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Detecting authenticity in lack of design?


Tim McGrewID friendly philosophers Tim McGrew (of Western Michigan University) and Lydia McGrew offer some thoughts on “undesigned coincidences” as evidence for the reliability of documentary evidence. Using a passage in the Gospel of John, Lydia argues,

… as John is telling the story about the feeding of the five thousand, it would be quite natural for him to say that Jesus asked Philip where they could buy bread if he were really an eyewitness–that is, because he remembered that Jesus did ask Philip. (Tim talks about why it was Philip in the interview.) But John himself might have had to stop and think for a moment if someone had asked him, “Why did Jesus ask Philip rather than any of the other disciples?” Presumably when John told the story, he wasn’t particularly thinking about some special reason for Jesus to select Philip for the question.But if someone were forging the story as fiction, he would have a reason for choosing to use a given disciple as a character at that point in his fictional narrative, and therefore he would be unlikely to choose that character without making the reason clearer to his readers.

Interesting observation. A commenter notes that

… it was my understanding that forgers tried to make their accounts seem as much like genuine accounts as possible. So unless the forgery is incompetent, it should be expected to have the same features you’d expect to find in a genuine account. Skilled liars include details that don’t seem to advance their agendas and exclude details that might support them specifically in order to make their accounts seem less obviously contrived.

The commenter, however, recognizes that the New Testament accounts, which tended to cost the writers – and many of the readers – their lives,- were not likely to be forged, so we can’t use forensic assumptions here.

I can offer a couple of thoughts from the perspective of an editor:
First, incidental details attract the red pen, if only because they are usually messier than the ones offered in the Gospel of John:

Well, see, the accident happened at Lawrence and Avenue Road, there’s a strip mall there on the west side, you know, and a gas station kitty corner so we stopped because, well, Mary and Louise- was it Louise? No, we were going to pick her up. We had Trixie with us because we changed our minds at the last minute about who we … .

This sort of account does not fill one with envy of the life of a traffic officer, but it sounds too disorganized and confused to be inauthentic.

Of course, we might have a reason to think that the speaker is falsely portraying herself as a scatterbrain, to foist on us an inauthentic account. But intent to deceive by pretending to be a scatterbrain is much less common than natural scatterbrainedness, and requires a probable cause. Also it’s a dangerous game to play because the more details you shovel into a false account, the more a single mistake could spell disaster. How about:

“I’m surprised you mentioned that Trixie was present because she died two years ago.”

Not a very likely mistake in an authentic account!

So on the whole, I would assume that the account of the traffic accident is authentic because it is tedious and disorganized, but nonetheless eventually decipherable. And it’s not clear what the speaker would have to gain from sounding so confused, especially if fault is in question.

Having hit Shift, End, Delete, I would render this portion of the account thus:

The driver stopped at a gas station on the southeast corner of Avenue Road and Lawrence Avenue West ….

(At this point, it doesn’t matter who else was in the car. We will come to the passengers’ testimony in a minute.) However, I have now so shorn the account of details that could trip anyone up that it could just as easily be fiction.

Put another way, John would be taking a risk with a made-up account that mentioned Philip if other accounts of Philip’s movements pointed to his not being there.

So the McGrews probably have a point. Comments?

Here’s a radio interview with Tim.

Hat tip: Wintery Knight.

Bruce David, This is really an interesting interview on 'Undesigned Coincidences' with Tim McGrew which really provides airtight rebuttals to your arguments that you have been using trying to undermine the authority of scripture. At approx. the 46 minute mark of the interview they even go into one of your favorite arguments against the accuracy of the Gospel's account of the beginning of Jesus's life, and show that it is indeed historically accurate. here is the link: http://evidence4faith.com/ bornagain77

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