The Synoptic Problem Isn’t a Problem For Undesigned Coincidences

One of the most intriguing arguments for the reliability of the Gospels is the argument from undesigned coincidences. Speaking as a proud member of Team McGrew, I can tell you it’s one of my all-time favorites.

However, the moment you try to explain this argument to a skeptic, you’re often hit with a common objection: “But aren’t the Gospels dependent on each other?” It’s what we call the Synoptic problem, and it’s the main objection critics tend to throw our way.

But here’s the deal – this objection is usually rooted in a misunderstanding, and I’m here to clear things up for you. If you ever find yourself defending this argument online, you’re pretty much guaranteed to run into this point time and time again. However, let’s be honest, this misunderstanding shouldn’t keep cropping up in our discussions. I hope what I have to say here clarifies things. Let’s dive in.

Understanding Undesigned Coincidences

As a refresher, an undesigned coincidence can be described as a notable and unexpected connection between two or more accounts or texts that appears unplanned by the individuals providing the accounts. Despite their apparent independence, these elements line up seamlessly, much like puzzle pieces falling into place. Imagine you’re reading a passage that leaves you with a question; then, as you turn to another account, you unexpectedly find a casual and subtle explanation for that initial passage. As we look into various examples, you’ll grasp this concept more clearly.

To appreciate their significance, imagine a hypothetical example: in a robbery case, two witnesses give statements that seem to naturally fit together. One mentions the robber’s untied shoe, while the other talks about a tripping incident. These connections appear authentic and unplanned, suggesting the witnesses didn’t collude or invent their stories. While it’s possible one overheard the other, the casual nature of their accounts makes this less likely.

Here’s a real-world example from the Anne Frank narratives. Ronnie Goldstein-van Cleef recalls her arrival at Auschwitz, where she heard, “This side, that side!” Hannah Elisabeth Pick-Goslar remembers Mengele saying in German, “Rechts, links!” However, their accounts alone do not explain why. Lenie de John-van Naarden provides the reason: the very old and young were immediately separated from the rest and taken to the crematorium.

In contrast, fictions and forgeries, like the apocryphal Gospels, often lack these subtle, casual interconnections. However, in authentic records of the same events, told by different individuals with firsthand knowledge, we would anticipate many undesigned coincidences crisscrossing the accounts.

But before I go any further, let’s clarify what advocates of undesigned coincidences are not saying. Our point is not that the one and only explanation for these coincidences is the authenticity of the related accounts. Rather, we argue that undesigned coincidences serve as evidence supporting the hypothesis of authenticity because they are more likely if the accounts are true than if they are false. So, the mere presence of alternative scenarios doesn’t automatically debunk the argument, as long as those scenarios are less likely than the hypothesis that the undesigned coincidence emerges from both accounts being based on truth. Are you with me so far? Good.

Illustrating Undesigned Coincidences

An intriguiging illustration of undesigned coincidences involves the naming of disciples in the Gospels. In Matthew 10:1-4, Jesus calls his twelve disciples, listing them in pairs.

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.

These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

This may seem arbitrary until we read Mark 6:7, where Jesus sends them out two by two.

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.

Ah, so Mark provides a list of disciples but doesn’t group them, while Matthew mentions sending disciples without the two-by-two detail. Interesting. This coincidental connection reinforces the credibility of both Gospels. But this is where the critics will almost invariably immediately raise their objections about literary dependence.

The Skeptical Response: But the Synoptic Problem!

As I alluded to in the introduction, many scholars argue that the Gospels are not independent but rather depend on each other, a theory called the Synoptic Problem. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) share significant similarities, sparking debates about their order and connections, and there are tons of different theories about how they are related to each other. But the most prevalent theory suggests Mark’s priority, with Matthew and Luke using Mark as their primary source. Scholars also propose the existence of a conjectured document called “Q,” containing shared stories and sayings.

