Jonathan McLatchie | 19 May 2020 | 15 min read
In my previous article I introduced the concept of undesigned coincidences in Scripture and gave a few examples from the Old Testament. To recap, an undesigned coincidence (so-named by William Paley) 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. As an argument for the historical veracity of the gospels and Acts, undesigned coincidences, taken together, provide a powerful cumulative argument for taking these sources to be close up to the facts and substantially trustworthy. In this article, I will consider three categories of undesigned coincidences in the New Testament – that is, examples between the gospels, examples between the book of Acts and the epistles of Paul, and examples involving the external secular sources that corroborate elements of the New Testament.
Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels
All of us are familiar with the story of the feeding of the five thousand, an event narrated in all four gospels. But our familiarity with the accounts may have caused us to miss subtle interconnections between the different accounts of the same event. In John 6:1-9, we read:
“After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?‘ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?‘”
Two specific details I want to focus on here relate to individuals mentioned in the story. John here is very specific about which disciple Jesus turned to in order to ask where to buy bread for the people to eat – Philip (verse 5). He is also very specific about another disciple who got involved in the reply – Andrew (verse 8). Can we independently confirm that John is accurate concerning these specific details? Let’s turn over to John 12, which is six chapters later and a completely unrelated context. In John 12:20-21, we read:
“Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’”
Thus, we learn that Philip is from the town of Bethsaida. Now turn over to John 1:44:
“Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.”
Therefore, not only is Philip from Bethsaida, but so are Andrew and Peter. Now turn over to Luke’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, in Luke 9. Luke does not mention that Jesus spoke to Philip, nor does he mention Andrew’s involvement in the reply. However, in Luke 9:10, we read:
“On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida.”
Thus, Luke adds the missing piece of the puzzle – the event took place in Bethsaida. Now we have a cogent explanation for why Jesus spoke to Philip in John 6:5 – Philip was a local person and he would have known where the shops were to buy bread. We also have an explanation of why Andrew got involved in the reply in John 6:8 – Andrew is also from Bethsaida. This sort of artless dovetailing, or undesigned coincidence, is expected on the hypothesis that John is getting the specific extraneous details right, but is very surprising on the hypothesis that he is getting them wrong.
For our second example, let’s stay in the same text and focus on verse 4, which tells us the specific time of year that the event took place (again, this is not found in any of the other three gospels). Does John also get this extraneous detail right? To find out, turn over to Mark 6 (Mark’s parallel telling of the feeding of the five thousand) and pay attention to verses 31 and 39:
“The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat… Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass.”
While Luke does not tell us the time of year, he mentions the color of the grass (green) and that there were people coming and going (indicating the business of the place). This, then, once again artlessly dovetails with our account in John 6:4 which tells us that the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was at hand.
Let’s consider one further example in the gospels. In John 12:1-2,12-13, we read:
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table… The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’”
Again, John has given us a very specific extraneous detail (which none of the other gospels gives us): Jesus arrived at Bethany six days before the Passover, and the following day rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey (which would have been five days before the Passover). Can we confirm John’s accuracy on this? Yes, we can. Turn over to Mark 11:1-11, which parallels the arrival at Bethany (although Mark does not give us the time-stamp):
“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it’… And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’ And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
Mark does not tell us that Jesus approached Bethany six days before the Passover, nor that it was the following day that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. However, it appears implicit that they fetched the colt early in the morning – since the disciples fetch the colt, there is the triumphal entry and Jesus and the disciples entered the temple and “looked around at everything” (which was presumably a whole day’s activities). If, then, we assume that Jesus entered Jerusalem five days before Passover (explicit in John and implicit in Mark), then we can begin counting off the days narrated in Mark’s gospel, to see if the narrative synchronizes with that of John.
