It’s a story which we have all grown up with. We are all familiar with the famous story of Jesus miraculously feeding the five thousand from five loaves and two fish, with no fewer than twelve basketfuls of leftovers. The story is recounted by all four gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But just how historical is this story? In this article, I attempt to highlight several lines of evidence which, when taken as a cumulative whole, are at least suggestive that this event is rooted in actual history. I attempt to show this by virtue of appeal to four so-called “undesigned coincidences”. An undesigned coincidence 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. Interestingly, no fewer than four of those “undesigned coincidences” can be associated with the narratives concerning the feeding of the five thousand. So, without further ado, let’s turn our attention to these incidences. [Read more…]
One of the benefits of having both Paul’s letters and a history of Paul’s activities from another hand is that we are able to compare points of contact across the two genres. Their overlap is all the more valuable since they appear to have been written largely or wholly independently of one another, with very little verbal similarity at any point.
What should we expect from such material, if each is independently grounded in the facts? With luck, and if the material is extensive, we should be able to find multiple instances where the documents refer to the same people or events. Of course we should not expect the history and the letters to correspond point-for-point; in the nature of the case, there will be much in the letters that would be out of place in the history, while the history—in keeping with the historical standards of the times—may organize material conceptually rather than chronologically and may compress or pass over some incidents in the course of the narration. And occasionally, the correspondences may cross over several letters, creating a network of related passages that cannot with any plausibility be dismissed as fabrication or forgery.
There is a good example of this sort of network that starts with Romans 15:25-26:
At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.
Here we have three points of interest all in the same passage in one of the letters: a collection being take up in Macedonia, a similar collection in Achaia, and Paul’s plan to travel to Jerusalem to take this aid to the saints there. Turning to Acts 20:2-3, we find Paul on the way back to Palestine, but there is not a word about a contribution. In a speech before Felix in Acts 24:17-19, Paul mentions that he came to bring alms to his countrymen, but there is no mention of where the monies come from. The points of correspondence are so indirect that there is no suspicion of copying here. [Read more…]
We will start with an example from William Paley’s Horae Paulinae, the first work to explore this sort of argument in detail. Paley’s object is to show the numerous correspondences between the Pauline epistles and the book of Acts. The cluster of coincidences begins with two quotations from 1 Corinthians:
What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:12)
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6)
Both of these verses suggest that Apollos had been at Corinth; the second also suggests that Paul had preceded him there. Turning to the book of Acts, we find an explicit discussion of Paul’s travels and a few remarks about Apollos’s life that bear out these implications. After his first visit to Greece, Paul went from Corinth to Ephesus, where he left his companions Priscilla and Aquilla; he returned to Palestine, stopping in Jerusalem, and then went north into Asia Minor (Acts 18:19, 23), ultimately making his way back to Ephesus. It is during the period of these later travels that Apollos comes on the scene, being instructed in Ephesus by Priscilla and Aquilla (Acts 18:26) and passing from them over to Achaia, where “he greatly helped those who through grace had believed” (Acts 18:27). We might have inferred from this alone that Apollos went to Corinth on this trip, but we need not stop here, as we find that Paul came back to Ephesus at the very time that Apollos was in Corinth (Acts 19:1). [Read more…]
Nearly everyone has a concept of what it means for historical claims to be confirmed by a new discovery. Tablets unearthed at Kültepe in the late 19th century reveal that there was, as the Old Testament had said, a vast Hittite empire in the time of Abraham. An Arabic manuscript turns out to contain the Diatessaron of Tatian, settling once and for all the question of whether that second century harmony of the Gospels actually existed and whether it included the fourth Gospel. Excavations in Jerusalem reveal the pool of Bethesda and its five porches, by the Sheep Gate, just as described in John 5. A clay seal bears the name of Baruch, the disciple and friend of Jeremiah. An ornate first century ossuary bears witness to the prestige of Joseph Caiaphas.
This kind of confirmation, exciting as it is, suffers from several limitations. For one thing, we are largely at the mercy of time and chance for discoveries of this type. Archaeology and paleography are not experimental sciences; at best, one might begin digging in a promising location, but there are no guarantees as to what (if anything) one will find. Tempus edax rerum is one of Ovid’s memorable phrases—Time, devourer of all things. Many priceless treasures are forever lost: papyrus documents that rotted in the rain, scrolls that were burnt by the Bedouins to warm themselves at night, monuments and inscriptions that were gradually eroded away by the sands of time or crushed to powder under the boots of an invading army. And many others are as good as lost, buried in a garbage dump somewhere that we will never think to dig. [Read more…]
There are many charges raised against the historicity of the birth narratives of Jesus Christ. These run the gamut from objections based upon alleged contradictions to inconsistencies in the genealogies to incredulity over the possibility of a virgin birth. Rather than make a case to rebut each of these objections in turn, here I will focus upon using undesigned coincidences to note how these birth narratives of Christ have the ring of truth. How exactly do undesigned coincidences work? [Read more…]