Asked whether it is rational to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, many of us instinctively turn to what is known, in apologetics, as a minimal facts approach. We’ll note that virtually all scholars of any persuasion will agree with certain basic facts surrounding the resurrection: Jesus was crucified and died. His tomb was found empty. Later, his disciples sincerely believed he had appeared to them, alive. Saul of Tarsus, a Jewish persecutor of Christians, had a similar experience.
The most reasonable explanation of these basic, agreed-upon facts, we argue, is that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. Perhaps the foremost presentation of this argument comes from Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus.
This approach is good and useful, but Lydia McGrew wants to resuscitate another method for vindicating the reliability of the Gospels and their accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. McGrew’s book, Hidden in Plain View, uncovers the importance of what she calls “undesigned coincidences” sprinkled across different New Testament passages.
McGrew defines an undesigned coincidence as “a notable connection between two or more accounts or texts that doesn’t seem to have been planned. . . . Despite their apparent independence, the items fit together like pieces of a puzzle.” In other words, an undesigned coincidence occurs when multiple passages of Scripture include details that at first seem unrelated but which, upon further reflection, fit together in a way that only makes sense if both accounts are based on the same underlying historical truth.
And therein lies the apologetic value of this approach. Undesigned coincidences are subtle enough that it would be pointless for a fabricator to make them up. But on analysis, they provide valuable internal evidence of the reliability of the New Testament histories. The only plausible explanation for their occurrence is that the authors were carefully recording real events.
Examining a few of McGrew’s examples will make clear the nature of her approach. One of the simplest coincidences concerns Herod’s reaction to the commencement of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew 14 reports that Herod “said to his attendants, ‘This is John the Baptist. He has risen from the dead!’” (v. 1). But how would Matthew know what the king said to his servants in the privacy of his palace? A skeptic might conclude that he was taking liberties with the truth.
Unless, that is, the skeptic in question happened to notice an obscure phrase in the Gospel of Luke. On a totally different topic, Luke 8 lists a number of women who were following Jesus. One of them is named as “Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household” (v. 3).
The second passage explains the first. Matthew could have known about Herod’s comment to his servants because the wife of one of those servants was a follower of Christ. And yet the connection is incredibly oblique. If the Gospels were fabricated, Luke would have had no particular reason to invent this detail. The best explanation is that the pieces fit so well because they are both true.