Matthew’s Dead Saints Rising
Saints and Sceptics
Matthew’s gospel describes some strange goings-on at the time of the crucifixion which are not attested in any other source. This includes the most unusual miracle in the New Testament :certain holy men emerge from their tombs and appear to people in Jerusalem. Matthew does not describe this event in any detail nor does he explain its significance. The reader is left amazed and a little bewildered (which was perhaps Matthew’s intention). Evangelicals have a strong belief in the truthfulness of scripture. Should we trust Matthew when he says these events occurred?
Considering these texts in Matthew, NT Wright commented:
”it is better to remain puzzled than to settle for either a difficult argument for probable historicity or a cheap and cheerful rationalistic dismissal of the possibility. Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out.”
Now some sceptics have argued that this sort of reasoning takes historical analysis to a new world of fairies and Elvis sightings. But this misses Wright’s argument by some distance. He concedes that the methods of historical science judge Matthew’s account of saints leaving the graves as highly improbable.
However, Wright’s point is that historical science is not infallible. Surely the Christian’s faith in scripture can allow him to accept events that historians would judge as very improbable? An historian can weigh the evidence and conclude that Jesus was baptised by John, and had profound spiritual experiences. But how can a historian tell if Satan really tempted Jesus in the wilderness, or if a heavenly voice really accompanied Jesus’ baptism? Historical reasoning can conclude that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate; but how can a historian tell if Jesus atoned for sins as he died?
It remains possible that Matthew had a source that told him that people had experiences of saints on the day that Jesus’ was crucified. This matched Matthew’s expectations; an event like the Resurrection would be accompanied by signs and wonders. So Matthew included it in his account of the Resurrection. A Christian can recognise that the historical evidence for the truth of this story is somewhere between weak and non-existent; and, at the same time, the Christian can accept that the story is true, because he has a rational trust in God’s word. After all, Matthew’s story of the walking dead is not a “special effect” thrown in to spice up a dull tale. Rather, this story confirms that the resurrection of Jesus is hope of all the faithful, and the death of death itself…
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