Unexplained Allusions — A Sneaky Good Reason Why the Gospels Are Not Myths

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Have you ever noticed that people often mention trivial details when describing events they were involved in? You know, stuff not totally related to the story?

The Gospel writers do that, too. Some comments are left dangling without any explanation. These remarks don’t seem to advance the story or serve any sort of theological or literary purpose. Scholar Lydia McGrew calls these unexplained allusions. Verses like these usually fly under the radar. But when we pay attention to them, we find they have the ring of truth. Fiction writers would have no reason to include unexplained, puzzling details and would have every reason to leave them out.

Let’s look at some examples, and you’ll get a better idea of what I mean. I’ll be drawing these from Lydia McGrew’s helpful book The Mirror or the Mask.

Mark 3:17 — Sons of Thunder

“James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder)”

James and John are only referred to by this nickname in Mark’s Gospel. However, we’re not told why exactly they were called this. The only thing we can do is speculate. Maybe they were loud and a bit wild. Perhaps it has something to do with them wanting to call fire down on the Samaritans, as we read in Luke 9:51–56. But that incident does not occur until Jesus is leaving Galilee for the last time to journey south, which was probably a few months before his death.

Note that this detail doesn’t seem to serve any theological or literary purpose. It’s just left hanging there. Let’s move on to Luke’s Gospel.

Luke 13:1–5–Details about tragedies

There was some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Here Jesus tells us that a tower collapsed and killed 18 people. And Pilate also gruesomely killed some Galileans. Luke doesn’t even try to unpack what Jesus is referring to. Note that 18 is quite a specific number. And we’re told about Galileans, as opposed to people from some other region. Luke’s patron Theophilus was probably a Gentile. And scholars believe Luke wrote in either Antioch or Asia Minor. It seems unlikely that Luke was recording these details for the benefit of his audience. Rather, he seems to provide a realistic report of what Jesus said as told to him. Now let’s turn to John.

John 12:20–23 — Greeks who wish to see Jesus

“Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So they came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

The comment from Jesus is strangely unexpected. We don’t know what the Greeks wanted to ask Jesus or how Jesus responded to them, or if the meeting ever even took place. Eyewitness reports would be written like this. But it’s improbable that someone writing fiction would leave things hanging this way.

So let’s pause for a second before we look at a few more examples and think this over. There are basically two competing hypotheses here: Either the Gospels are elaborate legendary fictions. Or they are close-up to the facts and are simply naturally reporting what they know. Can the fictionalization theory explain these facts just as well or better as the reportage model? I don’t think so. Let’s look at a few more examples of unexplained allusions in John’s Gospel.

John 1:46 — Can anything good come from Nazareth?

Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

How can Nazareth be dismissed so casually and without explanation? What’s up with this bad rap? We’re never told what the deal is with Nazareth. Scholars tell us that John’s Gospel was written in Asia Minor; decades later. John’s audience wouldn’t have understood the reference any more than we do today. It’s an odd thing to leave unexplained if you’re inventing a story.

John 2:12 — Details about Jesus’ itinerary

“After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.”

If you remember, this was after the wedding in Cana. And the next verse is about Jesus cleansing the temple. The reader is left thinking…OK…and then what? There isn’t even a single event or doctrine associated with this bit of Jesus’ itinerary. But we can imagine John remembering and mentioning it the same way a witness sometimes mentions something unrelated to the story.

John 3:25–26 — An argument about purification

“Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness — look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

So what’s up with this dispute over purification? It’s dropped here and then never picked back up. John reports the argument with the Jew about purification rituals in passing, and it leads into the Baptist’s famous ‘I must decrease so that he may increase’ saying. John the Baptist never sorts the situation out. The mention of the dispute could’ve been left out; it’s totally unnecessary to the narrative. If this story was invented out of whole cloth with no factual basis, then it’s incomprehensible. But it makes more sense if John is reporting what actually happened. Let’s finish up in the book of Acts.

Acts 18:18 — Paul’s mysterious holy haircut

“Paul, having remained many days longer, took leave of the brethren and put out to sea for Syria, and with him were Priscilla and Aquila. In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow.”

Um…this religious haircut doesn’t fit with anything else in Luke’s narrative, and it isn’t clear enough to help with any sort of theological theme. We’re left wondering why Paul took a vow in the first place. Luke simply includes this extra detail and moves on with the story. The best explanation for including this trivial and somewhat confusing detail is simply that Luke thought it was true and wrote it down.

Literary theory of the gaps?

I could lay out many more examples, but I think you get the point. I’ll link you to a couple of Dr. McGrew’s books that detail more examples in the description down below.

Now, remember this argument springs from our knowledge of how witnesses actually talk. It’s common for people to digress parenthetically when they remember past events. People mention small details of interest; or things that just pop into their head. That’s the quality of oral history.

Because we see this in the gospels, it makes more sense to say they’re artless reporters who knew what they were talking about. As Lydia McGrew writes,

“This is a far better explanation than a “literary theory of the gaps” approach in which we hold out indefinitely for some deep, complex theological or literary explanation of such details rather than accepting their artless quality at face value.”

Sure, we could get into the weeds and try and explain them away one by one. But the chances are that any explanation we’d come up with would be extremely ad hoc. This is one more piece of evidence in the cumulative case for the reliability of the gospels.

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Erik Manning

Erik Manning

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I am the Reasonable Faith Chapter Director in Cedar Rapids and the writer for isjesusalive.com. I’m interested in the intersection of Christianity and history.