Lydia McGrew: Hidden In Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts https://reasonandscience.catsboard.com/t1506-are-the-gospels-reliable#9181https://pt.3lib.net/book/17388611/9c15d8
Many episodes in the gospels are described partially by one account, and completed in another. One information sums up the information in one of the other gospels. So they are complementary. That is evidence that the eyewitnesses that wrote the gospels, each of them did remember one part of the event, and summing them up together, we have a more complete picture. If the gospels were invented, then that would hardly be the case.
in the Gospels How can we know that what the Gospels relate about Jesus of Nazareth is true? They are full of miracles. To some, that seems to show that they evolved as legends based on a historical but merely human figure. How can we know that the Gospels are historically reliable? These and similar questions will bother many thoughtful Christians at some point in their lives.
The evidence from undesigned coincidences would be difficult to fake, and it would be even more unlikely to come about by sheer chance in non-factual or manipulated stories. undesigned coincidences create an “Aha!” moment for the person who gets a particular argument. The evidence is a mark of truth. As I discussed in the general introduction, it is the kind of thing that we find in real human testimony and real human events.
The disciples risked their lives, and actually died as martyrs, to attest that Jesus rose, not in some vague, spiritual sense but in the robust, bodily sense described in the Gospels, that tells us about the truth of those claims.Many episodes in the gospels are described partially by one account, and completed in another. One information sums up the information in one of the other gospels. So they are complementary. That is evidence that the eyewitnesses that wrote the gospels, each of them did remember one part of the event, and summing them up together, we have a more complete picture. If the gospels were invented, then that would hardly be the case. How did John the Baptist know that Jesus was the Son of God?
The Gospel of John tells the baptism of Jesus in an interesting way—by way of a flashback narrated by John the Baptist. By the time the first scene of the Gospel opens, it appears that the baptism has already taken place. John the Baptist, after pointing Jesus out as the Lamb of God, says this,
“This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
And John bore witness:
“I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1.30–34)
The detail of the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, familiar from Christian art throughout the ages, is also found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John the Baptist as quoted in John is explicit: He discovered who Jesus was at the time of his baptism because of a combination of factors— an interior revelation to himself from God and the visible sign of the Spirit descending like a dove. So far, so clear. Those of us who are familiar with the baptismal accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke are apt to overlook, however, what John the Baptist leaves unexplained in this account of the baptism. He does not say why he bore witness that Jesus is the Son of God.
There is no statement here that John the Baptist received a revelation that the one he was waiting for was the Son of God. One can infer that John knew something “heavy” about the one he foretold from his cryptic reference to him as “being before him,”. But this certainly is not a clear statement that the one to come is the Son of God. In any event, John the Baptist seems to be referring to some further knowledge that he gained at the time of the baptism from something specific that occurred then. He says that he has “seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.” But why would the sight of the Spirit descending like a dove tell him that? What he recounts as a personal revelation is that the person on whom the Spirit descends is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Nothing about being the Son of God. The answer is found in a well-known detail of the baptism of Jesus, but one that is not told in the Gospel of John. Here it is from Matthew:
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3.16–17)
Mark 1.11 and Luke 3.22 are similar. Now John’s words are explained: John the Baptist and all who witnessed the scene at the baptism had reason to think that Jesus was the Son of God because a voice from heaven said that he was the Son of God.
