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Undesigned coincidences talk

About a week ago I had the opportunity to give a talk for Ratio Christi here at Western Michigan University on Undesigned Coincidences. I'm grateful that it was recorded and uploaded to Youtube. It's kind of long, and you may just want to listen rather than watch. (Note: There are very few slides--just a couple of maps during the Acts portion.) I was able to use some coincidences here that I think aren't as widely known, so I hope interested readers will enjoy.

Comments (28)

Great talk, Lydia.

I love the fact that the coincidences show up in miracles, and in completely prosaic factoids (like sending Timothy by a circuitous route to Corinth), and in background reality that nobody would even imagine much less attempt to structure as a foreshadowing or as explanation of another (unstated) fact.

As you say at near the end, given how the coincidences are sprinkled throughout the gospels and Acts and epistles (pretty much without rhyme or reason), it would be horrible special pleading for skeptics to claim that these are "the places where the writers were just sticking to historical facts". Yeah - everywhere.

Thank you, Tony! Yes! You get that point. It's so important.

The whole "without rhyme or reason" idea comes up (I'm realizing) in multiple places in New Testament studies, and it's something that redaction critics and New Testament scholars in general have a _terribly_ hard time with. NT scholarship is what I would call over-explanatory. They always feel this incredibly powerful drive to have some elaborate and _deliberate_ explanation for minor variations, and it distorts the discipline badly. A couple of examples other than undesigned coincidences: I saw a scholar the other day trying to explain the extremely minor variations between Matthew's and Luke's accounts of what Jesus said to the Sanhedrin at his Jewish trial. The differences are quite trivial. Luke has one extra sentence, and the order of the questions and answers is very slightly different. But the scholar couldn't just take the obvious and simplest explanation that Jesus probably said the extra sentence and that the witness Luke was working with recounted the words of the scene in a trivially different order from the order that Matthew's witness remembered it in, just as normal witnesses do. Or, for part of the scene anyway, Luke might well have read Matthew or Mark (which are virtually identical) and might have himself remembered it in a slightly different order when he wrote it down. (The physical conditions of composition at the time make it _extremely_ unlikely that Luke was crawling around on the floor actually _copying_ exact words from a scroll of Matthew or Mark even in cases where he does intend to follow one or the other of them.) No, he had to have this heavy explanation that Luke was _redacting_ an earlier account in order to appeal to a Gentile audience! Since the questions and answers were all the same anyway, the alleged greater appeal and clarity to a Gentile audience in Luke was _far_ from obvious in any event. But what struck me was this "itch" to have a redactive, deliberate explanation instead of just saying that these things _normally_ vary as people tell them.

Another example: I was debating with someone yesterday the alleged existence of a coherent _thing_ known among NT scholars as the "pre-Markan passion narrative" which Mark was supposedly using as a source. I expressed serious doubt about the existence of this purely hypothetical entity. One of the arguments given is that, in Mark, it says that Barabbas had committed murder "in the insurrection." It also leaves out the name of the high priest. It just says "the high priest." There are a couple of other such casual leavings-out of particulars. The argument being given was that this showed traces of a previous, more primitive "Jerusalem" narrative, not Mark itself (which in any event probably wasn't first written down in Jerusalem), in which the early Jerusalem audience was expected to know who "the high priest" in question was and which insurrection was being referred to, and that this was why these are not specified.

Again, this shows over-explaining and a preference for the elaborate explanation over the simple one. The simple explanation, consonant with *the way real people talk*, is that the witness or witnesses (probably Peter, at least, based on ancient tradition) just *talked that way* and left out random particulars. People do that *all the time*. One can easily imagine someone talking about a particular time period and saying, "The president" without naming the particular president. Or "the war" or "the riots" or something like that. That is, in fact, a mark of eyewitness testimony. It doesn't even necessarily mean that the speaker/writer has thought it through and "expects the audience to know." That's over-interpretation. The person is just getting on with his story and *not bothering about* whether the audience knows precisely which insurrection he's talking about.

