A forgotten apologetic for the reliability of the gospels?

Michael writes :

In my book, But is it true? I give a number of reasons as to why we should take the gospels as reliable historical sources containing real eyewitness testimony.


Some of these arguments are well known – such as the fact that the gospel writers would have faced opposition and persecution for making the kind of claims they did. Many people make up stories to get themselves out of trouble, but who would make up a story to get themselves into trouble!


Some of the arguments are more recent. I draw on the work of the  New Testament scholar, Richard Bauckham who has shown how the popularity of names within the gospels correlates very closely with the popularity of names within first century Palestine ; the kind of detail that would be hard to get right by way of invention, but would be simple to get right if one was recording real people and real events.


However, I have since come across another apologetic for the reliability of the gospels that, while not being new, seems relatively unused at present. For this discovery I have my friend Jon Dawson to thank, who sent me, through the post, a copy of Lydia McGrew’s book Hidden in Plain View – Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts. I was immediately intrigued, and, by the end of the day, had devoured most of it. (By the way – if you want to buy it online – make sure you get the right book. There is another book by the same title, but its subtitle is A secret story of quilts and the underground railroad – by the sound of things – also a very intriguing book but one that would possibly be less helpful in apologetics!)


Lydia McGrew is quite clear that she is not proposing a new view, but building on an idea that has been around since the 18th Century, when it was put forward by William Paley. The idea is simply that one of the ways we know the gospels contain reliable eyewitness testimony is the unintentional ways in which the accounts complement each other. Piecing together the different accounts we find that they explain each other in a remarkable way that would be hard to plan and almost impossible to get right by accident.


This kind of complementarity is what we might expect in authentic eyewitness testimony. For instance, recently I gave two team members a lift home from a conference. If you asked one of them about the journey they might tell you ‘We left after breakfast, the journey took ages and we didn’t get home until 3pm.’ However, if you independently asked the other he might say ‘The journey home was really eventful – we had a puncture in the back tyre so we had to stop and get it fixed, and then, when we arrived into Bournemouth, we stopped to watch the Red Arrows take off from the airport.’ The accounts of the journey are obviously quite different and mention different things – but they fit together. The first account raises the question as to why the journey took so long but the second would offer the explanation – a flat tyre. The first gives the arrival time but the second only mentions watching planes take off – however, a quick check by a third source online would reveal that the planes took off shortly before 3pm. The fact that they give different but complementary accounts of the same event makes their testimony more believable than if they had given identical accounts. If the accounts were the same we might just assume that they copied each other. If they were blatantly contradictory then we would assume that they might be just making their stories up.


In the gospels we see many such examples of undesigned coincidences where the same event is reported in different ways that make sense of each other. Let’s just take one event – the feeding of the 5,000. It is a good example because it is one of the few events in the gospels that is recorded by all four of the gospel writers. It is also a good one because it concerns a miracle. It is important to note that the undesigned coincidences occur both with miraculous events as well as with non-miraculous events. While that doesn’t prove the miracles it does mean there is no reason why we should doubt the testimony here anymore than in other parts of the gospels.


Mark, in his account of the feeding of the 5,000, mentions that the people sat down on the green grass (6:39). An interesting detail typical of an eyewitness. Whilst in England we are used to grass always being green, grass in Palestine is only green for a month or so in the springtime. John’s account of the event doesn’t mention the colour of the grass but he does note that the miracle took place around the time of the Passover (6:4) – i.e. Spring time. This detail not only fits with Mark’s observation, but also explains another phrase in Mark’s account. In verses 30-31 he speaks about many people coming and going. It is rather a strange phrase to use simply to describe Jesus popularity (you’d expect it just to describe people coming) and seems to indicate a general busyness in the area. If the event took place at Passover though (as John indicates) this would be well-explained, as thousands of people would have been passing through the region on their way to Jerusalem – Josephus estimates up to three millions Jews went up to Jerusalem at Passover time.


In John’s account Jesus asks Philip (6:5) where they can find  bread to feed that many people. It raises the question why he should ask Philip? Normally it is the three lead-disciples; Peter, James and John, who are at the centre of the action – Philip is rarely mentioned. John doesn’t say why – he just states that it happened. However, Luke’s account of the event indicates that the miracle took place in the region of Bethsaida (9:10) and John has already told us that Philip is from Bethsaida (1:43-44). Why did Jesus ask Philip? – because he was the ‘local boy’ and he knew the area! …but only by looking at the different accounts can we see that this is the case.


There is more still. All the gospels speak of 5,000 being fed, but how did they count such a large number? Well, Mark and Luke both mention that the disciples had the crowd sit down in groups of fifty and one hundred – this would have made the crowd much easier to count. However, Matthew tells us that it was only 5,000 men – women and children were not included in that number. So how did they only count the men? Well, in John’s account we read that Jesus told the ‘people’ to sit down (the word is a general one meaning men and women) but, interestingly, John then notes that the ‘men’ (specifically males) sat down. So the people sitting in the groups were only the men – thus explaining why Matthew would say that the number counted did not include the women and the children.


All four accounts complement each other in a way that would be very hard to explain if they were simply independent fabrications – or exaggerated myths written long after the event. However, the fact that they all contain independent information also indicates that it is very unlikely that they just copied each other – would they really go to such trouble to put in such hidden coincidences that most people reading the documents would miss – all in the hope that twenty centuries later someone might find it persuasive?


There are many, many more examples listed in the book that I haven’t got time or space to explain here – you’ll have to read it for yourself! However, three other points are worth making from this:


Firstly, the nature of the texts shows us that the writers of the gospels were primarily attempting to record eyewitness testimony of real life events. It is hard to imagine that they deliberately left unanswered questions in their texts that only the other gospels could answer. No, they were simply recording the events as they remembered them from their perspective or as they were reported to them. They don’t seek to answer every possible question that could be raised.


Secondly, it helps us to see that, while there may have been a degree of copying between the synoptic gospel writers, (Matthew, Mark and Luke)- or shared borrowing from other sources – each of them contains independent information that the others do not mention.


Thirdly, while John’s gospel is almost universally agreed as the last of the gospels to be written, and, self evidently, in a different style to the synoptics, it still fits with the other gospels – often providing details that explain some of the questions they raise. We shouldn’t therefore think that John is of less value as an eyewitness source because it was written later than the others.


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