If we take it that the events recounted in the other Gospels actually occurred, this explains the words of John the Baptist in the Gospel of John. The fit between John the Baptist’s words and the voice from heaven also confirms John. Suppose for a moment that John the evangelist were not giving a reliable, partly independent, factual account of events, including the testimony of John the Baptist. Suppose that, for example, he were putting words in John the Baptist’s mouth, telling about the baptism partly fictionally and partly based on accounts in the earlier Gospels. That hypothesis does not explain the omission of the voice from heaven from John the Baptist’s words in John. If the Gospel author were inventing a speech for John the Baptist based upon other accounts of events, he would at least be expected to make the speech complete, not to write it in a way that raises unnecessary questions. John the Baptist’s account would also be even more dramatic and theologically profound if it included the voice from heaven, and it would have been simple to include the voice in a single additional sentence. John the Baptist could have been made to say, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. And I heard the mighty voice from heaven that said, ‘This is my beloved Son.’” As discussed in the previous section, the Gospel of John begins by affirming at length and with much theological depth that Jesus is the only Son of the Father (John 1.14). John certainly wishes to teach that Jesus is the Son of God. But in all of this, neither in the preface nor in the narrative account of the words of John the Baptist does he ever mention the voice from heaven. In a fictionalized account, especially one from so theological a writer as John, this is an astonishing omission. In a truthful account, it is not surprising at all. In fact, the hypothesis that provides the best explanation of the coincidence noted in this section (and the one in the previous section) is the most simple-minded, the one that might seem the most naïve—namely, that the author of the Gospel recorded these words and attributed them to John the Baptist because that is the way that John the Baptist actually told the story, and the author of the fourth Gospel knew what he said, perhaps even from hearing it himself. John the Baptist’s words, including their inclusions and omissions, are readily explicable in the context in which they are set. Jesus’ baptism has occurred, we can guess, about six weeks previously. Based on the Synoptic Gospels we can conjecture that Jesus went away to be tempted in the wilderness and has recently returned. John the Baptist sees him upon his return and begins talking about him, either to the crowds or to his own disciples or to both. Like most eyewitnesses, John the Baptist does not tell everything. He selects details. His focus at this point is on his own partial knowledge prior to the baptism and his progressive understanding of who Jesus is. He is telling his audience, perhaps consisting mainly of people who were present at the baptism, how his interior revelations concerning the descent of the Holy Spirit were fulfilled in what he saw at the baptism. He marvels and goes over, again and again, the fact that he did not even know before that Jesus was the one to come. This may have been all the more striking to him if he had known Jesus previously as a kinsman. Now, in light of the knowledge that Jesus is the Son of God, his own earlier words, “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me” take on a profound meaning, since John the Baptist knows that his cousin is younger than he is by several months. So he repeats that, too, with emphasis, and makes his own avowal, based on what he saw and heard at the baptism, that Jesus is the Son of God. In all that he has to say, he simply happens to leave out the voice from heaven, and that is how his words are reported in the Gospel of John. It should not be assumed that, because the Gospel writer emphasizes certain aspects of the narrative for his own theological purposes, he, therefore, treats John the Baptist as a malleable character into whose mouth he puts his own ideas. Nor is that the picture that emerges from a careful examination of the text.Why were the water pots empty?
The account in John of the wedding at Cana where Jesus turns water into wine begins like this: On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. (John 2.1–7) John says that the water jars were there “for the Jewish rites of purification.” But in that case wouldn’t they be expected to be full of water? Empty water jars aren’t very useful for purification rites. John doesn’t bother to give any further explanation of those rites or of the empty jars. He wants to get on with telling his story, and the crucial point for the story is that Jesus told the servants to fill the jars with water. The miracle of water into wine doesn’t come up in any of the other Gospels, so the explanation of the empty water pots is not to be found in another Gospel’s account of the same incident. Both Mark (7.1–5) and Matthew (15.2), however, mention a separate incident in which the Pharisees challenge Jesus because his disciples are insufficiently ritually pure. They do not follow the tradition of the elders; they eat their food with unwashed hands. Mark, apparently with a Gentile audience in mind, goes into detail about the reason for this accusation:
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7.1–5)
The empty water pots at Cana are now explained. The pots had already served their purpose and had been emptied in the process; the wedding guests had already ritually washed before eating and drinking at the wedding feast. This detail does not, of course, prove that the story of the miracle at Cana is true. It’s important to realize that the argument from undesigned coincidences is a cumulative argument, and I will come back to this point from time to time. What the empty water pots do tell us is that John is telling the story in the way that a truthful witness reports—namely, without stopping to give unnecessary explanations. He is getting on with the story, mentioning or implying details in passing that make sense when they are understood against a backdrop of independent information. That independent information comes here from the Gospel of Mark, written earlier.“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood…”
I have hesitated about including the following coincidence in this book, because the interpretation of the passage in John’s Gospel, not to mention the interpretation of the passages with which I compare it in the Synoptic Gospels, is highly controversial along denominational lines. My intent in this book is that Christians from a variety of denominations will be able to see that these coincidences support the reliability and eyewitness nature of the texts, so I prefer that no item should depend crucially upon an interpretation that is hotly contested among orthodox theologians or is regarded as “belonging” to a particular denomination. But undesigned coincidences are data, and the data in this case reveal a coincidence between John and the Synoptic Gospels, which I present for the reader’s consideration. It will emerge from the discussion that the coincidence is durable in the sense that it supports the reliability of John despite different possible interpretations of the relevant passages. There is a striking similarity between the language Jesus uses concerning eating his flesh and drinking his blood in what is known as the bread of life discourse, found only in John 6, and in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels but not in John.
