Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts Paperback – by Lydia McGrew

I spotted this (newish) book in the public library and was intrigued by its concept. As its subtitle indicates, the book is looking for “undesigned coincidences” between the Gospels, and also between the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters.

An example of an undesigned coincidence is if two people allege to describe the same time and place, and Alan says the cafe was crowded and Betty says that a coffee cup got knocked into her lap. The details are mentioned casually in a way that would be unlikely if they were colluding but the way these two details dovetail well points to the historicity of the story.

The eighteenth-century Anglican priest, William Paley, compared Paul’s Epistles with the Acts of the Apostles, making use of undesigned coincidences to argue that these documents mutually supported each other’s authenticity. William Paley, of course, is famous for using an “Argument from Design” (the “watchmaker analogy”) to argue for the existence of a creator of our complex, designed world. The Argument from Design lost energy through the understanding of evolution. But it has been re-emerging in a new form that our universe is Anthropic (a “Goldilocks” universe of forces, etc, that appear designed for thinking beings to evolve) and may get even more traction after Stephen Hawking’s final bombshell that the theoretical multiverse (one answer to our universe appearing designed) appears to be Anthropic!

Lydia McGrew begins her book promising to rework undesigned coincidences, and I started the book with high hopes in an area I knew nothing about.

Let me put some of my own cards on the table: I hold to, what I consider, middle-of-the-road, majority-positions in biblical scholarship. I find Richard Bauckham’s scholarship convincing that the names in the New Testament aren’t simply made up by the authors but at least mostly connect to historical individuals. I accept that the Passion story (from Jesus’ last meal onwards) was circulating (orally at least) in a more and more polished way relatively early. I accept that the author of the Acts of the Apostles researched carefully the stories being presented. But I also want to underscore that the way that New Testament authors told stories was not simply in the manner we would now tell stories about the same events – their literary, cultural, historical, etc assumptions differ significantly from ours. With these assumptions, I started reading Lydia McGrew’s examples of “undesigned coincidences”.

I was pretty unexcited by her first example: in John’s Gospel John the Baptist says Jesus “was before me” (Jn 1:15,30) and this, she says, is explained by Luke – from Luke we know Jesus is 6 months older. Lydia McGrew’s second example, similarly, didn’t do it for me: John the Baptist in John’s Gospel knew Jesus was the Son of God because, she says, John the Baptist had heard the voice from heaven John’s Gospel didn’t mention [a voice mentioned in the synoptics (Mt, Mk, Lk)].

It went downhill from there. For Lydia McGrew, John’s mention of the water pots being empty in John 2 is apparently explained by a completely unrelated event in Mark 7:1-5 that Jews wash their hands before the meal! How this makes John 2 historical is beyond me. Surely, if John is constructing a story about the Wedding at Cana, he, knowing of this Jewish meal practice, simply puts that detail in as a matter of course…

The bottom, for me, was reached in Lydia McGrew’s next examination: John 6. [She refers to the early Christian ritual with bread and wine repeatedly and solely as “the Lord’s Supper“, a term neither biblical nor used in the Early Church – this in itself sets my alarm bells ringing that I am not dealing with a careful scholar.] In examining John 6, she first puts significant energy into arguing that this chapter in John’s Gospel connects to the bread-and-wine ritual of Jesus’ last meal (rather than what she understands many of her readers will hold, that this chapter is not about this bread-and-wine ritual but about “believing in Jesus by faith”). For the rest of us, John 6 is not linked by “undesigned coincidence” to Jesus’ final meal and the bread-and-wine ritual of the early Christian community. John 6 is a meditation on that meal and ritual.

Much of the rest of the book is easily concluded the acceptance of early circulation of the Passion story (or my presuppositions mentioned at the start). Undesigned coincidences do not need to originate from independent eyewitnesses of a historical event; they can be the result of separate authors working from similar (oral and/or written) sources.

Certainly, those who think all the New Testament is fabrication – there never was a Jesus, a Paul, or a Philip – such people are going to have to think again in the face of many of Lydia McGrew’s points. For the rest of us, John’s empty water pots (just to take one example) do not mean that therefore the Wedding at Cana was history in the manner we now understand (non-fake) news.

Lydia McGrew’s book (again betraying the context of the circles she moves in) shifts between biblical inerrancy and eyewitness’ differing accounts. If inerrancy is held, then eyewitness’ differences must be only apparent. They can be harmonised. But, if there is a real (unharmonisable) eyewitness difference, then inerrancy must be given away. In this case, you simply cannot have your cake and eat it.

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading springs to mind: in Mark 6:8, Jesus orders the disciples to take a staff on the journey. In Matthew 10:10 and in Luke 9:3, Jesus orders them not to take a staff. Goodbye inerrancy…

I started this book with some of the enthusiasm I felt when I first started reading Richard Bauckham – that here was a whole new tool to explore accessing history behind the New Testament texts. But in the end, I found Lydia McGrew overreached herself in her attempt to show the historical reliability of the New Testament.

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