Sunday, April 12, 2009

The New Testament's Most Dramatic Miracle

According to Matthew 27:52-53, right after Jesus died, “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 the holy city and appeared to many.” I know poking fun at this story is like dissing Paris Hilton. It's just so easy that it's almost dishonorable. Almost.

Besides that fact that people are being raised from the dead, this is a very strange story. Why did they come out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection? Did they find little scrolls in their coffins with messages like “Hey, I apologize if this sounds a bit contrived, but when Jesus yelled, I just felt like someone needed to rise from the dead. I don't actually want you seen in public until Sunday. I apologize for the inconvenience. Signed, Yahweh.”

While I don't understand the motivation behind the newly raised saints' behavior, I'm sure Jesus appreciated the way they didn't steal his thunder by showing up first. If they had rushed the whole process of, you know, trying out their legs again, exploring the countryside anew,
telling people they aren't dead, they could have really screwed things up. Imagine what would have happened had they not hung out in their graves for three (meaning two) days. With so many resurrected people running around appearing to many people, by the time we get to Easter morning Jesus would appear to people and they'd be like “Yeah, you used to be dead and now you're not. We know. You aren't the first and if you ask me, I really don't think you'll be the last.” I can just imagine ten of the disciples insisting that Jesus is dead, while Thomas is like “Until I see his corpse with my own eyes, and smell his rotting flesh with my own nose, I will believe that he has been raised from the dead just like everyone else!”

It could have been especially bothersome if only one of the newly raised saints, call him Brian, didn't quite understand what was going on. Suppose Brian came into the Jerusalem on Good Friday. People would naturally conclude that he was the first. They might even assume that because he's first, he must have been the one responsible for all the other resurrections. In reply, someone might still claim that it was really Jesus who raised Brian. “Jesus? Jesus couldn't have done it. He was dead!” You got to admit, as far as the soundness of air-tight alibis go, this one is pretty near the top. Before you knew it, there would be a whole new sect of Judaism venerating the life of Brian and all because of a hapless resurrectees misunderstanding of what a newly raised corpse is supposed to do with oneself.

In a little closer to all seriousness, I'd bet Matthew wanted to write “and coming out of the tombs they entered the holy city.” But the more he thought about it, the more it took away from Jesus' Resurrection, so he just had to add some sort of qualifier to keep Jesus at the head of the story. These do not look like the words of someone accurately recording what actually happened. It can be astounding just how much easier it is to explain how it is that we have a story about a miraculous event than it is to explain the miraculous event itself.

But true or not, I'm rather disappointed that these two little verses are all we get to hear about this amazing event. As Thomas Paine wrote:

“Had it been true, it would have filled up whole chapters of those books, and been the chosen theme and general chorus of all the writers; but instead of this, little and trivial things, and mere prattling conversations of, he said this, and he said that, are often tediously detailed, while this, most important of all, had it been true, is passed off in a slovenly manner by a single dash of the pen, and that by one writer only, and not so much as hinted at by the rest.

“It is an easy thing to tell a lie, but it is difficult to support the lie after it is told. The writer of the book of Matthew should have told us who the saints were that came to life again, and went into the city, and what became of them afterward, and who it was that saw them – for he is not hardy enough to say he saw them himself; whether they came out naked, and all in natural buff, he-saints and she-saints; or whether they came full dressed, and where they got their dresses; whether they went to their former habitations, and reclaimed their wives, their husbands, and their property, and how they were received; whether they entered ejectments for the recovery of their possessions, or brought actions of crim. con. against the rival interlopers; whether they remained on earth, and followed their former occupation of preaching or working; or whether they died again, or went back to their graves alive, and buried themselves.

“Strange, indeed, that an army of saints should return to life, and nobody know who they were, nor who it was that saw them, and that not a word more should be said upon the subject, nor these saints have anything to tell us! Had it been the prophets who (as we are told) had formerly prophesied of these things, they must have had a great deal to say. They could have told us everything and we should have had posthumous prophecies, with notes and commentaries upon the first, a little better at least than we have now. Had it been Moses and Aaron and Joshua and Samuel and David, not an unconverted Jew had remained in all Jerusalem. Had it been John the Baptist, and the saints of the time then present, everybody would have known them, and they would have out-preached and out-famed all the other apostles. But, instead of this, these saints were made to pop up, like Jonah's gourd in the night, for no purpose at all but to wither in the morning.”

Even if you think that miracles happen all the time, this story still fails to maintain a shred of reasonableness. Left unexplained are why the risen saints waited until Sunday, why Matthew tells us so little about them, why no other Gospel writer mentions it, and why we have no secular record of them. It doesn't explain why Peter didn't point out one of the newly Resurrected saints on Pentecost or use the resurrections many of them had seen as evidence for the resurrection that they didn't see. I would have thought that he would have understood the audience appeal of a dead guy walking around.

But there is an extraordinarily simple theory that explains all of this. It didn't happen. Things like this should be taken into consideration when deciding if Matthew's more famous tale of a resurrection deserves to be taken seriously.


  1. But there is an extraordinarily simple theory that explains all of this. It didn't happen. Things like this should be taken into consideration when deciding if Matthew's more famous tale of a resurrection deserves to be taken seriously.


    I enjoyed the Thomas Paine quote by the way.

  2. Nicely done.

    It's surprising how often a little critical reading of an otherwise basically ignored chunk of the Bible leads to this sort of realization. Just today I started a series mocking a book about the post-flood genealogies and how the sons of Noah gave birth to every other nation on the planet. I suddenly found myself saying, "Wait. Why do Genesis 10 and 11 both end with a record of the descendants of Shem?"

    I also may or may not have linked to your Two Flood Myths post...

  3. Wow, that was great. I never could figure that out about the gospels when I was christian. Endless amounts of words were used to describe parables and speeches, but the description of the freakin' resurrection was basically two sentences: he was dead. later, he wasn't.

    if i knew someone who rose from the dead, you'd better believe i wouldn't be able to shut up about it.