KenGilmore

Is the reference to resurrected saints in Matt 27 apocalyptic imagery?

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Matthew 27:52-53 relates the cryptic story of the resurrection of saints and appearance to people after the resurrection:

The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

This puzzling text has prompted no end of arguments as to the identity and fate of these people. Were they famous people from the past, or contemporary figures of renown. Were they raised to eternal life, or merely to a continuation of mortal existence.

Another explanation is that, as Christian apologist Michael Licona argues, is that this is an example of apocalyptioc imagery:

Based on my reading of the Greco-Roman, Jewish, and biblical literature, I proposed that the raised saints are best interpreted as Matthew's use of an apocalyptic symbol communicating that the Son of God had just died.

In other words, no saints actually arose, but rather that it is a figure of speech. Given Matthews use of Second Temple exegetical method, this is an idea which is worth considering.

It should also be pointed out that Licona endured no end of persecution from arch-conservatives such as Norman Geisler and Albert Mohler. The battle to escape fundamentalism still rages. :(

Edited by KenGilmore

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An alternative explanation is that the set of resurrections was a miracle. Would be more unlikely than other resurrections? The widow's son of Nain for example.

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I'm not excluding the possibility that a literal resurrection has occurred, but details such as:

  • Its presence only in Matthew
  • The fact the text appears to state that they were (1) raised to life and (2) physically left the graves two days later, which doesn't make much sense, at least to me.
  • The whole point of raising a group of saints to life again - the resurrection miracles elsewhere are of specific people whose plight had either been relayed to him by family and friends, or had been directly encountered by him.

suggest to me that interpreting these passages as a literal resurrection of people creates more problems than it solves. I don't insist on this interpretation - we're talkin very much 'uncertain detail' here, but I find the apocalyptic reading to be one which makes more sense of the passage.

Edited by KenGilmore

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  • The fact the text appears to state that they were (1) raised to life and (2) physically left the graves two days later, which doesn't make much sense, at least to me.

The other thing that is odd in a practical sense is the way that verse 53 says that they went into the city "and appeared to many people". In all the accounts of people that Jesus raised, they are restored to their families but if that does happen here it isn't mentioned.

Matthew's purpose does seem to be to emphasise the significance of these physical signs that accompanied Jesus' death and resurrection - the earthquake and it's consequences. He makes a lot more of it than Mark or Luke although they all refer to the temple curtain being torn. It doesn't necessarily mean that they didn't happen, but the use Matthew makes of them is maybe to present these events as overtly symbolic.

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Why not simply accept this event as told in Matthew? We accept the raising of Lazarus and a number of others, so why try to find an alternate explanation of Matthew 27:52-53?

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Why not simply accept this event as told in Matthew? We accept the raising of Lazarus and a number of others, so why try to find an alternate explanation of Matthew 27:52-53?

For me, at least, it's not that it's difficult to accept the event. It's the way that the event is told that makes it seem odd.

It's not told in the context of how the miracle affected the people and their families, which is how we're used to the gospels presenting these things.

What I was trying to get at is, we have several incidents - all of which there's no reason to think did not actually happen - which are arranged by Matthew and presented in this way in order to make a point.

From Matthew 27: 51-53 we have:

The temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom.

The earth shook and the rocks were split apart.

And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised.

Result:

Now when the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and what took place they were extremely terrified and said "Truly this one was God's son!"

The bit in parentheses in verse 53 about the people who had been raised appearing to many people is perhaps to emphasise the nature of this event as a witness to Jesus' status as God's son

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It is the apocalyptic nature of these verses which make me wonder whether they are not recording actual events (namely an earthquake, the rending of the temple curtain and the resurrection of saints) but using imagery to emphasise the eschatological nature of Christ's resurrection. I am willing to be convinced otherwise (really!) but for some time I have had some difficulty in reading this account as historical, and Licona's apocalyptic argument solves the problem for me quite neatly, It also is consistent with Matthew's use of second temple exegetical methods, which also commends it to me.

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Hi Ken, could you expand on what you mean by "emphasis[ing] the eschatological nature of Christ's resurrection"? I'm not really sure what you mean?

I have wondered about this incident before - and have no idea why the resurrection is mentioned! However, it is not just 'Matthew' who refers to the torn veil - it is also found in Mk 15:38 and Lk 23:45. This would require us to spiritualise all three references? Also, the comment of the centurion (Matt 27:54) doesn't really make sense if he hasn't seen anything!

Lastly, just because events (could) have a spiritual meaning (i.e. the torn veil cf. Heb 10), surely this doesn't negate the fact that they could have been actual events in the first place. Just like Hagar and Sarah and Galatians 4.

Thoughts?

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Hi Ken, could you expand on what you mean by "emphasis[ing] the eschatological nature of Christ's resurrection"? I'm not really sure what you mean?

I have wondered about this incident before - and have no idea why the resurrection is mentioned! However, it is not just 'Matthew' who refers to the torn veil - it is also found in Mk 15:38 and Lk 23:45. This would require us to spiritualise all three references? Also, the comment of the centurion (Matt 27:54) doesn't really make sense if he hasn't seen anything!

Lastly, just because events (could) have a spiritual meaning (i.e. the torn veil cf. Heb 10), surely this doesn't negate the fact that they could have been actual events in the first place. Just like Hagar and Sarah and Galatians 4.

Thoughts?

