Don Carson on Matthew 27:51-53

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).

Great stuff.

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!

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21 Responses to Don Carson on Matthew 27:51-53

  1. Andy M says:

    John, are you serious about Mary?!? How is the “If them then why not her” argument unanswerable? My answer would be “well, why her?”

  2. John H says:

    Andy: if Enoch, Elijah and other OT saints could be resurrected and translated within history rather than at the end of history, then at the very least we can say it would be fitting and consistent for the same treatment to be given to her whom all generations will call blessed.

    Against that we could argue that what Matthew describes is an eschatological event. These OT saints were being raised, not because God thought it would be a nice thing to do, but as a sign that Jesus’ resurrection was the firstfruits of the resurrection of all flesh at the end of time. The resurrection of Mary would not then have the same eschatological significance.

    More generally, one big problem with discussing the assumption of Mary is that the Roman Catholic dogmatization of the teaching by papal decree has polarised the whole issue, as have the additional RC teachings of the coronation of Mary as queen of heaven and so on.

    But the assumption of Mary (that is, her immediate resurrection and translation) is an event that either happened or didn’t. And since Scripture is silent on the topic, there is no inherent reason why evangelical Christians should insist that it didn’t happen. Indeed, the likes of Luther and (I believe) Calvin did believe it had happened, though as a “pious opinion” and not as something taught by Scripture and hence necessary for salvation.

    Personally I have no idea whatever whether Mary underwent that resurrection and translation, but equally I do not see why evangelicals should be actively hostile to the notion (as opposed to the attempt to proclaim it as dogma on the basis of papal infallibility, or the use of it as the basis for turning Mary into the “queen of heaven” and someone to whom we should pray and on whom we should rely).

  3. Phil Walker says:

    I do not see why evangelicals should be actively hostile to the notion

    Because we’re good ol’-time-religion Bible Christians who disbelieve anything that ain’t writ in the Bible. Duh. 😉

  4. Rick Ritchie says:

    Since God has the “technique” available, why not use it for her?

    To be more serious, the broader concept of Jesus as fulfillment of the Old Testament makes many of these problems less problematic. This is missed when we see this as a bunch of individual prophecies to be fulfilled, and try to create a new apologetic defense for each one.

    I can bring a skeptic’s mind to many of the passages, and find many of the defenses wanting, when I look at these as individual cases. Many prophecies don’t look like prophecies at all. But if Jesus is a Second David, that is a different story. Jesus may be fulfilling the role, whether or not it is obvious that there is a prophecy in the given text.

  5. Lito Cruz says:

    I think one can keep on conjecturing about Mary but in the end, it becomes an argument from silence and not safe.

    One has to go beyond possibilities, for anything is possible with God, why of course! Of course, he do it for Mary for he can do anything possible (which is an infinite set BTW).

    The question is – has the possible become actual?

    The burden of proof is for those who claim that she bodily arose, and evangelicals have a fair question to make, what is proof of that? It is a fair intuitionistic question. Further, it is also not interesting to simply posit something is possible.

    I am seeing a connection of such type of RC’s reasoning an appeal to Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem , the notion that there are some things that are true but there are no “proofs” for them.

    I hope to post on this one day.


  6. Andy M says:

    John, interesting idea (well, only kind of), but in the end it’s really a bit of a waste of breath isn’t it? You may be right that there is no inherent reason why evangelical Christians should insist that it didn’t happen, but there’s equally no inherent reason why it did happen. Why is the quesiton even up for discussion to begin with, other than that the Catholics have made an issue of it?

    I’m not sure that I, as an evangelical, am actively hostile to the notion so much as actively hostile to the fact the fact there is even discussion about the notion to begin with (does that make sense??). (Having said that, it seems I’ve now joined said discussion … 😉 )

    Bottom line: who really cares? Scripture is silent so it’s complete conjecture not to mention utterly unimportant.

  7. John H says:

    Why is the quesiton even up for discussion to begin with, other than that the Catholics have made an issue of it?

    Because it was a pretty-well universally-accepted belief of the pre-Reformation church, not just something that “the Catholics have made an issue of”. And the concern of the (conservative) Reformation was to remove from the church erroneous practices and beliefs, not to start with a blank slate and an open Bible and reinvent Christianity from scratch.

