Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospel of John: Interview with Lydia McGrew

Tuesday, 01 Jan 2019

The old proverb “God is in the details” means that it’s in the small and seemingly insignificant minutiae of an event that we see the truth and intent behind it. (This why graduate students painstakingly work their way through five-inch-thick books in the stacks of the university library!) There are certain details—the color of the grass, a disciple referenced , and the geographical location of two cities—in the Gospels that by virtue of their unimportance reveal the legitimacy of the account they give of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. WHI producer Shane Rosenthal sat down with Lydia McGrew, author of Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, to discuss some little things that carry a lot of weight.

WHI: What is an “undesigned coincidence,” and where did you get the idea for this book?

LM: I often say that an “undesigned coincidence” is an incidental interlocking that points to truth. Where I got the idea for the book—the fairest thing to say is that I got it from my husband. Tim McGrew is an apologist and the chair of the philosophy department at Western Michigan University in southwest Michigan. He’s passionately interested in older books concerning apologetics and older arguments we’ve forgotten. He got me very interested in this from two authors in particular: William Paley from the eighteenth century and John J. Blunt from the nineteenth century, who had written about undesigned coincidences and popularized it in their own time. After a while, however, it was forgotten. It’s just beginning to come back in the twenty-first century.

WHI: The detailed analysis of the Gospels that you provide in your book makes me think of the Antiques Roadshow, where people bring in an item to be appraised that has been handed down in their family. Although they may not actually like the item, they change their attitude when they’re told it’s worth $400,000! On the other hand, it might be something they loved, but then they’re told it’s a worthless fake—it just appears old. Likewise, it seems you’re looking at the Gospels from this perspective of the appraiser, asking whether they are originals or reproductions—that is, inauthentic documents that were written much later but made to look like they were old and original to Jesus’ time.

LM: It’s interesting to see just how hard it would actually be to do this deliberately as a fake or a hoax. It would take a lot of work. For example, it’s not what you would get with Bart Ehrman, the skeptical scholar, who would say that this was like a game of telephone where people were telling tales to one another. You would definitely not find these kinds of undesigned coincidences in that kind of undeliberate way, where people are just telling a story to someone and then someone else tells it to someone else and so forth, and then finally it’s written down.

WHI: The first undesigned coincidence I’d like you to discuss relates to a simple comment we find in Mark 6:39, in which Jesus feeds the five thousand and commands all of them to sit on green grass. Why do you think the color green is significant?

LM: Mark is the only Gospel that has the word green. No other Gospel bothers to mention that. It’s one of those little passing details. He commanded them to sit down, and then it says that they all sat down on the green grass. When you go to John 6:4, which also describes the feeding of the five thousand, John briefly mentions, apropos of nothing, that the Passover was near at hand. Now, around the Sea of Galilee, you don’t get green grass for eight months out of the year. The one time when you do get some green grass is shortly after the spring rains. So, this springtime season would be when you would have green grass. So it fits together really well! Mark doesn’t mention that the time of the Passover was near, and John doesn’t mention the color of the grass, but they fit together like two different pieces of a puzzle.

WHI: In other words, one Gospel writer isn’t copying another Gospel writer; both of them are describing reality.

LM: Exactly. They have access to what really happened in some sort of separate fashion. In fact, the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle found in all four Gospels, so that gives us more opportunities to kind of pick up on these little casual details that fit together.

WHI: Now during that same event, the feeding of the five thousand, you draw your readers’ attention to John 6:5. “Seeing that the large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?’” What strikes you as being significant about that comment?

LM: It mentions the name of the person to whom he spoke. It could be utterly coincidental, a one-out-of-twelve chance that he picked some disciple at random. But if the story were faked, you would think the author could have chosen a more prominent disciple rather than Philip. It’s not that Philip was utterly obscure, but there’s no particular reason to mention him here. For example, unlike Judas, he’s not the treasurer of the group; unlike Peter, James, and John, he’s not part of the closest center circle to Jesus. So if you look at Luke 9:10, we have a fact that only Luke mentions: This event took place in a deserted area near the town of Bethsaida. John doesn’t mention the location at all, but if you go to a completely different passage in the Gospel of John (1:4344) right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he’s gathering his disciples, it mentions Philip, and it says he was from the town of Bethsaida.

