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Disciples Who Doubt the Resurrection

QUESTION:

Are we to understand from this that some of the actual disciples, the inner circle, doubted? Is this the origin of the “Doubting Thomas” character in John? Maybe not everyone got a vision of the risen Christ? Perhaps these are hints that after the crucifixion some of the group ran away and DIDN’T come back!

RESPONSE:

This is a question specifically about the stories of the resurrection of Jesus, and it is one that I’ve been pondering myself intensely for a couple of weeks. It would help to have the data in front of us.

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Women Who Did Not Doubt the Resurrection
Why Was Jesus Killed?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Adam  October 17, 2012

    This is a really good and important question and I think your explanation sheds important light on how the resurrection story got started (with only a couple of the disciples) and was developed and interpreted (in the gospel traditions and Paul).

    I surprised, though, that there is no doubting tradition in Paul, since he wrote before the gospel writers and met some of the disciples.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 18, 2012

      Yes, good point. But I think Paul wants to stress believability, not doubt.

      • Jesse80025
        Jesse80025  October 26, 2012

        If Paul met some of the disciples and was aware that some of them were doubters, or unbelievers, or whathaveyou, then why would he relay the tradition that Jesus appeared to “the twelve” in 1 Cor 15??? I’m really interested in your answer to that! If you can provide a good answer to that, you’ll pretty effectively shut the like of Gary Habermas down, who relies heavily on 1 Cor 15 as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 26, 2012

          I’m not sure there’s any evidence to suggest that Paul knew the twelve, let alone that he knew whether they all believed or not. He had heard of an appearance to the group of Jesus’ disciples, and he calls them “the twelve” (even though, even in traditional thinking, there were not twelve of them at the time)

          • Jesse80025
            Jesse80025  October 28, 2012

            By, “I’m not sure there’s any evidence to suggest that Paul knew the twelve,” do you mean that you’re not sure whether he knew all of them or that you’re not sure whether he knew ANY of them? I thought he mentions meeting some of them in Galatians and certainly mentions meeting Cephas, who I thought was Peter. If he met Peter, wouldn’t he be in a position to know whether the statements in 1 Cor 15 were true or not, and if “the twelve” mentioned believed the resurrection? I suppose Paul would still be willing to relay this creed to bolster his readers’ faith even if he knew that some of the 12 had fallen away from the faith.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  October 28, 2012

            Yes, he certainly knew Cephas. I meant that I don’t think we have solid evidence that he met the entire group — although surely he did hear something about them from Cephas. It’s a good point: if there were doubters among them, wouldn’t that be more wisely known? I’m not sure at this point what I think about that. (But one point to make: “the twelve” seems to be some kind of description of the original disciples, not necessarily an indication that each of hte twelve were included — especially if the stories about Judas having already died are to be accepted.)

  2. Avatar
    ZachET  October 17, 2012

    Any chance of revisiting debates?

  3. Avatar
    larafakhouri  October 18, 2012

    I am not a believer and I almost agree with all your logical analysis of the NT but I don’t think you are making a solid case here;
    If you witness the death and burial of a person and then see that person face to face, whether envisioning or for real, wouldn’t you doubt?
    I don’t think doubting proves what the disciples had seen was a vision nor being the real Jesus in the other hand.
    As for the forty days after the resurrection, have you addressed this issue in any of your books?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 18, 2012

      Yes, you would think so. But people who report visions tend to believe them wholeheartedly, odd as it may seem to those of use who haven’t had them.

      Nope, I haven’t dealt with the 40 days at any length.