And as in the case of undesigned coincidences, the lack of rhyme or reason is a clue that this is happening. Contrast the fact that Mark is the _only_ gospel that names Salome as being at the foot of the cross and coming to anoint Jesus' body on Easter day. In fact, Mark specifically names three women at the foot of the cross and coming to anoint the body. So some particulars (the name of the high priest) aren't mentioned and others (the name of Salome) are. This randomness in naming particulars is normal in truthful human discourse, and attempts to explain it by some deliberate intention or the existence of some previous source are strained.

But the whole discipline is so messed up that even quite conservative scholars and students do not see this and admit over-explanations too readily.

The argument being given was that this showed traces of a previous, more primitive "Jerusalem" narrative, not Mark itself (which in any event probably wasn't first written down in Jerusalem),

If you stop for a minute and think through how things actually happen, there almost certainly was no such that as THE "Jerusalem narrative".

In addition to the Twelve, there were dozens of other close disciples and hundreds of other people who knew more than just a passing detail about the events. There was 50 days from Easter to before Pentacost. They certainly would have been telling each other, and newcomers, parts of the stories. Adding parts, subtracting parts that they didn't understand, mixing this with that, and so on.

With Pentacost and the Apostles coming out of hiding more or less in full stride, you still had 11 men all with their own individual details that they remembered best, and events that always struck them as "central" while others were peripheral - and vice-versa for other Apostles. You also had the second ring of disciples, Mary and Martha and Lazarus from Bethany, Salome, etc, who all had their own perspectives AND their own closer Apostle friends while other Apostles were more distant. Each of these would have, over time, developed something of THEIR standard way of recounting event X, but for each of them that standard way would be only similar to the standard way another Apostle recounted it.

You watch this happen in regular life ALL THE TIME. Dad always tells about Uncle Bob's car accident one way, and Mom always interjects that one detail that Dad leaves out, because she can't stand it when Dad thinks it was insignificant. Nobody disputes the detail, they just don't TELL it that way. (That's even aside from the details that people DO disagree about because each witness sees the event from their perspective.)

I work in Washington, and I have heard 50 people describe what happened downtown and near the Pentagon on 9-11. No story is identical. No story is wrong, they are just distinct. I have heard partial stories from a Marine 1 helicopter pilot, from an air force colonel riding shotgun with very high officials, from a first responder at the Pentagon, from people IN the Pentagon, etc. They all have parts that THEY tell best, and other parts that they know about but only second or third hand and they only mention in passing.

In an age where news passed from person to person instead of on the radio or nightly news (or texts and twitter), you simply DON'T GET a consolidation of "the story" into a single approved, agreed format. Not a big, big story that happened to many people and affected differently for each one. There would be some central themes that would tend to be told over and over and formalized to some extent, but that would leave open a hundred different ways of telling all the peripheral stuff.

Again, this shows over-explaining and a preference for the elaborate explanation over the simple one.

I've been struggling lately with arguments such as the following:


This scholar argues that the lack of post-resurrection appearances in Mark and passages such as John 20 indicate the "real history" while the story of the resurrection is a later embellishment. It seems the inverse of Lydia's examples: here his case is simpler than the traditional Christian perspective (maybe?)

Can undesigned coincidences help here, can they be found in the passages he considered ahistorical add-ons designed to serve an ecclesiastical agenda? Can anything help here? I am not sure how to interpret these arguments, and it's a bit troubling to be honest.

Generally the idea that something's absence in Mark is an argument against it is a _terrible_ argument. Just terrible. It seems _extremely_ likely that the original ending of Mark is lost in any event.

The reliability of the other gospels is in any event confirmed. They are not merely dependent on Mark. There is no reason whatsoever to think that the resurrection stories are "later embellishments" except for anti-supernatural bias.

