(I will give total credit for this to Dr. Timothy McGrew from Western Michigan State University who I am simply synthesizing the information in some of his interviews for publication here on Logical Theism.)
Often when we are reading the Gospels we miss, or rather, skip over certain statements that are made in passing. These statements frequently add nothing to the narrative or even might raise questions that the narrative is unable or uninterested in answering. It is only when we compare them to the parallel account found in another of the gospels that we find some details that explain them. That is, that these stories are told in ways that the inconsequential details dovetail together in such a way that show that neither was copied from the other but also that they reveal real and reliable testimony. They are undersigned but no gospel writer was writing something intentionally inconsequential hoping that one day another writer would come along and fill in the necessary detail only for a third person to come along and piece it all together just to try and fool people to believe that the original document wasn’t forged. These narratives fit together in such a way to show that there is a real event that the witnesses are describing.
This raises a problem for those liberal scholars who would like to say that the stories developed as myth, are allegory, are not the result of eyewitness testimony or were produced far to late to be reliable. We will see as we examine just some of these “undersigned coincidences” that they are the hallmark of good eyewitness testimony and indicate reliable authorship rather than forgeries.
1. The Transfiguration
First lets look at Luke 9:36: “And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.”
This is found in the story of the Transfiguration. So Jesus takes three of his disciples up onto the mountain and after a while they fall asleep. When they wake up they find Jesus glowing and talking with two guys who have come down from heaven! Then a cloud covers them and they hear the voice from heaven, then “when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.” But I’m sure most of you have a question at this point.
The question that this story almost screams out for an answer is why did they not tell anybody? If you or I were to see such an event, we would undoubtedly tell people, and a lot of people, about it. So why did they not tell anyone? Luke simply doesn’t tell us.
Now flip over to the same event as it is told in Mark 9:9: “And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
So what Mark is recording (which some scholars think is actually the testimony of Peter as Peter is reporting it to him) is that Jesus actually commanded the disciples not to tell anybody. So what we find in Mark is a detail not found in Luke that gives a fuller picture of what Luke was reporting. It explains something puzzling about Luke’s account. This also gives rise to a problem with what is known as Markan Priority, that is, that Luke is copying from Mark. If Luke was copying from Mark, why would he leave out a detail from the narrative that would explain a very puzzling fact that he left in? Why hold on to the part about the disciples not telling anyone but leave out the reason why they didn’t tell anyone? If Luke was coping from Mark, he would have carried over the detail that Jesus had commanded them not to tell anyone.
2. Herod’s household
In this next passage, Jesus has begun his ministry and Herod has become aware of it and wants some more information on it. So we read in Matthew:
Matthew 14:1-2: “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, 2 and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.””
Now the question comes up, why does Herod, with all the resources at his disposal, go to the servants in his household to get information about Jesus? Right if Obama wants information about what is going on in Egypt, he doesn’t go to the cleaning crew. But that is what Herod does. Now why would he do that? Why would he think that his servants would have the answers? If you look through Matthew you will not find the answer. It is simply an off the cuff comment that Matthew makes when reporting the narrative, that Herod goes to his servants.
But now flip over and look at Luke 8:3. Before we look at it we should point out that this is not meant as a passage to explain Matthew 14. It is not found in a parallel passage. It is not addressing why Herod asks his servants. It is what Tim McGrew calls “fly over territory”. These are the boring parts that are almost totally inconsequential and we like to just skip over.
But look at what Luke says in an off the cuff comment totally unrelated to Matthew 14. Luke 8:3 says in listing some of the people who were followers of Jesus, “and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”
In other words, in passing, Luke drops the information in passing that Jesus had followers who had family that worked in Herod’s household. And a household manager or steward is no lowly position. And Herod is not a fool. He would know this. He would undoubtedly know that he had followers of Jesus, or at least the family of followers of Jesus at his disposal in his own household. If he has questions about Jesus, like he did, he wouldn’t have to go further than his own household. So this passage explains what is going on in Matthew 14. Why is he asking his servants? Because he knows that they know.
3. The Feeding of the 5000
Here we will be looking at John 6:5 in the set-up for the feeding of the 5000. We find Jesus and his disciples just arriving on the opposite shore of the Sea of Galilee and becoming confronted with a large crown gathering. Now at this point John does something rather strange.
John 6:5: “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?””
If you were going to forge a story or make up details, you would bring up well known characters. Well here Jesus doesn’t not address Peter or John or even Judas (who we might expect since we know that Judas was the one responsible for the group’s money bag), but rather he addresses Philip. Outside of the calling of Philip told in the gospels, Philip is only mentioned 2 times, in this story and then again basically as just a messenger in John 12:21-22. This is not a heavy hitter in the NT. And yet this is who Jesus looks to when he wants them to buy bread. Why?
Well we know from John 1 and John 12 that Philip was from Bethsaida. John 12:21 says, “They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee” or John 1:44 that says, “Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.”
But now let’s look at the parallel passage to the feeding of the 5000 in Luke 9:10. Here Luke is telling the same story about Jesus and the disciples trying to get away from it all but he adds an important little detail that John leaves out. Luke says, “On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida.”
Well what John doesn’t tell us is that the feeding of the 5000 happens not just in Galilee (where most of disciples were from) but specifically in the town of Bethsaida – where Philip is from. So in effect, Jesus was asking Philip, “Hey, you’re from around here… Where can get some bread?”
