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The Disciples who Doubted the Resurrection

In this post I continue discussing some of the issues that I learned about for the first time, or changed my mind about, while writing How Jesus Became God. This post is about an issue that I figured out (for myself) for the first time; I don’t know that other scholars have pointed this out in quite the same way. (Or if they do, I’ve forgotten about it.) It is about the tradition scattered throughout the Gospels that the disciples “doubted” that Jesus was raised even when they had clear evidence that he had been – namely, that he was standing right in front of them. How do we explain this doubt tradition?


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 appear to anyone in Mark’s Gospel. But he does in Matthew, Luke, John, and the book of Acts. Most readers have never noticed this, but in every one of these accounts we find indications –or rather direct statements — that the disciples doubted that Jesus was raised.

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Christ as an Angel in Paul
Why I’m Obsessed with Jesus



  1. Fearguth
    Fearguth  April 9, 2014

    Which tradition, in your judgment, is older: the ’empty tomb’ tradition or the ‘Peter/Paul/Mary visions’ tradition?

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    JBSeth1  April 9, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    I too have always wondered why the 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus and why in John, the disciples who were fishing, did not realize that they were talking to Jesus?

    Was it because Jesus was different somehow and because of this, they didn’t recognize him?
    Furthermore, was perhaps this the main point that the authors wanted us to “get” about these 2 events.

    That is, after the resurrection, Jesus was “different” and people didn’t recognize him for who he was?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 10, 2014

      It’s a great question. Usually it’s thought that it is because he had not yet “revealed” himself to them. But I wonder if it could be because there were stories floating around that what some of the disciples saw was thought by a few of them to be Jesus and a few to be someone/something else?

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      richard gills  April 11, 2014

      the muslims assume that a jesus lookalike appeared to be nailed to the cross and the christians attack the muslim god and scream “deception,” but thier god can walk around unrecognised and the christians claim “miracle”
      i see double standards.

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    TomTerrific  April 9, 2014

    I can understand how individuals may have visions, but how can multiple individuals having the same vision(s) be explained?

    Mass hysteria?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 10, 2014

      I deal with this in the book. Masses of people see the Blessed Virgin Mary with some regularity!

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        Wilusa  April 11, 2014

        I know “group hallucinations” are possible. And I also know – from personal experience – that at least some people are capable of touching others’ minds and picking up tidbits from them. I think the study of these phenomena should be a high priority.

        In my city, a group tried through meditation to influence enough others’ minds during the month of January to reduce the number of assaults! They reported mixed results…depending on whether they’d also been trying (as I hadn’t heard at the outset) to reduce the number of nonviolent crimes, like burglary. I found the whole idea disturbing: if some or all of us do have unrecognized mental “powers,” it could be dangerous to awaken them – even with the best of intentions – until we know more about them.

  4. Bethany
    Bethany  April 9, 2014

    Something I thought about re: visions while I read the book last week: As you point out, people having visions of dead loved ones or religious figures is quite common. Yes, as you also point out, people coming to believe that loved ones or religious figures have been raised from the dead is quite rare. I see your point about how people today would likely have a different interpretation of these visions than first-century apocalyptic Jews (ghosts vs. resurrection). However, presumably these visions were just as common then as they were now, yet it seems even among first-century apocalyptic Jews people didn’t come to believe their loved ones had been raised from the dead that frequently (or did they?).

    So I have trouble seeing why “a few people had visions” would go to “Jesus was raised from the dead” in this instance, but not in others. John the Baptist’s followers presumably had similar beliefs re: the apocalypse and resurrection, and based on the frequency of such experiences I’d be surprised if none of them had visions of him after he died, but apparently John’s followers didn’t develop the widespread belief he had been raised from the dead the way Jesus’ did.

    What’s always struck me as surprising from the standpoint of ordinary psychological explanations was Paul’s vision: Paul didn’t love Jesus or even know him, and Jesus wasn’t a revered religious figure for him (quite the contrary) and yet he had a vision so dramatic and compelling it changed the course of his entire life.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 10, 2014

      It’s a very good question. And as with so much in history, I’d have to say that we don’t know the answer!

      • Avatar
        cobbr66  April 15, 2014

        Perhaps Paul, seeing the influence and commitment of the Gentile converts, created this “vision” in order to have a stake in these offerings that were being so freely given to the apostles? Saul was a highly-educated Jewish member. Maybe he started his own small business out of seducing uneducated Gentiles out of their wealth…just a thought.

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    fishician  April 9, 2014

    I try to point this out to believers and the normal response is a blank stare. I point out that Saul/Paul, who claims to have been a devout Jew, when he heard the beliefs of the Christians thought they were blasphemy, and only changed his mind after a “vision” which he thought was from God, and then flip-flopped and said those events were prophesied in the Scriptures. Again, a blank stare. To people who want to believe no amount of rational analysis will touch them. Yet somehow, with the help of thinkers like you, I was able to return to reason instead of blind faith. So keep speaking and writing.

