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.
Per the Matthean ghost story: Could it be possible that the author of Matthew or an editor was giving more of a reason for the centurion to say that this was the son of God, more than a curtain being torn, "improving" the story and at the same time relating it to an apocalyptic "end times?" (I think Mark probably used "torn" to point back in the gospel to the sky splitting in 1.10.)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Ghostly Evening Charlie,
With Halloween just around the corner, it is very much on the mind of many Christians- can we really encounter the ghost of a departed being? It's an age old question- and the answer as you suggested depends on whether or not one is alone in the dark or sitting in broad daylight. With daylight becoming scarcer and scarcer- I do wonder about that question. Craig and I once stayed in a farmhouse built in the 1700's and I was apprehensive to go down the hall in the middle of the night to use the facilities.... And I've never felt that sensation before or since. I sensed the presence of other beings- it was not a logical or reasonable suspicion at all. I have no explanation for my trepidation.
With regard to Matthew 27:51-54... Doesn't it seem logical that a contemporary of Jesus such as Josephus or Philo would have most definitely recorded the occurrence of dead people coming out of their graves and walking abound?? As Rabbi Singer put it- imagine seeing your dead loved ones walking down the street for no apparent reason whatsoever... "Grandma???!!! What happened, I thought you were dead!!" Something as shocking as that would have most definitely made it into the annals of Josephus or Philo, do you agree?
How do Christians rectify the "historical" account of Matthew with the historical accounts of Josephus, Philo, etc..... Why isn't Matthew's account backed up? Have you asked your pastor this question? If I had a pastor, I would most assuredly ask him or her... But I know what the answer would most likely be: we just have to take it on faith.
Regarding Jesus being the son of God- that idea originated in other pagan religions where the "big" God (Zeus for example) was too big and too busy to be bothered with minor situations of little importance such as not enough rain to grow crops, or being barren and unable to bear children, or physical disabilities.... Zeus had much more important duties to attend, so he relegated those small tasks to the lesser gods such as Athena, Hercules, Apollo, etc.... Some scholars believe this is where the idea of Jesus being called a "son of god" who takes part in the daily activities and hardships of common folk such as you and me came into being. Have you heard this theory? Many thanks and Happy Halloween!! Elizabeth
Hi Dennis, My wife tells me all the time that anything is possible; to which I reply "can the moon possibly be made of Green Cheese?" I would say to your question: it is not a matter of what one thinks is possible, but whether or not one can craft an argument showing that it is probable.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
Second paragraph: it is reasonable to think that historians might have mentioned it if they had known about it. But we moderns would likely regard such a statement as one more superstition from antiquity.
Last paragraph: Yes I subscribe to that view myself and traced out the deification of Jesus in an article: Hedrick, "Is belief in the Divinity of Jesus Essential to being Christian," The Fourth R 24.5 (Sept-Oct 2011), 15-20, 26.
One can certainly show that myths were expanded. I think it's called accretion. One example from Christianity would be, if one accepts Markan priority, that this author's myth was enlarged by subsequent writers. Just in the post-crucifixion stories, that is easy to see. One has a rumor by a snazzy young man (Mark), to an stone rolling angel and an appearance of Jesus to two men at the tomb (Matt), to Peter showing up and Jesus trekking with the disciples showing wounds and having a fish fry (Luke) and shooting off to the heavens, to 2 angels and Jesus at the tomb , then several times later, to let Thomas feel his hands, eating with him and later going fishing (John), where he served as a fish locator. I think even a walking, talking cross makes a cameo in Gospel of Peter. That would address the "more." As to the "reason," one would need to compare Matt & Mark, looking at things like the apocalyptic nature of Matthean sayings and looking at places where Matthew changed Mark. Alas, I am up to my waist in Greek pronouns & adjectives. I do think lack of the use of something to the effect of "so that the prophecy spoken through the prophets might be fulfills" in the zombie apocalypse of Matt could point to another hand in the writing of that portion.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Whacky or disturbing visuals not found in the other gospels seem to be a Matthean favorite: a star floats across the sky and identifies the birth place of Jesus (2:9), Herod murders all children under the age of two in Bethlehem (2:16, cf. Exodus 1:1-2:10), Mark's demoniac is changed into two demoniacs who speak simultaneously to Jesus (8:28-34) and the same is true of a blind man changed to two (9:27-31), Jesus gives the earth bound Peter power to bind and release things in heaven (16:18-19), Jesus some how sits on two donkeys riding into Jerusalem, because the writer inexplicably doesn't understand the synonymous parallelism of Zechariah 9:9.
