On his Escaping Christian Fundamentalism blog recently, Gary Matson looked at this verse in which the remaining disciples supposedly encounter the risen Jesus. Gary discussed why they should have doubted what they are reported as witnessing, concluding that what they were actually ‘seeing’ was a ghost. A commenter called Rachel, who has also commented here, objected, arguing that the verse didn’t mean what it actually says. I responded with the following:
Well, let’s not, Rachel, accept what the text actually says. Let’s impose our own meaning that fits with what we want to believe. Then we can insist that none of the 11 doubted, even though the text clearly states they did. Let’s supplement that particular sleight of hand with the unproven myth that all the disciples except one subsequently died for their faith (even though there’s no evidence they did and even though we know nothing about the actual beliefs of the few who may have been martyred and even though zealots today are prepared to die for their beliefs despite never having seen the risen Jesus) and, hey presto, Gary’s hypothesis is disproved.
Except, of course, it isn’t. The resurrection accounts were written 40 years or more after the supposed event by people who weren’t there; and yet still they preserve the inconvenient fact that some of the disciples remained unconvinced by the visions and apparitions others of their number thought they’d experienced.
Rachel came back with this (my responses are in red with additional comments in blue).
Neil, you write the following as if you know for a fact (100%) that “there’s no evidence” — “(even though there’s no evidence they did and even though we know nothing about the actual beliefs of the few who may have been martyred and even though zealots today are prepared to die for their beliefs despite never having seen the risen Jesus)”
If I understand Rachel here, she isn’t happy I can’t prove a negative. However, if there’s no evidence, there’s no evidence. This in itself is a fact.
Neil, none of the 11 apostles/disciples of Jesus lied and died and convinced their families and loved ones to die for a fictional character. Unlike you and Gary, they literally saw the resurrected Jesus (that was enough evidence for them) and they spread the gospel (the good news of the Promised Messiah and that in Him the Old Testament pointed)
You’re right, Rachel, we have no evidence that any of them did any of this. This was the point I was making: there is no historical evidence whatsoever that indicates 10 of the 11 died for their belief in the resurrection. With the exception of James we simply don’t know how, when or why they died. I’m sorry you were unable to grasp this point.
Neither is there evidence ‘they literally saw the resurrected Jesus’. In fact, the only evidence there is, in the gospels, is sketchy, inconsistent and strongly suggestive of visions and apparitions, as Gary suggests. The only eye-witness report we have of the resurrected Jesus, that of Paul, is precisely of this nature, with Paul claiming the other sightings of Jesus were the same as his.
You say that “zealots today are prepared to die for their beliefs despite never having seen the risen Jesus.” Care to give me examples of Christian Zealots today “prepared to die for the risen Jesus” sight unseen?
Are you really questioning whether zealots today are prepared to die for a character they’ve never actually seen? A simple Google search brings up numerous Christian sites, either celebrating or lamenting this very fact. Here’s one to start you off: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/11-christians-killed-every-day-for-their-decision-to-follow-jesus/
And like Gary, there you go saying: “we know nothing!” Okay, I will agree with you and Gary, both of you have convinced me totally -— you guys know nothing! You will no longer get any argument from me! You guys know nothing! I am now fully convinced by your: “We (Gary and Neil) don’t know” true statement.
While I didn’t point it out to her, Rachel here assumes that acknowledging ‘there is no evidence for..’ means the same as ‘we know nothing’. A very basic and disingenuous error.
Ironic isn’t it, Neil, you do not believe the New Testament accounts as historical events, and yet you like Gary proceed to prove your case by using “fictional” accounts! Go figure!
Gary and I look at the texts as they are and draw our conclusions accordingly. We, like many others outside the evangelical bubble, acknowledge that the gospels are literary creations and as such are historically unreliable. The evidence they present for an actual, physical resurrection is weak, inconclusive and distorted beyond recognition by an agenda intended to promote belief – as they themselves admit.
You, on the other hand, argue entirely from a position of faith, which prevents you from seeing what is actually there, making you dismissive of external evidence and compelling you to supplement your arguments with assumptions (for example, that most of the disciples died for their belief in the resurrection.) It also prompts you to add unnecessary ad hominem insults. I’m sure Gary is as glad as I am that you’re slinking away in defeat.
Some of the disciples doubted that what they were seeing – apparition? bright light? hallucination? – was really Jesus returned from the dead. It may be the case that this detail was included by the creator of Matthew’s gospel, 50 years after the event it describes, to disparage the favoured disciples of other early Christian communities. The disciples they looked to weren’t as good as those of Matthew’s cultists because they doubted. Who knows. Whatever the reason for including it, the verse is awkward and embarrassing for believers today. How to explain it (away)? Even some of those who ‘saw’ the risen Jesus weren’t convinced it was him. They were right. It wasn’t.
