On Jan. 9 2011 Dr. Tim McGrew delivered a sermon titled, “The Ring of Truth” at First Baptist, Keener, Lousiana. You may listen to it here. It was delivered in a heartfelt fashion and meant to confound those who do not know Christ by presenting evidence of “the undesigned coincidences in Scripture,” based on an “old book” that McGrew had been reading recently.
I listened to the sermon because it was noted on the facebook group, Dissecting Apology.
Below are my comments.
Tim McGrewʼs failure to enlighten his audience concerning the most widely accepted answer to the “synoptic problem” (Marcan Priority) was in evidence throughout his sermon.
The first point Tim raised concerning what he called the “undesigned coincidences” in the Gospels is that the Gospel of Matthew mentions Jesus being struck and the guards saying “prophesy, who struck you?” Tim says this makes no sense, striking a person and asking “who struck you,” without adding that Jesus was blindfolded. And then we read in Luke that indeed, Jesus was “blindfolded.” McGrew thinks this constitutes an undesigned coincidence between those two Gospels, possibly even evidence of separate eye witness testimony to the same event. But McGrew neglects to mention the mainstream explanation that both Matthew and Luke reproduce over 90% of Mark, the earliest Gospel. And Mark mentions, “they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, ‘Prophesy’!” Therefore all that McGrew has demonstrated via his first example is that Matthew and Luke both reproduced a great amount of Markʼs story but in this one case Matthew sloppily forgot to add mention of the “blindfold,” while Luke did include that bit from Mark and added the phrase “...who struck you?” So Tim has demonstrated yet another reason to accept that Mark was the earliest Gospel written, followed by Matthew and Luke that built their stories on Mark.
Timʼs second example likewise points to Marcan priority over that of Matthew. Tim mentioned the story of sick people whom Matthew says came to Jesus “when it was evening,” without explaining why they waiting till eventing to come to Jesus for healing. But the earlier Gospel, Mark, contains the same story and explains “it was the Sabbath,” and thatʼs why the sick waited “till evening” to come to Jesus in Matthewʼs version. Therefore, Matthew assumed Markan priority and the first two examples that McGrew discussed both demonstrate Marcan priority. They demonstrate nothing miraculous.
At this point, based on Timʼs first two examples, I began to suspect that Tim got hold of a book so old that its author still assumed MATTHEAN PRIORITY, namely that Matthew was the first Gospel composed, not Mark. But most scholars agree today that Mark was the first Gospel composed, NOT MATTHEW. See this short video on Marcan priority, click here to watch.
3) Timʼs third example involved the Gospel story about three apostles going up a mountain and seeing Jesus transformed, glowing, along with great Hebrew prophets. The story has been named the transfiguration, and itʼs hard to imagine anyone remaining silent about seeing such a miracle. Thatʼs why Tim said Lukeʼs ending of the story (“they told no one”) made little sense, and why he claimed that by an “undesigned coincidence,” Mark explained Luke, since Markʼs version of the story ends with, “Jesus charged them that they tell no one [until later].” But this is not an undesigned coincidence itʼs a third example of Marcan priority in action, since Mark was the earlier Gospel and the others followed Mark, sometimes with little explanation. In fact this old book that Tim is citing provides many of the basic reasons why scholars eventually came to reject the traditional view that Matthew was the first Gospel composed, and instead began arguing in favor of Marcan priority.
I could even add a note concerning the idea that the apostles came down from the mountain on which Jesus had been transfigured and “told no one,” since that applies not only to Markʼs tale of the transfiguration but also to his tale of the empty tomb, i.e., Markʼs Gospel ends with this sentence, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Some scholars a bit less devout than Dr. McGrew suggest that the use of the idea that “no one was told” might signify that both the miraculous story of the “empty tomb” and the miraculous “transfiguration” only began circulating later among early Christians and were not part of the earliest Christian stories about Jesus. If the writer admits that “no one was told” about such things till later, then people only heard about such stories later. So such amazing miracles might be later legendary accretions, not part of the earliest stories about Jesus. Also in both the case of the transfiguration and the empty tomb tale, only three people are mentioned as having seen either: “Three male apostles” in the case of the transfiguration, and “three women” in the case of the empty tomb. In both cases according to Mark, “no one was told” about such miraculous tales until some time later.