      • Avatar
        larafakhouri  October 18, 2012

        What I mean is that you need more than ‘DOUBT’ to prove they had a vision. Is there any further supporting evidence?
        The possibility of them having a vision is similar to saying the physical resurrection really happened; neither can be proved historically.
        I think this theory is biased and needs more historical evidence

      • Avatar
        jimmo  October 19, 2012

        Wouldn’t simply saying that anyone who saw a “risen” people would doubt it is a presentist interpretation. Fantastic stories or even “miracles” are not part of our everyday world. However, the belief in them was far more common in the 1st century, so it seems to me that it was far more likely that people then would be more willing to believe someone had risen from the dead. Visions, messages in dreams and the like were also more readily accepted as being “true”, so it would also seem to me that people would be less likely to doubt them than today.

      • Avatar
        proveit  October 19, 2012

        When my beloved dog died unexpectedly I had two visions: one was a black empty space in front of my legs where he would have been standing in front of me, a few weeks later he was “himself” and I got to pet him. The first “vision” I was awake, the second asleep. I don’t think I believed he actually came back, he was safely in his grave. The experience of petting him seemed real. When I woke up I felt as though I got to say good-bye to him. Still makes me cry to think of him. Maybe I should write the Gospel of Tracker!

        • Avatar
          larafakhouri  October 20, 2012

          If you feel your beloved dog is superior to you, maybe you should!

          • Avatar
            proveit  October 22, 2012

            He knew a lot more about being a dog than I do!

  4. Avatar
    DMiller5842  October 18, 2012

    I was hoping you might have some comments on the part where Jesus says he is flesh and bone and also that he still has visible and “‘touchable” wounds.
    To me those statements have implications that go beyond just the appearance of Jesus to the 12, but also to what happens to our bodies when we die according to the Bible.
    I recently attended a funeral of a friend at which his brother gave the eulogy. He said, ” As surely as Jesus was resurrected we shall see Keith again.”
    So what do you think is the dominant theory today for believing Christians — only a soul-spirit will leave out of the body after death or some sort of actual physical body will go forward with identifiable traits?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 18, 2012

      Yes, I deal with that in one of my earlier posts, in which I discuss Luke and John’s attempt to show that Jesus’ body was real after the resurrection not phantasmal.

  5. Avatar
    Jim  October 18, 2012

    Thanks for this post. What has puzzled me lately is that if I was to write a gospel (after first learning to write in Greek of course), my gospel would be 90% on what happened during those forty days between the resurrection and Pentecost and only 10% of what is in there now. What I think would be the cool part is talking to a resurrected being and all the questions that arise from that uncommon event. Apparently there was little oral tradition on this. Maybe it is because several of the disciples themselves were probably skeptical of the resurrection as you mention in your post, so oral traditions on this topic were scarce. I’m still surprised that the gospel writers thought that people might be more interested in a genealogy or a scripture war with Satan instead.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 18, 2012

      Of course some of the Gnostic Gospels do just that! They’re all about the post-resurrection revelations of Jesus, where he spills the *real* beans.

      • Avatar
        Jim  October 18, 2012

        TY for your response. Which Gnostic gospel(s) would be most “credible” along this line (post resurrection revelations of Jesus), or do you deal with this in any of your books?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 19, 2012

          I’m not sure what you mean by “credible.” Do you mean historically accurate? None of them! Among the ones that are particularly interesting, you might try the Apocryphon of John. It’ll blow your mind (if you can follow any of it; I can’t follow much of it!) If you want a discussion of the resurrection dialogues, look for a book by Pheme Perkins by that name.

          • Avatar
            Jim  October 20, 2012

            Thanks for the info, I will look for P. Perkin’s book.
            (By credible I was thinking along the lines of minimum number of magic tunas. One complaint against canonization might be that it was political, however a good aspect of the process might have been that the “orthodox documents” were generally tame.)
            Once again, thanks for your extremely useful posts and for your help.

