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Did Some Disciples Not Believe in the Resurrection?

In my previous post I pointed out that we simply don’t know how many of Jesus’ disciples came to believe that he was raised from the dead.  In my view there is actually some *evidence* that some of them never did believe it.  I lay the evidence out in my book How Jesus Became God.  It has to do with the fact that there is such a strong tradition of “doubt” in the resurrection among Jesus’ followers.  Here is how I lay out the evidence there.


In considering the significance of the visions of Jesus, a key question immediately comes to the fore that in my judgment has not been given its full due by most scholars investigating the issue.   Why do we have such a strong and pervasive tradition that some of the disciples doubted the resurrection, even though Jesus appeared to them?  If Jesus came to them, alive, after his death, and held conversations with them  – what was there to doubt?

The reason this question is so pressing is because, as we will see later in this chapter, modern research on visions has shown that visions are almost always believed by the people who experience them.   When people have a vision – of a lost loved one, for example – -they really and deeply believe the person has been there.   So why were the visions of Jesus not always believed?  Or rather, why were they so consistently doubted?

Jesus, of course, does not…

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The Resurrection of the Son of God
Were the Disciples Martyred for Believing in the Resurrection?



  1. Avatar
    toejam  December 16, 2015

    I’ve always suspected there was high evangelistic value in the doubting stories, as if to say: “You see, even apostle x doubted, and he came to believe – so you can too!”.

  2. Avatar
    Jana  December 16, 2015

    One suggestion .. Because Dr. Ehrman, visions are so astonishing and out of the physical experiential reality that when they occur, the first reaction of the “intellect” as an aspect is to NOT believe them and even deny them (for the sake of “sanity”). It takes some maturity on the part of the intellect to allow and recognize a visionary experience. These are illiterate people .. it would take time for the intellect to not only accept but absorb and some may never reach that point.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2015

      Yes, that’s how most of us would think about it! But as it turns out, psychological studies have shown just the opposite: people tend to believe in visions, quite strongly, since they are so real to them.

      • Avatar
        Jana  December 16, 2015

        Visions do occur among other like phenomena. I have no doubt. But the mechanics of a phenomena of this caliber and the human intellect is complex. I am separating “intellect” from other workings or attributes of the mind. It would be a mistake to think of visions as snap shots of the person or people as well. Visions are also energy .. a rarefied energy and it takes a developed nervous system to not only view but sustain and yes recall. When one understands the “mechanics” of this kind of phenomena its plausible what the disciples saw or did not see.

        • Avatar
          Kent  December 23, 2015

          Where is the evidence for visions being any kind of energy? Visions, of the type referenced above, are equivalent to hallucinations.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 24, 2015

            Yes, they are indeed hallucinations, or as you might say, “non-veridical visions.”

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  December 26, 2015

            Or equivalent to a waking dream….dreams seem utterly real when happening.

      • Avatar
        Kevin Nelson  December 17, 2015

        Maybe the people who didn’t believe their visions kept quiet about them, and hence those people were not included in these psychological studies.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 18, 2015

          No, the studies do include people who claim never to have had visions.

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  December 16, 2015

      Yes, I agree with Prof. Ehrman. I know WAAAAAYYYY too many people who believe every outlandish thing imaginable. These are the same types of people who can feel the actual physical presence of their loved ones after they die. See Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World for further proof.

      • Avatar
        willow  December 21, 2015

        The Demon Haunted World.
        Thanks for the heads up! It sounds fascinating! I will have to read it.

        I hold a great deal of admiration for Sagan; his work; his insight. Whereas he did not, I do find God in near all of his teachings; but then, I’m a big Gerald Schroeder fan, as well.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  December 26, 2015

        Proof of what–that many people believe outlandish things? That needs no proof. I would ask you for proof that their beliefs are outlandish. Is that what Sagan provides?

    • Avatar
      justjudy6  December 17, 2015

      I don’t think visions are so extraordinary. I think many people have them–after surgery, after the death of a loved one, while in the throws of death, etc. Visions are not uncommon. It’s just that people usually don’t talk about them. In any group of ten seniors, I am sure that two or three will fess up to having had a vision at sometime in their lifetime. And, I’m with Dr. Bart, when we see things we really think they are there. It may take weeks or even years for the reality of the experience to fade.