Timʼs fourth example involves the fourth Gospel,the Gospel of John, but it raises no questions since most scholars agree the fourth Gospel was the last one composed and drew upon previous stories found in earlier Gospels. Tim points to the story about “the feeding of the five thousand,” which appears in both Luke and John, and which both agree took place around “Bethsaida.” John, a later Gospel than Luke, added that the apostle “Philip” was from “Bethsaida,” thus adding an apostleʼs name and some words from “Philip” to the story in Luke. There is no mystery in that case, just later legendary accretion. The story of the feeding of the five thousand has been embellished. Speaking of which, the Gospel of John also added a new line from “Philip” in chapter 6, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” The author put that new line right at the beginning of Jesusʼ ministry, then Philip immediately goes to Nathaniel, who meets Jesus and declares, “You are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” This is unlike the earlier Gospels in which declarations of Jesusʼ “son of God” status and messiahship only appear later in Jesusʼ ministry, and Peter is the only one brave enough to speak them, and Jesus applauds Peterʼs perception. Therefore one must at least question the Gospel of Johnʼs stories about Philip, Nathaniel, et al, in comparison to whatʼs in the earlier Gospels. And not only in this case but also in others the Gospel of John goes overboard in announcing who Jesus is. While the earlier Gospels typically have Jesus keeping even his Messiahship a secret.
The Gospel of John is very heavy on everyone knowing who Jesus is right from the start of Jesusʼ ministry. The prologue of the Gospel of John leaves little doubt as to who the author wished to picture Jesus as being, and this last written Gospel also has John the Baptist speak about Jesus as if the Baptist knew Jesus was “the lamb of God,” right from the start.
In fact the Gospel of John admits it was written “that ye may believe,” and ends with “it is more blessed to believe without seeing,” and that “if all the things Jesus did were written down the world probably couldnʼt contain all the books,” which strike me as special pleading and less than convincing hyperbole.
The Gospel of John also consists of seven miraculous signs followed by “I am” statements, “I am the way the truth and the light, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the light of the world, etc.” This is not the Jesus from the earlier three Gospels about whose Messiahship he told his own apostles to remain silent. Furthermore, Jesus in the Gospel of John never speaks a single parable (compare the earlier Gospels in which Jesus speaks to the people “in nothing but parables”).
So how reliable is the Gospel of John historically speaking? Scholars doubt that it contains many actual words of the historical Jesus, especially when compared with the parables of Jesus in the earlier three Gospels.
Even the story about Nicodemus meeting Jesus at night in John seems suspect since the conversation includes Nicodemus being confused about a word that has a double meaning in Greek, but only a single meaning in Aramaic, and Aramaic is the language that would have been spoken at that time and place. So the story of Jesus meeting Nicodemus “at night” and revealing the secret of being “born again,” may also be an invention. Click here to read more on that question.
There is much to be said about differences between John and the earlier Gospels and theologians like James D. G. Dunn have already said them as well as other prominent theologians. But Iʼve included a summary of some of the points raised if you click here and here.
McGrew contends that the story in the Gospel of John has the “ring of truth, fiction isnʼt like this.” I would say the opposite, based on the examples of Marcan priority above, and based on comparisons of the first three Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) with the last written Gospel (John).
The most prominent view among biblical scholars, for obvious reasons, is that the Gospels are literary works, with Matthew and Luke reproducing over 90% of Mark right down to incidental connecting phrases in Greek. (Greek wasnʼt even the language Jesus and other first century Jews spoke, which was Aramaic.) The literary roots of the Gospel tree lie in Mark which was edited and added to by Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of John came last. Based on the sophistication of its theological ideas one would expect it to be the result of later contemplation and speculation concerning Jesus, it also begins not with Jesusʼ baptism as in Mark, nor with Jesusʼ birth as in Matthew and Luke, but even earlier than Jesusʼ birth, i.e, “in the beginning,” mimicking Genesis.