Undesigned coincidences help here in multiple ways. First, they confirm the reliability of all of the gospels and their not being mere "developments" or "embellishments" of Mark. Second, there is one in my talk that even confirms the post-resurrection appearance in John 21. (I have another one in the forthcoming book for that same passage.)

No, it is not true that just chopping whole passages out and labeling them "embellishments" is "simpler" than the traditional Christian perspective. Why think that? Why would "embellishment" be a simpler hypothesis? If anything, "embellishment" ends up being a very _complex_ hypothesis, because one has to evolve epicycles to explain all sorts of things, like the rise of Christianity, the disciples' willingness to die for what they proclaimed (who is willing to die for a phony embellishment?), and so forth.

I can't tell if you've actually watched the talk. By all means, I strongly suggest that you do so.

Notice that Tabor illicitly makes "contradictions" by a) ripping those ten verses out of the rest of John and then b) noticing that, once he's ripped them out of the gospel of John, they don't say other things that are said elsewhere in the gospel (!!) as well as in other gospels and then c) arguing that the failure to say something in a particular passage constitutes a _contradiction_ of that statement if made elsewhere.

This is just...awful as argument. I mean, it's so awful that I am inclined to call it argumentative malfeasance. The word "sleazy" comes to mind.

Never, ever let that type of legerdemain bother you.

The argument is one of historical primacy: the passages chopped out are the earliest ones and the ones deemed "embellishments" are the ones that appeared later in the tradition. So there is a reason to approach it this way.

I have not finished listening to your talk. I find this area fascinating and really appreciate you posting this. I'll try to finish the lecture tonight.


"The argument is one of historical primacy: the passages chopped out are the earliest ones."

No, that's just his assertion. He has no evidence for that assertion. He's blowing smoke. See that little phrase "that appear to be the earliest narrative"? That's him making stuff up. Or maybe him borrowing from some other NT scholar making stuff up.

Liberal NT scholars (and I fear occasionally some more conservative ones too) do that kind of thing all the time. They'll use a phrase like "that appears to be" which gives the unwary reader the idea that there is some strong *independent argument* (that the mere layman reader just doesn't know the details of) for what they finish the sentence with, instead of just somebody's utterly subjective idea that these "kinda look like that, right?"

Gotta develop antennae for that kind of thing.

Gotta develop antennae for that kind of thing.

Yes, I do. I'm just beginning to study NT scholarship (maybe starting with the Jerome Bible Commentary is not the best choice?) and I really appreciate your writing and how you take evidence seriously without requiring evidence to be in the form of a video (which seems to the standard elsewhere--"I can claim anything I want because we don't have a tape recording of Jesus saying things.")

I have been waylaid by arguments such as Talbot's because it is very natural to think in terms of the NT documents being added to as the years went on to push this or that agenda of a developing church. I find the undesigned coincidences concept to be very compelling antidote to that line of thinking and am looking forward to the rest of your lecture. Thank you very much!

"because it is very natural to think in terms of the NT documents being added to as the years went on to push this or that agenda of a developing church."

It's common for people in the NT field to talk that way, but there's nothing particularly natural about it historically.

On the contrary, the early church had respect for these documents because they took them to be apostolic in origin. (That's also why they copied and preserved them so carefully, which is how we come to have copies of them still after all these years.) Justin Martyr repeatedly refers to "the memoirs of the apostles." It was considered okay if the author was a close associate of an apostle (like Luke and Mark were taken to be). But the whole attitude as far as we can tell of the early church was that they wanted the documents they relied upon to have an apostolic stamp of approval and to have been written in the lifetime of at least one apostle (I add "at least one" because we don't know, though they did, how many other apostles were alive when John wrote his gospel). So from _their_ perspective, it was exactly the _opposite_ of natural for these documents to have been gradually added to. They were out to prevent any such thing. They wanted to stick to the gospel the apostles had taught and were wary of anything that might be a later addition pushing a later and possibly heterodox agenda. The whole history of the early patristic treatment of the gospels, doctrine, etc., supports this point.

