Dr. Jef Tripp’s Tripping Over Undesigned Coincidences On the MythVision Podcast

In case you missed it, recently on the MythVision Podcast, Dr. Jef Tripp took the stage to give his negative verdict on Lydia McGrew’s work, Hidden in Plain View. I’m thankful Dr. Tripp actually took the time to read it. Many reviewers haven’t even bothered to do so. (I’m looking at you, Richard Carrier!)

During the course of his lecture Dr. Tripp made several noticeable slip-ups in his critique, but in this post, let’s zoom in on one particular point. For a more comprehensive response to his arguments, stay tuned for an upcoming livestream on my friend Than Christopoulos’ channel Exploring Reality.

Refresher: What are undesigned coincidences?

Just to jog your memory, an undesigned coincidence is “a notable connection between two or more accounts or texts that doesn’t seem to have been planned by the person or people giving the accounts. Despite their apparent independence, the items fit together like pieces of a puzzle.” (McGrew, HIPV, pg. 18) So you might be reading a passage and it raises a question, but then you turn to another account and it casually and subtly explains another passage. To illustrate, let me show you a classic example from the Gospels:

In Matthew 14:1-2, we read about Herod the tetrarch hearing about Jesus and pondering whether He’s John the Baptist risen from the dead. Now, you might wonder, how could Matthew know what Herod said to his servants? He obviously wasn’t there. Mark’s version of the story doesn’t mention that detail. (Mark 6:14) A clever biblical critic might say that Matthew added it for dramatic effect, right?

Well, hang on, because here comes Luke. In Luke 8:3, he’s just casually listing Jesus’ female followers, and he throws in a mention of Joanna, who happens to be the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager. Luke’s not sneakily trying to explain Matthew’s account; he’s just apparently stating facts. This explains how Matthew would know what was said about Herod discussing Jesus with his servants. Now perhaps Matthew was partially dependent on Mark (and most scholars say he likely was), but this shows that he’s also including his own unique information, even when narrating similar events. This isn’t merely a theoretical proposition; this is what the evidence indicates.

In the realm of fiction and forgeries, you usually don’t see these kind of casual, subtle connections. Fictions tend to either not interlock much at all, or when they do, it’s glaringly intentional, generally speaking. However, this seamless interlocking is precisely what you’d anticipate in authentic accounts of the same real event narrated by individuals who knew their subject.

This is just one example, and while it’s interesting on its own, it doesn’t single-handedly make the case for high reliability. But there are numerous undesigned coincidences like these that crisscross between the Gospels, as well as dozens of others between Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts. That’s where the strength of the argument lies.

Undesigned coincidences in Heracles?

In his presentation, Dr. Tripp claims he found a few parodies of the argument, with Heracles as an example. His point is that you do see undesigned coincidences in fictions. I want to focus on these parodies.

His Heracles example (I won’t dive into it here, but you can check it out at timestamp 1:05:42-1:12:00) appears reasonable at first glance. Finding what appear to be undesigned coincidences isn’t very surprising, especially when it involves a single source. While it’s interesting that Euripides includes accurate geography and casual references in his narrative, the Nemea connection, by itself, isn’t a complex detail to confirm. It’s essentially a self-contained element involving only Euripides, without connections to other sources.

Here I think that it’s important to bring out that the term “undesigned coincidences” typically refers to internal connections within a text. This distinction is important because the argument operates differently from external incidental confirmations.

In internal undesigned coincidences, both elements of the coincidence are often viewed with skepticism by critics. For instance, a Pauline epistle may be considered pseudo (say for instance, the pastoral epistles), and Acts might be seen as containing fabricated content. When these two questionable elements align, it’s even more surprising to skeptics than finding a single accurate geographical reference in a work of fiction. (I give some examples of these undesigned coincidences between Acts and the pastoral letters here).

Conversely, external incidental confirmations in the Gospels and Acts support their presentation as historical accounts. (And I give dozens of examples of incidental confirmations in Acts here.) In contrast, stories like Hercules don’t claim to be historical, so referencing a real historical place doesn’t necessarily aim to convince readers of historical accuracy, as the work doesn’t present itself as such.

