An undesigned coincidence is simply a case in which a Gospel relays an account of an event or something that is said – where the account in question or another account triggers a question in the reader’s mind – that lacks a certain detail that inevitably is indirectly supplied by a different Gospel author either in the same context or an entirely different context. With that being said, let me share 3 undesigned coincidences (2 of them are probable if not certain to a high degree) that I stumbled upon when I was reading my Bible.
Now before I share my findings, it’s important to consider a possible question that a Christian might raise: Why bother trying to find these or even consider them in maybe attempting to bolster one’s confidence in the Gospel texts? The answer is because these undesigned coincidences can serve as internal indicators that the writers did not copy from each other and that they actually show genuine historical reporting. This has apologetic significance because it is commonly suggested that the Gospel writers just played off each other’s sources and didn’t really have much independence from each other. This will attempt to show that that belief is false.
In the Gospel of Luke chapter 24, there’s a passage regarding Jesus’ trip to the village called Emmaus which involves running into two travelers who conversed with Jesus about what had transpired during Passover week, without knowing initially it was Jesus. Here’s the context in which the verse to be explained happens to be situated: Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” The key verse is verse 24, which states, “some of those who were with us went to the tomb…” Now notice that the travelers don’t say that either one of them or both of them went to the tomb. They only say that some of the disciples or people following Jesus, who also associated with these 2 travelers, happened to go to the tomb after the women had witnessed it being empty. Now the obvious question that is raised is: Who were these people that had gone to the tomb that were “some” of the disciples?
In the same chapter, Luke only mentions Peter as being the person to go to the tomb after the women had been there and reported their findings to the disciples that were considered “idle tales”. Here’s the passage: Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. Now obviously it would seem a bit presumptuous to think that Luke doesn’t believe someone else, along with Peter, went to the tomb with him just because he only mentions Peter in this passage. So who is this other person? Well, you don’t find that answer from Luke or the other Gospel writers because (1) Mark only mentions the women leaving the tomb afraid and not initially telling anyone about what they discovered and (2) Matthew has the women seeing Jesus along the way as they were making their way back to the Upper Room.
What about the Gospel of John? Are we able to find a clue in his gospel that might answer our question? Yes we can. In chapter 20, after the women have reported to the disciples that Jesus was not in the tomb, Peter and the “other disciple” got up and ran to the tomb. Here’s the context: So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; Now compare this scenario with Jesus’ conversation with the 2 travelers in the village Emmaus and see what turns up: “some of those who were with us” are Peter and John (the other disciple/disciple whom Jesus loved)! How do we know? By simply looking at these different accounts and putting them together in a way that doesn’t force anything on them but also creates a more unified picture.
With that being said, we can say that the two disciples mentioned to have gone to the tomb were in fact Peter and John.
In all 4 Gospels, Peter is reported to have entered the high priest’s courtyard and was able to join himself with the temple police (presumably the Roman soldiers) and the slaves present, and was able to know the situation of Jesus’ trial under Caiaphas. Here are the relevant passages:
Matthew 26:57-58 - Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered. And Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end.
Mark 14:53-54 - And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together. And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire.
Luke 22:54-55 - Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them.
Now someone might be asking: Ben why didn’t you include John’s report of this? I don’t want to make it so obvious to you what the answer is. Think for a minute what these passages have in common with each other: They all have Peter making his way into the high priest’s courtyard and consequently was in a position to know the outcome of the “trial”.
But, they don’t explain how Peter could have made his way into the high priest’s courtyard. They just report that he did. Is there a way of knowing the answer to this question? There certainly is.
Flip over to John’s gospel chapter 18 starting at verse 12 all the way through verse 18. Here’s the passage: So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him. First they led him to Annas, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. It was Caiaphas who had advised the Jews that it would be expedient that one man should die for the people. Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man's disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.
Now in the company of people present in the courtyard, Roman soldiers and other prominent Jewish leaders and slaves/servants, it certainly wasn’t a place for a social hangout for any common folk given the important people who were there. So the obvious question is: How did Peter manage to get in?
Well, if you look at verse 16, you’ll see that the other disciple was the one who enabled Peter access to the courtyard to observe the trial after having spoken to the female servant (or slave) who stood at the entrance. So why would this be significant? Because in the previous verse, John says that the high priest knew who he was and hence this was a reliable reference for Peter to gain access to the courtyard! It seems almost as if John’s connection to Caiaphas was indispensable to Peter’s direct knowledge of the trial. Otherwise, Peter would have had to rely on other peoples’ reports of what transpired at the trial.
