One of the common attacks on the reliability of the Bible, and the New Testament in particular, is the idea that “people back then were a lot more gullible about things like miracles and people rising from the dead.”
A commenter on a BBC internet thread put it like this, “Were the disciples just gullible? Aren’t the followers of all religious leaders?”
Or as Rudolph Bultmann offered, in regards to our own comparative enlightenment,
It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.
So that is our question: were the disciples of Jesus gullible?
I will argue that the consideration of a few initial points and five lines of evidence should lead us to conclude no, the first disciples of Jesus were not gullible.
Point #1: The disciples experienced prolonged persecution.
It is one thing to idly believe in a myth or fairy-tale when the stakes are low.
But when accepting a new belief might lead to rejection from family and friends, the loss of your job, and even the loss of your life, most people tend to be more skeptical and cautious about changing their minds in the first place.
In fact, Jesus seems to have gone out of his way to discourage potential disciples from joining his movement. For instance, when responding to some wannabe-disciples, he frankly warns them of homelessness and separation from family (Luke 9:57-62).
But con artists hoodwink their customers by explaining the benefits, not the costs, of buying into the spin. Even online scammers, the worst of the worst, use the enticing promise of millions in unexpected gain. Celebrity preachers become famous and followed because they promise healing, wealth, and success in life. By contrast, Jesus appears to have taken the opposite approach.
Point #2: The disciples came from diverse backgrounds.
As the IVP encyclopedia Jesus & the Gospels explains,
The Twelve [disciples] displayed a remarkable diversity in background, including businessmen (Peter, Andrew, James and John), a tax collector (Matthew), and a zealous revolutionary (Simon the Zealot).
Not only did they have different occupations and backgrounds, but they came from different parts of Israel as well. For instance, when Nathaneal was first told about Jesus he rhetorically asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
The disciples competed and argued with one another (e.g., Luke 22:24, Matt. 20:24). They experienced a painful betrayal from among themselves (Judas). They experienced intense theological disputes which led to many disciples leaving the group (John 6:60-61).
So Jesus’ first disciples were not a uniformly sheep-like herd who were particularly predisposed to like either him or one another.
Point #3: The original disciples influenced others to follow Jesus after the death of Jesus.
Remember, the ‘gullible disciples’ theory is a hypothesis that explains away the supernatural elements of the various documents that retell the story of Jesus. It is typically part of a larger naturalistic framework that denies the existence of God or the possibility of miracles.
In this understanding, after Jesus the charismatic leader duped a bunch of people, and was publicly executed for his foolishness and trouble-making, he stayed entirely, 100% dead.
However, the disciples were somehow so gullible, that even though he was dead, they kept believing Jesus was God! Then they spread the absurd idea that Jesus was alive, and they managed to convince others that they were right!
In other words, the original disciples were perhaps both the dumbest and the most accidentally successful people to ever live.
In light of these three points, we should initially expect that either:
- The disciples stuck with Jesus because they were exceedingly naïve and foolish, and unusually predisposed to believe in and follow a charismatic leader, with all of the typical gullibility and stupidity which this implies, or
- The disciples scrutinized Jesus and one another carefully but nevertheless found good reason to accept the novel claims that Jesus made about himself.
These three initial points do not settle the matter.
Rather, they intensify the question and sharply differentiate the possible explanations of the disciples’ eventual loyalty to Jesus.
With this in place, let’s consider the evidence before us, asking:
How do the disciples (and others) relate to Jesus and his miracles in the gospels?
To begin with, in an entirely realistic way, sometimes people are amazed by Jesus’ miracles.
The fact is, it would be quite odd to have dozens of miraculous reports, but no reports of people being astounded.
So for instance, when Jesus heals a paralytic in dramatic fashion, we are told that “they were all amazed” (Mark 2:12).
And John straightforwardly tells us that “many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing” (John 2:23).
This pattern certainly meets our expectations for how people should rationally respond to many miraculous signs, if in actual fact they happened (or even appeared to happen).
