Was There a Resurrection?
WAS there a resurrection from the dead at the time of Jesus’ death? Many Bible commentators so hold. They base their belief upon Matthew 27:52, 53. In the Revised Standard Version (the Roman Catholic Confraternity Version is almost identical), these verses read: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
According to the Roman Catholic Commentary on holy Scripture, the earthquake, mentioned in the previous verse Mt 27:51, split open the rocky tombs to prepare the exit of the bodies, which were not resurrected until after Christ’s resurrection. But let it be noted that this is not what the text actually states, in either Roman Catholic or Protestant versions.
Regarding these verses one of the foremost Protestant Bible commentaries, that by Adam Clarke, states: “It is difficult to account for the transaction mentioned in Mt 27 verses 52 and 53. Some have thought that these two verses have been introduced into the text of Matthew from the gospel of the Nazarenes, others think the simple meaning is this:—by the earthquake several bodies that had been buried were thrown up and exposed to view, and continued above ground till after Christ’s resurrection, and were seen by many persons in the city. Why the graves should be opened on Friday, and the bodies not raised to life till the following Sunday, is difficult to be conceived. The place is extremely obscure.”
Another Bible commentator, Dr. Jenks, says regarding these verses: “This matter is not related as fully as our curiosity could wish. . . . We may raise inquiries concerning it which we cannot resolve.” Other Bible commentators express themselves similarly.
Could the event mentioned in these two verses have indeed been the beginning of the resurrection of the dead of which Jesus spoke as recorded at John 5:28, 29? No, for Jesus said that all those in the memorial tombs would come forth either to a resurrection of life or to a resurrection of judgment. Since the account says that these were “saints” or “holy ones,” they would have been raised to a resurrection of life. Were they? Hardly, or they would still be living today, even as Jesus has kept on living since his resurrection to life.—Rev. 1:18.
That is why we read that “Christ has been raised up from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep in death.” “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that he might become the one who is first in all things.” These holy ones, therefore, could not have been resurrected with the prospect of endless life before Jesus was.—1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18.
They could not even have been resurrected to life right after Jesus was, as suggested by some, because Paul shows that the Christian holy ones will be resurrected and receive their reward “in that day,” when “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a commanding call, with an archangel’s voice and with God’s trumpet.” Paul did not even write this until many years after Jesus had been resurrected, and it was to be fulfilled far in the future.—2 Tim. 4:8; 1 Thess. 4:16.
Then could it be that these were pre-Christian holy ones, destined for life, not in heaven, but on earth? If so, they still could not have received their resurrection at the time Jesus did, because Paul wrote regarding them: “All these, although they had witness borne to them through their faith, did not get the fulfillment of the promise, as God foresaw something better for us, in order that they might not be made perfect apart from us.” Had these been resurrected to life then, they would have been made perfect apart from “us,” the Christian holy ones.—Heb. 11:39, 40.
NO BODILY RESURRECTION
Besides, nowhere in the Scriptures do we read that the bodies of the dead will be raised up; even though the so-called Apostles’ Creed does teach the resurrection of the human body. The “dead,” yes, but not the “dead bodies.” Dead persons will be resurrected in God’s due time, and they will be given a suitable body; they will have the same personality. Note the clear reasoning of the apostle Paul on this matter in regard to the resurrection of the Christian holy ones: “‘How are the dead to be raised up? Yes, with what kind of body are they coming?’ . . . What you sow is not made alive unless first it dies; and as for what you sow, you sow, not the body that will develop, but a bare grain, . . . but God gives it a body just as it has pleased him . . . So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption, it is raised up in incorruption. . . . It is sown a physical body, it is raised up a spiritual body. . . . flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom, neither does corruption inherit incorruption.”—1 Cor. 15:35-38, 42-44, 50.
Since the Bible does not teach the raising of the human body in either the first resurrection or in the one to follow, the fact that bodies here were raised would prove that it could not have been the beginning of either of these resurrections. At the most it would be merely a temporary resurrection of some faithful Jews who quite likely had recently died. Their resurrection, therefore, would not have been any different from the resurrection experienced by Jesus’ friend Lazarus and others like him.
