Review of ‘Hidden in Plain View’ by Lydia McGrew


Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (Chillicothe, Ohio: DeWard, 2017).

Are the Gospels and the Book of Acts historically reliable? Its authors certainly thought so.

For example, Luke stated that his Gospel narrated “things … handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:1–2). Far from taking this eyewitnesses testimony for granted, however, he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning … so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3–4).

Similarly, John’s Gospel ends with these words from its final editors: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). The “disciple” was an eyewitness, in other words, and his unnamed editors (“we”) vouched for his testimony. As in Luke, the purpose of the goal of this testimony was faith: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

In the modern era, skeptical Bible critics have challenged the historical reliability of the first five books of the New Testament. They allege that contradictions both within and between the Gospels and Acts — and what is known about the time from external sources — call the plot of New Testament history into question. The defense of the New Testament’s historical reliability has thus revolved around demonstrating that its accounts of Jesus’ life and of the history of the Early Church are internally coherent and externally corroborated by known facts.

Lydia McGrew offers a third line of defense in her new book, Hidden in Plain View. According to her, “undesigned coincidences” in the Gospels and Acts suggest that the events they report are historically accurate because they rest on eyewitness testimony. She defines undesigned coincidences this way:

An undesigned coincidence is a notable connection between two or more accounts or texts that doesn’t seem to have been planned by the person or people giving the accounts. Despite their apparent independence, the items fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

McGrew outlines 47 such coincidences in the book. For brevity’s sake, let me focus on just one. Each of the Synoptic Gospels offers a list of the 12 apostles: Matthew 10:2–4; Mark 3:16–19; and Luke 6:14–16. These lists differ in some details, especially the order in which the writers present Andrew’s, Matthew’s, and Thaddeus’ names. And while Matthew and Mark refer to one disciple as Thaddeus, Luke refers to him as Judas, even though they’re most likely the same person.

The most interesting difference between these lists is grammatical. Mark and Luke connect each name using the Greek conjunction kai (“and”). So, “Simon and James and John and Andrew, etc.” in Mark and “Simon and Andrew and James and John, etc.” in Luke. This emphasizes the disciples as individuals. Matthew, on the other hand, uses kai to connect six sets of names. So, “Simon and Andrew, James and John, etc.” This emphasizes the disciples as pairs.

Matthew doesn’t explain why he lists the disciples as pairs, but Mark 6:7 offers a plausible suggestion: “Calling the Twelve to him, [Jesus] began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.” In other words, Matthew’s list most likely reflects the pairs of apostles that Jesus sent out in ministry, a pairing that only Mark mentions in an unrelated passage. We need both Gospels to see the whole picture.

Admittedly, this is a small detail. The historical reliability of the New Testament does not depend on this one undesigned coincidence. Still, the undesigned coincidences pile up, as McGrew demonstrates in her book. They revolve around incidental details, which suggests that they are not the results of a hoax, since hoaxers wouldn’t be so subtle. And while, theoretically, one could argue that such coincidences really are the result of pure luck, only the foolish gambler would place money on that table.

No, undesigned coincidences, taken cumulatively, suggest that the accounts of events in the Gospels and Acts have the ring of truth. They agree, not because a trickster designed them to agree (hoax) or because they just happen to agree (luck), but because they reflect the testimony of people who were there and whose reports of detail have made their way into the published narratives.

The argument from undesigned coincidences thus adds a third line of argument to those who would defend the Bible’s historical reliability: coherence, corroboration and coincidence. This third line of argument is not new, interestingly enough. It was pioneered in the 19th century by British apologists such as William Paley and J. J. Blunt. Lydia McGrew is to be congratulated for reviving it for use against the skeptical arguments of our day.

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

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The World Wide (Religious) Web for Thursday, May 12, 2011


What is the gospel? Dallas Willard’s answer: “How to get into heaven before you die.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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A Leap of Truth explores the relationship between Christian theology and evolutionary theory.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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Allen C. Guelzo asks, “Whither the Evangelical Colleges?” Hunter Baker replies with a thither.

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“Presbyterian Church to ordain gays as ministers.” The Rev. Dr. Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister, considers this a “moral awakening.”Mark Chaves, a sociologist of religion at Duke University, comments: “They’re making this change amid a larger cultural change. General public opinion on gay rights is trending pretty dramatically in the liberal direction.” On a (cor)related (but not necessarily caused) note, mainline church attendance is tanking. Perhaps this illustrates the truth of W. R. Inge’s comment that those who marry the spirit of the age will find themselves a widower in the next.

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“Catholic Church should reverse opposition to in vitro fertilization.” What’s interesting about this story is that the author, Sean Savage, and his wife, Carolyn, used IVF. Due to a lab mistake, she was implanted with the wrong embryo. Incredibly, she not only gave birth to the child but also gave the boy back to his biological parents. Sean and Carolyn tell their story in Inconceivable: A Medical Mistake, the Baby We Couldn’t Keep, and Our Choice to Deliver the Ultimate Gift.

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Robert H. Gundry on “The Hopelessness of the Unevangelized.”