      • Avatar
        willow  December 21, 2015


        My mother believed her beloved deceased father visited her often. I can’t count the times, as child, when I’d awaken in the night to find her sitting in the darkness and talking to someone who just wasn’t there. It was really rather frightening.

        At the ripe old age of barely 33 she died of cancer. An aunt, her sister, yet recounts going to visit her on the afternoon of the night she died, only to have found her so engrossed in conversation with Jesus, who seemed to be standing alongside her bed, that she didn’t know my aunt was there until his (unseen and unheard by my aunt) presence left her.
        Being a witness to my mother’s apparent vision has helped my aunt to be at peace regarding the passing of my mother, her baby sister, and for a long time it was a source of great comfort for the three of we who were suddenly orphaned. If Jesus was there for her, on her death bed, surely he also there for us; though I never saw him and he never told me so.

        In the here and now, I’ve a former sister-in-law who is in the ministry. She found Jesus during the Brownsville movement, and is quite charismatic. She preaches often, and always regarding Biblical prophesy. She absolutely insists that her 5 year old deceased son, my nephew, visits her many times a month and reveals to her events that are soon to occur; in particular “The imminent rapture of the church.”

        I am but one; and yet I know two. How many more so many others?

        Yes, I will have to read Sagan’s book.

  3. Avatar
    mary  December 16, 2015

    A vision, both auditory and visual which is how we experience life would be very believable to the person experiencing it. Particularly at a time in history when photographs did not exist. The mind sees it. Since it comes from the individual brain, there is no reason anyone else should believe it unless it is described by someone as so extremely real or of authority. Very interesting Bart. The Romans and the preachers were the authorities at that time? The best educated and orators began telling the congregation Jesus was alive again? But group visions? Are they akin to excitability and anxiety amplifying to the degree others feel it and then experience it themselves? Fascinating stuff

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2015

      Yes, group visions do happen, especially in religious contexts. I give examples in my book How Jesus Became God.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  December 16, 2015

    But the earliest account we have, from Paul, says Jesus appeared to over five hundred people. That was written about 20 years after the crucifixion. Much later we have these much more detailed accounts, that say it was just a chosen few. Is Paul referring to the story of Pentecost?

    Paul had his own personal revelation–why would he want to dilute the significance of that by saying that hundreds of people had seen Jesus after his death?

    He doesn’t mention Mary Magdalene, let alone make her the first witness, but given his feelings about women, I think we can figure that out pretty easy.

    I agree it would have started small, and gotten bigger over time. But it may have been one of those things that builds on itself–I’m tempted to reference the Salem Witch Trials–it starts with a few, and starts to spread. After a while, it’s not clear who actually saw something, and who just went along with it.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 16, 2015

      And I’m guessing you’ll get to this soon enough–but why does Paul say Jesus first revealed himself to Cephas (Peter) and then the Twelve? Now we’ve got thirteen disciples right after the crucifixion. When really, there should just be eleven, if Judas betrayed Jesus and shortly thereafter died. But even if that didn’t happen, there’d still just be twelve, including Cephas/Peter.

      One possibility is that Paul really does just mean the main body of the disciples when he says ‘The Twelve.” That the number is so significant to him he just makes it twelve, no matter how many actual disciples there were.

      • Bart
        Bart  December 18, 2015

        I think the idea is that he first appeared to Cephas then to *all* his disciples (not Cephas AND twelve others)

        • Avatar
          SteleDan  December 26, 2015

          Do you still lean towards a distinction between Cephas and Peter?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 27, 2015

            THese days I lean the other way….

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2015

      No, there’s nothing to tie the vision to the 500 to Pentecost (the latter of which Paul gives no evidence of knowing about) His point is that Jesus really was raised from the dead, physically, as others could attest.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 21, 2015

        Understood. I still find that mass hallucination Paul seems to be describing hard to understand. And of course it does tend to indicate Jesus already had hundreds of followers.