But even this supposition must be ruled out in view of these questions: If the graves were opened up when Jesus died, why did the bodies of the holy ones have to wait until after Jesus was resurrected to come out of the tombs and appear to many? There was an earthquake when Jesus was raised; why could they not have waited for it? To whom did these bodies appear? Was their resurrection in competition with that of Jesus, who appeared on the third day to his disciples? What was the purpose of their appearance? What did they call attention to or talk about? Did their resurrection enhance or add anything to that of Jesus or prove a verification of his resurrection? How is it that such an unusual event is not mentioned elsewhere in the Christian Greek Scriptures? Besides, why did not the apostle Paul call attention to their resurrection in his argument, at First Corinthians 15, that there is a resurrection of the dead? If many had been resurrected and seen by many, such would have been common knowledge and Paul would have mentioned the fact.
A reasonable solution to this problem is given by the rendering of the verses in question in the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures. While a literal translation, it puts clarity of thought ahead of literalness. It reads: “And the memorial tombs were opened and many bodies of the holy ones that had fallen asleep were thrown up, (and persons, coming out from among the memorial tombs after his being raised up, entered into the holy city,) and they became visible to many people.” From this translation it is evident that this was no resurrection of “sleeping saints” but merely a throwing of bodies out of their tombs by the earthquake that attended Jesus’ death.
Nor is the New World Translation alone in rendering these verses thus. A modern German translation reads quite similarly: “Tombs were laid open, and many bodies of those buried were tossed upright. In this posture they projected from the graves and were seen by many who passed by the place on their way back to the city.”—Matt. 27:52, 53.
An incident quite similar to this took place in Ecuador in 1949. There the dead are usually buried in large burial vaults, shelf upon shelf and vault upon vault. An earthquake cracked open these vaults, ejecting many dead bodies, which had to be buried at once to prevent a plague from breaking out.
What is the basis for these renderings? First of all, let it be noted that the pronoun “they” (Matt. 27:53, RS) could not refer to the “bodies,” because all pronouns in the Greek have gender and “they” is in the masculine, whereas “bodies” is in the neuter gender. Nor could “they” refer to the “holy ones,” for the text does not say that the holy ones were raised but merely that their bodies were raised or thrown up. Further, even the most ancient manuscripts are not in agreement with one another as to the reading of this text. The Sinaitic omits the words “and the memorial tombs were opened” and “entered.”
In view of all the questions that these texts raise, their contradictory reading and the variations in them found in the most ancient manuscripts, another alternative may not be ruled out altogether. And what is that? That these verses were not written by Matthew himself but added by an early copying hand. This position seems to find further support in the fact that the particular Greek word for “resurrection” (RS) used here, égersis, occurs nowhere else in the Christian Greek Scriptures. Also, here is the only use of the expression “the saints,” “holy ones,” in all the Gospels, it first appearing after Pentecost. The fact that these verses are found in the apocryphal Gospel of the Nazarenes but not in any of the other canonical Gospels further makes these verses suspect. Incidentally, this Gospel by the Nazarenes was held by some to have been Matthew’s original Gospel in Hebrew, which he later translated into Greek. It resembles his canonical Gospel quite closely except that it begins without the genealogy.
We cannot escape it, verses 52 and 53 of Matthew, chapter 27, are ambiguous. In fact, they are among the most difficult verses to translate of the entire Christian Greek Scriptures. Because of their ambiguity no one can dogmatically state just how they should be rendered. What governs the translation of texts such as these where there is an ambiguity in the original text therefore is not textual criticism, because it is frustrated by the ambiguity. Rather, exegesis, or Bible interpretation of the meaning intended by the original writer, will have to govern. The way each translator would therefore render such texts would depend upon his understanding of the rest of the Scriptures. The Scriptural facts above set out dictate how they must be rendered to be consistent with the rest of the Bible.