Making sense of intriguing correlations between the Gospels

Within New Testament studies, extreme versions of historical criticism approach the question of the Gospels’ historicity and reliability with a hermeneutic of suspicion. In its most cynical expression, advocates question everything in the Gospels and affirm virtually nothing.

Adherents of the preceding view contend that the final form of the Gospels has little, if any, connection to real people and actual historical events. Instead, all that is left are faint memories or kernels of truth about the way Christians eulogized, or wanted to commemorate, Jesus of Nazareth.

Some proponents even allege that the Gospels are an amalgam of later additions, revisions, and redactions spanning the following centuries, until the dominant leaders within the church finalized the composite text. Reputedly, when these literary fragments are compared and analyzed, they are found to be redundant, conflicting, and contradictory.

One popular conservative response to the preceding allegations is referred to as the minimalist facts approach. An often-cited example of this would be Christian apologist, Michael Licona’s treatise, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP; 2010).

Authors such as Licona make the case for basic, agreed-upon facts about Jesus. These include His existence, itinerant ministry in Galilee, His crucifixion, and so on.

For this blogpost, however, I want to consider another, different approach that appeared about 100 years ago, but was largely abandoned in the decades that followed. Intriguingly, this argument for the reliability of the Gospels has experienced a resurgence of interest among various Christian scholars.

One prominent, recent example comes from analytic philosopher, Lydia McGrew. In her treatise, Hidden in Plain View (DeWard Publishing; 2017), McGrew deliberates what she refers to as “undesigned coincidences” appearing in the Gospels and Acts.

The author explains the meaning of the preceding phrase as 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.”

Concededly, it is at a purely human level that all the different details seem unintentional or unplanned in their correlation. Yet, when we factor in the superintendence of the Spirit (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:20-21), there is nothing really coincidental about these correspondences.

The above notwithstanding, the emphasis here is on sets of statements that are made by different authors. On one level, they are quite subtle and concern mundane matters that appear to be made in passing or offhand.

Yet, on another level, the details link up or match in a way that would be unlikely if they were fictional and contradictory, or if one set was copied from another, or if each was copied from a common source. In short, the lack of premeditation makes collusion or contrivance unlikely.

McGrew is careful to observe that the argument is cumulative, in which its components inductively work together to make a convincing case. So, it might be possible for skeptics to explain away a few coincidences that seem undesigned, but not the large amount that we currently find.

After all, the Gospels have different authors. Also, these expositions were written at different times and places (and possibly even in different languages). It is therefore difficult to explain how even a small portion of the coincidences could have arisen through a deliberate fabrication, embellishment, or outright distortion of facts.

The most plausible explanation, then, is that these writers either were close to the events when they took place (such as Matthew and John) or had access to actual eyewitnesses of those events (such as Mark and Luke). In both cases, these writers were accurately reporting what happened.

Take, for instance, episodes involving Jesus and His disciples that are narrated in several of the Gospels. There are numerous details that, when compared, fit seamlessly together. The accuracy of these minor, trivial items makes a compelling case for the precision and exactitude of the entire accounts in which they appear.

I think that McGrew (among others) makes a convincing case. Specifically, while the parallel accounts might have been drafted independently of one another (under the Spirit’s inspiration and authority), they spotlight the same underlying historical event. Also, the close correlation of seemingly unrelated details provide objective, internal evidence that the episode being narrated actually occurred in space-time history.

Given the viability of the preceding approach, it merits further consideration. However, rather than repeat the pericopes McGrew provides in her treatise, I want to put forward one of my own.

The episode concerns Jesus and His disciples together experiencing a violent windstorm while in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. In the presentation that follows, I will correlate information about the event found in the three Synoptic Gospels.

Beginning with Luke 8:22, readers learn it was at Jesus’ initiative that He and His disciples decided to cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (see also Matt. 8:18). Mark 4:36 adds that Jesus and the Twelve were leaving a crowd of people behind them. Also, other vessels followed the one in which the Savior and His disciples made their way.

The Greek noun rendered “boat” (Matt. 8:23, NIV) was a wooden floating vessel used by fishermen in Jesus’ day. The remains of such a “ship” (KJV) from the first century A.D. was about 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and 4.5 feet deep.

The watercraft was made from cedar planks and oak frames. The vessel also had a centrally-located mast and sails, along with oars that passengers used in the absence of any wind to propel and maneuver the boat.

The relatively small size of the vessel made it well-suited for transporting a sizeable catch of fish to shore. As many as 10 to 12 individuals could ride in a watercraft at one time. Vessels such as these were also used to transit people between cities on the Sea of Galilee, as well as to conduct trade (John 6:17-24).

Luke 8:23 indicates that as Jesus and the Twelve sailed across the lake, the Savior “fell asleep,” perhaps due to exhaustion from ministering all day to crowds of people. Then, His disciples were caught off guard when a fierce winter windstorm overtook the “lake” (Matt. 8:24, NIV). The storm arose from the east off a rocky plateau in south-western Syria known today as the Golan Heights.

According to Mark 4:37, the “waves” began splashing into the vessel. As it quickly filled with water, the situation became dire.

