Monday, January 24, 2011

The Underestimated Agreement Of The Gospels

Timothy and Lydia McGrew have been discussing an argument for the historicity of the gospels that they call undesigned coincidences, which you can read about here. The same sort of argument has been applied to other portions of the Bible, such as Acts and the letters of Paul. It's an argument that has multiple implications, and I want to address one of those here. I won't be limiting my discussion to undesigned coincidences, though what I'm going to discuss is somewhat related.

Critics of Christianity often argue that the gospels are inconsistent with one another. Most significantly, John is said to be especially inconsistent with the Synoptics. The argument the McGrews are discussing makes the point, among other things, that the gospels have more in common than is often alleged. The gospel accounts of Jesus' trial before Pontius Pilate, for example, have some assumptions in common that are spelled out in one gospel, but not another. Even if critics argue that the gospels are wrong where they agree (maybe they all depended on the same false tradition, for example), the fact remains that they do agree. And there's especially good evidence for the historicity of some of the agreements, for a variety of reasons.

A popular example is the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb by a group of His female followers. John's gospel only mentions Mary Magdalene by name, but the plural "we" of John 20:2 suggests that John was aware that at least one other woman was involved. Not only do the gospels all agree on this point, but they're also agreeing on a matter unlikely to have been fabricated. Why have women discover the empty tomb while the male disciples are acting less faithfully, and at a time when the testimony of women was so much less valued than it is today?

I've often cited an example that's discussed less often, related to the infancy narratives. Matthew's infancy account doesn't include the John the Baptist material that's in Luke's narrative, yet Matthew 3:14 dovetails well with what Luke reported.

Even Raymond Brown, who wasn't a conservative and was highly critical of the traditional view of the infancy narratives, thought there were some unusual agreements between Matthew and Luke. For example:

"If the marital situation between Joseph and Mary [portrayed in Matthew's gospel] were not a fact and could have been created according to the dictates of Christian imagination, it is difficult to see why a situation less open to scandal was not contrived. For instance, instead of picturing Mary as already pregnant, the narrator could have imagined her as betrothed to Joseph but without child. Then he could have had the angel of the Lord appear and begin his message with 'Joseph, son of David, hasten to take Mary your wife into your home.' Everything else in 1:20-25 could follow, and there would be no hint of scandal....Matthew's world view and that of his opponents is not one in which deities have sexual relations with men or women and beget children. He is in confrontation with Pharisees and in his account of the ministry he is most careful not to give them anything they can use against Jesus (e.g., his omitting the spittle miracle narrated in Mark 8:22-26). If the situation described in Matthew is not a factual one but is the product of Christian romantic imagination, one must deem it a great religious blunder; for it gave rise to the charge of illegitimacy against Jesus that was the mainstay of anti-Christian polemic for many centuries....One may hypothesize that independently Matthew and Luke hit upon the pattern of an annunciation, the idea of a virginal conception, etc.; but it is more plausible that these are earlier ideas that each has taken over and developed in his own way. I find totally implausible that they would independently chance upon the same peculiar marital situation as a setting for the annunciation." (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], pp. 142-143, n. 28 on p. 143, n. 41 on p. 247)

Some of the gospel agreements only involve two or three gospels. But the most significant ones involve all four. What I want to do here is focus on one set of agreements that's shared by two or more of the Synoptics and John. Most of these agreements are shared by all four gospels.

What I have in mind is the status of Jesus' immediate family. Have you ever thought about how unusual those relationships were and how much the gospels agree about that unusual situation?

All of the gospels leave Joseph out of Jesus' public ministry, including in contexts in which Jesus' mother and siblings are present (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:21-35, Luke 8:19-21, John 2:1-12). All of the gospels seem to agree that Joseph had died prior to the public ministry (especially suggested by John 19:26-27).

Three of the gospels, including John, suggest that Mary believed in Jesus, but that her faith wavered. She seems to have had the sort of inconsistent faith that we see in Peter and other individuals in the gospels. But she didn't follow Jesus as closely as somebody like Peter, so she seems to have been comparable to Nicodemus and other more distant followers. She followed Jesus to some extent, as the infancy narratives and John 2:3-5 and 19:25 suggest, but she also joined Jesus' siblings in acting against Him at times and was sometimes rebuked by Jesus (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:21-35, Luke 2:49, John 2:4). Mark doesn't refer to Mary's faith, but he doesn't deny it either.

All four gospels portray Jesus' siblings as unbelievers (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:21-35, Luke 8:19-21, John 7:5).

For a fuller discussion of these and other relevant passages, see Eric Svendsen's Who Is My Mother? (Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001). It may appear at first that some of the passages cited above don't say anything negative about Mary and/or Jesus' siblings, but they do. Study the text and context carefully, and compare the passages to others that use similar language.

Regardless of the reason one suggests for these agreements among the gospels, they do agree. And Jesus' family situation is so unusual and reported so widely early on, and in some ways caused difficulties for the early church, that it seems unlikely that the scenario was fabricated by the early Christians. The combination of an early death of Joseph, a wavering Mary, and unbelieving siblings is something that the Synoptics and John are unlikely to have agreed upon by independently making up stories. It's also unlikely that they all agreed in making up the scenario or accepting one that was made up.

When people list agreements between the Synoptics and John, the list is usually far shorter than it should be. They have more in common than is often suggested. And that's true despite the fact that, as multiple early sources tell us, John was deliberately making his gospel different in some ways in order to supplement the Synoptics.


  1. Undesigned coincidences cannot only detected in the Gospels. In the following undesigned coincidences in connection with the two New Testament books Acts and 1 Peter are presented.

    The first set of undesigned coincidences in connection with Acts and 1 Peter might be provided by the passages in which the geographical names Pontus and Cappadocia appear, passages which we can only find in these two New Testament books. These passages are Acts 2,9, 18,2 and 1 Peter 1,1. Maybe the Jewish Christians in these areas came to faith in Christ by the sermon Peter delivered on the day of Pentecost as described in Acts 2,14-41. Maybe the pagan Christians that are addressed in 1 Peter came to faith in Christ by the witness of Jewish Christians just as according to Acts 11,20 it happened in Antioch.

    Acts 2,2 and 1 Peter 1,12 are the only places in Scripture where we can read that the Holy Spirit was sent “from heaven”, and it may well be that both places refer to the same event, namely the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It could be that those who had preached the gospel to the addressees of 1 Peter were Jews from Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia who were present at Pentecost and later went back to their respective homelands and told their fellow citizens about their experience in Jerusalem. So we might have before us another case of undesigned coincidences in connection with Acts and 1 Peter.

    Acts 12,12 and 15,22 on the one hand and 1 Peter 5,12-13 on the other hand might provide undesigned coincidences pointing to the fact that Mark and Silas were members of the church in Jerusalem. This set of undesigned coincidences is based on the assumption that “Babylon” mentioned in 1 Peter 5,13 refers to Jerusalem and not to Rome. Very good arguments in favour of this view can be found in James Stuart Russell’s book “The Parousia: A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord's Second Coming” (London 1878) on pp. 346-350.

  2. Additionally, we must remember the traditional moral and cultural expectations of the era. As I understand it, the amount of embarrassment associated with, say, a pregnancy out of wedlock, would have been enormous. Fabrication is even less likely given the principle of embarrassment.

    Nice post, Jason.