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Why Would Jesus’ Disciples Doubt the Resurrection?

I was just now browsing through posts from seven years ago, and came across this one, which is related to questions I get from time to time.  It is an absolutely fundamental issue for Christian faith, but I almost *never* see anyone talk about it.  Surprising!  Here’s the interesting question and my response (back when I was starting just to do work on the resurrection stories for my book How Jesus Became God).

 

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.

The tradition that the disciples doubted that Jesus was raised from the dead – even though they have seen him – is in every Gospel that has resurrection appearances (i.e., Matthew, Luke, John; it may be suggested in Mark; and it is clearly implied as well in Acts).  But why in the world are they doubting he was there, if they’re seeing, hearing, and touching him???

Hey, ever have doubts?  You’re not alone.  Want your doubts answered and assuaged?  Read on.  Not a blog member?  Sorry, you’ll be stuck in your doubts for ever.  So join the blog!

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But the Women Who Did *NOT* Doubt the Resurrection
How Did We Get *These* 27 Books in the New Testament?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Uxorious  October 14, 2019

    Isn’t this theme of doubt due to the Gospels being later texts, and now have an audience that might doubt that Jesus rose from the dead. So we find characters to resonate with those that doubt. We are even told that people who believe without seeing like the disciples would be blessed. And this explains why the doubting theme is not found in the writings of Paul. Isn’t that a simple reasonable explanation?

  2. Avatar
    Anton  October 14, 2019

    It is also possible that no one was ever raised from the dead before so how could jesus do so. Therefore they doubted. They needed extraordinary convincing to believe.

    • Avatar
      wannes  October 16, 2019

      But all 4 gospels have a story of Jesus raising someone from the dead, all with at least some disciples present?

  3. Avatar
    Cathach  October 14, 2019

    Isn’t it also possible that these proofs to the doubting apostles were inserted to persuade the hearers of the Gospels? After all, resurrection is pretty implausible, and it would have helped to have characters in the narrative itself who also thought so and had their doubts satisfied.

  4. Avatar
    gwayersdds  October 14, 2019

    According to the “Gospel according to Me” it seems that if the resurrection didn’t occur then we have the 12 greatest liars the world has ever seen. I find it difficult to believe that people would martyr themselves for a lie. If we are not raised from the dead, regardless of the form of the body or spirit, if there is no afterlife then why act in this life like a good person. If, as some argue that it cannot be scientifically proven, then what is the definition of belief? If as some argue, you are cremated, how can there be a bodily resurrection. Then I remember a book by (I think) J.B. Phillips titled “Your God Is Too Small” which pretty much answers that question.If God can create man out of dust He can certainly put the ashes back together. If we try to put limits on the ability of God to do certain things, then truly your God IS too small. In any case that is what I choose to believe.

    • Avatar
      Iskander Robertson  October 15, 2019

      “According to the “Gospel according to Me” it seems that if the resurrection didn’t occur then we have the 12 greatest liars the world has ever seen.” —> there is no testimony from the 12. ” I find it difficult to believe that people would martyr themselves for a lie.” ——torah says that if the jews were to see a sign and wonder and cause family members to believe in other gods, then the jews are to stone these people(the ones who SEE the sign and wonder) to death. why would the people who saw sign and wonder willingly RISK their lives ? we do not know the STATE of the belief of these “martyrs” . mark says that the last peter was seen was DENYING and lying about jesus. maybe mark saw that peters credibility gets shot when things got tough for peter and 40 years later had to tell his audience not to be like peter. mark again and again, writing decades later, says that the disciples of jesus were not willing to die for jesus. i find it strange that he would not tell his readers about what a changed man peter was.

