Undesigned Coincidences from The Library of Historic Apologetics

This video is the product of a recent collaboration between me and Tim McGrew  the distinguished philosopher from Western Michigan University. Tim reads lots of old books and this video reflects one in particular from 1869 by John James Blunt called Undesigned Coincidences. The cool thing about old books is that they are now public domain, which translates to free for you and me. The Christian faith has a plethora of apologetics resources that are largely forgotten about and Dr McGrew has started a website The Library of Historic Apologetics to help remedy that or at least to expose those who are interested to some of the better works.

An undesigned coincidence occurs when one account of an event leaves out a bit of information that doesn’t affect the overall picture, but a different account indirectly supplies the missing detail, usually answering some natural question raised by the first. Forgers do not want to leave loose ends like this that might raise awkward questions; they take care to tie everything together neatly. But these are just the sort of things we would expect to find in authentic and at least partly independent records of the same real event told by different people. This video examines several of these undesigned coincidences in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.


About Cris Putnam
Logos Apologia is the ministry of Cris D. Putnam. The mission of Logos Apologia is to show that logic, science, history and faith are complementary, not contradictory and to bring that life-changing truth to everybody who wants to know.


  1. Ed Babinski says:

    Hi Cris, Nicely put together video! But when studying the Gospels I suggest lining up arguments “for” and “against” historicity and eyewitness testimony. Your video would go in the “for” column. The trouble is that arguments also can be found in the “against” column. J. J. Blunt, whose arguments McGrew is attempting to revive, published his book a few years before Strauss’s Life of Jesus was translated into English and published in Britain. Strauss listed so many discrepancies between Gospel accounts in his 1300 page work that your head may spin when you read about them all. So it’s not surpising that Blunt could come up with some discrepancies that make sense as “undesigned coincidences,” but the vast majority of such discrepancies do not makes sense as undesigned coincidences. In fact they make more sense only if the authors were not eyewitnesses, because eyewitnesses would not come up with so many discrepancies. So the cumulative case is clearly on the side of discrepancies, not undesigned coincidences.

    Also, textual critics recognize that once scribes had all four Gospels they could compare them and there is evidence in later texts that we do possess that scribes sometimes “updated” earlier Gospels with bits of information in later ones, and vice versa. So the mention of something in John could even be retrojected back into Mark. We know that scribes had done this based on textual evidence we possess. http://www.richardcarrier.info/NTReliabilitySlideshow.pdf

    Lastly, The earliest feeding stories in Mark say nothing about the people marveling that a miracle had occurred, only the apostles store away the info of how much food was left over since Jesus has his apostles pick up the leftovers and count them and has them think about it later in the boat, so the feeding stories involved a lesson primarily for the apostles, and even they don’t seem to understand what has happened. See Mark 6 and 8. Only in later rewrites of the story in John for instance do the people exclaim that a miracle has occurred.

    In fact the version of the feeding story in Mark 8 ends and then continues immediately with this passage:

    The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a SIGN? Truly I tell you, NO SIGN will be given to it.”

    But the feeding story in John 6 ends with this line about the people’s recognition that a miracle had occurred:

    After the people saw the SIGN Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.

    Some Evangelical biblical scholars have admitted that they don’t find the feeding miracle story as convincing as they do other miracles stories. They don’t explain exactly why they find it a bit less convincing. But I suppose it’s because of the fact as I mentioned that it is not proclaimed to be a miracle by the people in the earliest versions.

    Also, in earlier versions the apostles hand out the food after Jesus has blessed it, but only in John does Jesus hand out the food himself. And only in John do the people exclaim that a sign has been performed.

    The story is modeled on an OT miracle about about multiplied food, and seems to have been contrived in order to “top” the miracle of that other famous Jewish wonder worker in the OT, just as Elisha’s miracles were double that of Elijah, Jesus’ had to be greater still.

    Also, the question that Jesus is depicted as having asked Philip in the fourth Gospel, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” is the same question that the apostles put to Jesus in earlier Gospels, Mark and Matthew. So did the apostles ask such a question of Jesus, or did Jesus ask such a question of the apostle Philiip? Scholars have admitted that the fourth Gospel inserts people into stories that the earlier Gospels do not mention or leave unnamed. It seems to be his trait. Some commentators on the feeding story in John admit that seems to be the case here too with the introduction of “Philip.” At any rate, the earliest two Gospels have the apostles addressing Jesus with that line, not Jesus addressing Philip with the line, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” So Blunt’s case depends on which Gospel version of the story one is using to try and prove that an alleged conversation is both historically accurate and that an undesigned coincidence has indeed occurred.

