Matthew 27:51-53: The Weirdest Story in the New Testament, and the Problem It Poses for Jesus’s Resurrection

Immediately following Jesus’s death, Matthew 27:51-53 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.”

So this is quite a stunning claim. Graves would have been 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.”

But why believe this story? After all, 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, save Matthew, is that it didn’t happen.

Matthew’s Night of the Living Dead passage thus leads to this question: if Matthew can make a wild and unsubstantiated claim concerning many people rising from the dead, why should we believe his claim that Jesus rose from the dead?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, God, God, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Matthew 27:51-53: The Weirdest Story in the New Testament, and the Problem It Poses for Jesus’s Resurrection

  1. dcyates says:

    Yes, to our way of thinking, it’s definitely a very odd story. But at the same time, Santi, you’re obviously approaching this from a decidedly early-21st-century N. American perspective; demanding corroborating evidence and verified, substantiated proof of eye-witness testimony, etc. Rather, we have to remember, this story was written from within a very different culture with a worldview quite alien from our own.
    For instance, people in the ancient world expected various wonders to occur upon the decease of important figures. It was simply their way of saying, “The world has certainly changed now because this person lived, did the things he did, and is now no longer with us. Because this person was here and is now gone things will never be the same again.” If that can be said of anyone who ever lived, it can clearly be said of Jesus! The world has changed in frankly incalculable ways because he lived.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Dcaytes:

      So what I’m hearing you say is that I’m not thinking clearly about this because I was born in North America in the 20th century, and Matthew was a creative writer, not a writer of history. Do you include the story of the resurrection of Jesus in Matthew among the fictions of Matthew?

  2. dcyates says:

    I’m saying Matthew was writing within the conventions of his own time and culture. Naturally, reading any piece of ancient literature is going to pose some inherent difficulties. That doesn’t go away just because this is the Bible. My goodness, let’s look at something more contemporary:

    Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong

    Under the shade of a coolibah tree,

    And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:
    
”Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?

    “Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda

    You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me
    
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:

    “You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

    Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong.

    Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
    
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:
    
”You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.

    Most of us N. Americans will recognize this as the first three stanzas of the unofficial anthem of Australia. But how many of us will know what a ‘swagman’ is? Or a ‘billabong’? Or a ‘coolibah tree’? Or a ‘billy’? Or a ‘jumbuck’? Or a ‘tucker bag’? Or even what the heck is a ‘Matilda’, and why is anyone ‘a-waltzing’ with it?!?
    For some of these we might be able to take an educated stab at it, but how many of us would also know the socio-cultural background necessary to really understand the poignancy of the story the song tells and of the imagery involved?
    What’s more, the lyrics are in English, are roughly contemporary with us, and from within the same general culture! And yet it’s likely that we will STILL have some difficulties in fully grasping all the terms and references! How much more difficult should we expect it to be for us to comprehend all the nitty-gritty details of a text written 2,000 years ago, which needed to be translated into our language, and was composed from within a culture very different from our own?!?

    If I wrote a sentence today, such as, “Man, my boss has really been driving me up the wall lately!” and a hundred or more years from now, someone came across this statement and declared, “Well, apparently, back then employers would often take their employees for multiple rides in their elevator cars,” or something along those lines, only to have someone who was sufficiently knowledgeable about this time period correct them saying, “No, that was actually a very common idiomatic expression of that time and place. What he was saying was that, it felt like his employer was making him so insane,” would the first person then be justified in concluding, “Oh, well then he was really writing fiction”?!?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      dcyates:

      I understand your point about messages becoming ever more difficult to decode as greater distances of time and space are traversed away from the author, but I just want you to be clear as a bell: should we understand Matthew to claim that Jesus rose from the dead bodily, and if so, are there any good reasons for believing it?