    • Avatar
      Tempo1936  October 15, 2019

      The gospels were written anonymously 40-50 years after Jesus’ death based on oral traditions. They were written by men who didn’t know Jesus, his disciples or have any direct knowledge of the life, death and burial of Jesus. The lives, beliefs and deaths of the “12” is largely based on legends written about much later in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Most likely the disciples stayed in Jerusalem which was the headquarters of the church. There is very little mention of Jesus by independent Jewish or Roman historians living at that time. Legends and oral traditions are not lies. They are just stories pasted on verbally. That’s why its called “the greatest story ever told”.

    • Avatar
      jhbaker731  October 15, 2019

      People find it difficult to believe that someone would martyr themselves for a lie? No… just ask Muslims that are blowing themselves up right and left. It’s not difficult to believe that happens at all.

    • Avatar
      thebookguy  October 17, 2019

      I wish to address this objection often stated by observers of early christian martyrs, the one in reference to those being martyred as a result of their beliefs, the objection is why would they risk their lives based on a lie. As I student of history, I find over and over again, hucksters and charlatans who are killed for deceiving and manipulating others in an attempt to gain power, wealth and notoriety. Let’s not be naive and suppose early christian martyrs were not in it for the later, they were human after all. Use your brain.

    • Avatar
      robsaxe  October 19, 2019

      You have a hard time believing followers would martyr themselves for a lie… Please explain then why the Islamic terrorists flew their planes into the twin towers. Didn’t they martyr themselves for a lie or do you also believe in the words of Mohammed (sp)?

  5. Avatar
    Maglaw  October 14, 2019

    I have a different take, and that is that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross. I’m thinking of his appearance when he is hungry and asks if they have anything to eat and they give him fish and bread and he seems to have a good appetite. So there he is, in the flesh, not the spirit. Crucifixion victims were normally kept on the cross for several days and ultimately died from stress and strangulation. (If someone knows more specifically the cause, I’m open to it.) Jesus was on the cross for 6 hours because it was Passover, and he already had a rich friend to take his body away. No one describes seeing him put into the tomb. My theory is that, as did happen in those days, sympathetic women would provide narcotics to drink from the sponge when it was raised to the victim’s lips. It is after he says “I thirst” and they give him the sponge that he “dies” – or at least appears to. I think he passed out. I believe that he was cared for and revived by Joseph of Aramathea and whatever friends could help him, and then later appeared to the disciples. Jesus had an active social life outside of what the disciples knew or the later writers reported – we know because of the many friends outside the group he eats with and socializes with. And (if this isn’t bad enough) I think he planned it all – the “betrayal’ using Judas who clearly didn’t know that what he did would mean Jesus getting crucified. Jesus said “Go do quickly what you have to do.” And when Judas saw what the repercussions were, he hanged himself. I know I am pretty much alone in this belief, but it answers quite a few questions for me.

  6. Avatar
    Maglaw  October 14, 2019

    Want to add one more thing to that – Josephus reports in his History that he, himself, had a friend who was crucified and when he interceded with the centurian (or whoever was in charge) his friend and two others were taken down. This was after a full day on the cross. The other two died, but his friend survived.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2019

      Yes, the theory has been around a long time. See Hugh Schonfield, The Passover Plot!

  7. Avatar
    fishician  October 14, 2019

    The gospels suggest that women were the first to “see” the risen Jesus. I can imagine the men were eager to follow suit; can’t have those women be the only witnesses! But not all of them fell in, hence the doubting traditions. Makes sense to me.

  8. epicurus
    epicurus  October 14, 2019

    Kind of related to this topic for me is Acts 1:3 where resurrected Jesus spends 40 days teaching them- 40 full solid days is a lot of intense teaching time. yet they seem to know so little, or at least don’t get any instructions in exactly what the plan is – how to deal with a guy namd saul who will show up claiming apostlic authority, exactly what does one have been to believe to be saved, circumcision or not, eat with gentiles or not, are all foods now clean, is there a trinity etc.

  9. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  October 14, 2019

    Having read “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger what I found fascinating was that after the failure of the predictions of the 1950s UFO cult prophetess only one or two members leave. The vast majority stick it out and double down their efforts to spread the word. The cult still exists to this day.