In brief:

* The resurrection of Christ showed that death no longer reigned supreme over the world. It was the most emphatic declaration that the old order of sin and death had lost its power. It definitely has eschatological significance given that Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection. An event of that significance would readily be seen in apocalyptic terms, making Matthew's invocation of apocalyptic imagery appropriate

* Some supernatural event (earthquake +/- darkening) did occur. Of that I have no doubt. The rending of the veil likewise strikes me as a natural event, though one ripe with symbolism. Likewise earthquakes and darkening of the sun. Actual events can be retold using tropes and motifs in order to make a theological point.

* In short: it's fair to say that at the time of Christ's death, an earthquake took place, and the veil was likely ripped in two. These events were seen by Matthew (correctly) as ripe with symbolism, and he would have retold these events with an apocalyptic flourish to make his point. One of these flourishes may well have been the 'resurrection of the saints'.

Edited by KenGilmore

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However, it is not just 'Matthew' who refers to the torn veil - it is also found in Mk 15:38 and Lk 23:45. This would require us to spiritualise all three references?

There are actually six phenomena in Matthew's account: The tearing of the veil (from top to bottom), the earth shaken, the rocks split, the tombs opened, the "holy ones" raised, and their entrance into the "holy city". Each phenomenon can be easily seen as apocalyptic symbols with connections to both OT and Jewish (and Christian?) apocalyptic literature (considering the terms Matthew uses, I think this is plausible. He may have been using an earlier Christian tradition, as well). This doesn't mean it didn't occur, but rather that Matthew recounted the event in a manner to draw the initial reader (Jewish audience?) to the significance of Christ's death (and resurrection ?).

Also, the comment of the centurion (Matt 27:54) doesn't really make sense if he hasn't seen anything!

It is debatable what event(s) the centurian saw and commented on. Between vs 51-53 we span both the death and resurrection of Jesus, which occurred over three days. He may very well have been commenting only on the earthquake and darkness. I think it unlikely he saw the veil, the rocks, the opening of the tombs, the raising of the saints, or their entry into Jerusalem.

Lastly, just because events (could) have a spiritual meaning (i.e. the torn veil cf. Heb 10), surely this doesn't negate the fact that they could have been actual events in the first place. Just like Hagar and Sarah and Galatians 4.

I agree.

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This would require us to spiritualise all three references?

A little more on this. R.E. Brown believes that Matthew considered them all historical.

In themselves these first three of the four phenomena could have been natural occurrences since Palestine is prone to earthquakes; yet, as with the darkness over all the earth (described by Luke as the result of an eclipse), the timing shows that a divine passive is being employed in the verbs and that God is active in all this. That is placed beyond doubt by the fourth phenomenon, the raising of the saintly dead.55 The four need to be discussed one by one to see their eschatological import.

-----

[55] We must reject, then, any attempts to treat the four phenomena differently: If by modem standards the first are less supernatural and easier to accept than the last, both the structure and the import of the Matthean scene place them all on the same level of divine intervention.

Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah and 2: From Gethsemane to the Grave, a Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels (vol. 1; New York; London: Yale University Press, 1994), 1121.

Matthew may very well have employed an earlier Christian tradition in recounting these events. Scholarship generally accepts this, though there is disagreement on how v.53 fits in. What we do know is that Matthew makes no attempt to extensively describe the events or provide any theological insight. But, this is not out of character for him, either.

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Matthew may very well have employed an earlier Christian tradition in recounting these events. Scholarship generally accepts this, though there is disagreement on how v.53 fits in.

Regarding the difficulty v53 presents, this from The Christadelphian (1908)

D.H.F. writes:—“I have long been troubled about Matt. 27:52–53, for if this is true, then I’m afraid 1 Cor. 15:23 is not true. But I prefer to pin my faith to Paul, because if Matt. 27:53 is properly translated then it must be a forgery, because 51, 52, and 53 don’t agree.”

ANSWER.—We feel very much the same difficulty over this passage as does our correspondent. Not, however, that it necessarily conflicts with Christ being “the firstfruits,” because Lazarus and others had been raised from the dead before him, but not to eternal life. So, if the passage be genuine, we may conclude that these dead were raised only to renewed mortal life. But to us verses 52–53 savour strongly as being an interpolation, though we are not aware of any evidence to show that they are such. There is not much the matter with the translation. Compare the A.V. and R.V. and other versions. It is the sudden and violent transition from the scene of the crucifixion to the time “after his resurrection,” that is our difficulty in the text.

The Christadelphian vol. 45, p.268 (1908).

Current scholarship continues to ponder this difficulty. One paper I've been reading suggests that Matthew purposely leaves the "narrative plane", moving swiftly through three days and three locations, before bringing the reader back to the crucifixion.

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On 06/05/2013 at 1:25 PM, KenGilmore said:

Matthew 27:52-53 relates the cryptic story of the resurrection of saints and appearance to people after the resurrection:

This puzzling text has prompted no end of arguments as to the identity and fate of these people. Were they famous people from the past, or contemporary figures of renown. Were they raised to eternal life, or merely to a continuation of mortal existence.

Random contemporary figures of people who recently died. They were raised to a continuation of mortal existence.

I'm not sure where the difficulty lays?

On 07/05/2013 at 11:35 AM, KenGilmore said:

I'm not excluding the possibility that a literal resurrection has occurred, but details such as:

  • The fact the text appears to state that they were (1) raised to life and (2) physically left the graves two days later, which doesn't make much sense, at least to me.

suggest to me that interpreting these passages as a literal resurrection of people creates more problems than it solves. I don't insist on this interpretation - we're talkin very much 'uncertain detail' here, but I find the apocalyptic reading to be one which makes more sense of the passage.

Where does it say they the left the graves two days later??

It sounds like the left the graves as soon as they were brought back to life to me

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