This is a guest post by Michael J. Alter. Michael has published eight books including The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (2015), Why the Torah Begins with the Letter Beit (1998), and What Is the Purpose of Creation: A Jewish Anthology (1991). The Resurrection is a scholarly work that refutes Jesus’s purported physical, bodily resurrection and those writings in support of it. Altogether one hundred contradictions and 217 speculations are examined. He has also appeared on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? show debating the topic of Jesus’s resurrection. Alter is currently working on a researched series dealing with theological controversies between Judaism and Christianity.
This article will be examining two facts claimed about Jesus’s resurrection (just in Matthew) to see what they can tell us about the reliability of the Gospels. The first topic deals with the issue of topography and the temple’s veils. Two veils existed when the temple stood, an inner and outer veil. These veils separated the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies. Nonetheless, it doesn’t matter which one Matthew was referring to.
Problem 1: ripping of the temple veil
When Jesus died, Matthew 27:51 states “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn from the top to bottom.” The pertinent question is, Could the centurion view the tearing of the temple’s veil? According to the author of Matthew (27:54), after Jesus died on the cross, the centurion made a specific declaration:
When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” [NIV]
Matthew’s narrative suggests that the centurion, and perhaps others standing on Golgotha, saw the tearing of the temple’s veil. So could either of the temple’s veils be seen from Golgotha, the site of Jesus’s crucifixion? The answer is a resounding NO! As a matter of fact, numerous Christian commentators acknowledge this contradiction (Brown 1994, 2:1145-46; France 2007, 1083; Hagner 1995, 852). Gundry (1993, 970), succinctly addresses the problem: “Since the traditional site of Golgotha lies to the west end of the temple whereas only the east end was veiled (not to mention intervening obstacles to view), either tradition has misplaced Golgotha or the centurion’s seeing of the veil-rending lacks historical substance.” In other words, this purported event recorded in Matthew is an alternative fact.
Problem 2: zombies
It must be asked, what were “all that had happened”? Matthew 27:51-53 provides its readers with the information.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn from the top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. [NIV]
Earlier, in verse 45, the author also recorded “Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land.” Therefore for a period of three hours, the land became dark. Commentators speculate on the meaning of the phrase “over all the land.” I will not address that issue.
The problem that is extensively discussed in the literature deals with the claim that “the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” My book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, devotes thirteen pages to that topic (Issue 13, Contradictions #16-17; Speculations #27-29). Rather that go through a detailed analysis, let me quote several well-known and respected Christian commentators:
Dale C. Allison [Pittsburgh Theological Seminary] (2005, 127): “Mt 27:51-53 is a religious yarn spawned by the same source that gave us the legend of the seven sleepers of Ephesus and other transparent fictions—the human imagination. It may communicate theology; it does not preserve history.”
Hugh Anderson [former Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology, New College, Edinburgh] (1965, 45) “What we have here is surely not a historical note, but a theological reminiscence.”
Craig A. Evans [Houston Baptist University] (2001, 227): “Not only do we have late and obvious fictions, but in the transmission of the texts of the gospels themselves we are able to observe the infiltration of pious legends and embellishment…”
Donald A Hagner [Fuller Theological Seminary] (1995, 851-852) “…this passage is a piece of theology set for as history.”
Ulrich Luz [Swiss theologian and professor emeritus at the University of Bern] (2005, 587): “This is no historical report; it is a polemical legend told by Christians for Christians or, more precisely, a fiction largely created by Matthew for his readers.”
Some conservative Christian apologists rigorously criticized Michael R. Licona, a noted New Testament scholar and apologist. Why the controversy? His 2010 book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, suggests the possibility that his account of the resurrected saints reported in Matthew 27 might be “apocalyptic imagery”. That topic is beyond the scope of this essay, but readers are encouraged to further examine on the Internet the controversy. (More on Mike Licona’s “heresy” and what it means for objective scholarship here.)
Going forward, the important take away message is the necessity to critically examine the Christian Bible and the claims made by commentators and apologists. A substantial body of material exists in the literature written by Christian commentators and apologists (and former Christians) that refute the belief that Jesus experienced a physical, bodily resurrection. However, in reality, it is beyond the means of lay people to go to a Christian seminary and examine the voluminous writings on this topic.
Recently, the opinion was offered that there exist facts and alternative facts. Almost two thousand years ago, an alternative fact was presented to the people of that day that Jesus rose from the dead three days following his crucifixion. Alternative facts were also offered that detailed events that preceded his purported resurrection. Today, those alternative facts still exist. Believers may wish to accept those alternative facts. However, alternative facts are not facts. Alternative facts are nothing more than alternative facts.
Knowledge is power. This phrase is often attributed to Francis Bacon, in his Meditations Sacrae (1597). In reality, it is correct knowledge and information that is the key for real power. With Easter soon approaching, the topic of Jesus’s purported resurrection and the events surrounding that event are current and relevant. The question that must be asked is whether or not the accounts recorded in the Christian Bible can withstand a critical inquiry?
In closing, real knowledge and real facts are power. Do not let those with alternative facts, supposed “knowledge” and with impressive degrees such as a Ph.D. or Th.D. intimidate and mislead those with insufficient knowledge to refute the claim that Jesus experienced a physical, bodily resurrection.
There is not enough love and goodness in the world
to permit giving any of it away to imaginary beings.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Allison, Dale C. 2005. “Explaining the Resurrection: Conflicting Convictions.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 3(2): 117-33.
Anderson, Hugh. 1965. “The Easter Witness of the Evangelists.” In The New Testament in Historical and Contemporary Perspective. Essays in Memory of G. H. C. Macgregor, edited by Hugh Anderson and William Barclay, 35-55. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Brown, Raymond E. 1994. The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave. Volume 2. New York: Doubleday.
Evans, Craig A. 2001. Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
France, R. T. 2007. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Gundry, Robert H. 1993. Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Hagner, Donald. A. 1995. Word Biblical Commentary Volume 33b, Matthew 14-28. Dallas, Texas: Word Book.
Licona, Michael R. 2010. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.
Luz, Ulrich. 2005. Matthew. 21-28. Translated by Rosemary Selle. Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress.