Matthew 27:51-53: The Bible’s “Night of the Living Dead” Passage

Matthew 27:51-53.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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34 Responses to Matthew 27:51-53: The Bible’s “Night of the Living Dead” Passage

  1. TomH says:

    Why do you persist in using the obsolete KJV? This undermines your credibility. The NIV or NASB or NKJV are superior translations and use current language. Perhaps you are seeking to make the greek text appear to be obsolete. As someone who has studied greek, I can tell you that you are far off the mark. The greek reads like current English in terms of its logic and literary structure (excepting the grammar).

    Didn’t your parents ever spank you for telling stories? Here you are telling stories about Matthew. I propose some alternate explanations for the guards’ report being in Matthew. One or more of them converted to Christianity (or didn’t) and Matthew interviewed them. However, in order to protect his sources, Matthew didn’t name them. Or perhaps, which seems more likely, one of the chief priests who heard the guards’ report converted and Matthew interviewed him. The writer of Acts reports that many of the priests converted to Christianity. Matthew likely had many contacts from his tax collecting days that the other apostles lacked. Possibly he heard about the guards’ report from non-church sources and needed to protect his sources. There is no need to seriously question Matthew’s report from your facts other than a pre-existent prejudice.

    The “night of the living dead” is a very strange way to describe the story, even if you disbelieve it. It conjures up images of corpses walking around with their arms outstretched, looking for brains. If, in fact, people were resurrected, they would hardly appear in that fashion, but would probably look and act normal, except for their clothing. Perhaps they would appear confused about the date and who the rulers were and city landmarks and layout. Perhaps they would use archaic language and would be difficult for 1st Century Jews to understand.

    I agree that this is a very strange story. Probably, Christians since the 1st century have had the same opinion of it. It is hardly ever mentioned. In fact, I can’t remember even one sermon being preached about it. However, there are lots of corroborations of many of Matthew’s events by other gospel accounts.

    • jason says:

      Jesus is alive because He is the ONLY God Who came in the flesh and died for all of our sins, and just because we have areas of ignorance and lack of faith does NOT give you or anyone else the priviledge of saying this account did not happen.
      there are ministries on the face of the earth right now in 2013 that have seen hundreds if not thousands of people raised from the dead. what is IMPOSSIBLE with man is possible for God.(Luke 18:27) Jesus raised the dead, He ALSO Healed ALL that were sick and demonized(matthew 4:23-24)
      I.E. Resurrection power is nothing for God, He has enough creative power on reserve to create 10 billion new galaxies if He desires to
      . God bless you and love you, in no way shape or form am i saying this out of hate but out of pure love. I was raised in a “certain christian faith” and used to be bound up by satan and believed all sorts of lies until Jesus started sifting out the junk and giving me His treasures, Ask Jesus into your life and Ask Him to baptize You with His Holy Spirit and your life will NEVER be the same!! love you!!

  2. santitafarella says:

    Tom:

    If the KJV was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me! : )

    I love the KJV. It’s the version that all of our great literary stylists in the English language read and learned from. The modern translations can’t hold a candle to the KJV. And there’s more to life than just the facts (news, weather, and sports). The KJV is one of those “more to life” things. That people can’t (or won’t) try to read it is one of the tragedies of a dumbed-down culture.

    Okay, I’m off my soap box now.

    As for Matthew’s grotesque antisemitic conspiracy-theory slur on the Jews of Jesus’s day, forgive me if I don’t give Matthew the benefit of the doubt. The text reads like a slander rumor worthy of Fox Noise. You can come up with all sorts of possible ways that Matthew came to possess and repeat the story, but it tells us zero about how he actually came into possession of it. It drips with maliciousness, regardless of where it came from, and it is not even coherent. It suggests that, in exchange for money, the soldiers would use the excuse of falling asleep. But then they would be in danger of incurring punishment from Roman authorities for failing at their duty. Does that sound right to you? The story rings with falsehood and slander at numerous levels.

    As for Matthew’s Night of the Living Dead, it’s even weirder than I mentioned in the post because Matthew says that they didn’t come into Jerusalem until after Jesus rose from the dead. In other words, their tombs were opened by an earthquake on Friday and they laid in their tombs alive for three days, and then they came into Jerusalem on a Sunday. Look at verse 53 again. It keeps them in their open graves until Sunday. Think about that. This is a very, very creepy (and highly implausible) story.

