Since it’s Easter, I have some open questions for my evangelical Christian friends about a puzzling passage from Matthew 27:45-54. Here it is in context:
45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[a] lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).[b]
47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[c] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
(NIV, via BibleGateway)
The puzzling part, of course, is verses 51-53 about the dead coming out of their tombs. Assuming we are to interpret this story literally, rather than as apocalyptic imagery, several questions arise:
1. Why is such a literally earth-shattering event mentioned in only one gospel? In other words, if such an event happened and was known in the early Christian community, why weren’t Mark, Luke, and John aware of it?
2. Why doesn’t Paul mention it in any of his epistles, specifically in 1 Corinthians 15, where he is arguing for the resurrection of the dead? Wouldn’t this episode, if it happened, provide welcome support for his case?
3. Why isn’t this event mentioned by any secular historians, for example, Josephus? Why didn’t non-Christian writers notice it?
4. If this event happened, where did these people go? Wouldn’t they have been very famous in the early Christian community? Why do their stories leave no trace outside these three verses in Matthew?
5. What type of resurrection is implied in these verses? Is it a Lazarus-type raising with subsequent death? Or is it a Christ-type raising, the resurrection of an incorruptible body that Paul talks about in the aforementioned 1 Cor. passage? If the former, one would still expect their stories to leave a trace in early Christian literature. If the latter, did they ascend with Christ or are they still around?
6. Is this passage consistent with high Christology since, according to Matthew, Christ is not “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20)?
7. If Paul knew about this event, why does he explicitly say that Christ is the first to be raised? In other words, is Matthew contradicting Paul?
Assuming we are to interpret this passage figuratively, several other questions arise:
8. Does such a figurative story in an otherwise allegedly historical account cast doubt on the literalness of Christ’s resurrection?
9. Does this story — which is found in no other extant ancient source, Christian, Jewish, or Roman — show that Matthew felt free to invent material out of whole cloth? If so, what implications does this have for the historical reliability of the gospels generally?
10. Is Matthew trying to signal, in a metaphorical way, that the resurrection of the dead at the end of time is an imminent event? If so, does this lend credence to the view that Jesus and the apostles mistakenly believed that the apocalypse would happen in their lifetime?
The point of this exercise is not a mean-spirited skeptical diatribe or a foray into obscure New Testament criticism. I’m simply trying to communicate to my evangelical friends how strange this story sounds to outsiders. Perhaps ask yourself if you would believe the same story if it were found in an ancient Greek or Roman text from the period. If the answer is ‘no’, then you can understand your non-Christian friend’s incredulity. Sure, we all have our cognitive biases, but take a moment to fully imbibe what many Christian thinkers from Tertullian to Kierkegaard have called the “absurdity of faith.” It might be a good exercise. For my part, I’ll try to imagine what it’s like to sincerely believe what you believe. Maybe we’ll meet in the middle.