The January 17 edition of the "Unbelievable?" radio program featured a debate between two New Testament scholars, Michael Bird and James Crossley. Bird is a Christian, and Crossley is an agnostic. They debated two topics, whether Jesus viewed Himself as God and the resurrection.
Near the end of the program, Crossley brought up the common objection from Matthew 27:52-53 (start listening at the fourteenth minute of the second hour). Supposedly, the raising of the dead referred to in that passage is historically unlikely, since the other gospels don't mention it and Josephus doesn't mention it, for example.
Bird gave a poor response, referring to the passage as "tricky", failing to make some good points he could have made, and concluding that the passage isn't referring to a historical event. He suggested that other scholars consider the passage difficult to explain as well, citing the example of N.T. Wright.
In the past, I've discussed the use of this passage by other critics of Christianity, such as Richard Carrier, an atheist, and Nadir Ahmed, a Muslim. In debates on the resurrection, opponents of William Craig, such as Robert Miller and Hector Avalos, have repeatedly raised this issue in some form. Crossley refers to the objection as "classic". It shouldn't be a classic, though, and Christians shouldn't consider it as difficult as Bird does. See here.
Some points to keep in mind:
- The passage doesn't tell us whether resuscitation or resurrection is involved.
- As the gospel accounts of resuscitations and Jesus' resurrection illustrate, we don't have reason to expect a raised body to look significantly different from a body prior to death.
- Sometimes critics suggest that the raised individuals would have been naked, would have been wearing deteriorated clothing, would have been similar to zombies, etc. But as I wrote in response to one such critic in my article linked above, "The concept that God would raise people from the dead, but leave them with no clothing or deteriorated clothing, is ridiculous. It’s consistent with the imagery somebody might get from a horror movie, but it’s absurd in a first-century Jewish context. People wouldn’t have been walking around nude, and assuming that bodies would be restored without restored clothing is dubious. Did Jesus have to travel nude for a while, looking for clothing, after His resurrection? Does God raise a person, but then leave him on his own to find some clothing to wear? Did God also leave people buried in the ground or inside a sealed tomb, without any further assistance, after reviving them? Did Jesus have to move the stone in front of His grave Himself?...the gospel of Matthew was written in the context of first-century Israel. We know how other resuscitations and resurrections were viewed in that context. We know what they thought of public nudity. We know that angels who took on human form were clothed, for example. The first-century Jewish context of Matthew's gospel doesn't lead us to view Matthew 27 in light of a modern horror movie. What leads you to view it as something more like a horror movie is your desire to criticize the passage....You don't ignore the implications of a context just because the text doesn't spell out every implication. What does a term like 'raised' mean in a first-century Jewish context? Does it imply a zombie who walks around in the nude with a partially decomposed body? If a historian refers to what Abraham Lincoln ate for dinner one day, then doesn't make any further references to meals until he's discussing a day in Lincoln's life twenty years later, do you assume that the historian thinks that no meals were eaten between those two dates? Or do you take into account factors such as what the historian would have known about the human need to eat more often, the fact that historians are often selective in what they do and don't mention, etc.?...Given that so many other Jewish and Christian documents imply that God provides such things [clothing] (angels in human form are clothed, the risen Jesus is clothed, etc.), and given other factors such as ancient views of public nudity, the idea that risen people would be left naked is less likely. Why is clothing people who are without clothes, by no fault of their own, 'ridiculous'? I would say that your concept that God sends these people into first-century Israel in the nude is what's ridiculous."
- We aren't told how many people were raised or how many knew of the event. The references to "many" in these two verses don't tell us much, since different numbers can be associated with such a term in different contexts. The many of Matthew 7:13 surely is a far larger number than the many of Matthew 8:30, for example. Many in the context of the judgment of mankind would be a much larger number than many in the context of a herd of pigs. Matthew 27 is set in a local context, the general vicinity of Jerusalem, and involves an event that's unusual enough for smaller numbers to constitute "many".
- The fact that the raised individuals appeared to many in Matthew 27:53 doesn't demonstrate that all of those many understood what they had seen at that time or later.
- We aren't told whether any of the witnesses to the event were non-Christians and remained non-Christians afterward.
- Historians accept many historical accounts that come from only one source.
- The gospels refer to other individuals who were raised by Jesus. If the event of Matthew 27 is a resuscitation, then it's another manifestation of a miracle performed multiple times previously and reported by multiple sources. If the event is a resurrection, then it's not so similar to those previous events, but still has some similarity.
- Matthew only mentions the event briefly, which undermines the critic's assumption that anybody who believed in the event would have thought so highly of it as to be sure to mention it in our extant literature. Matthew mentions it, as he mentions many other things, but he doesn't seem to have thought that it deserves as much attention as critics suggest.
- Some Christians writing shortly after the gospel of Matthew was composed (Clement of Rome, Polycarp, etc.) didn't comment on the event of Matthew 27, even when they were discussing the topic of resurrection. We know that it was common for the Christians of that time to interpret the gospels in a highly historical manner (see, for example, here, here, and here), so it seems unlikely that they didn't comment upon this passage as a result of viewing it as non-historical. Apparently, these early Christians, writing shortly after the time when Matthew's gospel was composed, didn't think that mentioning the event of Matthew 27 was as important as some modern critics suggest.