There’s even another significant detail that might seem unimportant at first blush. John was an eyewitness to Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas! None of the other disciples, as is reported in our 4 Gospels, had direct knowledge of what happened at the trial except for Peter and John. So this can at least show that there are no grounds for speculation on how the Gospel writers knew what happened at the trial on which Jesus was being questioned.
We all know of the story recounted by Luke, Matthew, and Mark about a paralytic who is healed by Jesus. But in passing, only Mark mentions where Jesus was at when he healed the paralytic. Let me give you the context of Jesus’ healing as told in the Gospel of Luke: And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus.
And then as the story continues Jesus heals the man while the religious leaders grumble on how Jesus could have claimed to forgive the man’s sins. Matthew and Mark recount the same story in essentially the same way except in the following way: Only Mark says that Jesus was in Capernaum (Mark 2:1) when he healed the paralytic. Matthew doesn’t specify the location as well as Luke. Now, it’s an obvious no brainer that when you put all the 3 accounts together, you realize that the healing of the paralytic was in fact in Capernaum.
But, here’s another question to ask: What about the story of Jesus healing the daughter of a man who happened to be a synagogue leader? This story is reported in Luke 8:40-56, Mark 5:21-43, and Matthew 9:18-26. Is there a way of knowing where this healing as well, took place? Let’s check it out. In Mark’s gospel chapter 5, he says that Jesus crossed over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee from the area where he had healed the demoniac (Mk. 5:1-20). And it was then when this man Jairus, leader of the synagogue, approached Jesus. Now we know that the healing of the demoniac probably occurred in the area of Kursi, which is an Aramaic derivative of Gerasenes (a reading best attested in the manuscripts for Luke and Mark). Luke tells the same story almost in the same way. Moreover, none of the 3 Synoptic Gospels report where this took place. So how can we find out where this took place? If you flip over to Mark 2:13,14, you’ll read: He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. This comes almost right after Jesus had healed the paralytic! On a topographical map, Capernaum literally is sitting alongside the edge of the Sea of Galilee.
Now Mark says that Jesus went out “beside” or “by” the sea (Sea of Galilee) and was in that region when He called Matthew. Now, Mark doesn’t tell us that Jesus must have left the city of Capernaum but just said that he went “by the sea”. So it’s plausible to assume that Jesus could have been on the outskirts or city limits of Capernaum, or close to them, when he had called Matthew. I can’t prove this directly but it seems like a reasonable inference. Now with that passage in mind, flip over to Matthew 9:18 where it reads, While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” Notice that Matthew is the only one to not mention the name of the synagogue’s leader. Why would Matthew not mention the synagogue’s leader’s name? Probably because he already knew who Jairus was and didn’t feel the need to mention him by name. Moreover, this would also make sense if in fact Matthew were from Capernaum.
We already know from Mark that Jesus healed the paralytic in Capernaum and from the same city called Matthew to follow him. Capernaum, since it was along the coastal line of the Sea of Galilee, would ideally make the most sense out of Mark saying – when he found Matthew – that Jesus had gone out by the sea.
It is only when you put these accounts together that you can have a better understanding of (1) where Jesus healed the paralytic, (2) where Jairus’ daughter was raised from the dead, (3) why only Matthew would not mention the synagogue’s leader/ruler by name, and (4) where Jesus had called Matthew to follow him.
In summary, we have seen that our question prompted by a lacking detail in Luke’s gospel on the appearances in Emmaus was indirectly supplied by John and that these two accounts help unify the otherwise puzzling picture. Furthermore, we have also seen that John’s reporting of being acquainted with the high priest and being able to help grant access to Peter to the courtyard helps make sense of why the other Gospels consistently mention Peter’s eyewitness knowledge of the trial and supplying an additional detail that none of the other Gospels had: John being present at the trial of Jesus. And lastly, from piecing Mark’s account of the healing of the paralytic (in Capernaum), his placing of the calling of Matthew in the same area (Mark doesn’t seem to give any chronological skips in this section), with also the location of where Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter by raising her from the dead (in virtue of it being in Capernaum) only makes sense if we take Matthew’s omission of Jairus’ name from his account of Jesus healing his daughter to be an indirect indicator that Matthew was in fact from Capernaum. If explanation fails, then it becomes inexplicable why Matthew would fail to mention the synagogue leader’s name. Not to mention it would be even more bizarre if in fact Capernaum wasn’t the place for all those 4 events given that the way Mark, Luke, and Matthew leave certain details dangling without giving an immediate explanation. With that being said, I think we can be confident that Capernaum was where Matthew was from and that it clarifies everything else that occurred in that particular city. On the basis of these three (possibly 4) discoveries of undesigned coincidences, I believe we have good grounds for believing further that the Gospel writers were in a position to know what they were talking about and henceforth are accurate and truthful reporters of what happened.