By Shabir Ally
Question; How would you explailn the believes of the disciples and early Christians when the evidance seems to suggest that they believed in Jesus’ ressurection?
I am not convinced that we can know what the disciples themselves believed about the resurrection. The speeches in Acts are Luke’s compositions, and the letters of Peter and James are at least doubtful as to their authenticity.
I do not claim to know what happened but I have posited that after God raised Jesus he granted the disciples a vision of Jesus to assure them of his being alive. The natural proclamation that Jesus is alive after everyone thought he was dead is easily transformed in a series of steps into the proclamation of the resurrection. Notice that even today if a person survives a near-fatal accident he may say that he has come back from the dead. The distinction between near-dead and actually dead becomes blurred in such instances for those who are struck by the turn of events from one in which there was little hope to one in which all hopes are restored.
But even if we grant that they believed that Jesus died and that God restored him to life this does not mean that the post-resurrection narratives in the gospels should be believed. We now know that there was an earlier faith that Jesus was assumed into heaven from his grave (pre-Markan passion), and perhaps another that he was assumed into heaven alive (a la Zeller). In this case we can see a series of developments:
1. Jesus is believed to have been assumed into heaven alive (Q Gospel);
2. Jesus is believed to have been assumed from his tomb into heaven (Pre-Markan);
3. It is promised that Jesus will appear to his disciples in Galilee (Mark’s addition to the pre-Marcan story).
4a. Jesus appears to his disciples in Galilee (John 21:1-14) but he does not say anything bearing on the question of his death or resurrection (the rest of that chapter must be seen as a separate episode).
4b. Jesus is believed to have appeared to his disciples in a vision (final scene in Matthew);
5. The reality of the vision is stressed: Jesus is said to have had a spiritual body, whatever that means (Paul);
6. The reality of the vision is further stressed: Now Jesus has a body that can be touched (appearance to the women in Matthew; and to Mary Magdalene in John; and to Thomas; and to the disciples in Luke).
There are more nuances to mention, and more possible steps in this development. But this gives a general picture that is quite reasonable. With this in mind it is not necessary for Muslims to disagree with the traditions about the empty tomb, for this merely establishes assumption into heaven. Nor is it necessary to deny the appearances to the disciples, but only to explain that the appearances have multiplied from a singular event of a spiritual kind to multiple events, the later ones stressing the bodily form (even physical) of the resurrected Jesus (Brown and, to an extent, Dunn).
The one question that may remain is this: If the disciples believed that Jesus resurrected from the dead, why would God not correct that belief?
But we may ask: What would be the necessity? Certainly divine revelation does not tell us everything, but tells us that which we need to know for our salvation. It is not the belief that Jesus rose from the dead that needs essentially to be corrected as a matter of utmost priority. What needs to be corrected is the use of this belief to further the Christian belief that he is God, or that he died for our sins, and the belief of some Jews (and also of Pauline Christians) that he died the death of an accursed person (see Galations 3:13). But these were not issues, we believe, with the disciples. These issues arose in the minds of others.
To sum up, suppose that Jesus survived the crucifixion and was translated from the tomb to heaven in a state of sleep (which may have been necessary for the journey); while the disciples thought he was dead. Now suppose that God shows Jesus to the disciples in a vision in which he does not say anything. But this is enough to convince the disciples that Jesus is alive. They then proclaim that Jesus is alive. The proclamation then takes on a life of its own. This explains a lot of what we know about the state of the present gospel stories and their formation.
The most basic development to notice here is the move from assumption to resurrection followed by ascension. Assumption is a singular event. Resurrection followed by ascension are two events. The one event has been split into two. The ascension which was originally the assumption itself has been delayed in the later retelling of the story. Instead of going immediately from the tomb to heaven as in the earlier story, he now delays his trip so as to first meet his disciples. Luke’s Gospel has him ascend on Easter evening after his appearance to his disciples that day, and so ends that Gospel. But Luke has followed this with another work: Acts of the Apostles, in which he now informs us that Jesus appeared to his disciples over a period of forty days before ascending. Hence the ascension has been further delayed to make room for more appearance stories.
In this regard it is interesting that the Quran mentions a singular event to mark the mysterious end of Jesus’ ministry: the ascension. We have in the past remarked that we agree with our Christian friends on the belief that Jesus ascended to heaven. We can now stress that this agreement is more remarkable between us and the Christians whose belief was reflected in the Pre-Markan passion narrative and in the Q Gospel. All that needed to be said about Jesus was that a plot was made against his life, but his enemies were not successful; rather, God raised him to himself. This raising of which the Quran speaks seem to correspond to the early Christian belief that Jesus was translated or transported from the tomb into heaven or that Jesus was in some other manner translated into heaven. Hence the stories about Jesus transformed the singular event into two events, and the Quran brings us back to the earlier proclamation of a singular event: God raised Jesus.