    On one level it doesn’t matter, but on another Mariology and Christology have been intimately linked throughout church history. Minimalism regarding Mary tends to be associated with an anaemic view of the Incarnation. And I find myself wondering if behind hostility to the very idea of Mary’s assumption lurks a certain embarrassment at the notion of bodily resurrection. So asking questions about Mary is not merely an academic exercise.

    Plus there is a benefit in terms of improving mutual understanding between Christians, as we come to understand more clearly what the actual point of disagreement is between us and our RC brothers and sisters. If any mention of Mary’s assumption gets us snorting with derision and saying “who cares?”, we’ll never get to the point of identifying the real point of difference: which isn’t about what happened to Mary at the end of her life, but about the papal claims to infallible authority.

    And as a final question: do you respond as strongly when people start considering the equally conjectural and unimportant question of whether Joseph had died by the time Jesus started his earthly ministry? Are you “actively hostile” to discussion of the notion of whether St Peter was martyred by being crucified upside-down in Rome? Or as to whether St Paul actually made it to Spain or not? Christians ask lots of these questions about things traditionally believed but on which Scripture is silent, so why should it be the questions about Mary that are to be ruled out of bounds?

  8. Lito Cruz says:

    But asking a question about Joseph or what not does not entitle an answer, God has chosen not to reveal those information to us, correct?

    For example even if scholars believe that Peter was martyred crucified upside down, what spiritual significance are we to derive from it?

    Any discussion past justification with my RC friends are interesting but if we can not even go from square 1, I doubt if there is any progress. To follow Luther, you can get many things in the Bible right, but if we miss the central doctrine, all else is error. I think this is the reason why you won’t see very many Lutheran apologetic ministries. Most apologetics have centred on JBFA and nothing has moved since Trent and the Lutheran writings remain effective and relevant still today.


  9. John H says:

    Lito: I agree re Joseph and Peter – indeed, that was partly my point – but I still don’t see that this rules the topics out of court as a matter for thought and discussion.

    Good point about the reason for the lack of “Lutheran apologists”.

  10. Rick Ritchie says:

    Lito’s approach is a good solid philosophical approach. It’s how we test most ideas in the modern world, when we’re careful. But the world of Scripture is a world of a layered text. Part of what we get in the layerings is examples of how to read. Jesus would correct misreadings with the words, “Have you not read?”.

    When it comes to Mary, my question would be, does saying she was probably assumed to heaven match the right methods of reading for other parts of Jesus’ life?

    Well, for Jesus as Second Adam or Second David, it doesn’t. For differing reasons, we don’t hear of their mothers.

    The “Queen of Heaven” readings at least have being typological in their favor. But the idea of what a “Queen of heaven” is seems to come from elsewhere than the Bible. But when I search for the phrase in the Bible, I run into Jeremiah 44. Burning incense to the Queen of heaven got Israel into a lot of trouble.

  11. John D says:

    I wholly agree with Lito.

    I may not be as actively hostile to talk of Peter’s crucifixion, etc. as I am to Mary’s assumption, but in principle I disavow entertaining theological beliefs apart from what has been revealed by God. All of your examples are equally speculative, but unlike the other examples you mention, the Assumption has full and repeated papal backing, and unlike the other examples you mention, the Assumption is often bound with other speculative beliefs. The issues may be a matter for thought and discussion, but we should never consider accepting them as true – on what basis would we do so? (Though I do not believe an opinion can be pious, and I believe that all theological speculation is sin.)

  12. Phil Walker says:

    John (D), a pious opinion is a belief along the lines of, “The Bible doesn’t say anything explicitly, but on the basis of what fits in with its story, I’m inclined to think…” For instance, CS Lewis’ notion that in the eternal state we will look back on this life as those who have awoken from a dream (it’s, erm, somewhere in Mere Christianity I guess) is a “pious opinion”; so is the suggestion I mentioned here regarding the twin descriptions of hell as being fiery hot and darkly cold. Neither is provable from Scripture, but both comport soundly with Scripture’s general teaching. Rick’s quite right that this notion of Mary’s assumption into heaven just doesn’t match up well. It could have happened, but it doesn’t “fit”, so it’s not terribly convincing as a pious opinion.

    Oh, and because I can’t helping being somewhat Puckish, is your view that “all theological speculation is sin” derived from Scripture, or is it a “pious opinion”? 🙂

  13. Andy M says:

    John, no embarrassment about the bodily resurrection from my end. One of the most beautiful and treasured things I believe in. And I 100% believe Mary will be bodily resurrected at the end with the rest of us. I have absolutely no reason at all to think she already has been.

