Question and Answer with Lydia McGrew on the Gospels and Acts

four gospels coverLydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher, home schooling mother, blogger, and the wife of philosopher and apologist Timothy McGrew. She received her PhD in English from Vanderbilt University in 1995 and has published many articles in theory of knowledge and probability.

Dr. McGrew’s work has appeared in such journals as Philosophical Studies, Acta Analytica, the Journal of Philosophical Research, and Erkenntnis. She and Timothy McGrew co-wrote the article on the resurrection of Jesus for the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, and she wrote the article on historical inquiry for the Routledge Companion to Theism.

Dr. McGrew specializes in both formal theory of knowledge and its application to topics such as the evaluation of testimony and the evaluation of miracles. She lives in southwest Michigan with her husband and children.

Learn more about Hidden in Plain Sight: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts

Recently, Dr. McGrew graciously answered my questions about her book. Readers will learn how this commentary came to be, what is unique about it among Gospel studies, and how the project edified her personally.

1. What inspired you to write the book Hidden in Plain View? What does the title mean?

My husband, Tim, really inspired me to write this book. He had encountered the argument from undesigned coincidences in the older writers he was reading and found it very exciting, and he began incorporating it into the talks he gave at churches. In 2014 I began reading about it, and by the spring of 2015 I was just as convinced as he was that it needed to be brought to a 21st-century audience in a new book. We agreed that whoever got the time first would write the book, and that happened to be me.

The title refers to the fact that these coincidences are right there in the text of the Bible. They don’t require specialized knowledge to see them. Yet at the same time they are easy to miss if you aren’t looking for them. So they really are hidden in plain view. Once you have seen them, you can’t “unsee” them, yet you might easily overlook them if your attention were not drawn to them.

2. Please give an example of an “undesigned” coincidence. How do such coincidences show that the Bible is reliable?

An example that a lot of people find intuitively forceful starts with the place in Matthew 14:1-2 where Herod is speculating about who Jesus might be. Herod says that this must be John the Baptist risen from the dead. Matthew (and only Matthew) records that Herod said this “to his servants.” If one stops to think about it, it’s a little surprising that Matthew would know what Herod was saying to his servants. In fact, this is precisely the kind of situation where a skeptic or a liberal critic would probably say the whole thing was made up, a fictional detail, because how could Matthew know what Herod was saying to his servants? But if you go to Luke 8:2-3, you find a list of women who were contributing to Jesus’ ministry. Among these is Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager. This explains how the Christian community, including Matthew, could know what Herod said to his servants: One of Herod’s chief servants was married to a woman who believed in Jesus and was supportive of his ministry. There are many more such coincidences in the Bible.

These coincidences show that the Bible is reliable because the best explanation for them is that the authors really had a close connection to the events. The authors are describing different aspects of a reality that fit together in this coincidental way, without any effort on the part of the authors. They just describe what they happen to know, and the details fit together. Neither Matthew nor Luke seems to have been thinking of the other passage when they wrote these two passages. They are completely different contexts. Luke wasn’t trying to provide an explanation for the passage in Matthew. He just happened to know that Joanna, the wife of Chuza, was one of Jesus’ followers. This casually explains the passage in Matthew. This is what witness testimony is often like. Different witnesses mention different bits and pieces of the truth, and these fit together without any special attempt on the part of the witnesses to make that happen, because truth itself is consistent and contains all sorts of causal relationships like this.

3. What can we learn about the authors of the books from these coincidences?

The distribution and frequency of these coincidences point to the conclusion that the authors were close to the facts, knew what they were talking about, and reported accurately. For particular authors we can say even more. For example, the author of the Gospel of John appears to have been an eyewitness of the events he records and to be a very scrupulous recorder. He reports a lot that is not in the synoptic gospels, and he is confirmed repeatedly. The author of Luke and Acts definitely was a companion of the Apostle Paul and was a meticulous “detail person.” In general the undesigned coincidences support the claim that these authors either were witnesses themselves or were in contact with witnesses, which indirectly supports the traditional ascriptions of authorship of the books. I think we can also learn that the authors of these books don’t seem to be changing things for reasons unconnected with facts, such as literary reasons or a desire to make a theological point. New Testament scholars far too often attribute changes in reportage, disconnected from truth, to the authors of the Gospels. They’ll say, for example, that John changed the day of the crucifixion or that the authors of the gospels knowingly manufacture dialogue that never took place or deliberately displace a teaching of Jesus to a context other than the one in which it occurred. The undesigned coincidences really push back against that view of these authors and give us reason to think that they were truthful in a perfectly normal sense of the word, that they didn’t play literary games like that.

