As Jesus was crucified, did his apostles stay in Jerusalem (rather than flee to Galilee)?
Clarifying the question
According to reports, just before Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem and crucified there, he told his 12 apostles that they will scatter like sheep. Sure enough, as Jesus is arrested, Mk writes, “And they all left Him and fled.” When the apostles “fled”, did they in fact all flee, and flee all the way back to Galilee?
Historians are varied on this point. It has been advocated by Lake, Gnilka, Funk, among others. Some historians take it for granted:
Gerd Lüdemann: “...[for early Christians] the flight of the male disciples was an established fact.” [The Resurrection of Jesus (Fortress, 1995), 118.]
Some at least think there are competing traditions:
Pheme Perkins: “The traditions as we have them are divided between those which suggest that the disciples flee back to Galilee after the Crucifixion and see the Lord there, and those which have the group remain in Jerusalem. The Fourth Evangelist patches over the conflict between the two versions by having the return to Galilee follow a rather extended stay in Jerusalem” [Peter (Fortress, 2009), 19.]
But most scholars across the theological spectrum seem rather critical of the idea:
James Dunn: “The regular assumption that the disciples (all) fled to Galilee when Jesus was arrested lacks historical discrimination.” [Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans, 2003), 865.]
Dale Allison: “Aside from all this, the idea that the male isciples fled…. although commonly asserted, is a feeble construct, a pure postulate without basis in the evidence.” [Resurrecting Jesus (Continuum, 2005), 330.]
P. Gardener-Smith: “This suggestion seems intrinsically improbable and against the evidence.” [The Narratives of the Resurrection (Meuthn & Co., 1926), 144.]
The apostles wouldn’t choose to flee to Galilee
Other evidence aside, the apostles choosing to flee to Galilee in the way supposed is highly implausible.
- The apostles wouldn’t leave the women.1
- The apostles would prefer to hide amidst a large crowd.2
- The apostles would not choose to conspicuously leave.3
- The apostles—as Jews—wouldn’t travel on the Sabbath.4
- They wouldn't leave the women:
- Dale Allison: “…one wonders whether the disciples would in fact have abandoned the women who had gone to Jerusalem with them. Would they, even if afraid, have left them without escort?” [Resurrecting Jesus (Continuum, 2005), 330.]
- P. Gardener-Smith: “The disciples may have deserted Jesus, but they can hardly be supposed to have deserted all their womenfolk.” [The Narratives of the Resurrection (Meuthn & Co., 1926), 144.]
- Hiding in the crowd is preferable (there were thousands there for the festival); being isolated on a road-to-home would feel more dangerous, and it would take a lot more unnecessary effort:
- P. Gardener-Smith: “A man who wishes to hide himself generally chooses a crowded city, and it must have been easy for a dozen Galileans to escape notice among the enormous population of Jerusalem at the Passover season.” [The Narratives of the Resurrection (Meuthn & Co., 1926), 144.]
- The idea here is that leaving would be remarkably suspicious, especially since Jews were prohibiting from traveling on the Sabbath. The apostles would have stood out like a sore thumb!
- A.J.M. Wedderburn: “Traveling in haste on the Sabbath that lay between the date of Jesus’ crucifixion and the third day would have been the worst possible tactic. Common sense would rather dictate that it would be better to mingle with the crowds of departing pilgrims leaving Jerusalem after the feast, if that were at all possible — as indeed the Gospel of Peter suggests that they did (14.58).” [Beyond Resurrection (Hendrickson, 1999), 54.]
- P. Gardener-Smith: “On the day before the feast the most conspicuous thing they could have done would have been to leave Jerusalem, and journey in a direction opposite to the stream of traffic.” [The Narratives of the Resurrection (Meuthn & Co., 1926), 144.]
