Tim McGrew has asked me to publish his response to Babinski's rebuttal of a sermon he presented in Keener, La. I am linking to Babinski's rebuttal, and you can follow a link he provides to the original sermon.
TM: “When the only tool you have is a hammer,” runs an old saying, “everything looks like a nail.” Ed Babinski’s attempt to address the arguments I raised in a recent sermon provides a striking illustration of the proverb. Ed misunderstands (at best) the nature of the argument I was making, inadvertently illustrates my point in trying to deal with six examples I laid out, and goes off on a variety of tangents about the synoptic problem and the nature of the fourth Gospel. There is in all of this a great deal of sound and fury. But does it signify anything?
At the outset, Ed notes alertly that the synoptic problem is not the subject of my sermon. It is, however, one of Ed’s own personal hobby horses, one that he rides with a frequency and frenzy calculated to attract the unfavorable attention of the SPCA. His reaction to an unfamiliar argument is to leap upon his favorite steed and flog it mercilessly in an effort to keep up. It is hardly surprising that the poor beast collapses under this mistreatment.
The thesis of Marcan priority comes in varieties. At the moderate end of the spectrum it consists in the position that our second gospel was the first of the four to be completed, at least in Greek, and that the authors of the first and third gospels had access of some kind to the text of the second before they wrote up their own gospels. Though one can find qualified people who are unconvinced by the arguments brought forward in its favor, this is the position of a majority of contemporary scholars. It says, in itself, nothing about the authorship of any of the gospels, nothing about the credibility of their writers, and nothing about the factuality of the events they report.
On the other end of the spectrum we have what for lack of a better term we may call the immoderate position. Taken in this sense, Marcan priority is not simply a thesis about the chronological order of the Gospels and the direction, in consequence, of any literary dependence among them. It is, rather, a sweeping thesis about the evolution of the Gospels from the most primitive narrative (which is Mark) to the most spectacular (which is whatever other Gospel one is trying to explain away at any given time). All passages in the other three Gospels are categorized as The Same as Mark or Different from Mark. If they are the same, then they must be simply copying Mark; if they are different, they must be embellishing Mark with pious legend or theological fancy. The idea that they might here or there be providing independent testimony to events mentioned in Mark is peremptorily dismissed when it is noticed at all.
Moderation, in this respect, is not one of Ed’s vices. It is painfully obvious even on a cursory reading of his post that his faith is heavily invested in the immoderate version of Marcan priority. He employs it everywhere, to do everything; it is a universal anti-apologetic prescription. One comes away with the impression that his failure to mention its virtues in getting crab grass out of one’s lawn is a mere inadvertence.
Ed does a pretty good job summarizing the first undesigned coincidence that I note:
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.
Just so. And as I point out explicitly, someone can quibble about the level of strength of this bit, taken by itself. Ed is bolder: eschewing mere quibbling, he complains that I am not talking about the synoptic problem:
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 Mark’s 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?”
Here, then, is Babinski’s alternative explanation: Matthew was trying to copy Mark, but he “sloppily” omitted a detail; Luke copied accurately; hence the coincidence. As I said in my talk, one can try to brazen it out by postulating this sort of thing. It is not the way to bet; it is a little too curious that the item Matthew omits is just the piece we need to explain what he retains. But it is possible. This piece of evidence tips the scales a bit in favor of authenticity and (at this point) independence but not, by itself, dramatically so.
Ed, however, wishes to draw another moral: he takes this coincidence as evidence for his favored resolution of the synoptic problem:
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.
By “built their stories” I take it Ed means “elaborated their stories without any further source of facts.” Well, no. The evidence of the first undesigned coincidence is logically consistent with that view, but it does not sit well with it unless we add the further premises that Matthew was doing nothing but copying Mark and that, in his copying, he was careless enough to omit the relevant detail about the blindfold. And these additional premises have nothing in their favor except the fact that they are necessary to square the data with Ed’s version of Marcan priority.
Here is the second undesigned coincidence, again in Ed’s words:
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 that’s why the sick waited “till evening” to come to Jesus in Matthew’s version.
