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.”
No other ancient writer, save Matthew, records anything about this. It’s as if a UFO had descended on Jerusalem in the first century and no one, apart from Matthew, thought it worthy of marking the event in historical memory.
So the question becomes: Where did this most bizarre story in all the gospels come from?
Some guess that Matthew perhaps constructed his Night of the Living Dead story out of his reading of Ezekiel 37:12-13, which goes like this (KJV): “Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,…”
In other words, it’s claimed that Matthew saw a way of incorporating the Ezekiel passage into his passion narrative as a fulfillment of prophecy.
I can buy that, and if so, it certainly increases my respect for Matthew as a creative writer.
But such an explanation would also seem to call into question the idea that the stories of Jesus’s resurrection are historical, for these too could then be considered products of imagination prompted by creative readings of Hebrew scriptural texts.
But if Matthew didn’t make stuff up, we are left with a perplexing question: From where else might he have gotten the Night of the Living Dead resurrection 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 really happened, there is no reason the rest of us should.
And 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 (call it Matthew’s Demonic Bribing Jews passage), 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? Could Matthew have made it up based on a passage in the Hebrew Bible (another prophecy “fulfillment” story)? How do we know whether Matthew isn’t just circulating a grotesque and fantastic antisemitic rumor?
And Matthew 28:11-15 is not just implausible for historical reasons, it’s implausible in its depiction of Jews as human beings. The Jews’ reaction in the story is not rational or complex, but cartoonishly demonic.
And it’s not true to the psychology of human beings in general–either of the Romans depicted, or the Jews. When reading the passage, for instance, put yourself in the shoes of those Jews as real human beings, and not as people being caricatured as monsters bent on resisting Jesus. Matthew is unmistakably insinuating that the Jewish leaders were so irredeemably evil that, although they knew Jesus had risen from the dead–knew it!–they still wouldn’t believe, and actively engaged in a cover-up.
This demonic behavior then feeds into the whole narrative earlier in Matthew that the Jews got what they deserved in the destruction of Jerusalem–and the supersessionist narrative that then went forward from there. (The destruction of Jerusalem was supposedly a sign that God had withdrawn from the Jews the designation of “Chosen People,” and given it to the Church–and this happened because the Jews had crucified the Son of God. They were Christ killers.)
Thus the narrative of Matthew 28:11-15 does not sound at all like a historical account, but is more akin to the genre of Greek tragedy, in which a leader is undbending. An example is King Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae. He is cartoonishly rigid, blind, inflexible, and stiff-necked throughout the play, never budging in his hostility to Dionysus–not even in the face of the god’s miracles.
So this particular gospel story–Matthew 28:11-15—is more characteristic of an imaginative writer incorporating into his narrative a cartoonish devil (unbelieving Jews), not of a historian attempting to write history. It bear signs of being a late fanciful rationalization in this sense: Jews had a story that circulated in their community (Jesus’ disciples stole the body) and Matthew countered it by making up a story as to where the Jews got their story: evil Jewish leaders bribed Roman soldiers to tell a scurrilous story.
Here’s the libelous accusation Matthew puts forward against 1st century Judaism in full (Matthew 28:11-15, KJV): “Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.”
Thus the Night of the Living Dead and Demonic Bribing Jews stories in Matthew’s gospel reveal their author to be: (1) an imaginative writer, not a historian; and (2) a writer whose audience obviously had its bullshit detector dialed way, way down, and its Jewish conspiracy paranoia dialed way, way up.
And that’s a formula for tragedy in history. As Voltaire wrote, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”