Just last Friday, a pastor saw the Risen Lord.
I wonder: how different is Pastor Stovell Weems’ sighting from those of the disciples and Paul? Would you say it was just as real? Less real? Completely inauthentic? How do we decide?
For me, his encounter is every bit as real as those experienced by the disciples. I defy anyone to demonstrate otherwise.
Of course, accounts of visions, hallucinations and dreams, however old or however new, are not evidence that the resurrection really happened. Paul happily admits that his experiences were in his head (Galatians 1.16). It is entirely reasonable to conclude that Pastor Weems’ encounter with an apparition-like Risen Lord is exactly the same as Paul’s, and identical to that experienced by Mary, Peter and John in the gospels. Like theirs it’s vague – “I could sense his personality”, “I didn’t see his face” – and dream-like.
There is a difference though: the nutty pastor recounts his hallucination first-hand. The disciples’ encounters were reported third, fourth, fifth… hand, decades down the line.
Isn’t it amazing how modern Christians see Jesus in clouds (the picture in the previous post was taken from a site that genuinely believes it was Jesus in the sky – there were lots of others examples there too), on toast, in their own whipped-up emotions, through voices in their heads and as a result of inner-visions but deny that the original resurrection appearances were just the sort of thing? No, Jesus really appeared then, they say, resurrected in his damaged body – he showed Thomas the holes in his side, didn’t he?
Given people’s propensity for seeing things that are not really there – figures in clouds, the sense of a supernatural presence (‘Mother Mary comes to me’) – isn’t it more likely the original ‘manifestations’ of the risen Lord were precisely this; the same sort of ‘sightings’ that people claim to experience today? Maybe not on toast admittedly, but in their heads, in the euphoria of shared worship, in their need for comfort? I’ve done it myself, when I was a Christian. I sensed Jesus’ presence in carefully stage-managed worship, in intense prayer, in what I took to be his response to those prayers. Of course, these were nothing more than my interpreting my own emotions as something from outside myself; an intense and reassuring self-delusion.
Is there evidence of this sort of process in the accounts of the risen Christ? Sure there is – Paul’s encounter is a vision in his head (Galatians 1.16; 1 Corinthians 9.1 & 15:8), while the gospels have Jesus say that whenever two or three of his followers are gathered together, there he will be amongst them (Matthew 18.20). He cannot have meant that, long after he’d left the Earth, he’d be physically present. Rather, this is a later explanation of the intense emotion early believers felt and decided could only be Jesus’ mystical presence – his so-called holy spirit (which isn’t called ‘The Comforter’ for nothing.) They were doing what I did and what millions of Christians still do today – interpreting the feelings they shared in these worshipful contexts as visits from the risen Lord. Later, the gospel writers made Jesus ‘predict’ just such experiences and then firmed them up, so that the accounts of warm feelings and visions became, retroactively, encounters with a physically manifested person.
That’s how it happens today – a vaguely human-like shape in the clouds or on toast and warm feelings become an experience of Jesus. We readily see human form where there is none (we are psychologically primed to seek out human faces) and attribute external agency to phenomena that don’t have any. No reason to suppose it was any different back in the first century.
Last time, I provided evidence that Jesus’ original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with any mystical salvation plan constructed around his supposed resurrection. My six references demonstrated that, even after his death, the disciples adhered to Jesus’ original message: God’s Kingdom was coming soon and they were going to rule over it. Here are six more reasons we can be sure this was the case:
7. Our earliest sources, Q and the gospel of Mark, do not give much credence to the resurrection as an actual event: Q records no sayings of the risen Jesus and Mark has no resurrection appearances; it ends with the women who discover the empty tomb deciding not to tell the disciples about it. In Mark’s gospel, then, the disciples are not even aware the tomb is empty, let alone that Jesus has returned from the dead. We can conclude from this that the community that produced Mark’s gospel, the supposed resurrection was not significant in and of itself.
8. Paul tells us that the disciples’ gospel was not the same as his, despite the fact he too believed the Kingdom wasn’t far off (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The disciples, he says in 2 Corinthians 11.4-5 and Galatians 1.6; 2.11-21, were preaching ‘a different gospel’. Different from his, certainly, but the same as the ‘good news’ Jesus proclaimed: Jewish people should prepare for the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth (Mathew 9.35; 15.24), when, as Jesus himself had promised them, the disciples would judge the restored tribes of Israel and rule over them. It is, as we have seen, out of the question that they would jettison this aspect of the ‘good news’, given to them by Jesus himself.