    So maybe a couple of them became disillusioned with Jesus, but it’s quite reasonable to assume most stayed even if they felt Jesus failed to do what he promised. They could just reinterpret what he said.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2019

      John Gager took taht ball and ran with it, with respect to early Christianity, in his book From Kingdom to Community.

    • Avatar
      mtavares  October 15, 2019

      This UFO story comment reminds me of a great book by Tavris and Aronson: Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me). It shows what great lengths we can go to in reducing the mental pain of cognitive dissonance, and how we can prioritize keeping our beliefs consistent over acknowledging new information. Ramachandran’s work also comes to mind where he shows how his patients will prefer to make up stories rather than acknowledge their odd hallucinations and behaviors. Very humbling to think about what we could be constructing, even in more normal circumstances.

  10. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  October 14, 2019

    We see for centuries after thst Gospels and epistles being written trying to create a narrative of one version of the Resurrection over another.

    I thought the article might touch on the reasons the Gospel writers stressed so much that Jesus had to prove his bodily Resurrection. Could it be it was in response to certain believers who were saying Jesus rose spiritually?

  11. Avatar
    tadmania  October 14, 2019

    The fact that the entirety of the NT depends on the resurrection lends support to the prospect that the writers were trying to make an ‘end run’ around the unavoidable doubts of future converts. “Of course you don’t believe in the resurrection! We didn’t either…. until Jesus appeared to us physically.” The verses cited above seem of an ‘ad hoc’ style when compared, do they not?

  12. Avatar
    Todd  October 14, 2019

    I honestly think there is no definitive textual answer to the endless debate of such issues as the resurrection. I view Jesus in other ways, primarily as a man who brought to us the idea of unconditional love and how we can love other people unconditionally. The mysterious (magical) aspects in the New Testament are unprovable and I would prefer to be honest about my human doubts concerning them. I think that the unconditional love taught and demonstrated by Jesus is far more relevant to us as we try to live a good life now and let us just keep such matters as the resurrection a mystery we can not prove.

    • Avatar
      robsaxe  October 19, 2019

      While I do agree that the message you describe is indeed worthy of admiration, it’s origins go further back and are not exclusive to the nt. “Love thy neighbor”, for simplicity sake, ensures the survival of the tribe, clan, what have you. The fact that the humans species has been around well before the written word is evidence of this. If this hadn’t been the case, would we be here to have this pleasant conversation?

  13. Avatar
    doug  October 14, 2019

    Was Jesus’ supposed resurrection believed by some of his earliest followers to be the beginning of the general resurrection of the coming Kingdom of God? And, if so, did they have a general idea of how long it would be until the rest of the resurrections would occur?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2019

      Yes! And they thought the rest was going to happen very soon. Probably next week sometime. Even Paul still thought so.

  14. Avatar
    Koryneaustin  October 14, 2019

    Is it plausible or is there any evidence for the notion that the disciples “visions” were influenced by Paul’s writings? Also, is there any evidence that Paul actually held the status he claimed before his vision? Or that he actually persecuted Christians?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2019

      No, these visions had to have happened long before Paul converted, and decades before his writings.

      • Avatar
        Koryneaustin  October 15, 2019

        Okay. Also I don’t understand how we have 3 synoptic gospels. If Matthew and Luke borrowed from Matthew then why can’t it be argued that we really have one synoptic gospel, with two “recreations.” I know they have other material in them, but could it not just be additions to what Matthew said as embellishments.

        Also, if Christianity were real, it’s crazy that people will “go to Hell” for unbelief, when the closest followers apparently all struggled with doubt and unbelief.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 16, 2019

          We have three documents. Two of them (Matthew and Luke) borrowed from the earlier (Mark), but added more material. So they are different books. But they can be placed in columns next to each other to see their many similarities and their many differences. “Synpotic” means “seen together.” In this case, that means, more or less, side-by-side.

