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A talk on undesigned coincidences in the Gospels

Here is an exceedingly interesting talk by Esteemed Husband, given in New Orleans last Sunday, on undesigned coincidences in the Gospels. This is an argument that was well-known in the nineteenth century but has, for no really clear reason, simply been forgotten as time has gone on. It is a cumulative case argument that the Gospels reflect, to an important extent, independent knowledge of actual events. Please note that this argument is quite independent of one's preferred answer to the synoptic question. That is to say, even if, e.g., Mark was the first Gospel and others had access to Mark and show signs of literary dependence on Mark, the argument from undesigned coincidences provides evidence for independent knowledge of real events among the Gospel writers. There are many more of such coincidences beyond those given in the talk.

Hopefully there will eventually be links to two talks given at New Orleans Baptist Seminary on Sunday night and Monday morning, including some of the same material and a good deal of additional material. My understanding is that there may be a small fee for those downloads when they become available.


Comments (22)

There is no argument from "undesigned coincidences," I went over each example, the first only proves that Matthew was sloppy in not citing Mark's prior mention of a blindfold. Each argument Tim supplied proves nothing and is just as easily explained via literary dependence with literary redactions over time. They do not provide an argument for independent eyewitness testimony.


Mr. Babinski, I'm sorry, but you are clueless. You do not even show signs of being able to _understand_ the argument, much less of being able to refute it. Please, do not waste my time and that of others here.

I went over each of Ed's criticisms and found them amusing. Lydia's quite right. But when the only tool you have is a hammer ...

This isn't a good time of year for me to get engaged in a protracted wrangle; the semester is beginning, and my students deserve top priority. Fortunately, the alternative "explanations" Ed tries to offer are easily shot down. I'll put up a brief rebuttal shortly.

An excellent talk, Tim. Also, was nice to hear your voice again after all these many, many years :)

Sadly, I went to see Ed's refutation and the page is no longer available.

And now it's back... off to read...

A good case for the literary independence of the parallel Gospel accounts is presented in the following book:

Eta Linnemann, Is there a Synoptic Problem? Rethinking the Literary Dependence of the First Three Gospels, translated by Robert W. Yarbrough, Grand Rapids 1992.

Such independence is furthermore reinforced by the use of different names for persons or places in parallel Gospel accounts. In Luke 6,16 the apostle Thaddaeus, as mentioned in Matthew 10,3 and Mark 3,18, is called Judas son of James. According to Mark 8,10 after the feeding of the four thousand Jesus went to the region of Dalmanutha, according to Matthew 15,39 to the vicinity of Magadan.

Whereas with respect to the apostle Thaddaeus Matthew and Mark agree with each other against Luke, the situation is different with respect to the apostle Matthew mentioned in Matthew 9,9. In this case Mark and Luke, who call him Levi (Mark 2,14 and Luke 5,27), agree with each other against Matthew.

Coming back to the former case, it is interesting that John agrees with Luke (John 14,22).

The problem with critics of Babinski's type is that with them the defender of the Gospels cannot win: if the Gospels agree too much, it's a mark of chicanery and conspiracy. If they don't agree enough, it's a mark that they're obviously fabrications. There must be some esoteric algorithm by which liberal critics determine exactly how much they should agree and disagree to be considered reliable.

Exactly, Rob. One wonders at what point the term "ad hoc" enters their vocabulary.

The neat thing about these undesigned coincidences is that they are so much the type of thing that people _do_ do when recounting real events. There are actually discussions of this in law literature, by the way. If one person happens to mention that Pilate ignored the charge that Jesus said he was a king (though Jesus did not deny it when asked) and a different person says that Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world, the one detail explains the other. This isn't the kind of thing one gets with forgery but rather with independent accounts.

Firstly, apologies if I should have posted on dangerous idea instead of here...but there's a sharp disagreement going on over there and I don't want this to get caught up in that discussion.

Tim, I have a question for you. Maybe I'm missing something and you can explain.

Context: on the way down the mountain after the transfiguration. In your talk regarding the command to stay silent, you state

[Tim's talk approx 15 min] Mark gives us the command but doesn't say whether they obeyed it...Luke records their obedience but omits the command itself. Do you begin to see the picture here? These are not forged from one another because who would record their failure to say anything and not explain why?

Now looking at scripture:

[Mark Ch9]
9 As they were coming down from the mountain he warned them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of man had risen from the dead.

10 They observed the warning faithfully, though among themselves they discussed what 'rising from the dead' could mean.


It appears that Mark does indeed say that they obeyed the command - could you comment? I'm no biblical scholar, so if I'm mangling some translation issue, just tell me.

BTW, I'm not claiming whether this changes your argument or not (perhaps you could offer an opinion on that as well!).



I'm not sure what translation you're using for Mark 9:10 there. The Greek reads:

και τον λογον εκρατησαν προς εαυτους,

literally, and they kept the saying with themselves. The translation you give takes a stand on the meaning of the Greek that is, shall we say, very free and interpretive. There is nothing here in the Greek about observing a warning, and if προς εαυτους means "private" or "to themselves," then what the verse is saying is that they kept the saying to themselves, not that they kept the event to themselves.

In the NASB, which is perhaps the best of the modern translations, Mark 9:10 is rendered:

They seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead meant.

It appears that what they "kept with them" is Jesus' statement about his rising from the dead.

But as far as the argument is concerned, the undesigned coincidence would still be there in the direction of Mark's explaining Luke even if, rather perversely one translates και τον λογον εκρατησαν προς εαυτους as "and they kept the event secret."