If, by contrast, the crowds hadn’t been amazed, then we might conclude that people in Jesus’ day didn’t really think miracles were a big deal. After all, perhaps they were accustomed to believing in strange things. Maybe they were like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, who said, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
But no. What seems miraculous and out-of-the-ordinary to us seemed equally strange and marvelous to them.
Therefore, what is surprising is how little respect Jesus received despite his apparent ability to do incredible and completely unexpected miracles.
Let’s look at this strange problem from five different angles:
1. People openly challenge Jesus.
Even in the context of amazing miracles, and amazed people, it seems that people did not generally relate to Jesus with great deference.
For instance, when Jesus comes to John the Baptist to get baptized, we are told “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Matt. 3:14).
When Jesus explains what it means that he is the Christ, Peter doesn’t like his explanation. So what did he do? “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him” (Mark 8:32, Matt. 16:22).
Jesus also gave his disciples some tough teaching. In response to one particularly difficult lesson we are told that, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66).
On another occasion, his words were so wildly popular that the crowd “picked up stones to throw at him” (John 8:59, see also John 10:31). Another time, “Many of them said, ‘He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?’” (John 10:20, see also John 7:20).
And of course, the disciples were present when their own most trusted leaders – the Pharisees, the scribes, the legal experts, and the other educated and literate leaders of their day – publicly and repeatedly attempted to prove that Jesus was either a heretic or a lunatic or both.
So Jesus was not shielded from controversy by his ‘handlers.’ Instead, he was often ridiculed and challenged as being stupid, blasphemous, or worse (e.g., John 7:40-43, 9:16).
This questioning of Jesus was an active and sustained pursuit. As Luke 11 tells us,
The scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say (v. 53-54).
His opponents stayed aggressive in other ways too. At one point the Pharisees even said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matthew 12:24). At another juncture, “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6).
These are not lightweight, Socratic dialogues where Jesus always comes out looking good. Instead, in most of them, Jesus comes out looking more and more like a blaspheming troublemaker who really, really needs to be killed (e.g., John 5:18).
2. People openly disobey Jesus.
Many cult leaders command total loyalty from their followers. Dissent is harshly punished. Complete deference is uniformly expected. Through this weeding-out process, the more skeptical or independent followers are removed from the group. But this is not how Jesus operated.
For instance, in Mark 1, Jesus heals a leper and “sternly charged him…say nothing to anyone” (1:43-44). And? “But he went out and began to talk freely about it.”
In Matthew 9:30-31, some blind men are apparently healed. We are told, “And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it.” What do they do? “But they went away and spread his fame through all that district.”
At another point, Jesus attempts to visit a Samaritan village, “but the people did not receive him” (Luke 9:53).
When Jesus tells the disciples to feed a large group, they are rather insubordinate: “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” (Matthew 15:33).
After Jesus supposedly raises Lazarus from the dead, “the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well” (John 12:10). Talk about working at cross-purposes!
The gospels simply do not give us a picture of unquestioned reverence for Jesus, even in the context of rather astounding purported miracles.
3. The disciples report Jesus’ failure to do miracles.
When Jesus visits his hometown, he gets a less than favorable response. As Matthew tells us, “they took offense at him.” And so, “he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:57-58).
Mark is even more reckless in his description: “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them” (Mark 6:5).
And Luke tells us that the hometown response was not just a mild disagreement. Rather:
All in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff (Luke 4:28-29).
These are rather damaging admissions about Jesus’ limitations and apparent failures, but the gospels plainly record them nonetheless.
4. The disciples report their own failures to do miracles.
In Matthew 17 we learn of Jesus healing an epileptic child. But first the man complains to Jesus, “I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him” (17:16).
After Jesus heals the boy, the disciples want to know, “Why could we not cast it out?” (v. 19). Jesus’ flattering response? “Because of your little faith” (v. 20; cf. Mark 9).
If the disciples were gullible, they had to be really gullible to keep going with Jesus after an incident like this.
5. The gospels record that people often failed to believe in or follow Jesus.
In a cultural context where family was supremely important, we are told that “when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’”
And apparently, earlier in Jesus’ life, his parents “did not understand” their child’s claims to divinity (Luke 2:50). John tells us, “For not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7:5).