    Why do you believe it?

    —Santi

    • Joe Boyles says:

      This goes to the credibility of the entire gospel. In an era whereas there were detailed history accounts, why were none of these event recored by historians? Why? Because none of it happened.

  3. Also, why is it that Josephus and other secular historians did not record this event? Even if a mere 15 souls rose from the dead and were beheld by their loved ones, it would cause a great stir. The roman soldiers would likely have known some of them and would have reported it.
    Jesus’ resurrection being kept secret is just as possible as his not being raised (perhaps even more so), but 15+ (a conservative guess) being resurrected would not have escaped history’s notice.

    Another fascinating thing to question in the Matthew account is the mass-killing of children in Bethlehem. Herod Tetrarch was little more than a pawn that Augustus could easily have executed or replaced. Such a mass-slaughter (40+ it is likely) would not have gone unnoticed by the garrisons, and Caesar would likely have had Herod killed for his own amusement if he dared such a disorderly act.
    Flavius Josephus hated Herod (Chuck Wolfram, Herod Project Version 116). After all, Herod murdered many of his sons, one of his 8 wives, and got the title of Tetrarch in the first place through bribing Marc Antony. Yet in the works of Josephus, this mass-killing of infants is not mentioned. One would think that a critic of Herod would not leave out what could be the magnum opus in a career of wickedness.
    Also interesting is that it is highly doubtful that Matthew was written by Matthew (Peter Kirby, Gospel of Matthew Early Christian writings), but that the author is widely believed to be anonymous. Why then would the early church fathers deign to title the book after Saint Matthew?
    One ponders whether the Matthew account should even be in the Bible (much like Revelation, though that is merely my opinion).

    • santitafarella says:

      Steve,

      You make good points. With regard to the gospels, I think that many of these implausible stories come from the authors reading the Hebrew Bible or other literary sources and saying, “The messiah must go to Egypt, so I will make a story that puts the infant Jesus in Egypt” etc.

      —Santi

      • TomH says:

        Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Or maybe with your rejection of Christianity, telling the truth isn’t important to you.

    • TomH says:

      “15+ (a conservative guess) being resurrected would not have escaped history’s notice.”

      Why? In a world with no newspapers, with rumors of various extraordinary things abounding, how would such a story have escaped the common skepticism? How is it that Josephus omits the account of Pentecost? I find your arguments weak and filled with modern presuppositions about the state of common knowledge in 1st century Judea and transmission of the same.

      “Herod Tetrarch was little more than a pawn that Augustus could easily have executed or replaced.”

      Actually, Herod was a king who was loyal to the Roman empire. Not as easy as you say.

      “One would think that a critic of Herod would not leave out what could be the magnum opus in a career of wickedness.”

      Unless, perhaps, there was another motive which overrode a motive of revenge. What would have been the impact of confirming a Christian proposition of the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem?

      Or perhaps Herod’s misdeeds were so legion that the Bethlehem incident was just one more outrage and pretty irrelevant to Josephus’ purpose.

      F. F. Bruce has an interesting essay on Herod. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/herod_bruce.pdf

      I looked up the Kirby site. Ridderbose is unfortunately ignorant of Jewish epistemology as regards witnesses. Following Jewish epistemology, the author of Matthew would have questioned other witnesses (or compiled documents which contained the testimony of witnesses) rather than relying on his own (and possibly fallible) memory many years after the events. Hence Ridderbose’s assertion that Matthew’s account doesn’t seem like an eyewitness acount is irrelevant to the question of authorship.

      Other comments by critical scholars on the page are even more worthless than those by Ridderbose. What has to be done is to try to follow the events as recorded in the NT. Luke records that many attempted to *compile* accounts of the events of Jesus’ ministry. Why would many seek to do this? What were they compiling? What was the epistemic method used to create the source documents? How does this relate to the fact that the apostles were “giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus…?” How does this relate to the fact that the apostles gave “solemn testimony” to the Samaritans? The usage of “solemn testimony” in greek indicates a formal legal act.

      • Billy Wilson says:

        There’s always the more logical argument that you can’t resurrect decaying flesh to walk among the living except in stories, legends, myths, and movies. I’m sure you’re a reasonable, rational adult. The undead aren’t real and a bearded spaceman didn’t raise a flock of dead men to walk the Earth again.