I'm very glad that this material is of use! :-)

Perhaps the largest sense in which undesigned coincidences help here with is to (a) confirm the authenticity of the gospels (all of them) as accounts based on actual eye witness testimony, and (b) help identify the genre of the accounts as UNembellished real life accounts.

James Tabor's method of accounting for differences in the texts (to call them contradicitions) is clearly biased hogwash. He says from John that Mary went to the tomb alone because John only mentions Mary, and the other accounts having other women is an addition, an embellishment for "theological" reasons. But John doesn't say "Mary went to the tomb alone", he says Mary went to the tomb". That doesn't assert or deny whether others went. It is open.

Later (within the 10 verses he claims are "original"), it has Mary saying “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

"We" only makes sense within a context in which "we" know that "they have taken the Lord out of the tomb". It assumes a perspective that "we" went to the tomb. There isn't any contradiction between John and Mark, because John happens to leave out "and the others" when he says "Mary went to the tomb", but he uses and implies the fact that others went when he says "we don't know where they laid him."

This is not in the least bit unusual for those who claim the gospels are unhistorical or embellished: they often WANT to find contradictions and mistakes, and they take the least hint of possible discrepancy to be a contradiction. This happens over and over, until they wear down the typical joe and he gets to thinking "maybe there really are a lot of problems in the Gospels." But adding one silly "problem" after another doesn't really add to a weight of worry or difficulty, the way adding one real serious problem after another would. Because of the shallowness of many of these, I have to believe that wearing down the unsuspecting victim with a false "where there's this much smoke, there must be fire" is an intentional (relatively dishonest) ploy for some such who attack the Gospels.

And, contrariwise, being able to add one undesigned coincidence after another should add weight to the reliability of the total. Now, some undesigned coincidences are going to be more or less weighty than others, according as they have more or less directness in the connection between them, more or less certainty to the undesignedness, and so on. So it's not like each one is a deal-maker that "proves" a great deal.

I like this argument and think it should be more known by Christians - mainly because it is an argument that uses pretty basic ideas within history. When you have these connections that weave in and out sources it really puts the proponent for some type of embellished/legendary approach to the source in a very tight spot.

Really interested to see how seriously this idea is addressed in scholarship journals, though because of the probability of certain, tired approaches being challenged by extension (I'm thinking of said 'over explaining') I wouldn't hold my breath. We can only hope that there is still enough room for skepticism for their own ideas.

Great stuff, Lydia. I love the image of Bart Ehrman crashing his SUV into the fallen tree of Acts of the Apostles.

Thanks, Paul!

Great applause from Durham, Lydia.

Also, I must say that I enjoy Tony's posts very much on these topics.

1st example of an undesigned coincidences not your lecture does not fit together, Mk6 & Jn6. Compare the contexts. The people "coming and going such that they had no leisure (rest) even to eat" in Mk are not giving Jesus or the apostles a minutes peace due to the twelve "returning from their mission," probably trailing people eager to learn more about Jesus.

While John mentions no such sending out of the twelve on a mission, and only has Jesus performing miracles (and only mentions Jesus handing out the bread and fish to the multitude,not the apostles). So The gospel of Jn has no such context as the "mission of the twelve" in mind as in Mk, but IS concerned throughout his Gospel with Jesus's relation to Jewish holy days like the Passover, several Passovers in fact, as well as the feast of tabernacles, nor does the Gospel of Jn have Jesus telling parables of the kingdom of God but instead has him constantly talking about who he is, and the need to believe particular things about him, he who believes not is damned already, the work of God is to believe, and if you don't eat the body and drink the blood of the lamb of God you have no life within you. In contrast Mk has Jesus taking pains not to get recognized as the messiah, has Jesus talking about the kingdom of God coming soon and the need to repent, and furthermore there is nothing in Mk that suggests Jesus's mission took place in more than a single year with only one Passover taking place, right before Jesus's death and after he cleanses the temple near the end of his ministry -- that act being the final straw that convinces the religious leaders to definitely seek Jesus's execution (again, contrast Jn where the final straw is the newly added miracle of the raising of Lazarus, which may also explain why Jn moves the cleansing of the Temple from the end to the beginning of his narrative). Jn in contrast to Mk has Jesus cleanse the temple at the start of his ministry and has Jesus tell people who he is at various Jewish festivals, like Passover, the feast of tabernacles, etc., even has Jesus recognized as the Passover lamb who takes away the sins of the world right in chapt. 1 by the Baptist (who never has any doubts latter on as to who Jesus is as in the Synoptics) and also -- in contrast to the Synoptics -- has Jesus slain at the same exact time as the Passover lambs at the end of his Gospel. So Jn is pretty much Passover obsessed compared and it would be like him to try and turn the feeding of the multitude into another chance to add mention of "the Passover" due to his theological focus or obsession.

