If you loosely follow evangelical apologetics circles like I do, you’ve possibly run across the name Mike Licona. A few years ago he was involved in a kerfuffle when he questioned the historicity of Matthew 27:51-54 in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. He commented on “that strange little text in Matthew 27:52-53, where upon Jesus’ death the dead saints are raised and walk into the city of Jerusalem” (548) and wrote:
“it seems to me that an understanding of the language in Matthew 27:52-53 as ‘special effects’ with eschatological Jewish texts and thought in mind is most plausible. There is further support for this interpretation. If the tombs opened and the saints being raised upon Jesus’ death was not strange enough, Matthew adds that they did not come out of their tombs until after Jesus’ resurrection. What were they doing between Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning? Were they standing in the now open doorways of their tombs and waiting?” (552)
Licona closed of his discussion of Matthew 27:51-54 writing, “It seems best to regard this difficult text in Matthew as a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that impending judgment awaited Israel” (553). How did that idea fare for him?
Not so well.
Upon being challenged on his view of inerrancy by none other than Stormin’ Norman Geisler: he has a whole section on his website dedicated to Licona, including support from Ergun Caner and Al Mohler. Licona responded with his own letter including a list of scholars who didn’t think he was challenging inerrancy, and the battle raged on as my disinterest grew exponentially. After the dust settled, Licona lost his job with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board and resigned from Southern Evangelical Seminary, but quickly was hired by Houston Baptist University. I’m glad that he’s still working and contributing too. Mike Licona isn’t some sort of heretic (that I know of). He’s a rather capable apologist with a flaw common to most apologists; he has precious little training in the proper interpretation of the Scripture.
It seemed like Mike Licona couldn’t figure out what relevance Matt. 27:51-54 had to the surrounding text, mostly on the basis of a rather strange interpretive assumption, so he made a bizarre leap. He attempted to explain the inclusion of Matt. 27:51-54 into the surrounding text by suggesting that it was cryptically illustrative. He made that leap on the basis of arguing that it was of a different genre than the rest of the surrounding text. I’d like to take a stab at addressing the same conundrum without resorting to such inventive explanations, not because I’ve got anything against Licona but because I love tackling difficult texts.
Let’s get our “Bible Geek” on, and see if some quick but careful study leads us to doxology.
So, the previous section of Matt. 27:45-50 reads:
45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.”
Here’s some quick observations:
– In Matt. 27:45, there was an eclipse, or some other condition resulting in darkness (it may not have been an eclipse), that was three hours long. This is certainly significant, especially in relation to the Messiah, but I’m not going to work through this specific detail right now. In a nutshell, darkness during the day is often a sign of divine judgment (Is. 13:9-11, 24:21-23; Jer. 15:9; Ez. 32:3-7, etc.) as the sun is too ashamed to “look” upon what’s happening.
– In Matt. 27:46, Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1. This isn’t a statement that God had forsaken him, but rather a proclamation of victory from the cross itself. The rest of Psalm 22 is quite indicative of the blessing that Jesus anticipates from the cross; in his brutal agony, Christ knew that God would still keep his promises (Ps. 22:19-31).
– In Matt. 27:47-49, people didn’t understand what was happening and didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, so they put words (and wine) in his mouth where as others simply made fun of him (i.e. Jesus knew the frustration of social media 2,000 years before it existed – Heb. 4:15 anyone?).
– In 27:50, Jesus cried out with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit, fulfilling John 10:17-18.
– So in summary:
a. Creation understood what was happening (God was keeping his promises).
b. Christ understood what was happening (God was keeping his promises).
c. The creatures didn’t understand (and thought Jesus was an idolater)
d. Christ understood what had to happen and carried out his mission (God was keeping his promises).