Well done Gene!
Thanks Dennis! Very provocative and well done!
It occurred to me that "saints" usually refers to those who died believing in Christ following the resurrection/ascension of Jesus. Do we have any way to guess at who the walking around dead saints might have been before Jesus became Christ?
Do any of these qualify? In Matt 22:32 & //s, Abe, Isaac, and Jacob are referred to as "the living." At 13:17 there is a group called the "prophets and the righteous ones" who didn't have the opportunity to see what the disciples have seen. 13:57 speaks of prophets who go without respect in their home-towns. In 16:14 JBap, Elijah, and Jeremiah are singled out for recognition. At 17:3 Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus in the transfiguration. At 21:32 toll collectors and prostitutes are praised for believing John the Baptist. In 22:35 Abel and Zechariah are held out as being the victims of innocent blood-shed. Somewhere else (can't find the citation) Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are said to host a meal in the kingdom of God.
Perhaps this would be a futile exercise, trying to put a rational veneer on irrational material.
The passage that you are looking for is Matt 8:11 Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be in the kingdom of heaven.
And your post raises a theological problem for Christian theology : How is it supposed by modern theologians that the saints of Hebrew Bible faith will be treated in the end times?
The word "saint" is also found in Hebrew Bible. Matthew/Jesus included Abraham, Isaac, Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 8:11), and likewise Matthew/Jesus include John the Baptist among those preachers of the new order (Matt 11:12-14). However compare Luke 16:16 where John is still included among those of the old order.
As we feel together the heavy burden of the hate-crime slaughter of Jews in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., it seems again that we experience the anguish of the unspeakably cruel vision of Matthew 27:24-25., the ultimate combination of cowardice and false attribution. "I (Pilate) am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves. Then the people as a whole answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children.'" (NRSV)
Philo on Pilate: "... as he feared least they might in reality go on an embassy to the emperor and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity" (On the Embassy to Gaius, 302).
Dennis Dean Carpenter
While I'm thinking of the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, I would like to remember thankfully those Jews who over the years have made a huge difference in my life: Steve and others who befriended me in grade school, the mixed faith couple who asked me to marry them, the young woman who challenged me in an egroup about the teachings of Paul. Stan who hired me when no one else did and who provided friendship and mentorship for decades as a member of his psychological services group, the incredible number of Jews who held positions at all levels of leadership with such great competence in the Penna Psychological Association, and for the many Jews, both psychologists and lawyers, including the president of the Tree of Life synagogue, with whom I served on a committee to increase the professionalism and competence in the performance of custody evaluations for the courts of Pennsylvania. And I'm sure that there are many more.
I have a curiosity question: are you offering this quote from Philo as an example of a historical datum on Pilate or as an example of a statement approximating a contemporary political denunciation similar to those in our current political season? I ask the question in the light of the political nature of his trip from Alexandria to Rome to see Caligula.