So neither his parents nor his brothers believed in Jesus during his ministry. And the disciples knew of this familial rejection. This is hardly a rousing endorsement of Jesus’ ability to fool people.
When the disciples miss the meaning of a metaphor in Matthew 16, Jesus calls them out, saying, “O you of little faith… do you not yet perceive?” (Matt 16:8-9). If the disciples were the kind of people who went gaga for crazy religious leaders, why would Jesus need to so consistently chastise their lack of faith?
Of course, sometimes the disciples did profess great devotion to Jesus, as at the Last Supper:
Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same (Matt. 26:35).
But what happens immediately afterwards? They fall asleep while Jesus is praying (Matt. 26:40, 43, 45).
Even worse, at the same time, one of the disciples does finally give up his belief in Jesus: Judas.
What does it say about the disciples’ credulity that one of them stopped believing in Jesus? And not only does Judas abandon Jesus, but he craftily uses the intimate trust involved in a kiss to betray Jesus, knowing that this treachery will lead to Jesus’ arrest and execution (Mark 14:44-45). Very clever: and he even gets paid for it! Judas was hardly an unsophisticated sucker.
If there was ever a moment when all of the disciples had to take stock of their allegiance to Jesus, this was it. Were they gullible loyalists? Or would they follow the example of Judas?
Moments later, after Jesus’ arrest, “all the disciples left him and fled” (Matt. 26:56).
Though Peter hangs out in the courtyard near Jesus’ trial for a bit, he is reported to have lied to a servant girl, a very shameful experience in his culture. Peter infamously and fervently denies his association with Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. “Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know the man’” (Matt. 26:74).
Is this gullibility? As long as Jesus was multiplying loaves of bread and healing lepers, the disciples were on board. But once Judas turned against them, and Jesus was arrested, the disciples were racing each other to get as far away as possible. It sounds rather like the disciples were quite open to changing their minds in light of new experiences and evidence.
In Mark’s gospel, often dated as the earliest gospel to be written, the women who find the tomb empty after the crucifixion are less than heroic: “they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).
This is hardly an inspiring way to end the story about “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1)!
But it is not just the women. It is certainly the men as well. We are told quite bluntly of the other disciples, during a mountaintop appearance of Jesus, that “some doubted” (Matthew 28:17)! And when Jesus is said to have appeared to the disciples behind closed doors, he first has to ask them, “why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38).
Perhaps most famous is the story of “Doubting Thomas.” Though all of the other disciples have encountered Jesus and come to believe in his resurrection, Thomas steadfastly refuses to agree with them. As John tells us,
So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But [Thomas] said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25).
Eight days later Jesus appears to Thomas and the other disciples. Imagine the fierce disagreement that took place! “FOR THE LAST TIME, THOMAS, WE ALL SAW HIM ALIVE!” “I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY, I WANT PROOF!” It is only after Thomas sees Jesus for himself that he comes to believe in the resurrection.
Does this make Thomas look gullible? And wouldn’t his persistent skepticism have caused a few of the other disciples to doubt their own experiences?
Jesus is continuously challenged and disobeyed. The disciples witness the recipients of miracles flagrantly ignore Jesus’ clear instruction. They frequently engage in heated, high-stakes debates about the merits of Jesus’ claims with the most educated people of their day. Many disciples follow Jesus for a time before eventually leaving him. Both Jesus and the disciples have experiences where they seem unable to do miracles. Jesus’ family rejected him. Judas betrayed him. And for at least some period of time, his inner circle of disciples all abandoned him. The disappointment of the crucifixion was so severe that the disciples had stubborn doubts that Jesus was alive, even while they were directly interacting with him. Thomas held onto his disbelief for eight solid days, even as ten of his closest friends attempted to convince him that they had all just seen the resurrected body of Jesus.
A close look at the gospel accounts rules out the idea that the disciples were naïve. The evidence simply does not support this conclusion. Rather, there are numerous episodes, of different kinds, attested to in multiple documents, that are quite difficult to reconcile with the ‘gullible disciples’ hypothesis.