        He had a lot more than twelve, or nobody would have bothered to crucify him.

  5. Avatar
    jmmarine1  December 16, 2015

    Does your argument here imply that historically Jesus never spoke to his followers about the need to die and be raised from the dead?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2015

      Yes, that is my assumption. I don’t think Jesus planned on dying or wanted to die.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 21, 2015

        That’s a lot of completely fabricated accounts, Bart.

        Too many, I think. We might as well believe Jesus was a myth, if the story is that made-up.

        Three different stories, in three very different gospels, have a woman anointing him with expensive perfume, and his response is to say she’s anointing him for his burial–even though anointing on the head was what you did for a king. It’s an odd story, sticks out to this day–meaning that it probably did happen.

        Again, nobody in Jesus’ time, in Jesus’ setting, doing and saying what Jesus did, having just recently heard of the execution of John the Baptist, would have been blind to the potential consequences of his actions. He may well have believed he could overcome those consequences–or that God could overcome them–but he went right on believing John was also special to God, and John had not been protected.

        It doesn’t make any sense, even within the assumptions he was operating under.

  6. Avatar
    Dshane  December 16, 2015

    I’ve always had a theory that the resurrected Jesus was someone else – perhaps it was a “twin” or a “Just” brother that wasn’t known to the majority of the disciples??

  7. Rick
    Rick  December 16, 2015

    Could the doubt tradition perhaps also indicate a schism among the disciples between the “seers” and their believers and the doubters? A schism that was obvious within the early movement (by the doubters absence?) and which had to be explained away such that by the time the later three gospels were written the schism is left out but the doubt tradition is included for good measure?

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 16, 2015

    You’ve said elsewhere that people in that era didn’t make a clear distinction (at least in describing them) between “visions” and *dreams*. And at least some people are *more* likely to believe the content of a *dream* is real (because dreams are “normal,” and “visions” aren’t). I myself had that experience, with a dream in which my dead mother told me she was, in a sense, still alive – and let me hold a baby that I understood would be her next incarnation.

  9. Avatar
    rivercrowman  December 16, 2015

    Bart, I just read Acts 1:3 and see those 40 days also included a short course for the apostles “about the kingdom of God.” … Too bad we don’t have any records of those teachings!

  10. Avatar
    moose  December 16, 2015

    Mr Ehrman

    If we just make a small assumption, then all these questions are easy to answer. Let’s just for a minute assume that the idea of the resurrection stems from when the Lord revealed Himself on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19.

    «Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”»(…)«The LORD said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” Then Moses told the LORD what the people had said. 10 And the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.»(…)«On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled.

    This answers Matthew 28:7 were “some doubted.” The story in the Exodus is all actually much about the Israelites doubting faith in the Lord through forty years in the desert.

    This answers John 20:17 «Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father.»

    And this answers Matt28:16 «Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.»

  11. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  December 16, 2015

    I believe the experiences the disciples had of Jesus were most likely visionary, but it’s Paul’s vision of Jesus that is more difficult to comprehend. Paul had never met Jesus and having lived in the first century wouldn’t have ever seen another physical representation of Jesus, such as a painting or sculpture or other iconography. I can’t recall another vision narrative where the person experiencing the vision had no previous visual reference.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2015

      It happens every time the blessed virgin Mary appears to people!

  12. Avatar
    paulpinos  December 16, 2015

    Have you heard of any other cases of 3 or more separate people having similarly themed visions around the same time?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2015

      Yes, it’s a common phenomenon. I talk about cases in my bookj How Jesus Became God.

  13. Avatar
    spiker  December 16, 2015


    An intriguing idea. It sounds pretty solid. My suspicion of stories like Emaus has always been that these people, may have met the stranger and after hearing stories like Peter’s they have an AHA moment . Aha the stranger we had dinner with wasn’t a stranger, it as Jesus! I know that is pure supposition, but think there’s some conviction
    behind the stories.