- They wouldn't travel on the Sabbath:
- Richard Bauckham: “[t]here is no convincing evidence that the male disciples were ever thought to have returned to Galilee immediately after Jesus’ death. They would, in any case, not have traveled on the Sabbath.” [Gospel Women (Eerdmans, 2002), 258.]
Peter stayed in Jerusalem, denying Jesus
After Jesus’s arrest, Peter stayed in Jerusalem, specifically following the events of Jesus from a distance, and ultimately denying being a disciple of Jesus’s multiple times because of it.
- Peter's staying attested to in all four Gospels.1 This matters because the Gospel writers are competent historians; their reports all had ample opportunity to preserve a tradition wherein the apostles fled to Galilee, and yet instead it matches the simple story that the apostles stayed in Jerusalem.
- Peter's denying Christ is unlikely to have been lyingly invented;2 memory is a far more likely source for the account.
Peter's staying in Jerusalem is relevant because it implies not all the disciples fled, and likely if Peter was staying the others were as well. They were a co-traveling group and wouldn't depart from each other easily.
- Lk 22:54-57; Mk 14:69-70; Mt 26:73-75; Lk 22:59-62; Jn 18:13:27 (cf. Jesus’s prophecy: Mt 26:33-35; Mk 14:29-31; Lk 22:33-34; Jn 13:36-38; and Jesus’s rehabilitation of Peter in Jn 21:15-17, wherein he asks Peter “do you love me?” three times, which presupposes Peter’s three denials.)
- The case for the account being fictional is seems quite strained, basaed on dubious theological reasons the authors “would” or might have to invent it (assuming the denials are false). But that at best works to defend the theory against a certain kind of criticism (that authors wouldn't have reason to invent it); it is not actually evidence for invention. By contrast, there is evidence against the invention theory (i.e. data which is surprising if it was invented). Consider:
- In addiition to the general case for the reliability of the Gospels, there is a unique case for the general historical reliability of each Gospel at this point, for Mt, Mk, Lk, and Jn. Each had a chance to record a competing tradition, and none did.
- The account is also highly unlikely to be invented, in part because it is so embarrassing to the church leader Peter—making him apostate—and thereby indirectly embarrassing the church as a whole. It is possible that this account would be desirable to Christians or a dishonest inventor because it could provide an inspiring story wherein even Jesus’s mail apostle falls and gets redeemed, illustrating and how loving and powerful God is. (Compare Paul’s story, which is seen to be God-glorifying [Gal 2].) However, all things considered—including the embarrassment factor—this “possibility” is arguably not nearly as possible as the alternative: it’s simply what happened.
Jn 19 says the Beloved Disciples watched Jesus die
John says that the Beloved Disciple was at the cross with Jesus’ mother and bore witness to what happened there.
Jn 19 26-27, 35 -- “So when Jesus saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own household. ... And he who has seen has testified [to this]...”
Jn 18:15 says Peter’s companion watched Jesus die
We read in Jn 18:15 — “Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple”, listing off several detail about this disciple.1 This is relevant because John was a competent history which aimed to getting things right, and grounded its reports in eyewitness testimony. [All forthcoming] This was very much an opportunity to preserve a tradition wherein the apostles fled to Galilee, and yet instead it matches the unanimous attestation that the apostles stayed in Jerusalem.
Jn 18:12, 15-16 -- So [they] arrested Jesus and bound Him, and led Him to Annas first; ...Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in. (If you believe this refers to the beloved disciple, then combine this evidence with the evidence above.)
Lk 23:49 says the apostles watched Jesus die
We read in Lk 23:49 — ‘[Jesus breathed his last and] all his [Jesus’] acquaintances … stood at a distance and saw these things.’ This is relevant because Luke was a very competent historian who was dedicated to getting things right, and grounded his reports in eyewitness testimony. [All forthcoming] This was very much an opportunity to preserve a tradition wherein the apostles fled to Galilee, and yet instead it matches the unanimous attestation that the apostles stayed in Jerusalem.
