Matthew 28:17 includes a confusing phrase that has led to some controversy. During Christ’s post-Resurrection appearance on a hillside in Galilee, some of His disciples worshiped Him, “but some doubted.” Some critical scholars have used these three words to support their idea that the disciples were only experiencing a vision. Some Christian apologists have claimed that these three words prove it is wrong to use evidence for the Resurrection in witnessing to unbelievers, even claiming that it would be sinful to do so. Still other Christian apologists use this phrase as evidence for the authenticity of the New Testament, because they believe Matthew included an embarrassing detail about some disciples not believing in Jesus even though He was right in front of them (Geisler and Turek, pp. 276–277).
What are we to make of these claims? How could people who knew Jesus had died on the Cross possibly not believe that He had risen from the dead when He was standing right in front of them?
First, let’s take a look at the verses in question and cover a little background information.
Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him they worshiped Him; but some doubted. (Matthew 28:16–17, NKJV)
On the night of His arrest, Jesus told His disciples that He would rise from the dead and then meet them in Galilee (Matthew 26:32; cf. Matthew 28:10; Mark 16:7). Our passage shows the fulfillment of that promise.
So the eleven disciples (the original twelve minus Judas who had hanged himself) went to a mountain (or hillside, the Greek word oros can mean either one) in Galilee and when Jesus appeared to them, they worshiped Him, “but some doubted.”
Who was doing the doubting? The context of this verse seems to show that it was some of the eleven disciples since no other people are mentioned here. Many Christians believe this appearance on the hillside is where Jesus appeared to “over five hundred brethren at once” (1 Corinthians 15:6). There are at least two reasons why they make this connection. First, if only the eleven disciples were present, then it must have been some of the disciples doing the doubting. However, this would be strange since they had all seen the risen Jesus at least twice before (except Thomas, who, as far as we know, had seen Him one less time), and they knew He had risen. Second, there is a desire to connect the appearances in Paul’s list with those in the Gospels. But the Gospels do not record the appearance to James (1 Corinthians 15:7), so maybe the appearance to over five hundred is not to be found in the Gospels either.
While I think it is possible that the Galilean hillside appearance was to over five hundred, there is no indication of this in Matthew’s text. Sure, he could have left out information about the size of the crowd and simply focused on the disciples. But even if it was only the disciples who were present, there is really no difficulty with the wording about doubt because the Greek term does not convey the same sort of doubt that most English speakers think of upon hearing that term.
A Big Misunderstanding
This is one of those cases where the English translation plays a role in the confusion. A careful look at the Greek term translated as “doubted” shows why the claims mentioned above are misplaced at this point.
The doubt exhibited here is not unbelief, but more like hesitation, which is what the Greek word distazo implies (see BDAG, p. 252). This is not the typical word for doubt used in the New Testament (diakrino). In fact, it is only used in one other time (Matthew 14:31, see below for explanation). Instead of refusing to believe what they were seeing, like some have said, the disciples were amazed. The concept here is somewhat comparable to our modern statements like “It’s too good to be true,” or “Pinch me, I’m dreaming.”
Craig Blomberg stated it well in his commentary on Matthew:
Distazo refers more to hesitation than to unbelief. Perhaps, as elsewhere, something about Jesus’ appearance makes him hard to recognize at first. Perhaps they fear how he may respond to them. Perhaps their Jewish scruples are still questioning the propriety of full-fledged worship of anyone but Yahweh. Or (most likely?) they may simply continue to exhibit an understandable confusion about how to behave in the presence of a supernaturally manifested, exalted, and holy being. There is no clear evidence that more than the Eleven were present, but the particular grammatical construction hoi de (“but some”) does seem to imply a change of subject from the previous clause (“they worshiped him”). So “they” probably means some of the Eleven, while “some” means the rest of the eleven. Some of the disciples worshiped Jesus at once; some were less sure how to react. (Blomberg, p. 430)
Blomberg brings up some important points that most twenty-first century Christians would rarely consider. Yes, the disciples believed that Jesus was indeed God incarnate, as Thomas had recently acknowledged (John 20:28), but verbally admitting this was perhaps easier to do than fully committing oneself to worship Him. I agree with Blomberg that it is more likely that the disciples were still confused about how to behave in the presence of a supernatural being.
Think about Peter’s behavior when he saw Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration. While he was bold enough to speak up and clearly was trying to honor Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, it seems that he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the event. As Moses and Elijah were departing, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33, NKJV). Luke adds that Peter did not know what he was saying and reveals that he was quite sleepy (vv. 32–33).
