Letter to the Editor: Historical Testing for the Genre Theories

From on Apr 30, 2014


I’m a student in the Master of Arts in Christian Apologetics program at Veritas Evangelical Seminary. I chose Veritas partially due to their affirmation of the ICBI statement in their doctrinal statement. While studying for one of their courses, it occurred to me that there might be an interesting way to put the Matthew 27 centered genre theories to the test.

When Matthew recorded his account of the death of Jesus, he clustered it together with six other incredible events: (1) three hours of darkness, (2) the Temple veil being torn from top to bottom, (3) the earth shaking, (4) rocks splitting, (5) stone tombs breaking open, and (6) several dead saints being raised to life (such that they could leave their tombs and appear in Jerusalem). Mark and Luke also reported the three hours of darkness (Mt 27:45; Mk 15:33; Lk 23:44–45) and the veil being torn (Mt 27:51; Mk 15:38; Lk 23:45), but they leave out the earthquake, the splitting rocks, and the raising of the dead. The claim that “Matt 27:51-53 is a strange story that is reported nowhere else in Christian or non-Christian literature” (Bird, Michael F. “Michael Licona on the Resurrection of Jesus.” Sept. 14, 2011. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2011/09/michael-licona-on-the-resurrection-of-jesus/) seems like overstatement at best. The fact is that Thallus, Phlegon, Celsus, Origen, John Philoponus (Philopon), Julius Africanus, Jerome, John Malalas, and Maximus the Confessor all echo one or more of those clustered elements.

With so many mentions of the Mt 27:41-53 events by authors in the Greco-Roman literary traditions (some neck-deep in it while others were at least waist-deep) we may have here an opportunity to put to the test the theory that Matthew may have here been writing in the style of a Greco-Roman genre where the lines between factual reporting, dramatic embellishment, and apocalyptic/eschatological symbolism blur and mingle. I’m not trying to suggest we grant any validity to the notion that the intended meaning of the authors can be determined through generic studies in a way that goes above, beyond, or behind the text of what they wrote. I’m just side-stepping that here to test an additional angle. If this theory is right, and if my understanding of this theory is right, the literate thinkers of antiquity who were well acquainted with Virgil’s account of the sixteen dramatic and unnatural events (four of which may be mildly reminiscent of Mt 27) that revolved around the assassination of Caesar, for example, would be the best candidates for recognizing the same rhetorical style and the liberties it supposedly brings with it for interpreting record of events in a non-literal way.

The earliest known critic of the Mt 27 story was the pagan Celsus who, in the early third century, attempted to popularize the idea that both the earthquake and the darkness at the time of Jesus’ death didn’t actually occur in real history. Note that the earthquake element is unique to the Mt 27 account. It is not clear whether he was attacking the text of Mt 27 directly or if he was addressing the collective, prevailing consensus of Roman Christians of his day. (Either way the historicity of the Mt 27 cluster is bolstered.) Origen took it upon himself to answer Celsus. And so here is our first test. How did Origen respond to Celsus attack? Before answering, let us remind ourselves of the fact that Origen of Alexandria was certainly immersed in Greco-Roman scholarship and had almost certainly had access to the great libraries of Alexandria. Alexandria was arguably the greatest center of scholarship of its day and Origin was arguably a great scholar. Origin also has a reputation for neo-platonic proclivities and a penchant for attempting to transcend the literal sense of a text (or Bible passage) and seeking out its supposed deeper, more spiritual, higher, non-literal sense. If anyone was likely to interpret the Mt 27 cluster in a non-literal way, would it not have been Origen? If the Greco-Roman genre theory is right, we might expect Origen to reply to Celsus along the following lines, “Celsus, I agree with you. Those events didn’t really happen and they were meant to be taken non-literally, much in the same way we don’t take Virgil’s account of Caesar’s death literally. Everybody knows that. Your attacks here are right, but they hurt nothing because they miss the heart of what the author Matthew was trying to say.” But instead Origen surprises us by defending the literal historicity of the event. He wrote:

And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles. […] Celsus […] imagines also that both the earthquake and the darkness were an invention, but regarding these, we have in the preceding pages made our defense, according to our ability, adducing the testimony of Phlegon, who relates that these events took place at the time when our Saviour suffered.

It seems that Celsus (a critic of Christ), Origen (a defender of Christ), and Phlegon (a non-Christian historian of the 2nd century A.D.) were taking at least part of the cluster of Mt 27 events literally. I detect no hint of any attempt to salvage their credibility by removing them from the sphere of real history and placing them into a realm of symbol and type.

Julius Africanus (3rd century A.D.) cites both Thallus and Phlegon and mentions the darkness, the earthquake, the splitting of rocks, and the resurrection of the saints:

On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior fails on the day before the Passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let that opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth–manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. But it was a darkness induced by God, because the Lord happened then to suffer. And calculation makes out that the period of 70 weeks, as noted in Daniel, is completed at this time.

