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Classifications of undesigned coincidences

In preparation for a project I hope to work on in probability theory, I have prepared a partial taxonomy of undesigned coincidences. In the nature of the case, this is not going to be a rigorous taxonomy such as a set of mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive categories, for two reasons. First, there are fuzzy edges to what we include in the overall category of "undesigned coincidences." Second, sometimes it is somewhat arbitrary whether one includes a coincidence in one category or another, depending (for example) on whether one regards something as an "event" or a "detail," what counts as "the same event," and so forth.

Nonetheless, I think that a classification is useful. For one thing, it's useful for geeky types who have never heard of an undesigned coincidence and aren't satisfied with concrete examples. Some people work better mentally with general descriptions, or at least find them useful in addition to concrete examples.

A classification like this can help someone who has been introduced to the argument with examples only from one category to appreciate other kinds of undesigned coincidences as well.

Another useful thing about classifying undesigned coincidences is that it can draw our attention to what is usually most confirmed by a particular type of coincidence. For epistemological purposes, we want to be thinking about what is confirmed and how much it is confirmed when we use an argument.

So here is my partial taxonomy:

1. Details given in one source confirm an event or fact explicitly told in another source.

2. Two or more different accounts explicitly telling the same general event have details that fit together in a mutually confirming way.

3. Two or more different accounts agree on the core content while differing in non-contradictory details, though those details do not have other ways of fitting together.

4, Different events explicitly told in different accounts explain and hence confirm each other, or one event explains the other.

5. Details of different sources imply some fact, event, or series of events standing behind the statements though not explicitly affirmed in any source.

6. Two or more accounts tell about an event or series of events that are not at first obviously the same event or series but that, upon examination, turn out to be best explained as the same event or series on the basis of the coincidental fitting-together of their incidental details.

Here are biblical examples of each of these. In some cases I am giving only a sketch of each of these here. The more detailed version may be given in my forthcoming book or in a blog post.

1. John explicitly states that Jesus came to Bethany, near Jerusalem, six days before Passover. (John 12:1) Details given in Mark allow us to count these six days, though Mark makes no such statement. (This coincidence is discussed in Hidden in Plain View.) The details confirm the explicit statement that Jesus came to Bethany six days before Passover, and the statement in John confirms the accuracy of Mark in his more point-by-point chronological version of Passion Week.

2. There are quite a number of examples of this second type of undesigned coincidence among the Gospels. In case after case, details mentioned by the Gospel authors surrounding the feeding of the five thousand (the same general event) fit together in mutually explanatory ways. For example, Mark mentions the green grass at the feeding, while John mentions that it occurred around the time of Passover. Details given by John and Luke (especially) of Jesus' meeting with Pilate (description of the same general event) fit together in mutually explanatory ways. For example, Luke mentions that Pilate, after talking to Jesus, says that he considers him innocent of declaring himself a king, despite the fact that, in Luke's account, there is no record that Jesus denies the charge. (Indeed, he answers Pilate's question on the point rather cheekily and may even be affirming that he is a king.) John recounts that Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world.

3. The accounts in Acts and in II Corinthians of Paul's escape from Damascus (when he was let down in a basket) mention noticeably different details (though they do not contradict each other except in the mind of a Biblical critic) but agree on the core content. In this category, the varying details do not explain each other (as in the previous category), but the variation itself makes it quite unlikely that one account was merely copied from the other, while the agreement means that both accounts confirm the same core content.

4. The influx of gifts after the destruction of Sennacherib's forces explains the full treasure house of Hezekiah. See here.

5. Numerous different passages in all of the Gospels (and one in Acts) imply without stating it that Joseph, the guardian of Jesus, died fairly early on. The Gospel passages would seem to imply that he died before Jesus' ministry began. This probable fact "standing behind" the narratives is apparently taken for granted as a known matter by the authors, who feel no need to stress or even note it. The narratives seem to arise from the fact that they knew Joseph simply was not one of those present in various cases where Jesus' family interacted with him or confronted him. This confirms both the implied fact (Joseph's early death relative to the other events of Jesus' life) and the knowledge and truthfulness of the authors.

6. Paul mentions in I Corinthians and Romans that he is planning to take a journey to collect and transport money for the Christians at Jerusalem. He sketches his approximate itinerary. Acts 19-21 describes in detail Paul's travel plans and eventual travel prior to his being attacked by a mob in Jerusalem. Though Acts never mentions that Paul is taking up a collection for the Christians on this journey, the details of Paul's intentions and travels fit together so minutely with the epistles (including also II Corinthians) that it is extremely likely that these chapters of Acts describe the same journey delineated in the epistles. Yet the correspondences are so indirect as to make it highly unlikely that Acts is based on the epistles at this point.

All six of these categories confirm hypotheses about the sources/witnesses involved: That they knew what they were talking about, that they were truthful, that they were close to the facts, and so forth.

As a very general rule of thumb, categories 1-3 will tend to draw our attention to a single, particular event and tend to confirm the occurrence of that event at least approximately as related and perhaps even as related in its details. Of course this very confirmation of the events by way of the details given in the sources gives us more reason going forward to trust those particular sources. Categories 4-6, because they involve multiple events, each stated in only one source, events that are implied rather than explicitly stated, and so forth, will tend more to draw our attention to the sources and their probable connection to truth, though of course they also confirm the events and details related. It is a rather subtle matter of emphasis.

These categories, of course, arise in our investigation of all sorts of events in daily life, in the newspapers, in history, etc. This is by no means a way of thinking confined to biblical studies. Perhaps connections to daily life and secular events would be a good topic for the comments thread.