4. What contribution does your book make to the discussion of the Synoptic Problem?

My book argues that the synoptic problem really doesn’t matter much to conclusions about the reliability of the Gospels. The synoptic problem is taken to a big deal because of invidious assumptions against direct knowledge in the allegedly dependent portions of the synoptic gospels. So if someone says that he accepts Markan priority and the two-source hypothesis, he will often build in the assumption that Matthew had no independent access to the truth of the events in the parts of Matthew that are similar to Mark and that, where Matthew differs from Mark in some account, Matthew is just redacting or changing Mark without any truth-connected justification. But if, as my book argues, all of the Gospel authors had significant, independent knowledge of the truth, then it becomes more of a mildly interesting puzzle for scholars to decide which one came first and exactly where the literary dependence between them lies. “Markan priority” shouldn’t import all of this baggage from redaction criticism. In several places I show independent, reliable knowledge on the part of Matthew or Luke even in passages that appear very similar to Mark. So their independent information does not show up merely in the totally separate “special M” or “special L” material, though of course it does show up there. I have tables coded to indicate where a coincidence shows the reliability of, say, Matthew or Luke through confirmation of unique information. I also show that coincidences go in all different directions, with different Gospels acting as explanatory in different coincidences. So no redaction-critical theory based on some particular theory about the synoptic problem is going to explain these.

5. How has writing this book increased your affections for Christ?

Bonhoeffer famously said, “When God calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Even for those of us living in comfortable circumstances, the call is there. We’re called to die daily. And all Christians experience times of discouragement, doubt, and bitterness. It’s at those times that we have to hang on to the knowledge that Christianity is true. This evidence has helped me to be even more confident of that truth.

Another thing that these coincidences have done for me is to help me picture what really happened more vividly, which makes Christ and his apostles come alive. As I researched the undesigned coincidences about the Last Supper, for example, I got a more vivid sense of why he washed the disciples’ feet. As I researched the coincidences concerning Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance by the Sea of Galilee, I got a clearer sense of what the Apostle John was like as the author of the fourth Gospel and what that meeting was like.

6. How has this book changed people’s perspectives on the New Testament?

As of now, the book has been out officially only since March 1, so it hasn’t had a whole lot of time yet to make an impact. But I think it is changing some people’s minds about the boldness with which we should argue. I just saw an apologist recently saying that he has decided to make use of all of the Pauline epistles in his arguments rather than just the ones acknowledged to be genuine by everyone, including liberal New Testament scholars. I can’t prove that this is due to my influence, but I have been in contact with him, and this is the kind of thing that I’m urging. Similarly, I recently read a draft of a review of my book written by a philosopher interested in apologetics, and he was convinced that we need to take what I call in my conclusion the “forward position.” This means not deferring to the consensus of New Testament scholars across the ideological spectrum but rather just going where the evidence leads, which is actually in what would be called a more “conservative” direction. I’m also glad to report that Gary Habermas has publicly clarified since my book has come out and since he wrote an endorsement for it that Christian apologists should endorse the reliability of the Gospels generally, not just a more minimal set of facts. So I think I’m having an influence in that area, and that’s quite important.

7. What’s next for you? How can people follow your ministry?

I intend to ramp up my speaking on the subject of the book. I’m available by Skype to speak to church groups or apologetics groups that aren’t nearby, and I would like to do more speaking locally and within the distance of an easy day trip from where I live in southwest Michigan. I intend to keep on doing my work in technical philosophy, even in areas that might not seem related to Christianity or the philosophy of religion; it’s important to “keep my hand in,” as the British say. I fully expect that my ministry through private correspondence will continue to increase. There has been an uptick in that since the book came out. I’m constantly getting e-mails from strangers with questions. People like to make contact with an author, and I have access to resources that can help them. My web page portal to my blogs and to places where people can buy Hidden in Plain View is I also encourage readers to contact me with questions or if they would like to schedule a Skype or local talk. My e-mail address is [email protected].

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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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