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Just what we need: Yet another English translation of the Bible. And does anyone else find it odd that a graduate school—my alma mater—prefers a translation “written at the seventh or eighth grade reading level”?

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“Scientology in Illinois’ public schools?” Only in Springfield would L. Ron Hubbard and Bart Simpson make common cause.

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“Adolescents, Identity and Spirituality.” Something for parents to keep in mind:

While adolescents may question or review their spirituality, it remains a critical aspect of adolescent stability. While research on spirituality and adolescence is limited, studies of religiosity have found a positive correlation with an adolescent sense of well-being, positive life attitudes, altruism, resiliency, school success, health and positive identity, as well as a negative correlation with alcohol and drug use, delinquency, depression, excessive risk-taking and early sexual activity.

In short, as adolescents develop, they will need to confront their own spirituality and incorporate it into their sense of identity. Continuing the dialog while respecting that process and acknowledging the quest may be difficult. Yet it really remains the only option.

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Is Buddhist pacifism a Western myth?

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Over at Patheos.com, J. E. Dyer pens these words in “Social Conservatism and the Quality of Mercy”:

The moral horizon of our society has been narrowing for some time to a closed equation featuring selfish vindication and death, and it is this process that only God and His concept of mercy can reverse. If Christians are “salt and light” in the earth, as Jesus said we would be, then we cannot do better, in the project of propagating God’s mercy, than to start by absorbing its meaning ourselves.

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“Black Preacher: Why I forgave George Wallace”: Because George Wallace needed forgiveness? According to the Rev. Kelvin Croom, “If a lot of us would forgive people, we could find healing. We could find peace.” Another path to peace would be if a lot of us would repent of our sins against others.

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A little bit of philosophical theology in closing: How do we reconcile the social ought with the personal good? Thaddeus J. Kozinski answers:

The phenomenological dialectic of right and good could be resolved if we could understand what is at the heart of human moral experience; but to understand this heart, we require more than what, unaided, human moral experience and purely philosophical speculation on this experience can provide. My argument for this conclusion is thus: What the duty aspect of moral experience suggests is the reality of justice, which is inherently relational and thus irreducible to any interpretation of morality as mere personal fulfillment. What the happiness aspect of moral experience suggests is the reality of desirefor-the-good, which is inherently personal and thus irreducible to an interpretation of morality as mere social or divine obligation. So, any explanation of the moral ought must include both others-related justice and self-related desire, and this is precisely what is provided by a theological ethics of creation and gift: If we are creatures, then we are inherently relational, with any actions related, above all, to our creator; and if creation is a gift, then we are supposed to enjoy creation as a good. And if God Himself, in essence, is a relation of three persons eternally bestowing upon each other and enjoying each other’s perfect divine goodness—God giving and receiving Himself—and if humans are made in the image and likeness of this Trinitarian gift-friendship, then we have the definitive—though still inexhaustibly mysterious—archetype in which the paradoxical human experience of simultaneous goodness and oughtness can ultimately be resolved.

You might also want to check out Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality by David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls.

The Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-11)


First Corinthians 15:1-11 reveals the necessity, nature, and effectiveness of the gospel. The Corinthians desperately needed to hear about all three things, because they were in danger of turning away from the faith. Let us consider each in turn.

The gospel is necessary for our salvation: “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.” We live in a day and time in which the objective content of Christianity is downplayed in favor of its subjective experiences. Doctrine, we are led to believe, is unimportant. What matters are feelings of wonder, joy, and love, and actions that treat our neighbors with tolerance, respect, and fairness. But, I think we must ask: Wonder at what? Joy for what reason? Love for whom? And why should we treat our neighbors well when they so often treat us badly? The objective content of Christianity explains its subjective experiences and motivations for ethical behavior. You cannot have one without the other. And so Paul urged the Corinthians to believe the gospel, not merely to feel spiritually or act morally.

Verses 3-8 delineate the content of the gospel: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Christians believe much more than this, of course, but they can never believe anything less. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are the whole point of Christianity. The Corinthians, it seems, thought they could get along just fine without a belief in the resurrection, however, so in the rest of chapter 15, Paul argues for the futility of their position. Here, though, he emphasizes one major point. The content of the gospel is not the fanciful product of a make-believe mind. It is a tradition, a valuable belief handed down from one generation to the next. It happened “according to the Scriptures,” that is, in accordance with prophecies written beforehand. And it was certified to be true by numerous witnesses, including, last of all, Paul himself.

And that brings us to the final point, namely, the effectiveness of the gospel. “Christ died for our sins,” Paul writes. In other words, he died because of our sins and in order to release us from our sins. Christ is both our substitute in the dock of divine justice as well as the guarantor of our holy life. And yet, it is all too possible that the objective content of the Christian gospel may fail to alter our subjective experience. Many people, after all, believe many things that make not one whit of difference in the way they live. For Paul, however, the change was immediate and obvious: “I persecuted the church of God But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” In one blinding moment on the road to Damascus, God transformed Paul from an enemy of Christianity to its greatest evangelist.

God’s power to transform lives is available to us today if only we believe the gospel.

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