  14. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  December 16, 2015

    “(a) Paul never once calls Peter a “disciple” (in fact, no such term appears anywhere in Paul’s letters–he never shows any knowledge of such a thing as there being a “disciple” of Jesus) and (b) Paul never mentions Peter being close to Jesus at all, much less the “closest” to him (other than being the first to receive revelations of Jesus: 1 Cor. 15:5). This is actually one of the many curious things about Paul’s epistles that suggests the Jesus myth theory is correct: Paul continually assumes only apostles exist, and that apostles are made apostles by having a revelation of Jesus. The idea that anyone actually saw him or spent time with him in the flesh is nowhere found in his letters.”

    -“Mythicist Who Shall Not Be Named”

    I know quoting RC is like inviting Banquo to this blog’s banquet, but the above quote had me re-reading Paul’s letters and his determination for what comprises an Apostle of Jesus. Much of what I reread, especially 1 Corinthians 15:8, seemed to support this definition of Apostleship.

    Is there something here I am missing? My guess is yes! If so, what? An aside here, but reading Paul’s letters consecutively in a short time-span was a first for me and I thought such an exercise would help me to better understand Paul. In some way it did, but I ended up with more questions about Paul than answers, even though read the undisputed epistles first.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2015

      Sorry, but this is all very problematic. But as with most mythicist positions it would take about a page to explain why — which is why I usually don’t deal with their argument-after argument-after argument-after argument…. (BTW: Paul does mention the twelve. And yes, apostles are different from the twelve, though they overlap)

  15. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  December 16, 2015

    As discussed by Dr. E in his book and by others (e.g., Oliver Sacks) with lay (non-neuroscientist types) persons as the collective target, hallucinatory experiences are multi-factorial. In some cultures, hallucinations are “normal,” representing learned grief or ecstatic behavior. But in the “western” mindset as experienced by, I assume, most of this blog’s participants:
    When hallucinations (any modality: visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory) are recognized as such by the person experiencing them, that is, not endorsed as “real,” they are ‘non-delusional,’ and might not reflect any brain malfunction.
    When hallucinations are endorsed as “real”, they are ‘delusional.’ A person of “modern western” worldview experiencing–and capable of relating to others in real time–delusional hallucinations has perforce some perturbation of brain physiology, whether temporary or permanently, of multiple possible causes (drugs, trauma, stroke, degenerative disease, sleep or oxygen deprivation, a combination, etc.). Such persons are not fully capable, or are incapable, of cogent, deliberative self-reflection/assessment of these experiences, at least from the perspective of the otherwise “normal” independent observer. Many otherwise normal persons, for example, now “down” (recovered) from drug-induced episodes, remember themselves, while previously intoxicated, as 1. vividly endorsing the reality of hallucinations and 2. at the very same instant doubting what they nonetheless really believe they’re seeing (or hearing).; cognitive dissonance. (Whether that self-reflective meta recall is accurate is another issue.)

    To the extent that the gospel narratives at all reflect what actually happened 2K years ago, and assuming that Dr. E’s conjectures (hallucinations > resurrection > stories > Christianity) re: that “history” are accurate, the delusional hallucinations (“visions”) of the disciples, Paul, etc. engender the same differential diagnosis: did these people practice undocumented cultic drug ingestion(s) and if so, were the “doubters” those that discontinued usage; did collective extreme emotional distress trigger shared hallucinations (see: Devils of Loudun); were shared, even temporally disconnected (i.e., disciples vs, later, Paul) hallucinations reflective of learned behavior in these communities at this time; were the causes of these hallucination in different persons entirely independent (e.g., epileptic or migrainous hallucinations for Paul, grief hallucinations for Peter? I dunno.

  16. talmoore
    talmoore  December 16, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, the disguised or unrecognized god/king is such a common trope in ancient stories (cf. Odysseus, et al.) that I have to ask how much of the unrecognized Jesus scenes are a result of the writers trying to suck in the readers with such recognizable tropes? If I were to put myself in the shoes of an early christian evangelist, and someone who I was trying to convert asked me, for example, how I know for a fact that the disciples saw the risen Jesus, I would probably immediately reply: “Well, of course, since they are wise men, they weren’t easily convinced, and so it was only after thorough investigation of the matter that these highly discerning men were convinced that it was, in fact, Jesus whom they were seeing before them.” And, voila, you have the beginning of the doubting Thomas tradition.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2015

      The problem is that these motifs always result in the person coming to realize beyond any doubt that the one they did not at first recognize is in fact a god/king/etc.

