Even More Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels: Can Apologetics Get Any More Sexy?

*Are there Undesigned Coincidences between the Gospels & ancient writings outside of the Bible? How can minor details in the Gospels show the reliability of the Gospels? Are you sexy enough to handle this?*


Series intro: What’s an Undesigned Coincidence?

Where key, major details remain the same when two or more authors write about the same historic event, we find minor details may be added or left out. An “undesigned coincidence” is when one account provides details, but another account written about the same incident by a different author gives more insight into those details. We see “undesigned coincidences” when we have two or more independently investigated accounts of the same event, and we find undesigned coincidences throughout the Gospels of the New Testament.

It’s highly unlikely that such complimentary minor details would be deliberately falsified, and the assurance that they’re based on authentic events is extremely high. In other words, when multiple people retell a true story, they may include minor details without an explanation of those details and others telling the same story may unintentionally fill in those missing pieces. Such non-deliberate cohesion smacks of authenticity.

Read PART 1: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels: It Don’t Sound Sexy, But Oh Man It Is

Read PART 2: More Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels: Bringing Sexy Apologetics Back


Yes, by now you’ve probably figured out that I’ve been shamelessly placing “sexy” in every title of this series to catch people’s attention (with a healthy dose of irony). Here are more examples of Undesigned Coincidences:


Fixin’ to Fix Some Fish Nets

18 Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 19 And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. 21 Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him. (Matthew 4:18-22)


OK, one big question immediately comes to mind when reading this passage: Why were these fishermen so quick to follow Jesus? I mean, would you give up your livelihood and abandon your family simply because some dude tells you to follow him?

Well, we find the answer not in Matthew, but in the much longer account in the Gospel of Luke:


5 Now it happened that while the crowd was pressing around Him and listening to the word of God, He was standing by the lake of Gennesaret; 2 and He saw two boats lying at the edge of the lake; but the fishermen had gotten out of them and were washing their nets. 3 And He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little way from the land. And He sat down and began teaching the people from the boat.

4 When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered and said, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break; 7 so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink.

8 But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” 11 When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him. (Luke 5:1-11)


So, the reason the fishermen are so quick to follow Jesus in Matthew is because this is not the first time they’ve seen him! In fact, they’d witnessed Jesus teach and perform a miracle before he told them to follow him. No wonder they followed him so quickly in Matthew’s Gospel!

Where Matthew gives us more details of the actual moment of the calling of the fishermen, Luke gives a longer account (which includes the miracle before the calling) but then he simply summarizes or condenses – shortens or telescopes – the events after the miracle by simply telling us the fishermen left everything and followed Jesus. Where Matthew chose to emphasize the actual calling, Luke chose to emphasize the miracle. (Learn more about telescoping in another GFTM article.)


Furthermore, notice Matthew uses the word “immediately” twice. Both pairs of brothers — Peter and Andrew and James and John — followed Jesus “immediately” when called to follow. But Luke does NOT tell us they followed Jesus “immediately” after returning to the land, meaning some time could’ve passed between the two events.

Only when we look at Matthew and Luke together can we conclude that some time had actually passed between the return to the shore after the miraculous catch and when the fishermen left with Jesus. How long exactly? We can’t say – but not a lot of time, because we’re told in Matthew’s Gospel that James and John were fixing the torn nets.

And, Yes! That is another Undesigned Coincidence between Luke’s and Matthew’s account of the calling of Peter and the other fishermen:

Matthew tells us in 4:21 that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were “mending their nets.” Why? The detail is fleshed out in Luke. Luke 5:6 tells us during the miraculous catch, “… they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break.”

Perhaps the sons of Zebedee would’ve been more annoyed with Jesus for damaging their nets if he hadn’t done so by performing a miracle.


External Undesigned Coincidences

Up to this point in this series, we’ve been looking at examples of Internal Undesigned Coincidences — “internal” meaning within the Bible.

To end this series (for now), we’ll look at External Undesigned Coincidences — meaning collaborations between details in the Gospels with information outside of the Bible.


Runnin’ from Archelaus

In the Gospel of Matthew, in the birth narrative of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, having been warned in a dream, flee with the newborn Jesus to Egypt from the wrath of Herod the Great. Then Matthew tells us this:


19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, 20 “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” 21 So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, 23 and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:19-23)


So, who is Archelaus? And why was Joseph so afraid of him? Matthew doesn’t give us one clue, nor does the rest of the Bible!

