Who Died and Made you King of the Zombies?

Empty Coffins II by Paul Tomlin
Empty Coffins II by Paul Tomlin
Whenever I teach on the resurrection, someone always asks about Matthew 27. No matter how much I try to ignore it, move on, call a coffee break, or fake a severe coughing fit to avoid it, someone always asks.

I’m sure there are a hundred and one better answers than mine (and also a million and one weird, quasi-gnostic ones too!) but here you go… A few thoughts:

Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. 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 27:50-53)

The first thing to note is that there appears to be some kind of allusion to Ezekiel 37:12-14:

Behold I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. (Ezekiel 37:12-14)

Ezekiel 37 is probably the most famous ‘resurrection’ passage in the Old Testament, but arguably when he wrote it, the author would not have been thinking about a literal, physical resurrection. For Ezekiel, this opening of the graves is a metaphor for return from exile, as can be seen by the promise of being returned to the land of Israel (v12). The major concern for Ezekiel is one of national purity. One of the most unclean things a Jew could come across is a corpse. And yet, here you have Ezekiel prophesying to carcasses, which represent the house of Israel (v11) saying that God was going to cleanse them and return them to their land. For Ezekiel, resurrection was a metaphor for national restoration.

Matthew seems to be alluding to this in Matthew 27. This is the moment when the New Covenant was signed, sealed and delivered. The exile was over, and a new exodus awaited all who trusted in Jesus. But since Ezekiel had written his passage, as theology had developed and God had given people greater revelation, many had begun to read Ezekiel’s words as a literal prediction that one day graves would be opened and dead people would be raised again to life (1 Cor 15; 2 Cor 5; 1 Thess 4 etc). Matthew 27 appears to allude to Ezekiel’s words, not in order to say that the great eschatological resurrection had taken place, but that something which prefigures it, and speaks of national restoration had occurred at the death of this claimant to the title of Messiah.

It really is a very bizarre story, thrown into the text with no explanation, and commentators tend to treat it in one of the following two ways:

  1. It was a story made up by Matthew, either as apocalyptic imagery which he never intended to be taken literally, or as a story designed to encapsulate and ‘fulfil’ a number of prophetic texts, such as Ezekiel 37, Isaiah 26, Daniel 12 and so on.
  2. Matthew is aware of accounts of strange occurrences and so he retells them, without dwelling on them too much, in such a way as to give the perceptive reader a hint that this is the real return from exile and the dawning of the new age.

I personally side for option 2 for the following reasons:

  • Given that few pre-Christian Jews would have expected that their Messiah would need to die in order to bring about the final resurrection, nobody would have made up a story like this.
  • Matthew gives us no hint that this is a fictitious account. We have followed him through 26 chapters of accurate (although biblically embroidered) retellings of genuine events, and so to throw in a fictitious story at this point would seriously undermine the credibility of his entire account.
  • Presumably we are intended to take the tearing of the temple curtain as a literal occurrence (v51). So why would we then expect to change our method of interpretation to treat these verses (52-53) as if they were fiction?

I think Matthew told the story because it happened, plain and simple. This raises (at least) four questions for me

1) Who were the bodies that were raised?

Matthew doesn’t specify. R.T. France speculates that “The saints are presumably the people of God in the Old Testament, those who according to Hebrews 11 all died ‘in faith’ looking forward to a resurrection to a better life (Heb. 11:13-16, 35, 39-40); through Jesus that hope now comes to fruition.” (France, Matthew, p. 401)

Mmm… maybe. But really we have no way of knowing.

I think we ought to assume that only a small number of saints were raised. Had it been every saint who had ever lived and died, then presumably there would be far more reports of its occurrence. A mob of ten thousand zombies trawling the streets of Jerusalem is bound to have got a mention at some point in historical records! A dozen or so could go largely unnoticed; just enough to make a subtle theological point.

2) Does their raising mean that the general resurrection has happened?

No. If this were the intended application, other Biblical writers would have made more of it, in particular Paul when dealing with heretical views of the resurrection. Paul still argues strongly that the resurrection has not yet happened, but will at some point in the future (1 Cor 15; 2 Cor 5; 1 Thess 4; Phil 3; Rom 8).

Seeing as this miniature resurrection was not accompanied by any of the other prophesied occurrences such as the creation of the New Heavens and New Earth, and the permanent removal of death, sickness and suffering, then we can assume it was no more than a ‘blip’; a signpost anticipating the general resurrection.

3) Are the corpses still alive today?

A few non-canonical texts in the centuries after the resurrection speculate about the corpses. For example, in Asc. Isa. 9.17f. they ascend with Jesus; in Ac. Pil.17.1 they return to earthly life and die again subsequently; in Theophylact, writing a thousand years later, some of them are reported to be still alive. But if they had remained alive, there would surely be more speculation about them in early literature. The most logical explanation is that they died again very soon after.

Although, there’s an interesting premise for a trashy conspiracy novel in there somewhere… Perhaps they became guardians of the grail?

4) How therefore should we interpret it?

This is a literal, but confusing, occurrence, where a small number of saints are raised again from the dead for a very brief period, and then die again.

It should not be interpreted as the general resurrection, but merely an anticipation of it, in the same sort of way as the raising of Lazarus was. It was proof not only that one day there would be a great resurrection, but that ‘the resurrection and the life’ was here now in embodied form (John 11:25).

The death and resurrection of Jesus sent shockwaves throughout all of creation, Matthew even speaks of there being an earthquake. This miniature anticipatory resurrection was merely a ripple, pointing to the greater resurrection that is yet to come.

Matthew refuses to dwell on it and let it overshadow the truly significant event – the resurrection of Jesus. And we should too.

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