you really maintain your skepticism of the historicity of the Bible?

Huh? Where is this massive weight of evidence?? You seem to imagine that only the supernatural explains this. But how?

One final source makes a popular argument for the value of undesigned coincidences.

Much like a puzzle, it fits like a hand into a glove. This is not at all the type of pattern that one would expect to see in the event of some kind of conspiratorial manufacturing of the story. When taken as a cumulative argument—many instances considered collectively—one has a powerful argument for the overall general reliability and integrity of the gospel narratives.

In other words, this is just the tired “Why would anyone invent the Jesus story?!” thesis.

My answer: I dunno why anyone would invent the Jesus story. I never claimed they did.

And this is a powerful new argument in the apologists’ arsenal? From the stew of oral history, the basic story will be written in different ways in different places in the Christian world, and this confusion is cited as reason to believe the Bible more strongly? Why is this even a thing? Perhaps apologists should avoid drawing attention to incompatibilities between two versions of a story, because that often just makes the Bible look more flawed.

This is like the Argument from Accurate Place Names, which praises the Bible for recording the names for many places that are later confirmed by history or archaeology. Big deal.

Now it’s the skeptics’ turn

Let’s invert this idea of illuminating a story told in one place with a clue from another. Take Mark 3:21, where the family of Jesus came to take him away because, “he is out of his mind.” But after the death of Jesus, his brother James became a leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 1:18). That is, first James (and the rest of his family) thought Jesus was crazy, and then James changed his mind to become a leader in the church. But Mark was written after both of these. Why did Mark only include the first part, leaving out the conversion of James? Mark ends with us having a completely wrong understanding of James’ relationship to the church. How about that for an undesigned coincidence?

Or see this from another angle. Take the same “Jesus is crazy” incident in Mark and pair it with the nativity stories from Matthew and Luke. Mary saw the magi with their gifts and was visited by an angel. How could she or anyone in her family later think Jesus was crazy?

Or, how could John the Baptist baptize Jesus and see the Holy Spirit and hear God’s voice (Matthew 3:16–17) but then months later ask Jesus if he was the One (Matt. 11:2–3)? (More on this incident here.)

Or, how can Jesus explain to his disciples how the end game was going to play out, including his crucifixion and resurrection, three times in each synoptic gospel and yet the disciples are despondent at the crucifixion? A little forgetfulness doesn’t explain this. (More on this here.)

Christian apologists encourage students of the Bible to pull together facts from throughout the Bible, hoping to strengthen one story with another. But they must remember the embarrassing contradictions that will also emerge.

Birds born in a cage
think flying is an illness.
— Alejandro Jodorowsky

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...