The argument from undesigned coincidences

Hi friends,

Are you familiar with the argument from undesigned coincidences?

An undesigned coincidence is a phenomenon in which two or more seemingly unrelated events or statements in the text are shown to be connected in a way that cannot be explained by chance. William Paley was a British philosopher and theologian who is best known for his book “Natural Theology,” published in 1802, in which he proposed the concept of undesigned coincidences as evidence for the authenticity and reliability of the New Testament.

Dr. Jonathan McLatchie highlights some of these undesigned coincidences at his website.. For instance:

Question: Why, in the Gospel of John, chapter 6, does Jesus rely on Philip and Andrew for help with the feeding of the 5,000?

Answer: In John, chapters 1 and 12, we learn they are from Bethsaida. And in Luke 9, we learn that this miracle took place in Bethsaida. However, Luke doesn’t mention Philip or Andrew’s involvement in the miracle.

Question: Why did Barnabas want to take Mark on a missionary journey even though Paul disagreed with him?

Answer: In Colossians 4:10, Paul tells us that Mark is the cousin of Barnabas.

One argument against the concept of undesigned coincidences is that they are not truly coincidences at all, but rather the result of the authors of the New Testament having access to the same information and using it to create their accounts. In other words, the apparent connections between seemingly unrelated events or statements in the text may not be the result of chance, but rather the result of the authors drawing on the same sources or traditions. That is, the accounts are not truly independent but rather depend upon a shared source.

Another argument against undesigned coincidences is that they do not provide conclusive evidence for the authenticity and reliability of the New Testament. While the connections between seemingly unrelated events or statements in the text may be interesting and noteworthy, they do not necessarily prove that the accounts are accurate or that the events actually occurred. That is, these convergences are insufficient to establish that these documents are accurate.

Additionally, some critics have argued that the concept of undesigned coincidences is based on the assumption that the authors of the New Testament were not aware of the connections between the events or statements that they were describing. This assumption may not be true, and it is possible that the authors intentionally included these connections in order to create a more compelling narrative. However, it is unclear what would motivate such a conspiracy.

Overall, while the concept of undesigned coincidences may provide some support for the authenticity and reliability of the New Testament, it is not without its flaws and limitations. It’s important we don’t overstate the case.

Still, I find McLatchie’s summary of the case to be helpful:

The examples surveyed above represent only the very tip of the ice berg. For the book of Acts alone, if we were to limit our analysis to the first four Pauline epistles found in the New Testament (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians), already more than forty examples of undesigned coincidences could be documented. Furthermore, over one hundred points of corroboration involving Acts and external secular sources could be marshalled. There are also numerous examples of internal and external coincidences that corroborate the gospel accounts. Cumulatively, the evidence indicates that the authors of the gospels and Acts are indeed close up to the facts, and that they have reliable access to information concerning the events of which they write.


This is an interesting topic for me which I’ve only recently started thinking about, but my recent studies in the Gospel of Mark have highlighted a number of undesigned coincidences.

I’m wondering if the list of disciples in various gospels counts as an undesigned coincidence? Mark 3:16-19 lists them as: Simon (named Peter), James & John, Andrew, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, andJudas Iscariot. Luke 6:14-16 lists nearly all the same, except that instead of naming Thaddeus, it mentions Judas the son of James.

A critic might say that Mark and Luke list different names showing that they’re unreliable sources, until further research shows that it was common for people to have their Hebrew name and then perhaps a Greek version that was used in certain circumstances. Thaddeus is the Hebrew informal version of Judas (son of James) which Mark likely did to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot. Instead of this being a weak point of the reliability of the Gospels, it actually increases historicity because it reflects the local name customs at the time.

John 14:22 corroborates this idea of needing to distinguish between the Judases, because he makes sure to emphasise which Judas he’s talking about: Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world? Similar to Mark, Matthew also named him as Thaddeus to ensure this distinction.

Thus, from reading some apparently contradictory names in different gospels and bringing them together, we get a deeper understanding of the local naming customs context, that many would argue gives more credence to the reliability of the gospels.

I’m sure there are better example than this (if this is one) which I’ll need to dig into further before I can share them here.


Yes, I think so! :slight_smile:

Here are two essays I wrote on this:

It’s pretty interesting to see how these lists, though they appear to contradict one another, actually show that the gospel writers had a very in-depth knowledge of how Jesus had organized his apostles.


Oh great, I’ll take a look!

