This entry is part 27 of 57 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 6:1f – Who were ‘the sons of God’?
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’?
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”?
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east?’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5 – Son? Servant? Male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’?
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 25:40 – Who are ‘these brothers of mine’?
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’?
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – No room at the inn?
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’?
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’?
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’?
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – Saved through child-bearing?
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – the Saviour of all people?
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
27:52 And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised. 27:53 (They came out of the tombs after his resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.)
Did these remarkable events actually happen?
So-called ‘mainstream’ critical scholarship regards it as ‘legendary’. According to Harper’s Bible Commentary, for example, ‘One wonders what the resurrected saints were doing between Good Friday and Easter. The story flatly contradicts Paul’s teaching that other resurrections will occur only at the Parousia (1 Cor. 15:23)…This legend was evidently designed to stress the fact that the resurrection is essentially a corporate event and that the resurrection of Jesus is the cause of all other resurrections, since his resurrection was the victory over death. It cannot be stressed too strongly that this legend is peculiar to Matthew and that it should be ignored in any attempt to reconstruct what happened on Good Friday.
Some of the difficulties are outlined by in the Holman Apologetics Commentary: ‘If the tombs of many saints opened at the time of Jesus’ death on Friday and the bodies were at that time raised from the dead, why did they wait until after Jesus’ Sunday resurrection to emerge from the tombs? What did they do in the meantime? Did they grow hungry? Did they receive glorified human bodies or simply revived human bodies? If they had been dead a year or more, their bones would likely have been transferred to an ossuary box, leaving them with no grave clothes. If so, what did they do for clothing when they emerged and went into Jerusalem? And why do no historical records mention the social upheaval that would have certainly occurred if many resurrected people arrived in Jerusalem? Jesus would have been just one among many returning from the dead. Surely it would have been one of the most noteworthy events in history. Given these difficult questions, are the elements of this account best understood as legend or a literary device Matthew used to portray the significance of Jesus’ death?’
Even conservative teachers tend to express doubts. Michael Green, for example, says,
A straightforward historical reading of these verses is hard to contemplate. Who were these people? Were they resurrectioned or resuscitated? Why did they go into the holy city? What happened to them subsequently. Indeed, what happens to the priority of Jesus’ resurrection? And if they appeared to many people (53), why is there no reference to this event elsewhere, either inside or outside the New Testament? (The Message of Matthew, BST)
Hagner (WBC) raises a similar raft of questions:-
For example, there is the question of the nature of the bodies of the resurrected saints. Do these saints have what may be called new-order resurrection bodies, i.e., permanent bodies not subject to decay, or are they resuscitated bodies (like that of Lazarus) that later died again? (Could they have new-order resurrection bodies before Jesus, “the first-fruits of the dead” [1 Cor 15:20], did?) Related to this is the further question about what happened to these saints after they made their appearance in Jerusalem. (Were they raptured to heaven and, if so, when? Did they remain on the earth and, if so, where?) Furthermore, why is such a spectacular event “seen by many”—surely of great apologetic significance—referred to only here in the NT and not at all outside the NT? A further question concerns the basis on which this number of saints and these particular saints, and no others, were raised from the dead (was it arbitrary or do unknown criteria come into play?).
Licona suggests that Matthew has used a ‘poetic device’ to underscore the meaning and significance of the momentous events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection. He cites, as a partial parallel, the quotation of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:15-21, even though there was not, on the day of Pentecost, any of the sweeping cosmic events spoken of by the prophet.
But none of these considerations count decisively against the historicity of this account. They simply indicate that we have some unanswered (and probably unanswerable) questions about it. Nor does it account against the historicity of these events that they have symbolic and theological significance.
Hagner notes that many commentators sidestep the historical question altogether. Those who do raise it
can be found to use terms such as “puzzling,” “strange,” “mysterious.” Stalwart commentators known for their conservatism are given to hesitance here: A. B. Bruce: “We seem here to be in the region of Christian legend” (The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. R. Nicoll [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1897] 332); A. Plummer: “a tradition with a legendary element in it” (402); W.Grundmann: “mythic-legendary” (562).
Craig Evans thinks that this account is a late gloss: ‘I do not think the tradition in Matthew 27:51b–53…has any claim to authenticity. This legendary embellishment, which may actually be a late-first- or early-second-century scribal gloss, is an attempt to justify the Easter appearances of Jesus as resurrection, in the sense that Jesus and several other saints were the “first fruits” of the general resurrection. This is, of course, exactly how Paul explains the anomaly (see 1 Cor. 15:23).’
Evans elsewhere suggests that the story might be an attempt to offer an answer to Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18 when he said, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” 2) is cited explicitly or implicitly by any church father till after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. 3) is sequentially awkward as how can Jesus be the first fruits if they are already raised; 4) The position that the Akhmim Gospel fragment, which Evans dates in the second century, might allude to Matthew when it says in the gospel of Peter 41 “have preached to them that sleep” is a stretch so that information for the gospel of Peter did not come from Matthew but from somewhere else.’