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6.53–56)
Compare this passage to, for example, the words of institution in the Gospel of Luke: And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying,
“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood… .” (Luke 22.19–20)
Mark and Matthew also refer to eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood in parallel passages (Mark 14.22–24 and Matt 26.26–29). There is a well-known tradition of interpretation that insists that John 6 is absolutely not about Communion in any sense at all but only about believing in Jesus by faith, whether or not in connection with receiving Communion. Perhaps the most famous proponent of this view was Martin Luther, who insisted that “the sixth chapter of John does not refer at all to the Supper.” Luther, as it happens, was a sacramentalist, holding to consubstantiation (the view that in some sense the body and blood of Jesus are “in, with, and under” the elements of bread and wine in Communion), but many non-sacramentalists have, quite understandably, adopted Luther’s interpretation of John 6 as having nothing whatsoever to do with Communion. I should admit frankly that this insistence that Jesus’ words in John 6 do not have anything to do with the Lord’s Supper seems to me extreme and implausible. Assuming that Jesus spoke the words in John 6 at all (a point to which I will return shortly), it would seem that such an insistence means that the exact similarity of the wording between the passages is at most the result of Jesus’ general fondness for the metaphor of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Moreover, this view would seem to mean that in John 6 the metaphor refers to believing in him by faith at any time and in any context but that in the words of institution it refers more specifically to believing in him and remembering his death when one partakes of Communion. Despite the similarity of wording, the disciples, apparently, were not expected to recognize his words at the institution as connected in any special way to the discourse which made such a stir, recorded in John 6, but were to have understood both teachings merely to use a striking and even disturbing metaphor for faith in Jesus in some context or another. All of this seems to me quite strained, perhaps motivated in part by the idea that Jesus could not have been speaking in John 6 about a rite that he had not yet instituted. My own interpretive conclusions notwithstanding, however, the claim that John 6 is not at all about Communion cannot be entirely set aside, if for no other reason than that (I suspect) a fair number of the readers of this book accept that interpretation. Alternatively, one can hold that Jesus was speaking of the Lord’s Supper in John 6, not in the sense that the crowds were expected to understand this at that time by his teaching, but in the sense that he was alluding cryptically to something that he would make clearer later to those who continued to follow him. This sort of veiled allusion would hardly be uncharacteristic of Jesus’ teaching as we find it elsewhere. For example, his words to Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit in John 3 would not have been clear to Nicodemus at the time but would have become much clearer in the light of Pentecost. The statement, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up” recorded in John 2.19 is glossed by John, in hindsight, as referring to the resurrection, but Jesus himself apparently did not explain it at the time. If one takes Jesus to be teaching in John 6 in anticipation of his own later institution of the Lord’s Supper, there is a further division that can be made: One can hold a memorialist view and take it that Jesus was alluding in advance to the Lord’s Supper and that the disciples would have understood only later that he was urging the importance of remembering his death by means of that commanded rite. Or one can hold some version of sacramentalism, whether it be transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or a spiritual Real Presence view. What does all of this have to do with undesigned coincidences? Can one agree that there is an undesigned coincidence between John 6 and the words of institution if one holds Luther’s view on the interpretation of John 6? If one holds that Jesus was foreshadowing the Lord’s Supper in John 6, regardless of whether or not one holds a sacramental view of Communion, one can view the similarity of language (rightly, I believe) as a straightforward, familiar type of undesigned coincidence between the passages. The passage in John 6 raises the question, “Why did Jesus talk to the people about such an odd thing as eating his flesh and drinking his blood?” and this question is answered by the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The institution is recorded only in the Synoptics, and Jesus’ discourse on himself as the bread of life and on the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is recorded only in John. The answer to the question is that he spoke this way in John 6 in anticipation of instituting the Lord’s Supper at the end of his ministry, expecting his followers to put it all together later if they persevered in discipleship (as contrasted with those who fell away in John 6.66–67). This is the kind of undesigned coincidence we have seen already, in which a question is raised by one Gospel and the answer found only in one or more of the other Gospels.
Such a coincidence confirms both accounts by means of the fit between question and answer. But what if one is insistent that John 6 is not about the Lord’s Supper at all? In that case, the following argument still applies: Suppose, hypothetically, that Jesus did not give the bread of life discourse at all. Suppose, for example, that John made it up and inserted it into the Gospel for theological reasons. In that case, where did he get the language about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood? Even someone who thinks that there is no actual teaching about Communion in the passage should recognize that, if the passage were not genuine, the language put into Jesus’ mouth almost certainly would have been borrowed from the words of institution in the Synoptic Gospels. But in that case, a critic who denies the authenticity of the discourse in John 6 faces a conundrum. Why did John not include the institution of Communion in his own Gospel? Why does he leave the odd and difficult bread of life discourse dangling, using eucharistic-sounding language but without making any connection to the very passage from which he borrowed that language?
