What do the church fathers say about Matthew 27? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
Norman Geisler has come to picture obsession to the extreme. For years now, he’s been harping on Matthew 27 and really, not producing anything new. In all this time, he could have gone out and read Burridge on why the Gospels are Greco-Roman Bioi or gone to the best scholarly monographs he could find on the passage in Matthew 27, but instead, he just wants to repeat the same material.
So now he’s gone to the church fathers. Now I’m sure we’ll all agree that while the church fathers have authority, they are not the final authority. What matters most is what the Scripture says. Still, it would be foolish to just dismiss all the church fathers. Their views should be taken seriously.
But do they really agree with Geisler?
Let’s start with Geisler’s citation of Ignatius’s epistle to the Trallians.
What does the text supposedly say?
“For Says the Scripture, ‘Many bodies of the saints that slept arose,’ their graves being opened. He descended, indeed, into Hades alone, but He arose accompanied by a multitude” (chap.Ix, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. I, p. 70).
Why do I say supposedly?
Because there are two versions of the epistle. There is the shorter version and the longer version. Most scholars consider the longer version to be spurious.
So let’s go to chapter 9 of the shorter version. What do we see?
9:1 Be ye deaf, therefore, when any one speaketh unto you apart from Jesus Christ, who is of the race of David, who was born of Mary, who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died, in the sight of the things that are in heaven and on earth and under the earth;
9:2 and was truly raised from the dead, his Father having raised him up; according to the similitude of which also his Father shall raise up us who believe in him in Christ Jesus, apart from whom we have not the true life.
Why was the spurious version cited? Why is this not pointed out?
Either A) Geisler does not know and this is an error of ignorance that calls the research ability high into question
or B) It is known and is ignored, in which case facts are being ignored to suit an agenda.
I think it’s best to be generous and go with A.
Let’s now look at the epistle to the Magnesians.
According to Geisler.
“…[T]herefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master—how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher? And therefore He who they rightly waited for, being come, raised them from the dead”[Chap. IX] (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. I (1885). Reprinted by Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, p. 62. Emphasis added in all these citations).
While some connect this to Matthew 27, nothing in the context demands it. Further, what does it mean, “When he came?” Nothing is said about the death of Jesus or about opening of the tombs. It could be referring to Matthew 27, but the text does not demand it.
The next statements are from the lost fragments of Irenaeus. The problem is many scholars consider these lost fragments to be spurious. Once again, the problem is the same as in the first citing of the epistle of Ignatius.
Next is Clement of Alexandria. What do we have from Geisler?
“‘But those who had fallen asleep descended dead, but ascended alive.’ Further, the Gospel says, ‘that many bodies of those that slept arose,’—plainly as having been translated to a better state”(Alexander Roberts, ed. Stromata, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. II, chap. VI, 491).
But what do we find earlier?
But how? Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept in ward and guard? And it has been shown also, in the second book of the Stromata, that the apostles, following the Lord, preached the Gospel to those in Hades. For it was requisite, in my opinion, that as here, so also there, the best of the disciples should be imitators of the Master; so that He should bring to repentance those belonging to the Hebrews, and they the Gentiles; that is, those who had lived in righteousness according to the Law and Philosophy, who had ended life not perfectly, but sinfully. For it was suitable to the divine administration, that those possessed of greater worth in righteousness, and whose life had been pre-eminent, on repenting of their transgressions, though found in another place, yet being confessedly of the number of the people of God Almighty, should be saved, each one according to his individual knowledge.
So a question.
Does Geisler think the apostles went and preached the Gospel to those in Hades? If not, why not? If so, on what grounds since this is a testimony centuries later?
Now of course, it could be that Clement really sees the resurrection of the saints as historical and that must be taken into consideration, but it is not the final authority.
Next comes Tertullian. What does Geisler quote?
“’And the sun grew dark at mid-day;’ (and when did it ‘shudder exceedingly’ except at the passion of Christ, when the earth trembled to her centre, and the veil of the temple was rent, and the tombs burst asunder?) ‘because these two evils hath My People done’” (Alexander Roberts, ed. An Answer to the Jews, Chap XIII, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, 170).