Right: Mark provides the detail that explains Matthew’s narrative. Ed does not even try to explain this connection, but he does take the opportunity to speak from the heart once again about how this coincidence supports his version of Marcan priority:
Therefore, Matthew assumed Markan priority and the first two examples that McGrew discussed both demonstrate Marcan priority.
Matthew assumed Marcan priority? Come again? Matthew mentions no such thing. This isn’t a response at all. The coincidence exists, and provides evidence that both accounts are truthful and in this respect at least independent, regardless of who wrote first. But for Ed, anything will do as a demonstration of Marcan priority, and it will do as nothing else. Ed offers nothing but chance as an explanation. And chance has less explanatory power here than truth does.
Ed wraps up incongruously:
They demonstrate nothing miraculous.
A careless reader might infer that the point of the argument from undesigned coincidences is to demonstrate the miraculous directly. But of course that is not the point of the argument from undesigned coincidences at all. Its purpose, as I explained quite carefully, is to show that the authors of the gospels know whereof they speak and that they are giving independent testimony to the same actual events.
Having come this far, Ed feels the need to indulge in a bit of psychologizing:
At this point, based on Tim’s 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.
I am tempted, perversely, to pretend that he is right. But that would not be fair. Ed has made no secret of where he is coming from, and I will not do so either. So let me say here explicitly what I said on Monday when I gave an expanded talk on this same material at NOBTS: the interesting thing about this argument is that it is completely independent of the ordering of the synoptics. It matters not one whit whether you take the position of Streeter or of Griesbach or of Wenham or of Lindsey and Bivin. The undesigned coincidences provide evidence for the authenticity of these documents and the veracity of their contents no matter who came first.
We move on now to the third example, and again, I’ll give Ed’s summary:
Tim’s 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 it’s hard to imagine anyone remaining silent about seeing such a miracle. That’s why Tim said Luke’s ending of the story (“they told no one”) made little sense, and why he claimed that by an “undesigned coincidence,” Mark explained Luke, since Mark’s version of the story ends with, “Jesus charged them that they tell no one [until later].”
Well, yes; that is curious, and it does make better sense if the accounts are both truthful and to some degree independent than if one is copied from the other. But Ed sees here—wait for it—nothing but Marcan priority.
But this is not an undesigned coincidence it’s a third example of Marcan priority in action, since Mark was the earlier Gospel and the others followed Mark, sometimes with little explanation.
This is not an argument: it is a bare unargued assertion that the ordering in time eliminates the undesigned coincidence. It does not. Accepting (as I am happy to accept) that Mark wrote before Luke and that Luke was aware of Mark’s gospel and even had read it, it does not follow that Luke simply copied Mark—indeed, he cannot have copied Mark here, nor Matthew either, as neither of them says what he does, nor does he say what they do. An ordinary reader would take this as some evidence of independence, and the fact that Matthew and Mark explain Luke’s comment would make that evidence stronger. But not Ed. Secure in his developmental hypothesis, he does not need to offer any actual argument; it suffices to say that the others followed Mark “sometimes with little explanation.” How they contrive to make Mark explain them, he does not say.
At this point, Ed’s chronic parallelomania is triggered by what really is a bare coincidence. Having noticed that Not Saying Something is a Theme that Reappears in Mark 16:8, he cannot resist trotting out the idea that Mark 16:8 is a clue that nobody really knew about the resurrection and the empty tomb.
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.
Mmm hmm. And “God” spelled backwards is “dog.” Makes you think. Never mind the fact that many scholars hold that the original ending of Mark is lost; never mind the fact that Mark regularly uses “no one ... but” constructions; never mind the fact that the story makes no sense if ended here; never mind the fact that ephobounto gar is deuced awkward as the ending even for a sentence. Why should little things like that get in the way of the grand metanarrative of legendary development, the glorious pottage for which Ed has sold his birthright?
Ed’s description of the fourth undesigned coincidence is disappointingly weak.