This then leads to the following pericope: Matt. 27:51-54 (though I’ll include up to vs. 56):
51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
Here’s some quick observations:
– In 27:51, the curtain of the temple was torn. Some have thought that this “curtain” was the curtain to the Most Holy Place, but it is hard to say. Without getting into the frustrating debate that surrounds this question (for starters, feel free to investigate The Veil Of the Temple in History And Legend by Daniel M. Gurtner – JETS 49/1, March 2006), I’ll just say that I loosely lean towards the idea that the torn veil was likely the outer curtain that separated the court of the men from the temple. The obvious reason being that if the curtain into the Most Holy Place would have torn, nobody would have seen it (both veils were quite likely in front of wooden doors – see 1 Ki. 6:31-34, 7:50 + Ex. 26:33, 2 Chron. 3:14 + Heb. 9:1-5). The Pharisees would have likely not told anyone and covered up that strange and damning sign, seeing that they covered up the resurrection itself and also replaced all the veils yearly.
I have other reasons for my loosely held suspicions on this matter, but that’s certainly not the purpose of this post.
– After the way into the temple was opened for all (we’re a kingdom of priests with open access to God, but only Christ is the high priest and only he enters into the Most Holy Place), the creation confirmed the momentous nature of the death of Christ with an earthquake.
I’d say that the splitting of the temple veil (and the earthquake) marks out a rather monumental improvement in God’s salvific economy; the new covenant. Jer. 31 and Heb. 8-10 talk about this in detail (among other places). In the event of Christ’s death (and coming resurrection), the new covenant was set in motion and things would be forever changed as all believers would now have personal and unmediated access to God.
The idea here is that Christ provides divine relation.
– Then, in 27:52-53 there’s an indication of the meaning of the death of Christ. This is seen in the physical resurrection of many “saints who had fallen asleep.” Now many tombs were split open (possibly the rocks which were split were tomb-sealing stones), but only the “saints who had fallen asleep” were raised, emerging from their tombs after Christ rose from his. This was the passage on which Licona got hung up. He seemed to think that those raised saints were raised when the tombs were split and “sat around” all weekend, waiting for Christ to be raised. I’d argue that such an idea is forcing the text. The tombs were split at the same time as the veil, but the saints came forth after Christ. There’s no reason to think that the saints were resurrected at the time of the splitting. It’s far more likely that the saints were resurrected at the time of Christ’s resurrection, emerging a short time after he did.
The death of Christ opened the tombs and his resurrection was followed by a mass resurrection, but not the final resurrection. This was just a little foreshadowing of it, and all those who came back to life would have died again (like the other folks Jesus raised from the dead before his personal resurrection). Seeing that many (not all) of the dead saints were raised, this resurrection was likely a demonstration of Christ’s power to keep his promises regarding the final resurrection.
The idea here is that Christ provides physical life.
Not only were the dead saints raised, but something equally important happened in the following verse.
– In 27:54, the centurions who were with Jesus and keeping watch over him, saw the earthquake and pronounced “Truly this was the Son of God!” That statement is a statement of belief in the person and claims of Christ; it’s a proclamation of faith. That faith isn’t the logical response to an earthquake. That faith is a product of a sovereign work of the Spirit of God in the heart of sinful men.
The passage is laying out that Christ not only has the power to raise dead saints, but also dead sinners.
The idea here is that Christ provides spiritual life.
– That’s not the end. There’s that strange little extra passage in 27:55-56 where it mentions the women who were watching from a distance. They’re the ones who had “who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him.” There’s Mary, his disciple. There’s Mary, his mother. There’s Mary, the mother of two of his disciples. They’re all there when none of his other disciples are (according to Matthew).
I’d dare suggest that there’s one final, and powerful, point being made.
Those women, the ones who had watched him die and had seen the aftermath, were still around. That’s really important to catch. I mean, his disciples were gone but their moms were still hanging around. Christ sustains his own by his own power, not because of their own boldness or gifting or strength. They remain and there’s no real explanation why, short of some sort of divine power that’s keeping them going.
The idea here is that Christ provides supernatural preservation.
So, I’d suggest that Matthew 27:51-56 is a very interesting text; it’s recording an event that foreshadows the coming teaching of both the disciples (this happened before any of the New Testament was written, remember) and the apostles. It’s a little glimpse into how God was already pointing to the good news about Christ in the very scene of his death.
God was orchestrating the events to illustrate the very meaning of those same events:
In Christ, incredible and insurmountable life is available to dead saints and dead sinners alike.
God seems to do that, but that’s also one of the innumerable reason why we call him “holy”.
I feel some doxology coming on.