What’s an Undesigned Coincidence?
SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.
To recap: Where key, major details remain the same when two or more authors write about the same historic event, we find minor details may be added or left out. An “undesigned coincidence” is when one account provides details, but another account written about the same incident by a different author gives more insight into those details. We see “undesigned coincidences” when we have two or more independently investigated accounts of the same event, and we find undesigned coincidences throughout the Gospels.
It’s highly unlikely that such complimentary minor details would be deliberately falsified, and the assurance that they’re based on authentic events is extremely high.
Peter & Trash Talkin’
Peter, arguably Jesus’ most famous disciple, is known for being impulsive and brash. He’s also remembered for infamously denying that he knew Jesus Christ three times after Jesus’ arrest.
John is the only Gospel writer to give us an account of Peter being “reinstated” into Jesus’ group of disciples after Jesus' resurrection, where Jesus asks Peter three times (mirroring Peter’s three denials) if he loves him, and then following with three commands for Peter.
During this event, Jesus says a little something that sounds a little odd:
This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead. So 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, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again 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, “Shepherd 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 all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.” (John 21:14-17)
“…more than these”? What did Jesus mean by this? “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” What or who are “these”?
Reading carefully through all of the Gospel of John, we find no answer! Sure, we can make some guesses about who or what “these” are, but how can we be certain?
But if we turn to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, we find our answer. We find the answer during the Last Supper:
And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same. (Mark 14:27-31)
We find the same statement in Matthew 26:33. Did you catch it?
In Mark: Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.”
In John: Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?
When Peter said if “they” all fall away, the other disciples were all around him at the Last Supper; he was referring to them. When Jesus reinstated Peter in John 21, the two of them were with other disciples. The “these” are the other disciples.
Peter had arrogantly boasted that even if the other disciples (“they”) fall away, he never would. Then, after Peter denied knowing Jesus three times, Jesus asks him, “Do you love Me more than these [other disciples]?”
Ouch. Thankfully, Jesus is forgiving.
Pilate & Trash Talkin’
In Luke 23, we find Jesus before Pilate.
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.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” (Luke 23:1-4)
This exchange between Pontius Pilate, Jesus, and the religious authorities is brief and a bit odd. His hostile opponents accuse Jesus of claiming to be a king, so Pilate straight up asks Jesus if he’s a king. Jesus says, “You have said so,” which sure sounds like Jesus is confirming that fact — or at least not denying it. But then Pilate turns to the Jews and says Jesus is not guilty. Huh? What just happened?
To find the answer, we have to go to John’s longer account of this event:
Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 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.”
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.” (John 18:28-38)
So, it’s not in Luke, but in John that we see the rest of the puzzle. It’s in John where Jesus says,
“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.”
Thus, Pilate concludes Jesus is no threat – not in an armed revolutionary way anyway – or any way that the Romans need to be concerned about. Jesus admits he’s a king, but not one of this world, and his disciples have no intentions of fighting the Roman Empire.
It’s likely Pilate didn’t know what to make of Jesus – perhaps he only thought of him as a harmless religious nut – but he concludes that Jesus is not guilty of any crime against the Roman Empire. Thus, Pilate walks out and announces this to the hostile Jews.
What we have in Luke is what’s called telescoping, which is a compressed version of the telling of an event. In other words, Luke gives us the short version, leaving out many details.
But, before we move on, go back and reread John’s longer account above, because even John leaves out a detail! He does NOT record anything about Jesus' opponents specifically telling Pilate that Jesus claimed to be a king! The Jews only accuse Jesus of “doing evil,” but when Pilate brings Jesus inside, the first thing he asks him is, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
What? Why? Where did he come up with that?
We must go back again to Luke’s shorter account to find that detail:
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.” (Luke 23:2)
Ironically, Jesus was indeed a threat to the Roman Empire, just not in the way Pilate thought.
External Undesigned Coincidences
Up to this point, we’ve been looking at examples of Internal Undesigned Coincidences — “internal” meaning within the Gospels. To end, we’ll look at External Undesigned Coincidences — meaning collaborations between details in the Gospels with information outside of the Bible.
Runnin’ from Archelaus
In the Gospel of Matthew during the birth narrative of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, having been warned in a dream, flee with the newborn Jesus to Egypt from the wrath of Herod the Great. Then Matthew tells us this:
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, 20 “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” 21 So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, 23 and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:19-23)
So, who is Archelaus? And why was Joseph so afraid of him? Matthew doesn’t give us one clue, nor does the rest of the Gospels!
But we learn about Archelaus from outside the Bible, in another piece of ancient writing. We learn about Archelaus in the writings of Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian (37-100 AD). Archelaus is Herod Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, who became ethnarch of Judea for a short period after the death of his father.
Due to growing tension between the Romans, the Jews, and the Jew’s Roman-appointed Herodian rulers (who were seen as half-breeds and traitors by the Jews), Josephus reports in his work Antiquities of the Jews that Herod Archelaus slaughtered 3,000 Jews at the temple during the Passover to quell a possible uprising. So, why was Joseph and Mary afraid of Archelaus? Ancient historian Jospehus gives us the obvious answer. Thus, Joseph and his family travel far from Archelaus to Nazareth in Galilee in the north, a place outside of the territory of Archelaus’s reign.
Likewise, many rulers (including kings, governors, etc.) mentioned in the New Testament are also mentioned by Josephus, including Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa, and Antonius Felix. Josephus also wrote about John the Baptist, Jesus’ brother James, and Jesus himself.