Verses 12-14 narrate the cursing of the fig tree, which according to verse 12 happened “the following day” (i.e. four days before the Passover, assuming John’s time-stamp to be correct). Jesus then cleansed the temple and according to verse 19 “when evening came they went out of the city.” In verse 20, we read, “As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.” We are now therefore at three days before the Passover. In Mark 13, we read of the olivet discourse on the Mount of Olives. This we can assume took place in the evening, since the Mount of Olives was mid-way between the temple in Jerusalem and Bethany where Jesus and the disciples were staying. This, then, marks the end of three days before the Passover. When we turn over to Mark 14, we read in verse 1, “It was now two days before the Passover.” Mark and John thus calibrate perfectly, thereby corroborating the time-stamp given to us by John – once more, we have confirmed one of John’s extraneous details.
Examples from Acts and the Pauline Corpus
For our first example of a coincidence involving Acts and the letters of Paul, let’s consider Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which was written around 52-53 AD from Ephesus in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). We know Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus because Paul sends greetings from Aquilla and Priscilla in 1 Corinthians 16:19, whom Paul had met in Corinth (Acts 18:1), and who travelled with Paul as far as Ephesus (Acts 18:26). Paul also makes an allusion to his intention to “stay in Ephesus until Pentecost” (1 Corinthians 16:8). Corinth, the capital city of Achaia, on the other hand, was across the Aegean sea from Ephesus.
Now, consider the following two texts from 1 Corinthians:
- In 1 Corinthians 4:17 we read: “That is why I sent you Timothy…”
- And in 1 Corinthians 16:10: “When Timothy comes…”
From the two texts given above, it is evident that Timothy had already been dispatched by the time of his writing, but nonetheless that he expected his letter to arrive before Timothy got to Corinth. Given that Ephesus is directly across the Aegean sea from Achaia (where Corinth is), presumably Paul would have sent his letter directly by boat from Ephesus to Corinth. We therefore can infer that Timothy must have taken some indirect route to Corinth. When we turn over to Acts 19:21-22, which concerns Paul’s stay in Ephesus, we read:
“Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’ And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.”
Thus, Timothy (accompanied by Erastus) did take such an indirect overland route to Corinth from Ephesus. This artless dovetailing is best explained by the historical reliability of Acts on this detail. The map below shows the respective locations of Ephesus and Corinth and the route taken by Timothy through Troas and Macedonia.
A Map of the road around the Agean Sea
Let’s take a second example. In Acts 18:1-5, we read of Paul’s arrival in Corinth:
“After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tent makers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.”
We thus learn that Paul worked as a tent maker with Aquilla and Priscilla, and on the Sabbath day would reason with the Jews in the synagogue. But when Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia, apparently Paul changed his ministry model such that he was now fully occupied with his ministry. What caused this change? Luke doesn’t tell us – indeed, Luke may not even have known the reason. But when we turn over to 2 Corinthians 11:7-9, we have our answer:
“Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God’s gospel to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my need.”
Thus, again, Paul in his own words, in an artless and undesigned manner, corroborates a detail from Acts.
Let us examine one final example from Acts. Here is Acts 15:36-40:
“And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.’ Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.”
Why was Barnabas so desirous to take Mark with him even though Mark had proved himself unfaithful, having withdrawn from Paul and Barnabas previously in Pamphylia? Luke doesn’t tell us. However, when we turn over to Colossians 4:10, we have our answer:
“Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions – if he comes to you, welcome him).”
Thus, Paul in his letter to the Colossians explains the reason for the sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. Now it is evident that Paul did not add this reference to Mark being the cousin of Barnabas in order to explain Acts, for there is no indication in Colossians of there having been any disagreement or falling out involving Mark (by the time Paul wrote to the Colossians, the dispute appears to have been resolved). And, nor is Luke in Acts adding his narration of the conflict based on Colossians, for he makes no mention of Mark being the cousin of Barnabas (which would have in such a case been natural to include).
