Luke records several incidents in ch. 24 in which the resurrection of Jesus seems to the disciples—according to traditional interpretation—just too good to be true. But when we compare Luke’s account with the other gospels, Luke emerges as the only gospel writer that presents the disciples’ response as one of amazement, that confused mixture of disbelief and joy. They might have said in the English idiom, “It’s unbelievable!” while at the same time feeling the joy that only comes from experiential knowledge.
The shorter ending of Mark (ending at 16:8) concludes the gospel story with a picture of the women trembling and astonished because they were afraid after seeing an angel who announced the resurrection.
On the other hand, the longer ending of Mark programmatically describes the unbelief of three sets of disciples: those who had been with Jesus (16:11), two of them as they were walking into the country (16:13), and the eleven as they sat together (16:14). Mark is the only gospel that presents such a one-sided picture of unbelief after the resurrection.
Matthew’s accounts of the disciples’ post-resurrection responses are brief and more balanced in terms of belief and unbelief. He first presents the women returning quickly from the tomb “with fear and great joy” to tell the disciples what they had seen and heard from the angel (28:8). The resurrected Jesus meets them on their way at which point Matthew records that they “took hold of his feet and worshipped him” (28:9).
The only other response from Jesus’ disciples that Matthew speaks of occurs when the disciples follow the instructions that the women have evidently passed on to them about meeting Jesus in Galilee: “And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted” (28:17). So in Matthew, we have two responses of worship with the caveat that some doubted.
John presents much more detail than Matthew does concerning the believing responses of Jesus’ disciples after the resurrection. John’s first recorded response to the resurrection is one of belief and autobiographical: “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed” (20:8). Likewise, when the risen Jesus greets Mary Magdalene by name, she responds with “Rabonni!” and goes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (20:17-18). That same evening, Jesus appears to the disciples, and after he greets them with “Peace to you” and shows them his hands and his side, John records that “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (20:19-20).
Thomas is the singular example in John of post-resurrection unbelief: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (20:25). But eight days later, Jesus appears again to the disciples and says to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see my hands; and reach your hand here and put it into my side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas responded with “My Lord and my God!” (20:27-28)
A few more faith responses are recorded by John after Jesus instructs his disciples to cast their net on the other side of the boat and they haul in 153 large fish. Another autobiographical note includes John saying to Peter, “It is the Lord!” At that point Peter puts on his clothes and dives into the sea to go meet Jesus (21:7). When the rest of the disciples get to shore, John records, “Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord” (21:12).
While the other gospel writers are more straightforward in their depictions of belief and unbelief after the resurrection, Luke’s distinctive voice presents a more varied and psychologically involved picture of the disciples’ responses. Luke’s story juxtaposes the language of “unbelief” at different times with the language of amazement, sadness, confusion, reasoning, and joy. Rather than uniformly understanding all the disciples to persist in unbelief, as the longer ending of Mark’s gospel suggests, Luke’s account shows in detail a variation of response among the disciples, just as we find more briefly and optimistically in Matthew and in John.
More on Luke’s account of the “unbelievable” resurrection in the next post…