Comments (6)

I find your work interesting and have preordered your book. The "undesigned coincidence" in my daily life is that I have been looking at way historians verify things. My particular interest is biblical, but obviously, it would apply to anything in the past. Here is a gem from Isaac Taylor, History of the Transmission of Ancient Books to Modern Times: Together with the Process of Historical Proof, New Edition, Revised & Enlarged. (London, England: Jackson and Walford, 1859), pp. 225-226.

Very few facts of importance, such as form the proper subjects of history, rest entirely upon the testimony of a single historian, or are incapable of being directly, or remotely confirmed, by some kind of coincident evidence. Whenever therefore a question arises relative to the truth of a particular statement, recourse must be had, either to the testimony of contemporary writers, or to the evidence of existing monuments. But even if all such means of corroboration should fail, and if we meet with a perplexing silence where we might expect to find confirmation, we are by no means justified in rejecting the unsupported testimony, merely on the ground of this want of correlative support. Many instances may be adduced of the most extraordinary silence of historians relative to facts with which they must have been acquainted, and which seemed to lie directly in the course of their narrative. Important facts are mentioned by no ancient writer, though they are unquestionably established by the evidence of existing inscriptions, coins, statutes, or buildings. There are also facts mentioned only by some one historian, which happen to be attested by an incidental coincidence with some relic of antiquity lately brought to light; if this relic had remained in its long obscurity, such facts might (we see with how little reason) have been disputed.

Nothing can be more fallacious than an inference drawn from the silence of historians relative to particular facts. For a full, comprehensive, and, if the phrase may be used, a business-like method of writing history, in which nothing unimportant—nothing which a well-informed reader will look for, must be omitted, is the produce of modern improvements in thinking and writing. The general diffusion of knowledge, and the activity of criticism, occasion a much higher demand in matters of information to be made upon writers than was thought of in ancient times. A full and exact communication of facts has come to be valued more highly than any mere beauties of style; at least, no beauties of style are allowed to atone for palpable deficiencies in matters of fact. The moderns must be taught—and pleased; but the ancients would be pleased, and taught. Ancient writers, and historians not less than others, seem to have formed their notions of prose composition very much upon the model of poetry, which, in most languages, was the earliest kind of literature. As their epics were histories, so, in some sense, their histories were epics. Such particulars, therefore, were taken up in the course of the narrative, as seemed best to accord with the abstract idea of the work—not always those which a rigid adherence to a comprehensive plan would have made it necessary to bring forward.

For one thing, it's useful for geeky types

Hey, I resent being called out like this! Just kidding. Fine work, as usual. :-)

The book is added to my list - now Lydia mcgrew is going to flesh out undesigned coincidences within probability theory?! Interested in your work as always Lydia!

In a general sense, would modern biblical studies be focused on the first 3 categories (though not using UC as criteria) in terms of trying to find specific events which have evidence for them without assuming anything about the general reliability of the source? If so, it shows how modern biblical studies misses the forest for the trees. Quite often, the evidence for the reliability of the source is just as important as propping up specific events in secular history.

Callum, I tend to think that almost nobody focuses enough on any of these categories, not even the first three. Probably the nearest would be category 3: That is, people and scholars will ask whether we have another account of a specific event mentioned in Scripture. Does anybody else mention the slaughter of the innocent? Does any secular historian mention the darkness at Christ's death? And so forth. And then they'll make an argument from silence if we can't come up with one. Even then, the idea isn't to notice those subtly varying details which show independent access to the event. Indeed, I've seen one skeptic arguing that Luke must have based his accounts *on* Josephus as the only possible explanation for any parallels between what Luke says and what Josephus says! Access to truth as a possible explanation seems to be left out.

Categories 1 and 2 are severely neglected, even as regards comparison of Scripture with extrabiblical sources, because they are too subtle. For example, if the *character* of Herod as given elsewhere seems to confirm the explicit *account* of the slaughter of the innocent, that is not often treated as good enough. Or if the *event* of Archelaus's slaughter of a bunch of people at Passover dovetails with the statement in Scripture that Joseph decided not to settle in a place ruled by Archelaus when he returned from Egypt with Jesus and Mary, this tends to be noted by keen-eyed apologists as confirmation for the story, less so by mainstream scholars.

But even this is focusing only on correlations with secular history. In general when it comes to correlations *among* biblical books, the undesigned coincidences have just been overlooked for a long time or, at most, noticed in a commentary or an article here or there. A wonderful exception for Acts is the late Colin Hemer's magisterial The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, in print in the U.S. from Eisenbraun's.


Really quite crazy when you put it like that. Isn't it ironic that biblical scholars are solely focused on whatever confirmations they can get from secular history - ignoring the type of confirmations between biblical texts - yet it is within of the most important books of the twentieth century regarding confirmations between Acts and secular history that the internal evidence is highlighted!

Ever since I read a list of (something around) 80 points of corroboration in Acts from Hemer's book, it's been on my to read list. In fact I think Tim may have wrote the list! It may have been on CAA. Outside of Hemer, does Craig Keener touch on anything like undesigned coincidences in his huge volume on Acts? Im sure I've heard him defend the close correlations between Acts and the pauline epistles, though not sure if he argued via undesigned coincidences.

does Craig Keener touch on anything like undesigned coincidences in his huge volume on Acts?

I have to confess that I haven't read the four-volume work. But I can say that Keener has written a very kind foreword to my book. :-)

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