Indeed, even if John had included the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the connection would be inexplicit, as the two passages would come far apart in the Gospel without any obvious connection. One might have expected even more than mere inclusion of the Lord’s Supper if the bread of life discourse is an invention. Just as John pauses to inform the reader that Jesus spoke of the temple of his body in John 2, one might expect John to pause after noting the disgust and puzzlement of the crowd in John 6 and gloss Jesus’ words as referring to his body given in the Lord’s Supper. 8 That, at any rate, would not be an unreasonable expectation if he had gone to the trouble to invent the discourse. But at least we would expect that he would include the institution of the Lord’s Supper itself. This is all the more likely since the purpose of such an invention of the discourse would presumably be theological, but including the words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood without any connection to the Supper or to any other passage on the same theme does little to serve a theological agenda. Here it should be noted that the argument from undesigned coincidences often gives us evidence that the Gospel writers saw themselves first and foremost as witnesses to the deeds and words of Jesus Christ, not primarily as authors of literary and/or theologically sculpted works. Those two roles are not necessarily in conflict, so long as the author of the literary or theological work is always scrupulous about his role as a witness—for example, so long as he does not ever “make” things happen in a way contrary to the way that, to the best of his knowledge, they actually happened. But it is particularly noticeable that the Gospel authors often seem to write with the lack of affectation that we find in a person whose primary purpose is getting important information out there, getting down what happened, making it available, rather than in one whose primary purpose is to fit together what he writes in a polished manner. The author of the Gospel of John is certainly theological, perhaps more so than any of the other Gospel writers. But again and again we find him including items in his Gospel without their full explanations, apparently just because he wanted his readers to know that they happened. That sort of approach on John’s part is a perfectly good explanation of the presence of the John 6 discourse and the absence of the account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in John. The fact that we find John apparently doing this type of thing repeatedly argues for the priorities of the witness rather than the priorities of the theologian or literary craftsman, and it fits well with statements within the Gospel itself, most notably John 19.35: “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.”
One does not need to hold that Jesus’ words in John 6, taken as genuine, are actually about the Lord’s Supper to see the force of this argument. If John had faked the discourse, it is highly unlikely that he would not include the institution. Since he does not include the institution but does include the discourse, leaving it as a puzzle over which theologians have argued down the ages, the better explanation is that he includes the discourse because it actually happened and because he knows that it actually happened and wants to tell about it. He doesn’t include the Lord’s Supper when he tells about the Last Supper because he has other things he wants to include at that point in his Gospel instead that are not found in the Synoptic Gospels—things like Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet (John 13), the high priestly prayer (John 17), and several chapters of additional teachings of Jesus found only in John’s account of Jesus’ last night with his disciples. Since his purpose is to be a witness to Jesus more than the crafter of a unified theological and literary work of art, and since he is in all events testifying to what he knows is true, he does not worry about the fact that the bread of life discourse with its surprising language is not particularly connected to anything else in his own Gospel. If you take the discourse in John 6 to be about the Lord’s Supper, you will take the undesigned coincidence to be of one kind: What lies behind both it and the words of institution is the reality that Jesus said both of them and that Jesus wanted in both of them to teach about the Lord’s Supper. On the other hand, if you take the discourse in John 6 to be about believing on Jesus and not about the Lord’s Supper at all, you will take the undesigned coincidence to be of a somewhat different kind: On that view, the coincidence of language is explained by Jesus’ preference for that particular metaphor, which he used in both places as a way of teaching about believing in him in various contexts. For a similar explanation in terms of Jesus’ use of language, see #6, below, on Jesus’ use of the metaphor of “the cup.” In either case, the coincidence supports the reliability of John in his unique material. Why did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet?
The Gospel of John says that, on the night in which Jesus was betrayed, he did something unusual: He washed the disciples’ feet, and he did so in an extremely deliberate and even formal manner, taking upon himself a servant’s garb and role.