9. Because the disciples – and Jesus’ brother James – saw the new Kingdom as intended for Jews only, as Jesus had before them (Matthew 10.23), they insisted that any Gentile converts must be circumcised; must become Jewish (Galatians 2.7). Paul, of course, objected to this requirement and throws tantrums about it in his letters (Galatians 5.1-12; Philippians 3.3). But like Jesus, the disciples saw no place for Gentiles, the unrighteous, in the new age; those who didn’t convert would, of necessity, be dispatched to eternal punishment (Matthew 25.31-46).
10. As far as the disciples were concerned, therefore, it was entirely for their own good that converted Gentiles be circumcised (Galatians 6.12-13) as this was their only guarantee of a place in the new Kingdom. What this tells us is that a salvation formula, such as that dreamt up by Paul, had no part in the disciples’ ‘good news’.
11. Wherever they appear – in Paul’s writing, the gospels, Acts – the disciples are portrayed as being at odds with an incantational, faith-based Christianity. The Bible attests, even with Paul’s new religion superimposed, that they held to a different gospel, a different sense of what Jesus’ life meant and a different notion of their place in the coming Kingdom. And wouldn’t they be the ones to know? They knew Jesus, spent time with him, listened to his teaching, bought into his misguided mission and had sufficient understanding of it to spread his ‘good news’ to fellow Jews, both while he was still alive and afterwards (Matthew 10.23; Luke 9.1-2).
12. The New Testament is testimony to the failure of everything Jesus and the disciples stood for; their ‘news’ that God was soon to turn the Earth over to the meek and that they would then rule the only people who mattered, the twelve tribes of Israel, with everyone else thrown into outer darkness (Luke 13:28). Jesus himself, of course, would return at some point to be top dog, God’s representative on Earth – his anointed one. None of this happened.
If only it had been allowed to rest there, we might not know today of Jesus and his mad ideas. Instead, Paul stepped in, reinterpreted the whole ridiculous enterprise and bequeathed the world a set of different but equally absurd beliefs. And the rest is history: religious wars, pogroms, inquisitions, suppression, superstition, clerical child abuse, Pat Roberston. Is this the Kingdom that Jesus and his closest associates foresaw? Decidedly not. But it is their legacy.
As I discussed last time, there are indications throughout the New Testament that Jesus’ original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with a mystical salvation plan. There are clues too that the disciples clung to this original message – they’d heard it from Jesus himself, after all – even as other interpretations began to supersede it.
Let’s take a look at the evidence:
Jesus tells his chosen twelve, which includes Judas, that they will rule with him in the age to come (Matt 19.28). As Bart Ehrman points out1, the fact that Jesus evidently had no foreknowledge of Judas’ later betrayal means this promise undoubtedly goes back to Jesus – it is unlikely later believers would have made it up. Though their names vary between gospels, Jesus hand-picked twelve men to rule with him.
He appoints twelve disciples quite specifically and later tells them privately that this is so they can judge and each rule one of the twelve tribes of Israel once God’s Kingdom arrives (Luke 22.30).
When Judas kills himself, the remaining eleven disciples think it vital to appoint a replacement twelfth (Matthias, in Acts 1.21-26). The number remains significant to them. How would they be able to rule the twelve tribes of Israel if there were only eleven of them? There had to be twelve for this very purpose. Even after Jesus’ death and supposed resurrection, the disciples are still preparing for the end of the age he prophesied and for their positions of power in God’s Kingdom.
By the time the synoptic gospels were written, Jesus secret teaching that the Twelve would rule alongside him in the new kingdom had become common knowledge (hence its inclusion in the gospels). Given that he told them in private they’d be judges and rulers, it can only have been the disciples who later broadcast this information. And why would they do this? Because it was an integral part of their good news. Furthermore, all three synoptic gospels include a range of episodes in which the twelve are castigated for their presumption (eg: Mark 10.37-41; Matthew 20.22-24; Luke 22.24-30). These have all the hallmarks of stories created later, when a different ‘good news’ was emerging, specifically to mock the disciples’ belief.
In much the same way, the disciples are consistently depicted as having no real understanding of Jesus’ mission (Mark 9.30-32; 10.35-45). And they don’t, in that they have no understanding of the later reinterpretation of Jesus’ significance. How could they? By the time the gospels came to be written, the mystical-Christ version of Christianity had started to take hold. Paul’s salvation plan and the supposed resurrection were beginning to assume greater importance than Jesus’ original message. How could the disciples, 40 years earlier, have known that this was going to happen? How could Jesus? They have to be portrayed as being largely ignorant of later developments – developments which, in any case, they opposed when they did encounter them (Acts 9.26; Galatians 1.6; 2.11-14; 3.1-3).