Jef suggests there are more incidents resembling undesigned coincidences, but he offers just one example from a quick review. While I value his confidence, it seems like he’s jumping to conclusions too quickly. The main issue is that proponents of undesigned coincidences don’t claim that casual connections can’t ever appear in fiction, especially within a single work.

Lydia McGrew clarifies this well:

The argument is cumulative. While I think that many of the individual coincidences that I bring up here are strong indicators of reliability all by themselves, it is not necessary that any one coincidence carry the weight of the argument for reliability on its own. When, in instance after instance, these documents fit together just as truthful testimony fits together, there is a strong cumulative case for the documents.”

Hidden in Plain View, pg. 24, Kindle Edition

Lydia’s husband, Tim McGrew, has repeatedly emphasized the cumulative nature of the argument: “One undesigned coincidence like this might be an accident—like having two unrelated pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fit together, just by chance. But if we discover numerous undesigned coincidences crisscrossing the documents, and in particular if each gospel has some things that explain things in the others, it becomes ridiculous to insist that they are all just accidental.”

I can’t highlight Tim’s point enough. Discovering one undesigned coincidence in a fictional story, like the Heracles tale, or even a handful of them, doesn’t invalidate the argument by itself. McGrew isn’t basing her case on just one or two examples from a single account. Tim and Lydia have emphasized this for a while. The real strength of the argument comes from the combined weight of the evidence.

Helping Dr. Tripp

The Heracles example reminded me of a somewhat similar instance in J.J. Blunt’s book on undesigned coincidences, from which Lydia’s work is partially derived. This example comes from the book of Joshua:

In preparation to enter Canaan, the Children of Israel camped on the east side of the Jordan River, crossing into the Promised Land just before Passover. This timing is evident in Joshua 4:19 and Joshua 5:10.

Before crossing the Jordan, they sent scouts who encountered Rahab, and the detail of hiding in flax is significant due to the flax harvest preceding Passover. This flax harvest is also linked to Exodus 9:31 and the Gezer Calendar, which dates back to the 10th century and provides an agricultural calendar.

The absence of a specific time frame when the scouts hid under the flax can be inferred from the presence of harvested flax on the roof. While the crossing date is clear, this detail is missing from the spy story. So here we have an apparent undesigned coincidence that’s within a single source that also interlocks with what we know about the flax harvest time. Admittedly, it’s possible that the writer of Joshua created this coincidence, and this single undesigned coincidence doesn’t constitute strong evidence on its own. I doubt Lydia would rubber-stamp this particular example.

Now, let’s examine a more compelling instance of an undesigned coincidence within a single source that Tim McGrew has used in his lectures:

In 2 Samuel 15, Absalom conspired against his father, King David, and sought Ahithophel’s help. It’s evident from the scripture: “While Absalom was offering sacrifices, he also sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, to come from Giloh, his hometown. And so the conspiracy gained strength, and Absalom’s following kept on increasing.” (2 Samuel 15:12)

Ahithophel was a trusted advisor to David and Absalom, as we learn from 2 Samuel 16:23: “Now in those days the advice Ahithophel gave was like that of one who inquires of God. That was how both David and Absalom regarded all of Ahithophel’s advice.”

The connection between Ahithophel and Uriah the Hittite becomes clear in 2 Samuel 23, where David’s bodyguards are listed. We find Uriah the Hittite and Eliam, Ahithophel’s son, among them. They may have been friends.

The puzzle pieces fit together when we recall the events of 2 Samuel 11, where David’s adultery with Bathsheba and Uriah’s murder occurred: “It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, ‘Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?'”

Eliam was Bathsheba’s father, making Bathsheba Ahithophel’s granddaughter. Absalom’s reliance on Ahithophel in 2 Samuel 15 can be understood as Ahithophel’s payback for David’s actions with Bathsheba and Uriah.

The connection becomes even more pronounced in 2 Samuel 16:20-22, where Ahithophel advises Absalom to sleep with David’s concubines on the roof, mirroring the location where David saw Bathsheba bathing: “Absalom said to Ahithophel, ‘Give us your advice. What should we do?’ Ahithophel answered, ‘Sleep with your father’s concubines whom he left to take care of the palace. Then all Israel will hear that you have made yourself obnoxious to your father, and the hands of everyone with you will be more resolute.’ So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and he slept with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.”

