Friday, July 16, 2010

Mystery Verses of the Bible

Over the years I have come across some verses in the Bible that strike me as just plain odd. I cannot figure out what they mean much less why the author included them. With this in mind, I decided that from time to time I would touch on those verses that are perhaps ambiguous, confusing or just plain bizarre.

Over the years these Matthew 27:51-53 has raised more questions than answers for me.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 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. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. (NRSV)

I am never sure what to make of these verses. With the exception of the veil being torn, everything else is unique to Matthew’s Gospel. What is particularly odd is the statement about bodies of saints being raised and appearing to people in Jerusalem. While I have occasionally heard these verses preached, there are a number of questions that they raise.

1.Since the saints seem to have been raised when Jesus died and did not appear until “after his resurrection,” where were they for three days? Were they sitting in their tombs waiting until Sunday?

2.If they did go into Jerusalem and appear to people, what happened to them? Did they die again? Were they taken up to heaven? Are they still walking around today?

3.If such an event did happen, why does no one else in the New Testament mention it? This seems to be so fantastic that it surely would have caused a stir among the early followers of Jesus and one would expect Paul to list these “raised saints” among the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection in 1 Cor 15:5-8.

New Testament commentators are not always helpful. They usually label these verses as “strange,” “peculiar,” or “mysterious.” But many do not address the bigger question of historicity: did this event actually happen. I will tip my hand and admit that I have my doubts. I wonder if perhaps Matthew is doing something theological here.

Since this only occurs in Matthew’s Gospel and he places it immediately after the death of Jesus, it seems likely that Matthew is making a theological statement about the significance of Jesus’ death. The raising of the dead suggests that Jesus’ own death broke the power of death over them. Their appearance in Jerusalem is twofold. It may be an allusion to the vision of dry bones in Ezekiel 37:12 which states: “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.” Matthew routinely takes Old Testament passages that applied to Israel and reapplies them to Jesus (cf. Matt 2:15 and Hosea 11:1) and this may be another instance. Second, the fact that the “raised saints” make no appearance in Jerusalem until after Jesus’ resurrection recognizes that Jesus was the first among many to be raised from the dead.

Is it possible that there is a historic core to this story? Yes. In his commentary on Matthew, Donald Hagner suggests that perhaps there was an earthquake in Palestine around the time of Jesus’ death. The earthquake may have caused some tombs to break open which suggested resurrection to the witnesses. Matthew incorporated these stories as a foreshadow of the eventual resurrection of all saints empowered by the resurrection of Jesus (p. 852). Thus, it is possible that Matthew has woven together scripture (Ezk 37:12), a historical event (the earthquake), and the Jewish/Christian hope of resurrection to create a rich, theologically symbolic picture of the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

What do you think? I would be interested to hear your thoughts and comments.


  1. I have always wondered about this as well... The theological purpose of such a narrative does seem plausible to me; however I must confess I do tend to just put these verses in the category of ones that are "mysterious" (i.e. ones that I don't get) and move on. Your observations and notes are interesting, and I may need to look more into it.

  2. Thanks Dan. For me it seems much more significant to understand what Matthew is doing theologically rather than historically. He, like the other evangelists, is telling us about the significance of Jesus rather than providing a blow-by-blow account of his life. This means that he will use history as a way to tell paint that theological picture. The ancients’ view of what constituted “history” is so different from how we understand it today.

  3. John,

    This passage has always perplexed me as well. What do you think of Tom Wright's suggestion that the story is so strange and unexpected that the only reason Matthew puts it in is because something like it did indeed happen?

  4. Allan,

    I think Tom protesteth too much sometimes.

    I think we need to be careful not to insist on the historicity of everything. Matthew has bigger fish to fry here as he does with the way he constructs his genealogy of Jesus. Moreover, this is so bizarre I find it hard to believe that if it really did happen that someone else did not also mention. Again, if this happened then where are or what happened to the people who were raised?

