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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. Avatar
    tedandcarol1960  April 10, 2014

    Could it be that the doubting disciples stories are just literary creations from the pens of the authors of Matthew, Luke/Acts, and John to persuade converts along the lines of ” blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe” ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 10, 2014

      Possibly. But it’s such a consistent motif that one wonders whether there may not be something historical lying behind it.

      • Avatar
        tedandcarol1960  April 10, 2014

        Speaking of motifs, what do you think of the possibility that the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus not recognizing Jesus is modeled after the Old Testament story of Joseph’s brothers not recognizing Joseph? Luke seems to have also used the same idea in the story of the boy Jesus talking to the priests in the temple.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  April 11, 2014

          Hadn’t thought of that. Of course, there are a lot of “unrecognized person” stories in the Bible (including God who is not recognized by Abraham, e.g.)

          • NulliusInVerba
            NulliusInVerba  May 7, 2019

            If I remember those days of yesteryear (my youth in Catholicism) correctly , the phenomenon of the resurrected Jesus as an unrecognized person was explained away by holding that he was in his “glorified” body.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 8, 2019

            Ah good point. Yup!

      • Avatar
        asjsdpjk  April 11, 2014

        I have been wondering whether the gospel authors are trying to explain that not every Jew came to believe in Jesus although he came down to them (and not to the gentile communities of the gospel authors), and since the Jews didn’t believe in Jesus they were not saved and the destruction of the temple happened.

      • Avatar
        EricBrown  April 11, 2014

        Your response seems sound to me. It would be weird, all these different writers who have so many demonstrably different agendas in all other things, nonetheless all commonly take pains to include this particular rhetorical thrust.

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    jhague  April 10, 2014

    I agree with you that the stories of Jesus’ “appearances” were told and retold, embellished, magnified, and even made up over time. Could it also be regarding the “visions” that uneducated fishermen would be more likely to believe that they had a vision or be convinced that they had a vision? Just another thought on the spreading of the story.

    Do we see a progression of trying to prove Jesus’ appearances with the Gospels? No appearance in Mark, in Matthew, some saw but there was doubt, in Luke, people could touch him and Jesus could eat (so he was not a ghost), in John there needed to be an inspection of Jesus’ wounds and finally in Acts, he stayed around for 40 days (40 being the normal biblical length of time). This all shows readers that there were some who doubted but all their doubts were taken away through “proof.” So all the readers of the gospels should not have any issue believing that Jesus resurrected from the dead.

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    kidron  April 10, 2014

    I think the primary message to the early followers was about ‘the one like unto a son of man who was to lead the army of angels to end this present age and establish the kingdom of God.’. We have to rely on Josephus and not the gospels to read of how the High Priest asked James to address the recalcitrant priests who had built the wall in the temple. When James got on the wall he reminded everyone that Jesus was now at the right hand of God and was soon to return with the army of angels. While Jesus had used the term ‘son of man’ in various ways, both to reference this figure from the visions of Daniel and completely separately as a circumlocution to reference himself, his brother James had now fully bought into the idea that the whole crucifixion was God’s method of transporting Jesus to assume this lofty figure.
    The idea of a physical resurrection with Jesus wandering around Galilee was secondary and I believe was the product of an oral tradition fleshed out by the authors of the gospels. In them we go from a Jesus who can pass through locked doors, travel 60 miles from Jerusalem to Galilee by some method of teleportation and appear and disappear at will. One has to wonder about the appearance stories as they morph from visions by a single witness to having 500 people climbing out of their graves and wandering the streets of Jerusalem.
    Within the early believers were those who accepted that Jesus had risen and gone to assume his place in heaven and those who wished to insist that he first assumed a physical body. The tension between these two beliefs is shown in the difference in stories of him passing through locked doors and him eating fish and having Thomas touch his wounds.
    It is interesting that Paul only bears witness of a vision of the risen Jesus and later develops a story of some kind of body of flesh and bone … no blood. An incorruptible type of eternal body that everyone will eventually inherit.

  4. Avatar
    webattorney  April 11, 2014

    All I know is if Jesus appeared in front of me and told me he came back from dead, I would instantly be a “born again” Christian. After all, if the doubting Thomas had to be convinced by touching the resurrected Jesus, I think God would forgive me for having doubts — sort of good faith doubt as a human being.