In fact, Jesus teaching – all of it – was predicated on his belief that the Kingdom of God was ‘at hand’, imminent, about to happen real soon (Mark 1.15; 9.1; 13.30; Matthew 10.23; 16.28; 24.34), and that when it did, he and his chums would be there ruling it. It is unthinkable his inner circle would abandon this teaching, even after he died, in favour of something else. Any visions they had of him returned from the dead would only have reinforced their commitment to his ‘good news’; resurrection, after all, was a sure sign of the Kingdom’s arrival (Daniel 12.2-3).
To be continued…
1 Ehrman, Bart D., The Lost Gospel of Judas, p146
Here’s what we know so far:
There is no evidence the disciples were martyred.
There is no evidence the disciples were martyred simply for believing that someone they knew had returned from the dead. In the age in which they lived such a claim wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. The gospel accounts themselves record instances of resurrections other than Jesus’ and of miraculous manifestations of the dead. This was how people thought.
There is no evidence that believing a dead man was alive again was a capital offence. Really, who could possibly care? Even Paul did not suggest that, as Saul, he liked to persecute early believers because of this belief.
The gospel preached by Jesus and his disciples was completely different from that promoted by Paul. Their good news was about the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, when the Romans would be overthrown and every injustice made right (Luke 13.30). And while they may not have made it public, Jesus and his friends believed they would be the judges and rulers of this new system.
This ‘good news’ existed long before Jesus died and long before Paul came along to change its nature entirely (Matt 10.23).
Matthew and Luke, while including resurrection stories inspired by ‘visions’ like Paul’s, preserve, as does Mark, Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching. His promise of the coming Kingdom and his private teaching that he and his disciples would rule the new age together remain a significant part of the synoptic gospels.
Jesus was executed for his seditious views (Mark 15.2, 9 & 32; John 19.19-20)
It is likely, if they were martyred at all, that the disciples were killed for the same reason.
There are further indications in the New Testament that the original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with a mystical salvation plan and that the disciples clung to this original message – they’d heard it from Jesus himself, after all – even as other interpretations began to supersede it. We’ll look at these indications next time.
As we have seen, the available evidence does not support the idea that Jesus’ original followers subscribed to a miraculous physical resurrection. It suggests instead that their beliefs centred on the promises Jesus had made about returning from heaven as ‘the Son of Man’ to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth, which they would then rule with him.
Elements of this promise survive in the gospels as we have them, even if there are, in all four, obvious concessions to Paul’s Christ figure; the gospels were, after all, written after Paul’s version of Christianity had begun to take hold. Significantly, the promise of the triumphant appearance of the Son of Man ‘within this generation’ is present in Q, the source of many of the sayings common to both Matthew and Luke’s gospels that they didn’t get from Mark. It’s also there in the sources (L and M) peculiar to each of the gospels. Obviously L, M and Q pre-date the gospels that later made use of them. Scholars think Q could have been written as early as 40CE, a few years after Jesus’ death, with some sayings earlier than that. It pre-dates Paul too and reflects a tradition that has nothing to do with him or his convoluted theology.
Q, in fact, has no sayings attributed to the resurrected Jesus, nor anything from his trial, the crucifixion or resurrection.1 How can that be? Were they not important to the early believers who compiled it? The answer can only be, no, they weren’t. For the creators of Q what mattered was what Jesus said – his ethical teaching and his promise to return as the Son of Man, within his hearers’ lifetime, to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on Earth in which the disciples would reign alongside him (Matthew 19:28). To be part of this Kingdom, people had to become righteous, not have it gifted to them (Matthew 5.20 & 48). This was the ‘good news’ for Jesus’ earliest followers, the gospel as it is preserved in the Q source.2 The lie that the disciples were to rule the world with Jesus inspired them to spread the news of the coming Kingdom; they demonstrate little interest in a reanimated dead man or a magical salvation formula.
So, did the disciples die for their faith in the Risen Jesus? Highly unlikely. They don’t seem, despite the later stories in which they feature, to attach any importance, at least in Q, to visions of a resurrected god-man.
How did they die, then? The simple answer is that, for most of them, we don’t know. They could have met their end when the original church community in Jerusalem was annihilated by the Romans in 70CE. The Romans didn’t particularly care what a minority group of fanatics believed – they were rebellious Jews who needed to be taught a lesson.
