Coinfidence in Undesigned Coincidences: In Defense of the “Why Philip?” example

A commonly mentioned example of an undesigned coincidence is about why, in John 6:5, Jesus asks Philip where to get food for the crowd before miraculously feeding the five thousand. The explanation relies on details from John and Luke. In John, we learn that Philip came from Bethsaida, while Luke independently says the feeding happened there (Luke 9:10).

In Luke’s story, the place is mentioned, but Philip’s role isn’t. In contrast, John doesn’t specify the location but does mention that Philip is from Bethsaida and tells us about Jesus asking Philip. This makes sense as an undesigned coincidence if Philip knew the area well and its local food joints. It’s important to note that John mentions Philip’s connection to Bethsaida in unrelated passages (John 1:44, 12:21). This natural fit of details is what we might expect when both accounts are based on eyewitness testimony.

As you’d anticipate, critics have questioned and tried to downplay the significance of these connected details. Let’s take a look at a few of the concerns they’ve raised.

Erasing Bethsaida?

First, they argue that it’s clear the feeding didn’t happen in Bethsaida. Both Mark and Matthew describe the location as a deserted place (Mark 6:31, Matthew 14:13, 15). What’s more, in Luke 9:12, just a few verses later, the disciples refer to their location as “in a desert place” (Luke 9:12). It seems like this place was quite remote, so much so that the disciples planned to send the crowds not directly to Bethsaida (which would make sense if they were nearby) but instead to “the surrounding towns and countryside” (Luke 9:12). This suggests they were in a distant, out-of-the-way area, not specifically in or near Bethsaida.

John’s account allegedly supports this view too. In John 6:3, he notes that Jesus went “to the mountain” (John 6:3). While he doesn’t say which mountain, it fits with the Gospels’ consistent story that this event happened in a remote, unpopulated area, not in a known town. Given this information, it seems the feeding happened far away from any specific town, making Philip’s local knowledge less important.

To explain away this undesigned coincidence, Matthew Hartke summarizes these arguments by saying:

“These details are very different. It brings up the point about editorial fatigue. In Mark, Jesus feeds a multitude in a desolate place, making the question about finding food for them reasonable because there’s nowhere nearby to get food. That’s why the miracle is so significant, as they are far from any town. In Luke, he takes the story from Mark but places it just outside of Bethsaida. However, he starts talking about the disciples asking where to get food while they’re near Bethsaida, which doesn’t make sense because there’s food available in the town….It seems, and this is Mark Goodacre’s point about editorial fatigue, that in this instance, Luke has taken the story from Mark and relocated it to Bethsaida, but then he slips back into the language of his source where it’s a desolate place, even though that doesn’t fit.”

The McGrew Failure – With Matthew Hartke and The Amateur Exegete

In response to this, it’s important to understand that when the text mentions “a desert place,” it could possibly means uncultivated grazing land. This detail could explain why there was an abundance of grass, as mentioned in Mark 6:39.

Furthermore, when the disciples suggest sending the people to the surrounding towns, it makes sense because Bethsaida was close to Capernaum, Chorazin, Gennesaret, and Magdala, places where the people likely came from. (Luke 9:12) Having 5,000 hungry travelers (plus women and children, as Matthew 14:21 notes) all gather in a single location probably wouldn’t be practical, especially when these towns were only a few miles apart. Even if the event didn’t happen right in Bethsaida, it must have been quite nearby.

Let me illustrate with a real-world example. I have a friend who was born and raised in Iowa, and in the state, people often identify with the largest town in a region. For instance, my friend would say they’re from Cedar Rapids, even though they grew up in the smaller city of Palo, which is 13 miles away from town. Did my friend technically grow up in Cedar Rapids? No. However, my friend knows everything about Cedar Rapids and the surrounding area, including every hill, forest, creek, pond, and neighborhood.

What I’m getting at is that it’s not necessary to emphasize that they were a little way aways from Bethsaida. If this “somewhere” is clearly in the same general area where Bethsaida is located, then Philip, being a local resident, would have known the entire region around Bethsaida better than someone from somewhere else. So, the important question here is whether this deserted place is in the general vicinity of Bethsaida. If it is, then the undesigned coincidence still holds.

Okay, so what about “editorial fatigue”? In a nutshell, Mark Goodacre has a theory called “editorial fatigue” in the Gospels. He says that when a writer relies heavily on another’s work, they might make changes at the beginning of a story that they can’t maintain throughout. Goodacre thinks this is best shown in the feeding of the five thousand accounts. He points to Mark 6:35-36 and Luke 9:12 as an example.

  • Mark 6:35-36: When it got late, Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “This place is deserted, and it’s getting late. Send the people away to nearby villages to buy food.”
  • Luke 9:12: As the day was ending, the twelve disciples said, “Send the crowd to nearby villages and countryside to find a place to stay and get something to eat, because we’re in a deserted place.”

Goodacre comments, 

The adjective used by both Mark and Luke is ερημος, lonely, desolate, abandoned. Clearly it is nonsense to say ‘we are here in a desolate place’ when in the Lucan setting they are not. After all, if the crowd were in a city, they would not need to go to the surrounding villages and countryside to find food and lodging. Further, since in Bethsaida food and lodging ought to be close to hand, Luke’s comment that the day was drawing to a close lacks any relevance and, consequently, the feeding lacks the immediate motive that it has in Mark. In short, by relocating the Feeding of the Five Thousand, without being able to sustain the new setting with its fresh implications throughout, Luke has spoilt the story.

Mark Goodacre, “Fatigue in the Synoptics,” New Testament Studies 44 (1998), 45-58.