During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus … rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” …When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13.1– 15)
It is certainly possible that Jesus did this on that particular night for no special reason. Perhaps he simply wanted to teach this lesson about mutual service and humility before his death, as he instituted the Lord’s Supper on that same night. Still, one cannot help wondering why he washed their feet and drew the moral from it just then. If we could find an explanation in another Gospel, this would be interesting and satisfying. As it happens, there is such an explanation. Better still, it comes up in a Gospel that does not mention the foot-washing at all, though it is describing the same night:
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22.24–27)
Once this piece of information is in place, it is difficult to doubt that this is the explanation for Jesus’ object lesson. Like competitive siblings, the disciples were arguing, not for the first time, about which of them was the greatest—probably about which was to be the most important when he established his kingdom. (Compare Mark 9.34 and Matt 20.21.) In response to their dispute, Jesus rose from supper and served them by washing their feet as a servant would do, then explained to them what they were supposed to understand from what he had done. This coincidence illustrates an important point. While the strength of a coincidence will indeed be greater if an event that prompts a question is highly improbable, it does not follow that a coincidence is valueless if the events involved might have other explanations. In this case, while we could envisage Jesus as washing the disciples’ feet “out of the blue,” simply to teach a lesson, the further information that they had been bickering fits together in such a satisfying way with Jesus’ action that the conclusion that the bickering explains the foot-washing on that particular night is quite well-supported when all data are taken into account. I note, too, that the Gospels of Mark and Matthew already give an example in which Jesus used an object lesson to reprove the disciples for one-upmanship. In Mark 9.33– 37 the disciples have been debating which of them is the greatest. There, Jesus takes a child and places him in the midst of them after telling them that whoever wants to be the first among them must be the servant of all. (Compare Matt 18.1–4.) Alert readers may have noticed that there is also an undesigned coincidence in the opposite direction between the passages in Luke and John concerning the disciples’ dispute and the foot-washing. Luke explains John; John explains Luke. But I will leave a discussion of the way that John explains Luke for the next chapter. This is not the only case where John and Luke fit together in such a way that each explains the other within the space of a few verses. John does not mention the dispute among the disciples. Luke does not mention the foot-washing. Put together, they give us a more complete picture than either gives alone. The fact that each Gospel gives different details is a reason to believe that they represent independent accounts of the same night.
This mention of the dispute on the night of the Last Supper is found only in Luke. It is thus evidence of Luke’s independent access to the events, not only independent of John but also independent of Matthew and Mark.11 If the author of Luke was indeed a companion of the Apostle Paul, he may, for example, have interviewed a different disciple about the events of that night. That person might have mentioned the dispute but not the foot-washing. The author of the Gospel of John apparently remembers the story in his own way and chooses to describe the foot-washing but not the dispute. He doesn’t particularly feel a need to tell why Jesus washed their feet. His interest lies in telling about what Jesus did. Both are accurate, but their emphases are different, and they complement each other.
This, again, is a mark of testimony to real events. “Shall I not drink the cup?”
John’s account of Jesus’ arrest says that Simon Peter cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s servants, and this event will play an important role in several of the undesigned coincidences I will be discussing. John says that Jesus rebuked Peter, and so do Matthew and Luke, but the words of rebuke in each Gospel are different. In John, Jesus uses a vivid metaphor for his coming death:
Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18.10–11)
This expression, “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” appears in no other Gospel’s account of this event. Even more striking, the Gospel of John never anywhere else portrays Jesus as using the metaphor of the cup to describe his crucifixion. So why does he use it here? The Synoptic Gospels give the answer. In their accounts of Jesus’ agonized prayers to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Synoptics all show Jesus using this very metaphor.
And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matt 26.39–42)
Luke 22.42 and Mark 14.35–36 are similar. Though John gives no version of this prayer at all, the Synoptics state that Jesus prayed that night in these very terms, asking that the Father would take from him the necessity of suffering crucifixion, calling it “the cup.” When Judas and the guards came to arrest him, Jesus accepted this as the Father’s decision to give him the cup, as shown by the words in John, “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Matthew and Mark tell of a different incident, also not recorded in John, in which Jesus used the same metaphor. When the mother of James and John asked that her sons might be allowed to sit on Jesus’ right and left hands when Jesus eventually came into his kingdom, he answered them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10.38), an allusion to his coming death. This makes it clear that this was a metaphor Jesus tended to use, though one would never draw that conclusion from reading John alone. This point strengthens the case for the historicity and eyewitness sources of the Synoptics, on the one hand, and John, on the other.
They tell of different incidents in which Jesus used this metaphor of the cup for his death. Moreover, John’s account of Jesus’ specific words to Peter dovetails especially beautifully with the Synoptics’ account of Jesus’ anguished request to the Father on that very night. Yet John, though later than the Synoptic Gospels, made no attempt to include that prayer that the cup might pass, though it would help to explain his own account of what Jesus said when he was arrested. What we have here are different, interlocking details of the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest as told truthfully from different perspectives. “Are you the king of the Jews?”