Julius takes the three hours of darkness so literally that he makes an effort to point out that the darkness was caused by something other than an eclipse of the sun by the moon. Interestingly Plegon focuses on the darkness as the most profound element and separates it from the other elements perhaps as less incredible. Julius read Latin, wrote in Greek, had travelled all over the Roman world, and studied in Alexandria. He gives no hint of any of these elements not having really happened. And showing his eschatological fascination, he spends the next several paragraphs working through historical dates to calculate the literal fulfilment of prophecies in Daniel. (Reference: http://mb-soft.com/believe/txua/africanu.htm.) In my estimation, the genre theory fails this test too.

Other chroniclers mention the darkness and the earthquake as well. With fewer words in their description and later dates in their citations they are of lesser value for the purposes of testing the genre theory but nevertheless may be worthy of mention. Phiopon of Alexandria wrote in the 6th century A.D.:

Phlegon mentioned the eclipse which took place during the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus and no other (eclipse); it is clear that he did not know from his sources about any (similar) eclipse in previous times . . . and this is shown by the historical account of Tiberius Caesar.

Again we have an Alexandrian who treats part of the Mt 27 cluster as having literally happened. Eusebius, a Roman-Christian historian writing in the 4th century A.D., wrote,

Indeed Phlegon, who is an excellent calculator of olympiads, also writes about this, in his 13th book writing thus: ‘However in the fourth year of the 202nd olympiad, an eclipse of the sun happened, greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it; at the sixth hour, day turned into dark night, so that the stars were seen in the sky, and an earthquake in Bithynia toppled many buildings of the city of Nicaea.’ These things the aforementioned man [says].

John Malalas, a Greek historian writing in the 6th century A.D., wrote,

And the sun was darkened, and there was darkness upon the world. Concerning which darkness, Phlegon, that wise Athenian, writes thus: ‘In the eighteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, there was a great eclipse of the sun, greater than those that had been known before: and it became night at the sixth hour of the day, so that the stars appeared.’

Maximus the Confessor, a Byzantine scholar in the 7th century wrote,

Phlegon, the Gentile chronographer, in the thirteenth book of his Chronography, at the two hundred and third olympiad, mentions this eclipse, saying that it happened in an unusual manner: but does not say in what manner. And our Africanus in the fifth book of his Chronography, and Eusebius Pamphili likewise in his Chronicle, mention the same eclipse.

Although there so far seems to be no mention of the Temple curtain tearing in ancient Jewish literature, there are six known sources (including the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud) that detail irregular and disconcerting happenings in and around the Temple after the time of the death of Jesus. (See Plummer, Robert L. Something Awry in the Temple? JETS 48/2. June 2005. 301–16. http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/48/48-2/48-2-pp301-316_JETS.pdf) This events are recorded as having literally happened and could indirectly corroborate the element of the story where the Temple veil was ripped. Interestingly, the potential apocalyptic significance is not lost on the chroniclers. Some of the writings seem acutely aware of the portents of impending judgment/disaster and yet they seem to write as if they expect us to take their reports literally.

The historical data we can use to test the genre theory of Mt 27 is not overwhelmingly plentiful but it is not nonexistent either. In my judgment, this theory, with its predictions and expectations that should accompany it, fails in historical testing against every cross-reference from antiquity that I could find. If the writers of antiquity who referenced Mt 27 events failed to recognize the proposed genre and any interpretive ramifications for the genre, shouldn’t we do likewise?

Thanks for considering this,
Christopher T. Haun, Fort Worth, TX

Postscript: After sending this, I rediscovered Dr. Geisler’s excellent essay titled “The Early Fathers and the Resurrection of the Saints in Matthew 27” (Source: http://normangeisler.net/articles/Bible/Inspiration-Inerrancy/Licona/Early%20Fathers%20on%20Matthew%2027.pdf). There many leaders in the early Greco-Roman churches–Ignatius, Irenaeus, Clement, Origin and Celsus, Cyril, Gregory, Jerome, Hilary, Chrysostom, Augustine, and Remigius–are quoted. They too all seem to clearly affirm the literal, historical, actual, factual happening of the unusual events of Mt 27. These quotes give additional opportunities to test the Greco-Roman genre theory against Greek and Latin minded thinkers. It also drives additional nails into the coffin of the notion that “Matt 27:51-53 is a strange story that is reported nowhere else in Christian or non-Christian literature.” While I appreciate scholars who are willing to cautiously question long-held assumptions, I’m not comfortable with innovative theories that are a total break from the straightforward reading of the gospel text (without some clue in the text itself to indicate the need to interpret symbolically [example, John 6:63]), a total break from the interpretation of the early church thinkers, and a total break from the ancient chroniclers of history.