Let’s take a look at another of the stories from the gospels. This time the miraculous rising from the dead of ‘saints’ at the time of Jesus’ death (or maybe at the time of his resurrection…):
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many (Matthew 27:51-53).
Yes, it’s another case of Matthew making up a story from bits of Jewish scripture. We know it’s made up not only because of its fantastical nature, but because no-one else thought to record it; no eye-witness, no Roman official, no Jewish priest, no writer of Q. Not Paul, who says Jesus was the first to be resurrected; not even Mark, who doesn’t include it and therefore probably didn’t know of it; nor Luke, who omits it when he copies chunks of Matthew; nor John, who invents his own raising-the-dead story, the one about Lazarus.
So where does Matthew find his inspiration? There are many verses in Jewish scripture that declare YHWH will resurrect his people; Ezekiel 37: 12-14 for example:
Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord (YHWH) says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
And Isaiah 26:19:
But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise – let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy!
Matthew ignores the fact that ‘prophecies’ like this are about the revival of the Jewish nation. He rips them out of context and creates his bizarre, Jesus-related story from them. Bizarre not only because of resurrected dead bodies, but because he has the tombs crack open as Jesus dies, only for the revived occupants to wait more than 36 hours to emerge from them. The poor buggers lie around in their tombs, alive again for a day and a half before they make it out into the outside world (Some scholars think the delay is an interpolation introduced by a later scribe who didn’t want the dead guys getting ahead of Jesus.)
Of course, the story is symbolic. It didn’t happen (though there are those who insist that it did); Matthew invented it, like most of his gospel. It’s another literary recreation of ‘prophecies’ from scripture, intended this time to show that Jesus was the Promised One who was about to bring about the great resurrection of the dead. The verses in their original context say nothing of the sort, of course. There’s no verse in the Jewish scriptures that does (though no doubt there are those who believe there is.)
So, yet another story, yet another symbolic fantasy. We could play this game endlessly: name the gospel story – the resurrection included – and it can be shown to have been created around lines lifted out of context from the Jewish scriptures.