Friday, September 16, 2011

Early Christian And Non-Christian Interpretations Of The Matthew 27 Phenomena

Matthew and the other Synoptic gospels suggest that some unusual phenomena mentioned in the narratives of Jesus' death, including the raising of the saints in Matthew 27:52-53, are connected to each other. If the accounts of the darkness, earthquake, etc. are meant to be taken as historical, then the account of the raising of the saints probably is as well. It can't be isolated from the others. Michael Licona suggests such a connection of the phenomena in his book, where he argued for the non-historicity of the saints' resurrection.

Below are some examples of how the early Christians interpreted these passages. These early Christians discuss details not mentioned by Matthew, suggesting that they weren't depending only on what he wrote, and they cite corroboration from non-Christian sources. Therefore, some of the passages below reflect not only how early Christians viewed these phenomena, but how early non-Christians viewed them as well.

"And therefore He whom they [the prophets] rightly waited for, having come, raised them from the dead." (Ignatius, Letter To The Magnesians, 9)

"This event was also an indication of the fact, that when the holy soul of Christ descended to Hades, many souls ascended and were seen in their bodies." (Irenaeus, Fragments, 28)

"You [Romans] yourselves have the account of the world-portent [the darkness at Jesus' crucifixion] still in your archives." (Tertullian, Apology, 21)

"On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Saviour falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let that opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth— manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. But it was a darkness induced by God, because the Lord happened then to suffer. And calculation makes out that the period of 70 weeks, as noted in Daniel, is completed at this time." (Julius Africanus, Fragment 18)

"'But,' continues Celsus, 'what great deeds did Jesus perform as being a God? Did he put his enemies to shame, or bring to a ridiculous conclusion what was designed against him?' Now to this question, although we are able to show the striking and miraculous character of the events which befell Him, yet from what other source can we furnish an answer than from the Gospel narratives, which state that 'there was an earthquake, and that the rocks were split asunder, and the tombs opened, and the veil of the temple rent in two from top to bottom, and that darkness prevailed in the day-time, the sun failing to give light?' But if Celsus believe the Gospel accounts when he thinks that he can find in them matter of charge against the Christians, and refuse to believe them when they establish the divinity of Jesus, our answer to him is: 'Sir, either disbelieve all the Gospel narratives, and then no longer imagine that you can found charges upon them; or, in yielding your belief to their statements, look in admiration on the Logos of God, who became incarnate, and who desired to confer benefits upon the whole human race. And this feature evinces the nobility of the work of Jesus, that, down to the present time, those whom God wills are healed by His name. And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles.'" (Origen, Against Celsus, 2:33)

"Those who have written against the Gospels suspect that Christ's disciples, through ignorance, have interpreted an eclipse of the sun in connection with the Lord's Resurrection." (Jerome, Thomas Scheck, trans., St. Jerome: Commentary On Matthew [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2008], p. 318)


  1. Thanks Jason for doing this research.

  2. Yes, thanks for the heavy lifting Jason!