In its description of the resurrected Christ meeting with his disciples in Galilee, Mathew’s Gospel includes a somewhat puzzling – if not startling – phrase that has often led to misunderstandings. When the risen Jesus appeared to his followers at this point, we are told that some of his disciples worshiped him, “but some doubted.”
What exactly was this doubt – that it was really Jesus? That it was not a vision? That they thought it was Jesus but doubted that he was actually God? Why did some believe while others doubted? And how serious was that doubt?
To answer these questions, we need to look closely at the words Matthew uses. The underlying Greek word for “doubted” is distazō, which is only used twice in the New Testament – here and in Matthew 14:31 when Jesus asked Peter why he doubted after he lost his confidence and began to sink while walking on the water toward Jesus. In both cases the doubting does not denote intellectual disbelief (for which Greek uses the word apistia), but rather physical “hesitation.”
Most dictionaries of ancient Greek define distazō as meaning “waver or hesitate”* as well as “doubt,” and the meaning of “hesitate” makes sense logically in both passages. Peter must have originally not doubted or he would not have decided to get out of the boat, and the disciples who were said to doubt must have not done so originally because they went to Galilee, to the place Jesus told them to go to meet him – so they could not have disbelieved in the possibility of his resurrection.
In the case of Peter walking on the waves, he was doing fine for a while, but focusing on the wind, he hesitated (Matthew 14:30). In the case of the disciples who doubted when they saw Jesus, they too hesitated in some way. What could the hesitation have been?
The answer to that question is likely found in the same verse: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” It seems likely that while most of the disciples, on seeing Jesus, worshiped him as the Son of God, some few hesitated, not yet sure that they should worship someone who appeared as a man before them. Interestingly, the story of Peter on the water also occurred in a context with worship of Jesus – once the disciples had seen an indication that he was the Son of God (Matthew 14:31). Understood this way, the hesitation had more to do with the Jewish abhorrence of worshiping anything but God than it had to do with any doubt that this was the resurrected Jesus.
We should remember that when we look back on this scene, we visualize it in terms of our knowledge of the resurrected divine Son of God. Some of those disciples may well have gone to Galilee expecting or hoping to see the resurrected Jesus, but perhaps without thinking out ahead of time what exactly one should do when one did see him. We must remember that the Scriptures mention a number of people being resurrected – and Matthew tells us specifically that: “The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people” (Matthew 27:52-53).
So the disciples who “doubted” may not have doubted at all – they may have been fully aware of people being resurrected, but may have hesitated when actually seeing Jesus in the flesh in terms of whether to react with worship or not.
It is possible that the hesitation may have been based on uncertainty as to whether this really was Jesus, but that could have been a matter of distance. Matthew tells us that directly after some doubted: “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’” (Matthew 28:18). If Jesus came to them, they must have seen him from at least a little distance at first – when some are said to have doubted. But overall, it seems more likely that the hesitation of these disciples was not regarding the identity and reality of Jesus, but their own proper response to him.
* See, for example: Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, 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.