An obvious problem here is all it says is that the tombs burst open. That could easily happen in an earthquake. There is no mention of saints coming out. Now Geisler could say is that Tertullian did fully have in mind that scene, but that would be claiming to know authorial intent, which he says cannot be known.
Next he says this about Hippolytus
“And again he exclaims, ‘The dead shall start forth from the graves,’ that is, from the earthly bodies, being born again spiritual, not carnal. For this he says, is the Resurrection that takes place through the gate of heaven, through which, he says, all those that do not enter remain dead” (Alexander Roberts, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, The Refutation of All Heresy, BooK V, chap. 3, p. 54). The editor of the Ante-Nicene Fathers footnotes this as a reference to the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27:52, 53 (in Note 6, p. 54.), as indeed it is.
But is it indeed? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. Could it not refer to the future resurrection, especially since it is also in the future tense? Of course, it could refer to Matthew 27, but must it do so necessarily?
What about Origen?
Now to this question, although we are able to show the striking and miraculous character of the events which befell Him, yet from what other source can we furnish an answer than the Gospel narratives, which state that ‘there was an earth quake, and that the rock were split asunder, and the tombs were opened, and the veil of the temple was rent in twain from top to bottom, an the darkness prevailed in the day-time, the sun failing to give light’”
Once again, the tombs are open, but there’s no mention of saints getting out and walking around. Again, Geisler cannot appeal to anything else here because he says we can’t know authorial intent.
Geisler also goes to chapter 36. What does the chapter say in that work?
Celsus next says: What is the nature of the ichor in the body of the crucified Jesus? Is it ‘such as flows in the bodies of the immortal gods?’ He puts this question in a spirit of mockery; but we shall show from the serious narratives of the Gospels, although Celsus may not like it, that it was no mythic and Homeric ichor which flowed from the body of Jesus, but that, after His death, one of the soldiers with a spear pierced His side, and there came thereout blood and water. And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true, and he knows that he says the truth. Now, in other dead bodies the blood congeals, and pure water does not flow forth; but the miraculous feature in the case of the dead body of Jesus was, that around the dead body blood and water flowed forth from the side. But if this Celsus, who, in order to find matter of accusation against Jesus and the Christians, extracts from the Gospel even passages which are incorrectly interpreted, but passes over in silence the evidences of the divinity of Jesus, would listen to divine portents, let him read the Gospel, and see that even the centurion, and they who with him kept watch over Jesus, on seeing the earthquake, and the events that occurred, were greatly afraid, saying, This man was the Son of God.
Again, no mention here. Strange isn’t it?
For Cyril, I see no reason to doubt that this is referring to Matthew 27 and this must be taken seriously, but it is also about 300 years after the event.
Next is Gregory of Nazianzus.
“He [Christ] lays down His life, but He has the power to take it again; and the veil rent, for the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened;5 the rocks are cleft, the dead arise. He dies but he gives life, and by His death destroys death. He is buried, but He rises again. He goes down to Hell, but He brings up the souls; He ascends to Heaven, and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead, and to put to the test such words are yours” (Schaff, ibid., vol. VII, Sect XX, p. 309).
This could indeed be a reference to Matthew 27, but it could also have in mind a passage like Ephesians 4. Mike Licona would want to know how this would work with Jesus being the firstfruits of the resurrection. If Jesus is the first to rise in a new and glorified body, how is it that these saints arise in such a body before Jesus? It is a question Geisler needs to take seriously.
We have no beef really with what is said later by the early fathers, but it’s worth noting that the earliest references possible to this do not mention it. In fact, this could be along the lines of what some scholars would say is legendary development. I’m not saying that it is, although we all do know legends did arise around Jesus. That does not mean that they are found in the Gospels of course. Gnostic Gospels and such contained stories about Jesus we would call legends. In fact, some of our Christmas tradition comes from the Proto-Evangelium of James. (Not really a Gnostic Gospel, but rather something that could have been seen as Christian fiction.) It is doubtful that Geisler thinks Jesus struck down bullies with death as a child or extended the length of planks of wood for his Dad or brought clay pigeons to life, but these are accounts found in other works and at times, even some Christians got confused.
We conclude that there is still much research to be done on this question but let it be known the difference. When a question like this is raised, it is better to debate the question without settling it, than it is to settle it without debating. We prefer the former. Geisler seems to prefer the latter.