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.
Another coincidence is even more striking. In John 6, Jesus asks Philip where to buy bread just prior to the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 (v. 5). Why Philip? John gives no explanation. Yet elsewhere, in unrelated passages, he does mention something that turns out to be relevant: Philip was from Bethsaida.
There is no obvious connection between these two pieces of information until one turns to the Gospel of Luke. Luke 9 notes that the feeding of the 5,000 occurred near Bethsaida (v. 10). Jesus asked Philip where to buy bread because he was a local.
If the Gospels were fabricated, there would be no particular reason for John to report that Jesus asked Philip where to buy bread. There would be no particular reason for listing Philip as a native of Bethsaida. There would be no particular reason for Luke to situate the feeding of the 5,000 near Bethsaida. Further, the details are so randomly strewn through the accounts that they are obviously not an attempt at subtle harmonization. Once again, the best explanation as to why the puzzle pieces fit so well is that they are all true.
A final example illustrates the beauty of McGrew’s approach. In John 21, Jesus famously asks Peter “Do you love me?” three times, mirroring Peter’s three denials. But a minor detail is easy to overlook. The first time Jesus asks the question, his words are, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (v. 15, emphasis added).
It is not clear from John’s account why Jesus should ask if Peter loves him more than the other disciples do. Only after turning to Matthew and Mark do we learn of Peter’s boast that he would be true to Jesus even if all the others abandoned him.
If John were fabricating his account, either he would have omitted the words in question, or he would have mentioned Peter’s earlier boast as a way of explaining Jesus’ phrasing. Since he doesn’t mention that boast, the best explanation for including the phrase “more than these” is that he simply remembered Jesus asking the question that way. The story, in other words, is a true one.
A Cumulative Case
The undesigned coincidences approach builds a cumulative case for the accuracy of the New Testament histories. Perhaps individual examples could be brushed aside as coincidences. But as example piles upon example, it becomes very difficult to explain them all away. Fabricated stories would not be interrelated in so many under-the-surface ways. But the accounts of several well-informed authors writing about the same true events and people would be.
As mentioned above, McGrew’s primary intention in resurrecting this argument is to revitalize an older apologetic approach that emphasizes the reliability of the New Testament writings as a whole. But it serves other valuable purposes as well.
For one thing, unexplained coincidences occur between Acts and several of Paul’s epistles. In certain cases, liberal scholars have questioned their authenticity, but the coincidences highlighted by McGrew furnish additional grounds for confidence.
Also, the unexplained coincidences McGrew cites are valuable simply for increasing one’s understanding of Scripture. Why did Paul tell the Thessalonians that they knew about his shameful treatment at Philippi? Why did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet at a particular time? The answers to these questions and others become clear through McGrew’s careful analysis.
Hidden in Plain View is a must-read for Christians interested in defending their faith. I have no intention of abandoning the minimal facts approach on occasions when I am asked for a defense of the resurrection. But I will certainly incorporate another layer of argument to that case, stressing the accuracy of the texts themselves. McGrew has done the church a valuable service in drawing attention back to the argument from undesigned coincidences.
Jonathan Ashbach is a PhD student in politics at Hillsdale College.