Gospel critics sometimes argue that Matthew and Luke drew from earlier sources, which they believe undermines the force of undesigned coincidences. They claim that since there’s evident literary dependence, we shouldn’t dismiss the likelihood of intentional design, and they might even lean toward that idea. However, it’s important to recognize that these arguments extend far beyond the fundamental premise of the two-source hypothesis, depicting Matthew and Luke as mere copyists and redactors of Mark, devoid of additional knowledge about the events. This viewpoint lacks substantial deductive support.

What these critics often overlook is the nuanced nature of dependence. This ultra-rigid notion of dependence fails to account for the probability that Matthew and Luke had their own unique insights, memories, and additional information when writing their Gospels. The similarity in wording does not at all inherently negate the prospect of these accounts being independent and grounded in factual events. I can’t stress this point enough.

These critics should at least be open to the notion that Matthew and Luke drew from earlier sources while integrating their own particular knowledge. Notably, both authors were in positions to fill in their narratives with their own personal information or experiences: Matthew as a disciple and Luke as someone who traveled with Paul and had the opportunity to interview individuals while in Jerusalem. (Yes, I’m aware that the issue of authorship is hotly contested, and while it’s not necessary to establish authorship for the argument to work, let’s briefly entertain the concept of traditional authorship.) This perspective is not merely theoretical; I’d argue that this is what the evidence shows.

The evidential value of casualness

So to revisit the paired disciples example, a critic might argue that there’s no immediate reason to ponder the disciple pairings when reading Matthew. They might suggest that Matthew simply read Mark and decided to add these details. However, if that was Matthew’s intent, why didn’t he explicitly state that the disciples were sent out in pairs, like Mark does? While the critic’s viewpoint is a possible explanation, the more straightforward and natural one is that both accounts align so seamlessly because they are rooted in truth.

Under the critic’s proposed hypothesis, Matthew would have had to create the disciple pairings in Matthew 10:1-4 solely to fit with Mark’s narrative about the disciples going out in pairs, even though Matthew doesn’t explicitly mention this. Frankly, this seems quite ad hoc.

One critical aspect of undesigned coincidences, often missed by critics, is the evidential value of casualness. Many assume that the evangelists must have zero knowledge of each other’s work before we can argue for an undesigned coincidence, but this is just simply false. Being “crime-scene separated” would be great, it’s not a requirement as I mentioned with the above illustration. What truly matters is the casual way two accounts fit together. The key is their casual nature, the absence of deliberate attempts to corroborate each other, which provides evidence for their independence. I can’t express how important it is to grasp this crucial point.

Illustrated: Herod and His Servants

Another rather striking example of an undesigned coincidence that illustrates my point involves Herod and his servants. In Matthew 14:1-2, Herod the tetrarch heard about Jesus’ fame and spoke to his servants about it.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.”

One might question how Matthew knew what Herod said to his servants. Mark 6:14 mentions Herod’s statement but not the question to his servants. A clever critic may suggest that Matthew decided to embellish that detail to make the story more interesting. Yet, a more plausible explanation is provided by Luke 8:3, which indicates that one of Jesus’ female disciples, who had followed Him from Galilee, was “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager.” Ah, therefore, it becomes evident that Jesus’ followers had family connections in the highest ranks of Herod Antipas’ employment. But Matthew never mentions Joanna, and it’s pretty clear that Luke isn’t intentionally mentioning Joanna to confirm Matthew’s description.

Why is Jesus so harsh with Bethsaida?

Here’s another example: In Matthew 11:21, we encounter a puzzling statement:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

The reference to these “mighty works” appears cryptic, as nothing in Matthew’s narrative up to this point sheds light on this matter. However, when we shift our focus to Luke 9:10-11, a different piece of the puzzle emerges.

On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing.

In this passage, Jesus withdraws to a town called Bethsaida, with crowds following and this is the area where the feeding of the 5000 takes place. This location might seem unrelated until we consider Matthew’s characteristic organization of stories by theme rather than in chronological order. It’s only when we compare Luke’s account that we understand that the feeding of the 5000, a notable miracle, took place in Bethsaida, shedding light on the mysterious “mighty works” referenced in Matthew 11:21.