If not slaughtered by Romans in their capture of Jerusalem, then perhaps the disciples died for their seditious belief in the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus had before them. The Bible records the deaths of only two of them: Judas, who appears to have committed suicide using two different methods depending on which account you believe (Matthew 27:5-8 or Acts 1:18-19), and James, brother of John, who, according to Acts 12.1-2 was executed by Herod Agrippa 1. By the time Acts was written, however, somewhere between 80-90CE, the beliefs of the original followers had been swallowed up by Paul’s alternate version of the faith; we have no way of knowing how accurate the report of James’ death is. It’s hard to believe it was merely because he thought an old pal had risen from the dead. It is hard to believe this of any of them. For the other disciples there are only traditional accounts of how they died ‘for their faith’ with nothing to corroborate these legends.
It is quite possible Jesus’ original followers died for reasons unconnected with their outlandish beliefs in an imminent supernatural kingdom. They could just as easily have died of natural causes. One thing seems probable – they did not die because they believed in a resurrected Messiah. It’s not that they didn’t believe in a physical resurrection – they did – but they were convinced it would only happen with the arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth, as prophesied in Daniel 12.1-4.
That it had already happened to their former leader did not figure in their beliefs, their writing or even their thinking.
1 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, p279-280
2 ‘But for Q, Jesus was indeed principally remembered as a teacher of great wisdom and high moral demands, as an apocalyptic prophet anticipating the imminent end of the age, and one whose miraculous activities showed that the day of judgement was soon to come. For the author of Q, Jesus’ teachings provided the goal of the Christian life. Followers of Jesus are those who adhere to his directives for how to live, in anticipation of the coming kingdom of God.’ Bart. D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, p280
Updated to include link to Matthew Ferguson’s celsus blog.
The disciples would not have died for a lie, or so Christians like to argue.
Would they not?
Fanatics today do and it is more than likely the disciples believed their lie was true, if indeed they died for it at all. There’s not much evidence that they did. But if they did, maybe the lie they believed to be true was not the one today’s Christians think it was.
There is no evidence anywhere that Jesus’ original followers were martyred because of their faith in a physically resurrected Jesus – for their beliefs, maybe, but not necessarily because they believed Jesus had returned in bodily form from the dead. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that they holed up in Jerusalem to await his return through the clouds as the Son of Man, with a phalanx of hostile angels by his side (Heaven was, after all, just on the other side of those clouds). This was the crux of their beliefs.
How do we know?
There was significant tension between the disciples and Paul, which Paul himself relates, not only because he was convinced his message should be taken to the Gentiles but because of the very nature of that message. Paul and the disciples meant different things by ‘the gospel’. Paul’s irritation that others were preaching a different gospel is apparent in 2 Corinthians 11 & 12 where he calls the original disciples, ‘false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ’ and bitterly refers to them as ‘the most eminent apostles’. He is arrogant enough to suppose, and to proclaim, that he has it right and they are wrong.
Paul’s good news was about the resurrected Christ of his visions, who magically made those who put their faith in him righteous in God’s eyes. As he puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:21, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ Paul also believed this supernatural being would soon descend from the skies when he would give believers new bodies (Philippians 3.20) but this is a very different figure, and agenda, from the Jesus known to the disciples.
What then of Paul’s insistence, in 1 Corinthians 15.5 (written circa 55CE), that ‘the Twelve’ experienced the Risen Christ in much the same way he did? Firstly, of course, we have only Paul’s word for this. We have no first-hand corroboration (just the opposite in fact) and Paul had a vested interest in showing how significant his own experiences were. What better way to do so than by claiming Jesus’ original followers had had the same sort of hallucinations? Secondly, we don’t know what these ‘visions’, if they had them, meant to the disciples. Their belief would undoubtedly have been in a physical, bodily resurrection (cf: Daniel 2.12; Matthew 27.52), not in the beam-of-light manifestation of hallucination; this was much more Paul’s thing. Perhaps this is why any words uttered by vision-Jesus (for surely he would have spoken to his old chums) were not considered significant enough to be included in the earliest written record, ‘Q’.
The fully-realised resurrection appearances found in the gospels, then, in which Jesus declaims ‘blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’ and ‘go and make disciples of all nations,’ are very clearly later developments, based, not on Q but on the visions suffered by Paul and others of influence and ‘written back’ into the gospel accounts.
Despite claiming that the Twelve experienced the Risen Christ in much the same way he did, Paul is critical of the disciples for preaching a different gospel, a different Jesus even, from the magical salvation-formula gospel he expounds. So what did the disciples believe – what was this other gospel that Paul disparaged so much?
We’ll see next time.