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Undesigned coincidence: A sword shall pierce through thine own soul also

As we have discussed several times in threads here at W4, the infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew come in for a lot of unnecessary doubt from New Testament scholars. Michael Licona has even suggested that whatever is not overlapping in Luke and Matthew might be a "midrash" (aka made up), an embellishment on the far more minimal facts that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of a virgin named Mary espoused to Joseph. The many other facts reported in both Gospels may have been added, he suggests, to "create a more interesting narrative."

At the same time, the Gospel of John is also treated as some kind of a "problem child" for the historicity of the Gospels, because Jesus allegedly "sounds so different" in John and in the synoptic Gospels. But the difference between the presentation of Jesus in John and in the synoptic Gospels is overestimated by critical scholars.

Recently, Esteemed Husband was reading some passages to me from one of those neglected old books: Stanley Leathes, The Witness of St. John to Christ (1870). There are about twenty pages in this book (pp. 300ff) showing parallels between Jesus' manner, his methods, his ways of speaking, his personality, etc., in John and in the synoptic Gospels. It should be required reading for all seminarians, apologetics students, and others interested in New Testament studies. Some of the things Leathes mentions are also discussed in a useful blog post by NT scholar Rob Bowman, here, but Leathes has much more.

Leathes does not refer to what I'm going to discuss here as an undesigned coincidence, but it comes up in one of his parallels between John and the synoptic Gospels. It thus serves as a twofer, providing evidence against the idea that Luke made up the unique portion of his infancy narrative as mere imaginative embellishment and against the idea that John used "creative artistry" concerning Jesus' crucifixion.

Jesus' presentation in the Temple is unique to Luke. It contains the prophecies uttered by Simeon and the praise of Anna. Simeon and Anna are two elderly people who have been waiting for years in the Temple precincts in the hopes of seeing the Messiah. They both believe that the infant Jesus is the fulfillment of their hopes. Simeon utters the nunc dimittis, which is now a standard part of the liturgy:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. Luke 2:29-32

Simeon turns to Mary, Jesus' mother, and utters the following prophecy:

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35)

Iconography and hymnody (e.g., the Stabat Mater) have memorialized this prophecy and have connected it, quite understandably, with Mary's presence at the foot of the cross.

It is, in fact, the only intimation of suffering anywhere in Luke's infancy narrative. As I pointed out here, the angel Gabriel's glorious prophecies at the annunciation that the child will reign on the throne of David argue for the faithful reproduction in Luke of authentic information concerning the Annunciation. For if the story were embellished, one would expect the prophecy of the angel to be more muted in the light of hindsight--less Jewish, in fact. As it stands, it would certainly lead Jesus' mother to expect only a grand, successful future for her son. Something similar can be said of the Song of Zechariah, which could readily be taken to imply that John the Baptist will usher in a time of peace and safety for his people the Jews. Of course, this did not occur.

The one tiny hint that there might be sorrow in the future comes in the cryptic words of Simeon to Mary--"A sword shall pierce through thine own soul also." But what does this mean?

It would be easy to overlook the fact that Luke does not record Mary's presence at the cross. This is all the more remarkable since Luke seems particularly interested in the perspectives of certain women. It is Luke alone who lists the names of the women who followed Jesus out of Galilee (Luke 8:2-3). Luke alone mentions Joanna in connection with the resurrection (Luke 24:10), and he talks about a larger number of women who went to the tomb than are mentioned by any other evangelist. Only Luke tells the story of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet (Luke 7). But Luke either was not aware or chose not to mention that Jesus' mother was present at the cross.

If we take Luke by itself, the prophecy of Simeon is left hanging out in the wind, with no clear fulfillment. Later, in Acts 1 and 2, we learn that Mary was still alive after Jesus' ascension, for Luke mentions her presence with the disciples praying before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So Luke apparently knew that Mary lived through the time of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. But this is quite indirect. Luke certainly does not emphasize any fulfillment of Simeon's prophecy of her sorrow.

If Luke wrote the story of the presentation in the Temple as a pious embellishment on a much more meager handful of known facts, then presumably he made up Simeon's prophecy to foreshadow Jesus' death. But one wonders in that case why he would not even have mentioned Mary's presence at the foot of the cross, and perhaps even emphasized it in some way that would draw attention to his own cleverness in putting these ominous words into Simeon's mouth. Suppose that we take it that Mary was present at the cross; Luke might have conjectured as much even if he didn't know it for sure. That Luke should leave out a true and antecedently plausible fact that would serve to make a nice literary pattern with an invention of his own in the infancy narrative would be very odd. Is Luke a restrained, understated author who doesn't take even minimal trouble to fill out his literary patterns, or is he a "midrashic" embellisher who adds plenty of non-factual material to "make a more interesting story"? The critic can't have it both ways.

