Shea has posted a great quote from Don Carson defending St Peter (and the other apostles and NT writers) from the charge of “indefensible proof-texting” and “exegetical sleight-of-hand” in their handling of the Old Testament.
This is as good an excuse as any to post another piece of masterful exegesis from Carson, one which I’ve been meaning to post since June 2004 but never quite got round to it. It’s Carson’s analysis of that notoriously “difficult” text, Matthew 27:51-53:
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 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.
Here is how Carson tackles this puzzling passage, in his Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Matthew:
J.W.Wenham … has convincingly argued that a full stop should be placed, not after “split” (v.51), but after “broke open” (v.52) [Note: the ESV, above, follows Wenham here. Contrast the NRSV and NIV]. The tearing of the veil and the opening of the tombs together symbolize the first of twin foci in Jesus’ death and resurrection. On the one hand, Jesus’ sacrificial death blots out sin, defeats the powers of evil and death, and opens up access to God. On the other, Jesus’ victorious resurrection and vindication promise the final resurrection of those who die in him.
The resurrection of ‘the holy people’ begins a new sentence and is tied up only with Jesus’ resurrection. So Matthew does not intend his readers to think that these ‘holy people’ were resurrected when Jesus died and then waited in their tombs till Easter Sunday before showing themselves. The idea is a trifle absurd anyway: there is no more reason to think they were impeded by material substance than was the resurrected Lord, the covering rock of whose grave was removed to let the witnesses in, not to let him out. The ‘holy people’ were raised, came out of the tombs, and were seen by many after Jesus rose from the dead. There is no need to connect the earthquake and the breaking open of the tombs with the rising of ‘the holy people’: the two foci must be differentiated.
On several details we are told little. For instance, it is unclear whether the resurrection of ‘the holy people’ was to natural bodies (cf. Lazarus) or to supernatural bodies. The latter is perhaps more likely; and in that case they did not return to the tombs, and their rising testifies that the Last Day had dawned. Where they ultimately went Matthew does not say. Were they ‘translated’? Nor does he tell us who they were; but the language implies, though it does not prove, that they were certainly well-known OT and intertestamental Jewish ‘saints’, spiritual heroes and martyrs in Israel’s history (cf. the terminology in Isa.4:3; Dan.7:18; Tobit 8:15;1 Enoch).
As an aside, if Matthew is reporting the resurrection and translation into heaven of “many” Old Testament saints, then this makes the experiences of Enoch and Elijah far from exceptional. This in turn provides support for believing (though as a matter of “pious opinion”, not doctrine) that the Blessed Virgin Mary also experienced this early resurrection and translation into heaven at her death, since the “If them then why not her?” argument becomes almost unanswerable. I don’t expect Carson would accept that conclusion, however!