I was commenting on the "false attribution" Gene made, just giving a reason it could be seen as false attribution. (Josephus, Ant. 18 is another reason.) Philo was an outsider, more or less, to Judea whose brother Alex worked in the Roman government, as did Alex's sons, from what I understand, so unless I miss my guess something must have really irritated him about what he had heard about Pilate for him to be as critical as he was. That and his objections to Flaccus are the only records I'm aware of that were specific criticisms of the Roman government, & in the case of Flaccus he was a first-hand witness. I guess I should compare/contrast the two writings.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Wow Gene thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings of gratitude, I'd love to know more about your experiences... Particularly about the young woman who challenged you about the teachings of Paul and the interfaith couple who asked you to marry them... What a blessing you have been- and received- regarding our Jewish brothers and sisters. It's sad that it takes something like this to remind all of us how much we cherish the relationship and the communion we hold with their community. Thank you so much for sharing this. My son's high school is directly across the street from a synagogue and I have no idea if there's partnership between them and the Jesuit teachers at his school- I certainly hope there is. We're all in this together, as you so rightly pointed out to us tonite. Thank you again, Elizabeth
Dear Charlie, Gene, and Dennis: Do any of you support the removal of the above mentioned passage in Matthew 27 (verses 23-25) due to its obvious sanctioning of the persecution of Jews? ("Christ Killers?")
What is that passage even doing in our Bible? Who put it there and why? Words cannot define the depth of my contempt and revulsion that such a passage even exists and is condoned by the Christian community at large... What would it take to legally remove it since it it unarguably evil and anti-semitic hate speech? Is there a sanctioned process to remove hate speech from the Christian bible??? If not, there should be.
Good morning Elizabeth,
Nobody "added" Matt 27:25 to the Gospel. It is an original part of the Gospel of Matthew, and as such represents what the author thought happened or should have happened. The verse does not appear in any of the other three gospels. The canonical gospels are historical texts representing what each of the writers regarded at the time as helping their fledging faith (each have different theologies, however) understand their roots. If things are "taken out of the Bible" it becomes something other than a collection of historical text. But of course you can do that if you get others to agree with you, since there is no central authority in Christian churches--or rather there are many central authorities. Besides not all Christian communities use the same Bibles. And cutting things out of the Bible has been done in the past, for example, Marcion's New Testament and Thomas Jefferson's reduction of four gospels into one (Jefferson left out Matt 27:25). But if you do start cutting things out there are a lot more things other than Matt 27:25 that are offensive to most modern Christian sensitivities that will also have to go. One of the goals of the Jesus Seminar was to produce a new New Testament, but it didn't go anywhere with the Fellows. One of the Fellows did publish a new New Testament by himself, however. Look up Hal Taussig.
Thank you for those very kind words. (1) The young couple came to me because the parents could not agree on the marriage. The ceremony was eventually conducted in a Methodist church with the understanding that the name of Jesus would not be mentioned. One year later everyone was getting along fine. (2) The young woman in the egroup cringed even at the name of Paul whose theology she blamed for attacks on the Jews thruout history. I had never encountered the intensity of her feelings before. Instead of just being an emphatic listener, I stupidly tried to rationalize about some of Paul's thinking. Not my proudest moment, but I learned a lot.
It might be better for those with the power (the pastors, church leaders) to teach biblical lore within the context of the cultures of the times. Certainly, the use of "Jew" instead, in this case of "Judean," and how (according to Josephus)different groups interacted (Judeans/Samaritans/Idumaeans/Galileans and others), the influence Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and other cultures had on the region, and how early Christianity became a Roman religion, the anti-Judaism and so forth. There are many other texts in the Christian Testament that can be taken from its milieu and used the same way. One can look further and see how this attitude grew in the writings of such as Ignatius & Barnabas. An example in John 8:31-59 is, "You are from your father the devil..." (v.44)in a speech put on Jesus' lips to Jews. I've found, here in the South, that verses like that and the one in Matthew, taught by quasi-literate pastors, have legitimatized anti-Semitism in some. I think the answer for Christianity is honest education. But "down here," religion tends to be something one "inherits," not something one studies.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
I agree with you both.
Charlie, you are right. It is a slippery slope. With regard to there being even more offensive statements (hate speech)- that may be true. However, I don't know of any that have been used more to persecute and kill Jews than the one I mentioned. It's legitimizing anti-Semitism, as Dean suggested. But I also agree with Dean that the answer is honest education which is why I come to Charlie's blog. Sadly, many Christians aren't interested in honest education but seek to have their beliefs upheld and confirmed. Elizabeth
I'm sure you did learn a lot Gene- I've learned a lot from my not-so-proudest moments as well. Elizabeth
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