At the end of October we celebrate (?) one of the strangest folk observances of our annual calendar. Coming on October 31, as it does, the custom has become associated with All Saints Day in the Catholic traditions. All Saints Day, in the West falling on November 1, is a church celebration in honor of all the saints who have passed on; it is followed on November 2 by All Souls Day, a day of solemn prayer for all the dead. These holy days in honor of the dead effectively render October 31 as All Hallows Eve—from which we get the name “Halloween.”
The roots of Halloween have been associated with a number of ancient traditions: the ancient Roman celebration of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds; the Roman festival of the dead, called Parentalia; and most closely with the Celtic festival of Samhain. The major focus of Halloween, as we know it, seems to have evolved out of the superstitious and dark side of the human soul—so costumes largely feature such mythical creatures as monsters, vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, walking skeletons, witches, and devils. Today we relegate such supernatural creatures to the realm of fantasy, myth, fairy tale, and fiction—at least most of us do. In the bright light of day it is easy to be a rational human being, but in a dark empty room in the late evening when the hair on the back of your neck stands up at a sudden sensation of an unseen nearby presence, we may have second thoughts. In the distant past, however, before critical thinking became widespread through public education, such creatures were regarded as real entities that could actually do harm, and people relied on certain protections against them—prayer being one. And today not everyone, even in America, possesses the liberating knowledge that these creatures are merely fictional characters, figments of our dark side.
The Bible is surely one reason that people are still uneasy about such mythical creatures, since it reinforces human superstition at many points. For example, the gospel writer we call Matthew apparently believed that dead people could come out of their graves and go on a walk about (Matthew 27:51-54). It is a strange story (appearing only in Matthew) but Matthew tells it graphically like an actual historical occurrence (as opposed to a symbolic or legendary story). Except for one phrase in 27:53, “after his raising,” Matthew describes the incident as if it were happening simultaneously with the death of Jesus (27:50, 54). The phrase in Matthew 27:53, however, effectively throws the event forward some three days or so (in Matthew’s chronology) to a time following the raising of Jesus (Matthew 28). The effect of this chronological leap forward is that it associates the report with the Christian myth of the “harrowing of hell” or the “descent into Hades,” when Jesus at his death descends into Hades to free those dead saints who have been in Hades awaiting release. Vestiges of the myth are found in the New Testament (Eph 4:8-9; 1 Pet 3:18-19), but it is fully developed in the post New Testament period. The phrase in Matthew 27:53 may be due to a later editing of Matthew’s gospel, since the incident as a whole seems clearly to go with the death of Jesus and not with his resurrection. So what do we say about Matthew’s sense of history as reflected in this story?
It appears to originate in a superstition that dead people can rise and walk. A description similar to Matthew’s story is found in Ezekiel’s description of the people of Israel in the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:12-14). The Lord says: “I will open your graves…and place you in your own land.” Matthew’s description of “tombs opening in an earthquake” (compare Matthew 28:1-2) and “bodies of dead saints being raised” (compare Matthew 28:9), and “the saints coming out of the tombs and walking about in the holy city” is a very graphic account. Not even Paul, however, would describe the raising of Jesus as Matthew describes the raising of the saints. (Paul insists that Jesus rose with a “spiritual body,” not a physical body; see 1 Corinthians 15:42-57.) Matthew’s report could be an early Christian legend (a non-historical traditional story told for the purpose of encouraging faith). And that is exactly what Matthew’s report did for the centurion and the soldiers (Matthew 27:54); the “event” confirmed for them (and for Matthew) the identity of Jesus as “son of God.” But dead bodies actually coming out of their tombs and walking about Jerusalem around 3 pm in the afternoon (Matthew 27:46) seriously strains credulity for a post-Enlightenment thinker. In order to think of the incident as “history” a 21st century reader will have to “suspend disbelief,” something we do with all ghost stories—in a sense we simply ignore the incredulous aspects of the report. We know that the dead cannot come out of their tombs and wander about the city, no matter how serious the earthquake—or do we know that?
Has Matthew given us a kind of ghost story suitable only for telling around the campfire on a dark night, or is it an actual historical occurrence that confirms the identity of Jesus, or is it a legend that only the true believer can appreciate? As a post-Enlightenment thinker, my money would be on the ghost story.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Nicholas Rogers, Halloween. From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Richard Bauckham “Descent to the Underworld,” Anchor Bible Dictionary (6 vols.; ed. David Noel Freedman, et al.; New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2.156-59.
This essay first appeared as a blog on Wry Thoughts about Religion on October 16, 2011, and was subsequently published in The Fourth R 25.1 (Jan-Feb, 2012), 25-26.