posted by Clark Bates
August 28, 2018
“The unknown author of Matthew unwittingly made it obvious that the New Testament (NT) is a work of fiction a ― deception of history, a façade ― thereby proving that it is indeed NOT ‘godly’ inspired.”
This is a quote from an online atheist website known as “Christianity Revealed”. If you can ignore the invective filled rants that pervade every paragraph of the site, you might still ask what the author is referring to in this quote. What exactly did the author of Matthew do, unwittingly or otherwise, to make it obvious he was writing fiction, or deception, or a façade? The author’s example: Zombies.
Yes, you read that right, Zombies. Now, I’m not the first person to write about zombies in relation to the Bible, and I’m sure I won’t be the last, but the particular “zombie” incident in question is found in Matthew 27:51-53, where it reads:
“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.”
For many skeptics, as demonstrated by the quote above, a passage like this is demonstrable proof that the Bible can’t be trusted. To be honest, I sympathize. And, I wish more Christians took the time to struggle with passages like this as well. While many apologetics blogs have acknowledged this verse, very few ever actually interact with it. Most simply use it as a starting point to discuss inspiration of the text or even arrangement of the text, or genre of the text. The problem is, they never discuss the text itself!!
In this week’s article, I want to attempt to do just that. Most apologists are only concerned with the historicity of the event; did it happen? While I don’t want to avoid or discount that question, I will suggest that the historicity of the event is a secondary question. What’s more important than “Did it happen?” is “Why is it here?” So, for the purpose of this article I’ll tackle both questions, but in reverse order.
The Cheese Stands Alone
It’s acknowledged by Christian and non-Christian scholars alike that Matthew is the only gospel to contain this story. Neither Mark, nor Luke, nor John say anything about the earth shaking or the dead coming out of their graves. This has been one of the reasons it is so difficult to understand and to ratify with the other gospels. Not only is the story very strange to us, it seems logical that if this event happened, others would want to write about it! The uniqueness of this account in Matthew shouldn’t discourage us, though. In fact, the uniqueness of this event to the gospel of Matthew should give us a clue. The clue is that Matthew has a reason for including this that no other author did, and maybe the answer to why, lies in the message that’s unique to Matthew.
The Hebrew Gospel
Matthew is recognized as being the most “Jewish” of all the gospels. He appears to be addressing a Jewish audience. The language offers very little explanation of the Jewish legal customs, assuming the readers would be familiar. Matthew contains more Hebraisms (sentences structured in a Hebrew way, but written in Greek, or familiar Hebrew idioms) than any other gospel. Matthew presents the Gospel through the repeated scenes of engagement with Jewish authorities. Overall, there is a largely Hebrew element to this Gospel, and, importantly for our discussion here, Matthew uses more Old Testament allusions and citations than any other Gospel.
In a recent article published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, author Catherine Sider Hamilton, reveals just how much Matthew relies on the Old Testament in the narration of Judas’s repentance and suicide. It’s not inconsequential that this story of Judas immediately precedes the “zombie” account of vv. 51-53, and it is to professor Hamilton that I credit much of the discussion that follows.
Why was it Written?
The suicide of Judas is recorded in Matthew 27:3-9, and is given prophetic significance by Matthew in v. 9, where he writes:
“Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.’”
This has often been another area of contention because the verse cited by Matthew and attributed to Jeremiah is actually found in Zechariah 11:12-13. However, the reference to the “valley of blood” made in Matthew 27:8 is taken from the Jeremiah 19:6. Resolving this issue can really be categorized in two ways: 1. It was customary for Jewish scribes, when citing two or more prophets, to only identify the more prevalent, and/or 2. There is a unity of content in both Jeremiah 19 and Zechariah 11, and as such, both are in view.
As it relates to the Judas narrative, the disciple experiences deep regret for his betrayal of “innocent blood”, in this case Jesus. The innocent blood in the Jeremiah and Zechariah was the people of Israel. Judas returns to the chief priests and returns the money, begging forgiveness. The chief priests (or the spiritual shepherds of Israel) reject him. This parallels exactly what happens with the shepherds of Israel in Zechariah.
Further, In Zech. 11:11-13 the 30 pieces of silver are given to the “treasury”. The chief priests in Matthew 27 take the 30 pieces of silver from Judas and place them in the treasury (v.6). In Zechariah, the sheep merchants pay for the blood of the innocent sheep, and in Matthew they pay for the blood of Christ. Even with his repentance, Judas is unable to stop the crucifixion of Jesus and departs in sorrow, killing himself. The cost of the innocent blood in both Zechariah and Jeremiah is the land turning into a “Valley of Slaughter”, defiled with innocent blood. The land will become a burial ground full of the bones of the dead.
But this is where Matthew changes the narrative.
