Matthew 27:51-53. Have you ever read it?
Immediately following Jesus’s death, Matthew says that there was an earthquake that exposed numerous graves on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and “many bodies of the saints which slept arose.”
Not only did many among the dead rise, but Matthew claims that they entered the 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):
51 And, behold, [upon Jesus’s death on Friday] the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
Did you catch the phrase after his resurrection in verse 53? It suggests that, if the story is literally true, graves were exposed all around the outskirts of Jerusalem from Friday until Sunday, and if you happened to be walking among these burial places on Sunday, you would have seen many corpses of the dead coming “out of their graves.”
And those who came out of their graves may have been lying in them from Friday to Sunday alive, waiting for Jesus to be the first to actually rise from the dead! (That’s one way you could read the text–that they animated immediately on having their graves opened, then waited till Sunday to actually come out of them.)
In any event, it was one creepy Night of the Living Dead Easter weekend–if Matthew’s gospel is true.
But there are some pretty good reasons to think that the zombie story is not true. Here are three:
- No other ancient writer save Matthew records anything about this. It’s as if a UFO had descended on Jerusalem and no one, apart from Matthew, thought it worthy of marking the event in historical memory. The simplest explanation for why no one recorded it but Matthew is that it didn’t happen.
- Even if we give Matthew the benefit of the doubt about this story, and hold open the possibility that he recounted a real event, we still must ask a simple question: Where did the author get the story? The answer is: We don’t know. If Matthew believed that he was told a true story, there is no telling what evidence or testimony convinced him that it was true because he doesn’t tell us anything beyond the bare story itself. So even if Matthew believed it, there is no reason the rest of us should.
- Matthew tells other stories that seem similarly dubious. See, for example, Matthew 28:11-15, in which the author circulates a conspiracy theory around which Jews are said to have bribed soldiers to cover-up the resurrection of Jesus. The story, like Matthew’s Night of the Living Dead tale, 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?
Matthew’s Night of the Living Dead passage, then, is more than just implausible. If read literally, it also raises serious red flags concerning the whole of his gospel. Here are three:
- Matthew, by including a story in his gospel that so strains credulity, makes one doubt a lot of other things that he asserts.
- Matthew, as evidenced by the fact that he tells his zombie story without pointing to his sources for it, was apparently not somebody worried about establishing facts. Nor was he worried that people might spread his story without knowing anything more than what he told them. He appears to have had a very low regard for verification (either getting it for himself or providing it to others).
- Of course, the biggest issue that Matthew 27:51-53 raises is this: If Matthew can make a wild and unsubstantiated claim concerning many people rising from the dead, it casts doubt on his claim that Jesus rose from the dead.
To conclude, if an ancient writer spreads a fabulous story that goes unreported by any other ancient writer, it is reasonable to be suspicious of other claims that writer makes as well. It’s thus arguable that Matthew’s zombie passage, for its sheer implausibility and lack of collaboration, undermines the credibility of the Gospel of Matthew generally–and even of the resurrection of Jesus.