The argument from undesigned coincidences is one of the forgotten arguments for Christianity. It has seen a very recent resurgence through the work of some Christian apologists, such as the philosopher Timothy McGrew. The core of the argument is an investigation of the Bible. When one examines the Scriptures, one finds a number of historical, factual claims which either overlap and confirm others made independently or fill in gaps that authors familiar with current events at the time of the writings would have assumed their readers knew about. These coincidences are therefore undesigned–they are unintentional–but they show that the authors who wrote the books which contain them were telling historical truths.
The Argument Outlined
The argument from undesigned coincinces is not an argument which can be contemplated and accepted or dismissed within minutes or even a few hours of study. The argument must be analyzed by investigating individual instances of the undesigned coincidences for oneself and feeling the weight of the evidence begin to burden the mind.
The argument is an inductive argument. Basically, it argues for the conclusion that the Bible is historically accurate. However, it can be used to argue more specifically towards the conclusion that the miraculous accounts in the Bible did in fact happen.
John James Blunt, an early (1794-1855) proponent of the argument from undesigned coincidences, uses the argument as a challenge:
In our argument we defy people to sit down together, or transmit their writings one to another, and produce the like [undesigned coincidences]. Truths known independently to each of them, must at the bottom of documents having such discrepancies and such agreements as these in question. (J.J. Blunt, kindle location 89, cited below)
It would be hard to make the argument more succinct than this. The argument is built from an ever-growing number of independently observed statements throughout the Bible which coincidentally prove, confirm, or fill in historical gaps of other passages. Therefore, it can feature a huge number of steps, each one an additional piece of evidence. Because of this, it is most easily stated as a challenge. Once you have considered the massive weight of the evidence from untold numbers of undesigned coincidences, can you really maintain your skepticism of the historicity of the Bible?
The argument is used not just to establish the credibility of the Gospels but can be used for a number of other claims about the historicity of Christianity: “The argument deduced from coincidence without design has further claims, because… it establishes the authors of several books of Scripture as independent witnesses to the facts they relate; and this, whether they consulted each other’s writings or not; for the coincidences, if good for anything, are such as could not result from combination, mutual understanding, or arrangement” (Blunt, Kindle Location 78).
Undesigned Coincidences- What are they?
Tim McGrew explains the notion of an undesigned coincidence:
How can we say, no, really there are marks of authenticity [in the Bible]… We should look not for parallel passages in the same words but for what are called undesigned coincidences… Sometimes two works written by different authors incidentally touch on the same point in a manner that cannot be written off as copying or having a copy made from some third source… The two records interlock like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. [McGrew, cited below]
Undesigned coincidences overlap and interlock with each other. It is perhaps easiest to explain the concept through an example [I owe this example to Jonathan McLatchie in his post "Undesigned Coincidences: The Ring of Truth":
Then their whole assembly rose up and brought Him before Pilate. They began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this man subverting our nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is the Messiah, a King.”
So Pilate asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”
He answered him, “You have said it.”
Pilate then told the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no grounds for charging this man.”
Wait, what? Isn't it Pilate's job to make sure the Jews do not revolt against Caesar? This guy just basically said he was king!
But then compare that to John 18:33-38:
Then Pilate went back into the headquarters, summoned Jesus, and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Are you asking this on your own, or have others told you about Me?”
“I’m not a Jew, am I?” Pilate replied. “Your own nation and the chief priests handed You over to me. What have You done?”
“My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.”
“You are a king then?” Pilate asked.
“You say that I’m a king,” Jesus replied. “I was born for this, and I have come into the world for this: to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice.”
“What is truth?” said Pilate.
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no grounds for charging Him.
John's telling of the story therefore fills in the gap in Luke's story. In Luke, there is no reason Pilate would not find grounds for charging Jesus. Only by reading the story in John does one discover that Pilate wanted to let Jesus go because Jesus had explained that his Kingdom was not an earthly kingdom.
If one looks again at these texts in context, one will find that in John, there is no explanation for why Pilate would think Jesus claimed to be a king anyway--it is just out of left field. But turning back to Luke, there is a scene in which the Jews accuse Jesus of claiming to be a king to Pilate. So there is, in these passages, a back-and-forth confirmation. You have to read them both to get the whole picture, and these kinds of details are not the types of things people could plan for.
This is just one example, but they can be multiplied almost beyond comprehension. The way they work is, as McGrew said, like interlocking pieces of a puzzle.
What about Miracles?
The argument can even be used to make a stronger claim. Again, see Blunt, "[I]n several instances the probable truth of a miracle is involved in the coincidences… [W]hen we see the writers of Scriptures clearly telling the truth in those cases where we have the means of checking their accounts… it is reasonable to believe that they are telling the truth in those cases where we have not the means of checking them…” (Kindle Location 89).
Thus, the argument from undesigned coincidences is not a religiously neutral argument. It can also be used to support the truths of miracles. The way this argument works is very subtle. It is not reducible to only the claim that because the Scriptures seem reliable on historical matters due to the undesigned coincidences, we should trust them on the miraculous. Rather, the fact is that the “probable truth of the miracle is involved in the coincidences” (Blunt, 89). “[W]here the natural and supernatural are in close combination, the truth of the former must at least be thought to add to the credibility of the latter” (ibid, 531). The miraculous is sometimes so intertwined with the historical that the confirmation of the historical cannot help but be evidence for the miraculous. Thus, the argument from undesigned coincidences provides a direct argument for the truth of the miraculous.
Conclusion: There’s more where that came from
I have written this post with the intended purpose only to show what the argument from undesigned coincidences looks like. We have seen that it is an inductive argument that is based upon a vast number of examples of varying weight. Furthermore, unlike many historical arguments for Christianity, the argument from undesigned coincidences offers a direct argument for the truth of miracles. I have not addressed possible objections to these arguments. Instead, I leave those for a later post. The next post in this series will outline a few principles of undesigned coincidences.
In closing, it is perhaps best to close with the words of another pre-1900 proponent of the argument:
[S]ince we decide many important worldly matters upon the mere preponderance of evidence and arguments, why should we not adopt the same principles here? It is not necessary in order to recommend the Gospel story for our adoption to insist that it be proved to a mathematical demonstration, and beyond the cavils of every doubter, or of every unreasonable skeptic. Why not adopt that conclusion which has the higher degree of probability rather than the opposite? [Bennett, Kindle Location 59, cited below]
If you want to learn more about forgotten arguments for Christianity, check out my post “On the Shoulders of Giants: Rediscovering the lost defenses of Christianity.”
Tim McGrew has offered a number of other talks on the topic. Please check them out for more discussion of this argument. McGrew on Evidence4Faith. Another lecture by McGrew on undesigned coincidences. Check out McGrew’s interview with Apologetics 315.
Another great post on “undesigned coincidences” can be found at the Christian Apologetics Alliance blog: “The Ring of Truth.”
Cross Examined has a number of coincidences to examine in their post on undesigned coincidences.
John James Blunt, Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings of both the Old and New Testament, New York, 1847.
Edmund Bennett, The Four Gospels from a Lawyer’s Standpoint, New York, 1893.
Timothy McGrew, “Undesigned Coincidences”- this talk can be accessed free of charge here.
William Paley, Evidences of Christianity, New York, 1794; 1865.
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