*How can minor details show the reliability of the Gospels?*
So, What's an Undesigned Coincidence?
When I first learned of undesigned coincidences (also called incidental allusions), I was pleasantly surprised and fascinated, and I wondered why this type of apologetic (defense of the Christian faith) is not more popular. I think the answer is plain:
These aren’t exactly “sexy,” head-turning words and phrases.
Yet, by simply walking someone through some of these unintended collaborations of Gospel details, perhaps we can raise some eyebrows.
When two or more authors write about a historical event, we'll find similarities and differences in their accounts. Yes, the major events should be the same, but minor details may be added or left out. An "undesigned coincidence” is when one account provides details, but another account gives more insight into those details (often without directly addressing that detail). 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.
Looking at an example will help clarify:
In Mark 14:55-59, Jesus is accused in front of the Sanhedrin of saying he will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days.
Also, in Mark 15:27-30, as Jesus is on the cross, people mock him and accuse him of saying a similar statement about destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days. (This is also reported in Matthew 27:38-40.)
But where in Mark (or Matthew) does Jesus say this?
Nowhere! A read through both Mark and Matthew provides no evidence that Jesus ever said such a thing.
Yet, when we read the Gospel of John, we find that Jesus did make this claim! In John 2:18-22, John reports,
So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
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.
In other words, when a true event is retold by multiple people, they may include minor details without an explanation of those details and others telling the same story may unintentionally fill in those holes. Such non-deliberate cohesion scream of authenticity.
What follows are some other examples of undesigned coincidences.
Feeding the 5,000 & Green Grass in the Desert
The famous account of Jesus feeding the 5,000 is the only miracle of Jesus recorded in every one of the four Gospels. But the Gospel of Mark gives us a seemingly strange detail: green grass. The detail appears in Mark 6:39, but I’ll include more for the sake of context:
And He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go look!” And when they found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” And He commanded them all to sit down by groups on the green grass. They sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food and broke the loaves and He kept giving them to the disciples to set before them; and He divided up the two fish among them all. (Mark 6:38-41)
Wait a minute. Green grass? Isn’t this taking place in the Middle East – in the desert? Isn’t the desert mostly brown?
But, another Gospel, John gives us more insight with different minor details about the same event:
After these things Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias). A large crowd followed Him, because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick. Then Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat down with His disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near. (John 6:1-4)
So, John (not Mark) tells us the feeding of the 5,000 took place during the Passover, and this detail explains the green grass! How? The Passover is the growing season around the Sea of Galilee. This is a short time period where the grass would be green!
Feeding the 5,000 & Philip
We find another undesigned coincidence in the feeding of the 5,000 accounts concerning Jesus’ little-known disciple Philip. Let’s pick up where we left off in John’s Gospel:
Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near. Therefore Jesus, lifting up His eyes and seeing that a large crowd was coming to Him, said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?” This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do. Philip answered Him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.” (John 6:4-7)
Anyone who reads through the four Gospels comes to know the names of Jesus’ most notable disciples, like Peter and John, and even less-prominent disciples like James and Thomas (and, of course, the infamous Judas). But Philip? Who remembers anything about Philip? So, why did Jesus turn to Philip and not someone else?
We get a clue in another part of John:
Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter. (John 1:44)
But it’s not in the Gospel of John, but in the Gospel of Luke in his account of the feeding of the 5,000 where we receive the final piece of the puzzle:
When the apostles returned, they gave an account to Him of all that they had done. Taking them with Him, He withdrew by Himself to a city called Bethsaida. But the crowds were aware of this and followed Him; and welcoming them, He began speaking to them about the kingdom of God and curing those who had need of healing.
Now the day was ending, and the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the crowd away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place.” But He said to them, “You give them something to eat!” And they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless perhaps we go and buy food for all these people.” (For there were about five thousand men.) And He said to His disciples, “Have them sit down to eat in groups of about fifty each.” They did so, and had them all sit down. (Luke 9:10-15)
So, Jesus and his disciples were in Bethsaida for the feeding of the 5,000! Jesus asked Philip about the buying of bread because Philip was from Bethsaida. Philip was a local, so of course Jesus would ask him about finding food in the area.
Take note: Luke does NOT tell us that Jesus asked Philip specifically about buying bread. Only John gives us that minor detail.
Feeding the 5,000 & Needing a Break
When we turn to Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, we get another detail not recorded in the other Gospels:
The apostles gathered together with Jesus; and they reported to Him all that they had done and taught. And He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.) They went away in the boat to a secluded place by themselves.
The people saw them going, and many recognized them and ran there together on foot from all the cities, and got there ahead of them. When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things. When it was already quite late, His disciples came to Him and said, “This place is desolate and it is already quite late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” (Mark 6:30-36)
Here, we’re told by Mark that Jesus and the disciples retreated to a secluded place to catch some rest because they were extremely busy because so many people were “coming and going.” So, why were so many people coming and going?
We find the answer not in Mark, but by going back to a detail we looked at earlier in John:
Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near. (John 6:4)
During the Passover, the Jews would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate. With so many people traveling along the roadways, Jesus and his disciples couldn’t find a break in the opportunities to teach and minister. Their only option was to retreat to a place away from everyone (and the people followed them anyway)!
Maybe undesigned coincidences — or apologetics in general — will never be “sexy” enough to turn heads, but hopefully we'll raise some eyebrows.