In Lydia McGrew’s book Hidden in Plain View, she presents a compelling argument for the trustworthiness of the Gospels, featuring numerous undesigned coincidences as supporting evidence that the Gospels and Acts were authored by individuals closely connected to the original witnesses of Jesus’ ministry. One of these coincidences centers on the mention of green grass in Mark’s Gospel, which corresponds with an account of it being Passover time in the Gospel of John. (If you’re unfamiliar, I discuss this coincidence in more detail here.)
However, a well-read and bright blogger who goes by “The Amateur Exegete,” whose actual name is Ben, raises questions about this apparent coincidence, challenging its evidential value. For a full understanding of his criticisms, you can refer to Ben’s original blog post, while here, I’ll highlight his main points.
Despite hedging her words with the adverb “generally,” McGrew doubles down when she claims that it was only during springtime around Passover that there would have been sufficient grass upon which a large crowd could sit. But this simply isn’t true. If roughly seventy percent of annual rainfall in Palestine comes in November through February, then it is difficult to imagine that it would be in springtime “but not at others, [that] such a quantity of green grass would be possible” (to quote McGrew). Indeed, in her commentary on this passage, Mary Ann Beavis remarks, “For members of the audience familiar with Palestinian climate, the reference to greenery situates the incident in the rainy season, October to early May.” That is quite the time frame!
….there is nothing within the Markan account itself to force the conclusion that the feeding must have happened around Passover.”
I don’t believe anyone is suggesting that the conclusion is being forced; instead, it is simply suggested to be the most plausible explanation by advocates of the argument. Furthermore, there are supporting reasons beyond the mention of the grass to support this. In his book Can We Trust the Gospels? Peter J. Williams points out that the assumption that rainfall is limited to springtime is indeed incorrect. This isn’t a new insight for those who support undesigned coincidences. However, Williams makes a particularly significant observation regarding the Gospel of John. He emphasizes that John is the only Gospel author who explicitly mentions that the loaves Jesus used to feed the 5000 were barley loaves (John 6:9). Significantly, Passover follows the barley harvest.
Furthermore, this undesigned coincidence doesn’t end there; there’s another one within the same passage. In the Gospel of Mark, it is noted that “many were coming and going” (Mark 6:39). This detail harmonizes with the context of Passover, a time when a multitude of people gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. (John 6:4, c.f. Josephus, Jewish War 6.3.3) The presence of these large crowds during Passover serves as an important time indicator, and the Gospel of John further confirms this by explicitly stating that it was indeed Passover. So, while Ben offers interesting information about the duration of green grass in Palestine, these coincidences go beyond just green grass (Mark) plus Passover (John).
Ben’s next argument is that the varying chronologies in Mark and John pose a challenge for McGrew.
“To summarize, in John’s version the feeding happens before the penultimate Passover of Jesus’s life while in Mark it happens before the final one. What are McGrew’s options? Perhaps she could do what she does with the varying temporal locales of the incident in the temple and claim that Jesus fed crowds of five thousand people twice in his public career. Or perhaps she could assert, sans evidence, that Markan chronology is much longer than a straightforward reading of the text makes it out to be. But only those committed to some version of inerrancy would be convinced by such hermeneutical gymnastics. The hard truth is that for McGrew to be right about the time of year the feeding occurred she must also be wrong about the structural chronology of the overarching accounts.”
The argument here is based on an argument from silence. In Mark’s Gospel, there’s no clear information about how long Jesus’ ministry was, and the story doesn’t really talk about the overall duration. So, trying to say exactly how long it was using only Mark’s account isn’t really sound as it lacks solid evidence. This is what Lydia calls “artificial disharmonization,” where in this case Ben manufactures a contradiction from just a lack of clear information. While Mark’s story feels fast-paced, emphasizing the word ‘immediately,’ and John focuses more on the trips to Jerusalem, Mark doesn’t specify the exact duration of Jesus’ ministry. The duration of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels is still a subject of scholarly debate. Creating a contradiction based solely on an impression is far from creating a real problem for McGrew or advocates of the argument from undesigned coincidences.
Reasons to trust John’s Timeline
There’s also very good reasons to accept John’s account of when Jesus’ ministry began as being accurate. Mark 15:29-30 tells us that people watching Jesus’ crucifixion shouted, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” This is noteworthy because Jesus never mentioned destroying a manmade temple and rebuilding it in three days but not by human hands. Both Mark and Matthew mention this accusation but don’t provide the context or Jesus’ original words. It seems this saying wasn’t made up, as it relates to the three days often associated with Jesus’ resurrection predictions. However, John 2:19 gives us Jesus’ original statement, but John doesn’t report the later misrepresentation or its use as an accusation. (John 2:19, 21: Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days“, referring to his body) Matthew and Mark mention the misrepresentation and its use as an accusation but don’t give the original saying. This further undesigned coincidence supports the historical authenticity of these accounts.
We can also corroborate this account using external sources. As per Luke 3:1, when did Jesus begin His public ministry? It was in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign. In 14 AD, Augustus Caesar passed away, and two years before that, around the autumn of 12 AD, Augustus designated Tiberius as co-emperor, aiming to ensure a smooth transition of power. This transition is alluded to in the following passage from the historian Suetonius, describing Tiberius’s return from a two-year assignment in Germany between 10 and 12 A.D.
