Why Were the Disciples Surprised?

It is often alleged that the disciples, having been told by Jesus of his impending resurrection, simply could not accept that this could really be the end; and so deluded themselves into believing that Jesus was still alive. However, this is at odds with the New Testament evidence, as discussed below.

The disciples were not expecting a resurrection.

a) The gospels consistently tell us that, although Jesus had predicted his death and resurrection, the disciples completely failed to understand what he was saying and didn’t believe the news when they heard it (e.g. Mt 16:21-3, 17:22-3, 20:17; Mk 16:11,13,14; Lk 24:11,25; Jn 2:19, 16:16-32, 20:2,25).

b) The disciples had regarded Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ) Jn 1:49, Jn 6:69, Mt 16:16 [Mk 8:27, Lk 9:20], Jn 11:27, Lk 24:21. The problem was that, as with Jews in general up to the present day, their concept of the Messiah was as a victorious deliverer who would free his country from foreign oppression. To Jewish thinking, a dead Messiah was no Messiah at all. Jesus’ death had dashed their expectations and proved them wrong. Hence the evident disillusionment of the two disciples on the Emmaus road, even though they had already heard the women’s story (Lk 24:17-24).

c) Although there are a few resurrection miracles recorded in the Old Testament, the general apprehension in Jesus’ day, as much as in ours, was that dead people don’t come back to life. In particular, even though Jesus had raised two dead people himself, no-one had ever been raised except through the agency of a mighty prophet – and their prophet was dead: none had ever raised themselves.

d) The women’s concern was that they hadn’t had time to give Jesus a decent burial (the body had not been removed from the cross till the evening, as noted previously). They had spent their time over the weekend preparing spices so that they could finish the job when the Sabbath was over (Mk 16:1, Lk 23:56-24:1).

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A non-physical resurrection would have been easier for them to accept than a physical one.

a) Although traditional Jewish thought tended to regard spirit, soul and body as an integrated whole, and the Sadducees denied any possibility of a separate spiritual existence or of any resurrection, the Pharisees, with whom Jesus sided on this issue, acknowledged that the spirit survived after death. The Old Testament includes an account of a confrontation between King Saul and the spirit of Samuel (1 Sam 28:11-9). This belief is also reflected in Jesus’ parable of Dives and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). Other examples could also be cited.

b) More significantly the gospels indicate that the disciples’ own thoughts tended naturally to this type of interpretation. We can see this in the account of Jesus walking on the water; where the first assumption they are stated to have made was that they were seeing a spirit (Mt 14:26 [Mk 6:49, Lk 24:37]). Similarly, we have the account of the transfiguration, where Jesus is seen conversing with Moses and Elijah (Mt 17:3 [Mk 9:4, Lk 9:30]). (The point to note here is that, irrespective of what you make of the miraculous events described, they still give us an insight into the way they thought.)

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