But we learn about Archelaus from outside the Bible, in another piece of ancient writing. We learn about Archelaus in the writings of Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian (37-100 AD). Archelaus is Herod Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, who became ethnarch of Judea for a short period after the death of his father.

Due to growing tension between the Romans, the Jews, and the Jew’s Roman-appointed Herodian rulers (who were seen as half-breeds and traitors by the Jews), Josephus reports that Herod Archelaus slaughtered 3,000 Jews at the Temple during the Passover to quell a possible uprising.

So, why were Joseph and Mary afraid of Archelaus? Ancient historian Jospehus gives us the obvious answer in his work Antiquities of the Jews. Thus, Joseph and his family fled from Archelaus to Nazareth in Galilee, a place outside of the territory of Archelaus’s reign.

Herod the Great?

Herod the Great…?

Likewise, many rulers (including kings, governors, etc.) mentioned in the New Testament are also mentioned by Josephus, including Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa, and Antonius Felix. Josephus also wrote about John the Baptist, Jesus’ brother James, and Jesus himself. (Read this GFTM article to learn more about what Josephus said about Jesus.)

In fact, 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of the Book of Acts alone have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence outside of the Bible, and in the Gospel of Luke, 11 historically proven leaders appear in the first 3 chapters alone. New archeological discoveries have continually supported the reliability of the biblical record, including the discovery of Jacob’s Well, a building inscription of the name Pontius Pilate, and an ossuary containing the bones of Caiaphas, the high priest who helped orchestrate the crucifixion of Jesus.



Related GFTM articles:

Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels: It Don’t Sound Sexy, But Oh Man It Is

More Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels: Bringing Sexy Apologetics Back

Is the Bible Any More Accurate than Other Religious Texts?

Is There Evidence of Jesus’ Existence (Outside the Bible)?

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 4 – The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”

Books by GFTM:

Searching the Bible for Mother God: Examining the Teachings of the World Mission Society Church of God



Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels: It Don’t Sound Sexy, But Oh Man It Is

*How can minor details in the Gospels show the reliability of the Bible? Can reading all 4 accounts of the feeding of the 5,000 teach us about the reliability of the Gospels?*


Sexy Apologetics?

When I first learned of Undesigned Coincidences (also called Incidental Allusions), I was pleasantly surprised and fascinated, and I wondered why this type of apologetic (defense of the Christian faith) is not more popular. I think the answer is plain:

“Undesigned Coincidences”

“Incidental Allusions”


These aren’t exactly “sexy,” head-turning words and phrases.

Further, one must have an extremely strong familiarity with the contents of the Bible to recognize these undesigned coincidences, and unbelievers, who may have no familiarity with the Bible, are unlikely to see the significance.

Yet, by simply and clearly walking someone through some of these unintended collaborations of Gospel details, perhaps we can raise some eyebrows.


So, What is an Undesigned Coincidence?

In our final post of a past GFTM series “The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels” on positive evidence for the reliability of the Gospels, we touched upon Undesigned Coincidences.

Here is what we wrote:

“In a number of interviews on radio shows and podcasts, Dr. Timothy McGrew has been spreading the word about a forgotten apologetic called Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels (based on the 1851 book of the same name by J.J. Blunt), and he has written a series of articles for the Christian Apologetics Alliance.

As we have discussed, when two or more authors write about a historic event there will be similarities and differences. Where the major events will be the same, minor details may be included or left out.

An “undesigned coincidence” is when one account provides details, but another account written about the same incident gives more insight into those details or gives other details that compliment them. We see “undesigned coincidences” when we have two or more independently investigated accounts of the same event. We find undesigned coincidences throughout the Gospels.

 Looking at an example will help clarify:

In Mark 14:55-59, Jesus is accused in front of the Sanhedrin of saying he will destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.

Also, in Mark 15:27-30, as Jesus is on the cross, people mock him and accuse him of saying a similar statement about destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days. This is also reported in Matthew 27:38-40.

But where in Mark or Matthew does Jesus say this? Nowhere — A read through both Mark and Matthew provides no evidence that Jesus ever said such a thing. Yet, when we read the Gospel of John, we find that Jesus did make this claim!

In John 2:18-22, John reports,

So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

It’s highly unlikely that such complimentary minor details would be deliberately falsified, and the assurance that they’re based on authentic events is extremely high.”

In other words, when a true event is retold by multiple people, they may include minor details without an explanation of those details and others telling the same story may unintentionally fill in those missing details. Such non-deliberate cohesion smacks of authenticity.

What follows are some other examples of Undesigned Coincidences borrowed from a variety of sources.


Feeding the 5,000 & Green Grass in the Desert

The famous account of Jesus feeding the 5,000 is the only miracle of Jesus recorded in every one of the four Gospels. But the Gospel of Mark gives us a seemingly strange detail: green grass. The detail appears in Mark 6:39, but I’ll include more for the sake of context:

38 And He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go look!” And when they found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 And He commanded them all to sit down by groups on the green grass. 40 They sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food and broke the loaves and He kept giving them to the disciples to set before them; and He divided up the two fish among them all. (Mark 6:38-41)

Wait a minute: Green grass? Isn’t this taking place in the Middle East – in the desert? Isn’t the desert mostly brown?

But, another Gospel, John gives us more insight with different minor details about the same event:

1 After these things Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias). 2 A large crowd followed Him, because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat down with His disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near. (John 6:1-4)

So, John (not Mark) tells us the feeding of the 5,000 took place during the Passover, and this detail explains the green grass! How? The Passover is the growing season around the Sea of Galilee; this is a short time period where the grass would be green!


Feeding the 5,000 & Philip

We find another Undesigned Coincidence in the feeding of the 5,000 accounts concerning Jesus’ little-known disciple Philip. Let’s pick up where we left off in John’s Gospel:

4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near. 5 Therefore Jesus, lifting up His eyes and seeing that a large crowd was coming to Him, said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?” 6 This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do. 7 Philip answered Him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.” (John 6:4-7)

Anyone who reads through the 4 Gospels comes to know the names of Jesus’ most notable disciples like Peter and John and even less-prominent disciples like James and Thomas (and, of course, the infamous one, Judas). But Philip? Who remembers anything about Philip? So, why did Jesus turn to Philip and not someone else?

We get a clue in another part of John:

44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter. (John 1:44)

But it’s not in the Gospel of John, but in the Gospel of Luke in his account of the feeding of the 5,000 where we receive the final piece of the puzzle:

10 When the apostles returned, they gave an account to Him of all that they had done. Taking them with Him, He withdrew by Himself to a city called Bethsaida. 11 But the crowds were aware of this and followed Him; and welcoming them, He began speaking to them about the kingdom of God and curing those who had need of healing.

12 Now the day was ending, and the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the crowd away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place.” 13 But He said to them, “You give them something to eat!” And they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless perhaps we go and buy food for all these people.” 14 (For there were about five thousand men.) And He said to His disciples, “Have them sit down to eat in groups of about fifty each.” 15 They did so, and had them all sit down. (Luke 9:10-15)

So, Jesus and his disciples were in Bethsaida for the feeding of the 5,000! Jesus asked Philip about the buying of bread because Philip was from Bethsaida. Philip was a local, so of course Jesus would ask him about finding food in the area.

Take note in the Luke account above: Luke does NOT tell us that Jesus asked Philip specifically about buying bread. Only John gives us that minor detail.


Feeding the 5,000 & Needing a Break

When we turn to Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, we get another detail not recorded in the other Gospels:

30 The apostles gathered together with Jesus; and they reported to Him all that they had done and taught. 31 And He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.) 32 They went away in the boat to a secluded place by themselves.

33 The people saw them going, and many recognized them and ran there together on foot from all the cities, and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things. 35 When it was already quite late, His disciples came to Him and said, “This place is desolate and it is already quite late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” (Mark 6:30-36)

Here we’re told by Mark that Jesus and the disciples retreated to a secluded place to catch some rest because they were extremely busy because so many people were “coming and going.” So, why were so many people coming and going?

We find the answer not in Mark, but by going back to a detail we looked at earlier in John:

Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near. (John 6:4)

During the Passover, the Jews would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate at the Temple. With so many people traveling along the roadways, Jesus and his disciples couldn’t find a break in the opportunities to teach and minister. Their only option was to retreat to a place away from everyone (and the people followed them anyway)!

Maybe Undesigned Coincidences — or apologetics in general — will never be “sexy” enough to turn heads, but hopefully they’ll raise some eyebrows.

NEXT: More Sexy Undesigned Coincidences – Internal & external…


Other GFTM series:

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels

Christians & Marijuana

Judge Not?

The Walking Dead & the Christian Worldview

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 4 – The Gospels as Ancient Biography & History & “Narrative Creativity”

In what ways are the Gospels similar to other ancient biographies & histories? How did the Gospel writers use “Narrative Creativity” in telling about the life of Jesus? How can this help us understand differences between the Gospels?

SERIES INTRO: Often skeptics point to differences in the four Gospels of Jesus Christ and claim they are contradictions. This series will cover some general principles that you can use when you do come across a Gospel difference. By using these principles, many of these perceived differences can be easily explained. On the other hand, this series is not simply to defend the Gospels, but to positively show that having four Gospels brings our understanding of the life and work of Jesus Christ deeper than any one piece of writing can do.

** Read Part 1 HERE: Differences or Contradictions? **

** Read Part 2 HERE: Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology **

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**


Ancient Biography & History

Today, we often think writings that tell of actual events should be like modern newspaper articles: Just the cold, hard facts. Today, most believe historical writings should be dry, factual, neutral accounts of what happened exactly as it happened.

But have you ever written an account of something that happened to you? Try it sometime: Write an accurate depiction of a situation that happened with you and a friend. Then ask yourself:

  • How did I decide what details to put in and leave out?
  • What details did I focus on and why?
  • What was I trying to get across by including these details?
  • And finally: Am I able to tell a completely neutral account?

Truth is, the majority of nonfiction writing, though it may be giving factual information, still tells the story with a certain focus, angle, or slant.

For example, a historic writer may write about a unit of American soldiers in the Iraqi War. Perhaps the writer wants to communicate that the soldiers were brave, so he’ll include details and events that show how they risked their lives and faced dangerous odds. Or the author may be against the war and instead include details that show how horrible and terrifying war is for all involved. Maybe the author has a theme of brotherhood, so he focuses on the bond of the soldiers in the unit. On the other hand, if his theme is the value of human life, his story – though still reporting the same events – will look very different than if he was focused on glorifying the effectiveness of modern military technology.

Likewise, the writers of the Gospels, as we mentioned in earlier articles in this series, all had different audiences, themes, and messages (ATM). Further, ancient writers of history and biography did not write simple, dry accounts as modern readers expect to find in text books and news reports.[1]

Jonathan Pennington writes that ancient historians had a slightly different idea than modern Westerners of what was considered historically accurate reporting.[2] They “exercised greater freedom of composition than their modern counterparts when reporting real, historical events.”[3]

Yet, “None of this means, however, that most ancient historians felt free to simply make up events.”[4] Thus, “Note that we are not talking about whether these things really happened – on this the Gospels and the church fathers rightly are univocal, ‘Yes they did!’ – but rather, on how these things are retold. The reporting and retelling of the Gospel events necessarily follow ancient conventions, not our own.”[5]

Narrative Creativity

Today, people often expect nonfiction reports to be straightforward, text book-like accounts. But this is not even the case with modern writing. For example, many books written today are historical works, but they are written like novels, such as Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden and Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose.

There are two things we should note about this sort of writing:

(1) Because it’s not just a dry, historical report, it makes for more enjoyable reading and reaches a wider audience. I think it’s safe to say most people would rather sit down and read something that reads like a novel rather than a scholarly journal article or a text book description of historical events.

(2) The author, though working to report the true events accurately, will use story-telling devices (like metaphors, suspense, symbolism, character development) to tell the factual story.

Similarly, the Gospel writers used narrative creativity in their writing, and this would have been expected and perfectly acceptable in their time.[6] Ancient historical writers and biographers could be much more creative in their presentation of the factual material. Contra the modern idea of dry, factual accounts, the Gospel writers had much more freedom in constructing the stories of Jesus than a modern newspaper writer.

Before we look at this further, let me point out two things:

(1) Though the Gospel writers present the information in ways with more narrative creativity than a modern text book and they may omit or include details not found in the other Gospels, they still report all of the same information on the core details of the life of Jesus: his ministry, death, and resurrection.

(2) Though I am arguing here that the Gospel accounts have more “narrative creativity” than modern newspaper reports, all of the Gospels are still factual and straightforward. When compared to mythology (as skeptics often claim the Gospels are) we see an overwhelming lack of embellished and grandiose language in the Gospels, especially when compared to writings that are plainly mythological. In fact, when the Gospels report something miraculous, even the resurrection of Jesus, the frank, factual nature of the reports are unignorable.

Let’s look at how the Gospels have more “narrative creativity” than modern text books and newspaper articles, which will help us to understand why we see some variations between the Gospels:

Freedom within a Framework

Narrative freedom within a factual framework in ancient history and biography, includes:

  1. Selective Details
  2. Selective Representation
  3. Selective Chronology
  4. Selective Telescoping & Compressing
  5. (And Knowing some History & Culture Helps)

We will look at “Selective Details” below, and then the others in our following GFTM blog articles.

(1) Selective Details

  • As discussed earlier, this isn’t a characteristic unique to ancient historic writing, but all nonfiction writing. It’s simply impossible to include all information, so the author must be selective about what he or she includes and omits.
  • A good writer chooses details for a good reason. When you read, ask yourself: Why did the Gospel author include this detail? What does he want to communicate to us?
  • Thus, one Gospel writer may include a detail another author may not and vice versa.

To illustrate, let’s look at the example of Joseph of Arimathea.

Joseph of Arimathea

All 4 Gospels tell of him, but give us some different details about him:

Matthew 27:57-58:

“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him.”

Mark 15:43:

“Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.”

Luke 23:50-52:

“Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body.”

John 19:38:

“Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.”


Now, let’s ask: What details about Joseph of Arimathea are only reported in one Gospel?

  • Rich
  • Went “boldly” to Pilate
  • “Prominent” member of the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin)
  • Good and upright
  • Did not consent to Jesus’ crucifixion
  • Waiting for the Kingdom of God to come
  • Secret disciple of Jesus

Notice how all four accounts give some different details about Joseph but none of them contradict the other. In fact, they compliment each other.

Furthermore, each gives us different details, adding to our overall understanding of Joseph. By having 4 independent accounts, we receive a more comprehensive portrait of the man that is Joseph of Arimathea and a deeper understanding of what he did.

Before closing, let’s do one more thing: If we ignore all details not included in all four Gospels and take only the details included in all four, what are we left with concerning Joseph of Arimathea?

He was a man from Arimathea who asked Pilate for Jesus’ body after His crucifixion.

Differences due to narrative creativity do not lead to contradictions but to deeper understanding and to an assurance of the accuracy of these historical reports.

 NEXT: Narrative Creativity of the Gospels: Selective Representation & Chronology.

** Read Part 1 HERE: Differences or Contradictions? **

** Read Part 2 HERE: Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology **

**Read Part 3 HEREDealing with Differences in Jesus’ Words**

Recommended reading!

Recommended reading!

[1]Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1362, Kindle edition.

[2] Ibid., Loc 1355.

[3] Ibid., Loc 1368.

[4] Ibid., Loc 1379.

[5] Ibid., Loc 1415.

[6] Ibid., Loc 1360.

GOD FROM THE MACHINE has published its first book! Searching the Bible for Mother God is for educating both those outside and inside the growing “Mother God cult.” Visit our page HERE.


The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 2 – Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology

Four Gospels give us the story of Jesus — four Gospels that are both similar & different. Are these differences a reason for angst or joy? Are these differences really contradictions?

SERIES INTRO: Often skeptics point to differences in the four Gospels of Jesus Christ and claim they are contradictions.This series will cover some general principles that you can use when you do come across a Gospel difference. Using these principles, many of these perceived differences can be easily explained. On the other hand, this series is not simply to defend the Gospels, but to positively show that having four Gospels brings our understanding of the life and work of Jesus Christ deeper than any one piece of writing can do.

 ** Read Part 1 HERE. **


3 Basic Principles

To start, here are 3 basic principles to keep in mind when we come across a Gospel difference:

1. Different does not = contradiction.

Yes, contradictions are always logically impossible (for example, a square can’t be a circle; a bachelor can’t be married), but differences are not necessarily contradictions.

  • Ask yourself when you come across a difference: Is this a true contradiction? Is there a way to logically harmonize this?

2. Different Perspectives = Unique details.[1]

As any police officer or newspaper reporter will tell you, when you gather several witnesses to an incident, each account given will generally have the same major details, but will most likely differ in minor details. Where the overall story will match, each account will have unique details because individuals tell of events from their unique perspectives.

  • Do the Gospels differ in major details or minor details?

3. Different Focuses & Styles = Still God’s Word

Like Jesus was both God and man, the Bible is also a joining of God and man. Thus, though the Bible is God’s Word, it doesn’t mean it’s absent of human influence.[2] And though the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of Scripture, God allowed the writers of the Bible to still use their own unique abilities and personalities while writing the Gospels. This is evident in the different styles of writing seen in different books of the Bible by the different authors.


Much More than Newspaper Reporting

The Gospels aren’t just dry reports; they involve the theological interpretation[3] of the Spirit-led writers. Each writer is emphasizing what we should understand about these events concerning God and salvation, and what these events mean both for us individually and for humankind as a whole.


Each Gospel has specific ATM:

    • A – Audiences
    • T – Themes
    • M – Messages


Because of different focuses in audience, themes, and messages, different Gospel writers focus on different details, emphasizing different aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.


Each Gospel is also a “HLT sandwich”* — a combination of:

  • H – Historical writing,
  • L – Literary writing, &
  • T – Theological writing.[4]

(*Sorry for the cheesy pun on a BLT — bacon, lettuce, tomato — sandwich, but I find the more corny the joke, the better it is as a memory device.)



Again, the Gospels are not just dry, newspaper article-like historical reports. They are historical recordings of actual events, but they also contain creative literary, story-telling elements and theological elements, meaning the Gospel writers are teaching us specific lessons about God in a specific style of writing. Understandably, many of these theological lessons overlap between the Gospels, but one of the Gospel writers may focus on one aspect of theology more than another.

Vern Sheridan Poythress writes in his book on inerrancy and the Gospels, “…the differences between the Gospels are an integral and significant part of the Gospels. The differences are there for a purpose: they help us. All the Gospels are talking about the events in ways that help us to grasp their significance and their theological implications. We do not need to feel as if we have to ‘roll back’ the significance and the implications in order to get to ‘bare’ events.”[5]

So, when we take into account ATM (Audience, Theme, and Message) and HLT (History, Literary style, and Theology), what stands out as unique in each Gospel? Here is a brief, helpful overview of the unique focus and style of each of the 4 Gospels:



“Jesus the Jewish Messiah brings salvation history to its climax, saving his people from their sins.”[6] Noteworthy for its Jewishness, its compression, and the subtle hints of significant importance.[7]



“Jesus the mighty Messiah and Son of God obediently suffers as the Servant of the Lord to pay the ransom price for sins, and as a model of suffering and sacrifice for his disciples to follow.”[8] Noteworthy for fast-paced action and for concentration on the main points.[9]



“God’s end-times salvation predicted by the prophets has arrived through the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the Savior of the world, and this salvation is now going forth to the whole world.”[10] Noteworthy for care in historical research.[11] Where Matthew focuses on Jesus being the Jewish Messiah, Luke focuses on Jesus being the savior of all mankind.



“Jesus is the divine Son of God who reveals the Father, providing eternal life to all who believe in him.”[12] Noteworthy for theological depth in interpreting the significance of events.[13]


Putting ATM & HLT to Use

Can understanding the Gospels as theological and literary works help to resolve perceived historic issues?

Let’s look at an example:

In both Luke and Matthew, we find a genealogy of Jesus’ family tree. One does not have to look closely to see major differences:


Jesus’ genealogy: Luke 3:23– 38; Matthew 1:1–17

  • Matthew: Covers Abraham to Jesus (41 generations)
  • Luke: Covers Adam to Jesus (76 generations)
  • The lists are identical from Abraham to David.
  • But they are different from David to Jesus; only 2 names are shared after this.


There are a few proposed theories for this. The strongest says Matthew follows King David’s royal line to Jesus’ adopted earthly father, Joseph. (Notice Matthew focuses on Joseph in the birth narrative.) Luke follows King David’s blood line to Mary. (Notice Luke focuses on Mary in the birth narrative.) Both Mary and Joseph are distant descendants of King David, and Jesus is the inheritor of both David’s royal line and blood line, as the Messiah was predicted to be.

Much more can be said about these genealogies, but we won’t go into all of it here; we simply want to look at if literary style and theological focus can effect how a Gospel writer reports historic events.

So, understanding the focus of the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, their styles, and a little information about ancient Jewish literature will help here:

  • Matthew lists the genealogy in 3 sections of 14 names: Abraham to David, David to the Babylonian exile, the exile to Christ.
  • 14 may represent seven times two (seven is the number of completion/perfection in Jewish culture due to God creating everything in 6 days and “resting” on the 7th; 14 would be completion/perfection doubled!) or 14 is a numerical value of the Hebrew name “David.” The Hebrew language assigns certain numbers to certain letters and “David” equals 14. [14]
  • Matthew is the “most Jewish Gospel” and focuses on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah; thus, he starts with Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel.
  • Arranging Jewish genealogies in memorable structure or to emphasize certain individuals was common practice in ancient literature. Basically, not all genealogies were complete; many took acceptable literary liberties to emphasize the author’s purpose. [15]
  • Luke focuses on Jesus being the savior of the whole world, so he starts with Adam, the first man, the physical father of all of mankind.
  • Matthew regularly uses compression (basically, meaning he shortens things — more about this later) and organizes his Gospel both thematically and topically, not necessarily chronologically, more than the other Gospel writers.

Ancient Literature

The Gospels share similarities with other ancient histories and literary genres. For instance, ancient Greco-Roman biography or bios – sometimes called “lives” or “popular biographies” – did not strive to tell the whole life story from birth to death of its subject, but to highlight a certain aspects of the subject’s life or character.[16]

The Gospels also share similarities with ancient Jewish Midrash (books of scripture interpretation) because it includes religious/theological explanations of the events reported.[17] Though many scholars have concluded there is “no known parallel to [the Gospels] in the ancient world,” and the Gospels are unique in many literary and historical ways, the Gospels still have much in common with other ancient writings.[18]

Something to think about until next time: Mark Strauss has a book titled Four Portraits, One Jesus. How is having four Gospels similar to having four painted portraits of Jesus?

NEXT: Differences in Jesus’ words

 ** Read Part 1 HERE. **

*All 5 books cited below are highly recommended*

Good reading...

Good reading…


[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1245, Kindle edition.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 50.

[3] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 32.

[4] Ibid., 39.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 214.

[7] Poythress, 74.

[8] Strauss, 172.

[9] Poythress, 74.

[10] Strauss, 260.

[11] Poythress, 74.

[12] Strauss, 298.

[13] Poythress, 74.

[14] Strauss, 223.

[15] Strauss, 223.

[16] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 312.

[17] Eddy and Boyd, 343.

[18] Ibid., 320.

*All 5 books cited above are highly recommended!*

GOD FROM THE MACHINE has published it’s first book! Searching the Bible for Mother God is for educating both those outside and inside the growing “Mother God cult.” Visit our page HERE.


The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 1 – Differences or Contradictions?

Four Gospels give us the story of Jesus — four Gospels that are both similar & different. Are these differences a reason for angst or joy? Are these differences contradictions?


Reading the Gospels:

Vertical Reading = No Problem


Horizontal Reading = Problems

When we read the Gospels in the New Testament, we usually do it vertically, meaning from top to bottom. Then, once we finish one Gospel, we move on to the next. Each Gospel is internally consistent, and the overall stories of Jesus in each Gospel compliment each other.

Yet, once you grow more familiar with each Gospel, you will likely start to notice some differences. And if you believe the Bible is the Word of God, these differences will cause you some understandable discomfort.

Popular, skeptical New Testament scholar and writer, Bart Ehrman writes that it’s when we read the Gospels horizontally that we can no longer ignore that the Gospels don’t just have differences but that they actually contradict each other.[1]

Ehrman explains, “In horizontal reading you read a story in one of the Gospels, and then read the same story as told by another Gospel, as if they were written in columns next to each other. And you compare the stories carefully, in detail.”[2] Once you do this, Ehrman says, the number and nature of these differences become unignorable, and he believes many of these differences put the four Gospels “at odds with one another.”[3]

Differences or Contradictions?

