Some Thoughts on ‘Undesigned Coincidences’

Thomas Horatio
10 min readDec 26, 2019
McGrew revives William Paley’s argument from Undesigned Coincidences in Hidden in Plain View (2017)

The 18th-century cleric William Paley is best known today for his argument from design with its memorable watchmaker analogy. Yet in his time, the clergyman was equally well known for his argument from undesign — his argument from what was later called ‘undesigned coincidences.’ You may be forgiven, however, for not having heard the expression. Despite its once widespread reception in the divinity faculties of North America and Britain, the argument fell on deaf ears during the twentieth century. A few conservative scholars, such as B.B.Warfield and F.F.Bruce, were aware of it, but by the second half of the twentieth century, it seemed almost entirely forgotten. One might note that when James Dunn recently employs the argument in his magisterial Jesus Remembered (2003, p. 645), he shows no awareness of the prestigious history behind the argument he is making.

In the past few years, however, some scholars have begun to resuscitate Paley’s ‘undesigned coincidences’ for use in their apologetics. Professor Timothy Grew, a philosopher at Michigan State University, has delivered a number of lectures reintroducing the argument, and his wife Dr Lydia McGrew has written a book (Hidden in Plain View, 2017), revising Paley’s original contribution, and supplementing it with new material. With this, the argument seems to be showing signs of life once again. McGrew’s book was endorsed by a fleet of familiar names in Christian scholarship and apologetics, including Craig A. Evans, William Lane Craig, and Craig Keener. Perhaps its most esteemed proponent is the current principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge, Dr Peter J. Williams, who rehearses part of McGrew’s argument in his recent little apologetic, Can we Trust the Gospels? (2018).

Many who are interested in Christian apologetics, as I am, will prick their ears upon hearing this argument. Yet, in reading and reflecting on instances of undesigned coincidences in the gospels, I have wondered how well the argument will stand the test of criticism. To be sure, the argument is only just being brought back into scholarly awareness. Yet in this post, I want to submit some concerns I have with the argument as it has been recently updated. Before we come to those concerns, however, I will briefly unpack the concept itself.

The notion of an ‘undesigned coincidence’ may seem tautological: are not all real coincidences ‘undesigned’? The purpose of the qualifier, however, is to set a real coincidence apart from a false one. In his Horae Paulinae (1790), Paley spotted undesigned coincidences between the epistles of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles. These are places where the details of texts dovetail together in such a subtle, uncontrived way, that one would be hard-pressed to maintain that the coincidence was ‘designed;’ that a forger was trying to make the texts interlock. Undesigned coincidences are most simply explained by the fact that both texts are describing something which actually happened, but from slightly different angles. John James Blunt, Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, thought Paley’s concept was brilliant, and looked for undesigned coincidences in the gospels too. The concept was also employed in ‘secular’ scholarship. The Anglo-Catholic (turned Roman) priest John Henry Newman, used undesigned coincidences in the style of Alcibiades and other works by Plato to argue for Phaedo’s authenticity. This was high praise from Rev. Newman, for, as is well known, Newman was hardly uncritical of Paley and his apologetical proofs.

A ‘real life’ example may help us to better grasp the concept. In Hidden in Plain View, McGrew begins with the illustration of a person confessing something bad he has done to two friends over coffee. These two friends independently tell another friend about the meeting. The question arises whether they have made up the story, or whether the conversation actually happened. Suppose, however, one person said that during the conversation, it was unusually busy in the cafe. And the other mentioned that their friend spilt coffee over himself. These details have clearly not been built into either account to verify the other, but when put together, they dovetail rather well. If it had, indeed, been unusually cramped, then we have an explanation for why the incriminated person spilt coffee over himself. To be sure, this account may just be a coincidence. But the more subtle coincidences there are in a story, the more likely it has its basis in history.

