Book Review: Hidden in Plain View

One of my favorite sorts of book relates fascinating historical facts new to me, in such a way as to cast a novel light upon a subject or an era. The facts all by themselves are savory intellectual morsels; the discovery of their dense, thick and muscular coordination under a new perspective is strong meaty beer.

Lydia McGrew has written just such a book, and I have just had the pleasure of reading it. A pillar of the traditional Christian Right, a prolific and penetrating blogger (both at her own site, Extra Thoughts, and at What’s Wrong With the World), McGrew is among other things (mother, home schooler, musician, etc.) an analytic philosopher and formidable Christian apologist. She has also commented here from time to time.

The book is Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts.

There are two aspects to such books: the facts, and their coordination. In most, much of their charm derives from the novelty of the facts they adduce. In this one – at least for serious and experienced Christians – it derives from their utter familiarity. The facts that McGrew notices have been staring us in the face ever since we began our encounters with the New Testament, and we never even noticed them as such. The reason? Their immaculate coordination.

McGrew’s proposal is that details mentioned in passing in a gospel, an epistle, or in Acts explain otherwise perplexing details of some other gospel, epistle, or in Acts, and that this constellation of incredibly unlikely agreements indicates that the gospels, epistles and Acts are all extremely reliable as historical witnesses. The analogy is to the differing accounts of a crime given by different honest witnesses, that might prima facie even seem to differ irreconcilably, but which upon examination dovetail beautifully, to paint a coherent picture of events.

The upshot is that the New Testament records of the dominical miracles – particularly, of course, and crucially for apologetical purposes, the Resurrection – are together and coordinately seen to be extremely reliable accounts of events that really happened.

To take a familiar example: John does not tell us why Pilate asks Jesus whether he is the King of the Jews. The question comes out of nowhere. I had never noticed that; and the reason is that I had always supplied the answer from my long familiarity with Luke’s account of the trial, which tells us that the Jews had accused Jesus before Pilate of claiming to be their king, a charge of sedition. Knowing of this charge recounted in Luke, it never occurred to me that John had not mentioned it. Given that charge recounted in Luke, Pilate’s question in John makes perfect sense; without it, the question seems a bit mad.

Notably, by a careful, simple parsing of Mark’s account of Holy Week against that of John, McGrew demolishes the infamous and putatively devastating supposed discrepancy between John and the Synoptics as to the day of the Crucifixion.

Again and again, McGrew shows how these incredibly important documents support each other in the most unexpected ways. Every undesigned coincidence evokes deep satisfaction, and – not infrequently – a surge of happy pleasure at the discovery of unsuspected beauties in too familiar texts. One comes away from the reading with a profound sense of the integrity – so complete as to be casual, indeed even unconscious – of the New Testament writers, as men and as witnesses, jointly and severally. And, one begins to notice scripture again, rather as if one had never read it before. The texts recover their ability to shock. That, alone, makes the book a worthy addition to any thoughtful Christian’s library.

Because they treat of a wealth of details, books of this sort can easily lead a reader into confusion. Not so here. It is simply organized, and the connections between the texts are clearly explained, then summarized in a table at the end of each chapter for easy reference. McGrew’s writing is non-technical, straightforward, and she covers all the bases. Copious endnotes, useful indices, and a comprehensive bibliography of works in this long neglected and venerable apologetical tradition round out the book.

Mind candy that will build the muscles of faith. Highly recommended.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Hidden in Plain View

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Hidden in Plain View | @the_arv

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    • Interesting. I haven’t read very much theology from the 19th century, but much that I have read was really helpful — scholarly and faithful, e.g. Edward Bouverie Pusey on Baptismal regeneration, Isaac Williams on reserve in communicating religious knowledge, and Charles Porterfield Krauth on the Conservative Reformation and its theology.

      • I have had a similar experience with the 16th century divines. And for that matter the sermons of Eckhart, Chrysostom, et al. I’ve barely wet a toe in their stuff; and we have millions of their words.

        It’s discouraging, in a way. One’s original work is almost always stuff that was well known to some prior generation. How many theses outside the STEM world innocently recapitulate some other forgotten thesis of a previous age? All of them, perhaps.

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    • She doesn’t really touch on that, except in passing, and in two respects. First, she agrees with the consensus view of scholars these days that John was probably written later than the Synoptics. Second, she is doubtful about the popular theory that the Synoptics used a supposed source document – Q, or Quelle, a compilation of Christ’s sayings.

      • Interesting! I would agree with both of those, but it’s curious she doesn’t go into that since which of the Gospels are textually independent of the others seems to strongly affect how one interprets that kind of evidence.

      • She has a whole chapter of undesigned coincidences between the gospels, and makes the point that if one gospel were simply cribbing from predecessors and adding in more good stuff, the coincidences would be designed; they would be right there in the text of the later gospel. Often they are not.

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