There are some coincidences in history that may raise your eyebrow but have no significance beyond an interesting fact to share over coffee. Other coincidences may go unnoticed by most but are meaningful in the search for authenticity in the archives of history.
You have all heard of John Wilkes Booth who shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre on April 14th in 1865. But few of you would know the name of Lincoln’s oldest son Robert Todd. And how many of you knew that Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd was traveling by train a few months before his father’s assassination when he fell onto the train tracks but was rescued by Booth? That is, Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth.
As I said this is an interesting fact of history, but beyond that, it holds nothing vital or hidden meanings to understand the stories of the Booth brothers, the Lincoln family, or any hidden application to Lincoln’s assassination.
Now there are other coincidences in history that do hold significance and weight in their placement within historical documents. The New Testament is full of them, and I would like to share three of them with you.
In her 2017 book, Hidden In Plain View, Lydia McGrew defines undesigned coincidences as “… a notable connection between two or more accounts or tests that don’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.”1
In Matthew 14 we read the account of Herod and how he took the head of John the Baptist. John had been calling out Herod stating it was unlawful for Herod to be sleeping with his own brother’s wife Herodias. Herod put John in prison and wanted to kill him, but did not because John was so loved by the people.
On Herod’s birthday, Herodias’s daughter danced before Herod and he was so pleased with her dance he offered to give her whatever she asked for. After conferring with her mother Herodias asked Herod for the head of John the Baptist.
Sometime later we read in Matthew 14:1-2 that Herod said to his servants he thought Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead. “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the news about Jesus, 2 and said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” (NASB) How on earth would Matthew know what Herod said to his servants?
This information is similar to Mark 6:16, but Mark makes no mention of Herod talking to his servants. “But when Herod heard of it, he kept saying, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has risen!'” (NASB)
So the question raised after reading the Matthew account is how could Matthew, or any of the disciples know what Herod said to his servants? It’s not any of the disciples were related or even on speaking terms with Herod. He was a king. Herod was granted the title of ‘King of Judea’ by the Roman Senate. Herod built Masada, the harbor at Caesarea and the Temple Mount, (which he hoped would soften the Jews toward his reign). Herod would not bother himself with nomadic itinerant preachers from some kind of new religious cult.
The answer to this question can be found in Luke’s account. In Luke 7, Jesus travels to Capernaum and heals the Centurion’s servant, encounters the woman who was a sinner that kissed his feet then anointed them with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. In Luke 7 you will also find the account of John the Baptist sending his disciples to Jesus asking if He was the One, or should they be looking for someone else. It is interesting how Jesus responded. He provided John’s disciples with evidence of healings and then told them to go back to John and report what you have seen and heard. Luke 7 is rich with familiar stories we have heard of over the years. Then Luke 8:1-3 starts with, “Soon afterward, He began going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means.” (NASB)
There you have it. Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward was with Jesus and His disciples traveling with them and supporting their new ministry. Luke provided the answer to how Matthew or any of the disciples would know what Herod was saying about Jesus. Luke was just listing who was traveling with them and was not in anyway trying to support the detail of Matthew’s account.
A second undesigned coincidence can be found in the Gospel of John when He washed the disciple’s feet. Jesus took on the role of a servant and wanted to demonstrate to His followers what leadership in love, humility, and service should look like. Was this a planned demonstration or rather did Jesus see the need for it?
As a teacher, I often take advantages of circumstances to create a ‘teachable moment’. Students may have acted in an inappropriate way toward one another or toward another adult and I’ve needed to correct them. Maybe some teachers presenting a difficult algebra concept (you remember when they started mixing letters in with numbers) and see a real-world application to add relevance to the idea. Wise parents also see these moments and take advantage of them whenever possible. I think most who have spent any time as a believer can look back and see teachable moments or events that God used in our lives.
