Those two verses say that many holy people who had “fallen asleep” (i.e. died) were raised from their tombs and entered Jerusalem and appeared to many. Is this fact or pious fiction?
Let’s begin with my translation:
52 And the tombs opened up and many bodies of holy people who had fallen asleep were raised 53 and left their tombs after his resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matt. 27:52-53)
My translation is not very different from many others.
Now let’s turn to a brief exegesis.
The Greek syntax (sentence structure) does not say that as soon as Jesus died, people were raised from the dead. Instead, the Greek can read that after Jesus was raised from the dead—after his resurrection—these holy ones were raised: meta tēn egersin autou. It reads: “after his raising.” Meta with the accusative means “after” and the possessive pronoun autou (his) refers to Jesus’s raising or resurrection.
Matthew mentions this supernatural event in the crucifixion pericope only in passing, to fill out the theological picture and not to distract from Jesus’s resurrection, the main event. Matthew was not being strictly sequential in this portion of his narrative. But he does say that these holy ones were raised after Jesus’ resurrection.
As an interesting theological sidebar comment, some interpreters believe that these were saints who lived in paradise, not yet heaven, but a compartment in Hades, Abraham’s side or bosom, until Jesus went down there and preached to them after he died. And then he led them up into heaven—or at least allowed them to go in.
See my post:
That link has several key Scriptures that cannot be easily dismissed. But we don’t have to go deep into that issue in this post.
Also see my post on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which depicts two compartments in Hades, one of bliss and the other of torment:
Most scholars conclude it was just a parable, but some of them also draw from it some theology.
Now let’s turn to the historical angle, using the objection-and-answer format.
Many skeptical scholars believe that if such a startling, supernatural event really happened, it would surely be written down in another ancient text. However, it was not written down. Therefore, the startling, supernatural event did not happen.
Here is a eight-part reply, which also covers the historical plausibility or implausibility of the controversial verses and not just the absence of a direct, corroborating text.
First, ancient texts describe portents or signs, like earthquakes and darkened skies and even apparitions, when famous people died (Keener, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew [Eerdman’s, 1999] pp. 685-86). So Matthew is fitting those two verses into his cultural and literary times. However, it seems that Matthew really did believe that these resurrections happened, so this explanation is not satisfactory by itself. He was fitting in, yes, but he also believed in them.
Second, these resurrected holy people appeared to people. They are never said to go out into the streets and preach and have their sermons recorded. Often oral reports die out in a short time, even when preaching is done; how much more when appearances without speaking take place. When the hundreds of thousands of Passover pilgrims (see the fifth point) returned home, the force of this miraculous event dissipated.
Third, any rumor of this supernatural event may have been suppressed, much like the Jerusalem authorities bribed the guards to say that the resurrection of Jesus did not happen, but the disciples stole the body (Matt. 28:11-15). Jesus’s life was controversial from beginning to end, a major theme in Matthew’s Gospel. He denounced the religious establishment with seven woes (Matt. 23:1-36). Tensions were high. So any rumor about these resurrected bodies coming out of the tombs could also be attacked. Or if these reports were not suppressed or attacked outright, then thousands of religious leaders could laugh them off and explain them away. The Sadducees, who dominated the Sanhedrin (the highest court and council in Judaism), did not believe in the resurrection (Matt. 22:23-33), so they would be eager to dismiss these runaway “fantasies” of “ghosts.” All the other religious leaders were also hostile to anything having to do with the Jesus Movement, so this explanation of suppression or dismissal is not far-fetched.
Fourth, Matthew himself is a reliable source, so there is no reason to doubt his account, even if it is the only one, unless one has a philosophical objection to miracles to begin with (an a priori objection). Matthew was focused on the resurrection of Jesus (28:1-10) and did not get distracted with these momentary appearances, so he mentions them only in passing. His ultimate goal is the Great Commission (28:18-20).
Begin a fifteen-part series (written by me) on the reliability of the Gospels, starting with Part 15, which has links to the previous parts:
Fifth, resurrected bodies do not appear ghostly, according to the NT. After his resurrection, Jesus himself ate broiled fish with the disciples. He said to them to touch him, to test that he was not a ghost (Luke 24:36-43). His body was real flesh and blood. Likewise, these holy ones did not all float around, hold hands, and dance wondrously in the sky. They looked like everyone else in Jerusalem and all the other pilgrims. They blended in, just as Jesus did (John 21:4-14).