When John describes the transfer of Jesus as a prisoner from the custody of the Jewish leaders to Pilate, he paints a vivid scene. The Jewish leaders take Jesus to the Praetorium early in the morning and rouse Pilate to judge his case. They refuse to enter the Praetorium lest they be ceremonially defiled, so Pilate (no doubt annoyed by being awakened to deal with a disturbance from his difficult subjects) goes out to them. He asks them what accusation they bring against Jesus, and they answer unhelpfully, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” (John 18.30) Pilate urges them to judge Jesus according to their own law, since (he suspects) the matter concerns only some violation of Jewish law. They reply, in a frankly bloodthirsty manner, that they are not authorized to put anyone to death, whereupon Pilate reluctantly re-enters the Praetorium and questions Jesus. Not a word is said in the account John gives of an accusation of sedition or any other political accusation against Jesus. But when Pilate confronts Jesus, the first thing he asks is, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (v 33) Why does Pilate ask this, if John’s account tells us all that the Jewish leaders have said against Jesus? Why would Pilate even think that Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews?
Luke alone among the Gospels answers this question. Luke tells of the original accusation like this:
Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” (Luke 23.1–3)
So Luke’s sources evidently indicated that the Jewish leaders made an accusation of sedition against Jesus, forcing Pilate to intervene in the case. It is worth emphasizing the uniqueness of Luke in this respect, since both Matthew and Mark do have a generally similar scene in which Jesus is turned over to Pilate and Pilate asks Jesus whether he is the king of the Jews (Mark 15.1–3, Matt 27.11–12). They do not, however, record that the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of sedition when they brought him to Pilate. They merely mention unspecified charges and accusations. Luke is therefore adding details to this part of the story in some way independently of the earlier Gospels, even if we consider him to have been relying in some measure on Mark and/or Matthew. Luke is reporting independently, moreover, not only in whole passages that are unique but even in passages that cover the same events and contain similar wording. A skeptic might try to say that John’s and Luke’s accounts are in contradiction to one another, but there is no reason to think so unless one insists on taking them both to be complete accounts of everything that was said between Pilate and Jesus’ accusers. But why should we think that? Witnesses do not always give complete accounts. Rather, they often give accounts of what struck them or what they consider most interesting to mention at the time. It is entirely possible that the accusers said both what John gives and what Luke gives—that at first they grumbled to Pilate that they would not have brought Jesus if he were not an evildoer but that, upon Pilate’s trying to refuse the case and give it back to them to judge according to Jewish law, they made the incendiary accusation of sedition, which would bring a sentence of death from the Roman authorities if upheld. The fact that Luke does not tell about the initial slight insouciance toward Pilate and that John does not tell about the accusation of sedition shows the independence of the accounts from each other.
The fact that the accounts fit together, with Luke explaining John, is both evidence of the truthfulness of the accounts and evidence that the sources of the accounts were very close to the facts.What happened to Malchus’s ear?
Let’s return to the incident in John 18 in which Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. John alone gives the name of the servant, Malchus. For right now, consider the fact that John does not say anything further about what happened to the servant’s ear. For all one could tell from John (or from Matthew or Mark, for that matter), one might have thought that the servant went away bleeding from the fray and was left without one ear for the rest of his days. This makes the following detail, recounted in John, quite curious. Jesus assures Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, and he gives the following argument for the unworldly nature of his kingdom:
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18.36)
But the careful reader of John knows from a scene earlier in the same chapter that one of Jesus’ servants, Simon Peter, did fight, maiming someone, to prevent Jesus from being delivered over to the Jews. Had Pilate inquired into Jesus’ claim of unworldly peacefulness, wouldn’t Malchus have been produced, bloody and earless, as evidence for the belligerence of Jesus’ disciples and of his movement? Why (based only on John) would Jesus make this argument, knowing that such evidence could be produced against him? Once again, it is the Gospel of Luke that supplies the answer. Describing the scene in the garden, Luke says,
While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22.47–53) Only Luke says that Jesus healed the servant’s ear, though Matthew and Mark also recount that the ear was cut off. Here again, Luke supplies a unique detail within a passage that is in some respects similar to the other Synoptic Gospels. And here, too, this detail is confirmed by an undesigned coincidence.