When Jesus asked Philip that question about buying the bread, I think he was kind of pulling his disciples’ chain a bit; in fact, John says that he knew what he would do. He doesn’t ask them where they can buy bread because he really wants them to buy bread. When he chooses which disciple to tease, as it were, I think he turns to Philip to say, “Philip, you’re from nearby here; where can we buy bread so all the people may eat?” He picks Philip because he knows Philip is local to the area, and it all fits together in an extremely mentally satisfying way. But it’s so casual; no one would do that deliberately. You can’t imagine John saying, “I think I’m going to fake my readers out in picking up this story from the other Gospels. I want to make it even more realistic, though, so I’ll put in this little casual comment about Philip but not refer to Bethsaida; and then in a totally different passage, I’ll mention that Philip was from Bethsaida. Then maybe two thousand years from now, someone will notice these details and say the story must be true.” That’s extremely implausible.

WHI: When you put all these coincidences together, it really begins to hit you that this does not look like artifice.

LM: Not at all, particularly because they’re so casual, which is something I mention a lot in the book. I think this is something skeptics find difficult to understand. Skeptics don’t understand the evidential value of casualness. A forger or a faker has to draw attention to what he’s doing or else it’s of no value to him. If he just mentions casually that Jesus spoke to Philip, what value is that to him? So that’s another part of what gives this cumulative case its force.

WHI: The ancient historian Josephus records that the town of Bethsaida was actually renamed Julias around AD 30. Josephus, who wrote in the 70s or 90s, has about sixteen references to the town as Julias, and only once does he mention the older name of Bethsaida and then in the account of the name change. So it’s interesting that all four Gospels use the right name without referring to this name change, which may be an indication that the authors were writing at that time about that location the way it was then.

LM: I agree. John is very conversant with the topography of Galilee and with specific places in Jerusalem. So what you’re talking about shows the acquaintance of that author with that name. He also mentions, for example, that they went down from Cana to Capernaum. Why down? Because it’s toward the seaside, so you would be going down the hill and so forth. He speaks in this effortless way like a person who is a native of that time and place.

WHI: New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham says that when it comes to a witness in a court of law, you can’t actually go back in time to see whether or not what they’re telling you is true, but you can establish whether a witness is generally credible by things you can test. That has always stuck with me, especially when looking at John. As you go through John, he’s giving detailed and accurate first-century information. John A. T. Robinson, a liberal scholar who came to conservative conclusions, said that when you look at John’s Gospel, his chronology is actually the most detailed and it’s the best skeleton you can use to place the other Gospels, which present the material more topically.

LM: Bauckham also helpfully points out that with John in his Gospel we always know exactly where Jesus is. John doesn’t just say that Jesus was in Jerusalem; he says that Jesus was in Jerusalem in the porch of Solomon or the pool of Bethesda, which is near the Sheep Gate. In that indirect way, our discoveries in archaeology, undesigned coincidences in other passages, and so forth confirm John’s historical intention.

WHI: Many liberal New Testament scholars say that John, more than any other evangelist, is doing theology, not history. What John actually ends up doing, in my view, is presenting eyewitness history that has profound theological implications.

LM: I agree. Even people who are considered to be a little more on the conservative spectrum, such as N. T. Wright, say things like, “I feel about John the way I feel about my wife. I love her, but I would never claim to understand her.” This is often used to imply that John is less historical than the Synoptic Gospels. I really disagree with that implication. We should definitely consider this Gospel as historically grounded.

WHI: Let’s talk about another of these undesigned coincidences. In Mark 15:43, there is a passing comment about Joseph of Arimathea’s courage in asking for the body of Jesus. You point out that this unexplained comment actually makes sense in the light of what John records.

LM: You might think that since Jesus had just been crucified, Joseph of Arimathea would have been afraid to approach Pilate. But that’s not necessarily the case. The Romans liked to be helpful to Jewish sensibilities. They might crucify your relative, but they would allow you to bury your relative! So for Joseph to go to Pilate didn’t necessarily take any particular courage, and yet Mark says he gathered up his courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Why is that? When we look at John 19:38, we find John saying that Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews. At this point, Mark knew that Joseph was somewhat afraid, and so he indirectly mentions his courage. Then John explicitly states that Joseph was a secret disciple because of the Jews. Both Gospel writers seem to approach this fact independently—that Joseph was now coming forward in a public way as a follower of Jesus.

WHI: Let’s talk about the foot-washing scene recorded in John 13 and the background that Luke provides in his account of the Last Supper.

