Link on the Mass Resurrection

January 31st, 2009

“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.  The tombs also were opened.  And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.” (Matthew 27:51-53)

We tend to view this as an odd passage–and skeptics like to point to it to discredit the biblical record.  After all, they say, it’s only mentioned in Matthew–not in any of the other Gospels, not in any other early Christian writing, and especially not in any non-Christian writing.  Why don’t any Roman historians talk about this spectacular event?  I’ve wondered about this, myself.

Jason Engwer over at Triablogue has a recent entry called, A Bad Argument Against The Resurrection That’s Often Repeated, in which he addresses the issue.   He brought some interesting insights to bear.  An excerpt:

Sometimes critics suggest that the raised individuals would have been naked, would have been wearing deteriorated clothing, would have been similar to zombies, etc. But as I wrote in response to one such critic in my article linked above, “The concept that God would raise people from the dead, but leave them with no clothing or deteriorated clothing, is ridiculous. It’s consistent with the imagery somebody might get from a horror movie, but it’s absurd in a first-century Jewish context. People wouldn’t have been walking around nude, and assuming that bodies would be restored without restored clothing is dubious. Did Jesus have to travel nude for a while, looking for clothing, after His resurrection? Does God raise a person, but then leave him on his own to find some clothing to wear?

[...]

What leads you to view it as something more like a horror movie is your desire to criticize the passage….You don’t ignore the implications of a context just because the text doesn’t spell out every implication. What does a term like ‘raised’ mean in a first-century Jewish context? Does it imply a zombie who walks around in the nude with a partially decomposed body?

[...]

Given that so many other Jewish and Christian documents imply that God provides such things [clothing] (angels in human form are clothed, the risen Jesus is clothed, etc.), and given other factors such as ancient views of public nudity, the idea that risen people would be left naked is less likely.

That makes me wonder.  If you were in Jerusalem at the time, and you didn’t happen to know any of these resurrected people, and you didn’t see them come out of the tomb, how would you know that you were looking at a resurrected person?  How many people in Jerusalem would even be aware that something spectacular had happened?  And of those who did see, how many became believers because of it?

Wouldn’t this event become another rumor about the strange things claimed by Christians?

Something I still wonder about:  What happened to them afterward?  Were they taken up by God, like Elijah?

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4 Responses to “Link on the Mass Resurrection”

  1. Rational Guy says:

    Hello. Interesting post.

    You’ve got to read the rest of the text and read it closely. The many dead “holy people” or “saints” came back to life. They hung out in or around their tombs waiting for Jesus. They didn’t go into Jerusalem until after Jesus was resurrected. The centurion and the other Roman soldiers saw all the events and were “filled with awe”. The women also saw what had happened.

    It’s unlikely that the centurion and Roman soldiers would see such a fantastic event and not report back to Pilate, “You’ll never guess what happened!”

    Since they appeared to many people you’d think that word would have also gotten back to the relatives of the “holy people” or “saints” when they appeared in Jerusalem. They did after all appear to many people. The women had seen the resurrected saints also, so you’d think they would have spoken up also.

    Since they were saints presumably they would have been rather well known in a holy city like Jerusalem.

    So why didn’t Mark, Luke, John or the Apostle Paul mention it? Why didn’t Tacitus, Josephus or Pliny write about such a fantastic “historical” event?

    I’m guessing it’s because Matthew made it up. It’s allegorical literature. Mythology. Fiction. To me it puts Matthew in a rather dim light as a credible historian.

    ” When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son [1] of God!”

    ” There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”

  2. Tim says:

    Thanks for comment. I’m contemplating your criticisms. I have a couple initial replies:

    1.) On “saints”. The word “saints” is used in the New Testament for all Christians. So the passage may refer to disciples of Jesus who had died during the 3 years of his ministry. Or, simply to faithful Jews from before his ministry. It’s not like the current Catholic use of the word “saint”–it doesn’t imply that they were notable people in the city.

    2.) On what the centurion & women saw: The text says that the tombs were opened. (In the earthquake, I think.) It also says that the resurrected saints came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection. If they didn’t come out of the tombs, why do you think that the centurion & soldiers & women saw them? Don’t you think that the darkness and the earthquake would be enough to cause amazement amazement?

    3.) On the timing. Matthew sticks the group resurrection into the middle of the narrative. My guess is that he’s going with topical arrangement, as he does so often. Here’s the key sentence again:

    And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

    At first glance, it looks like the bodies were raised at the same time that the tombs were opened. That would mean that they came out of the tombs 3 days later–or more. (It doesn’t say immediately after Jesus’ resurrection.)

    I’m wondering if that’s what Matthew actually meant. Or did he mean that they were “raised and came out of the tombs” after Jesus’ resurrection? There’s two options: Immediate resurrection, and later resurrection.

    * The immediate option seems more natural, grammatically. At least in English. It’s not a very natural thing to try to group “were raised” with “after his resurrection.”
    * But Matthew does have a tendency to group things topically. And we already know that he’s phrasing the timeline awkwardly (to our ears)–because he jumps ahead and then jumps back in v. 54.
    * If Matthew is saying they were immediately raised, why doesn’t he say anything about what they were doing in their tombs for 3 days? That’s an awkwardness that rivals the grammatical location of “after his resurrection”. (This isn’t just, “Resurrection? Weird!” This is, “Matthew says that the bodies were raised, and then they just don’t do anything for 3 days? Waird!”)

    In short, my guess is that the tombs were opened during the earthquake, and the saints were raised later. Not necessarily at the same time as Jesus–perhaps sometime between his resurrection and ascension.

  3. Tim says:

    A couple more:

    On the immediacy issue, I want to clarify that it’s just a thought. It’s a suggestion, but I’m not sure about it.

    On the centurion reporting to Pilate: I quite agree that if the centurion saw the mass resurrection, he would have reported it. So… What makes you think that he didn’t?

    In my original post, I mentioned a particular category of people. (Rather, I asked a question.) When you bring up the centurion, my mind immediately goes back to that question. Can you figure out which question I have in mind? And which second question I would go to next?

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