But notice that whereas John doesn’t mention the setting of the miracle, Luke doesn’t mention Philip. So neither is copying from the other. They are not taking details from each other.
(Here McGrew makes a helpful interjection at those who would be tempted to say that these are just two legends that developed congruently. He points out that we would never open Treasure Island to try and help us fill in details in Moby Dick.)
But it goes further. If we look at Mark’s account of the story we read in the prologue this in Mark 6:30: “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”
Well the question is raised, why there is suddenly so many people out and about? Skeptics have actually tried to use this to find an error in the passage pointing out that we wouldn’t have thousands of people from one small town coming out to hear a sermon. So where are all these people coming from? Well turn back to John 6.
We read in John 6:4-5, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him…”
So whereas Mark simply tells us about the crowd, John fills in the details and tells us that this event took place right before the Passover. This would mean that there would be thousands and thousands of sojourners traveling on their way to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. So this does not mean that there were thousands of people living in this little town of Bethsaida, but that this crowd would have been from all over Israel.
Again, this is simply another historical detail that one author leaves out but another author provides to dovetail all these accounts together.
4. Peter, do you love me?
Here we find Jesus chatting with Peter after the resurrection and he asks him what comes across as a pretty harsh question.
John 21:15 reads, “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?””
Why is Jesus picking on Peter? Why does he not ask him if he loves him as much as the other disciples? Why does he put Peter on the spot and ask him if he loves him more? Well search high and low in John and you wont find the answer. But look to a pretty well known passage in Matthew 26:33 and we find, “Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.””
Now when we see the two passages together, why is Jesus asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than any others? It is because Peter had boasted that he would be more faithful than anyone else, but he hadn’t. But we don’t get any of that in John, not even in his telling of the same upper room narrative in John 13. It is only when we fill in the blanks from Matthew that we see the whole picture.
5. Jesus before Pilate
In this next scenario we will be looking at the passage in John when Jesus is brought before Pilate. He has been accused and arrested by the Chief Priests and now is standing before Pilate and they begin to have a conversation where Pilate asks Jesus in v33, “are you the king of the Jews?” Now, for those following the narrative in John, this is NOT one of the accusations that the Jews have been using to get Jesus arrested in the gospel. They accuse him of being a troublemaker and of blasphemy but never of claiming to be king of the Jews. Pilate might as well have asked him if he was the Mr. Universe of the Jews. It was just a question that in John is completely out of left field.
But now flip over to Luke 23:2-3 where Luke is telling the same story and gives the charges that the priests actually present to 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.” 3 And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?””
Now, Pilate’s question make sense. It is not that John got the question wrong. It is that John simply left out a piece of historical detail that would make the question make more sense that Luke fills in for us. A Roman Procurator has to take the charge of someone claiming to be king had to take care of. So Luke gives us a detail that John leaves out, that helps us better understand John.
But it gets better. Let’s keep reading in Luke 23:3-5
“3 And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” 4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” 5 But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.””
Now when Pilate asks Jesus if he was king he responds with a normal Greek idiom. In our translations it says something like “you have said so” or “you say it is so” or something like that. It actually was a common idiom something like our “from your mouth to God’s ears.” Basically he is saying “yup, you said it buddy.” It’s an admission.
So this raises a huge problem in the text. Here is a Jew, accused of claiming to be king, one of the biggest offenses in Roman society, and a Roman procurator saying that he finds no guilt in the man? What? No guilt? He just admitted to it! So what is going on? That doesn’t make sense in Luke by itself.
But now go back to John 18. After Pilate asks if he is king, they have a little back and forth and in v36 we find Jesus saying, ““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 after a little more back and forth at the end of v38 we read, “After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.”
So now it is a fact that is missing from Luke that we find in John that explains the narrative. They both find details in the other account that help us understand the story itself. We don’t know in John why Pilate asks if Jesus is a king, but we don’t know from Luke why he says that Jesus is innocent. Neither one is copying from eachother or they would have left those details in but neither one is making up an event on their own because the other source assumes some background information that is not essential to their own version that happens to fill in the other version.
6. Healing the sick
In Matthew 8 we have Jesus at Peter’s house and he heals his mother in law. Then we are told in 8:16, “16 That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.”
Now anyone familiar with gospels knows that healings were not isolated events. They were large crowds, cutting open roofs, pushing through crowds. So why is it that these people didn’t come to Jesus until evening? Why werent they standing in line like the new iPhone was coming out?
Well flip over to Mark 1 where the parallel is we read this in Mark 1:21, “And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching.”
After this we are told that he did some healings in the synagogue and then went to Peter’s house and healed his mother, then in v32 we read, “That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered together at the door. 34 And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.”
So why do people wait in Matthew to come to Jesus at sundown? Well Mark tells us. It was the Sabbath. Well at this time who was the dominate sect in the Jerusalem at the time? It was the Pharisaical sect and they taught that you could not work on the Sabbath, not even carrying someone to be healed or walking more than a few hundred steps outside of your house. So the people wait until sun is down then immediately start leaving their houses and carrying their sick to Jesus. This is a trivial statement in Matthew that people did not come until evening, but it is fully explained Mark.
I am working on documenting more of these but I will post these for now.