  5. Avatar
    Rosekeister  April 12, 2014

    You spoke in your book of a time before any visions and not knowing when these visions occurred, whether it was a week, a month or several months later. Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet spoke to people and I wonder if the oral tradition did not start with witnesses to the resurrection or Jesus followers but rather with people who had first heard Jesus speak and then heard of his crucifixion. This would have caused these people to reflect on their memories of Jesus and the words of Jesus. The oral tradition then may have started with people who were not “believers” in any sense but who simply thought of Jesus as a teacher and their memories of his words.

    Even Peter’s “vision” may have been more of an understanding when he came to the belief that more than a teacher, Jesus was a prophet like Moses, leading to beliefs of his exaltation to the right hand of God. I wonder how this belief would have been received by the Galileans who had actually seen and heard Jesus? Do you think that the gospel stories of Jesus’ rejection by Nazareth, Capernaum and other towns were actually prompted by the rejection of Peter’s belief in Jesus as a prophet and messiah? Perhaps that is how Peter and James ended up in Jerusalem and explains how there came to be manuscripts that do not mention the resurrection tradition.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 13, 2014

      I think thise stories show that Jesus’ was not everywhere accepted, even by people who knew him.

  6. Avatar
    sedanunez  April 13, 2014

    Reading over this post reminded me a little of other Greek deities appearing to people who failed to recognize them. Zeus and Hermes visited the home of Baucis and Philemon who treated them as honored guest but did not recognize them as gods at first. Apollo appeared to and recruited sailors as his first priests who failed to recognize him until he told them. Dionysus went unrecognized by nearly all of the pirates who abducted him and again by several characters in Euripides’ “Bacchants”. I’d read that the theme became popular among the Greeks as a reminder to be hospitable to strangers because the gods could appear to them at any time and in any form.

    I’m not at all trying to stir up a mythicist argument and though I think Jesus was an historical figure, I just wonder if some or many of the details in the gospels represented views on what a divine figure would do, according to the expectations of people who grew up on the Greek myths. Jesus appearing incognito to a couple men on the road to Emmaus or being mistaken for the gardener reminded me ever so slightly of the kind of mischief the gods were often up to in the Greek myths.

    Is it possible then that the actual visions of Jesus after his death had by Peter, Mary, or a few others were much simpler, much less storybook-like? Were the original reports likely of 40-day long interactions with him and then floating up into the sky on a cloud in front of a multitude? Or were these later modifications to address ambiguity or credibility of simpler oral traditions that perhaps sounded like they could have just as easily been hallucinations/visions seen by only a few people?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 14, 2014

      I deal with these questions in my book. In part I argue that an ascension after 40 days is a later part of the tradition. The earliest “believers” simply knew that they had seen him alive, and that he was no longer there with them — and concluded then that he was up in heaven with God.

      • Avatar
        sedanunez  April 16, 2014

        Great! I just ordered and am looking forward to reading it.
        – Thanks

  7. Avatar
    prince  April 14, 2014

    I find it fascinating that an Ebionite tradition addresses those who believe Jesus did die and the speculations surrounding this event,…

    which says, “. . .

    they [the Jews] said (in boast), ‘’We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of God” – But they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no certain knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not – Nay, God raised him up unto Himself “…

  8. Avatar
    prince  April 14, 2014


    “And (remember) wen God will say (on the Day of Resurrection): “O ‘Jesus, son of Maryam (Mary)! Did you say unto men: ‘Worship me and my mother as two gods besides God?’ ” He will say: “Glory be to You! It was not for me to say what I had no ri”ht (to say). Had I said such a thing, You would surely have known it. ow what is in my inner-self though I do not know what is in Yours, truly, You, only You, are the All-Knower of all that is hidden and unseen.”

    “Never did I say to them aught except what You did command me to say: ‘Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.’ And I was a witness over them while I dwelt amongst them, but when You took me up, You were the Watcher over them, and You are a Witness to all things.”…..

  9. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  April 21, 2014

    Bart, I’ve nearly finished your new book now and I really like it so far. I’ve learned a ton of interesting new details. But I’m still wondering though: why assume that the first people to have become convinced that Jesus was ‘resurrected’ and exalted thought that his previous, physical, dead, human body was required (and transformed) in this process? Why wouldn’t they have believed that Jesus’ spirit/soul was directly resurrected into this new, heavenly, divine body?

    Paul seems to support this: a. by claiming that the ‘earthly tent’ has to be destroyed and that one has to leave the current body in order to be with the Lord (in a new ‘spiritual’ body) and b. by his seed analogy where he imagines the seed to be destroyed in the ground, releasing the ‘essence’ of it, which God then clothes according to its kind.