  3. dcyates says:

    We should indeed understand and take seriously Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, all the other NT writers, and the other early Christians’ claims that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. And there are plenty of good reasons for believing it. Not the least of which is that nothing else explains the rise of the early Church.
    By the time of Jesus, a distinct pattern had been established where some poor Jew would, for various reasons, develop messianic claims. This person would then garner a small following, lead them out into the wilderness for a short time (in a deliberate re-enactment of the exodus), would enter Jerusalem, cause a small ruckus, get arrested, and would then be executed. That would be it, end of story. The story would necessarily end there because everyone knew that God’s messiahs were supposed to be triumphant, not victims of execution.
    Jesus’ story appeared to follow the same, tired pattern. Only, of course, the story didn’t end with his execution. Why not? Because, there was one major difference. It was that his story, literally, did not end with his execution.
    There’s the old Bob Newhart joke about how, if Abe Lincoln hadn’t existed, people would have had to make him up. The thing is, no one would make up a figure like Jesus. If none of this actually happened, then why would anyone make up such events? Jewish thought was that the Messiah would be a royal, charismatic king and a mighty warrior. He’d stand head-and-shoulders taller than anyone else. He’d be stronger and muscular. He’d be at least twice as handsome. He would be wise, generous, and righteous. His stories would be more captivating than all others and his jokes would be funnier, too. In short, women would want to be with him and men would want to be him. He’d be Superman, James Bond, and Super Fly TNT all wrapped into one, cranked up to 11, times 100!
    There was certainly nothin in Jewish thought about the Messiah being born to a couple of Galilean peasants under nothing less than questionable circumstances. Nothing about the Messiah being a wonder-worker who healed the sick and raised the dead, who drove out demons or controlled the wind and waves. The Messiah was supposed to teach Israel how to properly worship YHWH, but he wasn’t supposed to actually BE God!?! And there is definitely nothing there about a dying and rising Messiah.
    So, the obvious question is: If people were making up all of this for the purpose of trying to make this “Jesus” look like the Messiah, then why didn’t they try to make him LOOK more like the Messiah?!? Why not make him fit more into what were the commonly held conceptions of what the Messiah would both do and be?
    Similarly, Jews did not accept the testimony of women. If the story of Jesus’ resurrection were totally made up, the last thing they would have done is made the first witnesses to it a bunch of women. That would make no sense whatsoever.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Dcyates:

      Your narrative lacks imagination in the sense that you’re not thinking of alternative possibilities. Dynamic systems are extraordinarily complex, and hard to tame with simple narratives. For example, a simple narrative would suggest that Hillary will be president in January of 2017 because she ought to win at least 52% or so of the women’s vote (and men tend to not vote in as large a numbers as women in general elections). But we all know that the dynamics of the system in which the election will occur could easily upend, without any miracles whatsoever, the seemingly most plausible narrative.

      Both the human psyche and history itself are dynamic systems–whether we’re thinking of events now or 2000 years ago.

      Thus I think you’ve spell-cast yourself with the above Jesus narrative. Christianity didn’t have to come out of a miracle any more than Hillary has to win the election. I think the complexities of the psyche, combined with the culture of the period, could indeed make a religion like early Christianity–and obviously did so–and without the assistance of a miracle. I just don’t think you’re taking seriously the obvious alternative narratives to the one you offer above.

      For example, think of the populist appeal of the Jesus narrative to the oppressed. As a way of overcoming, Oedipally, the ruling fathers of Roman power and Greek philosophy, it’s hardly surprising that a faith-oriented messiah from a supernatural realm, committed to nonviolence, might appear, supposedly from a virgin, from among the powerless–and when he experienced death at the hands of power, was believed to have risen from the dead (overturning Roman power and Greek rationality). What a comforting narrative to the faith-based hopeless. This narrative is not at all shocking–especially given how desperately poor, hopeless, and powerless the vast majority of people living in Judea must have felt at the time.

      As for where the women at the tomb stories came from, they could have arrived by historical contingencies as trivial as that the authors of the stories borrowed from Greek tropes for Dionysus in relation to his female maenads.

      Tell me why only one narrative–a narrative with a miracle–is the most plausible.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “Tell me why only one narrative–a narrative with a miracle–is the most plausible.”

    Where did Jesus’ body go then and why did the apostles all go to their death testifying to the resurrection?

    Please refer to this:
    http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/resurrection-evidence.htm

    Your “narratives” aren’t plausible because there is no evidence to support them (as well as being pretty silly…Really? Religious Jews borrowing from pagan Greek mythology?).

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