Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Dawn of the dead

51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many (Mt 27:51-53).

This is a much-mocked text which I've discussed before, but I'd like to make some additional observations. 

1. What exactly is the objection to this incident? In my experience, off the top of my head: 

i) It's only reported in one Gospel

ii) It's weird

iii) Triggers popular associations with the Hollywood zombie genre

iv) If it happened, why isn't the incident more widely reported?

v) What happened to the raised saints? 

2. At what point did this text become ridiculous or incredible? Historically, did Christians find this text incredible or ridiculous? Let's take a comparison:

i) Traditionally, in Christian cemeteries, corpses and coffins are buried pointing east. From what I've read, that's based on belief that Jesus will come from the east (Mt 24:27; cf. Isa 63:1; Zech 14:4). When he returns, the dead will be facing him. They will rise out of their graves, in his direction. 

My immediate point is not to assess folk theology, but to note that traditional Christian burial customs reflect the same basic outlook as Mt 27:51-53. Historically, Christians didn't find that absurd or unbelievable. That, in itself, doesn't make it true, but it's not as if the alleged absurdity of the account was the default impression of most readers or believers. 

ii) By the same token, it's interesting to consult the historical witness of patristic expositions. Apollinaris says:

It is plain that they have died again, having risen from the dead in order to be a sign. For it was not possible for only some of the firstborn from the dead to be raised to the life of the age to come, but the remainder [must be raised] in the same manner. Manlio Simonetti, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 14-28 (IVP 2002), 297. 

While Jerome says:

Just as the dead Lazarus was resurrected, so also many bodies of the saints were resurrected. Thus they showed the Lord rising again. And yet, though the tombs were opened, they were not resurrected before the Lord was resurrected. thus he was the firstborn of the resurrection from the dead. Now we should understand the holy city in which they were seen when they were being resurrected either as the heavenly Jerusalem, or this earthly one which was previously holy. 321. Thomas. P. Scheck, trans. Commentary on Matthew (CUA 2014), 321. 

Theophylact says:

And those who were dead in sins arose and entered the Holy City, the heavenly Jerusalem, and appeared to the many who were walking the broad road [leading to perdition]. By appearing to them, they became an exemplary model of a good life and of repentance. For if one sees a man who was formerly deadened by many passions now changed and ascending to the holy heavenly City, he imitates that man in every way, and himself repents. These things have been explained in a rather elaborate manner; but you, O reader, understand that the raising of the dead which occurred at the Lord’s crucifixion, also revealed the freeing of the souls in hades. Those who arose at that time were seen by many, lest the event appear to have been only an apparition. They arose as a sign from God, and it is evident that they again died. Some say that after Christ’s resurrection, these arose and have not yet died; but I do not know if this should be accepted.

My point is not to evaluate their interpretation, but to document how ancient or medieval Christians took it seriously. Other examples include Matthew Henry and John Gill. My purpose is not to recommend their commentaries but to document how Christians in the past weren't embarrassed by this episode. 

3. In his commentary, Evans takes the position that this pericope is a scribal interpolation. Craig. A. Evans, Matthew (Cambrige 2012), 466-68. For those who regard the scene as inherently legendary, that explanation salvages the historicity of Matthew. But to my knowledge there's no text-critical evidence whatsoever that this passage is a scribal interpolation. If that's the case, it's hard to explain the uniformity of the MS tradition. How could a scribe add that to the original Gospel without generating diversity in the record of transmission? How did his interpolation win out, leaving no alternatives in the extant MSS? 

4. Raising the widow's son is only recorded in Lk 7. Raising Lazarus is only recorded in Jn 11. So the fact that the incident under review is only reported in Matthew isn't suspicious compared to analogous accounts. If you're going to be skeptical, you need to be consistently skeptical. 

5. Bart Ehrman likes to harp on high rates of illiteracy in the 1C Roman Empire. But in that case, how many witnesses to this event would be in a position to commit their testimony to writing? And even if they did, how many witnesses would be in a position to publish their testimony? It's not like they could contact a reporter at The Jerusalem Post. At best, their testimony would circulate orally.   

6. Another question is how widespread sightings there were. That depends on many variables. How many saints were raised? What was the population of 1C Jerusalem? How many witnesses in relation to how many saints? How many people would be in a position to recognize the former decedents? Are we talking about a sprinkling of saints dispersed in the general population density of the city? How noticeable would that be? 


  1. I suspect that the resurrection of the saints is a prophetic fulfillment of the OT command to wave the first fruits sheaf [omer] before YHVH during the barley harvest. It makes sense for Matthew to record it because his intended Jewish audience would appreciate and recognize the fulfillment. Whereas Mark and Luke weren't primarily written to Jews, so their audience wouldn't appreciate it. On the contrary, it might have seemed so fantastical that the readers would doubt it, and along with it the resurrection of Jesus as well. So, it made sense for Mark and (especially) Luke to leave the story out. It's non-essential to the story of Jesus. By the time GJohn was written, the the church was mostly composed of Gentiles and so that's all the more reason to leave out the story. The split between the Jews and the Christians in 90s was such that the Jews were especially hardened against the Gospel. So, there would be little point to include the story in GJohn. I suspect the saints, whoever they were, ascended to heaven around the same time Christ did.

    There are other folks who also believe the resurrected saints fulfills the OT command. For example: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/02/01/The-Resurrection-of-the-Jerusalem-Saints-at-the-Feast-of-the-Firstfruits.aspx#Article

  2. From the early second century onward, the raising of the saints and the surrounding events connected with it are referred to as historical. Sometimes the discussions of these events are accompanied by references to corroboration from non-Christian sources. The earliest extrabiblical reference to the raising of the saints that I'm aware of, in Ignatius in the early second century, includes information not found in Matthew. So, it doesn't seem that early Christian views of the event were based only on the gospel account. See here.

    All of the gospel authors are selective in what they report (Mark is aware of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, but doesn't narrate them; John 21:25; etc.). Since the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 happens in the context of Jesus' resurrection, it's easy to think of a plausible reason for its only being mentioned in one New Testament document, even though it was historical. The focus is on Jesus' resurrection. The resurrection of the saints was inferior in a variety of ways (it was dependent on Jesus' resurrection, it may have been a resuscitation rather than a resurrection in the fullest sense of that term, etc.). All of the gospels that don't mention the resurrection of the saints do mention other resurrections, though not all of the same ones. There's no need for them to mention all of the resurrections they were aware of. By the time John wrote, it would have been well known that Jesus performed resurrections other than what John reports. Other gospels had been circulating for decades. Jesus' reputation as somebody who raised the dead in Matthew 11:5 comes in the midst of a context unlikely to be made up (the doubts of John the Baptist) and is often considered early Q material. (See the discussion in Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], 333-34, where he mentions that most scholars accept the historicity of Jesus' comments in Matthew 11:5-6.) If John was so selective in reporting resurrections, why couldn't Mark and Luke have been similarly selective? Mark doesn't even narrate a single resurrection appearance of Jesus, even though he knew of appearances, none of the gospels say anything of the appearance to James, even though it was widely reported early on (1 Corinthians 15:7), and Luke surely didn't include everything in his gospel that the "many" sources he refers to (Luke 1:1) had reported.