  5. Greetings!

    I believe I agree that something theological is happening here. I am unsure whether or not it is a historical event, especially since Matthew is using the language "saints" (i.e. Christians...were there any Christians that died before Jesus was resurrected? What is Matthew doing using this word?).

    Theologically speaking, I have to wonder if Matthew is actually painting a picture of eschatology here: people are now together with God, the dead saints are raised, and the earth is moved. This, perhaps, is described in order to paint a picture of what the second coming of Christ is like...or perhaps it's a sign of "everything is changed from this point forward, as if an apocalypse happened."

  6. I think that Matthew is certainly painting an eschatological picture here. I am not sure, however, that we can invest too much in specific terms used by Matthew. True Matthew does use the term "saints" here, which was used frequently by early Christians. But it is also used frequently by the Greek version of the Old Testament (cf. Ps 16:3; 34:9; Wis 5:5; 18:9). Since it was already a common way to refer to godly people, I think Matthew intends this reference to be the "saints of old" rather than those living after Jesus.

  7. It is pretty easy to see what is going on. The resurrection within Judaism was a corporate eschatological event. Matthew is portraying Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures and he incorporates much symbolism and mythology to do so.

  8. Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions not just one earthquake but two. None of the other Gospels mention an earthquake at all. But Matthew has one that occurs at the moment Jesus dies and another earthquake that accompanies the opening of Jesus's tomb days later. Matthew may have added mention of an earthquake based on a Greek translation of Ezekiel (the original Hebrew does not mention an earthquake, but a Greek translation of a particular verse in Ezekiel does contain the word earthquake).

    Note also the in Matthew a centurion and several other Roman guards are added as witnesses to such events. (In Mark only one centurion is mentioned and it is only said that he witnessed Jesus's last breath.)

    The question remains, did Matthew invent this story based on OT verses and/or based on his theology? Was the story then added to the story of Jesus's death as if this new story was real, like an invented midrashic tale? What about other stories in Matthew?

    The verses preceding and following the "raised saints" tale in Matthew are found in Mark. So one could argue either, "Oh what Mark left out! Or, oh what Matthew added in!"

    Underscoring the absurdity of believing that a miracle of this magnitude would have been omitted not just from the other gospel accounts but also from alleged prophecies of the crucifixion, not what Thomas Paine wrote in reference to the tale of the many raised saints in Matthew:

    Matthew concludes his book by saying that when Jesus expired on the cross, the rocks rent the graves open, and the bodies of many of the saints arose; and Mark says, there was darkness over the land from the sixth hour until the ninth.

    They produce no prophecy for this; but had these things been facts, they would have been a proper subject for prophecy, because none but an almighty power could have inspired a foreknowledge of them, and afterwards fulfilled them.

    Since then there is no such prophecy, but a pretended prophecy of an old coat ["They parted my garments among them..."], the proper deduction is, there were no such things...

    (An Examination of the Passages in the New Testament... Called Prophecies concerning Jesus Christ, pam., 1807).

  9. You will find more information about these verses in the Gospel of Nicodemus , its one of the book of the original new testament before the 4th century. It was taken out of the new testament by the counsel of Hippo. The gospel explained that the Saints were ressurected and went to the wilderness on the eastside of the Jordan river . They were babtised their before ascending to heaven.

  10. Some passages have been altered, redacted and added to over the past 2000 years. Keep in mind that some authors were trying to fulfil OT prophecy while writing. If you believe that the entire Bible is wholly, holy inspired, you will have trouble believing the truth. If these people were actually resurrected, then Jesus would NOT have been the firstfruits as spoken of in 1 Corinthians 15. These people were re-animated, not resurrected. They all died again or Jesus took second chair in the firstfruits. Jesus HAD TO BE the first deceased human to be resurrected!

    Don't spend too much time trying to prove that Bible history or facts are wrong. Thank the Catholic Church and many editors and scribes of the Biblke texts for all the "additions."