Nick Norelli brings up an interesting issue in a blog post on Matthew 27:52-53. Nick asks why some people seem to automatically exclude the possibility of the dead actually rising. I recently came across this issue in the fantastic book The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity by John T. Carroll and Joel B. Green. Two authors in different chapters address the text from a similar angle but with slight nuance. In chapter 4, Green and Carroll are addressing the Gospel of Matthew’s handling of Jesus’ death. They argue that Matthew is intensely concerned with portraying the death of Jesus as an apocalyptic event. To that end, Matthew “embellishes the Markan tradition with additional cosmic portents” including an earthquake, the splitting of the rocks, the opening of the tombs with accompanied raising of the saints. For them, Matthew is offering a conflated echo of Ezekiel 37:12-13 and Zechariah 14:4-5. Of verse 53 in particular they say:
“Verse 53 is intriguing…The narrator (author) has intruded into the story to offer theological commentary. While the death of Jesus is the death-shattering, liberating event of truly apocalyptic import and so serves as the catalyst for this preliminary ‘resurrection of the righteous,’ nevertheless the priority of Jesus’ own resurrection is acknowledged through the notice ‘after his resurrection.’ The awkwardness of the narrative is a clue to its remarkable claim. Pictures race ahead of logic as the story embodies the conviction that Jesus’ crucifixion deals death itself the final blow and inaugurates the resurrection life. The death of Jesus is the pivotal event on which the whole of history turns.” (p. 49)
While Green/Carroll don’t state it explicitly, I think the statement that “pictures race ahead of logic” gets at the inherent theological difficulty in the dead rising at the moment of Christ’s death. This is a difficulty apparently realized by the author himself given that he gives two contradictory time frames one after the other. If the claim of verse 52 is taken without verse 53, then Jesus is not the first one raised from the dead and that opens a whole can of worms. This is no mere resuscitation, so claims like those made by Paul that Jesus is “the firstborn from the dead” are now false. A slightly different perspective is offered by Joel Marcus in chapter 13. Marcus argues that Matthew may be making use of an established Jewish interpretation of Zechariah 14:4 and applying it to Jesus.
“One of the passages alluded to, Zechariah 14:4, is a prophecy that at the eschaton the Lord will stand on the Mount of Olives, the mountain will split in half, and the Lord will come with his holy ones. Later Jewish interpretation is fairly consistent in its interpretation that this split will open the earth so that the righteous dead (i.e. the holy ones) may rise, a belief that explains the presence of Jewish graveyards on the Mount of Olives from ancient times until our own day…this tradition of exegesis may undergird Matthew 27:51-53, where we hear of an earthquake and a resurrection of the dead at a location just outside Jerusalem.” (p. 225)
In Marcus’ view, allusions to the Old Testament and employment of Jewish interpretations and hermeneutical techniques in the Gospels are “intended to function as indirect apologetic” (p. 233). While Marcus does not directly address the issue, he does provide an excellent segue into the larger question surrounding this apologetic use of the Old Testament. Generally speaking, some scholars have argued that the frequency and depth of OT allusions in the Gospels, particularly in the passion narratives, provide proof that we are dealing with ahistorical constructions built around those OT allusions. A notable proponent of this view is John Dominic Crossan. In this scheme, Matthew’s need to make Jesus apologetically appealing governs his telling of the story which consequently calls into question its historicity. (NB: I am speaking generally here and not referencing an argument Crossan or someone similar has advanced about the specific text of Matthew 27:51-53).
Between the inherent theological difficulties of resurrection occurring before Jesus and the historical difficulty of OT allusions in the passion narratives, there is considerable ground upon which a non-innerantist interpreter might choose to treat this text with less seriousness than others. Personally, I think the view presented by Green/Carroll is a reasonable and predicated on a close reading of the text.
Concerning the larger historical question, Mark Goodacre has written a fantastic article on the use of OT allusions in the passion narratives called “Prophecy Historicized or History Scripturized? Reflections on the Origin of the Crucifixion Narrative.” Unfortunately, I believe it was a conference paper so I cannot provide a publication citation nor can I point to it online. (I have it because it was provided as suggested reading in a Cross in the New Testament class with Maryanne Meye Thompson.) However, if you can find a way to get a hold of it, I highly recommend it.
Update: I sent Dr. Goodacre an email to see if the article was available somehwere I had overlooked, and he pointed me to the similar article on his website “Scripturalization in Mark’s Crucifixion Narrative” which is available freely here.