Thursday, March 23, 2023

Is Jesus' resurrection appearance being doubted in Matthew 28:17?

Matthew doesn't explicitly tell us what was being doubted. But we get an indication of the most likely answer by reading what follows. Jesus' comments in verses 18-20 don't make sense as an attempt to persuade the people who are present that he had risen from the dead or that they were seeing the risen Jesus. Those subjects don't come up. But his comments do make sense as an encouragement to people who were doubting in the sense of lacking the confidence in him that they needed to proceed as they had to in that context. He reassures them about his authority and that he'll be with them. In other words, the doubt is about the implications of the resurrection, not the resurrection itself or this particular resurrection appearance. Jesus had just been put to death by his enemies, by means of a crucifixion arranged by the Jewish authorities and the Roman empire. He had risen from the dead, but a death, and a horrible one, was part of the process, along with a lot of other suffering. The people Jesus was addressing knew they were going out into a hostile world. In fact, the disciples' abandoning of Jesus in the face of such persecution at the time of Gethsemane is connected to this resurrection appearance in 26:31-32. It would make sense, then, for Jesus to address that sort of doubt in the context of the resurrection appearance anticipated in chapter 26. The worship mentioned in 28:17 and the activities of the Great Commission mentioned in the verses that follow were some of the appropriate ways to proceed, and they should have proceeded with confidence, "but some doubted". The doubt isn't about whether Jesus rose from the dead or whether he was appearing before them on this occasion, but, instead, was about how to proceed. He was removing their doubts and building up their confidence in verses 18-20. Those closing verses make less sense if the doubt in question was about whether Jesus rose from the dead or whether he was appearing to them.

And the type of doubt I'm suggesting would be more likely to occur under the circumstances. This resurrection appearance had been announced ahead of time (26:32, 28:7, 28:10, 28:16), and Jesus was standing in front of them and recognizable enough to be worshiped. They could still doubt the resurrection or this resurrection appearance under those circumstances, but that's not the issue we should be focused on. We should be focused on what most likely happened, not what could have happened. I think my view of the doubt involved in verse 17 is more likely upfront and makes more sense of the verses that follow. The critics' interpretation of the doubt is less connected to the context, both the context leading up to the doubt and the context after it.

Even worse for the critics who cite verse 17 against the historicity of the resurrection, think of how little their interpretation accomplishes even if we grant it. For one thing, "some" isn't "all", and we aren't told how many were involved in the "some". And the doubt is referred to just after the appearance is mentioned, so Jesus may have not even spoken yet. For all we know, factors like hearing his voice and noticing his familiar manner of speaking may have persuaded them that they were seeing Jesus. In other words, the passage allows for a doubt that was only brief, a doubt that was quickly dispelled. That further diminishes its significance. And the presence of any mention of doubt, of whatever type, adds to the evidence for the trustworthiness of the author. Furthermore, if it was the type of doubt that critics suggest, then that undermines the common objection that the resurrection witnesses were gullible.

What's much more significant than whether some people doubted at the time of Matthew 28:17 in the sense critics suggest is how the resurrection witnesses behaved over the long term. See my recent post on the resurrection witnesses' willingness to suffer and another one on whether the resurrection witnesses had an opportunity to recant, for example, for discussions of some of the relevant evidence, like the suffering of the apostles addressed in 1 Corinthians 4:9-13 and Paul's sufferings addressed in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33. Even under a skeptic's interpretation of Matthew 28:17, that other evidence far outweighs what occurred in the Matthew 28 context.

And that brings up another issue. Notice that the use of Matthew 28 in question is another example of critics' appealing to sources they typically treat more dismissively. Why are they appealing to the detail in question in Matthew 28:17 when they're so dismissive of such details in the gospel of Matthew on other occasions? They often do that with other documents as well, such as citing John 7:42 against Jesus' Bethlehem birthplace or Acts 26:19 against a bodily resurrection, even though they usually are more dismissive of the gospel of John and Acts. If they're going to claim that they know that Matthew 28:17 is reliable because it meets the criterion of embarrassment, then an implication favorable to the credibility of the author of the gospel of Matthew follows, as I mentioned earlier. Additionally, the historicity of verse 17 adds credibility to the historicity of the remainder of the passage, which involves a polymodal experience with the risen Christ. And what does the critics' use of the criterion of embarrassment suggest about some critics' dismissiveness toward that criterion (e.g., the suggestion that we can't appeal to the criterion of embarrassment, since we don't know enough about what was and wasn't embarrassing for the people involved)? If they're going to claim that they're only bringing up Matthew 28:17 as an internal critique, then that sort of internal critique is easily answered, such as in the manner in which I've answered it above. And if they're just citing it for purposes of internal critique, without thinking that the doubt mentioned in Matthew 28:17 actually happened in history, then what we're left with is the sort of confidence in Jesus' resurrection suggested by passages like 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, 15:30-32, and 2 Corinthians 11:23-33. Responding by offering some sort of weak internal critique based on Matthew 28:17 (or whatever else of a similar nature) doesn't accomplish much.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, very important comment about the cherry-picking of sources. References to the fact that Jesus wasn't immediately recognized are touted as if they tell us something vaguely anti-physical about his resurrection body, but references to his being tangible are dismissed as apologetic additions. This is another such example.

    I would raise, though, a somewhat different possibility for the "some doubted" phrase. Suppose that this was a much larger group than the eleven. Matthew mentions only the eleven, but obviously that doesn't mean that only they were present. And the several references to meeting his followers in Galilee may refer to a meeting with a larger group, since outdoors would be a better venue for a large gathering. (This may also tie in with Paul's mention of 500. That number of people couldn't fit into the upper room!) If this was a much larger gathering, and if it included people who hadn't yet seen Jesus since his resurrection, there is the possibility that those for whom this was the first appearance experience might have doubted whether he was a ghost, as even the original group appears to have briefly wondered before Jesus gave them evidence to the contrary (per Luke 24). During the meeting that followed (which Matthew is doubtless not describing fully) there would have been opportunities for others to touch him, to get nearer to him, to see their friends interact with him, to see that he didn't fade away, and so forth.