    • Avatar
      Eric  December 18, 2015

      Interesting aside (interesting to me). The character who does not recognize Odysseus on his return to Ithaca is his faithful swineherd and childhood friend (and eventual co-kicker of suitors’ butts) Eumaeus, a personage I always think of when I scan the phrase “Road to Emmaus” (they are probably pronounced very differently, but I am in this event happy with my “poor Latin and no Greek”).

      Other fun fact, the “narrator” of the Odyssey (as opposed to character speaking within the epic) breaks from third person only (per the translations I have read) when he directly addresses Eumaeus, a character in the story(!) in the second person, “…and you replied, Eumaeus, loyal swineherd…”

  17. Avatar
    flshrP  December 17, 2015

    So, the initial visions of the risen Jesus were those of Peter and Mary Magdalene. And these occurred within days of the first Easter Sunday. Then there was a period of time when doubt was prevalent among the apostles and disciples. Question: did those doubters become believers solely on the basis of the testimony of Peter and Mary? Or did this fairly large group experience resurrection visions themselves? How long did it take for the resurrection belief to form in this larger group? What’s the consensus of the NT scholars on this question?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2015

      Well, there’s probably no consensus. Most NT scholars are Christian, and so most believe that Jesus really appeared to the disciples. My view is that a small number had visions and others believed them. Though some did not.

  18. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  December 17, 2015

    This is actually THE most interesting aspect of this whole story. I think it’s very probable that the Apostles did not actually believe in a ‘physical resurrection’ with someone walking out of a tomb. But that’s how later people understood ‘resurrection’ and that’s how these conflicting and inconsistent stories about the ‘resurrection’ have developed.

    Personally I think it went like this: after the crucifixion the Apostles went back to where they came from when suddenly Peter has kind of an epiphany while trying to rationalize what just happened (the man he thought would ‘save the world’ had failed): No, he could not have been wrong! It’s impossible! That means that even though it LOOKS like a failure, it’s actually a success! They were able to kill the body but not the spirit. The spirit lives on! The spirit has been resurrected in a new, heavenly body! (actually the same thing that Paul believes).

    Peter then told this to the other Apostles. Some agreed, some did not. But it got the ball rolling. And over time things were misunderstood, the exact original meaning got lost (and not just in translation).

  19. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 17, 2015

    Readers of this website might be interested in these two Internet reviews of the Bass-Ehrman debate:

    1. “Who Is the Son of Man? A Review of My Debate with Dr. Bart Ehrman.” This is a two-part review written by Dr. Bass. Some of the last section of the first part of this review, about the different Old Testament words used for God, is a bit esoteric and hard to follow. The same can be said about the “son of man” section of the second part. of the review. Surely, God would not have made such an important subject so esoteric that only those with esoteric, “secret” knowledge can figure it out. Much of what Dr. Bass said in the actual debate was hard for me to follow so reading his arguments was somewhat helpful, but his arguments are still confusing, at least to me.

    2. “Bart Ehrman vs. Justin Bass Debate by Richard Bushey.” The most interesting section of this review is about how dissimilarity can be used to confirm, but not to disconfirm history. Otherwise, everything that sounds like what early Christians would have said about Jesus gets disconfirmed and discarded.

    In the debate, Dr. Ehrman did not have time to address the issue of whether or not Peter was a source for the author of Mark. Is there any evidence among early Christians for this idea? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2015

      Yes, the idea goes back at least to Papias in a book he wrote around 130 CE or so.

  20. Avatar
    Scott  December 17, 2015

    I have really enjoyed having this storyline laid out as one unit. I had always assumed, like toejam, that the doubting passages were meant for audiences who would not have had the opportunity – geographically or temporally – to experience a risen Jesus. As time went by with out a second coming, this would have become more urgent. Now you point out that much the same problem would have existed among the first followers of Jesus.

    I must say, that the sequence of events as you have laid them out here explains much more of the evidence then any other theory I have encountered.

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