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 apostle’s name and some words from “Philip” to the story in Luke.
But this is misguided. John does not say that the feeding of the five thousand took place in Bethsaida—that is, in fact, the whole point of the undesigned coincidence. Having missed the point, Ed hastens to assure his readers (and perhaps himself) that there is nothing to see here:
There is no mystery in that case, just later legendary accretion. The story of the feeding of the five thousand has been embellished.
Funny, that the “embellishment” just happens to have mentioned Philip, and that this dovetails, quite indirectly, with the description in Luke and a detail from the first chapter of John. Ed wants to say that this is just an example of “amalgamating names and details from earlier Gospels in order to create new stories peculiar only to the Gospel of John.” But that sort of undesigned coincidence is precisely the sort of thing that a hypothesis of legendary accretion, amalgamation, and embellishment does not explain.
It does not help to point out, as Ed does, that most scholars agree that the fourth gospel was written after the other three. Yes—but what of it? It does not follow that the author of the fourth gospel had no independent sources of information. We look for the evidence of that independence precisely where one story differs from another. If the new material explains or is explained by some detail in the old, that is a mark of authenticity.
The air now grows thick as Ed drags a couple of his favorite red herrings across our path. I have already engaged a bit with some of these; interested readers may consult the discussion here:
Nothing Ed says has the slightest relevance to the evidence of undesigned coincidences. Most of his substantive claims are false.
Eventually, Ed seems to realize that he has wandered far from the original argument. He does not even bother to summarize the fifth undesigned coincidence from my talk, saying simply that
Tim’s fifth example involves the ending of the Gospel of John wherein is found a scene that’s indebted to something in an earlier Gospel, Matthew. No mystery there, not when you consider the chronological order.
But there is a mystery, for John gives us the same scene (13:31-38), but he does not include, in his own telling of it, the detail required to explain what we find in John 21:15. I cannot tell whether Ed misunderstands this point or is simply deaf to its implications.
Ed’s attempt to explain the sixth undesigned coincidence is not very helpful, so at this point I will give it in more or less the words I used in my talk. Luke 23:1-4 reads:
Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.”
As it stands, this sequence of events is completely baffling. The Jews make a grave accusation, Pilate questions Jesus on this very point, Jesus admits to the charge—and Pilate promptly declares him to be innocent. Ed wants to cast doubt on this characterization by pointing to the Anchor Bible Commentary, where the Greek idiom is treated as more enigmatic. I find more persuasive the arguments that his answer was understood as affirmative, and many translators apparently agree. But for the sake of the undesigned coincidence, it hardly matters; for Jesus to give even a coy and enigmatic answer in response to a charge this direct and grave would hardly be grounds for declaring him to be innocent.
Ed doesn’t even try to deal with the double undesigned coincidence between this scene and the parallel scene in John 18. Instead, he tries to claim that the real explanation for Luke 23:4 can be found by an appeal to—wait for it—Marcan priority. But does this even make sense? Here is Mark’s account of the trial before Pilate (15:1-5):
Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate. “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate. “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.” But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.
Since it is a postulate of Ed’s faith that the roots of the other Gospels must be found in Mark, he feels honor bound to say that this somehow explains the report in Luke that Pilate found Jesus innocent. But how? Ed does not tell us. He notes that Matthew, Luke, and John all have details not found in Mark, but that fact alone provides no traction for the hypothesis of legendary embellishment. Certainly Pilate’s amazement at Jesus’ silence, as recorded in Mark, does not provide nearly as good an explanation either of the fact of Pilate’s saying that he found no guilt in Jesus (if we take Luke’s account to be factual) or of the development of Luke’s story (if we take it to be mere fancy) as John’s account gives.
I also note that Luke supplies a detail missing in John’s account of this same scene, but Ed does not bother to mention it.
It is, I will admit, gratifying to see Ed taking refuge in these sorts of misdirections in an attempt to evade the force of the argument from undesigned coincidences. It suggests that he can find nothing better—that is to say, nothing relevant—to say with respect to the argument itself.