What do you do with zombies in Matthew? A call for help

I can just imagine it. I’m hanging out at home, trying to relax, when someone knocks on my front door. Normally I would just sit quietly and hope they go away. But, for some reason, this time I actually get up.

Hello….Um….Zechariah?

Yup.

Aren’t you dead?

Yup. Now be quiet and pay attention. I have something important to tell you.

Okey dokey. Dead guy tells me to pay attention. I’m paying attention. Of course, I’m also reaching behind the door for my pitchfork, or whatever zombie killing devices they used in ye old Israel.

The tombs were also 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. (Mt. 27:52-53)

There’s been a lot of discussion about this passage in the last few days. And, I have to admit, that I’ve never been terribly comfortable with it. What exactly are we supposed to make of a bunch of dead people who suddenly walk out of their tombs and go sight-seeing in Jerusalem?

Some years back I got into a discussion about this passage with a friend. And, I argued at the time that I thought maybe this should be interpreted non-historically. I hadn’t really studied the passage, so it was just speculation, but I pressed on it a bit and tried to argue that Matthew was using this as a symbol of a deeper theological truth. Many friend kept pushing back, though, and after a while I realized that I was only doing that because this passage seemed too weird to be true. Zombie sightseers? Really? That’s just too weird.

But, here’s the problem. “Too weird to be true” just isn’t a very good argument.

Of course, the story raises some interesting questions. Why don’t the dead come out right away? Why do they wait until after the resurrection? What happens after they go into Jerusalem? Do they just hang out for a while, or do they turn to dust at midnight? And, why doesn’t anyone else talk about this stuff? Shouldn’t more people be commenting on such an amazing event? Why is it only in Matthew?

But, although those are interesting questions, none of them really say anything about whether this actually happened. They just re-emphasize how weird this story is. And, I believe lots of things that seem pretty weird to many people: the Trinity, the incarnation, and the resurrection being rather high on that list. Those are weird, but I still believe them. Why is this any different?

Too-weird-to-be-true isn’t going to cut it.

But, quite a few people think there are reasons for reading this text non-historically. And, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their arguments go beyond my feeble too-weird-to-be-true “argument.” As we’ve seen over the last few days, Michael Licona holds this position, and both Mike Bird and John Byron have stated that they agree.

So, my question is: Why? Can anyone provide a good reason for reading Mt. 27:52-53 non-historically? I’m not even all that concerned with whether you agree with the argument, as long as it’s a good (or at least interesting) one. What are the best reasons for reading this passage as anything other than historical narrative? And, just to be clear, it has to be better than too-weird-to-be-true.

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on September 16, 2011, in Hermeneutics, New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. The lack of mention in any other source should at least give us pause. The story might not be “too weird to be true”, but it does seem far too weird not to at least have someone else write it down.

  2. Well the whole dialectical group of theology (Kierkegaard, Bultmann, Barth, Brunner, etc.) would no doubt say that this is just certainly “existential” ground. As man or humanity must really deal with the whole spiritual reality of life, death and finally dying! And certainly, this is a strong argument in the reality of so-called modern to postmodern man.

  3. While I personally view this as a historical event, I can see the argument that in Matthews world view, “The Resurrection” would be the one resurrection of the dead for the whole world (akin to Martha’s reference in John 11.24). This would lead us to think that Matthew would have had a more apocalyptic tone in vs 51-54 as a whole, even portraying the strength of Rome giving way to the Kingdom of Heaven (the centurion and those who were with him admitting/proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God, not censer).

    As I said, I don’t subscribe to this idea in this passage, but I could see the argument being a compelling one.

    • One addition to my previous comment, I think that one would have to make a case that these apocalyptic lines are peppered all through Matthew in order for this argument to really hold water. At first glance, I think it could be argued, but I would actually have to spend some time digging in to see if the case could solidly be made.

  4. Marc,

    I agree that the “too weird to be true” is not an argument. I think it was NT Wright who said it was too weird not too be true, also not a winning line.

    For me, the echoes of Ezekiel, the fact that it is only in Matthew and that no one else mentions this event suggests to me that Matthew is doing something more creative than historical. I think that while Paul was listing his witnesses to the resurrection in 1 Cor 15 he might also at least mention, oh yeah, and what about all those other people who were raised with Jesus. Such an appeal would also have been useful when trying to help out the Thessalonians with their confusion over the resurrection. So yes, my decision is based on an accumulation of evidence, or lack there of.

    However, I would not disparage someone for thinking that this even did happen. They only thing that I would ask is tell me why. I think there is just as much need to explain why such a fantastic event did happen, esp since it is so weird. For me, just because Matthew records it this way does not mean that I must assume that is historical. And I think that is goes the other way as well. People like Wright and Licona have done a good job at demonstrating evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Yet, they both disagree on the particulars of Matt 27:51-53. I think this is the way it should be rather than, as we have seen, the way this has been playing out elsewhere.

  5. I agree with Mason here. While “too weird to be true” may not be response worth giving, “too weird to show up in no other piece of literature” is a good response. Maybe Matthew is using a bit of hyperbole and there were like four zombies instead of “many” (slightly joking), but I am more prone to find it reasonable that either (A) Matthew had access to some tradition on the matter that was obscure enough to go unnoticed by Mark (assuming Markan priority) and ignore later by Luke or (B) he felt that Jesus’ resurrection dipped into the general resurrection so he included these details (though I’m not saying he made them up out of thin air). I am sympathetic to those who find weird + ignored by everyone else to = historically improbable.

  6. My sense is that the appearance of zombies is no weirder than some pale Galilean anti-establishmentarian being crucified, run through with a spear, laid behind a stone, and then supposedly rising three days after His death. This whole thing including zombies for effect just defies the rational-empirical wisdom of academy and seems an errand of fools (1 Cor 1:23 ).