The Greek noun appearing in Matthew 8:24 to refer to the “tempest” (KJV) is seismos. In some contexts, the term could be used to denote an earthquake. Here the emphasis was on the savage and turbulent agitation of the sea (which was caused by the windstorm), somewhat like the undulation that one might encounter during an earthquake.

The above episode was a common phenomenon on the Sea of Galilee. This was due, in part, to the location of the lake and its low elevation compared to the Mediterranean Sea. Another factor was the steep hills encircling the body of water, particularly near its eastern slopes.

The preceding topography came into play when cool air descended on the lake from such elevated regions as Mount Hermon, which towers at 9,232 feet above sea level. When chilly winds came into contact with the warmer air rising up from the lake’s lower elevations, a temperature inversion layer was created. In turn, severe windstorms materialized on the lake. Much of that energy was transferred to the surrounding water and caused it to agitate in a violent, uncontrollable manner.

Mark 4:38 reveals that amid all the commotion, Jesus was in the “stern” (NIV) of the boat and sound asleep on a nearby “cushion.” Amazingly, not even the forceful jostling of the vessel could awaken Jesus from His slumber.

Luke 8:24 adds that the Twelve frantically addressed Jesus as “Master, Master.” This was followed by their assertion that they were about to die from drowning.

Matthew 8:25 records the Twelve’s plea for help, “Lord, save us: we perish” (KJV). Regretfully, as Mark 4:38 reveals, they questioned whether He genuinely cared about their welfare and safety.

The efforts of the Twelve succeeded in awakening Jesus from His sleep. Next, He countered their insinuation that He was ambivalent about their wellbeing with two assertions of His own.

On the one hand, Jesus questioned why they were so “fearful” (Matt. 8:26, KJV). On the other hand, Jesus drew attention to His disciples’ “little faith.” In short, while He remained calm, they acted cowardly.

Mark 4:40 records Jesus bluntly asking the Twelve, “Do you still have no faith?” (NIV). As this verse makes clear, genuine faith is evidenced by more than mere words. It leads to an unshakeable confidence in the Savior, regardless of the nature of the circumstance one is facing.

Jesus, after making His point, “got up” (Matt. 8:26) and sternly censured both the “winds” and the “waves.” The Greek verb translated “rebuked” can also be rendered as “commanded.” In fact, Mark 4:39 indicates that Jesus directed the “waves” both to be “quiet” and “still.” Immediately, the “storm subsided” (Luke 8:24) and the lake became “completely calm” (Matt. 8:26).

At this juncture in the relationship of the Twelve with Jesus, they had witnessed Him do amazing things, including the healing of many people. Yet, when they cried out to Him for help amid the raging windstorm, it seems that they did not anticipate how He would rescue them. After all, instead of expressing gratitude, the Twelve were not only “amazed” (vs. 27), but also “terrified” (Mark 4:41).

The disciples’ feelings of being overwhelmed prompted them to ask, “What manner of man is this” (Matt. 8:27, KJV). They had just seen Jesus exercise supreme authority over creation by commanding the elements into silence. That is why the Twelve exclaimed, “even the winds and the sea obey him!”

Although Jesus’ disciples did not fully grasp His true identity as the divine-human Messiah, they still followed Him. Upcoming episodes in Jesus’ life and ministry would show the Twelve that He is both the “Son of God” (John 1:49) and the “King of Israel.” After all, only the Creator revealed in the Old Testament could exercise absolute control over the temporal realm.

Consider, for example, Psalm 65:7, which states that the Lord silenced the “roaring of the seas” (NIV). Added to this is 89:9, which indicates that the Creator ruled supreme over the raging “sea.” In 93:4, readers learn that the majesty of the “Lord on high” infinitely exceeds that of the world’s “great waters,” along with the “breakers of the sea.”

Moreover, the psalmist, in 107:28-30, recounted an incident involving some mariners who, amid a raging ocean, “cried out to the Lord in their trouble.” The Creator responded by calming the “storm to a whisper,” as well as hushing the “waves of the sea.” In response, and unlike Jesus’ disciples, the mariners were filled with gratitude at the way God intervened on their behalf.

Isaiah 51:10 takes a retrospective look back on the Israelites’ departure from Egypt. This historical event is narrated in Exodus 14 and celebrated in chapter 15.

Isaiah 51:10 likewise extols the God of Israel for drying up the Red Sea, which the prophet referred to as the “waters of the great deep.” Even amid the “depths of the sea,” the Lord created a “road” along which His chosen people could travel. This stupendous miracle enabled the “redeemed” to safely “cross over.”

In stepping back from what has been said, it is clear that there are various incidental details in the parallel Gospel accounts that correlate well with one another. A superficial reading might suggest that the particulars appear to be random. Even so, as stated earlier, the mountain of evidence indicates that this explanation fails to account adequately for the jigsaw-puzzle-like way in which all the information fits seamlessly together.

So, then, the most straightforward reason is that each rendition gives a precise, informed, and reliable account of an actual, common, historical episode. Or, as articulated above, the accuracy of these minor, trivial items makes a compelling case for the precision and exactitude of the entire accounts in which they appear.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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