And speaking of Timʼs mention of the Gospel of John adding “Philip” the apostle to the story of the “feeding of the five thousand,” and adding the city that was mentioned in Lukeʼs earlier Gospel as Philipʼs “home town,” that is not the only example of the Gospel of John amalgamating names and details from earlier Gospels in order to create new stories peculiar only to the Gospel of John.
Another case even more obvious is that of the story found only in The Gospel of John, of “Lazarus” and his sisters, “Mary and Martha,” and how “Mary sat at Jesusʼ feet,” “anointed them” with perfume, and “wiped them with her hair” in the town of “Bethany.” (John 12) Stories that contain all the details employed later to form the story in John are found in the earlier three Gospels:
Mark 14:3—An unnamed woman anointed Jesusʼ head in Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper.
Luke 7:37-38—An unnamed sinner anointed Jesusʼ feet and wiped them with her hair in Nain at the house of a Pharisee.
Luke 10:38-39—Mary, the sister of Martha, listened at Jesusʼ feet in an unnamed town at her house.
Matthew and Lukeʼs tales could be later variations of the original story in Mark, i.e., edits, redactions, as Strauss suggested, with the story in the Gospel of John being the final and most elaborate variant, amalgamating information from the previous stories.
Did you ever get confused about similar events like those listed above? Say, in a Sunday School discussion, you mixed up the name of the town where the woman anointed Jesusʼ “head” with the name of the town where the woman anointed Jesusʼ “feet.” Was it Nain or Bethany? Or you confused the woman who “anointed” Jesusʼ feet with the woman who “listened at” Jesusʼ feet? The unnamed sinner lady in Nain, became, until you looked it up, Mary, sister of Martha? Well, something like that appears to have happened in the minds of Christians before the Gospel of John was composed, the last written of the four Gospels. By that time, similar persons and events from the earlier Gospels may have become amalgamated in peopleʼs minds. In John 12:3, Mary, the woman who simply “listened” at Jesusʼ feet per an earlier Gospel (Luke) is now also anointing them and wiping them with her hair in the last written Gospel (John)! And the unnamed woman of the town of Nain who wiped Jesusʼ feet with her hair in the home of a Pharisee (Luke) became “Mary, Marthaʼs sister who wiped Jesusʼ feet with her hair” (John). And Mary whose hometown was not named in Luke is now given a hometown named “Bethany,” based on the earlier story in Mark about a woman who anointed Jesusʼ “head” and lived in “Bethany.” And the Mary in Luke who is not said to have spread any ointment on Jesus is now depicted as have spread expensive “spikenard ointment” on Jesusʼ feet, just as the lady in the earlier Gospel, Mark (and possibly Luke) did. Only this time it is not at “Simon the Leperʼs house,” nor at the house of “a Pharisee,” but at “Maryʼs house.”
If the Gospel of John was composed last, after such stories were known from the earlier Gospels itʼs easy to see how people could have combined each name and place cited in the earlier Gospels to create the new story that appears for the first time in the Gospel of John.
Furthermore, only the Gospel of John depicts “Lazarus” as a real person. Luke mentions a real Mary and Martha, but says nothing about them having a brother, nor in which town they lived, nor anything about Mary sitting at Jesusʼ feet nor anointing them. So the Gospel of John appears to combine a town name, sisterʼs names, anointing stories, and a figure in a parable that are all found in earlier Gospels (the “Lazarus” figure from a parable in Luke), and formed a new story to demonstrate that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life.”
