Have you ever noticed what it says?
Immediately after Jesus’s death, Matthew has this very, very strange Night of the Living Dead story that he includes in his gospel. Matthew says that there was, immediately following Jesus’s death, an earthquake, and this earthquake was accompanied by an astonishing mass resurrection in which “many bodies of the saints which slept arose.” And not only did they arise from the dead, Matthew claims that they entered the very city of Jerusalem, appearing “unto many.” It’s so wild a passage that I’ll quote it in full (from the King James version of the Bible):
51And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
52And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
53And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
There are three pretty good reasons to doubt that this story actually happened:
- Outside of this one gospel, no other ancient writer knows anything about this (not even as a rumor). It is as if a UFO had descended on Jerusalem and absolutely no one, apart from Matthew, thought it worthy of marking in historical memory. An event of so dramatic a nature would have changed everything in history. But not even the other gospels know the story. Why? Obviously because it did not happen.
- Even if we gave Matthew the benefit of the doubt, and held open the possibility that he recounted a real event, we still must ask a simple question: where did the author get the story? And the answer is this: We simply do not know. If Matthew believed that the story was true, and not a bit of folklore, we will never know what evidence or testimony convinced him that it was true. We have only a spectacularly implausible tale.
- Matthew has other stories of similarly poor quality, and they also lack credibility. See, for example, Matthew 28:11-15, in which the author circulates a conspiracy theory around which Jews are said to have tried to cover-up the resurrection of Jesus. The story, like Matthew’s “Night of the Living Dead” passage, provokes from us similar questions: Where did Matthew get the story? How does he know the story is true? How do we know whether Matthew isn’t just circulating a grotesque and fantastic antisemitic rumor?
But Matthew’s Night of the Living Dead passage (Mt. 27:51-53) is more than just implausible (if read literally). It also raises serious red flags concerning the whole of his gospel. In other words, it drives us to a number of unpleasant conclusions, such as these:
- If Matthew can include such a wildly implausible and fanciful story in his gospel, maybe a lot of other things that he asserts are fanciful as well.
- It seems that Matthew was not somebody who worried all that much about getting his facts straight before promulgating a story. Nor was he worried that people might spread his story without knowing anything more than what he told them in his book.
- Matthew 27:51-53 would seem to provide clear evidence that the author of “Matthew” (whoever he was) had a very low regard for verification (either getting it for himself or distributing it to others).
And, of course, the biggest issue that Matthew 27:51-53 raises is this:
- If Matthew can make a wild claim concerning many people rising from the dead, it casts doubt on the story he offers of one person rising from the dead (Jesus).
If a person is discovered to have spread a wild and unfounded rumor, it is reasonable to be suspicious of any other claims that he might make as well, don’t you think?