What is an undesigned coincidence? An undesigned coincidence (so-named by J.J. Blunt and first discovered by William Paley) occurs when one account of an event leaves out a bit of information which is filled in, often quite incidentally, by a different account, which helps to answer some natural questions raised by the first. As an argument for the historical veracity of the gospels, the case is at its strongest when taken as a cumulative whole: In other words, it’s death by a thousand mosquito bites.
There are two categories of undesigned coincidences pertinent to the New Testament: Internal and External. As the labels suggest, the former concerns details which are filled in by other Biblical (i.e. internal) sources, while the latter concerns details filled in by other extra-Biblical (i.e. external) sources. In this article, I want to take a look at a few examples of both.
One of my own personal favourite examples pertains to one of Jesus’ multiple predictions with regards his pending death and subsequent resurrection.
Did the Feeding of the Five Thousand Really Happen?
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!
Curiously, Mark’s narrative describes the people as sitting down in groups on “the green grass” (verse 39). This is significant, not because Mark mentions people sitting on the grass (Matthew 14:19 also records people sitting “down on the grass”, and Luke 9:15 reports that “everyone sat down”, and John 6:10 notes that “There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down.”). It is significant because Mark reports that the grass was “green”. This is particularly intriguing when one considers that, in Israel (particularly in Galilee) the grass is brown!
What makes this even more intriguing is that Mark’s gospel (6:30-42) also states, in verses 30-31 that,
The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.
Why were there many coming and going? Mark doesn’t tell us. In John’s account however (6:4), we are told that“The Jewish Passover Festival was near.” This explains why many people were “coming and going.” Moreover, during the season of the Passover, there is a small window where the grass is indeed green in that area. So, Mark provides the detail about the grass being green and people coming and going, which makes little sense on its own — until we couple it with the detail given to us by John; that is, the Passover festival was near.
Much like a puzzle, it fits like a hand into a glove. This isn’t 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 — this case in conjunction with many others — one has a powerful argument for the overall general reliability and integrity of the gospel narratives.
Let’s take another example.
Did Jesus Predict His Pending Violent Death and Subsequent Resurrection?
In John 2:18-22, we read the following account:
The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
In Mark 14:55-59, we read this account of Jesus before the Sanhedrin:
The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.
Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’” Yet even then their testimony did not agree.
Notice that the false witnesses, described by Mark, misrepresent what Jesus had said. Jesus had not said that he would destroy any man-made temple. Rather, he had used the temple as a metaphor for his body (as we learn in the John 2 passage above). There is also a parallel for this passage in Matthew 26:59-61.
In Mark 15:27-30, we are told,
They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!”
There is also a parallel account in Matthew 27:38-40. Notice that neither Matthew, nor Mark, give us the original context with regards what Jesus had originally said. All we are given by Matthew and Mark is the later misrepresentations by the false witnesses and mockers as Jesus’ trial and execution. But notice that, equally, John (the non-synoptic gospel), while reporting Jesus’ original words, does not report on the later misrepresentations at Jesus’ trial. I have used this argument as an evidence for Jesus having predicted his death and resurrection.
“Who Struck You?”
In Matthew 26:67-68, 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?”
Let’s take one more example of an internal coincidence, before proceeding to examine a few external ones.
Jesus Before Pilate
In Luke 23:1-4, we 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.”
But there is also another intriguing feature related to this passage. Why, in John’s account, does Pilate even ask Jesus whether He is a King? We learn the answer in Luke 23:2. The allegation which is made in Luke’s gospel is not recorded in John’s.
This example raises an interesting related issue. John reports Jesus telling Pilate that “If it were [of this world], my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders.” But the gospel of John has already told us (18:10) that Jesus’ disciple Peter did fight to prevent Jesus’ arrest by the Jewish leaders. In fact, he drew his sword and struck off the right ear of the servant of the high priest. All four gospels record this incident, but only Luke’s gospel (22:51) records Jesus having healed the servant’s ear, thereby erasing the evidence.
Okay, let’s look at a few external examples.
Archelaus reigning in Judea
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.
Getting the titles right
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).
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.
Summary & Conclusion
In summary, then, we have explored several examples, both internal and external, of ‘undesigned coincidences’ and have thereby argued that the gospel accounts possess the ‘ring of truth’. Rest assured that this is only the peak of the proverbial iceberg. There are many dozen more examples than those articulated above. When taken as a cumulative argument, the result is extremely powerful. One critic of this argument, Ed Babinski, has attempted to explain this away by virtue of Markian priority: For a full explanation as to why Babinski’s ideas don’t offer much help, I refer readers to Tim McGew’s article here.