  15. Avatar
    flshrP  October 14, 2019

    It’s just an instance of a group of intensely indoctrinated believers facing a crisis of faith. We know how these very human situations play out. What the Gospels are describing is what now is called cognitive dissonance resolution. The mental shock of the Crucifixion had caused every Apostle to doubt that there was a resurrection (i.e. they were very conflicted, the dissonance between crucifixion and indoctrination that Jesus was the “Son of God”).

    It was only when Peter and Mary Magdalen claimed to have had visions of the risen Jesus, that the others in that group began to have similar visions (the resolution of that conflict). If you wanted to remain a member of the group, you had to buy into these visions of resurrections and claim that you could see the risen Jesus also.

    There was nothing actually “objective” about these visions, in the sense that any rational person would agree they are “real”. They were real only to that in-group of highly indoctrinated believers at first. Then the Resurrection became the central article of belief—if you wanted to be a Christian, you had to believe first and foremost in the fantasy of the Resurrection. The Gospel stories are a simple-minded fantasy of a journey from doubt to belief.

    • Avatar
      robsaxe  October 19, 2019

      Other than the last vitriolic sentence, not saying I disagree with it btw, great comment. Thank you.

  16. Avatar
    Hon Wai  October 14, 2019

    Could some of the “doubting” traditions e.g. Matt 28:17, be doubt concerning something else other than actuality of the resurrection? Matt 28 seems to be doubt about practice of worshipping Jesus (doubt over his divinity).

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2019

      It’s usually read that they realized who he was but some weren’t so sure. Those who were sure worshiped him. All that means is that they bowed in front of him. (It’s the same word as used for people bowing before a king)

  17. Avatar
    Epikouros  October 14, 2019

    Is there really any history at all in the gospels? For a long time, I assumed there were at least a few historical facts sprinkled in among the fantasy stories. But I’m beginning to wonder about that, especially after re-reading them again in the cold light of advanced adulthood. 🙂 As far as I can tell, everything in the gospels can be traced back to two sources: the letters of Paul and the Old Testament (where the gospel authors found many miracle stories and references that they could rework and attribute to Jesus). So where’s the history, really? And if any of it really happened, why does Paul say nothing about it? I know scholars have come up with lots of rationalizations for Paul’s silence, but honestly? He never had “occasion” to mention any parables or miracles or empty tombs in his letters? How could he keep his mouth shut about it, LOL? Paul was a lot of things, but he was not reticent. 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2019

      There is absolutely historical material in the Gospels. If you’re intersted, see my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet. I explain how it all works. They definitely didn’t get their informatoin about Jesus from Paul or the Old Testament (neither of whom tell any of the Gospel stories)

      • Avatar
        Epikouros  October 15, 2019

        Interesting. Though the Eucharist story seems to come from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (written at least 15 to 20 years before the first gospel). The miracles seem to derive from sources like the Elijah/Elisha narratives in the Old Testament (reworked and attributed to Jesus).

        • Bart
          Bart  October 16, 2019

          I wouldn’t say they *derive* from the OT; the miracles Jesus does are not just like those of the others. I’d say they were *influenced* by these stories, in some instances; and in others not. (And probalby influenced by lots of other stories we no longer have access to, Jewish and pagan)

  18. Lev
    Lev  October 14, 2019

    The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples sometimes described him as having a different appearance. He looked different. I think that’s why some doubted as they didn’t recognise him as the guy they had been following for the last few years.

    I reckon this was due to his transformation from mortal to immortal, from a human to a divine being. Paul described this in 1 Cor 15:40 when discussing resurrected bodies: “There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another.”