On John's side, we can say with confidence that, at least, he did not add Mary's presence at the cross in order to fulfill the prophecy in Luke, since he does not report that prophecy. John may have had access (I tend to think he did have access) to Luke's Gospel, but in the many coincidences he shares with Luke he seems to take no trouble to include both sides of the story. Here, John explains Luke, by including Mary among those at the foot of the cross, but he does so casually, as always, with no appearance of attempting to explain anything. We might even say that John reports Mary's presence at the cross because he knew and remembered it vividly, because he (as the Beloved Disciple) was there, and because Mary was committed to his care, and he took her to his own home, just as the Gospel reports.

It is a sign of the poverty of critical theoretical methods that critical scholars are incapable of recognizing the unstudied accuracy of the evangelists.

Comments (14)

Lydia: Excellent, as usual. I wish my feeble mind could store all these details. A few is all I have. But your work to encourage respect and reliability for Scripture is truly the Lord's work.

Thank you, Paul. They are great fun to notice, and what I hope to encourage is a real-world imagination in thinking about the events of Scripture. Such an imagination is a great inoculation against the vagaries of scholars and is worthy more than rubies.

Would it be overly nasty to suggest that these biblical scholars pretty much just 'make it up as they go along', using literary devices, compression, time-lapse photography, brownian motion, fictionalization, and mirashes in their explication of the texts? No, I don't mean asserting all these things are in the text, I mean using these to create 'meaning' out of whole cloth.

I'm not sure if this is the same thing as what you're saying, but here's what I do think: The methodology of redaction criticism (in particular) and also form criticism has become fairly *fixed* over the last century or two. It is *highly* creative (to put it kindly) and proceeds on a host of invidious assumptions against the normal reliability of the texts. These assumptions include unstated things such as, "Nobody ever just varies wording in a casual way. It's always done in a deliberate, redactive way." "Nobody ever remembers things somewhat differently but reliably." "Differences are always a Problem in and of themselves and an opportunity for redactive theorizing." "These authors were *not* close up to the facts." "Everybody was either redacting Mark or an 'earlier tradition' often much like Mark."

And so forth.

Then what happens is that, in different generations, and especially in the evangelical world, different scholars come along with various *labels* that are meant to sound technical and that the scholars themselves really believe represent new technical discoveries in the field. But when one looks at the results of these "new discoveries," one just finds the same old thing--the invidious redactive assumptions, the highly creative re-interpretations, etc.--looking up from the bottom of the beer mug. Yet new generations of scholars, wanting to revere properly those whom they have previously learned to respect, will be led astray thinking that so-and-so has discovered some new *fact* about the Gospels that opens up our understanding in a new way. In the 1980s it was Robert Gundry with his "midrash" interpretation of Matthew. It was just old-style tendenzkritik on steroids. But by giving it a Jewish name, Gundry made it sound like he had made a new discovery, and he believed that he had.

In that generation, Gundry didn't get terribly far. He was drummed out of that ETS, despite complaints that this was "mean." But his ouster left a bad taste in other people's mouths and left a political role for someone else to step into as the "persecuted evangelical discoverer of a new insight on the gospels." That role is now being filled by Michael Licona with his particular use of the "Greco-Roman bioi" genre, a genre designation that (most ironically) was earlier suggested to expectations by evangelicals that it would *bolster* our appreciation for the literal historicity of the Gospels.

Licona's work is proving more popular (I believe) among young evangelicals than Gundry's did, perhaps because of the Internet and partly because Licona had already built up a reputation as, specifically, an apologist and defender of the faith in a career as a debater.

