Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The passage Matthew 27:51-53 is one of the most intriguing in all of the New Testament because what it describes ought not to happen according to most Christian theology. The passage, which is only found in Matthew, reads as follows:

51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 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 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. (NRSV)

This occurs immediately after Jesus' breathes his last and is certainly intended to demonstrate the cosmic and salvific impact of Jesus' death on the cross. The problem is that the Jewish and Christian understanding of resurrection - Jesus' excepted of course for Christians - is that it is to take place at the end of time. The Christian understanding of what happens at the end of life is that the souls of the dead receive their immediate reward or punishment, but these souls are separated from their bodies until the end of time or the general resurrection (see 2 Cor. 5:1-10; Phil. 1:21-23; Catechism of the Catholic Church 997-1001, where both Pauline passages are cited). How is it that these bodies are raised from their tombs?

The Greek is clear, it is somata, "bodies," which are raised up. It is these "resurrected" or "reanimated" bodies which are said to have entered Jerusalem after Jesus' resurrection. Note that they are said to come to life after his death (v.52), but only to have entered the Holy City after Jesus' resurrection (v.53). According to Matthew, they were saints, or "holy ones," which in itself is interesting: is Matthew describing followers of Jesus? How many would have died in the course of his short ministry? Or is he describing a broader group of "holy ones" who had died at many different periods of history?

Matthew also says these holy ones appeared to "many" in Jerusalem (polloi), yet then ends the account without explaining anything else about these newly raised holy ones. Who are they? Where are they? Do the bodies return to their tombs? Do they go to their heavenly reward? It is an account that seems to run counter to the Christian understanding of death, afterlife and resurrection, not in terms of hope, but in terms of order. The saints who appeared in Jerusalem are out of place and out of time.

Any thoughts on this as Halloween turns into All Saints' Day? Is Matthew simply trying to make a theological point that ought not be taken literally or was there something else going on in Jerusalem those many years ago? And again, where are they now?

John W. Martens
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