        You could forget scripture in this argument. Dead people don’t walk. They’ve never walked because it is biologically impossible for them to do so. Just like illness isn’t caused by demons. The Earth doesn’t rest on four pillars. A man can’t live in a fish for three days. A man also can’t live for nearly a thousand years. The Earth isn’t 6000 years old. Snakes can’t talk.

      • Billy Wilson says:

        You use some hefty, nickle and dime verbiage to illustrate your point, but you’re still confusing reality with religious fantasy. If you’re arguing over the canon of myth and legend, that’s one thing, but to assume, as a rationally thinking adult, that these fantastic events actually occurred in reality is delusional at worst, naive at best.

        I rode a unicorn to work today. Don’t believe me? You weren’t there. I have faith that it was, indeed, a unicorn. There were no witnesses to corroborate my claims simply because I believed with all my might there was a shield of invisibility engulfing my body. Therefore, I rode a unicorn to work today while surrounded by a cloak of invisibility.

  4. sartre says:

    you forgot another good reason why it probably didn’t happen:

    4.- IT APPEARS ON THE BIBLE.

  5. Richy says:

    Your tenets are weak and unfounded. Where did you learn to construct an argument–in a community college?

  6. John says:

    I HAD A DREAM THE OTHER NIGHT.
    In the dream I could leap higher than the trees and ran faster than a train. I also brought things, that did not exist, into existence.
    I did that with my Thought.
    My thoughts created a coherent space and the rules of physics meant nothing as I could change them– and then change them back– and return my world right back to normal. Yes, I did all this and it was completely believable.

    Somehow, someway, people think God has to obey the universe. We are sustained by his very thought. The Bible says, “we live, move, and have our being IN God”. We think the world is solid, just as we do in our dreams, but if God is the only one who truly exists, he can manipulate it to be anything he wants.
    So to mock this scripture as ludicrous is to have the imagination of an infant. Also remember…God is not on TV right now. He did not come at a time where obvious documented proof could be shown. So that’s preciously how it needs to be. It is NOT better for clear documented proof of this event to be found in history books or that’s the way it would be. God didnt pick the 57th best plan..he picked the only plan.

    You see, very little intellectual honesty and much laziness is done by those who lack faith. God has left us the message exactly as it is–with no video etc….just a message that was designed specifically through God’s infinite foreknowledge of how to draw His true children to Him..and leave the pretenders to just say its all crap. They are not coerced to follow God—they hear, it moves them, and they go and ask God about Christ freely. The others do exactly what their hearts really want—Not to ask for forgiveness and not to worship God’s Savior.
    Turn toward Christ and none of this is hard to comprehend…turn away and its just foolishness to you.
    New International Version (©1984)
    <>
    For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

  7. John says:

    Just one more tidbit after reading the comments on how a few guys on an internet blog seem to know what people “would have done” 2000 years ago.

    JFK was killed in my lifetime and people are greatly divided on what happened. People dont even know if there was someone behind the grassy knoll but you seem to not only know what people would have done 2000 years ago but many people feel just fine saying what happened 200 million years ago as well.
    This is the incoherent world we live in. A world in which the arrogance and bias of people(and include many Christians as well) is so strong that they make statements which have very little thought put into them.
    The majority of the unbelievers reasons for not turning to Christ are just complete rubbish. Its all just masturbation and a daily ritual of BS to reenforce their opinion

    • Paul says:

      I could turn it round and say the majority of believers’ reasons for clinging to the Jesus myth are just complete rubbish, but I ‘d prefer not be so rude and ignorant, except for you I’ll make an exception.

      • Billy Wilson says:

        When adults are spouting fantasy just because they believe so hard it’s real, in a public forum no less, some rational folks need to jump in and remind everyone that we live in reality, not a Saturday morning cartoon.

    • zeebob says:

      I was a born again christian for 28 years and through extensive study of the bible came to the conclusion that it’s myth and history crafted into a narrative to keep the weak minded in a state of mind control. Ihave been free from the religious delusion for over a decade now. Jesus is and always has been a literary construct.

  8. Throb says:

    The Xtian cannon most are familiar with was edited by Rome then London. So pretty much of what is read in the “revised” text is more for central control and planning than it is as actual account. Did “Hebrews” even have a notion of saints. Thinking they were invented much later.
    If we look at Jesus as a man – he was more of a a well read well worded academic and revolutionary (terrorist?) than a heavenly emissary.

