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August 23, 2017
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On Undesigned Coincidences and The New Testament

“He that is first in his own case seemeth just; but his neighbour cometh and searcheth him.” — Proverbs 18:17 KJV

Anyone who has spent any time in Christian apologetics, novice or a seasoned veteran, has come across the claim that the New Testament documents are unreliable and full of seeming contradictions. A popular argument comes from Bart Ehrman, who claims that the Gospels were either copied from the earliest gospel penned (Mark), or from some prior common source of Jesus’ sayings (Commonly referred to as “Q”). The issue with this understanding is that it does not account for undesigned coincidences.

What are undesigned coincidences? Sometimes two or more works by different authors interlock in such a way that would be very unlikely if one were copied from another, or if either of them was copied from a common source. For example, one author could mention something that raises a question to the reader. Another author in a separate work could, in passing, mention some detail that gives us the answer to the question raised by the previous author.
My attempt with this article is to provide possible evidence that, if true, would show to be highly unlikely, if not impossible, that the Gospel authors copied from Mark or an earlier common source.


Herod and His Servants

The first case I would like to look at is found in the Gospel of Matthew:

“At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, and said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead…” — Matthew 14:1–2 KJV

An interesting question can be raised if we carefully read this passage. How does Matthew, a tax collector, know what Herod said to his servants?

Luke (hereafter referred to as L) offers us a possible answer:

“And it came to pass afterward, that He went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.” — Luke 8:1–3 KJV

In passing, L mentions that one of the women who ministered to the Apostles and Christ was the wife of Herod’s steward. So it would stand to reason that Matthew either overheard Joanna repeating what her husband said, or spoke with her husband himself.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

In the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John (Hereafter referred to as J) we encounter the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. J accounts that after Jesus sees the crowd He turns to one of His disciples and asks where they can buy bread to feed this crowd. One might expect Christ to ask one of the major Apostles like Peter, or John; or maybe even Judas, who was the one in charge of the money bag. But instead, He asks Philip, who plays a rather minute role throughout the Gospels. Why? Why Philip?

In L’s account of this miracle (Found in 9:10–11) we see some information not found in J’s account; namely that this miracle happened in Bethsaida. So how does knowing the location help us understand why Jesus asked Philip and not some other Apostle? Let’s look again to J:

“The same came therefore to Philip, which was of Bethsaida of Galilee…” — John 12:21 KJV

Given the information from J, we see that Philip was from Bethsaida and would know if there was a place nearby that could sell enough bread to feed this crowd. L gives us key information that helps us understand the information given to us in J.

Joseph of Arimathaea’s Courage

Finally, another case I would like to look at is in Mark’s (Hereafter referred to as Mk) account of Jesus’ burial, focusing in on the actions of Joseph of Arimathaea:

“And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counseller, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus.” — Mark 15:42-43 KJV

The question then arises, “Why did M record that Joseph went boldly to Pilate, asking for Jesus’ body?” We could speculate, that Joseph had just witnessed the death of Jesus and feared to ask the Roman official for the body of the dead criminal. But, if we look at J’s account, we are given more detail about Joseph that provides more insight into Joseph’s actions:

“And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.” — John 19:38 KJV

So from both Mk and J’s account, we see that Joseph was a disciple of Christ, but only in J’s do we get the insight that Joseph’s faith was in secret because he feared the Jews. Giving this information, we can better understand why Mk noted the courage of Joseph.


Conclusion

So here we see the interlocking of these various different authors, giving us key insights to minor details to the other narratives. What this shows us is that, if these are undesigned coincidences, the Gospels are not fabricated or the result of copying, but can be trusted as historical and reliable.

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