I must make it clear from the outset that I do believe in ‘undesigned coincidences.’ Paley (and now McGrew) have brought attention to the way in which authentic testimony often casually interlocks. Yet I also admit that much which passes for ‘undesigned coincidences’ in the gospels eludes that descriptor. That is, a closer examination of the gospels reveal that ‘undesigned coincidences’ are often easily explained by the kinds of redactional interests, compositional practices, or points of context which have been traditionally highlighted by gospel scholars. One might expect that these sort of explanations would be treated in the recent work on the argument — after all, much has happened in the last two centuries of gospel scholarship which is worth exploring. And it is always useful to test the reasons for why any coincidence may appear so. But unfortunately, McGrew’s work involves “setting aside the apparatus of critical scholarship” (p.15). Why McGrew does not wish to test her hypothesis against critical scholarship is unclear. Is she not aware of it? Or does she not think it is worth her attention? Either way, I hope to show that its neglect is to the detriment of the argument.

Some ‘undesigned coincidences’ fade when the interests of the evangelists in the way they have compiled their sources and shaped their narratives — their ‘redactional’ interests — are considered. Take the timing of the feeding of the five thousand in Mark and John as an example. John tells us this was around Passover (6:4), which seems to be subtly corroborated by Mark’s note that ‘many were coming and going’ at that time (6:31). The difficulty with viewing this as an undesigned coincidence is that the crowd’s following Jesus is a Markan trope (3:7–9); and the Passover setting of John may simply serve to make explicit latent Passover symbolism in the early feeding accounts. McGrew and Williams note that the ‘green grass’ (6.39) also corroborates a Passover setting, since Passover falls in Nisan (March/April), after months of rainfall. Yet can facticity be so easily assumed from verisimilitude? Perhaps not. As Graham Twelftree notes, the ‘green grass’ may serve as a reminder of the fertility of the desert in the Messianic age, or allude to the good Shepherd leading his flock through green pastures, a point Mark has already made (6:34).

Other ‘undesigned coincidences’ fall away once the processes of oral tradition are considered. Take, for instance, the lists of the Twelve in the gospels. McGrew finds an ‘undesigned coincidence’ between Matthew’s list, which groups the names in twos (10:2–4), and Jesus’ sending out of the disciples in twos in Mark (6:7). Yet this grouping into ‘twos’ can be variously explained, by Matthew’s well known redactional interest in doublets, or by the processes of oral tradition. If the lists had to remembered, grouping the list into couplets may have functioned as a mnemonic device as the list was passed on. Whatever the case, the hypothesis which seems lacking in plausibility is that which says the coincidence is due to a direct retrieval of information from eyewitnesses. If this is to be maintained, it becomes difficult to see why so basic a point as the names on the lists differ, or even why a list of names should feature in such an artificial manner at all.

Some coincidences can be explained with reference to the use of literary imitation — that is, the creative rewriting of some well-known text; in the case of the gospels, the Jewish scriptures. To return to the feeding of the five thousand, Williams notes that John’s interlocking timing at Passover is further subtly supported by the mention of ‘barley loaves’ (6:9). In this case, however, the whole scene might be viewed as a literary imitation of the scene of Elisha feeding one hundred men miraculously with twenty loaves, in 2 Kings 4:42–44. There, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, we find the exact term as the one used by John: ἄρτους κριθίνους (artous krithinous) — barley loaves. This dependence upon the Jewish scriptures may also help to explain why John — who is already interested in feasts — sets this event at Passover, for the Elisha story is set around Passover too.

Other undesigned coincidences disappear when the assumed knowledge of an audience is brought into view. Consider the so-called ‘bread of life’ discourse in John 6, where Jesus uses the enigmatic language of ‘eating the flesh’ and ‘drinking the blood’ of the Son of Man (6.53). McGrew supposes that this is explained in an uncontrived way by the institution of the eucharist which appears in the Matthew and Luke (but not in John). But how is this coincidence ‘undesigned’? The fourth evangelist may simply have composed the discourse using the language of the last supper. This would be in keeping with the compositional practices on ancient biography, where more-or-less invention of speeches is natural. Moreover, a debate about whether ‘the Jews’ will eat and drink communion smacks of a later concern which has been retrojected back into the ministry of Jesus. This may not be the way that moderns would write a gospel. But the ancient authors were not moderns.

