Nearly everyone has a concept of what it means for historical claims to be confirmed by a new discovery. Tablets unearthed at Kültepe in the late 19th century reveal that there was, as the Old Testament had said, a vast Hittite empire in the time of Abraham. An Arabic manuscript turns out to contain the Diatessaron of Tatian, settling once and for all the question of whether that second century harmony of the Gospels actually existed and whether it included the fourth Gospel. Excavations in Jerusalem reveal the pool of Bethesda and its five porches, by the Sheep Gate, just as described in John 5. A clay seal bears the name of Baruch, the disciple and friend of Jeremiah. An ornate first century ossuary bears witness to the prestige of Joseph Caiaphas.
This kind of confirmation, exciting as it is, suffers from several limitations. For one thing, we are largely at the mercy of time and chance for discoveries of this type. Archaeology and paleography are not experimental sciences; at best, one might begin digging in a promising location, but there are no guarantees as to what (if anything) one will find. Tempus edax rerum is one of Ovid’s memorable phrases—Time, devourer of all things. Many priceless treasures are forever lost: papyrus documents that rotted in the rain, scrolls that were burnt by the Bedouins to warm themselves at night, monuments and inscriptions that were gradually eroded away by the sands of time or crushed to powder under the boots of an invading army. And many others are as good as lost, buried in a garbage dump somewhere that we will never think to dig.
For the non-specialist, there is the additional problem of being dependent on those with specialized knowledge for the proper translation of a cuneiform inscription or the recognition of the faint text on a Greek palimpsest. For this sort of evidence, most of us must depend on the specialists. And the specialists themselves must depend in significant measure on good luck.
A second kind of evidence comes from non-Christian texts and monuments that we already have. The Jewish historian Josephus, for example, covers in the later books of his Antiquities some of the same historical ground covered by the Gospels, and we meet in his pages many of the same characters: Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, his second wife Herodias, Pontius Pilate, Antonius Felix, Porcius Festus, John the Baptist, and even Jesus himself and his brother James. Here is a source of evidence that is available in translation to nearly anyone who is interested. The confirmation the Gospels and Acts receive from other documents of antiquity is very significant and extensive.
But this kind of evidence has its practical limitations. A substantial majority of the people who go to church on Sunday morning have in all probability never even heard of Josephus. Most of those who have heard the name do not own a copy of his works, and of those who do, most will not take the time to read hundreds of densely packed pages, sorting out the various Herods, tracking down the allusions, and finding the points of contact with the historical narratives of the New Testament. The pace of modern life closes off the serious exploration of this evidence for more than a dedicated few.
But there is a third kind of evidence that lies within Scripture itself, a kind that requires only attention to one’s own Bible and a willingness to read thoughtfully. This is the evidence of undesigned coincidences.
The term itself, coined over two centuries ago, is perhaps not the best description for modern readers, since we rarely use the word “undesigned” today. But the meaning is not terribly difficult to grasp. Take two texts (for the sake of the argument one need assume nothing about them except that they both purport to recount some historical events) and compare them. Of course, they might have nothing in common; in that case, there is no material for this sort of argument. But they might touch on some of the same characters and events. If so, we may examine them to see whether the manner in which they discuss these things fits together obliquely, in ways not likely to have been deliberately chosen for that effect—undesignedly.
It is an important point to keep in mind that the 66 books of the Bible are, in fact, self-contained works in their own right and exhibit in varying degrees the individuality of their human authors and the independence of their various sources of information. This fact gives us the opportunity to compare them with one another in ways that can provide evidence that they are both telling a true story. The way the two works intersect can show that they are drawing from life.
A single story written by one author would not afford us the same opportunities of cross examination, since someone could always retort that the author had tidied up the parts of the story so that they agreed with one another. And two books that relate the same story in much the same words also would not carry much weight, as it could always be objected (and sometimes very reasonably) that one of them had simply been copied from the other. But in numerous places the various books of the New Testament are manifestly not “tidied up” to square with one another. And that fact allows us to use their interlocking narratives as evidence of truth.
Most importantly, these sorts of coincidences are unlikely to be the work of a forger. Someone who invents a story with the intention of passing it off as historically true will usually take some care that it leaves no puzzling questions in the reader’s mind. On the other hand, someone who knows that he is telling the truth is more apt to state his facts and leave them to their fate. It never occurs to him that he ought to explain certain aspects of his story in order to make it credible or plausible. When, therefore, we find that such questions do arise, and then we find that they can be answered by some fact that crops up incidentally in another historical document, the congruence of the two provides us with evidence that neither is a forgery or a fable.
The sort of case that one can build using these undesigned coincidences does not provide a logical guarantee; such guarantees are not available in historical work. And no single example, taken by itself, may be enough to persuade a reasonable but skeptical person. But the argument is cumulative. If it can be fairly shown that such interlocking exists in case after case, the combined weight of the evidence will, to an unprejudiced mind, be most satisfying and convincing.
Two English authors are principally responsible for developing the argument from undesigned coincidences with respect to the Scriptures. In his Horae Paulinae (1790), William Paley examines the Book of Acts, on the one hand, and the Pauline epistles, on the other, with a view to showing how each might illustrate the other. The correspondences are particularly full with respect to Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians, and it is partly due to the sorts of arguments Paley marshals that these books are conceded by virtually all scholars today to be authentic Pauline works.
In a series of lectures in the early 19th century, John James Blunt picked up Paley’s method of argumentation and extended it first to the Gospels, then to the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament. Blunt’s lectures were first published in a series of separate monographs, but these were subsequently collected into a single volume called Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings both of the Old and New Testament an Argument of Their Veracity (1847), a work that went through at least eighteen editions.
Both of these works were enormously influential. It is difficult to find an educated Christian of the era who writes on the subject without showing an awareness of one or both of them. Archibald Alexander, Richard Whately, Charles Finney, Thomas Chalmers, Charles Hodge, John Henry Newman, Thomas Cooper, Charles Spurgeon, B. B. Warfield, J. B. Lightfoot, B. F. Westcott—the list of notable writers and scholars who show their indebtedness to the work of Paley and Blunt includes an honor roll of nineteenth century Christian thinkers.
In this series, we will examine some of the undesigned coincidences discovered by Paley, Blunt, and others. Not all of them are of equal weight (as both authors stress), so we will choose some of the more interesting and plausible ones for presentation. Readers should keep in mind the cumulative nature of the argument. The full force of this kind of evidence can be appreciated only as we examine multiple instances. But the effect, for those who have the patience to work through those instances, is well worth the effort.