  6. Avatar
    jimmo  October 18, 2012

    I’m not happy with the last sentence. My feeling is that from the very beginning, Christianity has been a religion of “Look! Behold who else has converted and believes.” It’s starts off with Paul (the über-opponent) and continues to this day. It is a core element of arguments from Strobel, Comfort and many others. Strobel’s schtick from the beginning has always been that he was once a doubting unbelieving and finally “saw the truth”. It seems to me that Paul would have emphasized doubt and conversion, rather than hiding it.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 18, 2012

      He does emphasize his own unbelieving. But a vision of Jesus cured him of that, and for him, once you have that vision, there can be no doubt….

  7. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  October 18, 2012

    This is another very intriguing topic indeed. I am so glad that a distinguished scholar is finally addressing all these weird details in those stories!

    But what about the Emmaus story though? Doesn’t that kind of fit in here as well?

    At first the two Apostles don’t recognize Jesus (why not?)
    “Luke 24:15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.”

    They only do so when he breaks the bread but at that moment he immediately vanishes!?
    “Luke 24: 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.”

    And speaking of not recognizing the ‘resurrected Jesus’, didn’t Mary recognize him either at first and thought it was the ‘gardener’ … ??

  8. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  October 18, 2012

    2 more follow-up questions …

    1. If the ‘resurrected body’ is a ‘perfect, spiritual body’ then how could the ‘resurrected’ Jesus still have the wounds? Or were those wounds supposed to be part of the perfection of his ‘new body’? Or is that a contradiction between Paul’s concept of a ‘resurrection’ and that of the Gospel authors’?

    2. Doesn’t ‘vision’ refer to seeing someone or something that is not ‘really’ there? Something that could not be seen by someone else who had not been given this ‘vision’, or access to this ‘vision’? Unlike, for example, a tree that everyone could see who was standing in front of it. But if everyone present at the right time at the right place could have seen the object of this ‘vision’ then why call it a vision? Why not simply say that they SAW him, just like they saw the ground that they were standing on?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 18, 2012

      1. The Gospels have a different view of the matter than Paul.

      2. Visions can be veridical or non-veridical. It’s all in the eye of the beholder!

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  October 18, 2012

        1. Would you say it’s only a different view or rather an actual contradiction?
        2. It seems like I didn’t formulate my question well … it’s not about the veracity of the claim. It’s about the word that has been used to describe the event/experience: ‘vision’. When people claim to have had a ‘vision’ of someone/something, does that mean that ANYONE who had been present at the time would have seen the object of this ‘vision’ as well, just like everyone would see that tree over there? Or would the object of this ‘vision’ have only been visible for select people and the others would not have seen anything? Like in Acts 9:7 where only Paul is said to have seen the ‘risen Christ’, while his men, who were there with him, did not.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 19, 2012

          Some visions are seen by multiple people; some are seen only by one person; some are seen by one person when others are present. You get all three kinds in the New Testament.

  9. Avatar
    Christian  October 18, 2012

    That makes sense, finally. Thanks.

  10. Avatar
    Scott F  October 18, 2012

    If the disciples are reported to believe that the resurrected Jesus was merely a “spirit”, how does this fit with Paul’s apocalyptic Jewish understanding of the spirit being material in some way? If the view of the spirit was that it was in important ways as material as the “flesh”, then why would the disciples seek proofs that Spirit Jesus was as substantial as Flesh Jesus? Is this a difference in philosophies between the authors/audiences or a further nuance to the ancient views on the topic?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 18, 2012

      The Gospel writers did not have Paul’s sophisticated views of the human and the nature of matter and spirit, methinks.

  11. Avatar
    Scott F  October 18, 2012

    If some of the twelve indeed did not believe that Jesus had risen, I can only imagine the scene of these disappointed apocalypticists going about town opposing Peter and company, saying that they must have been drunk to think that they could speak in tongues!