McGrew is aware of this objection, but responds by asking “Why did John not include the institution of Communion in his own Gospel? Why does he leave the odd and difficult bread of life discourse dangling, using eucharistic-sounding language but without making any connection to the very passage from which he borrowed the language?” (p.45) Yet the answer to these questions should be plain. John’s Christian audience is already aware of the language; they are already aware that what Jesus is speaking about is the ubiquitous ritual of the eucharist. It is for this very reason that John does not need to include the institution of the eucharist in his gospel; he has already treated it in his own fashion in John 6. There is no coincidence here to be found.

Some phenomena in the gospels are interpreted by McGrew as ‘undesigned coincidences,’ but they only fit by expanding the definition so wide as to negate its significance. McGrew spends nine pages in the book exploring the absence of Joseph (99–107). The argument runs that if any of the writers were fabricating material, they may well have included Joseph — but they do not. This is a subtle corroboration of their gospels. But hardly anyone is claiming that the gospels are unhinged from history. Not even the form-critics, who are still today a common object of conservative critiques, were claiming such a thing. The normal explanation for why Joseph appears in none of the texts is compelling: he was not around in the ministry of Jesus, and the oral traditions and source material which came down to the evangelists reflect this.

Other ‘undesigned coincidences’ do not concern two reports of the same event. McGrew ponders why the water jars are empty in John’s account of the wedding in Cana (2:6–7), and finds the answer in Mark’s explanation of Jewish ritual practices (7:3). The answer that they had already been used before the feast emerges. But this isn’t an undesigned coincidence; it is a point of well-known context. Whether John 2 is historical, partly historical, or not historical at all, someone aiming at verisimilitude could have plausibly composed such an account. These, I think, are the sorts of undesigned coincidences one can find scattered all over fiction. One will only find in them proof of direct or indirect eyewitness testimony if that is what one has already established in one’s own mind.

Coming into land, some more remarks on eyewitness testimony are perhaps due. Firstly, even if the gospels possessed a number of undesigned coincidences, it would not support the conclusion that the gospels were sourced directly or, at one-step-removed, by eyewitnesses. Almost no one but the most ardent sceptic doubts that material in the gospels goes back to an eyewitness (even if there is a dispute about how much). That we should find different reports which interlock in ways which support their testimony is natural, even on the traditional paradigms which McGrew is explicitly seeking to negate. In other words, even if we have plenty of undesigned coincidences, much more work still needs to be done to firm up the conclusion that the gospels were sourced, directly or indirectly, by living eyewitness.

Secondly, it seems to me that McGrew’s testing of the gospels for ‘undesigned coincidences’ assumes a similar stance to testing eyewitness in a court-case scenario. To perform this testing, she needs almost no other tools but classic detective questioning: if this, why that? But the ‘history’ of terse, ancient texts, will often not co-operate with such an analysis. We have four authors, working with different source material, with their own redactional interests, with their own compositional techniques, who are writing to different audiences, sometimes decades apart. It is really unsurprising that the complex process of ‘writing a gospel’ should give rise to apparently ‘undesigned’ coincidences? This was one of the reasons why John Henry Newman was cautious about Paley’s ‘courtroom’ apologetic. The evidence is slim. The unknowns are great. And this history will not often bend to the courtroom’s demands.

Much more can be said about other undesigned coincidences which I cannot address here. I do not expect, therefore, that readers will have found this an entirely satisfying or comprehensive critique of recent work on the topic. Unlike some atheists, I have no intention in making such a critique. My aim has rather been to show that undesigned coincidences are no fast-track to establishing the historicity of the gospels. One of the reasons why Williams’, and to a greater extent, McGrew’s presentation of undesigned coincidences will seem so compelling is because they are interested in the text as an apologetic. They are not, in this apologetic work, factoring in the much more difficult work which historians of the text and exegetes do in theirs. This is no attempt to denigrate apologetics, nor these scholars. It is simply to say that a short work, of the variety they have produced, cannot do justice the alternative explanations which may cause the appearance of some ‘undesigned coincidence’ to disappear.

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Thomas Horatio

‘Thomas Horatio’ is a student of Christian origins. Here lie his musings on history, theology and faith.