    Thank you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 21, 2014

      I do deal with that in the book. It’s because they were (precisely) Jewish apocalypticists, who believed that hte afterlife was a bodily, not a non-bodily, existence.

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  April 21, 2014

        Bart, I know and I’m not arguing for a resurrection that results in a ghost, or some other non-physical being without a body. Or about a resurrection limited to the ‘soul’ (like the Greek claimed). I’m arguing for a resurrection of the spirit/soul into a NEW, spiritual, divine, perfect AND, in some weird sense, physical body. Bypassing the corpse! Why would you need the corpse if the body you end up with is totally different from the old one anyway?

        Paul seems to indicate this (destroy old body > get new body). The only bodies that would actually be transformed would be the bodies of those alive at the Second Coming.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  April 22, 2014

          I think it’s because apocalypticists believed that God was the creator of the body; so he will also be its redeemer. He doesn’t give up on his creation.

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  April 23, 2014

            Bart, but how does that square with Paul’s claims that the ‘earthly tent’ has to be destroyed and be REPLACED by a ‘heavenly dwelling’? That one has to be AWAY from the ‘current body’ in order to be with the Lord? And what about his analogy that God will give the seed its true body only after it has died (and, I assume, thus released its ‘essence’)? He doesn’t talk about the seed being transformed into something else, he talks about God giving it a (new) body.

            Are those the typical resurrection beliefs of Jewish apocalypticists? Did Jewish apocalypticists really believe that ‘getting resurrected’ meant recomposing/healing a corpse AND then transforming it into a ‘spiritual, heavenly, perfect, glorious body without flesh and blood’?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  April 23, 2014

            Again, we’ve covered this before!

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  April 23, 2014

            correction: Did Jewish apocalypticists really believe that ‘getting resurrected’ meant having one’s corpse (or the dust it has become) reconstructed to its original form only to THEN have it transformed it into a ‘spiritual, heavenly, perfect, glorious body without flesh and blood’? Where do they mention this?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  April 23, 2014

            I think we’ve had this disagreement before!!

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  April 23, 2014

            Haha, yes, I guess you’re right 😉

            But you could maybe address Paul’s view of the ‘resurrection body’ and what he meant, according to you, with ‘being away from the body’ and ‘destroying the earthly tent’ in a separate post?

            Or did you already do that?

            Thank you.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  April 24, 2014

            I thought I did!

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  April 25, 2014

            Bart, I don’t want to be annoying but: in a separate post or in this thread? Because I’m still not sure how ‘being away from the body’ and ‘destroying the earthly tent’ squares with a ‘corpse revival/transformation’?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  April 25, 2014

            A long time ago, when you were repeatedly ( 🙂 ) making the point before….

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  April 26, 2014

            Ok, I’ll try to find it again then … And yes, I can be stubborn/persistent at times, sorry 😉

  10. Avatar
    TomSmith  April 22, 2014

    I know I may be getting a bit far afield, but I’m struck by how terse Paul is about a “vision” of Jesus. He briefly says “he appeared last of all to me.” The Damascus Road experience comes from the later Acts of the Apostles, but Paul says nothing about that (thus making its veracity highly suspect). The passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul goes on about being caught up to the third heaven seems to me to be Paul’s account of his “conversion,” and it is steeped in apocalytic, but never mentions involving a vision of Jesus. My own hunch, and I’ve read a few folks who agree, is that Paul underwent a very inward, mystical-apocalyptic kind of dream-vision.

  11. Avatar
    Isa  September 22, 2015

    The doubt theme was a merely literary device to address sceptical/hostile alternatives to the resurrection of Jesus (e.g. the accusation of stealing the body, reported in Mathew), a kind of “pre-emptive apologetics”, however, not to resurrection in general. The “people” in the gospel believe Jesus to be a resurrected prophet of the past, someone even considering him John the Baptist returned from the dead (e.g.Mk.6:14; 8:28; Lk.9:8). Moses appears with Elijah and chats with Jesus and Peter doesn’t doubt his identity, although he most likely had never seen the man before, since he had died centuries earlier. It is no wonder John,unlike the synoptics, has Jesus, not Simon,carry his cross and places a male disciple near the crucifix-doubts about his death, however, must not have been as widespread as those about his presumed resurrection.

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