- The claim that no other early Christian sources mention the event depends on the assumption that some passages referring to the raising of the dead don't have this event in mind. But there are some early passages that may refer to it (Ignatius, Letter To The Magnesians, 9; Quadratus, in Eusebius, Church History, 4:3). And both passages just cited include information not mentioned in Matthew's gospel, so neither seems to merely be repeating what he read in Matthew.
- Non-Christian sources were writing in particular genres. To expect a Roman source to mention the event of Matthew 27, simply because he was writing around the time when the event would have occurred, doesn't make sense. George Bush's presidency was historically significant, but we wouldn't expect it to be discussed in a contemporary gardening magazine or book about motorcycles. An ancient writer who composed poetry or wrote about Roman politics shouldn't be expected to discuss Christian miracles in such a work. Ignorant skeptics sometimes make the mistake of acting as if the timing of an author is all that's relevant when considering whether he should have mentioned Jesus, Christian miracles, or something else related to Christianity, as if genre is irrelevant. As J.P. Holding put it, "Do books on public speaking today go off topic to mention Jesus?...Again, Jesus didn't lead any Roman armies, so where would he fit here [the writings of Appian]?...Pausanias -- a Greek traveler and geographer of the second century who wrote a ten-volume work called Descriptions of Greece. Check your travel guidebooks for Greece for mentions of Jewish miracle workers in a different country!" As Craig Keener notes, "Without immediate political repercussions, it is not surprising that the earliest Jesus movement does not spring quickly into the purview of Rome’s historians; even Herod the Great finds little space in Dio Cassius (49.22.6; 54.9.3). Josephus happily compares Herodotus’s neglect of Judea (Apion 1.60-65) with his neglect of Rome (Apion 1.66)." (A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 64, n. 205) Critics of Matthew 27 sometimes mention Josephus and suggest that there are other relevant sources, but don't name them. They ought to be specific about who should have mentioned this event in Matthew 27 and where they should have mentioned it. I suspect that many of these people don't have anybody specific in mind other than Josephus, and they probably haven't given much thought to their citation of that one source.
- The idea that a non-Christian source would have a compelling desire to report such an event so favorable to Christianity is dubious and is an assumption I've never seen any critic justify. A source like Josephus might discuss such an event, but he also might prefer to avoid discussing it.
- Josephus and other early non-Christian sources refer to Jesus' performance of apparent miracles. Sometimes they discuss specific miracles, and sometimes they don't. They may refer to Jesus as a sorcerer or magician or refer to Him as empowered by Satan, but not go into detail about the activity that led them to that conclusion. Why should we expect the event of Matthew 27 to be singled out for discussion? How does the critic know that a reference to Jesus as a sorcerer or magician, for example, doesn't include an acknowledgement of the event of Matthew 27 along with other miracles? If a historical figure has a reputation as a miracle worker, then discussing individual miracles is one way to discuss his activity, but it isn't the only way. The more miracles there are associated with an individual, the less significant one miracle, such as the one of Matthew 27, may seem.
- As an example of some of the points above, consider the apostle Paul. He doesn't say much about his miracles, and he's often vague when he does discuss them (2 Corinthians 12:12). Luke goes into more detail, as we'd expect in the genre and historical context in which he was writing, but he doesn't go off on a tangent to address Paul's miracles in his gospel. Rather, he discusses those miracles several chapters into Acts, in the proper chronological place, and even at that point he's selective in what he discusses. Later Christian sources who discuss Paul and accept the book of Acts often don't mention Paul's miracles or address them in a more vague manner than Luke does. Early non-Christian sources say little or nothing about Paul, even long after his letters began widely circulating. Origen makes a specific point of criticizing Celsus for ignoring Paul (Against Celsus, 1:63, 5:64). The early enemies of Christianity, especially those who were Jewish, would have had difficulty with a prominent enemy of Christianity who converted to the religion on the basis of seeing the risen Christ. Even less problematic religious leaders of that time, such as Gamaliel and John the Baptist, aren't mentioned much in our extant sources. Gentiles wouldn't have had much interest in discussing Jewish religious leaders, much as Jews wouldn't have had much interest in discussing a Gentile who was reputed as a miracle worker, such as Apollonius of Tyana.
- Sometimes it's suggested that if a Christian doesn't think this passage is describing a historical event, then he shouldn't interpret the accounts of Jesus' resurrection as references to a historical event either. But the accounts of Jesus' resurrection are far more numerous, come from more sources, and are more detailed. I disagree with Christians who interpret Matthew 27 as something other than a reference to a historical raising of the dead in first-century Israel. But those who hold that position are making a judgment about a brief passage in one source, a passage that isn't addressed much by other early sources. We don't have anything close to the level of evidence for the historicity of that passage as we have for the historicity of the accounts of Jesus' resurrection. If somebody thinks that the evidence for the historicity of Matthew 27 is insignificant enough to be overcome by other factors, it doesn't therefore follow that the same is true of the accounts of Jesus' resurrection.
- The gospel of Matthew is just one source among others that are relevant to the historicity of Jesus' resurrection. Even if we were to conclude that this passage in Matthew 27 undermines the testimony of that gospel, its testimony can be diminished without being eliminated. And we still have other sources that give us information relevant to the resurrection of Christ.