Undesigned Coincidences Between the New Testament and Extrabiblical Sources
In this final section, I will provide a couple of examples of undesigned coincidences involving the gospels and external secular sources. For our first example, consider John 2:18-20, which recounts a dialogue between Jesus and some Jews following the cleansing of the temple:
“So the Jews said to [Jesus], ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?‘”
Take note of the date given by the Jews – “it has taken forty-six years to build this temple…” We can thus discern the approximate date at which this dialogue must have taken place, since Flavius Josephus helpfully tells us when Herod the Great began to rebuild the temple. It was in the 18th year of his reign, which landed in approximately 19 BC. Forty-six years on from 19 BC lands us in 28 AD. Now, according to Luke 3:1, when did Jesus commence His public ministry? It was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Augustus Caesar died in 14 AD, but two years prior to that (the fall of 12 AD), according to the historian Suetonius, Augustus appointed Tiberius as co-emperor, in order to ensure a smooth transition of power. The 15th year of Tiberius, then, lands us in 27 AD, corresponding to Jesus’ baptism and ministry commencement. The cleansing of the temple would have taken place the following Passover (John 2:13), placing it in the spring of 28 AD. Thus, by two independent methods, and using information drawn from John, Luke, Josephus, and Suetonius, we have been able to confirm the date on which Jesus cleansed the temple. This sort of coincidence is best explained by the sources being rooted in truth.
As our final example, turn to Acts 23:1-5:
“And looking intently at the council, Paul said, ‘Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.’ And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, ‘God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?’ Those who stood by said, ‘Would you revile God’s high priest?’ And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’””
This raises an interesting question. How is it that the apostle Paul did not know who the high priest was? This Ananias was the son of Nebedinus, who occupied the office of high priest when Quadratus (Felix’ predecessor) was president of Syria. Josephus reports that he was sent bound to Rome by Quadratus in order to give an account of his actions to Claudius Caesar. As a result of the intercession on their behalf by Agrippa, they were dismissed and returned to Jerusalem. However, Ananias was not restored to his former office of high priest. Ananias was succeeded by Jonathan. Jonathan himself was assassinated inside the temple.
Following Jonathan’s death, the office of the high priest was not occupied until Ismael, the son of Fabi, was appointed by King Agrippa. The events that are recorded in Acts 23 took place precisely in this interval. Ananias was in Jerusalem and the office of the high priesthood lay vacant. It seems, then, that Ananias acted, by his own authority, in the assumed capacity of the high priest. This, then, illuminates Paul’s words in Acts 23:5: “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest.” Luke doesn’t even take the time to explain the historical backstory in his account of this event. The sources interlock in a way that points to the truth of the narrative we find in Acts.
The examples surveyed above represent only the very peak of the ice berg. For the book of Acts alone, if we were to limit our analysis to the first four Pauline epistles found in the New Testament (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians), already more than forty examples of undesigned coincidences could be documented. Furthermore, over one hundred points of corroboration involving Acts and external secular sources could be marshalled. There are also numerous examples of internal and external coincidences that corroborate the gospel accounts. Cumulatively, the evidence indicates that the authors of the gospels and Acts are indeed close up to the facts, and that they have reliable access to information concerning the events of which they write. For readers interested in finding additional examples, I warmly recommend Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts by Dr. Lydia McGrew, as well as Horae Paulinae by William Paley, which documents many instances involving the book of Acts and the epistles.
Blunt, John J. Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings both of the Old and New Testament. London: Woodfall and Kinder, 1853.
McGrew, Lydia. Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts. Chillicothe, OH: DeWard Publishing Company, 2017.
Paley, William D.D. Horae Paulinae or, the Truth of the Scripture History of St. Paul Evinced (In The Works of William Paley, Vol. II [London; Oxford; Cambridge; Liverpool: Longman and Co., 1838]).
The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.
 “The Antiquities of the Jews, Book XV, Chapter 11” by Flavius Josephus, available at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-15.html, accessed May 19, 2020.
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