Although the argument from undesigned coincidences appeared two hundred years ago, it was largely forgotten for most of the last century. The reasons for its disappearance are complex, but scholars who deem its neglect unfortunate have given it due attention in recent years, and Lydia McGrew’s book is the best study yet.
She defines an undesigned coincidence as “a notable connection between two or more accounts or texts that doesn’t seem to have been planned by the person or people giving the accounts. Despite their apparent independence, the items fit together like pieces of a puzzle.”
For instance, Luke 23:1-4 contains some puzzling events. The Jews seize Jesus and carry him off to Pilate; speaking to Pilate, they accuse Jesus of claiming to be a king, which would have been a crime against Roman authority; Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you a king?”, to which Jesus apparently answers in the affirmative; then Pilate declares to the Jews that Jesus is innocent. This is strikingly odd. Why did Pilate find no fault when Jesus admitted to a serious charge?
John’s account of the conversation gives a satisfying resolution. In John 18:36, Jesus says to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” It is therefore easy to see why Pilate finds no fault: Jesus claims to be king of another world. Pilate has no idea what that means; to him, Jesus is not a ruler with a kingdom who is threatening Roman rule, but a harmless, religious kook who has caused a stir.
Moreover, in the scene from Luke we read about the accusation against Jesus, but John does not mention it, leaving the question: why does Pilate ask whether Jesus is a king of the Jews? That seems a random thing to ask. But Luke supplies the answer: an accusation was made and Pilate was right to inquire about it. Luke explains John, just as John explains Luke.
These are classic undesigned coincidences. They arise from sets of statements, made by different authors, which link up or match in a way that would be unlikely if they were fabricated, or if one set was copied from another, or if each was copied from a common source.
I reconstruct McGrew’s argument as follows:
1. The occurrence of multiple undesigned coincidences among a set of accounts is evidence that those accounts are “historically reliable and that they come from people close to the facts who were attempting to tell truthfully what they knew.”
2. There are multiple undesigned coincidences in the gospels and Acts.
3. Therefore, we have evidence that the gospels and Acts are historically reliable and come from people close to the facts who were attempting to tell truthfully what they knew.
McGrew defends the second premiss by describing nearly fifty examples from the gospels and Acts, including the one above. She defends the first by arguing that an undesigned coincidence is evidence for the truth of every statement contributing to it, since the undesigned or unintentional nature of a coincidence is evidentially significant. Even detectives look for it when assessing eyewitness testimony.
How do we determine that a coincidence is undesigned? McGrew has much to say, but I mention two general points. One sign that a coincidence is undesigned is that the statements contributing to it are made in passing. McGrew quotes J.S. Howson:
An intentional and contrived coincidence must be of such a character as to strike the reader. Otherwise it fails of its purpose. If it was kept latent for the intelligent. . . critics of a later age to find out, it has not attained the end for which it was meant at the time of its contrivance.
Offhandedness is a mark of an unplanned account, and the lack of premeditation makes collusion or contrivance unlikely. The Pilate example has a subtlety about it. It resolves puzzling questions in such a casual way that it does not strike the reader at all, rendering the coincidence—the fit—useless as a fabrication.
Another sign is that the coincidences are not only numerous but also various. It would be suspicious if most of them appeared in miracle accounts or in passages on which important doctrines depend, or if they centered on one book. We find instead that many concern mundane matters that the author would not have cared to establish, if he were making things up; and there is roughly an equal distribution among the accounts.
McGrew is careful to note that the argument is cumulative. It might be possible to explain away a few coincidences that seem undesigned, but not the large amount that we currently find. The books have different authors and were written at different times and places. It is therefore hard to explain how even a small portion of the coincidences could have arose by fabrication or accident.
What objections might a skeptic raise against the argument? Since it is doubtful that anyone would dispute the second premiss. a successful objection must target the first, or else supply countervailing evidence for unreliability. I will briefly mention some possible criticisms, if only to anticipate more sophisticated versions thereof.
There certainly appears to be a strong tie between undesigned coincidences and the reliability or authenticity of accounts which contain them. To sever the tie, one would need to begin by producing coincidences which seem undesigned but which arise from accounts that are known to be fictional, fabricated, copied, or colluded. One would then need to show how the accounts are suitably relevant to those which we find in the New Testament. So far as I can see, no such counterexamples are forthcoming. Another objection is that, if the gospels and Acts are reliable documents, we should expect to find more undesigned coincidences than we do. This objection would be tentative if true, considering that there are probably cases that have not yet been discovered. Finally, if one supplied evidence that the accounts were clearly contradictory or fabricated, that might override whatever evidential weight the coincidences supply. To my knowledge, such evidence has yet to be adduced.
In all, McGrew’s book has broad applications. She has valuable things to say about how the argument bears upon many other concerns: resolving alleged discrepancies, redaction criticism, gospel authorship and dating, miracles, and the minimal facts case for the resurrection. Her brief contributions to those matters deserve further consideration, but I will close by noting an application that she does not mention. Some critics—perhaps realizing the strength of evidence for the resurrection, given the existence of Jesus—claim that Jesus never existed. Defenders of that view, for various reasons, must reject the gospels and Acts as unreliable documents. Powerful arguments for reliability (such as that from undesigned coincidences), if successful, are therefore devastating to Jesus “mythicist” claims.
If you’d like to purchase Hidden in Plain View, click on this link to support Apologetics315.
NB: a more in-depth review may be found here.