Disbelief is not a modern phenomenon. The New Testament reports the disciples did not at first believe. "When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it."2 The women "told all this to the eleven and to all the rest...but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them."3 The disciples were not gullible fools. Although they believed the OT scriptures that spoke of miraculous resuscitations and had reportedly seen Jesus bring other people back to life, they also knew that dead people stay dead; they did not expect Jesus to come back to life.4 Even after he had appeared to them, their belief was mixed with doubt: "When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted."5 If the first-century readers did not believe in the permanence of death, the resurrection of Jesus would have had little persuasive power. The disciples and the readers realized that they were making an extraordinary claim, a claim that Jesus was an exception to all previous experience.
Although thousands of Jews came to believe in Jesus as a crucified and resurrected Messiah, most Jews apparently did not believe. Some were offended by his teachings, others by his crucifixion, but no doubt the implausibility of a resurrection scandalized them as well. The resurrection of one person (as opposed to a general resurrection at the end of the age) was not part of their religious beliefs, and they could not accept such an idea even though dozens of people claimed to have seen proof. The religious climate of first-century Palestine was just as hostile to Christian faith as the secular world is today.
Greek philosophers would have scoffed at the idea of a resurrection.6 Even within Christianity, resurrection was not an easy idea to accept. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians shows that some Corinthian believers doubted the need for a resurrection, and Paul points out that this implied that Jesus was not truly resurrected.7 Some Corinthian Christians were apparently too "spiritual" to believe that the human body had any enduring value. Although Paul does not report what they thought about the resurrection of Jesus specifically, it is likely that they viewed it as completely noncorporeal, as a spirit being leaving the body behind in the dust. But Paul’s view of resurrection involved a body – a dramatically changed body, but a body nonetheless – "it is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body."8 A noncorporeal resurrection has the advantage of being unfalsifiable, in making no claims about the physical world that are contradicted by our experience, but Christianity makes claims about Jesus’ bodily resurrection that flatly contradict our experience that dead people remain dead.
How did people respond to the claims that the disciples were making? The initial reaction for almost everyone was probably "That’s preposterous." A more serious response is reported in Matthew 28:11-15:
While they [the disciples] were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, "You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
Many critics believe that this passage was invented by Matthew, but the story is too complex to be a purely Matthean invention. It betrays several levels in the argument. It reports not just a distant memory, but a fact verifiable at the time of final editing: unbelieving Jews were claiming that the disciples stole Jesus’ body while the guard slept. Matthew probably included this passage in his Gospel to respond to such a claim, and he probably considered it as the claim most worth refuting. The unbelieving Jews apparently agreed that Jesus’ tomb was empty; they made no allegations that Jesus was buried elsewhere, or that the disciples went to the wrong tomb.9 To reconstruct the argument:
First, the disciples say that the tomb is empty.
The unbelieving Jews then say, that’s because the disciples stole the body.
The believers then say, We couldn’t have, because there was a guard.
The unbelievers say (rather than denying the existence of a guard), the disciples stole the body while the guard was asleep.
Finally, Matthew explains that the guard was bribed to say that.10
The argument presupposes that in Matthew’s day, the unbelieving Jews talked of a guard at the tomb. It was the first of many attempts not just merely to deny the resurrection, but to explain the evidence in a different way.