Finally, to the Zombies
After the account of Judas, we read of the crucifixion of Jesus, and the earthquake that follows his death. This brings us back to the “zombies”. Given Matthew’s propensity for citing OT prophets, especially within this same section of verses, it is reasonable to ask if he has made any other allusions to the prophets in the rest of this section. If you do this, you’ll see that references are made to the prophetic Psalm 22, Amos, Joel, Zephaniah, and Ezekiel.
It is the allusion to Ezekiel that concerns the rest of this discussion. In Ezekiel 37:11-14 we read,
“Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: 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. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.’”
As I’ve tried to demonstrate with the bold letters above, Ezekiel 37 contains a prophecy containing the very elements found in Matthew 27. If we compare the Greek of the LXX with that of the Greek of Matthew it is even more exact:
Ιδοὺ ἐγὼ ἀνοίγω ὑμῶν τὰ μνήματα καὶ ἀνάξω ὑμᾶς ἐκ τῶν μνημάτων ὑμῶν καὶ εἰσάξω ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν γῆν τοῦ Ισραηλ
καὶ τὰ μνημεῖα ἀνεῴχθησαν καὶ πολλὰ σώματα τῶν κεκοιμημένων ἁγίων ἠγέρθησαν, καὶ ἐξελθόντες ἐκ τῶν μνημείων μετὰ τὴν ἔγερσιν αὐτοῦ εἰσῆλθον εἰς τὴν ἁγίαν πόλιν…
Which brings us to the reason for the “zombies” of Matthew. At the close of Zechariah/Jeremiah the innocent blood pollutes the land, turning it into a tomb. Matthew follows this narrative until the he replaces the innocent blood with Jesus. The one who’s blood doesn’t bring death, but rather brings life. The tombs are opened, and the dry bones of Israel are given new life. This prophecy of Ezekiel was to be fulfilled so that they would know that Yahweh is Lord, and it is Matthew inserts it into his narrative to demonstrate to his readers that Jesus is the fulfillment of that prophecy. The innocent blood that once brought temporal death, is replaced with the innocent blood that brings eternal life.
The “zombies” of Matthew, are meant to point to the divine fulfillment of Yahweh’s eternal plan of redemption.
Did it actually happen?
Having addressed this odd moment within the purposes of the text itself, we can then ask the secondary, and arguably less important, question of the historicity of the event. I only have a few points to make in this regard.
Given that this is the only historical record of the event it is impossible to verify through any secondary literature. Because of this, on strictly historical grounds there is not enough evidence to answer positively with confidence that this happened.
However, the reliability of a claim must also be weighed against the reliability of the source. The document itself is proven reliable in other historical features, and therefore provides no reason, within itself, to be doubted.
Therefore, if we combine these two elements with the internally consistent theological conviction of the NT as the Word of God, I believe there is reason to accept the event as historical, even with the limited data.
An important note: I’m not believing in something CONTRARY to evidence, as there is no contradictory evidence of this event. I am believing in something on the basis of the only evidence for it and the reliability of the witness.
The event in Matthew 27:51-53 is a difficult passage to reconcile with the parallel accounts in the Gospels as well as our own credulity. Any miraculous event violates our concept of the material world and what is possible. That being said, neither of those should cause us to avoid the text. Rather, it is my conviction, and I believe it is demonstrated above, that if we are willing to wrestle with a text and actively seek to find answers, we will often find a resolution, while simultaneously growing deeper in our understanding of God’s Word.
The primary purpose for the dead rising in Matthew was theological. A foreshadowing of the eschatological hope, realized at the moment of Christ’s death. It served to reveal the connection of Christ’s sacrifice and subsequent victory over death to the prophesied coming of the Lord. Secondarily, the event is not attested outside of this singular document, but this document is demonstrably reliable in other areas of recording and need not be doubted without cause. Given the lack of contrary reporting, there is no cause to doubt it.
 Hamilton, Catherine Sider, “The Death of Judas in Matthew: Matthew 27:9 Reconsidered,” JBL 137, no. 2 (2018), 419-437.
 An example of this is found in Mark 1:2 wherein Isaiah is cited but Malachi is quoted.
 Both share themes of shed blood, innocent’s dying at the hands of cruel masters, blood money, as well as the resulting devastation and desolation of the land.
 Some translations read “potter” which is based on the word הָאוֹצָר (treasury) verses הַיּוֹצֵר (potter). I believe that treasury makes the most sense, here, but also would suggest that the OT used by Matthew may have used the term for treasury rather than potter, given it’s usage here.
 It should be noted that the people in Matthew do not qualify as zombies in the popular sense, as reanimated corpses, for they are given life, presumably in the same manner as Lazarus, with souls and life blood.