(DeWard Publishing, 2017)
This time the devil isn’t in the details. In Hidden in Plain View, Dr. Lydia McGrew revives a neglected but intriguing argument for the historical reliability of the Bible. While most of historical apologetics typically features flashy arguments from archaeology or textual criticism, McGrew challenges us to look inside the texts themselves to find the earmarks of authenticity. One such indicator is what is called an “undesigned coincidence”. McGrew defines this as follows:
“An undesigned coincidence is a notable connection between two or more accounts or texts that doesn’t seem to have been planned by the person or people giving the accounts. Despite their apparent independence, the items fit together like pieces of a puzzle.” (pg. 12)
McGrew provides an analogy of three friends: Alan, Betty, and Carl. Alan and Betty tell you they recently had an intervention with Carl, but Carl denies any conversation took place. In their own independent stories, Alan and Betty tell you they all three met at a coffee shop. Alan mentions that it was extremely crowded so they could barely find a table for the three of them; Betty mentions that Alan knocked his coffee in her lap during the conversation. Alan doesn’t mention the spill and Betty doesn’t mention the crowd. Nevertheless, we can see that these two details coincide nicely. A crowded table with little elbow room makes a spill more likely – especially a spill into someone’s lap rather than onto the table.
The kicker is that such a roundabout, offhand mutual confirmation of the stories is highly unlikely to be the product of collusion. Typically, colluders create obvious points for their audience to notice. Thus, subtle confirming evidences like this lend credence to the stories being true.
Once the concept of undesigned coincidences is in place, McGrew runs through historical books of the New Testament pulling out the strongest examples. The cumulative effect is intended to demonstrate that (i) the Gospel writers provided a historically reliable account of the life and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and (ii) the author of Acts provided a historically reliable account of the early church and Paul’s mission. As such, the book is divided into two parts.
- Part I: The Four Gospels
- The Synoptics Explain John
- John Explains the Synoptics
- The Synoptics Explain Each Other
- Part II: Acts & Pauline Epistles
- Connections Between the Universally Acknowledged Pauline Epistles
- Connections Between the Other Pauline Epistles
In Part I, McGrew is conscious of the debates over literary dependency between the Gospels and explicitly constructs the argument so as to skirt most of the associated difficulties. In my own assessment, I think the coincidences are hit and miss, but (1) that’s the nature of historical data and (2) they don’t all have to be individually strong because the cumulative effect is stronger than the sum of the individual coincidences. Personally, I find the miscellaneous examples to be the most convincing because when the line of explanation is convoluted, it becomes exponentially more difficult to explain by authorial coordination. One of the more popular examples is the feeding of the five thousand. John’s account is as follows:
“Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?'” (John 6:1-5, ESV)
It seems peculiar that Jesus would ask Phillip, of all people, where to buy food. One might expect Peter or one of the other A-list apostles if this were a fabricated tale. However, there are two pieces that when brought together make for a nice explanation. In Luke’s account of the feeding, we are provided with the location as the city of Bethsaida”
“On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. When the crowds learned it, they followed him.” (Luke 9:10, ESV)
Earlier in John, we are told that Phillip is actually from the area:
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:43-45, ESV)
Putting all of this together, we have a satisfying explanation. Jesus asked Phillip where to buy food because they were near his hometown of Bethsaida.
Part II focuses on the books of Acts and its connection to the Pauline epistles. As with the Gospels, McGrew is conscious of the debates over authorship, subdividing the section between the universally acknowledged Pauline epistles and those whose authorship is contested in scholarship.
The mileage varies on the strength of the arguments. Some are close to knock-down, others are more conjectural. At some points, I thought McGrew relied too heavily on the psychology of the writers. E.g. “If he were making this up, he would’ve gone into more detail about XYZ”. It wasn’t so much as to detract from the work as a whole, but, a more robust defense of authorial intentions at the relevant points would’ve been preferred.
Each chapter has a great summarizing table at the end with the name of the coincidence, which passage explains which, and additional notes, such as whether the event involved a miracle. The best way to describe this book is a reboot. McGrew has taken an old argument, spruced up the best parts with modern scholarship, trimmed off the outdated elements, and added her original contributions. McGrew acknowledges which coincidences are her own and which are updated versions of Paley or Blunt. I think this is one of those arguments that is hard to grasp at first, but, once it “clicks” it’s truly ingenious. The best part is that anyone can pick up the New Testament and find new coincidences on their own. I hope McGrew will do a follow-up volume on coincidences in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible.
Zachary Lawson is a biomedical engineering student at Texas A&M University.