    Personally, When I think of a tale about a couple thousand people in a wilderness I can’t help but imagine that at least some of them had the foresight to take along some food or even some drink with them to wash the food down with. A tale about that many people simply wandering around following some guy out to the wilderness to listen to him preach and none of them taking along any food seems preposterous. John the Baptist also had people who came out to him in the wilderness and he preached too. But I suppose they didn’t take any food with them either and all stumbled home starving, barely making it to their homes.

    There are also various logistical problems with crowds of that size that are probably not simply answered by suggesting they were on their way to Jerusalem for Passover (taking some food along with them let’s hope). Only the final gospel suggests that it was near Passover. Earlier gospels have crowds going out to see John the Baptist and Jesus on no particular occaision. I’d just like to say that the fourth Gospel emphasizes Passover and Jesus as the Passover Lamb, and the Feeding Miracle as a foretaste of the Passover meal. (The Fourth Gospel does not feature Jesus hosting a last Passover meal before being arrested, inst

    • Cris Putnam says:

      Thanks for the compliment on the video but really Strauss? He’s been demonstrated to be all bark and very little bite my friend. Please take a look at this piece here I wrote on Strauss. He dated the Gospel of John near the end of the second century:

      On the other hand, the issue of the examination with regard to the fourth Gospel is far less favourable, and goes to prove that it was not known until after the middle of the century, and bears every indication of having arisen upon a foreign soil, and under the influence of a philosophy of the time unknown to the original circle in which Jesus lived.

      ~David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus vol 1, (London: Williams and Norgate, 1879), 100.

      The John Ryland Papyri was discovered in Alexandria and dated around AD 120. Of course for a copy to make it to a library in Egypt its autograph was much earlier. This discredited Strauss’ skeptical speculations. Thus, his entire hypothesis concerning the theological evolution of Jesus has been relegated to the dust bin.
      The fact that scholars can sort out what appear to be scribal insertions shows that we can discern what is interjection and what isn’t. None of the undesigned coincidences depend on anything questionable. An argument from Marcan silence is not evidence that John is a rewrite, it’s just an unevidenced speculation. You also seem to confuse the omission of details with the denial of them. Blunt’s case does not depend on “which Gospel version of the story one is using” rather the existence of undesigned coincidences which are abundant. The setting for the feeding of the 5000 is a deserted place (ερημον), not a “wilderness.” In all likelihood it was not far at all from civilization, hence the possibility of buying bread or sending them packing. Nearly all of these objections have been answered ad nauseum.

  2. Ed Babinski says:

    Hi Cris,
    Strauss was good at noting discrepancies between Gospel stories (both large and minute). I was not citing him to try and demonstrate the correctness of his views on all matters. Nor does your citing his incorrectness on one matter invalidaite his observation of discrepancies. My point in citing Strauss is that the multitude of discrepancies and differences between similar stories in different Gospels provides a cumulative case against eyewitness testimony–a stronger cumulative case in my opinion than Blunt’s relatively few “concidences” that he is able to string together.

    So far as your particular example is concerned, the dating of the Ryland Papyri is not as secure as one might imagine. It’s still being debated. See the 2009 discussions below.

    Papyrus 52: Do We Actually Know How Old It Is? http://mjburgess.wordpress.com/2009/08/13/papyrus-52-do-we-actually-know-how-old-it-is/

    On or about Aug. 13th, 2009, the Textual Criticism Group hosted a lively debate concerning the contents and date of P52 (P. Ryl. 457), generally regarded as the earliest manuscript witness to the text of the New Testament: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/textualcriticism/

    Also if you looked over Carrier’s presentation http://www.richardcarrier.info/NTReliabilitySlideshow.pdf on what scholars agree that we know about the NT text, we have no first century documents and only fragments in the 2nd century, and only beginning with the 4th century do we have complete Gospels that we can compare with one another. This info is old hat. But what’s interesting in his presentation is his assertion illustrated by a graph (I do not know whether the graph is original with Carrier or not) that the number of edits in known manuscripts from the fourth century onward continued to diminish, implying that prior to the fourth century, the rate of edits was probably higher rather than lower. It’s a simple enough notion to consider, i.e, if the edits that we know about grew “less abundant” over time in known manuscripts, then as you work backwards in time to the fragmentary and unknown manuscripts of the first century, the edits would probably have been “more abundant.” not less abundant. (Take the case of the added ending to Mark, possibly made early in the second century).

