Why Didn’t They Know?
by Farrell Till
John’s account of the resurrection has Peter and another disciple running to the empty tomb after hearing from Mary Magdalene that the body of Jesus was gone. The unnamed disciple, outrunning Peter, arrived at the tomb first and waited:
Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes (20:6-10, NRSV).
Luke also indicated that the disciples of Jesus had not expected his resurrection, for Luke said that after Peter looked inside at the linen cloths, “he went home, wondering at that which had come to pass” (24:12). Numerous references to the apostles’ skepticism of a resurrection appear elsewhere in the New Testament (Lk. 24:11,38; Jn. 20:24-25; Matt. 28:17).
From one perspective, that the disciples did not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead, as John alleged, is not at all surprising, for the simple reason that there were no scriptures that said he would rise from the dead. Luke had Jesus telling his disciples the night of the resurrection that “it is written that the Christ should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day” (24:46). The Apostle Paul also alleged that the scriptures said that Christ would be raised on the third day (1 Cor. 15:4). That is the claim, but the claim and the reality are two different things. One could search the OT scriptures until doom’s day, and he would find nothing written about a Messiah who would rise from the dead on the third day.
One will find nothing in the OT scriptures about a risen Messiah, period! Bibliolaters like to point to Psalm 16, which Luke claimed that both Peter and Paul quoted as proof of Jesus’s resurrection (Acts 2:25-31; 13:35-37), but the context of the whole psalm does not support the application that the apostles gave to the verses they quoted. In my booklet, Prophecies: Imaginary and Unfulfilled, I have analyzed in detail this psalm and Peter’s and Paul’s application of it, so I won’t repeat myself here except to say that anyone who reads the apostles’ quotation in context will see a dubious connection at best between it and the alleged resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Despite the often repeated New Testament claim, there just are no prophecies of a resurrected Messiah in the OT scriptures.
From another perspective, however, if the resurrection really did catch the apostles by surprise, one has to wonder why. Certainly they had been told enough that it would happen. In the context of the famous passage where Jesus promised Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, it was clearly said that Jesus told his disciples that he would be killed and then resurrected:
From that time began Jesus to show unto his disciples that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed, and the third day be raised up (Matt. 16:21).
And while they abode in Galilee, Jesus said unto them, The Son of man shall be delivered up into the hands of men; and they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised up. And they were exceeding(ly) sorry (Matt. 17:22-23).
And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples apart, and on the way he said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests and scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him unto the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify: and the third day he shall be raised up (Matt. 20:17-19).
Some parallel accounts of these passages (Mk. 9:31; Luke 18:32-34) say that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, but this is just another case of textual discrepancies in the Bible, because Matthew clearly indicated that they did understand him. The first time they were told, for example, Peter took Jesus aside, rebuked him, and said, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). The second time Jesus told them, Matthew said that they were “exceedingly sorry,” but how could they have been exceedingly sorry about something they didn’t even understand? Besides, considering the general acceptance of the phenomenon of resurrection in those times (Mk. 6:14-16), what was there to misunderstand when a man said he would “rise again” after he had been killed?
In view of what Jesus said in the last passage cited above, the postcrucifixion conduct of the apostles is almost impossible to understand. On the way to Jerusalem, he took them aside, told them that he would be (1) delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, (2) condemned to death, (3) delivered to the Gentiles to be mocked, (4) scoured, (5) crucified, and (6) raised on the third day. After their arrival in Jerusalem, the apostles saw Jesus (1) delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, (2) condemned to death, (3) delivered to the Gentiles and mocked, (4) scoured, and (5) crucified, yet somehow, after personally witnessing these five specific fulfillments of Jesus’s statement, they didn’t expect him to be resurrected. Why? One would think that if Jesus had really told them to expect all of these things, after witnessing the precise fulfillment of the first five of his predictions, they would have surely expected at least a possibility of the sixth. So rather than the women’s having to run to tell the apostles about the empty tomb they had found, one would think that the apostles would have been on the scene themselves that third-day morning at least waiting to see if Jesus would come forth.
But they weren’t there (according to the story). They had to be sought out and told, and even then they considered the news the women brought to them to be only “idle talk” (Luke 24:11). The women were telling them exactly what Jesus had said would happen, and they thought their words were just idle talk! At the tomb, the angels said to the women, “(R)emember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, saying that the Son of man must be delivered up into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again” (Luke 24:7). The next verse says that “they remembered his words.” So the women were able to remember that Jesus had said this, but the apostles whom Jesus had taken aside on the way toJerusalem expressly for the purpose of telling them to expect his death and resurrection apparently couldn’t remember that he had said it. They just looked into the tomb and went home, “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Is that what we are supposed to believe?
If the apostles didn’t yet understand that Jesus had been destined to rise from the dead, they were a pretty exclusive club, because just about everybody else knew what to expect. As we just noticed, the women remembered immediately that Jesus had said that he would rise from the dead, and they weren’t the only disciples (disciples, not apostles) who understood this. In the conversation that Jesus had with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on resurrection day, Cleopas, after summarizing the events surrounding the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, clearly indicated that he understood a resurrection was supposed to happen the third day:
But we hoped that it was he who should redeem Israel. Yea and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things came to pass (Luke 24:21).
It seems, then, that just about everyone who had been associated with Jesus knew that he was supposed to be resurrected except the apostles. Jesus had apparently entrusted the furtherance of his important cause to a bunch of dimwits who couldn’t understand plain language.
Even the enemies of Jesus understood that he had predicted his resurrection. After Jesus had been put into the tomb, they came to Pilate to ask that precautions be taken to prevent a staged fulfillment of the prediction:
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first” (Matt. 28:62-64, NRSV).
So the women remembered that Jesus had predicted his resurrection, the disciples at Emmaus remembered it, and the enemies of Jesus remembered it. Everyone apparently remembered it except Jesus’s own handpicked apostles. That’s a little hard to believe.
Bibliolaters preach that the Bible is an inerrant work of unity and harmony so perfect that it can be explained only by the doctrine of verbal inspiration. It makes great sermon fodder to feed to gullible pulpit audiences, but this discrepancy in what the apostles didn’t know but should have known about an impending resurrection of their leader is a glitch in the Bible that must be explained before rational people can accept the inerrancy theory.