In Mk & Mt, the women relay a message: “Go to Galilee”
In both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the women visit Jesus’s tomb (in Jerusalem) on Sunday morning, and are Divinely instructed to tell the apostles to go from where they are to Galilee.
Mk 16:7 — But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’” Mt 28:7 — “tell His disciples that… He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him;. … Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.’”
This is relevant because the underlying assumption is the apostles have not yet gone to Galilee; they are still staying at a home in Jerusalem; the women accompanying have simply just re-visited Jesus’ tomb via a morning walk. The Divine message implies those women know right where the apostles are—gathered together at home—and can simply walk over and inform them what everyone is do next: “go to Galilee.”1
• David Aune: “the evangelists could not have understood this tradition as a flight to Galilee since all of them either implicitly presuppose or explicitly state that the disciples were gathered in or near Jerusalem when they learned of the empty tomb. The gospel tradition presupposes that the ‘flight of the disciples’ was to an undesignated hiding place in or near Jerusalem (cf. John 20:19; Gos.. Pet. 26).” [Jesus, Gospel Tradition, and Paul in the Context of Jewish and Greco-Roman Antiquity (Moh Siebeck, 2012), 167.]
In c. AD 30-75, Jews cried, “The apostles stole Jesus’s body”
In c. AD 30-75, Jews complained, “The apostles stole Jesus’s body” Starting some time between AD 30 and 70, at least some Jerusalem Jews were publicly maintaining that Jesus’s body went missing because it was stolen by the apostles. This is relevant because their complaint reflects an early believe—even by the local Jews—that the apostles were still in Jerusalem during Jesus’ crucifixion and the following days. This was an opportunity to preserve a competing tradition, and yet it instead matches the unanimous tradition that the apostles stayed.
Gos. Pet. 14:58-59 says they returned after the feast
The pseudonymous Gospel of Peter reports that the the apostles returned to Galilee after the feast, since like everyone else they had no reason any longer to stay in Jerusalem.
The Gospel of Peter 14:58-59 — “Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread; and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over. But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home.”
This is relevant because it is yet another attention that they disciples did not flee to Galilee, and attestation which had a chance of preserving a competing tradition, but did not.
Gospels say they deserted Jesus/scattered
The Gospels say that at Jesus’ arrest, the apostles “scattered” and “fled”.
Mark 14:27, 50-52 — Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, because it is written, ‘I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered.’ But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee. … [In Gethsemane] And they all left Him and fled. A young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him. But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked.”
This is relevant because they inevitably fled to Galilee where they came from.
But against the relevance of that first claim…,
- …the word “scattering” best implies a mere dissembling from a central point: the Garden.1
- The texts say nothing about Galilee,2 and common sense says they hid in the vicinity of Jerusalem. (See above.)
A.J.M. Wedderburn: “That the disciples ran away in Gethsemane does not mean they ran away to Galilee (a very long run!), but simply that they left the immediate area where the arrest was taking place where [they] were in grave danger.” [Beyond Resurrection (Hendrickson, 1999), 59-60.]
Maurice Casey: “It is regrettable that scholarly discussion of the fact that the male disciples had fled has been sidetracked into a discussion of whether they fled immediately all the way to Galilee, which we do not know.” [Jesus of Nazareth (T&T Clark, 2010), 476.]
David Aune: “…in none of the references to the flight of the disciples is there any indication that Galilee might have been the goal of their flight. In fact, the evangelists could not have understood this tradition as a flight to Galilee since all of them either implicitly presuppose or explicitly state that the disciples were gathered in or near Jerusalem when they learned of the empty tomb. The gospel tradition presupposes that the ‘flight of the disciples’ was to an undesignated hiding place in or near Jerusalem (cf. John 20:19; Gos.. Pet. 26).” [Jesus, Gospel Tradition, and Paul in the Context of Jewish and Greco-Roman Antiquity (Moh Siebeck, 2012), 167.]