In the parable in Luke a poor beggar named “Lazarus” dies and goes to “Abrahamʼs bosom,” while a rich man suffering in nearby “Hades” sees “Lazarus” and pleads with Abraham to “send Lazarus to my Fatherʼs house, to warn my brothers…so they may repent [and avoid going to Hades],” to which the answer was, “… neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”
Think about it… a “Lazarus” who dies and someone who hopes Lazarus will be “raised from the dead” to “persuade others” “to repent.” But such persuasion is predicted not to work. Thatʼs in Luke.
Now compare the last written Gospel, John. “Lazarus” is now a concrete person, the “brother” of Mary and Martha mentioned in Luke. (Neither is this Lazarus a poor “beggar,” since heʼs rich enough to have his own tomb.) He is “raised from the dead”—a parable come true.
And, as in the parable, such a miracle fails to persuade those who refuse to listen to Moses and the prophets, namely the Pharisees: “Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and beheld what He had done, believed in Him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees, and told them the things which Jesus had done.” The Pharisees refuse to repent, and even decide, after hearing of this great miracle, to seize Jesus and have him executed. What a coincidence. Two “Lazaruses,” one in Luke and one in John, both die, both illustrate that “even though he be raised from the dead, they will not be persuaded,” in fact, “Lazarusʼs resurrection” in the Gospel of John elicits even a stronger negative response.
Not surprisingly, when you add a whole new miracle found in none of the other Gospels, and make it the focal point for the Phariseesʼ decision to have Jesus seized and executed, you have to do something with the fact that all three of the earlier Gospels agreed that it was Jesusʼ overturning of the tables in the Temple that made the Pharisees decide to have Jesus crucified. So the author(s) of John decided to move the table-turning episode from the end of Jesusʼ ministry to the beginning of Jesusʼ ministry. All so that the Pharisees would decide to have Jesus seized and killed due to the unsettling nature of the stunning new resurrection miracle that only appears in the last Gospel.
The moving of Jesusʼ “table-turning” episode from the end of all of the earlier Gospels to the beginning of the last written Gospel makes it appear quite obvious that it was now necessary to make room at the end of their Gospel to display the totally new miracle and make it the new reason why the Pharisees decided to seize and crucify Jesus.
This new resurrection story is also featured in the same late Gospel that concentrates on seven miraculous signs in Jesusʼ ministry, the Lazarus miracle being used to illustrate that Jesus was “the resurrection and the life.” The author has Jesus speak those very words, along with a lot of “I ams,” one after each miraculous sign. How unlike the Jesus who is portrayed in the earlier three Gospels, who asked his disciples not to tell anyone he was the Messiah, and who did not speak in such an “I am” manner even after healing people, performing exorcisms, or raising the synagogue rulerʼs daughter who was “at the point of death” (in Markʼs version) or who had “just died” (per Matthewʼs version).
The Gospel of John is primarily a theological creation. It does not begin with the words of Jesus, but with the authorʼs own theological claim about Jesusʼ identity (“In the beginning was the Word...”) Also in the first chapter the author has John the Baptist state twice (“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,” and, “Behold the Lamb of God” John 1:29,36), and has Jesus die at the same moment as the Passover lambs are being slaughtered. But no such words are spoken by John the Baptist in any of the earlier Gospels, nor is Jesus sacrificed on the same day as the lambs in the earlier Gospels. In fact in the Gospel of John the last meal of Jesus was simply an “evening meal” while Passover was approaching.
The Gospel of John is also the only one that includes Jesusʼ long-winded prayer in the garden, allegedly spoken on the eve of his death. Keeping in mind that the latter prayer was uttered only once in Jesusʼ life, and while the apostles were all asleep, or at least falling in and out of sleep, it seems quite a feat to be able to recall and later write down all twenty-six verses of it (chapter 17). The Gospel of John also contains a long sermon by John the Baptist, but it sounds more like the authorʼs introduction to the Gospel than any of the Baptistʼs spoken words in the three earlier Gospels. Scholars also point out that for a work traditionally assigned to “John the apostle” itʼs odd that it fails to include any mention of “the transfiguration,” an event that only John and two other apostles allegedly witnessed according to the earlier three Gospels. Lastly, the Gospel of John ends by stating that it was written “that ye may believe.” How objective could such a work be?
