Two short verses in Matthew raise perhaps the most serious questions that can be put to a literal interpretation of the resurrection stories. Matthew said that at the moment of Jesusʼ death “the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the holy city and appeared unto many” (Matthew 27:52-53). This is an account of a miracle unsurpassed anywhere else in the gospels. It makes the postresurrection appearing of Jesus “to above five hundred brethren at once” (1 Cor. 15:6) appear tame in comparison.
In this case, many saints were raised and appeared to many. Unlike the accounts of Jesus raising Lazarus or the synagogue rulerʼs daughter or Jesus himself being raised, this depicts saints dead for way over “three days” being raised. And, from the phrase, “they entered the holy city and appeared to many,” it is possible to infer that these many raised saints showed themselves to many who were not believers! Yet Josephus, who wrote a history of Jerusalem both prior to and after her fall, i.e., forty years after the death of Jesus, knew of Jesus but nothing of this raising of many and appearing to many. Of this greatest of all miracles, not a rumor appears in the works of Josephus or of any other ancient author. Surely at least one of the many raised out of those many emptied tombs was still alive just prior to Josephusʼs time, amazing many. Or at least many who had seen those many saints were still repeating the tale. Although people may have doubted that Jesus raised a few people while he was still alive and although “some doubted” Jesusʼ own resurrection (Matt. 28:17), who could fail to have been impressed by many risen saints appearing to many? How also could Peter have neglected to mention them in his Jerusalem speech a mere fifty days after they “appeared to many in the holy city”? Surely their appearance must have been foremost on everyoneʼs mind. So why didnʼt Paul mention such a thing in his letters, our earliest sources? Why did the women who visited the “empty tomb” on Sunday morning not take notice that many other tombs were likewise open? Why didnʼt the visitors to Jesusʼ tomb mention that they had met or seen many raised saints in that vicinity, meeting them on the way to Jesusʼ tomb or on the way back to town? Why did the apostles disbelieve the first reports of Jesusʼ resurrection when a mass exit from the tombs had accompanied his resurrection? Why didnʼt Matthew know how many raised saints there were? Why couldnʼt he name a single one or a single person to whom they had appeared? How did Matthew know that these saints had come out of their tombs? That would be more than anyone had seen in the case of Jesusʼ resurrection.
Letʼs look at the implications of some of these questions. According to the literal Greek in Matthew 27:50-53, the tombs were opened and the saints were “raised” at the instant of Jesusʼ death, but they entered the city over a day later! Apparently, neither Joseph of Arimathea nor Nicodemus, while burying Jesus (John. 19:38-40), chanced to marvel at all the opened graves and the raised saints in them waiting patiently for Sunday morning. The women in Matthewʼs account were likewise oblivious to the many graves lying opened by the earthquake and the saints supposedly just beginning to leave the cemetery for town the same morning the women were arriving. And the other gospels were silent on this major miracle involving many! Paul was silent on this matter in 1 Corinthians 15, where he discussed the resurrection at great length! Peter was silent on the matter in his speech recorded in Acts 2, delivered a mere 50 days after the many saints entered the city and appeared to many! Surely the “gift of tongues” would pale in miraculous significance compared to the “raising of the many who appeared to many.” Yet Peter said nothing about the latter. We are not talking about just the apostles, like Peter, being witnesses to just the resurrection of Jesus; we are talking about many people who had witnessed many saints being raised, and some of these “many” witnesses were surely present in the audience Peter preached to that morning. So why would he have had to speak at length to convince them that the resurrection of one man had happened? Having witnessed the resurrection of many, they would have readily accepted the claim that one man had been resurrected.
And what about the raised saints themselves? Wouldnʼt they have made terrific evangelists? But we donʼt read anything about that; instead, we have silence. We admit that to argue from silence is not equivalent to disproof; however, it is not the silence of extrabiblical sources that makes us doubt this account of multiple resurrections. It is the silence of other biblical authors that is generating our doubt.
A few extrabiblical sources did expand Matthewʼs tale of the many raised saints. These expansions were composed over one hundred years after Matthewʼs gospel was written. Remarkably, they even mentioned the names of some of the “many saints” raised, like Simeon and his sons, Adam and Eve, the patriarchs and prophets, etc., names that Matthew neglected to include. Of course, these expansions of the two extraordinary verses in Matthew and the list of names are found only in apocryphal gospels, which are full of all sorts of marvelous miracles that even surpass the ones attributed to Jesus in the four gospels that the church now endorses (like the story of the talking cross that followed Jesus out of his tomb in the Gospel of Peter).
Perhaps Matthew, like the authors of the apocryphal gospels, collected tales he had heard from other believers and/or composed gospel fictions. Perhaps when he composed those two short verses, he was only giving mythical form to the belief that “the resuscitation of the righteous was assigned to the first appearance of the Messiah, in accordance with the Jewish ideas” (D. F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined). He was also indulging in miracle enhancement: multiplying signs and wonders said to accompany Jesusʼ death and resurrection, i.e., Matthewʼs unique account of two earthquakes, one that opened the tombs of the many saints (at Jesusʼ death) and one that moved the stone to open Jesusʼ tomb (Easter morning). The other gospel writers remarkably neglected to mention that even one earthquake took place. That leaves Matthewʼs account on doubly shaky ground. Neither did Matthew use the most precise words to depict this wonder, because the verses state, literally, that the saints were raised at the time of Jesusʼ death and then lay around in their tombs for a day and a half before entering the city! That absurdity arises from what appears to be a sloppy interpolation of the phrase “after his resurrection”:
And Jesus cried again with a loud voice, and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake; and the rocks were rent; and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints that had fallen asleep were raised: and coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the holy city and appeared unto many (Matthew 27:50-53).
The verses make more sense without that phrase than with it. Without it, they would simply state that the raised saints immediately entered the city upon Jesusʼ death. But some Christian copyist, or perhaps the gospelʼs chief editor, felt obligated to add the phrase “after his resurrection” to ensure the priority of Jesusʼ resurrection, regardless of the literal consequences.
People who believe that many tombs were opened and that many saints appeared to many will of course have little trouble also believing that Jesus was resurrected. However, those of us who doubt the story of the many raised saints see in it a reflection of the kind of blind faith that made the story of Jesusʼ resurrection catch on in the first place.
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