If it is true that Jesus healed the servant’s ear, it explains Jesus’ words to Pilate, though those words are given only in John. Jesus could confidently declare that his kingdom is not of this world and even say that his servants would be fighting if his kingdom were not peaceful. If anyone tried to say that Peter cut off a servant’s ear, the wounded servant himself could not be produced to show this, and an admission that Jesus healed the ear would be further evidence of Jesus’ non-violent intentions, not to mention evidence of his miraculous abilities. This undesigned coincidence thus confirms John’s and Luke’s separate accounts of the events of Jesus’ passion and trial. I note here that the way in which Luke explains John involves a miracle; therefore, this undesigned coincidence is some confirmation of the occurrence of that miracle.
As I mentioned in the introduction to Part I, it would be a mistake to think that the accounts of miracles in the Gospels are notably different from the accounts of non-miraculous events. In the previous section I argued that an undesigned coincidence confirms two different accounts of the way in which Jesus was first delivered to Pilate, neither of which is miraculous in any way. Here I am pointing out a coincidence that involves, among other things, Jesus’ healing the servant’s ear, which is a miracle. The coincidence concerning the empty water pots also involved the circumstances surrounding a miracle—turning water into wine at Cana. Why is Jesus being so mean?
John’s Gospel tells about a long encounter between Jesus and his disciples after his resurrection. As John tells it, Jesus meets the disciples by the Sea of Galilee, shares a meal with them, and has an entire conversation with them. There is even more to the story, involving a miraculous catch of fish, but for this undesigned coincidence I want to focus on the conversation between Jesus and the disciples. As they are sitting together after breakfast, Jesus turns to Peter with a question:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21.15–17)
This seems almost cruel of Jesus. No doubt he is alluding to Peter’s denial of him, which is told in John 18.15–27. But why, specifically, does he ask Peter if he loves him more than the other disciples love him? That seems to be what is meant by, “Do you love me more than these?” Peter answers, “Yes, you know that I love you” but does not actually claim to love Jesus more than the other disciples do. Jesus himself has repeatedly urged the disciples not to have a spirit of competition among themselves (for example, in Luke 22.24–26), so why would he encourage Peter to compare his love to the love of the other disciples? Although John does say that Peter asked to go with Jesus and said that he was willing to die for him (John 13.37–38), in response to which Jesus foretold that Peter would deny him, John never portrays Peter as comparing his own love for Jesus with the love of the other disciples. So this detail of Jesus’ post-resurrection probing is unexplained in John. The explanation is found in Matthew and Mark (not in Luke this time). They both say that Peter stated not merely that he was willing to die for Jesus but, further, that even if all the other disciples forsook Jesus (as Jesus foretold), he never would do so:
Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matt 26.31–35)
It seems that Jesus singles Peter out for questioning in these terms later not only because he denied him but also because he boasted that his love for Jesus was greater than the other disciples’ love. Mark 14.26–30 is similar to the passage in Matthew. Suppose that Jesus never rose from the dead and that the story of the breakfast by the Sea of Galilee were invented. Why, if that were the case, would the Gospel of John contain this bit of conversation that alludes to an earlier event, though John’s Gospel does not include the earlier story? Such an omission serves no literary purpose.
Someone writing a literary work containing back-references and foreshadowings includes all of those aspects in the work. Similarly, if the author of John were careless about historicity and were including a legend that had grown up in some way in the Christian community, it seems that he would be more likely at least to include the story of Peter’s boast which explains this aspect of such a legend. He might even go so far as to make an explicit connection between the two passages. If, on the other hand, the author of John was a disciple and remembered the conversation, his intent in writing was not to produce a literary work or even a connected series of legendary stories. Rather, as a witness, he put down what was said because that was how he remembered it, casually, without bothering about including everything necessary to explain precisely why Jesus said this or that.
It’s also interesting that this story is of a lengthy encounter between Jesus and the disciples after the resurrection. It is not a brief vision; it is not ambiguous. It is resolutely physical. Jesus has been cooking fish (John 21.9), and he shares bread and fish with them. He has an entire conversation with a group of his closest friends, covering more than one topic. If this represents accurately what the disciples were claiming happened, then they either lied, had the most improbable, polymodal hallucinations that just happened to fall upon all of them as a group in the same way at the same time, or told the truth. This is not the sort of event that a group of people could be merely mistaken about!
Think what a subtle and almost pointless form of deception it would be for the author of a non-factual book of John to leave out information in his own account, to raise questions by his own somewhat incomplete stories, in order that his stories might appear truthful because a really alert reader might find the explanations in earlier Gospels. That would be an extremely strange form of fakery.