“After two years, he returned from Germany to the city, celebrating the triumph he had postponed, accompanied by his lieutenants, who had received the honor of triumphal ornaments. Before ascending the Capitol, he dismounted from his chariot and knelt before his father, who oversaw the ceremony… Soon after, a law was passed by the consuls appointing him as a colleague with Augustus in the administration of the provinces and the taking of the census. After completing these duties, he departed for Illyricum.”(Suetonius, Tiberius 20-21)
This passage indicates that Tiberius became a colleague with Augustus in the administration of the provinces and the taking of the census after returning from Germany in 12 AD. Therefore, the fifteenth year of Tiberius brings us to 27 AD, aligning with Jesus’s baptism and the commencement of His ministry.
The Jews mentioned that it took 46 years to build the temple. (John 2:20) Flavius Josephus tells us Herod the Great started rebuilding the temple in 19 B.C. (Antiquities 15.11.1). So, 46 years later, we’re in 28 A.D. The temple cleansing likely happened the following Passover (John 2:13), placing it in spring 28 A.D. By two independent methods, using information from John, Luke, Josephus, and Suetonius, we confirm the date of Jesus’ temple cleansing. The convergence of these details suggests the accounts are rooted in truth. (For whether or not the data supports Jesus cleansing the temple twice, see this playlist by Lydia McGrew.)
But there are more interesting timestamps that coincide between the Synoptic Gospels and John. 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 in an undesigned way, supporting the historical accuracy of the reports.
John’s Gospel claims that Jesus participated in a minimum of three Passover Feasts during his ministry: one in John 2:13, another in 6:4, and the Passover of His crucifixion in 11:55–57. This data alone suggests that Jesus’ ministry extended for a minimum of two years, and there’s reason to think John is correct here, and that he’s not contradicting Mark’s timeline. Instead, their accounts complement each other harmoniously while showcasing their independence.
Finally, Ben raises the common suggestion that John likely had access to Mark’s Gospel. Therefore, it’s argued that we can’t rule out the possibility that the author intentionally added the detail to align with Mark’s statement.
“Simply stated, if it is the case that John knew and used Mark’s Gospel when writing his own, then it is entirely possible that he read Mark’s “green grass” and inferred from it that it happened near Passover. If that is the case, then what we have isn’t an undesigned coincidence but is instead intentional design.”
First, this seems to confuse what is possible with what is probable. Sure, what Ben is suggesting here is possible. Let’s consider Ben’s suggestion that John might have had a copy of Mark’s Gospel. That seems quite plausible. So, paying close attention, John notices the part about the green grass and the large crowds in Mark’s account. He thinks, “Hmm…I should add more details here. Mark left some subtle unexplained allusions that raise questions.” Then, John has an idea: “I know! I’ll mention that it was Passover. That would explain why the grass was green and why there was so much hustle and bustle!” But in doing so, he leaves out all reference to Mark’s details.
While possible, this scenario appears to be quite a stretch. If John had invented the detail about it being Passover to align with the crowds and green grass, it’s unlikely he would have omitted any mention of the crowds and the green grass. It seems more probable that John wrote down that it was around Passover because he remembered that it was indeed around Passover when the feeding happened.
Ben, like many critics of undesigned coincidences, seems to overlook the evidential value of casualness when evaluating historical reliability. An undesigned coincidence can even occur in the same document, or a writer might provide information that unintentionally corroborates (in a way that can be detected) some fact that the said author is also aware of. It is clear that an author might read one source and then later include something in their own writing, drawing from their independent knowledge, which unintentionally supports a detail from the source they initially read. How can someone spot such an unintentional agreement when comparing both sources? The key is to look for the casual and unconnected way in which the information is presented in the texts, which suggests it wasn’t intentionally fabricated.
The green grass remains unmowed
In summary, Ben’s arguments don’t effectively challenge the credibility of the green grass coincidence presented by Lydia McGrew. He overlooks the significance of casual and unconnected details as evidence. His reliance on an argument from silence to find a discrepancy doesn’t hold up, considering clear indications that John had knowledge of Jesus’ ministry’s timeline.
Furthermore, his focus on the duration of green grass in Palestine, while informative, isn’t news to advocates of the argument, and disregards other meaningful coincidences related to the timing being Passover, such as the mentions of many people coming and going and the use of barley loaves.
Ben calls the green grass example “low-hanging fruit, being one of the more ridiculous examples she and other apologists have put forward as an instance of undesigned coincidences.” But I think he ultimately fails to “dismantle” this particular example in the way that he gives himself credit for. I appreciate that he’s at least willing to admit that picking apart one undesigned coincidence doesn’t undo the entire argument. However, if that’s his goal, he should exercise more caution in his assessments on other examples of undesigned coincidences going forward.
Erik is the creative force behind the YouTube channel Testify, which is an educational channel built to help inspire people’s confidence in the text of the New Testament and the truth of the Christian faith.