Sixth, during the Passover feast and pilgrimage, it is estimated that the population of Jerusalem swelled to a range of 300,000 to 500,000 (Keener, p. 617, n. 30). “Many” realistic, normal appearing, resurrected bodies may not be all that noticeable in such a huge population, depending on how many were resurrected and permitted to appear to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the Passover pilgrims. That is, the word many in the NT is very fluid and imprecise. Matthew used it, for example, to say that “many women” followed Jesus from Galilee, which was up north, and watched the crucifixion from a distance (27:55). How many is “many”? Several dozen? Probably. Several hundred? Maybe. Several thousand? Not likely. The term is imprecise. How many tombs were there in the area? And how many of the dead people were holy and raised from the dead? “Many” bodies do not necessarily mean hundreds of thousands; it could just mean that a few hundred or even a few thousand appeared to “many” in the city. Either way, they would not be recorded as an observable and dramatic spike in the numbers. It is easy to believe that the vast majority of Jerusalemites and pilgrims may not have recognized or even seen them. They may have appeared to a certain number of selected people. As noted, these holy people blended in, in the eyesight of all the other people.
Seventh, in light of the previous explanation, this supernatural event occurred during the time of the Passover and shortly after the Sabbath, when Jesus was resurrected in the early morning (our Sunday). Many of the Jews surely remained indoors, when these appearances happened. These resurrected persons did not wander around the streets, like zombies, dazed and confused and haunting people. As noted, they were not street preachers like the prophets of old. Once again, most people may not have even seen them.
Eighth, we may have indirect evidence that this miraculous event happened. Many thousands of Jews of Jerusalem converted (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:7; 21:20), and who knows? Maybe this supernatural occurrence broke down the mental barriers. Paul noted that Jews demanded signs (1 Cor. 1:22). Matthew writes the same about their demanding a sign (Matt. 16:1). Maybe these appearances in Jerusalem softened certain people’s (not everyone’s) hearts, so they could respond to the Spirit-filled preaching of the apostles, the deeper reason for their conversion. Why not everyone’s hearts? These resurrected saints did not appear to everyone. Also, Jesus (through Abraham) said in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus that if Lazarus himself were to appear before the rich man’s five brothers, they would not believe (Luke 17:27-30). So likewise, not everyone who saw these appearances would believe but simply forgot about them and moved on with life. Capernaum, Jesus’s adoptive hometown (Matt. 4:13), was denounced for not repenting after the people saw his miracles (Matt. 11:23). Hardness of heart is difficult to break in some people. But this eighth possibility is remote, indirect, and speculative, so let’s not press it too far.
If an objector has an a priori objection to miracles, then this post does not answer that question. Rather, the post was about the absence of corroborating textual evidence and the historical plausibility of the supernatural event. Not every event that happened was recorded, even miraculous ones. Or if they were written down, then the papyri or other writing material simply disintegrated.
In short, I believe that the startling, supernatural event happened. It is not pious fiction. The historical context of the huge Jerusalem Passover crowds hid the fact in the larger society. When the pilgrims went home, the evidence and reports dissipated. Most people may never have even seen the resurrected holy people. But a select number did, and the report of this event was retained in Matthew’s Gospel, a reliable source.
However, let’s not over-inflate the importance of these two one-off, controversial verses. People’s faith needs to stop being so brittle. Just because two verses may not have corroborating evidence does not mean that the entire Bible collapses, nor should their faith snap in two. That’s an unrealistic demand put on Scripture. The Bible itself is not brittle, so neither should our faith be.
Finally, people’s salvation and walk with God do not depend on their believing this obscure, once-only passage, literally. Rather, their salvation depends on the literal and physical resurrection of Jesus, and for that there is plenty of evidence–the main point of the entire NT.
Many books have been written about the resurrection of Jesus. Go to amazon and do a quick book search on evidence for the resurrection. Look especially for Gary R. Habermas. He has also produced youtube videos.
15. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels: Conclusion (go here and click on links to see all the parts in a series on the topic)
9. Authoritative Testimony in Matthew’s Gospel (Part 9 in the fifteen-part series)