  12. Avatar
    ERHershman  October 18, 2012

    I’m curious: what do you mean by saying Jesus was mistaken for a “spirit” in Luke 24.37-42, and that this is what the risen Jesus disproves by eating with the disciples? Dale Martin argues quite cogently in his book The Corinthian Body that the idea of a “non-physical” body, i.e. not made of some kind of “stuff,” was unheard of in the ancient world. So what would have been understood in the Gospel’s context by Jesus being thought a “spirit?” If Martin’s analysis is correct, than even docetists and gnostics who disbelieved in the resurrection of the “fleshly” body of Jesus would have thought that there was some kind of “substance” behind Jesus’s appearance in the physical world, so what would a “spirit” be in that context? And what would his eating with the disciples have proved? Presumably a docetic Jesus would have been able to look like he was eating just the same as a “fleshly” Jesus.

    Of course, this makes the fact that Luke puts in the “proof” of Jesus’s eating with the disciples even more mysterious…

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 19, 2012

      Yes, I completely agree with Dale Martin on this. (I better; he’s one of my closest friends) Luke though wants to differentiate between the idea that the body raised was a “spirit-body” (made of refined stuff) and that it was a “physical body” (made of courser stuff). He thinks the latter. Paul thinks the former. As I read it.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 19, 2012

    Another fascinating blog. I agree that it’s hard to imagine how people could see the Resurrected Jesus and still doubt and that this needs to be explained somehow. I appreciate the summary list of scriptures about the matter.

    You have mentioned that the early Gospel texts do not list the names of authors. When did the names of Matthew. Mark, Luke, and John first get listed on Gospel texts? Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 19, 2012

      First time: Irenaeus, around 180 CE.

      • Jesse80025
        Jesse80025  October 26, 2012

        I’m really interested in the process of how the Gospel names first started making their way onto the texts themselves… Any ideas? I’ve heard it suggested that if they were really not written by John, Luke, ect, than we would have expected to see a lot of other proposed headers for the authorship blank.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 26, 2012

          Long story that. I deal with it in my book Forged. Maybe I’ll get to post on it down the line.

  14. Avatar
    bobnaumann  October 19, 2012

    Presumably the Diciples had witnessed the resurrection of several dead, including Lazarus who had been dead for four days. So why would they have found the resurrection of Jesus so mysterious?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 21, 2012

      For them, Jesus was not resuscitated so that he would die again. He was raised immortal.

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 20, 2012

    Thanks for the Irenaeus information. How about Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus? Did they list Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as Gospel authors? Thanks.

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 20, 2012

    If we do not have any of the earliest Gospel manuscripts, how do we know that these earliest Gospel manuscripts did not list Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as authors? Did some early Christian, like Marcion, refer to these Gospels without the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 21, 2012

      Yes, authors like Justin around 150 CE quote the Gospels without indicating who wrote them. So too Marcion, quoting Luke, about the same time. It is not until Irenaeus that somoen names them.

      • Jesse80025
        Jesse80025  October 26, 2012

        Whoa thanks! That kind of answers the question I above just asked.. But I would still appreciate any more information you could share on this! Thanks!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 26, 2012

          Sorry — I’m not sure what the “this” refers to! (I just have your response, not the comment you’re responding to)

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 22, 2012

    Thanks for the help regarding when the Gospels first had names attached to them.

  18. Avatar
    jpgoldberg  November 1, 2012

    Do we have any references cases where we have more (or other) documentation about how “returning from the dead” stories get started about real people? Elvis, perhaps?

    That is, I’m wondering if we can learn something useful by considering what has happened in situation that we have more access to. Do these tend to follow the same sorts of pattern?

    Cheers,

    -j

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 1, 2012

      Good question. My sense is that what we have more of is “people who never really died even though the ‘authorities’ want you to think they did.”

  19. Avatar
    Sasha  November 13, 2012

    I wonder how you would critique my (admittedly amateur) explanation of why gospel writers tell us that some disciples doubted:

    A simple rhetorical device to say that the evidence was very convincing. The strongest example of this is the case of Thomas in the Gospel of John — the writer’s point is that readers should believe Jesus was raised without additional evidence. But if you happen to be a skeptical sort of person, you can rest assured that your faith is well-placed; the resurrection really did happen and it wasn’t just a vision; Jesus appeared as flesh and blood. If even Thomas was convinced, you should be too.