Some express agnosticism on this matter. Writing in the NBC, France comments: ‘There is no other record of this remarkable occurrence, and Matthew does not give enough detail for us to know exactly what he thought happened. For instance, why the delay between the raising of the bodies and their appearance in Jerusalem; and what happened to them afterwards? The symbolism is fairly clear, but we do not have the resources to determine the status of the story as sober history.’ In his Tyndale commentary on Matthew, France says, ‘its character as ‘sober history’ (i.e. what a cinecamera might have recorded) can only be, in the absence of corroborative evidence, a matter of faith, not of objective demonstration. It was, in any case, a unique occurrence and is not to be judged by the canons of ‘normal’ experience.’
Leon Morris says: ‘Nobody else mentions this, and we are left to conclude that Matthew is making the point that the resurrection of Jesus brought about the resurrection of his people. Just as the rending of the temple curtain makes it clear that the way to God is open for all, so the raising of the saints shows that death has been conquered. Those so raised went into Jerusalem and appeared to many. Since there are no other records of these appearances, it appears to be impossible to say anything about them. But Matthew is surely giving expression to his conviction that Jesus is Lord over both the living and the dead.
Blomberg is similarly non-committal, saying that ‘all kinds of historical questions remain unanswered about both events.’
So also Wright (The Resurrection of the Son of God), who, at the end of his discussion of this passage, concludes: ‘It is better to remain puzzled than to settle for either a difficult argument for probable historicity or a cheap and cheerful rationalistic dismissal of the possibility. Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out.’
Boice, who accepts the historicity of the account, points out the following as some of the unanswered historical questions: ‘We do not know whether these saints had died long ago or only recently. We do not know how long they remained alive. Was this a permanent resurrection? If it was, what happened to them? Were they transported to heaven, like Elijah? Or did they die again? We do not even know whom they went into Jerusalem to see or why they went or what they said to those they saw.’
Hagner argues that the event makes little ‘historical’ sense, even though it makes good ‘theological’ sense. He thinks it likely that a historical core of events, such as the darkness and the earthquake, have prompted a degree of ‘elaboration’ as the account has been passed down. What we end up with is ‘a piece of theology set forth as history’.
By the inclusion of this material Matthew wanted to draw out the theological significance of the death (and resurrection) of Jesus. That significance is found in the establishing of the basis of the future resurrection of the saints. We may thus regard the passage as a piece of realized and historicized apocalyptic depending on OT motifs found in such passages as Isa 26:19; Dan 12:2; and especially Ezek 37:12–14…Ezek 37:12–14 is apposite: “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people … And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you out of your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live … ”
In his 2010 book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Michael Licona has taken a similar view: “It seems best to regard this difficult text in Matthew a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that impending judgment awaited Israel.” (Despite his robust defence of Jesus’ resurrection, reaction to his exposition of this passage forced his resignation from his teaching post at Southern Evangelical Seminary. I regard the way he was treated as scandalous, and symptomatic of what I have called ‘the heresy of inrrancy’.)
Further study and reflection have caused Licona now to regard a historical approach as at least as plausible as a symbolic approach. In this article, he suggests that the main arguments in favour of understanding this account as historical are (a) the near-unanimous view of the Church fathers; and (b) this account appears in the context of other details that clearly historical – such as the crucifixion itself. To my mind, the first of these argument carries little weight. With regard to the second argument, however, Licona notes that just three chapters earlier Matthew records Jesus as speaking about certain future cosmic events, adding that most scholars view these as apocalyptic symbolism.
Noting such questions as are raised by Green and Hagner, Tidball (The Message of the Cross) comments:-
No matter how much we wish to interrogate the text, it will yield nothing to satisfy our rationalism or our scepticism. Using the imagery of Ezekiel, who prophesied that the Sovereign Lord would open graves and resurrect people to life in the valley of dry bones, Matthew is content to let the event stand unadorned because its symbolic meaning is clear. The raising of these holy ones is a foretaste of the resurrection to which all believers can look forward. Through the death of Jesus a new day has arrived, a day when death has been defeated by death and resurrection to life eternal has been made possible.
This happening points to the future more than any other. It is the bridge to the good news of the resurrection of Jesus, as well as heralding the new age which will one day climax in the resurrection to life of all believers in Christ. The cross of Christ was an apocalyptic event. The future has already arrived. Or, in R.T. France’s more measured words, “In his coming a new has dawned; nothing will ever be quite the same again.”
One of the gravest objections to this passage is that it seems to teach that Jesus’ resurrection was not the only resurrection, or even the first. It is to be noted, however, that this objection would still apply even if the event was understood symbolically, rather than historically. Carson (EBC) thinks that a full stop should be inserted after ‘broke open’, so that what follows is a parentheses in the narrative. The passage would then read something like: ‘The tombs were also opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and they came out of the tombs after His resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.’ The resurrection of the ‘holy people’ is then to be linked with that of Jesus himself, with the implication that they were raised at the same time as Jesus was. We are then to believe that the resurrection of the OT saints is as dependent on the resurrection of Christ as the resurrection of NT believers.
The Apologetics Study Bible notes: ‘That they “appeared to many” indicates that Matthew’s intention in this report was historical, for the detail is irrelevant if his intention was merely symbolic.’
It has been suggested that the very oddness of the account should lead Christians to rejoice in it, for it subverts the idea that Christianity is merely a system of good works, and affirms that Jesus’ death and resurrection bring new life.
See David Wenham’s discussion in Tyndale Bulletin 24 (1973), pages 42-46.