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    Richard Thrift  April 10, 2014

    In works of fiction, a device often used to convince or persuade someone to accept a what another is saying as “true” or “real” is to have a character say something along the lines, “I doubted, too, but now I believe”. No doubt (I say that tongue-in-cheek) followers encountered disbelief from others as they told the resurrection story. Perhaps they employed a similar technique to address the problem and it became incorporated in the oral tradition. For example, “Your not alone in your doubt. Even some of the disciples doubted.” And as you indicated, as time passed, embellishments came into play.

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      Patrick Emerton  April 13, 2014

      Absolutely, Richard Thrift! Yes, the literary devices, the castings, are most important! If people were meant to relate (convert) to this whole ‘Jesus is raised and is God’ idea, then they were going to have to see themselves in the story; they would have to be able to relate to others who have had this the difficulty when trying believe such a concept; and if your exemplars for this struggle of belief are the Apostles who knew him, well then … surely it’s even harder for me … so I’ll just skip trying (suspend it) and do the vicarious scriptural belief, so I can get on with the benefits of the religion. Not only is it a needed literary device in the tradition, but it is also a needed psychological one if you are to “buy-in.” Your mind will need some forms to inhabit, to use as vehicles for processing. Thanks, Richard! And of course, Bart! Lead us on! It’s never dull.

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    timber84  April 10, 2014

    I wonder if the disciples believed in a physical resurrection or a spiritual one. The gospel writers argue a physical resurrection with Jesus eating fish and Thomas touching his wounds.

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    gavriel  April 10, 2014

    After a while, most community members discovered that it could be personally un-promotional to not have experienced a vision . Pretty soon a vivid dream or a shadow in the night would qualify.

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      EricBrown  April 11, 2014

      good observation. and they would believe it themselves, in most cases.

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    toejam  April 10, 2014

    I suppose that would also explain why many of the disciples appear to vanish after Acts 1.

    It could be a literary device (or more cynically, a sneaky persuasion technique) – with the author/s trying to paint the disciples in a more relatable way? “Hey, you can overcome your doubts – even the disciples doubted at first!”

  10. Avatar
    toejam  April 10, 2014

    I also wonder whether the whole resurrection thing was just a ruse by the leadership (the ‘pillars’, perhaps) to keep the community Jesus had built alive. It’s not that uncommon that when a cult leader dies, their followers come up with some narrative in which he is still “alive”. Keeping the illusion alive keeps the community together. I can imagine the followers looking to people like Peter and James for confirmation that every thing was going to be alright, so they decided to announce that they had “seen” Jesus.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 10, 2014

      I’m not familiar with the cult leader still be said to be alive (commonly). What are you referring to?

      • Avatar
        toejam  April 10, 2014

        I admit it may not be as common as I implied, but there are examples. When I typed that, I was thinking of the Heaven’s Gate cult, originally founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in the 1970s. Like Jesus, they saw themselves as fulfilling Biblical End Times prophecy and gained a small following. But when Nettles unexpectedly died in the mid-1980s, Applewhite was forced by circumstance to “reinterpret” the narrative, now saying that Nettles had gone ahead of the group and he was now receiving “revelations” from her. Such reinterpretations of the cult narrative was crucial for its continued existence. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Applewhite#Nettles.27_death

        I can imagine a similar pressure within the Jesus movement leadership, Peter and James etc., now faced with trying to explain away what just happened to Jesus. Simply accepting the blunt reality that Jesus *wasn’t* the Messiah would probably have had devasting psychological and material effects on the community, who, like Applewhite’s followers, had probably invested everything in it. I suspect the leadership would have felt tremendous pressure to somehow come up with a way to keep things afloat: “There is nothing to be concerned about – Jesus came to Peter last night and…” … and the rest is history…

        The only major difference between this and what you’re saying in your book, is that I see it as just as plausible that the resurrection “vision” served more of a functional role to keep the community afloat, rather than an honest one.

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    Dennis  April 10, 2014

    What is the significance of the number 40? Doesn’t that have to do with Noah’s 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus spending time alone in the desert 40 days? It looks like an authors bad attempt at connecting disparate storylines.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 10, 2014

      Forty is one of those “perfect” numbers in the Bible: 40 years in the Wilderness, and so on….

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    Dennis  April 10, 2014

    Oh no you didn’t! “The most common visions were reported by people who were twenty to twenty-nine years old”. Bold move Dr. Ehrman. I absolutely love how new discoveries about our brains have been incorporated into our understanding of the Gospels. Hello science. The inclusion of Gerd Lüdemann view of the bodily resurrection was genius btw. Made me chuckle.

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    Arlyn  April 10, 2014

    The need of the disciples to have proof of the resurrection in order to believe, seems at odds with the assertion that moderns should believe by faith alone…. and unless able, condemned to eternal punishment.

