Lydia McGrew: Confidence in the Gospels (With Infographic)
Undesigned coincidences in the Bible lead us to confidence in its truth -- and that confidence really matters.
I had a conversation with Dr. Lydia McGrew recently about her new book Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Bible. These “undesigned coincidences” are sparkling points of insight scattered among the various gospels, the book of Acts and the New Testament letters, where one account explains details not explained in another. These points of information connect with each other unforced and unawares, the way real stories connect when real people talk about things that have really happened.
In other words, the accounts we have in the New Testament don’t look the least bit like the legends skeptics say they are. They show the unmistakable touch of reality on them.
The Stream: Why would we use arguments from the Bible to establish that we can trust the Bible? Why should we care about this?
Dr. McGrew: I was speaking to a philosophy class not long ago about miracles, the resurrection and the disciples’ willingness to die for their convictions. During the Q&A, one of the students said, “Do you have anything that tells us about this that’s not the Bible?” I said, “Listen, let’s for a moment not talk about the records as Bible. Let’s talk about them as documents.”
These are documents. Everyone agrees they exist as documents. I said, “I’m not telling you to believe this because it’s in the Bible. Let’s consider them as data. Then let’s consider what the best explanation is for them as data.”
Here’s the idea. Let’s start with a hypothesis: that the gospels and the book of Acts are what they appear to be: they were written by friends of Jesus, or people who closely knew friends of Jesus. They’re meant to be historical in nature. You could think of Acts as a memoir of the apostle Paul and the history of the apostles’ founding of the early church.
Notice at this point we’re not talking about “sacred documents” or anything, we’re just talking about them in a sort of historical way.
Now let’s suppose that they might give us an accurate portrait of what those people, Jesus’ friends, actually remembered happening. (Now, that doesn’t sound terribly radical, but in the realm of biblical studies that’s very radical to say.) Maybe John wrote the book of John, maybe all the documents really were written by the closest associates of Jesus himself. Maybe they really are reliable.
Can we support that in any way that is bottom-up rather than top-down? That’s the question; that’s the test-drive we want to take. And so I view the undesigned coincidences argument as a kind of bottom-up argument for the provenance of the Gospels and Acts: that if we think of them as being written by reliable witnesses, companions and so forth, of those who are the principal characters in the stories, that hypothesis really does fit the data.
The Stream: I love the way you use the word “test-drive.” What you’re saying is, let’s consider that as a possibility and now let’s see whether it works and where it goes. It should feel comfortable because it’s got a smooth ride; you’ve got all the car parts working. In here you have all the accounts working together.
Dr. McGrew: Right. So then we come out saying, “Maybe that really is what they are: they really are memoirs of people who wrote what they experienced, or wrote what eyewitnesses said.”
I think we really want to make skeptics uncomfortable by backing them up into a sort of triple option concerning the original witnesses: either they lied, they were mistaken, or they were telling the truth.
Skeptics want to say, “No, no, no, we don’t want to say any of that about them! We just want to say we had this highly legendary process-thing happening. It wasn’t so much that they weren’t telling the truth. It was a legend that grew, and then it was edited by someone long after. The apostles never claimed anything this extreme in the first place.”
We want to get back saying that they really did claim something that extreme right up front. They had meals with this resurrected Jesus. They ate fish with him. They talked to him for six weeks.
Skeptics want to leave us maybe with the option that they didn’t write it, that someone else wrote it, speaking in their voice later on. That way they can duck the implication: these witnesses saw the resurrected Jesus. I believe the undesigned coincidences argument really makes that a hard sell, because we end up with these stories interlocking in ways that just don’t work for legends. It would be too great a coincidence.
The Stream: So what would it look like if they were legends instead of real memoirs?
Dr. McGrew: Well, we’ve got some Gnostic Gospels from the second century, and we’ve also got some other later “gospels.” There’s a lot of really fabulous stuff in these things, like the cross is coming out of the tomb and talking at the resurrection.
The apocryphal gospels — the ones that were written much later, so we know they do have lots of legend in them, will say, “We want to know more about Jesus’ childhood, so we’re going to have him do wild miracles like making birds out of clay.” One of the interesting things that we find about the gospel authors is that they do not fill in details that we are curious about. This isn’t an undesigned coincidence, but it plays into it. The gospels talk about Joseph, but never tell us how he dies. We don’t know. But one of my undesigned coincidences is that it looks like he was dead; all the gospel authors knew; yet they don’t bother to fill it in. They don’t tell us that, even though apparently they all knew he was gone.
There are other places where we would expect legends to insert other material, but they didn’t. We have no story of Jesus’ first appearance to Peter after the resurrection; just that he had risen and appeared to him. It’s mentioned twice in passing, but there’s no account of what happened there. Peter evidently didn’t want that published. He was like, “What Jesus and I said the first time we met is between Jesus and me.” Now that’s just ripe for legends to grow on. But it didn’t happen.
Plus, in legends you never have these scattered interlocking explanations — what we call these undesigned coincidences. That doesn’t happen anywhere except where you have different people telling real stories of real experiences.
The Stream: Once again: Why should a Christian care about all this?
Dr. McGrew: At some point, every Christian’s going to wake up and say, “Why am I a Christian?” Or at least some will. They’re going to wake up and say, “If I’d been born in a Muslim country, I’d be a Muslim. In a Buddhist country, I’d be a Buddhist. Why am I a Christian here?”
Or they might say, “Why would I want to stay a Christian, since I’m under pressure with that here?” You need an answer to that. And I believe this argument contributes to the argument for Jesus’ resurrection, which in turn answers the question, “Why should you be a Christian?”