Matthew’s Dead Saints Rising

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Matthew’s gospel describes some strange goings-on at the time of the crucifixion which are not attested in any other source. This includes the most unusual miracle in the New Testament :certain holy men emerge from their tombs and appear to people in Jerusalem. Matthew does not describe this event in any detail nor does he explain its significance. The reader is left amazed and a little bewildered (which was perhaps Matthew’s intention). Evangelicals have a strong belief in the truthfulness of scripture. Should we trust Matthew when he says these events occurred?

Considering these texts in Matthew, NT Wright commented:

“it is better to remain puzzled than to settle for either a difficult argument for probable historicity or a cheap and cheerful rationalistic dismissal of the possibility. Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out.”

Now some sceptics have argued that this sort of reasoning takes historical analysis to a new world of fairies and Elvis sightings. But this misses Wright’s argument by some distance. He concedes that the methods of historical science judge Matthew’s account of saints leaving the graves as highly improbable.

However, Wright’s point is that historical science is not infallible. Surely the Christian’s faith in scripture can allow him to accept events that historians would judge as very improbable? An historian can weigh the evidence and conclude that Jesus was baptised by John, and had profound spiritual experiences. But how can a historian tell if Satan really tempted Jesus in the wilderness, or if a heavenly voice really accompanied Jesus’ baptism? Historical reasoning can conclude that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate; but how can a historian tell if Jesus atoned for sins as he died?

It remains possible that Matthew had a source that told him that people had experiences of saints on the day that Jesus’ was crucified. This matched Matthew’s expectations; an event like the Resurrection would be accompanied by signs and wonders. So Matthew included it in his account of the Resurrection. A Christian can recognise that the historical evidence for the truth of this story is somewhere between weak and non-existent; and, at the same time, the Christian can accept that the story is true, because he has a rational trust in God’s word. After all, Matthew’s story of the walking dead is not a “special effect” thrown in to spice up a dull tale. Rather, this story confirms that the resurrection of Jesus is hope of all the faithful, and the death of death itself.

But what about the sceptic who does not share the evangelical’s faith? Isn’t Matthew’s report that the dead left the tombs and that the Temple curtain split upon Jesus’ death evidence that subsequent generations embellished simpler accounts of the Resurrection. This objection ignores the fact that Luke and John’s accounts are less “extravagant” than Matthew’s. If there was a tendency to embellish the resurrection accounts, the stories in John should be even more elaborate than those in Matthew’s account.

But how can the sceptic take Matthew’s biography of Jesus seriously when it includes such extraordinary and uncorroborated events? We need consider the context in which Matthew wrote. It was conventional for historians to describe apocalyptic signs which accompanied earth-shattering events. When Dio Cassius’ recounts the death of the emperor Claudius, he records that:

It seemed as if this event had been indicated by the comet, which was seen for a very long time, by the shower of blood, by the thunder-bolt that fell upon the standards of the Praetorians, by the opening of its own accord of the temple of Jupiter Victor, by the swarming of bees in the camp, and by the fact that one incumbent of each political office died.

Matthew is positively restrained by comparison! The historian Josephus gives a generally reliable account for the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, he takes time to record the miraculous signs that preceded the destruction: “thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year.” Josephus complains that the Jewish people did not heed the many omens in the years leading up to the Jewish revolt:

Thus also before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Nisan, and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskillful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes, as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it. At the same festival also, a heifer, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple.

If this seems a tad implausible, a wilder tale follows:

…on the one and twentieth day of the month Jyar a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner court of the temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, “Let us remove hence.”

These stories seem far-fetched; yet, historians have not discounted Josephus as a source. In fact, Josephus immediately goes on to describe the ministry of Jesus ben Ananus, a “prophet” who wandered the city, crying “Woe, woe to Jerusalem!” for four years prior to its fall. Historians seem satisfied that the story of Jesus ben Ananus is credible. In the same way, historians – and sceptics – cannot dismiss the testimony of Matthew because they find a few verses dubious.

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