Luke also mentions the woes in Luke 10:13, but it’s worth noting that Luke’s mention of Bethsaida as the location of the feeding is not only in a different context from the woes, but it’s seemingly unrelated altogether. In the passage where it appears, there’s absolutely no connection to the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus merely makes a general reference to the mighty deeds in Chorazin and Bethsaida. The immediate context gives us no reason to believe that Jesus is alluding to the feeding of the five thousand. And interestingly enough, the lesser-known village of Chorazin does sit on the route to Bethsaida, a mere few miles to the north of Capernaum, and no known literary source could have offered this geographical detail to a Gospel author.

But there’s more! In Mark 8:22-26, we see the significance of Jesus’ earlier pronouncement of woes. In the town of Bethsaida, people brought a blind man to Jesus seeking healing. Rather than ministering to him on the spot, Mark tells us Jesus led him out of the town first. What followed was a two-stage miracle. Initially, the blind man’s sight was only partially restored, allowing him to see people who appeared like walking trees. However, Jesus then laid his hands on the man’s eyes once more, resulting in a full restoration of his vision. Jesus then issued a rather enigmatic directive: the man was to return home but refrain from reentering the village. This act of leading the man out of the town to heal him and ordering him not to return serves to highlight the gravity of the woes he had previously pronounced over Bethsaida. However, in Mark’s account, this puzzling instruction remains totally unexplained.

Mark’s account lacks any reference to the woes found in Matthew and Luke, and conversely, the accounts in Matthew and Luke do not include the story of the blind man’s two-stage healing in Bethsaida.

Bringing John into the mix

Let’s revisit the feeding of the 5000 and bring John’s Gospel into the equation. In Mark 6:39, people are seen sitting in groups on “the green grass.” This detail might not seem significant on its own, as Matthew 14:19, Luke 9:15, and John 6:10 also mention people sitting “down on the grass.” However, Mark’s narrative stands out due to the mention of the grass being “green.” This becomes noteworthy when you realize that, typically, the grass in Israel, especially in Galilee, is brown.

Interestingly, Mark 6:30-31 describes the apostles gathering around Jesus to report their activities, without explaining the bustling crowd’s reason. John’s account (John 6:4) provides this missing piece by noting the proximity of the Jewish Passover Festival. During the springtime Passover season, when the grass is green due to increased rainfall, this detail aligns with Mark’s casual, unexplained remarks about the green grass. During the Passover season, the roads would be filled with large crowds of pilgrims. This helps explain the significant number of people “coming and going.” Additionally, John 6:9 informs us that the loaves Jesus multiplied were barley loaves, which aligns with the immediate following barley harvest during Passover. John subtly interlocks two small details with Mark’s account.

Rainfall in Palestine, Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels?

To explain this undesigned coincidence away, some critics have suggested that John might have had access to Mark’s Gospel. They propose that John, after noticing Mark’s account detailing the green grass and the large crowd, expanded on these details. I think it’s very possible that John did have a copy of Mark’s Gospel, and perhaps even all three Synoptics. However, this intentional harmonization scenario seems like bit of a stretch. If John had intentionally added the Passover detail to match the green grass and bustling crowd, it’s unlikely he would have left out these aspects. This lack of harmonization indicates that when John’s account coincides casually with the Synoptic Gospels, it’s not due to deliberate design but reflects the independent nature of the accounts.

Regarding the timing of events, John leaves some loose ends, like Jesus ascending the mountain to avoid being made a king (John 6:15) and only afterward (verse 16) mentioning the disciples descending in the evening and boarding a boat. In contrast, Mark 6:45–46 tells us that Jesus sent the disciples in the boat while he dismissed the crowd. This variation doesn’t create insurmountable contradictions. Different parts of the story could happen simultaneously. For example, Jesus may have “sent” the disciples, instructing them to leave immediately when they were some distance from the shore. It might have taken them time to navigate through the crowd, who might have tried to engage them. Meanwhile, Jesus was in the process of dismissing the crowd and later ascending the mountain, likely a detail John learned from Jesus himself. But if John was carefully studying Mark’s Gospel, why would he appear to outright contradict it?

The bottom line is that Mark and John present different accounts of the same event, each from their own perspectives, without attempting subtle harmonization. When John’s account aligns with seemingly casual details in the Synoptic Gospels, it’s not likely due to intentional design. The reconcilable variations and undesigned coincidences underscores his independence.