So the differences are more striking between Mk and Jn as a whole than the argument from such incidental speech the the argument from undesigned coincidences is trying to make. It does seem like the fourth Gospel writer had a definite design in mind and added such mention for his own reasons.

Also the people coming and going in Mk are not at the site of the feeding of multitude but on the other side of the lake, and as I said, Mk implies this is due to the twelve returning from their mission and not giving the apostles and Jesus any rest, not due to the Passover. So the design in Mk is pretty clear and self contained as well.

Sent from my iPad


I'm more inclined to see theological design in the narrative than Lydia, but your argument wrongly puts that at odds with historicity. John cared a lot about the symbolism of the Passover. That would explain why, if the feeding of the 5,000 happened at Passover, John chose to mention the fact. It also could theoretically explain why John added that chronological marker, without historical basis. Both explanations are possible, given John's theological aims. But the links with Mark give reason to prefer the former. I don't think this is Lydia's most persuasive example of undesigned coincidences, but it does have some evidential weight, whereas an ahistorical hypothesis regarding this detail has no evidence for it - none that you've presented anyway.

Your explanation that in Mark

the people coming and going was due to the twelve "returning from their mission," probably trailing people eager to learn more about Jesus.
is a mere guess. The text doesn't say that. It's not a bad guess as guesses go, but it's nothing more. Whereas Lydia's historical hypothesis is based on the textual evidence of two sources which purport to describe an actual event. And even a weakly supported hypothesis is superior to a mere guess.

Also the people coming and going in Mk are not at the site of the feeding of multitude but on the other side of the lake

Uh, yeah, I said that. That's why they _left_ that side of the lake and went _away_ to the _other_ side.

Mk implies this is due to the twelve returning from their mission and not giving the apostles and Jesus any rest, not due to the Passover.

No, Mark doesn't _imply_ anything of the kind.

What Ed Babinski does not understand is that a concatenation of "hypotheses" that leaves the _coincidence_ between facts utterly unexplained is much poorer epistemically than an hypothesis that explains the coincidence.

Other than that, I really have no interest at all in having a long discussion with Ed Babinski on alleged contradictions between gospels.

Christopher, thanks for your comments. You might find it interesting that there is another data point here that I just didn't happen to discuss in this talk: Mark mentions that they sat down on "the green grass," which occurs in that part of the world only around the time of Passover.

This stuff is sweet, epistemically.

So the differences are more striking between Mk and Jn as a whole than the argument from such incidental speech the the argument from undesigned coincidences is trying to make. It does seem like the fourth Gospel writer had a definite design in mind and added such mention for his own reasons.

Edward, you seem to find a conflict between the accounts, or between the rationale's behind the accounts, where none exists, where there is no basis for finding conflict rather than mere difference.