    And yes, I would respond as strongly re the Joseph and Peter questions etc. Again, it really doesn’t matter. We have no reason to think one thing or another happened as scripture is silent. Yeah, OK, discuss it as a general point of interest like one might discuss other debated and uncertain historical events, but don’t convert it into a doctrine and definitely don’t make it intimately linked to our Christology.

  14. Josh S says:

    I disbelieve the Assumption because it’s a myth with no foundation in 1st century history. Plausibility does not establish fact.
    Because it was a pretty-well universally-accepted belief of the pre-Reformation church
    It most certainly was not. The pre-Reformation church includes the church of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries, and it was most certainly not a universal belief in those centuries. After all, if it’s a universal belief, why build her a tomb? Historical fact is not established by the popular mythology of a people living a millennium after the supposed event.

    I follow a certain rule of thumb: If a miracle story only comes to light a century or more after it supposedly happened, it didn’t happen.

  15. John H says:

    Josh: fair point, though as regards the tomb of Mary I gather the EOs (at least) believe Mary did actually die and was then resurrected and assumed into heaven (hence they call the event “the Dormition”).

    But in any event we are still in the realms of “things that either happened or didn’t happen”, not in the realms of “things of which the very idea, nay, even the very discussion of the idea, should fill all right-thinking Christians with abhorrence”.

  16. John D says:

    Phil Walker,

    Yes: a pious opinion, as you describe it, is what I reject. I think that someone is unwarranted in believing something which God has not revealed, as when someone believes that Jesus was six feet tall and had brown eyes. But it’s no big deal–I’m not nearly convincing enough to persuade someone to likewise reject pious opinions.

    Of course, I hope my belief regarding theological speculation is from scripture. I’d turn to Matthew 12:36 first, then 1 Timothy 4:6-10. Next would be Hosea, for the book (and, later, the Violent Femmes in Lack of Knowledge 1:16-24) talks about the consequences of lacking, rejecting, and feigning knowledge. As corroboration, I’d bring in Romans 1:28, 10:2-3, Galatians 3:1, 4, Matthew 22:29, 2 Peter 1:3, and 1 Corinthians 1:21, 2:14, 15:34. Something like that.

  17. Lito Cruz says:

    matter for thought and discussion I agree but how should one go about doing this?

    For the Prots matter for thought and discussion should be guided by Scripture.

    For RCs matter for thought and discussion may be guided by Tradition or Scripture such as statements coming from say the NT Apocrypha. There are legends about Christian characters, they may be historically accurate. Yet what of it?

    It depends on how far one goes with it, in fact it may be distracting too.

    I have now written something on the fact that “there are things true in this universe but we have no proof of them” – ie Godel’s 1st Incompleteness Theorem and Religious Assertions.

  18. Phil Walker says:

    John D, did Jesus play games as a child? References to Hebrews 4:15 and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas are disallowed. 😉

    I didn’t follow a one of your verses, but I’d say that your best shot might be to look up every instance where a Biblical writer is interacting with a “pious opinion” that was obviously current (e.g., John 21:23). All such occasions of which I can think off-hand (not many, admittedly) involve the writer denying the popular claim.

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  20. Joe says:

    The whole passage is the biggest dagger in the heart of christianity. If other tombs opened and other dead walked the streets, what’s so special about jesus and his ressurection? Most chrisitians actually say this passage is that i would answer, how do we know the whole story of jesus’s resurrection isnt just metaphorical?
    We don’t need superstitious, religions mumbo jumbo anymore. our species has grown up and knows so much more through science. lets forget these bronze age myths.

  21. james fletcher says:

    people,there are many things we can not explain to every ones satisfaction. both we christians,and the muslims believe in jesuss virgin birth and two different versions of his subsequent return.keep this in mind,combined our two faiths far out number the atheiste,the skeptics and unbelievers.,because both groups have faith. there is far too much evidence to not believe in jesuss ressurection and too many miracles done by his power since then. you may say but you were not there but neither were you. higher education systems of thought,science,philosophy,etc. have a belief system whether they know it or not because when you step over into origins of the world you have just stepped into religion as you call it. it matters that jesus rose from the grave and that there is a god in charge who we are accountable to so dont let intellectual pride blind you to the truth. there is room in heaven for you to if you will come to the cross,but be aware this is a limited time do not have an unlimited amount of time to decide if you believe in the undisputable facts of his ressurection,but step inside,the door is open.

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