Six days before Passover

Now, maybe the “green grass” example didn’t quite grab your attention. But how about this one? Let’s examine the accounts of Jesus approaching Bethany and his triumphant entry into Jerusalem the next day. In John 12:1-2, 12-13, we find a unique detail:

“Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table… 12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!'”

John provides a very specific detail not found in the other gospel accounts: Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before Passover, and the following day, he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, making it five days before Passover. Now, can we confirm John’s accuracy here? Yep. Turn to Mark 11:1-11, which tells also story of the triumphal entry:

“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it… 7 And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. 8 And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. 9 And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’ 11 And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple.”

While Mark doesn’t explicitly state that Jesus approached Bethany six days before Passover or that he rode into Jerusalem the next day, it’s implied that they fetched the colt early in the morning. They then went through a series of events, including entering the temple and “looking around at everything,” which likely took a whole day. If we assume Jesus entered Jerusalem five days before Passover (as explicitly mentioned in John and implicitly suggested in Mark), we can start counting the days described in Mark’s gospel to check if it aligns with John’s timeline.

As we progress, Mark 11:12-14 tells us about the cursing of the fig tree, which, according to verse 12, happened “the following day” (four days before Passover, considering John’s timeline). Then, Jesus cleansed the temple, and verse 19 indicates that “when evening came, they went out of the city.” In verse 20, it mentions, “As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.” With this, we are now three days before Passover.

In Mark 13, we find the Olivet discourse on the Mount of Olives. This event likely occurred in the evening, as the Mount of Olives was between the temple in Jerusalem and Bethany, where Jesus and the disciples were staying. This marks the end of three days before Passover. When we turn to Mark 14:1, it says, “It was now two days before the Passover.” We can see that Mark and John’s timelines perfectly match, supporting the historical accuracy of the reports.

You might say that John used Mark as a source and carefully tracked the number of days Mark mentioned. But, there are some pretty implausible aspects to this explanation.

First, Mark’s account condenses events and doesn’t clearly state that Jesus entered Bethany the evening before His triumphant entry into Jerusalem. This could make it seem like both events occurred on the same day, which contradicts John’s account, which adds details like Jesus spending the night in Bethany before entering Jerusalem.

Also, Mark 13 doesn’t specifically say the Olivet discourse happened in the evening. But, it makes sense when you consider that Jesus stayed in Bethany overnight (a detail from John, not Mark) and the Mount of Olives is between Jerusalem, where Jesus was all day, and Bethany, where Jesus spent the evening. Finally, there are known instances where John’s passion account is apparently independent, with some even suggesting that it conflicts with Mark’s.

THe Synoptic Problem isn’t a problem

These are just a few examples, as there are dozens of these coincidences that weave through the Synoptic Gospels, connecting the Synoptics with John, as well as linking the letters of Paul with Acts. I’ve only scratched the surface here. I highly recommend reading Lydia McGrew’s books Hidden in Plain View and Testimonies to the Truth for a more thorough survey of this kind of evidence.

In summary, while the Synoptic Problem does raise questions about the Gospels’ interdependence, a closer examination of the evidence suggests that they exhibit both elements of dependency and independence. Furthermore, it should be clarified that the argument isn’t that these coincidences provide ironclad proof of the events’ historicity or that there are no alternative explanations. It’s about them being evidence for the hypothesis of historicity, indicating that they’re more likely if the events are true. And keep in mind, not all undesigned coincidences are created equal; some pack a stronger evidential punch. The case is a cumulative one. When you consider that all these coincidences are more probable if the Gospels are reliable sources, they collectively bolster this case.

But this whole Synoptic Problem challenge doesn’t lessen the significance of undesigned coincidences one bit. So if someone tells you that the Synoptic problem debunks undesigned coincidences, well, that’s just not true. This just shows they aren’t really tuning in to the argument. I don’t care if they have a PhD to their name or not; it’s clear they’re missing the point. You simply can’t just dismiss the argument by appealing to literary dependence.

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