Many readers will not notice such coincidences at all. That the author of John was not attempting to fake correspondences between his own book and the earlier Gospels is also shown by the fact that there are, in fact, places where it is necessary to harmonize John with the other Gospels and even where we find apparent contradictions. For example, in John 6.3–5, Jesus goes up onto a mountain apparently before seeing the multitude coming, just before the feeding of the five thousand. But in Mark 6.34, in the account of what is clearly the same event, the Gospel states that Jesus first saw the multitude when disembarking from a boat, which would not be on the top of a mountain. The point here is not that such allegations of contradiction are unanswerable. For example, in this case one should note that Jesus does not feed the crowd immediately when he sees them in Mark 6 and that he is moving about amongst the crowds all day. So he might well have gone higher up the mountain and sat down shortly before the feeding, as recounted in John, meaning that the account in John is simply not exhaustive. The point is that, however one harmonizes the accounts, the Gospel of John definitely does not appear to be the work of someone contriving agreement between his own document and the earlier documents. Very much to the contrary. A skeptic who attempts to explain the undesigned coincidences in which the Synoptic Gospels explain John by hypothesizing a subtle, cunning deception must explain why the same author is so careless about connections with the earlier Gospels that he does not avoid simple, surface-level appearances of contradiction. “Many were coming and going”
The Gospel of Mark introduces the feeding of the five thousand by telling of Jesus’ attempt to get away from the crowds with his disciples after the twelve returned from a preaching mission.
The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. (Mark 6.30–31)
One might at first guess that the reference to many “coming and going” is merely another allusion to the fact that Jesus was often pressed and followed by crowds. And indeed, as the passage goes on, Mark does say that the crowds found a way to follow Jesus (vv 34–35). But the phrase “many were coming and going” is slightly odd as a description of Jesus’ popularity alone and suggests that there was some other reason for a general bustle of crowds in their vicinity. But Mark gives no further explanation for the busyness surrounding them. John does, though without any appearance of intending to explain anything at all. John introduces the feeding of the five thousand like this:
After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. (John 6.1–4)
John notes that the crowd followed Jesus when he went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, but he does not mention that there were “many coming and going” in the location from which Jesus came. What John does mention in passing is the time of year—namely, just before Passover. 1 Josephus (War of the Jews 6.9.3) tells of an estimate of almost three million Jews in Jerusalem for Passover during the reign of Nero. Josephus also mentions difficulties caused by the Galileans’ habit of passing through Samaria on the way to Jerusalem for festivals (Antiquities 20.6.1). The biblical texts themselves speak often of the practice of traveling to Jerusalem for the festivals. (See, among others, Luke 2.41, John 2.13, John 7.1–8, Acts 2, Acts 20.16.) There is no doubt that Jews would have been on the roads in large numbers when the Passover was coming up. J. J. Blunt conjectures that Jesus was in Capernaum when he and his disciples were first troubled by the crowds, but Mark does not actually say so, and there is no need to assume that he was specifically in Capernaum.2 There was a Roman road that ran over the top and along the western edge of the Sea of Galilee.3 Jesus was evidently on the western side of the Sea of Galilee (see Mark 6:1-6) to begin with and took ship somewhere on that shore to try to get away from the crowds by going to a deserted area on the northeastern side of the Sea of Galilee near Bethsaida (see Luke 9.10, Matt 14.13). The major population centers of Tiberias and Capernaum were both on the west of the Sea, with the road between them, and things would have been busy indeed in that vicinity just before the Passover. But the correspondence here is so indirect that there can be no question that it is undesigned. Mark does not mention the Passover, and John does not mention the general bustle on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. Mark, being earlier, could not have coordinated deliberately with John. John, so far from attempting to coordinate with Mark, actually leaves himself open to the charge of contradicting Mark, as discussed at the end of the previous chapter. It is implausible enough to begin with that the author of John would have planted a hyper-subtle correspondence between his own Gospel and Mark’s by stating that Passover was at hand, without bothering to repeat Mark’s comment about the crowds on the eastern side of the sea. But it passes beyond implausible to bizarre to suggest that he would make so clever a connection while at the same time leaving apparent discrepancies on other matters of detail between his own account and Mark’s. The author of John, imagined as a deceiver, cannot be both extremely subtle and clever and extremely bumbling at the same time! The fact is that John gives the strong impression of writing an independent account of the feeding of the five thousand, so much so that one might even suspect that he had not recently heard or read the account in Mark. The best explanation for this correspondence (and for that matter, for the differences) between Mark’s and John’s account is that both are attempts, by someone close to the facts, to tell a truthful story. It is just so that honest witnesses both casually corroborate and differ from each other.Lydia McGrew:
Hidden In Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts 2017