Let us suppose for a moment, for the sake of the argument, that Mark and John had different themes in mind when they wrote their passages. This does NOT imply that one or the other constructed the accounts with unhistorical additions and embellishments to imbue the story with their theme-laden theory. Since God writes "stories" by crafting real life events the way He wants them to go, and since God can write stories on multiple levels of meaning all at the same time, nothing prevents Mark's theme and John's theme from both being wholly present and intended and arranged and revealed to them for the same events. It is perfectly possible that what Mark saw in the events was there, and what John saw in the same events was there also. There is, also, nothing unhistorical about Mark or John leaving out bits and pieces that don't fit with the theme they are building: every story-teller and historian has to decide which bits to leave out because they are not germane, this is an editorial function, not a creative function.

Nor is there any conflict between crowds being there on account of the disciples mission, and people being in the vicinity on account of the passover. If you are setting out from the north on your way south toward Jerusalem, and you hear about a miracle worker sort of on the way (just a few miles out of your ordinary path), you may decide to take a diversion. How much more likely that would be if you ALSO saw miracles by one of his disciples, using Jesus's name, and THEN hear that "Jesus is over near Capernaum," a few miles away. Alternatively, if you were kind of on the fence about going to Jerusalem this year, but you also hear about this miracle worker who just happens to be in the same vicinity as your route to Jerusalem, and you see his disciples work miracles in his name, that might tip you over the edge to decide to go. People can have mixed motives for the same action. If the crowd would have been there but would have been smaller but for the OTHER reason being present, then the crowd was there both because of the mission and because of the Passover.

(and only mentions Jesus handing out the bread and fish to the multitude,not the apostles)

Now I know you are grasping at straws. First of all, while some translations merely say that Jesus gave out the food, the Authorized King James version says

And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down;

Now I don't know what the Greek actually says, I don't read Greek, so maybe they interpolated "he distributed to the disciples and the disciples to..." But it is just plain silly to take the language that doesn't mention the disciples as meaning that the disciples didn't help out. That's goofy and unreasonable. There were 5,000 men, and untold (but many) women and children. If Jesus did all the distributing himself, alone, it would have taken a many hours - effectively a whole day just for that. (I used to be in the banquet business, I know how long it takes to serve a crowd of 500 with a full wait staff.) Since John does mention the disciples helping recover the leftovers, one can easily allow that John just did not see a need to mention Jesus using the disciples to distribute, not that John was fictionalizing the account by getting rid of the disciples' role. He doesn't say "and Jesus distributed the food by himself..." Nor do we have a plausible basis for thinking that John was intentionally minimizing the disciples role in carrying out Jesus's miracle, for some "theological" positioning; leaving the disciples out doesn't make some point that having them in there messes up.

This is what I mean about wanting to find (and willing to make) discrepancies out of mere differences in telling what happened. It's one thing to point out real places where accounts disagree. It's another thing entirely to see mere difference and jump at it as implying some nefarious fictionalizing.

As a matter of fact, my own strong inclination is to doubt that the _disciples'_ return had anything to do with the crowds, though IIRC John says that Jesus himself was having trouble with the crowds on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. So the probable combination is the attraction of Jesus per se and the Passover. If all we had was John, we would justifiably conclude that the trouble with the crowds was entirely the same old problem Jesus personally always had (being mobbed by people personally), but the specific phrase in Mark, "many coming and going" is not terribly well explained either by attraction to Jesus or by attraction to his disciples. It is better explained by the imminence of the Passover, and the "green grass" phrase in Mark really nails it in.

There is another data point that I have not fully decided how to integrate and am leaving out of the book: John says that the boy brought "barley loaves." The barley harvest was right around the time of the Passover. However, these loaves may have been made from the previous year's barley harvest, because some sources say that the Jews did not begin actually to eat from that year's barley harvest until after the offering of the firstfruits on the day after the first day of unleavened bread. So that the loaves were barley loaves may in fact be a coincidence.