    The cannons assert mantras offered by a “holey” man as claims of divinity. A mantra is some we say to ourselves to get through difficult times – something said to bolster the “sayer’s” soiritual strength. For example, in John 6:35, the cannons assert Jesus claims to be the “bread of life”. Why would a nice smart humble man make such a ridiculous claim and position himself above humanity as though he was the “source: of everything?.
    Well, because, if those are, indeed, his words, he was doing what any spiritual mentor might to to help his client grow a sense of self worth.
    Jesus did not claim to be the “staff”. Jesus was offering a mantra – say it in the first person because that is how is was meant to be used – not as recognition of Jesus’s worth, but as a recognition of our worth.

    • Billy Wilson says:

      They seem to find a way to completely ignore Lilith’s existence. But, according to the originals, she was there, she left, and God tossed Adam another woman to cover in fig leaves. No telling what else was gutted. Can’t believe they left in a talking snake, armies of undead, and a man living in a fish for 3 days.

      I wonder how much longer the majority of people will believe such fairy tales. Would be nice if everyone stopped arguing about whose imaginary friend was real and had the bigger wang so we could worry about important issues we face every day, like war, disease, corruption, and food supply.

  9. sickntired says:

    Matthew is relating the information he witnessed. He was not a news reporter. If you saw something happen and wrote it down, you wouldn’t be including your “research” into that writing as well. I also believe that there are numerous other writings that have never seen the light of day to the rest of the world. My firm opinion is that the Vatican has lots of writings they have hidden to keep the world from knowing more of the truth! They have been one sinister bunch in their Corporate Religion for centuries!

  10. ralph says:

    The story if Jesus is the story of standing up to the jew world order – a worthy vocation if there ever was one.

    • Throb says:

      A Zionist is not a Jew. A Zionist is a Zionist, period.

      Zionism is a Dominion Heresy.

      The 3rd largest population of Jews on the planet live in Iran. In Iranian synagogues and Iranian Xtian churches, the word is used for god as it is in Islamic temples, “Allah”. Allah.in Islamic temples, just like the Xtian and Jewish god, is the god of Abraham (who, btw, was an Iraqi!)

  11. Roy says:

    “As for Matthew’s grotesque antisemitic conspiracy-theory slur on the Jews of Jesus’s day, forgive me if I don’t give Matthew the benefit of the doubt. The text reads like a slander rumor worthy of Fox Noise.”

    So any criticism of any Jewish person is false? All Jews are perfect? Not a single one of them is capable of deceit, corruption or self-interest? Or could it be that the power-brokers of a religion wanted to squash their competition before it got started? And as for “Fox Noise,” they are the best friend the Jews ever had. They completely support the War on Islam.

  12. Luke says:

    Liberals believe they are just so utterly clever when referring to “Faux News” or “Fox Noise.” It really is comparable to playing in the second grade sandbox. Santi, you appear to be an intelligent and throughtful guy. Please don’t give me reason to doubt that.

  13. Luke says:

    Santi- one other thing. I would be interested in knowing which networks you believe to be presenting the news without an overtly partisan spin.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      All news comes with an underlying worldview and ideological orientation (whether spoken, unspoken, or denied). Fox News is in the “denial” column. The people who work there lie every time they use the phrase “fair and balanced.” They’re Orwellian. By contrast, Andrew Sullivan’s masthead at his blog is refreshingly honest (“Biased and balanced”).

      I think Sullivan has it right. Admitting your leanings even as you attempt to look at things from nuanced, complex, and contrary angles (not just the one you favor). I’ve always liked reading the New Republic and the New York Times for similar reasons.

      CNN is in the unspoken column, falling in the center. MSNBC is generally open about its bias.