Once again, as I think you are suggesting, the *terminology* (compositional devices, etc.) is just being pasted down over the same-old, same-old--the invidious redaction criticism with all of its unjustified assumptions about the origin of the documents, all of its preferences for complex over simple hypotheses, etc. Indeed, it's interesting to notice how often in Licona's book he doesn't even bother to find a name from one of his "compositional devices" for a particular crazy theory he is considering. For example, it would be difficult to find any of his "Plutarchan" names to fit over top of the theory that Matthew made up an extra demoniac in one story to "compensate" for not telling a different story in Mark about an exorcism! I don't think Licona *ever* attributes something like that to Plutarch. But by that time we're just doing the usual free-association redaction-critical stuff under the *broad* excuse that the "genre" of the documents licenses it. And the same is true for several of his other suggestions. For example, the idea he got from Dan Wallace that John invented "I thirst" as a substitute for "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" doesn't fit well with any particular allegedly "Plutarchan compositional device," unless (which he might try to do) one is just going to streeeeetttttch the term "paraphrase" to cover it and pretend that there is something special about "bioi" that makes it okay to "paraphrase" in this bold, new sense of the word. But again, that theory was just borrowed from Wallace. The most that Wallace did in the paper it came from was to wave his hand in the direction of the vague claim that older people didn't care as much as we do about getting things precisely right! It's not like he even *tries* to do the kind of highly *specific* work that Licona claims to do in identifying specific "compositional devices." But once having loosened one's own, and one's readers', grip upon the prima facie historicity of the text, one's hypotheses can just range far and wide, and Licona simply lifts this one (about "I thirst") wholesale from Wallace without bothering to find any specific "Plutarchan" parallel even to allege.

In other words, it's all just in its function a license for running more often with the Big Dogs--i.e., the liberal New Testament scholars. I'm not saying these evangelicals *recognize* that that is what it is, nor that they *consciously* set out with that motive. I truly believe many of them, including Licona, are sincerely mentally captive to a theory. (And there is nothing harder to move than a man who has been captivated by a Theory of Everything and thinks that he has seen the light. He finds "confirmations" everywhere.) But functionally, that's what it is. This is borne out again and again by the strange coincidence that the content of their theories is just "creative" redaction criticism and making stuff up about the documents, as that criticism has always been.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Yes, the idea that Jesus was pierced could come from the earlier Lukan Gospel and have been built up into a literal piercing in John, the only Gospel that mentions Jesus having been pierced. Also note this trajectory or story development over time:

In Mark, ostensibly the earliest, the story goes that the disciples ‘all left him and fled’ in the garden. A young man following Jesusʼ captors was seized and escaped naked. Peter is afraid to admit to knowing Jesus. While at Jesusʼ crucifixion, only women are mentioned, and only looking on from afar, ‘There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Mag'dalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salo'me, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.’

In Matthew, ‘all the disciples left him and fled,’ adding at the crucifixion that ‘There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; among whom were Mary Mag'dalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zeb'edee.’

Luke is the first to omit that the disciples all fled at Jesusʼ arrest. And like the Mark and Matthew adds, ‘There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Mag'dalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salo'me, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.’

Note that the Synoptics all mention women looking on, but only from afar, and no mention of Jesus’ mother Mary being there. This makes sense in light of Markan priority and Mark’s less than close relationship between Jesus and his mother (who apparently feared Jesus might not be in his right mind per another story in Mark). Mark also lacked a nativity narrative and hence presents no evidence that Jesus’ mother believed he was special.

In John, the story begins with a close relationship between Jesus and his mother, even a conversation about “his time coming,” since she is depicted as asking Jesus to perform his first miracle as a sort of favor to her, a miracle not mentioned in the Synoptics. Thus, the stage is set for Mary to reappear later in John, unlike the Synoptics. Also, unlike the Synoptics, none of the disciples are shown fleeing at Jesus’ arrest, and in fact John displays Jesus in such control of the situation at his arrest that ‘When he said to them, "I am he," they drew back [a heap of soldiers]and fell to the ground.’ So, no fleeing, making it possible for the believe disciple to show up at the crucifixion, and even show up nea the cross. In John the women are no longer watching the crucifixion ‘at a distance’ as in Mark and Matthew, but ‘they were standing by the cross of Jesus,’ and now there is also at least one male disciple with them: ‘But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Mag'dalene.’

Correction to my comment above. The Synoptics could definitely have in mind that Mary, Jesus’ mother was at his crucifixion, since “Mary the mother of James and Joses/Joseph” could most likely be the mother of Jesus per Mark, who mentions that Jesus had “brothers named James and Joseph as well at Judas and Simon, and sisters too.” Though Catholics might not be convinced since they argue that Jesus’ mother had no further children after Jesus, and that the phrase “brothers” wasn’t to be taken literally but had a broader range of meaning. Either way, the main points of the trajectory mentioned above seem obvious.