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    DarylIverson  April 10, 2014

    FYI: You cited Matthew 28:7 but its verse 17.

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    Wilusa  April 10, 2014

    I admit that the whole thing still puzzles me. *Especially* if only as few individuals as you suggest had actual “visions,” how did they convince people *beyond* the circle of the original Twelve and their closest associates?

    Let’s say Peter had a “vision.” He believed he was telling the truth about it. But any intelligent outsider should have suspected he was lying! He had a clear *motive* for lying: to keep the movement he’d belonged to alive, somehow, and to keep himself from looking like an idiot for having thought Jesus was the Messiah.

    To me, it only makes sense if something else was involved. Something like the “empty tomb” story, and/or there having been speculation among Jesus’s followers (outside the Twelve) that if his enemies killed him before he could complete his mission, God would restore him to life. I think that notion is possible, if they’d been doing a lot of thinking about the *general* resurrection…had been attracted to the movement *because* they hoped it would speed their reunion with deceased loved ones. If they’d been thinking about “resurrrection,” *why not* hope God would begin it with Jesus himself?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 10, 2014

      My experience in close-knit and fervent religious groups is that members are flat-out *inclined* to believe the claims/wonders/miracles that they hear of from other members of the group….

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  April 12, 2014

        Do you think that is where the report of 500 people seeing Jesus came from? When I read that, I think of all the churches you can attend today where there are people speaking in tongues, not to mention handling snakes and drinking poison.

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    theundyingfire  April 10, 2014

    Acts 1:3 says After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

    Nearly every translation renders the verse that way.

    What you’re saying and what it actually says are not one and the same.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 10, 2014

      I’m not sure what the contradiction is that you’re seeing. He spend forty days with them proving that he was still alive, no?

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  April 11, 2014

        Wasn’t the other person saying that the way it was worded, he might have offered all of his “many proofs” on the first occasion, and merely “appeared” on the later occasions? That would make a difference…a difference in the *types* of “visions,” however one might interpret them..

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  April 14, 2014

          I think the Greek is pretty clear that he was doing the “proofs” for forty days.

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    stuart  April 10, 2014

    Should the question be why did the disciples doubt, or why did the writers of the gospels tell us that they had doubt? I think the writers of the gospels, with the goal of having their stories believed, would like to portray the disciples as initially skeptical, rational witnesses who were not easily convinced. This would make the story more credible, pointing out that EVEN doubters were convinced. As you point out, it seems illogical, and therefore not likely historically accurate, that the disciples would need “many proofs” (if one proof is not sufficient, then it isn’t really proof is it).

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    RonaldTaska  April 10, 2014

    This is a very good and helpful post, but I really did not understand the appearances to the disciples as a “group” until the last sentence of the post. Thanks

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    Jim  April 10, 2014

    Re HJBG, you probably receive some comments on Gal 4.14. I haven’t read Gieschen or Garrett on this (their books are probably way over my head) but how certain is it that “angel” is a far superior rendering than “(human) messenger”? Is there some chance that this verse could simply imply “a messenger of God” rather than specifically a member of the angelic club.

    Also on a very minor point, should Matt 24.46 (page 136) be Matt 26.56.

    Awesome book btw.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 10, 2014

      Yes, AGGELOS means messenger or angel, but usually if it’s God’s messenger it is understood to be an angel….

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    TJDonahue  April 10, 2014

    Great post! All the doubting is unusual given that these disciples presumably followed Jesus around for years and knew him intimately. In particular, I could never figure out what was the purpose of the story of the long road to Emmaus where nobody recognizes him for the longest time, presumably over many hours, and then magically they do recognize him… perhaps it goes with the theme of the Kingdom of God being there right now, but only for those with eyes to see it. Maybe it’s driving home that idea.

    Regarding the entirely improbable scenario of Jesus coming back to life as a physical person, I have long assumed that the resurrection story has somehow morphed from Jesus being seen in a dream or vision, (as many deceased people are seen by their closest relatives), into Jesus physically walking around… and Jesus being “taken up into heaven” (as many of us might describe the passing of a relative), into Jesus having his physical body flown/lifted up into the clouds like a superhero might.

    Perhaps there were discussions that went like this:

    Person1: “What happened to Jesus after he was crucified?”

    Person2: “Well I heard that some disciples saw him somehow, I think they had a vision or a dream, I’m not entirely sure… and then afterward, they assume he went up into heaven to join his Father.”

    Person1 talking to PersonTHREE: “I heard that some disciples saw Jesus in Galilee, and after a few days or something he was taken up into heaven somehow.”

    PersonTHREE to PersonFOUR: “Yeah, Jesus came back from the dead I heard! I was told many disciples saw him in Galilee, and he communicated various things to them, and afterwards they watched him float up into the clouds…to join God his Father.”

    Given Marks silence on the matter, and given that Paul has only hearsay, plus his own vision to go by – suggests that this thesis could be the simplest, and as Occam would say, probably correct.

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