In the midst of Matthew’s dramatic account of Jesus’ resurrection, one particularly puzzling statement in verse 17 continues to cause consternation. When “the eleven disciples …saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful” (Matt. 28:16-17, NASB). Why in the midst of this amazing confirmation of Jesus’ resurrection did Matthew mention the doubt of some of Jesus’ closest followers? The very event that was intended to both proclaim Jesus’ resurrection and set forth Jesus’ “Great Commission” seems compromised by this intrusive statement about doubt among the eleven closest disciples.
Earlier in the account an angel had told the women at the tomb to go and tell Jesus’ disciples that (1) Jesus had been raised from the dead, (2) he was going ahead of them to Galilee, and (3) the disciples would see him there (v. 7). Before they could carry out the angel’s commission, the resurrected Jesus met them as they rushed along the way from the tomb—verifying that he had been raised from the dead. The women approached Jesus, “took hold of His feet” (v. 9; an act of tangible contact that hints to the physicality of the resurrection) and “worshiped Him” (v. 9; an act of faith and adoration and the first hint in Matthew to the new status of Jesus as the Risen Lord). Jesus repeated the angel’s message: (1) the disciples were to “leave for Galilee” and (2) “there they will see Me” (v. 10).
As instructed, the disciples proceeded to Galilee; but verse 16 adds a new piece of information. The disciples went to a mountain in Galilee that Jesus evidently at some point in the past had “designated” (NASB) to them. Immediately after reference to this mountain, the Greek text literally states, “and when they saw him, they worshiped; but some doubted. And approaching, Jesus spoke to them” (vv. 17-18a). Obvious something seems wrong with the sequence here. The disciples seem already to have been at the mountain that Jesus designated (the Greek aorist tense is used throughout this passage, designating an action completed at a point in the past); but how could they possibly have doubted after seeing Jesus and worshiping him?
To me, the troubling issue arises in verse 18. It appears at this point that Jesus first approached the disciples after they already have seen him and worshiped him (note in the NASB that the italicized “him” is not found in the Greek text after “worshiped”). The only solution I can see to this dilemma is a slight amending of the Greek text, which most scholars are hesitant to do. If no evidence of an alternate reading can be found among all the Greek manuscripts, scholars generally try to stick with the text as given. The alteration of one Greek letter, however, makes this whole sequence understandable. Let me explain.
In verse 17, the “Him” in “when they saw Him” is the Greek third person masculine pronoun auton, which obviously refers to Jesus. The readers are expecting the disciples to see Jesus because both the angel and the resurrected Jesus had told the women that the disciples would see Jesus in Galilee. The puzzling introduction of the “mountain” in verse 16, however, opens a possible channel of explanation. If the auton referring to Jesus in verse 17 were amended to auto, the neuter pronoun “it,” verses 17-18 would read, “When they saw it [i.e., the mountain], they worshiped; but some doubted. And [then] Jesus came up and spoke to them . . . .” In this scenario, the doubt is an issue after they arrive at the appointed place and worship but before they actually see Jesus.
My contention is that the scribes who transmitted this text were so anticipating that the disciples would see Jesus when they arrived at the mountain, that they altered the original text. They created a situation where the disciples “see” and “worship” Jesus before he “came up and spoke to them.” In reality, I think that the disciples arrived at the designated place and worshiped. In the lag time between their arrival and Jesus’ arrival at the site, some of the disciples began to doubt that Jesus was actually going to show up. The resurrection was not yet an established fact for them—it was the “gossip” of a couple of women who had claimed to see Jesus and had sent them on a wild goose chase to Galilee. But then Jesus appeared. The doubt vanished. The Great Commission was given—not to some doubting disciples, but to disciples who had seen the risen Lord on the designated mountain in Galilee, just as the angel and Jesus had told the women.
Maybe this explains how one small Greek letter can create possible misunderstandings when the text is transmitted by believing scribes anticipating the climax before it actually comes.