Added thought, the author of the fourth Gospel seems to use the term brothers and disciples interchangeably in this passage:

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

And in the fourth gospel at the cross it almost looks like Jesus’ mother didn’t have any literal sons to take care of her, so Jesus had to assign the beloved disciple as her new Son to take care of her since Jesus was dying.

All together, it looks like the fourth Gospel, especially with its unique new tale of the raising of someone dead for days, someone besides Jesus, and with its ending hinting at loads of more things Jesus did, was probably composed on the cusp of plenty of new tales Christians were coming up with about Jesus, Thomas, Mary, etc.

I think that "Mary the mother of James and Joses" wasn't meant to indicate Mary the mother of Jesus. There were a lot of Marys floating around, but that would be an incredibly roundabout way to indicate Jesus' mother. I say this as a Protestant. I think Jesus had literal brothers. I just don't think Mary, Jesus' mother, was intended by "Mary the mother of James and Joses."

As for the idea that somehow John "developed" the idea that *Jesus* was pierced from the prophecy in Luke that *Mary's* soul would be pierced, that's the usual redactive critical garbage that any sensible person should reject. The two statements aren't even saying the same thing.

It's very interesting that the Gospel of John leaves so much out if it was all about "all these new stories" being developed. For example, no remote attempt to show Jesus' first, private meeting after the resurrection with Peter (mentioned in Luke). No attempt to represent Jesus' meeting with James his brother (mentioned in I Corinthians, which was already available).

Other than that, as is my usual practice, I won't be responding in detail to Ed Babinski.

I was thinking a bit about those last comments. It seems to me that some oversimplified sceptical principles can be given regarding hermeneutics of the gospels.

If a gospel author has somethimg unique in his account, he made it up (or took it from a made up tradition). If he has something that can be found in the other gospels, than he took it from them (depending on cronological priority). And if something seems to be an undesigned coincidence, it is probably designed bazed on other gospel accounts.

Now, those same principles, in my humble opinion, when applied with qualification to documents on other hitorical isses would yeald to a denial of objective historicity of any historical event or issue whatsoever. It seems to me that this leads to a fall into general historical scepticism, but maybe I am wrong.

Well, maybe I have missed something, as I said that this is an oversimplified view, but I think that is the usual sceptical "mantra".

Yes, especially given the improbability that an undesigned coincidence was deliberately designed in so hidden a way that nobody noticed it for about 2,000 years. Designers are usually more obvious than that.

One thing I always found curious is that scholars generally seem to agree that the last 12 verses of Mark were not original and were added sometime in the early 2nd century - well after all of the Gospels had been completed. Yet many of these same scholars also claim that all of the evangelists subsequent to Mark embellished his original. But if that were the case, why is the "longer ending" of Mark so plain and simple compared to the rest of the Gospels? Wouldn't the early 2nd century have allowed another 40-50 years after John to develop and add more exciting details to Mark?

Dr. McGrew, I just finished (and enjoyed and learned very much from) your book on Undesigned Coincidences. The mention of Rufus in Mark and Romans was interesting to ponder: if indeed Romans refers to the same Rufus as in Mark, it is curious that Alexander is NOT mentioned in Romans. Perhaps he had passed on by then, or fallen away otherwise. But since only Rufus is greeted in Romans, and not Alexander as well, that could possibly point to a writing of Mark prior to 58AD (or so) when Romans is most generally regarded to have been written. A big "if" but perhaps a possibility.

Or it could simply mean that Paul was better acquainted with Rufus or that Alexander was not living in Rome at that time and that Paul knew that he was not there. Lots of possibilities.

An interesting point concerning the long ending of Mark. It is fairly restrained, I agree. More or less a compendium of the earlier appearance accounts. There are some unique things, such as Jesus' words about handling serpents. One could argue that, if it was a replacement for a lost original ending, the intent would have been to remain quite close to the other Gospels.

But I see your point that even *that* intent shows a greater respect for earlier tradition than what is commonly attributed to Matthew, John, and Luke themselves.

I remember even as a kid, thinking that that 'oddities' in Mark's long ending were just descriptive, rather than prescriptive. The only reason to be embarrassed by them is from a cessationist perspective. Per D. Wallace et al. there are excellent text-critical reasons to scrap the long ending. Doesn't matter to me either way. If it's a later addition, then the 'serpents and poisons' signs are just descriptions of stories the later author had heard about (the snake thing happened to Paul in acts, of course), otherwise, if the ending is original to Mark, then they are simply prophetic of what would happen on occasion, not what believers should habitually do as a religious tradition.

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