    Isn’t it likely that Matthew and Luke are doing the same sort of thing? Yes — the actual disciple would not have needed to see Jesus eat a piece of broiled fish, but it is easy to see how that detail would be effective in helping to convert someone who wasn’t a disciple. And thus completely understandable that both Matthew and Luke would change the story in that way (or that someone else telling them the story would have done so).

    • Avatar
      Sasha  November 13, 2012

      oops. I see from an answer to a different question that you say the Gospels were not meant to convert anyone, but rather to give additional information to those who had already converted. That would pretty much negate my argument. So let me revise it slightly. John’s theological agenda with the story of Thomas doubting is that believers should continue to believe even in the face of doubt or uncertainty, right? Why would we be surprised if some earlier Christians used stories of disciples doubting and getting more proof (even if theoretically unneeded) as a way of encouraging each other to keep the faith? In that case, it’s not surprising for such stories to show up in the Gospels.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  November 13, 2012

        It negates the idea that the episodes were there to convert people; but the could still be there either to assuage the doubts of Christian readers OR to provide Christians with ammunition they needed when speaking to non-Christians.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 13, 2012

      Yes, it could be! The doubting episodes provide grounds for including “proof,” so that they exist in order to make the proof available.

  20. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  December 26, 2012

    Bart, on a similar note: if the disciples did indeed expect Jesus to ‘resurrect’ then why where they surprised when the tomb was empty? Why did they want to give the corpse BURIAL rites if they expected the corpse to be reanimated soon? Why did they assume that somebody had taken the corpse? Especially if Jesus had told them beforehand that he HAD to die and ‘resurrect’?

    But John 20 seems to contradict this, it claims that the disciples didn’t know about a divine plan that would require a ‘physical resurrection’: “For they did not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.”

    As for the potential argument that the disciples expected a ‘spiritual resurrection’:
    1. Given that they had (allegedly) witnessed physical resurrections before why would they in THIS case expect a spiritual one (where the corpse would stay dead and in the tomb)?
    2. IF they believed in a ‘spiritual resurrection’ where the corpse would stay dead and in the tomb then doesn’t this prove that people, at that time, had different opinions about what it mean to be ‘resurrected’? That ‘resurrection’ was not exclusively supposed to mean ‘reanimated corpse walking out of a tomb’?

    Thank you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 27, 2012

      The Gospels are pretty clear that even though Jesus kept saying he’d be raised, the disciples were a bit dense and never heard him. All of which suggests that htis is story-telling, not history….

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  December 28, 2012

        Based on those stories ALL of Jesus’ early followers were very stupid (‘a bit dense’ is to put it nicely) since not one of them got it (especially since they’ve seen people getting raised from the dead and knew of such stories from the OT)! But maybe it’s easier to find a cult following among the ‘dense’? 😉

        Seriously though: why would the later authors portray them as so utterly stupid if in reality they weren’t like that? There has to be a (non-supernatural) reason, no?

        And why would they invent stories about an empty tomb if there wasn’t one? Because they understood ‘resurrection’ as a physical resurrection and concluded from this that since, according to them, Jesus got buried this must have resulted in an empty tomb then (with an ex-dead Jesus walking out of it)? Again, there has to be a (non-supernatural) reason for the existence of such a story line, no?

        Sorry for the many questions 😉

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 28, 2012

          The normal explanation for the failure of the disciples to understand is that hte predictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection are not historical, but were placed on the lips of Jesus by later story tellers. But then they had the problem of explaining why no one expected it to happen. Their solution: the disciples were just too thick.

          Empty tomb: similar problem. If you claim Jesus was raised, and someone points out that as a crucified man his corpse was probably tossed into a common grave, you had to have a story that he was actually buried in a well-konwn site that was later empty.

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