  19. Avatar
    benmason32@gmail.com  October 14, 2019

    Professor Ehrman, I have long thought that the resurrection was a matter of belief and not one of “fact.” As you so marvelously point out, if it were actual, historical fact, in the physical realm, then there could have been no doubt. Yet, doubt extends back in time to the very days following the event, even among those who “saw” it. The Bible gives a number of clues, other than the passages you note in your post. For example, Mary Magdalene did not recognize the risen Jesus, even when face to face with him outside the tomb: “…she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus” (John 20:14). Or again, in Luke’s Emmaus road pericope, the two travelers (supposedly, followers of Jesus who had known him pre-crucifixion, did not recognize him for the entire walk to Emmaus, though chatting with him all the way. They did not recognize him until “…he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). Wasn’t this oddity the reason for the evangelization efforts of the apostles, to encourage (and instill) belief in “resurrection to new life” they believed was offered by emulating the life of Jesus? Even St. Paul seemed to claim almost overtly that resurrection was a spiritual event. He even appears to ridicule the Corinthians for their questions about literal resurrection of dead bodies, “But, someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool!…” (1 Cor. 15:35). He then continues in verses 42-44, “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” Was it this understanding of the early believers that drove the Christian movement precisely because of the absence of fact (physical evidence)? Did they understand, as the author of Hebrews did that, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things NOT seen” (Heb.11:1, emphasis added)? Has the resurrection been literalized over time when it was never understood that way originally?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2019

      I’d say anyone after the very first disciples were basing it on what they heard, rather than personal experience. Those who had “visions” were basing it on experience. But in either case, yes, it is faith. But the original belief was that it had literally happened, that Jesus was physically raised. Paul is dealing with later Christians who were saying htat it’s not *literal* but “spiritual*. He wants to insist that it was an actual bodily resurrectoin. I’ll be dealing with this in my book on the afterlife coming out in the spring.

    • Avatar
      hankgillette  October 30, 2019

      “Or again, in Luke’s Emmaus road pericope, the two travelers (supposedly, followers of Jesus who had known him pre-crucifixion, did not recognize him for the entire walk to Emmaus, though chatting with him all the way. They did not recognize him until “…he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35).”

      Isn’t that story very much like someone’s description of a dream?

      “We were walking along, and this man joined us. We did not recognize him, but talked all the way to Emmaus. Then when breaking bread, we suddenly saw that the man was Jesus! Then, suddenly, he was not there.”

  20. Avatar
    JDM  October 14, 2019

    Professor Ehrman, you wrote: “What’s really going on is that the early Gospel writers knew full well that there were members of the twelve disciples who never did come to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.”

    Do the texts you cite actually show this?

    The texts clearly show *initial* doubt, that some (all?) of the twelve disciples psychologically needed co-witness: multiple, corroborating sense experiences of sight, touch, etc. But which texts, would you argue, show that some (most?) disciples persisted to doubt after the visionary appearances came to an end?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2019

      You need to note: I say that is my *hunch*. I’m not stating it as a fact. And I certainly am not arguing that “most” of the disciples thought this. But if some really did doubt it — i.e., they didn’t buy it — that would make sense of the texts in their totality. there are so many of these “doubting” texts that it must have been a big deal. The authors of the texts, of course, want to affirm that everyone believed. Just as most readers today want to affirm. But my view is that you probably wouldn’t have had all these doubting texts unless there really was an issue of some not believing it.

      • Avatar
        JDM  October 16, 2019

        Thank you for the response, Professor. I don’t have a personal horse in this race, for what it’s worth. Also, I do understand that this idea is a hunch, and should have noted so.

        I agree that these doubting texts exist because there was some issue of, well, doubting. My question is on the duration of the doubt. Can the textual evidence support the kind of protracted doubt – that some of the twelve never came to believe – that you’re considering?

        I also agree that the authors would want to affirm that everyone believed, and so if some of the twelve never did, the authors would have reason to omit that. But that’s my point. If we don’t have unambiguous textual evidence that some of the twelve “never” came to believe, then what evidence do we have to go on?

        At any rate, interesting idea!

        • Bart
          Bart  October 16, 2019

          My sense is that the authors of these texts knew that their readers knew about it, and had to try to explain it away.

          • Avatar
            JDM  October 19, 2019

            Thanks again.

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