Grim stuff. I believe this is a better example because the connection between these passages reveals a subtle yet convincing agreement that might not be immediately obvious; you have to dig to find it, which adds to its credibility. It’s possible that someone intentionally created these intricate connections in the text, but it’s not very likely. Also, when you come across multiple instances like this in 1 & 2 Samuel, presented as historical accounts, it raises doubts about the idea that these are just myths. If Dr. Tripp can find several similar instances from Euripides, then I’d be more inclined to agree with his point.

A skeptical favorite: Vespasian’s “Healings”

Alright, let’s dive into the interesting case here – the miraculous healing accounts of Vespasian, a favorite miracle account of David Hume. (Discussed 1:12:00-1:21:30) Now, in this case, I don’t think I’d chalk this up to mere statistical noise. Maybe you could, but it appears that Tacitus and Dio Cassius at least do indeed form a genuine undesigned coincidence between each other, which, interestingly, some historians in the past have recognized as a sign of truthfulness in the past, even if they didn’t explicitly label it as such. Kudos to Dr. Tripp for finding this rather cool example and following after the tradition!

However, things take a bit of a downward turn as Dr. Tripp suggests that if there are undesigned coincidences in these narratives, following the “McGrewian” logic, it means the miracles likely really happened. This, though, is a really flagrant misinterpretation. Despite having read the book, and even quoting her first chapter in one of his slides, he seems to have missed McGrew’s point entirely. Let’s turn to a passage from Lydia’s introductory chapter to clarify:

I do not want to be misconstrued as saying something quite so simple as, “We can see from undesigned coincidences that the Gospels are historically reliable. Therefore, they are reliable when they recount miracles as well as when they give non-miraculous facts. Therefore, probably, all of these miracles happened.” On the other hand, I do not want to concede an artificial separation between the miraculous claims in the Gospels and the non-miraculous ones, as though the former were prima facie false or dubious. I grant that claims of miracles are legitimately held to a higher evidential standard than non-miraculous claims, for many reasons. If nothing else, there are many ways for honest people to be mistaken about some miracles, especially healing miracles. Mere credulity is not a posture I recommend. It is, however, noteworthy that the internal marks of accuracy in the Gospels cut right across the miraculous/non-miraculous divide. From a purely evidential point of view, there is no general pattern according to which miracle stories are vague while non-miraculous facts are related with circumstantial detail. Nor do we find that the non-miraculous accounts in the Gospels fit together by way of undesigned coincidences while the miraculous do not.

Another important point relating this argument to the miraculous is this: If the Gospels are indeed truthful memoirs from those close to the facts, including those who had opportunity to interview the disciples themselves, then they represent not late traditions or “story-telling.” Rather, they represent what the alleged eyewitnesses themselves claimed, for which they suffered severe, early persecution. This point is presumably why propositions about the dating and authorship of the Gospels are treated by critical scholars as controversial. For if they are early and reliable memoirs of the life and death of Jesus, if they show us what the disciples themselves claimed about his resurrection, if they make it clear that these accounts came from people in a position to know, and if the disciples were willing to face death for their testimony, this pulls the rug out from under a gentle-sounding but skeptical theory that nobody told a lie, exactly, but that the miraculous claims about. Jesus “grew up” among credulous people telling each other stories. One is instead forced to ask whether the disciples lied about these matters, and if so, why they would do such a thing. Even when the undesigned coincidences among the Gospels do not directly support a miracle, they support the argument for their earliness and origins. If the disciples risked their lives to attest that Jesus was risen, not in some vague, spiritual sense but in the robust, bodily sense described in the Gospels, what does this tell us about the truth of their claims?

Hidden in Plain View, pp 30-31, Kindle Edition, (my emphasis added)

No need to beat this further; it’s abundantly clear that McGrew obviously doesn’t assert something as silly as “Look, there’s undesigned coincidence in a miracle account, therefore the miracle likely happened!” In fact, she goes out of her way to clarify.