    • I think it is a bit odder than reports of Jesus’ resurrection in a few ways:

      (1) Jewish thinking on the resurrection seems to focus primarily on the general resurrection at the end of time, yet Jesus’ follows claim resurrected in the middle of time and he remained alive. On the other hand, the zombies apocalypse seems to be semi-apologetic for the fact that Jesus’ resurrection occurred before the end of the age, so he includes “end of the age” imagery.

      (2) The Apostle Paul lists eyewitnesses while Matthew merely alludes to them. He doesn’t seem to have the same “go ask them yourself” tone that Paul does.

      (3) Details such as women being at the tomb in a world where women were not considered valid eyewitnesses being mentioned in passing (i.e. “disinterested” details) seems much stronger than the zombie apocalypse where it could be argued Matthew knew the general resurrection was to occur at the end of the age and he imports apocalyptic “events” into Jesus’ resurrection to give it an apocalyptic atmosphere.

      (4) Everyone in the early church seems unified around the fact Jesus is risen, but we have one short pericope mentioning the others.

      I am sure there is more, but this provides some logic as to why even those who affirm the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection may struggle with Mt 27.

      • Here is the point clarifying my previous obtuse comment – Biblical accounts of supernatural occurrences by their peculiar nature defy explanations using the natural empirical-rational paradigms. Perhaps the Matthean account was metaphorical or perhaps a bizarre historical occurrence as strange as floating ax head, sun standing still, a prophet taken up by a chariot of fire etc. In the end these as well as Jesus’ resurrection call for degrees of faith and in the end when pressed for some rational-empirical explanation might best culminate with the chant: “omnia exeunt in mysterium” – “all things fade into mystery.” I suggest such mystery applies when the natural is pressed as well. For the natural is just as bizarre. Consider the feet upon which you stand and your location in time and space. But what do I know, epistemologically speaking … Now, where was that transubstantiated water that I was drinking 😉

  7. Note, Donald Hagner calls this “a piece of realized and historicized apocalyptic”. (Whatever that is? lol) And some see it as not even meant to be real history, but “an event of the apocalyptic future”, in the “new Jerusalem”. And R.E. Brown says, “Its forte is atmosphere, not details”.

    The more I look at this? The more I am beginning to see that this is certainly meant to be spiritual and “existential” (relating to actuality in existence, and not a conceptual possibility) Therefore perhaps Licona is right? God’s Word always does have its way of humbling those that seek not answers, but the doctrine of God Almighty!

  8. These are some great thoughts. But, is “no one else mentioned it” really the best support? That’s better than “it’s too weird to be true,” but not by much. Whether others mention it really has nothing to do with the narrative presented in Matthew. If Matthew itself doesn’t provide any reasons for reading this passage non-historically, why would its non-mention in other places lead me to a different conclusion? Or, stated differently, if the positive evidence in Matthew suggests that the passage is historical, an argument from silence hardly seems enough to overturn that. So, some argument from Matthew itself seems necessary.

    Some of the other things that have been mentioned, though, seem more worth pursuing. (And, of course, the non-mention argument could be combined with these others to make a more compelling case.)

  9. And, Michael Licona posted a response to Al Mohler today in which he provided what looks like a concise summary of his reasons for reading the text this way:

    When we study the literary conventions in Bible times, we identify specific language in the Greco-Roman (Virgil, Dio Cassius, Plutarch), Jewish (Josephus) and biblical (Matthew 24, Acts 2) literature that may be employed to accent an event believed to have cosmic or even divine significance. Thus, when I noticed what might be similar language in Matthew 27:52-53, the interpretive possibility I proposed in my book emerged.

  10. Indeed Lacona’s work here is “tight” when it is looked at in depth. And again, this is an exegetical point, taken from the literary aspect. But it also fits well with the context, which is certainly spiritual and eschatological. Again my early concern was Confessional & Evangelical, especially when it connects to the subject of the resurrection. But, this is a very uncommon verse or verses! And it really must be seen in the most spiritual and symbolic manner, and too not forgetting the narrative point. Yes, I now agree with Lacona! Indeed Holy Scripture is always a humbe ride! And again, there is simply nothing here as to an attack or loss on inerrancy!

    Indeed, I hope we are all still learning!

  11. Marc,

    This has been a bit of a long and bumpy ride, but an important ride I feel for all of us! Again, touching the Word of God should humble us, and bring us to the mystery and majesty of God! This is what the open blog is all about! Thanks again!

    • I agree completely. “Bumpy” is a great description, but I hope it’s been a good learning/stretching opportunity for all of us. It’s certainly given me the chance to develop my thinking in some areas. I’m glad it was helpful for you too.

  12. How about instead of too weird to be true, too common a cliché to be real? For example, if some was telling me a story about how a miracles beast with the body of a lion and wings like an eagle appeared to them in a storm, and he included the f[phrase “it was raining like cats and dogs” I would not think he actually meant to say that domestic animals were falling out of the sky, because even though falling domestic animals is not more unlikely than mythical creatures, the phrase “raining like cats and dogs” is a common idiom meaning only that ‘raining very hard.’ I’m familiar with this idiom appearing in perfectly pedestrian stories where it is obviously meant non-literally. At first glance the Matthew passage strikes me as being a little too long and coherent with the rest of the story to something coming in as a non-literal allusion. But if there are other passages with closely similar wording that are obviously symbolic statements set in otherwise literal backgrounds, this might be possible argument.

  1. Pingback: Even more on the zombie apocalypse. | Near Emmaus

  2. Pingback: The Debate Continues « Ad Fontes

  3. Pingback: What If It Was Mentioned, Just Not the Way You’d Expect? | Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

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