The problem with critics of Babinski's type is that with them the defender of the Gospels cannot win: if the Gospels agree too much, it's a mark of chicanery and conspiracy. If they don't agree enough, it's a mark that they're obviously fabrications. There must be some esoteric algorithm by which liberal critics determine exactly how much they should agree and disagree to be considered reliable.

I believe G.K. Chesterton had a particularly pithy quote about this exact thing...


I should be clearer: προς εαυτους really goes with the next clause. I was just trying to figure out where the translation you gave (where did you find it?) got the idea that a derivative of κρατεω (I lay hold of, I hold fast, I seize) should be rendered "observed faithfully." I'm not saying it couldn't be idiomatic, but that's certainly more of an interpretation than a translation.

For the Catholic reader, here is a backgrounder on the Mark wrote first thesis.


A LONG time ago, back when I lived in Maine, I dared publicly ask a question of one of the Church's new wonder kids who was holding various Parish meetings to tell the Christian Catholics that the Early Church Fathers and Tradition had gotten it wrong that Matthew wrote first. My fellow Catholics audibly gasped because I was asking an "expert."

These scholars can be very touchy about their theories :)

OH, as a bonus point, I thunk-up my own way to memorise the order of the New Testament and I will tell you what it is if you ask politely :)


Thanks for that link to Beaumont's paper. It had not occurred to me that the political situation in Germany in the 1870s might help to explain the sharp turn taken in Synoptic studies around that time. I shall have to think about this some more.

Do, please, enlighten us as to how to memorize the (chronological?) order of the NT. :)

Dear Tim.One has to construct some mnemonic in order to remember the correct order of the 27 New Testament Books. In order, here are the books;

Gospel of Matthew
Gospel of Mark
Gospel of Luke
Gospel of John
Acts of The Apostles
Epistle of Paul to the Romans
1st Epistle of Paul to The Corinthians
2nd Epistle of Paul to The Corinthians
Epistle of Paul to the Galatians
Epistle of Paul to The Ephesians
Epistle of Paul to The Philippians
Epistle of Paul to The Colossians
1st Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians
2nd Epistle of Paul to The Thessalonians
1st Epistle of Paul to Timothy
2nd Epistle of Paul to Timothy
Epistle of Paul to Titus
Epistle to Philemon
Epistle to Hebrews
Epistle of St James
1st Epistle of St Peter
2nd Epistle of St Peter
1st Epistle of St John
2nd Epistle of St John
3rd Epistle of St John
Epistle of St Jude

I thunk-up this my own self and, for me, it makes it easy to remember the order of Books in The New Testament

Matthew, Mark, then Luke and John
Then Acts and Romans follow along.

Then Corry Corry, but it ain’t gory
Cause Galatians and Ephesians tell of Glory

Then Philip Colossus puts on his Galoshes
To wade on through both Thessalosus

Then Tim and Tim
Upon a whim
Ask Titus, what’s the deal with Philem?

Then Hebrews and James
Dance in sacred Meter
Majestically along before Two Peters

Then sings to us The Triplets, John,
Before we hear St Jude’s short Song
Then the mysterious Apocalypse comes along


I'm usually the one coming up with mnemonics and my wife is usually the one telling me that it's easier just to memorize things by brute force. In this case, it really does come too late for me: having been raised a good Baptist boy, I had the books of the Bible in order burned into my brain at about the same time that I was memorizing the alphabet.

But your mnemonic is cute!

Dear Tim. The Pastor at St. Thomas More in Boynton Beach, Fl, Fr. Julian Harris, born and raised in Sumter, So Carolina, is from a family with a long lineage of Baptist Preachers and he is shocked at how little of the Bible Catholics know, say nothing about knowing the order of books etc.

I don't think I have ever known a Baptist who possessed Biblical knowledge that would not put the average Catholic to shame.

I don't think I have ever known a Baptist who possessed Biblical knowledge that would not put the average Catholic to shame.

Yes and no. In the recent past, certainly, but there is a small but undeniable trend of really well-informed younger Catholics coming up (I, however, am not that young and who knows how well-informed I am). There is also an explosion of apologetical material being printed (most not in any real depth, however, since most Catholics cannot read Scripture in the original languages), especially in the United States.

I am an exception, since I hang out at apologetics sites and own somewhere around 23 Bibles of about 19 different translations as well as the original languages and electronic editions of the Church Fathers, The Summa, etc. Then again, Catholics have much more to learn since Tradition (in the Catholic use of the term) is a part of the Faith. Yes, we have a lot of catching up to do, but if theological liberals continue to have fewer babies and die off, it may happen sooner rather than later, although one can still hope for the theologically liberals to repent, as well.

The Chicken

Dear Masked Chicken. As usual, you've got me beat :)

I think you may be onto something with the explosion of Internet Apologetics but much of that is of questionable value. The competition to be acknowledged as Lay Pope is fierce and the back-biting and accusations to-and-fro are disheartening.

I stick with "Catena Aurea," " Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary", Dom Orchard's, "A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture", and Jurgens' "Faith of The Early Fathers," collection.

It was only this year, as a Christmas present, that I got a new commentary, The Ignatius Study Bible, prolly because everyone I know knows I don't trust anything recent.

Heck, even Dom Orchard's collection was a radical purchase for me me -1953 publication - because I don't trust anything issued after 1940; especially me.

First, I think that if you are going to be using a critical approach, there are at least as many passages that diverge in their facts or themes than those that fit together like pieces of a puzzle. So there is a bit of risk to using this method. Another way of putting it, in order to recite the last words of Jesus on the cross you must choose one gospel account over another.

In addition, there was a degree of synthesis required to produce the gospels from earlier works that did not fit together so well.

Last, there is a reasonable chance that there were also some designed omissions.

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