What was wrong with Peter’s statement? At first glance, it seems like he only wanted to prolong the experience; however, a closer look reveals that Peter may have been guilty of making a huge error. Robert Stein believes that Peter’s mistake was that he wrongly placed Jesus on the same level with Moses and Elijah. However, “They were not equals. The Voice from heaven explains Peter’s error. In contrast to Moses and Elijah, who were God’s servants, Jesus is God’s Son, the Chosen One. He is unique. He cannot be classed with anyone else, even two of God’s greatest servants. He is not only great but other” (Stein, pp. 285–286). It might be easy to criticize Peter at this point, but be honest, how would you respond if you witnessed the same thing?
Well that’s understandable before the Resurrection, but surely the disciples wouldn’t act in a confused way after seeing Jesus alive again, would they? If only that were true. In the Bible’s last chapter, John “fell down before the feet of the angel who showed” him the vision he had just seen. The angel essentially told him to stop it and worship God alone (Revelation 22:8–9). What’s worse is that John had just done the same thing and been warned similarly just three chapters earlier (Revelation 19:10).
The point is that the disciples were overcome with emotion when Jesus appeared to them in Galilee, and some of them were unsure how to react. They did not doubt that He had risen from the dead—they already knew this was true because they had seen Him in Jerusalem on Easter evening and eight days after that (John 20:19–29).
There are other passages that support this idea and show why the two claims listed in the introduction are illegitimate interpretations. Jesus appeared to the group of disciples (minus Thomas) on Easter night. At first, they were afraid, but He comforted them by showing them His hands and feet and telling them not to be afraid. Even after these things, we read that “they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement” (Luke 24:41, NASB). The disciples already believed Jesus had risen from the dead. Just minutes earlier they told the two disciples who had seen Jesus on the road to Emmaus: “The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:33–34). But now that they could see Him with their own eyes, they were amazed and rejoiced, which was the reason for their “doubt.”
Earlier in His ministry, a man with a demon-possessed son pleaded with Jesus to cast out the demons. Jesus said, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” The man’s response is intriguing—he cried out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:14–24).
Finally, the only other place distazo appears in the New Testament is found in Matthew’s account of Peter walking on the water. Peter had enough faith to get out of the boat and walk toward Jesus on the water. “But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!’” After Jesus rescued him, He asked, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:25–31).
In each of these cases, there are people who exhibit faith in Christ’s Resurrection or in His ability to perform a particular miracle. But at the same time, for whatever reason, they express some form of hesitation or doubt. Notice that none of these responses match what the critics or certain apologists claim about unbelief. We don’t see hardened skeptics standing there with arms crossed rejecting what is occurring before their eyes (Licona, p. 360).
Moving Toward Faith
Once again, it is difficult for modern Christians to comprehend exactly what was going on here because we weren’t part of the events. It would be wonderfully mind-blowing to have Jesus appear before us, but some of us have always believed that He rose from the dead. We haven’t fathomed the depths of despair that Christ’s followers experienced after His death? None of us have fully trusted in Christ before He rose from the dead; we believe after the fact. That being the case, how can we possibly know the matchless exhilaration they experienced when they saw Him alive again? When we consider these things, it’s quite simple to see why some of them thought it was too good to be true and weren’t sure how to appropriately respond.
Borchert explained that in some of the post-Resurrection appearances we see that people moving toward faith in Christ did not follow a set pattern. Commenting on Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus outside of the empty tomb, he wrote the following:
The transforming process of Mary coming to recognize the risen Lord took place when Jesus called her name, “Mary,” or more precisely at this point “Miriam.” It is fascinating to note that the Johannine evangelist has described transformative recognition occurring through the use of one word at this point. In the sea story it occurred when the disciples responded obediently to the stranger on the shore and cast their nets (in what seemed to be a foolish act) on the other side of the boat (John 21:6–7). In the Lukan Emmaus story the recognition occurred in the breaking of bread. What should be concluded from these examples is that recognition of Jesus does not need to follow a single pattern. Coming to the point of conviction that Jesus is alive is probably as varied as the nature of the people who believe. (Borchert, p. 300)
“But some doubted.” These three words do not imply unbelief in the Resurrection on the part of the Christ’s followers. As such, this phrase does not support the idea that the disciples merely experienced visions of the risen Savior. Nor can these words be used to support the idea that it’s wrong for Christians to appeal to the evidence for the Resurrection while discussing the topic with unbelievers. Also, this may still be a somewhat embarrassing detail, it is not as bad as some make it out to be. The disciples already knew full well that Jesus had risen from the dead, and these three words are likely telling us that some of them were unsure of how to react in the midst of an astounding supernatural event.
Note: The Greek words distazo and diakrino should have a line above the “o” to indicate a long vowel sound, but I could not figure out how to do this in WordPress.
Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, (BDAG) A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., revised and edited by Frederick W. Danker (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 252.
Craig Blomberg, Matthew: The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992).
Gerald L. Borchert, John 12–21: The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002).
Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004).
Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010).
Robert H. Stein, Luke: The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992).