Dr. Tripp’s misunderstanding of this distinction is quite obvious. To be fair, the reported questionable miracles of Vespasian at the Alexandrian spring do offer some interesting content, with Tacitus and Dio Cassius forming a true undesigned l coincidence. However, it’s important to note that undesigned coincidences are just a single aspect of the broader argument the McGrews are constructing. We McGrewians (I prefer “McGrewpies”) are presenting a two-stage argument, and undesigned coincidences are just one component of this puzzle, even though it’s a significant one, as Lydia wrote an entire book on the topic. However, it’s part of the first stage in the overall argument.

More on Vespasian

Let’s switch gears for a moment and discuss Vespasian’s alleged miraculous exploits. The McGrews tackle this account in their chapter the ‘Argument From Miracles’ in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. I’m sorry if this is another long quote, but it’s worthwhile:

Hume’s presentation here is so careless that it struck his opponents as disingenuous. The “candour and veracity” of the historian are beside the point, since the manner in which Tacitus introduces the story indicates plainly that he disbelieved it. Hume’s characterization of the persons on whose authority Tacitus relied in relating the miracle as “of established character for judgement and veracity, as we may presume” drew special scorn from Campbell, for Tacitus says nothing of the sort….

The entire affair bears on its face the marks of obvious imposture. It was conducted in Alexandria, the first major city to declare in favor of Vespasian’s imperial aspirations, and it was done in honor both of the emperor, for whom a divine sign would be most convenient, and of the local deity. At Vespasian’s request, physicians examined the two men who claimed to have received visions in the night telling them to appeal to Vespasian to be cured; the physicians reported that the blind man was not totally blind, nor the lame man totally lame, and added that any glory for a successful cure would redound to Vespasian himself, while any blame for a failure would fall back upon the two supplicants for having fraudulently represented the oracle of Serapis.

The Egyptian populace, whom Tacitus describes in this context as “a people addicted to superstition,” were hardly apt to be critical. “Where, then,” asks Adams, is the wonder that two men should be instructed to act the part of lame and blind, when they were sure of succeeding in the fraud, and of being well rewarded (as we may well suppose) for their pains? (Adams 1767, p. 78)

As for Tacitus’s reference to living witnesses, there is no mystery here. If the fraud was perpetrated publicly as described, there were doubtless many people who saw the two men leap up and claim to have been healed. There is no need to suggest that the witnesses were liars; it suffices that they were at most somewhat credulous. There was no need for them to inquire too closely since – unlike the apostles – they had absolutely nothing to lose in maintaining their account of what they had seen. “No evidence,” Douglas concludes drily, inverting Hume’s claim, “can well be supposed weaker” (Douglas 1757, p. 99).

At every point, the case of Vespasian differs critically from that of the resurrection. Indeed, from a Bayesian point of view, the wonder would be if, under the circumstances, some story of a miraculous demonstration in favor of Vespasian were not forthcoming. Given our background knowledge, the Bayes factor for the testimony is so close to 1 as to give us virtually no epistemic traction: the report was almost as strongly to be expected if the two men had been parties to the deceit as if they had genuinely been healed. It is absurd to suggest that the evidence for these miracles bears comparison with the evidence for the resurrection.”

McGrew and McGrew, The Argument From Miracles, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Kindle Location 17155

Ah, Vespasian – the ancient equivalent of a fake faith-healer, Todd Bentley style. So in short, a new emperor in a divided city seeks divine approval through a supposed miracle. The ancient Roman historian’s sarcastic account questions the authenticity. We’re not comparing apples to apples here at all. All Dr. Tripp did was unearth a solid example of an authentic undesigned coincidence from Roman history involving the time and location of an alleged miracle hoax.

Tripp slipped

Dr. Tripp’s effort to actually engage with McGrew’s work is praiseworthy, but it seems he missed some important distinctions that the McGrews have emphasized for a long time. Finding a single, less convincing instance of an undesigned coincidence in a work of fiction doesn’t disprove the argument. McGrew has never suggested that the presence of undesigned coincidences in a miracle account automatically means the miracle is the most likely explanation. She has consistently clarified her argument’s actual position.

Honestly, this supposed refutation didn’t meet my expectations. These aren’t even the most significant errors he made. Considering Dr. Tripp’s qualifications, I had hoped for a more substantial response. While there’s effort, and I understand that MythVision fans might view it as a decisive refutation, I ultimately found this critique lacking in substance.

More to come, so stay tuned.

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