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Hey @Carson, it makes sense that one shouldn’t stake your entire claim of authenticity on this argument alone, but if I understand what you and @Alison are saying, then these undesigned consequences recognize that what may appear to be a contradicting detail on the face actually is the result of two sources that have two different perspectives in terms of language and audience.

This makes me think back to college when I had to find a skeptic’s article and write a theological response to their argument. The article I found was about how Isaiah 44:28; 45:1 mentioned the name of Cyrus and, using Ockham’s Razor as their logical basis, concluded that it proves that these “prophecies” were in fact written after Cyrus invaded Babylon. In my assignment I saw that Cyrus means “possessor of the furnace” in Hebrew and Isaiah, from his perspective, could have been simply describing the one that would restore Israel to Jerusalem and end the exile. Could this be an undesigned consequence from Isaiah’s perspective? Did Isaiah know that he was naming a man 150 years before that man was born or was he just using a word that he thought described the one the Lord was telling him about?

This may not be the best example of the argument but it what the topic made me think of.


Hi @chris,

Yes, that’s the sense of it. But, it can come about in another way. For instance, it can be two details that seem irrelevant to the narrative, or out of place, or unexplained within their own story. But when we bring the two narratives together, these minuscule details fit together just right. It is like police interviewing people at the scene of a crime. One person mentions the assailant was bald. Another person says the assailant was wearing a green hat. A separate police officer finds a green hat on the sidewalk and reports that on their case file notes. Later, one suspect is brought in for questioning and is bald, but insecure about this fact. Separately, they don’t mean much. When you bring them altogether, you start to see corroboration.

I think a prophecy is a more complicated question because it hinges on historical details (e.g., did a post-exilic scribe add Cyrus’ name to the text?)

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I’m not suggesting that this is the solitary argument for the veracity of this prophecy. My question is whether Isaiah knew he was naming a man or describing a position/role in the prophetic narrative. If a role then the coincidence would be that what Isaiah understood as a role ended up being a name.

Like you said though, even if I’m right, we shouldn’t overstate the coincidence as the way to affirm the veracity of prophecy. It would just be another factor to back it up.

Your illustration about the police interviewing different witnesses is exactly what I had in mind. As opposed to every person parroting the exact same talking points causes one to view those talking points with suspicion.


Hi Chris,

Here’s the difference as I see it:
A prophecy is either confirmed/disconfirmed by future events.

If I say, “Thus says the Lord, in 2060, Ukraine will be completely rebuilt, and Идея will lead the nation as President.”

Then we would need to wait until 2060 to see if those facts match what happens.

If we have one newspaper saying, “As of 2060, the U.N. reports that Ukraine is completely rebuilt” and another newspaper saying, “In 2060, Ukranians celebrate the election of Идея” then, we could conclude the prophecy was fulfilled. Given the very precise nature of the prophecy, this would increase confidence in my claim to be delivering a message from God.

But there wouldn’t be any doubt about whether or not those outcomes have happened. We wouldn’t be looking for undesigned coincidences between the news reporting. It’s straightforward: prophecy in 2012, fulfillment in 2060.

(However, since I don’t want to be a false prophet, or misrepresent God, I will make it clear that this is not a prophecy!) :slight_smile:

But undesigned coincidences either confirm/disconfirm the veracity of eyewitness testimony to an event.

It doesn’t seem there is much doubt about whether or not Cyrus the Great lived, and that he allowed the Jews to return to their land.

But there are doubts about whether or not an event describing Jesus multiplying bread and loaves to feed a large crowd could have happened. So by looking at the intimate details of the purported eyewitness testimony, we can see that they dovetail together in a way that bolsters our confidence that they are accurately reporting testimony from the same event.


I had never heard the phrase “argument from undesigned coincidences” before but I get it now and I understand your example about the feeding of the multitude with a few loaves of bread. So I take your response to mean that an argument for undesigned coincidences should only be applied to the intimate details of two, seemingly conflicting, eye witness accounts about an event. While at the same time such an argument should not be leveraged when comparing the prophet’s perspective to the actual fulfillment of that prophet’s word.

So when a skeptic looks at the precision of the prophecy, their view, looking backward in time, is that the name Cyrus could only be added after Cyrus came on the scene. The skeptic doesn’t care if the prophecy agrees with reality because, in their mind, it was fabricated after the fact. And the argument for undesigned coincidences should not be used to reconcile their viewpoint because the fact that Cyrus can have the meaning “possessor of the furnace”.

I’m good if my interpretation aligns with your meaning. Thanks for your help.


Yes, I think we’re on the same page! I am grateful you spoke up because it challenged me to sharpen my thinking and understanding of this issue!