Timʼs fifth example involves the ending of the Gospel of John wherein is found a scene thatʼs indebted to something in an earlier Gospel, Matthew. No mystery there, not when you consider the chronological order.
Timʼs sixth example involves Jesusʼ response to Pilateʼs question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” and Jesusʼ reply, “You have said it.” After which the Gospel of Luke says that Pilate “released him.” Tim says that “You said it,” is like the English idiom, “You said it yourself.” Though the latest Anchor Bible commentary on Mark translates Jesusʼ response as “You are saying it,” and the commentator adds that such a phrase “merely shifts the responsibility for a positive evaluation of Jesusʼ kingship onto Pilate” (as pointed out in the New Anchor Bible Yale Commentary on Mark by Joel Marcus). Tim wonders why Pilate would release anyone who admitted he was “a king.” Though it would actually have to be Pilate admitting Jesus was a king. At any rate, Tim then reads some passages from the last written Gospel, John, to compare them with Lukeʼs, and Tim says the passages in John “explain” the Luke, because John has Jesus explain to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world.” So Tim thinks John explains Luke as an “undesigned coincidence” demonstrating separate eyewitness testimony.
But, aside from the fact that no apostles are recorded as being there to hear any of these alleged conversations. And aside from the fact that the stories we have about Jesusʼ trial before Pilate were all composed by Christians who DID believe Jesus to be the king of the Jews, itʼs not surprising that such a scene exists in the Gospels.
And Tim leaves out the fact that the Jews are the ones bringing Jesus to Pilate, probably already bruised and bound, in a position of impotence, the exact opposite of the unfettered power associated with kingship, and the Jews are the ones accusing Jesus of claiming to be “a king.” So the irony is in the Jews turning in one of their own bound and bruised and making all manner of accusations against him. In other words, Pilate is depicted as being baited by the Jews to kill one of their own, probably an amusing situation when you consider the essence of the scene. Matthew follows the Markan version closely and fills in the essence of the scene a bit more, adding, “For he [Pilate] knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.”
The question is, do we have to look forward in time to the Gospel of John (per McGrew) to explain why the earlier Gospel of Luke said Pilate found Jesus “innocent?” Or should we perhaps look backward in time to the earlier Gospel, Mark, for a reason why Luke summarized the scene as one in which Pilate found Jesus “innocent?” I think Marcan priority explains Lukeʼs mention of “innocence” better than later Johnnine literary additions to the story.
In Mark, “The chief priests accused him [Jesus] of many things. So again Pilate asked him, ‘Arenʼt you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.’ But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.” There is nothing in Mark, the earliest Gospel, about Pilate finding Jesus “innocent.” Mark only stresses that “Jesus still made no reply.” And Pilate was “amazed” enough to give the people a chance to set Jesus free since it was supposedly part of the Passover festivalʼs regular practice that Pilate would agree to free one prisoner to the people. [Was there ever such a practice? How much of that tale is historical and how much legendary?]
So we have in the earliest Gospel no mention of Pilate finding Jesus “innocent,” we have only “amazement” at Jesusʼ “not replying” to all the accusations being made against him.
Later, in Matthew we have what Mark wrote plus this, “For he [Pilate] knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.”
Only in Luke do we finally have the claim that Pilate found Jesus “innocent.”
And then by the time the Gospel of John was written the story grew to a conversation between Pilate and Jesus:
“Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’ ‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied, ‘Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’ Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’ ‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’”
The chronological development of the story of Jesusʼ trial before Pilate from Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, as I have pointed out above, has all the marks of the ring of fiction, not truth.
For more info see Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite by L. Michael White (Chair in Classics and Christian Origins and director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin). It covers a host of essential topics. And click here for additional works that intelligent Christians ought to read.