      –Santi

      • Luke says:

        So you don’t have a problem with biased reporting as long as it is advertised as such. Fair enough. However I would maintain that admissions of bias are rare- practically non-existent, and that millions of people condemn Fox because they are too stupid to differentiate between the daytime news shows and the evening talk shows. When he was on Fox, Glenn Beck never purported to be a newscaster, often referring to himself as a rodeo clown. Nor do I believe Hannity or O’Reilly ever make that claim. On the other hand, I would be very surprised if the NYT has ever admitted that its news reporting, as opposed to its editorial page, is biased. There was a non-partisan study done during the campaign that found that only 3% of MSNBC ‘s stories about Mitt Romney were positive. A much higher percentage of Fox’s stories regarding Obama were positive. The head of MSNBC claimed the study was flawed. That does not sound like an admission of bias to me. Speaking of Orwellian, the conspiracy between Media Matters, the administration and numerous journalists takes the cake. When the WH puts out a narrative that gets repeated verbatim in many “news” outlets, the public can rightfully wonder whether anything it is told is really the truth. And no matter how much you hate Fox, the administration’s attempts to silence it and to cut it out are a direct repudiation of freedom of the press. There were a few brave members of the press, such as Jake Tapper, that objected and the administration backed off somewhat.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Luke,

        I don’t quarrel with your analysis of MSNBC, etc. The New York Times, for example, in a pretense to “objectivity,” never described Bush’s torture policies as torture and has never admitted to its Orwellian behavior at the time. The NYT still generally avoids the word torture in describing “enhanced interrogation.”

        What conservatives want to believe, however, is that FOX represents common sense and a non-deviant centrism that held throughout the culture 30 years ago and only now seems ridiculous and backward. Contemporary culture, in Krauthammer’s phrase, has “defined deviancy up” and “defined normalcy down,” thus making FOX seem right-wing to non-right wingers.

        But this begs the question. The truth is that a political and cultural struggle is always going on (either passively or aggressively; either out in the open or via slight of hand). There is no neutrality or center position that is not forced to justify itself, and that’s actually a good thing. There is a marketplace of competing ideas, and you can contribute to it.

        If FOX thinks it’s ill-treated by liberals and liberals think they’re ill-treated by FOX, it’s because both perceive the situation correctly (and happily lie to themselves about their own self righteous, objective, and pure motives).

        But none of this means that we can’t get at the truth of matters if we apply critical thinking, it just has to be done through the fog of war.

        In broad terms, its not hard to see that FOX is a propaganda vehicle for the Republican Party (as is MSNBC for the Democratic Party). The trick is in not fooling yourself when you’re watching your own side.

        –Santi

  14. Angel Nice says:

    It’s not all the accounts of Christ that are recorded in the bible, and besides; the Jesus we are talking about is the son of God (God himself). If we believe in the power of creation, why then are we always trying the impossible under estimation of Gods general power. Only the presence of Jesus in the grave as fulfilled, is enough to stir up the souls of the earlier prophets and saints positively cos is a prophecy fulfilled. If it seems so impossible to you, what about (Luke 9vs28-31. Mathew 17vs1-3). With this; why then do we believe that (Mathew 27vs51-53) is not real, if while he was still alive as a flesh the dead major prophets honored him? Let’s be realistic; if you still want to have a clearer revelation, you go to God in prayers cos the living Jesus Christ still reveals himself to them that diligently seek him. I’m a witness. Angel Nice@fb

  15. Look, say what you will about what people could or would have sone 2000 years ago. Human nature has not changed much in respect to seeing dudes that were dead and entombed hanging around with their loved ones and being recognized. If it happpened it would not have gone unwritten about. It would ahve been the biggest event in human history and could have been verified by many witnesses. Simple fact is ..like much of the bible…it never happened and if peices of it did the facts were edited and corrupted by humans with an agenda through history as the “ancient texts” were translated and re-translated. WTF people?

    • “Human nature has not changed much in respect to seeing dudes that were dead and entombed hanging around with their loved ones and being recognized”

      With that being said. In this country alone we have countless accounts of ones who were thought to be dead, awake (resurrect) even on the table preparing to be embalmed.

      Preparation of the corpse for burial in that time period consisted mainly in washing it and wrapping it in shrouds. No draining and embalming as we use. It’s quite plausible this mass resurrection could have happened via that logic.

      But then too I am a believer of God’s Word. I’ve seen enough miracle’s in my lifetime that defies human logic and many scientists will attest to that fact. I don’t need quite the evidence that a non-believer needs. Not that I begrudge you your skepticism. In fact I think Christ rises to these occasions. He simply admonishes those who believe without need for such evidence as great in faith, but He Himself provided evidence for doubters.

      I also agree that it’s quite scholastically immature to make definitive statements about the Body of Work of God, when so much is missing from it. The beauty of it all is that His message of love and hope prevails regardless of what man does.

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