As a sceptical adult, exploring claims that I had accepted unquestioningly as a child, Easter felt like a chasm. The rigours of textual examination in Divinity School left no biblical phase unchallenged and no Christological hermeneutic accepted. As much as I wanted to believe the accounts of Jesus resurrection on face value, the evidence seemed to become increasingly dependent upon the intentions of the gospel writers, something we called redaction criticism.
And yet, there appeared to me an almost accidental inclusion within the Synoptic Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark and Luke) which no editor at the time could or would have written in unless it had really happened. This was the psychological and emotional journey of those who were watching those events unfold in real time.
Imagine only watching the crowd at football match rather than the game itself. Could or would the crowd be able to conceal their experience of loss or victory? Could they conceal the tension or relief from their faces? In the same way the New Testament almost coincidentally records the disciples’ emotional reactions, even when they appear to discredit the overall message, which is the best evidence of what they truly experienced.
If we imagine the period building up to Jesus’ crucifixion and the resurrection accounts as three scenes in a play, we can best explore the fluctuations in the emotional experience.
Scene 1: The Triumphant Entry
The disciple’s entry into Jerusalem gives us a few clues as to their emotional state. Known as the Triumphant Entry, Luke 19 accounts a scene of public joy and celebration in which people spread their cloaks on the road before Jesus and shouted out praises to God. Whilst we don’t hear from the disciples directly, in verse 39 some of the Pharisees call on Jesus to, “rebuke your disciples!”. Clearly, they were on an emotional high, and filled with positive expectation for what lay ahead.
Their mindset also seems to resonate with Luke 18:34 in which Jesus foretells his death but it says, “The disciples did not understand any of this.” It is a good example of incongruence, where the disciples who are experiencing very positive emotions, cannot reconcile them with the negative story that they are hearing.
Even Peter, who seems to engage more directly with what Jesus is saying about the future, remains in denial. In Mark 14:31 it says, “Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” The Greek word for ‘emphatically’ perissós is translated in other settings as ‘vehemently or exceedingly’ – it gives you an indication of how categorical Peter’s opposition to Jesus’ negative predictions were and in so doing, illustrate the high and confident state of mind that the disciples brought into Jerusalem.
In terms of evidence for the historicity of these accounts, I find these interactions totally compelling. Nobody attempting to construct a false narrative would have Jesus’ key disciple acting dismissively to the Son of God unless it really happened. There is something so deeply irreligious about Peter’s reactions that no one can reasonably believe a zealous scribe could or would concoct them.
Scene 2: Jesus’ Arrest
Gethsemane and Jesus' arrest form the second emotional scene to explore beginning with the sleeping disciples. Again, this inclusion of the group who appear unable to remain awake despite being stirred three times says more than may be obvious. Jesus says to them in Matthew 26:40, “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?”
It seems highly unlikely that a group of zealous and excited disciples could all neglect a specific instruction to stay awake. Within any group of people there is always a huge variance in a person’s ability to get to sleep, especially in an unfamiliar setting. Yet the uniformity in the disciples' sleep points to a similarity in their psychological experience.
Mental or psychological fatigue can create ‘group sleep’ as evidenced amongst military personnel. Whilst the quality of sleep is often incredibly poor, mental fatigue can be experienced as an irrepressible urge to close one’s eyes, a bit like power-down on a computer. Again, it seems congruent to a group of people who have been highly charged emotionally, jubilant, anxious, and now suddenly on edge as their fortunes look set to change.
This emotional instability underpins Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, in which one disciple cuts off the High Priests servants’ ear (Matthew 26:51), one disciple flees naked (Mark 14:52) and it says in Matthew 26:56, “All the disciples deserted him and fled.”
The disciples’ emotional responses may seem chaotic, but they perfectly reflect the ‘fight or flight’ response of the Autonomic Nervous System, which again would be further sensitised by their levels of emotional exhaustion. For me these little details and corroborations are key evidence for the historicity of the text. They are certainly miles away from a constructed text in which the key followers would always be consistent and dependable ‘revelators’.
Again, most notably Peter in Mark 14:68, 70 and 71 denies that he knew Jesus at all. His own mental state appears legitimately strained, in verse 71 calling down curses on himself and swearing innocence. As readers we can sense the mixture of threat, survival mentality and moral conflict within him, culminating in the concluding phrase in verse 72 “And he broke down and wept.’
Anyone seeking to write a fictional narrative or even edit a historic account to prove Jesus was divine just wouldn’t include this emotional detail for three obvious reasons: Firstly, it discredits the intended message. Secondly, it is a tension that even a brilliant fiction writer would find hard to create intentionally: It is just too authentically human to have been fabricated. Finally, it is totally unnecessary, why include it at all if it hadn’t happened?
Scene 3: The Resurrection
Finally, as a critical reader, any inauthenticity in the gospel accounts were always most likely to be obvious in the resurrection narrative. This would be where zealous writers would be most likely to tie up the loose ends too neatly and create too much uniformity in the reaction of the disciples.
An inauthentic narrative would most likely conclude with a ‘mass affirmation event’ where the disciples' sorrow turns to elation as they realise Jesus is the Son of God after all. There certainly wouldn’t be any doubting. And yet the Synoptic Gospels offer the absolute opposite. Mark's Gospel’s core resurrection account is notable for the total absence of the disciples, and in the later segment of 16:11 and 13 we read that the disciples ‘Did not believe it.’ Luke’s accounts are marked out by fear and disbelief, recording the doubt of Thomas’ although not naming him as is the case in John’s gospel.
There is something totally compelling in this emotional record around ‘seeing and not believing.’ Matthew 28:17 records, “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Luke 24:37 has them, “Startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.” Jesus asks them 'Why are you troubled and why do doubts rise in your minds?’. There is so much here that affirms what we know about traumatic grief today. It says more about their emotional state than it does about their rational assessment of their actual circumstances.
As a reader I see the disciples wrestling with their own senses, wondering perhaps if they are conjuring their deepest desires to life. It’s not uncommon for people to believe that they have seen a loved one who has died, and this phenomenon is more common with a traumatic bereavement. It’s no surprise that they wonder if Jesus is a ghost. What would be surprising is if they fell to the ground in worship and this is where emotional interpretation has strengthened my belief in the veracity of the accounts of Easter: It is all so human, so unpolished and so inconvenient it almost has to be true.
When it comes down to it, I cannot help but think that either the Synoptic Gospels were fraudulently written by the greatest human psychologist that has ever lived. Or that they were written with the intention of offering an honest account of how people reacted to events that really happened. Since it is so totally improbable and purposeless for such a great psychological deception, I find myself compelled by the emotional witness of the disciples to believe in the risen Jesus.
Will Van Der Hart, 06/04/2023