    I also suspect that once all four Gospels were composed and scribes were reading and copying all four, that “harmonizing” edits were likely to have appeared, including retrojections. In fact the Diatesseron (c 160 – 175) is one such harmonization (of all four Gospels), while the Epistula Apostolorum is another (c 140-150), even earlier. And those were large scale harmonizations. There’s no telling what types of minor edits that a scribe who knew all four Gospels might have added just to round them out.


    Are the Gospels “rewrites” of one another? L. Michael White in his award winning work, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (2010), presents exactly that hypothesis: http://www.amazon.com/Scripting-Jesus-L-Michael-White/dp/0061228796

    Another recent work, Rewriting the Feeding of Five Thousand (Studies in Biblical Literature) by Steven A. Hunt (2011), presents the most extensive argumentation to date that the author of the fourth Gospel rewrote the feeding of the five thousand based on earlier written accounts coupled with his own theological imagination. http://www.amazon.com/Rewriting-Feeding-Thousand-Biblical-Literature/dp/143310606X/ref=wl_it_dp_o_npd?ie=UTF8&coliid=I1SYECKG3C9L4R&colid=3KKLY02YFTRNF

    Speaking of rewrites, see the recent article, “Matthew’s Use of Mark: Did Matthew Intend to Supplement or to Replace His Primary Source?” by David C. Sim, New Testament Studies, Volume 57, Issue 02, April 2011, pp 176 – 192.

    And if you want to examine the full range of questions concerning the story of the feeding of the five thousand, then I suggest another recent work, Feeding the Five Thousand: Studies in the Judaic Background of Mark 6:30-44 par. and John 6:1-15 (Studies in Judaism) by Roger David Aus (2010) http://www.amazon.com/Feeding-Five-Thousand-Studies-Background/dp/0761851526/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1320164922&sr=1-1

    The above biblical scholarship blunts the case for Blunt and McGrew’s assumptions and hence their arguments fail to convince. The questions are all there to ponder and quite obvious “from Strauss to Aus,” questions that are more obvious than Blunt’s relatively few examples and arguments.

    In essence, Evangelicals are playing their own game of Pascal’s Wager when it comes to biblical scholarship. Their new wager might be called, “Pascal’s Biblical Studies Wager,” and depends on getting people to affirm the views of Evangelical biblical scholars, otherwise one risks following the wrong scholars with all their questions and thus wagering away one’s eternal salvation. When in fact, bilbical studies are more diversified in their interpretations and arguments than even the Evangelicals who contribute to the different “viewpoint series” published by Zondervan and InverVarsity admit. In fact, even McGrew’s view that Mark’s Gospel originally ended with “an incomplete sentence,” is far from being universally agreed upon by biblical scholars, not even by Evangelical biblical scholars. See Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: Four Views: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0805447628/ref=rdr_ext_tmb#_


    1) Discrepancies are far more abundant that the “undesigned coincidences,” which makes one question the idea that the Gopsels were constructed from eyewitness testimony. There is even evidence that they were rewrites of one another, including attempts by one Gospel author to compose a Gospel that supersedes a previous Gospel or Gospels.

    2) Scholars do not assume as Blunt did that the Gospels we possess remain so near to the original autographs that one can pick out minute points and construct an “argument from undesigned coincidences.” The most well informed Evangelical commentators today would agree. I don’t know that any of them would resort to Blunt’s arguments today, or consider them proofs of eyewitness testimony.

    • Cris Putnam says:

      Thanks for your comment. The point with Strauss is that the entire basis for his primary thesis of legendary development has been undermined by evidence. The dating on P52 is as solid as any at 120-130. You keep alleging discrepancies but these are actually very minor and exactly the sorts of minor disagreements one would expect from eye witnesses recalling events independently. The Undesigned Coincidences, however, are specific and substantial. Its not really even close as far as which carries more weight. Also many of these alleged discrepancies are simply due to an ignorance of the Gospel genre. To interpret ancient literature one must make some effort to understand its cultural-historical context. Genre is key. It is not biography, more like a tract. Thus, with the Gospels one must understand that there are 2 layers of historical context. One at the level of Jesus at the time of the events and another layer at the time of the evangelist author and the purpose he had in his particular Gospel. While they certainly contain accurate historical data, Gospels were not intended to be linear chronological histories in the same way as modern history. Each author arranged events in his Gospel according to his context, he had a pastoral/evangelist agenda. When you grasp the layers of context and stop imposing a modern mindset and genre that did not exist onto and ancient genre, I estimate that probably 99% of these alleged discrepancies vaporize. If you would like a good study on how to properly interpret the Gospels in context I suggest How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Fee and Stuart. I think it will help.

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