LM: John is the only Gospel that tells us that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. Why did Jesus do that just then? Was it merely to give them an illustration of love? In Luke 22, Luke mentions that on the same night, the disciples were bickering about who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven and that Jesus rebuked them. Jesus said that the kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them and are called benefactors, but it should not be so among them—the greatest will be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant of all. We hear so many sermons about servant leadership that we are used to thinking of Jesus as servant-like. But there aren’t a lot of instances in the Gospels where Jesus does something servant-like for his disciples, except for this foot washing in John 13. This seems to be what Jesus is referring to in Luke: “I am among you as the one who serves.” Luke, however, doesn’t mention the foot washing. Why does Jesus wash the disciples’ feet that night? Because they had been bickering—which is not mentioned in John. Why in Luke does Jesus say, “I am among you as the one who serves”? Because of the foot washing, which is not mentioned in Luke. So you have this double whammy, as it were, a twofer that links those two Gospels together at that point.

WHI: You say that Jesus’ words to Pilate—“If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting”—is related to an earlier scene in John 18 when Peter actually took up a sword and maimed Malchus, a servant of the high priest. Why do you think that’s significant?

LM: You would think Jesus would not bring this up, that he would not want to draw attention to this, because Pilate could just say, “Actually, they’re complaining to me that one of your servants cut off the ear of somebody when they were trying to arrest you last night. But then you say that this is not going on. What’s the deal? Why are you bringing this up?”

We find the reason in Luke 22 when they arrest Jesus: Jesus performed a miracle. First, he stopped the fighting: “Peter, put up your sword.” Then he took the servant’s ear and healed him. Jesus knew he had done this, so he could afford to make that comment to Pilate because no one was going to talk about Jesus’ healing ministry—that’s not the narrative they would want to bring forward. This is why he is able to say this to Pilate with such confidence in John 18:36.

WHI: Another question you ask in your book related to this scene with Malchus is how John appears to have inside information, especially regarding that servant’s name. This particular servant’s name is mentioned only in John’s Gospel; and later, in chapter 18, John records that one of the guards who questioned Peter was actually a relative of this same Malchus. How does John know the name of this high priest’s servant and that this person was his relative?

LM: Yesterday with my teenage daughter, I was reading the account of Jesus’ trial before Annas: “They took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year.” She turned to me and said, “That’s really random.” Just mentioning that this guy was Caiaphas’s father-in-law (which is similar to pointing out that “the servant’s name was Malchus” or that Peter is questioned by Malchus’s relative) seems to be a completely pointless and unnecessary detail. But how would anyone know those details? We have no reason to believe any of these people became Christians later on.

If we look at that same chapter in verses 15–16, John mentions that the “other disciple”—whose name is not given at this point—was known to the high priest, that he had a connection. In fact, one theory is that it’s possible the Zebedee family supplied dried fish to the high priest’s household. That, of course, is conjectural. In a sense, John seems to have known the servants: he knew the servant girl and gained access for Peter. He knows that servant group, who’s related to whom, and that’s why he’s able to mention these little extra details.

WHI: Let’s look at what we’ve surveyed, particularly with the scene in John 18 where Peter cuts off Malchus’s ear. If we look at this from the perspective of a radical, liberal hypothesis, seeing John’s Gospel not as eyewitness material but rather as a kind of fan fiction written much later, then we could ask why the author would take the time to write down the name of an insignificant character like Malchus but not record his own name. In other words, whatever your view of the authorship of John’s Gospel, it is ambiguous, because the author of John’s Gospel is mentioned only as the “beloved disciple.” We have to put the data together and make the best conclusion.

However, in the most famous fan-fiction gospels (the gnostic gospels), a later writer could gain credibility by associating this material with one of the famous disciples from the time period—such as the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and so on. But when we read those “gospels,” they don’t really sound Jewish at all—they sound Greek—and so we label them as gnostic theology. I guess the biggest question is, why, if you’re making up the Gospel of John and trying to gain credibility, do you make up the name Malchus but don’t reveal your own name as an authoritative apostle?

LM: I think that’s an excellent point. It really would be far more relevant to the purpose of someone forging or making up a fictional gospel to, in some way, attribute it strongly to himself by a high-profile name.

 

Dr. Lydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher, home-schooling mother, blogger, and the wife of philosopher and apologist Timothy McGrew. She is the author of Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (DeWard, 2017), which defends the reliability of the New Testament using a long-neglected argument from incidental details.

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