In my view, this argument is very weak. Goodacre has created a problem that doesn’t exist. When the disciples mention the nearby places where people could buy food, it suggests that the “desolate place” wasn’t far from those villages and countryside. As mentioned earlier, Bethsaida’s location is used in a regional sense, which is the most natural way to interpret Luke’s account. Additionally, Matthew, which most scholars believe was not directly based on Luke but used some common source material, also suggests they were in a desolate place (Matthew 14:13, 15). Furthermore, the independent evidence from the coincidence discussed earlier supports Luke’s location for the feeding of the five thousand.

Philip has a starring role in JOhn’s Gospel?

Critics also argue that the question’s importance regarding Philip diminishes when we realize that both Philip and his fellow disciples, Andrew and Peter, are all mentioned as being from Bethsaida (John 1:44). Essentially, from the beginning, three of the twelve disciples have ties to Bethsaida. Additionally, Philip has a more significant role in John’s Gospel than the Synoptics, with his name appearing around a dozen times. In the Synoptics, Philip never speaks.

Here’s Matthew Hartke and Ben (Amateur Exegete) arguing this very point:

“Why Philip, why not Peter? Andrew, right? Because, [in John] chapter 1:44 [we read:] Now, Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. So, why focus on Philip if the reason being proposed is that he’s from Bethsaida? There are other options, which diminishes the point. If three out of 12 of them are from Bethsaida, it waters down the argument. He could have asked any of them.”

….”The fact that Philip is a prominent character in John’s gospel is another point that waters down the proposed undesigned coincidence. Philip appears several times throughout the gospel, showing that John is more interested in Philip.”

In response to this, the main point of the coincidence argument is that Philip isn’t nearly as prominent among the disciples as Peter is in any of the four Gospels. It’s more logical to expect Peter to be questioned, or perhaps Judas because he had the money bag.

But really, this whole objection misses the point. John mentions that Philip is from Bethsaida, but this detail is mentioned in different parts of the Gospel and isn’t directly linked to the story of feeding the five thousand (John 1:44; John 12:21). If John had fabricated the conversation between Jesus and Philip in John 6:5, he likely would have mentioned Bethsaida as the place of the miracle or Philip’s origin. However, in Luke’s account, there’s no mention of Philip in this context, but he does state that the event happened in Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). The most straightforward explanation for this coincidence is that the stories are based on real events. The critic’s explanation might be possible, but it’s not very likely.

Additionally, rather than diluting the significance by noting that both Peter and Andrew hail from Bethsaida, it’s interesting to consider Andrew’s statement to Jesus in John 6:9, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” One might speculate that Andrew, being from Bethsaida where this miracle occurred, knew the boy, or perhaps Jesus had directed his question towards Philip and Andrew, both of whom were locals.

Lastly, Philip speaks only on a handful of occasions in John’s Gospel. (John 1:44-45, 6:7,14:8) I don’t believe that this small sample size doesn’t provides sufficient grounds to conclude that Philip holds a major role in John’s Gospel, so the coincidence still seems to hold. 

But doesn’t Mark contradict Luke?

To strengthen the critics’ case, let’s provide a more compelling argument against the reliability of the accounts here: it appears that there is a big contradiction in the narratives. In Luke 9:10, it’s said that the feeding of the five thousand happened in Bethsaida. But in Mark 6:45, there seems to be a contradiction because Jesus tells his disciples to go to Bethsaida after the miracle. This raises a serious question: Why send them to Bethsaida if they were already there?

To address this, consider a few key points. First, there’s evidence that the event did happen near Bethsaida, which is backed by other details in the accounts. This gives us good reason to believe it occurred in Bethsaida.

Mark’s account also suggests they were too busy with the crowds before the feeding and needed to get away. (Mark 6:31) This aligns with their location near Capernaum before they left. John’s account, mentioning the crowds heading to Jerusalem for Passover, supports the idea of them traveling from the Capernaum region, passing by Bethsaida, and then returning to the northwest side, landing at Gennesaret. This explanation supports their direction of travel.

The Greek preposition “πρὸς” can be translated as “over against” or “across from,” but I’m not convinced of this interpretation at the moment. While “πρὸς” can indeed mean “against” in some cases (e.g., Mt 4:6; Mk 12:12; Lk 4:11; 20:19; Acts 6:1; 9:29; 19:38; 23:30; 24:19; 26:14), I don’t know of any instances in the New Testament or the Greek Septuagint where it clearly means “geographically opposite to,” as suggested by this interpretation.

Another possibility is that when Mark said “to the other side,” he meant they were passing near Bethsaida, indicating the actual location of the feeding was slightly east of Bethsaida. In this interpretation, “Bethsaida” is used in a regional sense, like saying you live in a city when you technically live in the suburbs, as already discussed.

Another option, which goes against the idea of biblical inerrancy, is that Mark’s source, likely Peter, made a small error when reporting the event. Mistakes in speaking can happen, and such an error in an insignificant detail would not render the entire account unreliable.

In summary, although there appears to be a contradiction between Mark and Luke’s accounts, various explanations can reconcile this difference, and the presence of such variations actually serves to highlight the independence of Mark and Luke’s accounts.


The claim that Mark and Luke’s accounts contradict each other in some kind of devastating way doesn’t hold up. The argument that a “deserted place” excludes the possibility of it being Bethsaida is unconvincing, and adding “editorial fatigue” to the explanation really doesn’t explain much of anything . Furthermore, suggesting that Philip plays a significant role in John’s gospel based on his limited mentions, particularly in relation to the bread question in John 6 and the mention of his hometown in John 1:44, doesn’t fit the casual and unrelated nature of these passages to Luke’s account of the feeding in Luke 9:10. Therefore, the example of “why Philip” still serves as a strong example of an undesigned coincidence, and evidence supporting the theory that memory is the best explanation for the data we have in the Gospels rather than legendary embellishment.

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