In this series, we will be looking at some of these differences and see that, despite what Ehrman writes, a difference doesn’t necessarily mean a contradiction. After all, logically speaking, contradictions mean at least one of the truth statements must be false. But, as will be shown, differences don’t damage our understanding of the Gospels but actually enrich our understanding of the Gospels.

This series will cover some general principles that you can use when you do come across a Gospel difference. Using these principles, many of these perceived differences can be easily explained.

In this series, we will not be addressing every difference, but by learning and applying these general principles, you’ll find that most differences between the Gospels easily substantiate that these are meaningful differences purposely and purposefully made by the individual authors and not erroneous contradictions.

I will be honest in saying there are some differences that are much more difficult to rectify. Where provable solutions may not be possible at this time, plausible solutions can be offered.

Before we even get into the principles (and so I can’t be accused of sugar-coating anything), let’s start off by looking at what I consider one of the most difficult and obvious differences in the New Testament: The Death of Judas. Now, where this series will be focusing on the four Gospels alone, this difference is actually found between the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Acts.


The Death of Judas

Matthew 27:5-8: “So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, ‘It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.’ So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.”

 Acts 1:18-19: “With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.”


Can we rectify these two accounts?

Some things to consider:

  • One possible explanation is Judas hung himself on a tree and hung there festering (possibly throughout the Sabbath, the day of rest) and then fell and burst.
  • This coincides with what we know about gases building up in decomposing “bloated” bodies.
  • His purchase of the field mentioned in Acts simply means he indirectly purchased it since the money belonged to him. (“Selective Representation” will be covered later.)
  • Judas’ manner of dying on the land would make it “unclean” by Jewish religious law; thus, it would make sense that the only thing the land could be used for is burying non-Jews.
  • Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.”

Does this information give us a plausible explanation? We should be honest about these difficulties, and though we’d like to neatly resolve every one, we ought to be sure not to force explanations onto the text. If nothing else, we may have to, at times, simply trust God and hope a solution comes to light as we learn new information.


Nothing New

Further, it’s also helpful to note that these are difficulties Christians have been aware of since the early church fathers, yet they still believed the Bible was God’s divine Scripture. Though skeptics like Bart Ehrman and others may present these differences as if saying “Ah-ha! Gotcha!” to Christians, these difficulties have been known from the early days of the Christian church.

So, we have to ask: Why have four Gospels in the New Testament Canon? If the early church knew of these difficult differences, why not get rid of three of the Gospels and just keep one? Or why not edit the four Gospels to smooth out any differences that may be perceived as contradictions?

The answer is obvious: Because they understood all four Gospels to be the Word of God. And when you’re holding the Word of God, you don’t get rid of some of it or mess with it.

Joy and Angst

New Testament scholar and professor, Dr. Jonathan Pennington writes in his book Reading the Gospels Wisely that some individuals in the early church had actually tried to combine the four gospels into one unified, harmonized, super Gospel![4] But, despite charges by opponents that the four Gospels contradicted each other, the church rejected these efforts to create one harmonized edition of the Gospels.

Church fathers, like Irenaeus and Augustine, defended the Gospels against pagan accusers, but “this defense would not be pursued at the expense of losing the fourfold apostolic witness as such, warts and all”[5] because it would be “too high a price to pay; it goes against what was greatly valued in the church, the testimony of the Gospels given through individual eyewitness apostles (Matthew and John) and their close associates (Mark and Luke).”[6]

Wrestling with such passages is what Dr. Jonathan Pennington calls the joy and angst of having four Gospels.[7] (And, yes, this is where I got the title of this series.*) This blog series is not simply to defend the Gospels, but to positively show that having four Gospels brings our understanding of the life and work of Jesus Christ deeper than any one piece of writing can do.

Two questions to ponder for now (and throughout this series):

  • If the supposed “contradictions” are such an issue, why did the early church keep all four Gospels?
  • What do we gain by having four Gospels?



[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), Loc 396, Kindle edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., Loc 380.

[4] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1066, Kindle edition.

[5] Ibid., Loc 1094.

[6] Ibid., Loc 1100.

[7] Ibid., Loc 1029.

*With thanks to Dr. Pennington for granting me permission to do so.


GOD FROM THE MACHINE has published it’s first book! Searching the Bible for Mother God is for educating both those outside and inside the growing “Mother God cult.” Visit our page HERE.