Hi Lydia,
(I thought I made a post a couple days ago, but perhaps there was a glitch and so I'm re-writing it.) Very much appreciate the talk (haven't finished it yet, am at Acts/Epistles), and was wondering if you could say more about "Do you love me more than these?". You seemed to think this obviously means (a) "Do you love me more than these (they) love me?" rather than (b) "Do you love me more than you love these (them)?" Could you say more on why? Is it based on semantic considerations, or perhaps contextual ones? E.g., (1) It's plausible that 'these' refers to the other disciples present (as opposed, for example, to "things of the world"), and (2) it's implausible to think Jesus would be asking Simon about Simon's love for the other disciples? I see how reading (a) would deliver the undesigned coincidence, interlocking with the Synoptic material on Peter's boast, but is there an independent reason to go with (a)?


Thanks for the question. There are several answers to it. First of all, there has never been the slightest hint in any of the gospels that Peter loves the other disciples more than he loves Jesus. Or vice versa for that matter. Love for one another is something Jesus constantly has to *urge* upon the disciples, when their inclination is to compete and bicker among themselves. Of course, there must have been a fair bit of esprit d'corps (of some sort) among them by this time, but the point I'm making here is that, to begin with, there is just no reason to think that their love for Jesus has ever come second in their affections to their love for one another. Whereas the very history of competition (not merely in the specific passage I am citing, but in multiple passages) supports the idea that Jesus is asking Peter about his love vs. their love for Jesus.

I have to be quite honest and say that I am surprised at the number of people who question this interpretation of the verse. To me it's _obviously_ the correct reading, and in fact (for what this is worth) appears to be favored by the majority of the commentators. The alternatives all seem highly strained. Does he love Jesus more than he loves the other disciples? Why think that is a problem? Does he love Jesus more than he loves the boat or the fish? Seriously???

Second, as a reader at my personal blog pointed out to me, the construction used here for "than these" is the genitive of comparison. Now, full disclosure: The reader who pointed this out doesn't think this is relevant to the question. (His inclination was to take the "these" to refer to the fish!) I think, however, that it is relevant. Here are several places where this construction is used:

Matthew 10:31
Matthew 6:25
John 14:28

If you look these up, you will see that the word in the genitive "than ______" is parallel to some other word in that both are possible subjects of the verb: "You are of more value than many sparrows [are]." "Is not life more than food [is]?" "The Father is greater than I [am]."

I have not been able to find anything purporting to be a comprehensive list of this genitive of comparison construction in the gospels, but to the extent that the sample I have been able to find is representative, it supports the reading, "Do you love me more than these [do]?"

Interestingly (pointed out by the same reader!) when Jesus says, Matthew 10:37, that one who loves father and mother more than him (Jesus) is unworthy of him, he does _not_ use the genitive of comparison. Instead he speaks of "the one loving father or mother above me," with a straightforward preposition for "above."

I haven't been successful in finding a Greek analysis of the Greek Septuagint for the verse in the Old Testament (Genesis 29:30) which says that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, and I'm not enough of a Greek scholar to figure it out just from looking directly at the Greek of the Septuagint. (For the above points I have been able to check Bible Hub's invaluable "Greek Text Analysis" tool for the New Testament.) That would be interesting to look at.

Anyway, insofar as actual linguistic construction is relevant beyond context and independent information about the relations between the disciples, and insofar as I've been able to track it down, it supports what (again) seems to me to be the obviously correct interpretation of the verse.

"Things of the world" seems to me to be simply out of court. "These" is a demonstrative pronoun. Jesus is gesturing to _something_. Nobody gestures vaguely to "these" while meaning "things of the world" without further explanation. Even in the famous gospel song that appropriates the phrase for that purpose, it has to be _explained_, and the song does so at some length.

