Jesus’ Resurrection is "Unbelievable" in Luke

Since it’s Easter, I’m posting this post again that originally appeared here on October 21, 2007…

As I mentioned in my previous post about Jesus’ resurrection, Luke emerges as the only gospel writer that presents the disciples’ response as one of amazement, that confused mixture of disbelief and joy. But…

…if there is joy, is there really disbelief? Or, is it possible that Luke uses the word ‘disbelieving’ in ch. 24 in a more idiomatic sense? After all, if you were to see Jesus raised from the dead, wouldn’t you have to say, “It’s unbelievable! I can’t believe my eyes!”

In Luke, the first post-resurrection response occurs after the women come back from the empty tomb (24:11). After giving a report of what they had seen and heard at the tomb, the text reads…

καὶ ἐφάνησαν ἐνώπιον αὐτῶν ὡσεὶ λῆρος τὰ ῥήματα ταῦτα, καὶ ἠπίστουν αὐταῖς.
And these words appeared before them as nonsense, and they were not believing them.

But what exactly does it mean when it says “these words appeared before them as nonsense” and “they were not believing them”? Could the disciples really not make grammatical sense of the women’s words? That much must not be true; otherwise, the text would not go on to say that they were not believing them. In order to not believe something, you have to first make sense of what you’re not believing. Therefore, it’s more likely that “these words appeared before them as nonsense” communicates just how unusual and unexpected the resurrection was. It was so out of the ordinary that we might describe it today as “unreal”!

So did the apostles really not believe the women? Did they think the women were just making up a fantastic story? Perhaps. However, the imperfect tense here—“they were not believing”—leaves open further possibilities.

In the very least, the imperfect tense communicates some kind of continuous response instead of a matter-of-fact statement of unbelief. The continuous nature of their “unbelief” suggests an ongoing discussion in which they were interacting with the women’s story. It may depict an interactive response from the disciples in which they continuously questioned the women in an attempt to understand the incredible details of such an amazing account. Also possible, but perhaps less likely, is that this represents a pluperfect use of the imperfect—“they had not been believing them”—thus describing an earlier response that did not necessarily continue. The reason I say that this possibility is less likely is that the pluperfect use of the imperfect is quite rare, and it is usually clear when it is used. Even if this interpretation is too much of a stretch for this particular word, the continuation of the story suggests that this is exactly what happened—their unbelieving response did not continue.

The next verse (24:12) tells how Peter got up and ran to the tomb, hardly a response from someone who did not believe. Peter’s actions at least reveal a determination to check out the women’s story. Of course, some would argue that Luke 24:12 is a “western non-interpolation,” a verse that was later added by all but the western witnesses of the text—an argument against its existence in the original text. One argument in support of this theory is that Peter’s response in vs. 12 of running to the tomb and returning home “amazed” does not fit within the literary context (Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 215, 217). But the supposed incongruency of unbelief and amazement occurs again in Luke 24:41 (Frans Neirynck, “Luke 24,12: An Anti-Docetic Interpolation?” In New Testament Textual Criticism and Exegesis, ed. A. Denaux, 158)…

ἔτι δὲ ἀπιστούντων αὐτῶν ἀπὸ τῆς χαρᾶς καὶ θαυμαζόντων εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἔχετέ τι βρώσιμον ἐνθάδε;
While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Again, Luke’s record of the resurrection seems just too good to be true. Again, we find “unbelief” and “amazement” together. And joy too. So what can it mean? Does it make sense at all to say that the apostles “could not believe because of their joy and amazement”? Or do these passages suggest a more idiomatic meaning for unbelief? Had Jesus really risen from the dead? It was “unbelievable”! In Luke 24:11 they could not believe their ears. In Luke 24:41 they could not believe their eyes. But they really did believe the unbelievable. Their joy proves it.

So does Luke use the words ‘unbelief’, ‘amazement’ and ‘joy’ together to paint a uniform picture of emotion-filled belief in the resurrection for everyone in ch. 24? No way.

When Jesus walks with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, it’s a different story regarding “unbelief” and “amazement.” They tell him how the women “amazed us” with a report of an empty tomb and a vision of angels saying that Jesus was alive (24:22-23), but they were clearly “looking sad” (24:17). This sad look proves their unbelief. And so Jesus says to them in 24:25…

Ὦ ἀνόητοι καὶ βραδεῖς τῇ καρδίᾳ τοῦ πιστεύειν ἐπὶ πᾶσιν οἷς ἐλάλησαν οἱ προφῆται… O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken…

Only after Jesus explains the scriptures, accepts their invitation to come inside, and then breaks bread do they finally recognize him and believe. Their belief is proved by their action: they got up that very hour—the same hour which they had described as “towards evening” and “the day is nearly over” (24:29)—and they returned to Jerusalem to tell the apostles. They surely went back in the dark. But before they can give their report, the apostles report to them in 24:34…

ὄντως ἠγέρθη ὁ κύριος καὶ ὤφθη Σίμωνι.
The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon.

Even though it was only Simon Peter who had seen the Lord among the 11 apostles, the others believe and say that he has “really risen.” Their belief is then confirmed by the two who had met Jesus on the road to Emmaus (24:35) and then by Jesus himself who appeared before them while they were still talking about it (24:36). And then we find another combination of belief and amazement in 24:37…

πτοηθέντες δὲ καὶ ἔμφοβοι γενόμενοι ἐδόκουν πνεῦμα θεωρεῖν.
But after being startled and frightened they were thinking that they were seeing a spirit.

Interesting. Based on Peter’s testimony, they really believed that Jesus was alive. But when Jesus himself appears, they are so startled and frightened that they think they are seeing a spirit. But again, does this really mean that they do not believe in the resurrection? Jesus does not rebuke them for ‘unbelief’, but he says…

Τί τεταραγμένοι ἐστὲ καὶ διὰ τί διαλογισμοὶ ἀναβαίνουσιν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ ὑμῶν;
Why are you troubled, and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?

The live appearance of Jesus after his death is such an unusual sight for the apostles, so Jesus begins to calm them by simply acting himself. “What’s bothering you?” He shows them his wounded hands and feet to prove that they are not seeing a spirit. Oh, and “What’s there to eat?”

And now he had a captive audience…

Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

After a few more instructions, Jesus is lifted up into heaven. But no more fear and amazement on the part of the disciples, only worship and joy…

καὶ αὐτοὶ προσκυνήσαντες αὐτὸν ὑπέστρεψαν εἰς Ἰερουσαλὴμ μετὰ χαρᾶς μεγάλης καὶ ἦσαν διὰ παντὸς ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ εὐλογοῦντες τὸν θεόν.
And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.

Luke’s account of the resurrection is so believeable precisely because he records so well that strange mixture of unbelief and joy, which really isn’t unbelief at all, but overwhelming joy and amazement at something so “unbelieveable.” He really caught the wonder of it.

(The painting is “The Supper at Emmaus,” 1606 by Caravaggio)

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