If you read the account of the last supper in Luke 22:24-27 you will see Luke does not even mention the foot washing, but he does touch on a lesson that tells us why He washed their feet. They began to argue among themselves who would be the greatest, the most respected, maybe at His right hand. “And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called Benefactors. But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.'” (NASB)
One could say that the foot washing we find in the Gospel of John was an independent action, but the fact that Luke records their quarreling suggests otherwise. John mentions the foot washing, but Luke omits it. Luke mentions the lesson, but not the foot washing. As so often we find the Gospel accounts complement each other. Authors emphasizing different events in various ways, yet unknowingly support their independent accounts.
This is not the first time Jesus taught an object lesson. Both Mark and Matthew give an example that McGrew points out, “In Mark 9:33-37 the disciples have been debating which of them is the greatest. There, Jesus takes a child and places him in the midst of them after telling them that whoever wants to be the first among them must be the servant of all. (Compare Matt 18:1-4)”2
It should be clear that the Gospel of John and Luke share the same event but feature their own details of that night and though both accounts differ in aspects, they support each other’s narrative.
The last example has to do with Rufus. Do you ask, who is Rufus? If you were to read the crucifixion account in the three Synoptic Gospels you will find a detail mentioned in only one of the three.
Matthew 27:31-32 “After they had mocked Him, they took the scarlet robe off Him and put His own garments back on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him. As they were coming out, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom they pressed into service to bear His cross.” (NASB)
Luke 23:26 “When they led Him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, coming in from the country, and placed on him the cross to carry behind Jesus. (NASB)
Then in Mark 15:20-21 you will find the following. “And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.” (NASB)
Why mention Alexander and Rufus? Are they mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament? Were they followers of Jesus? Friends of one of the disciples? All three of Synoptic Gospels mention Simon of Cyrene, but only Mark shares that he was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Why is that?
In Romans 16:13 Paul writes, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.” (NASB)
Do we have reason to believe that Mark’s Rufus is the same Rufus that Paul mentions in Romans? Paul’s connections with Rufus’ mother suggests that Rufus and his mother had gone from Rome to where Paul was since at the time Paul wrote Romans, he had never been in Rome. According to Walter Wessel, “When Paul wrote this letter, he was probably at Corinth on his third missionary journey. His work in the eastern Mediterranean was almost finished and he greatly desired to visit the Roman church. At this time, however, he could not go to Rome because he felt he must personally deliver the collection taken among the Gentile churches for the poverty-stricken Christians of Jerusalem.”3
McGrew explains, “With that fact in mind, we have three points of evidence coming together-the ‘out of nowhere’ reference to Rufus and Alexander in Mark, as though perhaps they are known to the audience of the Gospel, the references in Romans to a Rufus who was a Christian in Rome, and the tradition that Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome.”4
An argument could be made that the name Rufus was not uncommon at that time and it could be a different person, but considering the small but growing family of Christians in Rome, Mark knew who would be reading his letter first. He also understood they would know who Alexander and Rufus were.
Undesigned coincidences in the New Testament inadvertently authenticate the separate letters and perspectives we would come to expect when hearing from various eyewitness accounts. By themselves they present a cumulative case that tips the scale in favor of accurate, truthful, and historical accounts written by the New Testament authors.
In mathematics, two angles that are said to coincide fit together perfectly. The word ‘coincidence’ does not describe luck or mistakes. It describes that which fits together perfectly. – Wayne Dyer
Who was Rufus? by James Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
- McGrew, Lydia. “Still More Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels.” Hidden In Plain View DeWard Publishing Company, 2017, pgs 98-99
- McGrew, Lydia. “Still More Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels.” Hidden In Plain View DeWard Publishing Company, 2017, pgs 48-50
- Wessel, Walter W. “Romans” 2002, pgs 2315-2316 NIV Study Bible: New International Version, General Editor Kenneth Barker, Zondervan.
- McGrew, Lydia. “Still More Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels.” Hidden In Plain View DeWard Publishing Company, 2017, pgs 121-122