Thanks Lydia,
I can't think of any good reason to adopt an alternative interpretation, and I think you've given good reasons for yours. (A) When I (and I would surmise many others) initially call to mind the English rendering of the question, it doesn't seem obvious which interpretation to go with, but (B) upon reflection, the choice seems pretty clear, for reasons you give. (It seems the demonstrative surely refers to disciples, and given that much, I think your interpretation's surely more plausible.) I'm not sure why (A) is true. Some thoughts: Perhaps I've (and others) heard it taught/preached in the past on a "do you love me more than you love..." interpretation. Perhaps that interpretation might be thought to mesh better with Jesus' subsequent instructions to Peter. (One might think that loving something over Jesus could get in the way of properly feeding the sheep, whereas it's not as clear how someone else's loving Jesus more than you do would get in the way.) Finally, if a clause of the form 'you love me more than __' is plugged with a term for an agent (agents), it could have either a subjective or objective meaning (e.g., you love me more than Fred does, or you love me more than you love Fred), whereas if it is plugged with a term for a thing (e.g., fish), it basically forces an objective reading (you love me more than you love fish). So *antecedent to* specifying the referent of 'these', linguistic considerations alone may tilt the mind somewhat toward an objective reading.

I definitely think preaching is part of what is going on here, and something that I think feeds into the interpretation "Do you love me more than you love these?" is the idea that Peter has done something _wrong_ by fishing. I for one have heard several sermons that imply this, but actually it isn't implied anywhere in the text. In fact, if you look at the synoptics you find that a boat that appears to belong to the disciples (some of them or other) is ubiquitous. Jesus depends on it, long after he calls them to "come, follow me." He orders the use of the boat over and over again. So it's clear that they kept the boat and that Jesus didn't disapprove of that. I think the relationship between following Jesus and fishing was a lot more fluid than our Sunday School stories tend to indicate, as though fishing would be regarded as "worldly," but the more one looks into it the more one realizes that is eisegesis. Another indication is that a harmonization of John's early chapters with the synoptics shows that apparently Peter and Andrew had been followers of Jesus in a Judean ministry _already_ before the famous, "Come, follow me" scene in the synoptics! In other words, they didn't see any conflict between going back and doing some fishing in the family business after they had been actually baptizing on Jesus' behalf in the Jordan river (John 4, I believe).

So in general I don't think Peter was doing anything wrong by fishing, but the notion that he was and that Jesus was subtly rebuking him for it may lie behind various sermons that interpret, "Do you love me more than these?" to mean "Do you love me more than you love something else?"

The other thing is that, if the undesigned coincidence interpretation is correct, Jesus *doesn't want* a "yes" answer! He actually wants it established that Peter doesn't claim any longer to love him more than the others love him. And that is in essence what Peter gives. He doesn't make any comparison of any kind. He just says that he loves Jesus. And upon hearing that, Jesus orders him to feed his sheep and his lambs. Apparently that is the answer Jesus wants.

My pastor preached on this a week ago Sunday. He says that the Greek is interesting in that it uses different words for love. According to him, the first two times, Jesus says "Do you love (agape) me more than these", it would have to be more than these disciples, and agape is the highest love that pertains especially to God. Both times, Peter's response is "You know I love (philia - friendship) you". (Pastor claims Peter is saying he is not ready to step up to agape.) The third time, Jesus says "Do you love me (philia) more than these", makes it easier, and Peter's response is still a tentative: "_YOU_ know whether I love (philia) you, Lord. (After my denials...I am not going to be so certain of myself anymore...)"

I don't know if he got it right or not. (From my quick look at the Greek, it looks plausible, there is agape twice.) But if Christ used agape, that can't be "more than fishes", or "worldly goods", and it isn't plausible that it's "do you love me more than you love these disciples".

Yes, the verbs do change in that way. That's a pretty common topic for sermons and is another way in which Peter shows humility. I note too that Jesus drops "more than these" after the first question. Agape could be used for one's love of human beings. I believe that it is the verb in the verse where Jesus says that if anyone loves father or mother above him that person is not worthy of him.

Right, agape can be used for love of other humans, but as denoting the highest kind of love, it cannot be correct agape if it is love of other humans before God. Peter could have agape for Jesus, and he could have agape for the other disciples, and he could have agape more for Jesus than for the disciples, but he cannot have agape for the disciples above Jesus - and still be agape.

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