In my new book, Jesus is No Myth, I show that the miracles of Jesus are very different from the kinds of supernatural wonders that skeptics often compare them. The miracles of Jesus are purposeful, respect human nature, do good, are essentially rational, and point people to God. Whereas in the supposed analogies, you get stories about 500 year old talking frogs, how the spittle of a rabid dog cures rabies, and an angry child Jesus who kills another boy because he muddied up the pond Jesus was playing in. Whatever the historical evidence for these events may be -- thin and weak, in fact -- there is also an a priori Alice in Wonderland quality to the stories, unlike most of the miracles in the gospels.
But there is one story in the gospels that seems, on the surface, and perhaps even when you look deeper, to be cut from the same cloth as these eccentric but enjoyable tall tales. And that is the one Gospel miracle that is cited again and again by skeptics: the story of the "zombies," as some put it, who rose from their graves and walked around Jerusalem when Jesus died, as told by St. Matthew. (27:52-3)
What should we say of that strange event? Did it happen? Was Jerusalem visited by risen saints for a few days? If so, did these "zombies" later return peaceably to their tombs? Does this strange story discredit the rest of the gospels, somehow?
Although my PhD is in a combination of theology and history, I see myself more as an historian than a theologian, and that is how I would answer this question.
Of all the miracles of Jesus, as an historian, I would admit this one is far less-secure than most of the others. It is attested only by one evangelistic, and that one is Matthew, who is probably further from the facts than the others. There appear to be no "undesigned coincidences" or other pieces of internal evidence that add strength to this report, as they do (I show) to some of the other miracles in the gospels. It is an inherently odd story, hard to make sense of. And the rather off-hand account sounds a little like a rumor that Matthew may have been passing along.
So as an historian, I would not claim that I "know" these dead bodies really did rise to life. If you hold a theological position according to which the Bible must be without error, that's fine. Perhaps you are right. In which case, don't worry about these problems. Sometimes strange and inexplicable events do occur, and perhaps this partial return to life can be seen as a sign of the universal impact of Jesus' death and resurrection. Skeptics use the word "zombie" to mock, but of course the people Jesus actually raised were whole and sane human beings, as these no doubt would have been, as well.
But let me speak to the skeptics, who think this story is not only laughably untrue, it discredits the rest of the gospels as well. Let me speak now from my own experience.
Thirty-two years ago, I was in New Delhi, India, when the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh body-guards.
Or so I heard on the news.
We started to hear other rumors. People were being dragged out of trains and killed. Some said the CIA was involved in the assassination. The water was poisoned.
Aside from rumors, we also heard bombs and rifle-fire in the distance. After a couple days, I walked for miles in both directions, and witnessed buses and taxis that were blackened ruins on the side of the road. (And took pictures.) I saw houses whose fronts had been smashed. I talked with both Sikhs and Hindus who had fought the mobs through the night. One Hindu said he and his neighbors had thrown molotov cocktails for hours. One Sikh asked me if Sikhs were treated well in America: he wanted to emigrate.
The event was very traumatic and (I have to confess) exciting. I remember the week well, though it occurred, now, as long in the past as the final events of Jesus' earthly life would have, to Mark as he began to write. If I am blessed to live to my actuarial life expectancy, probably I will be able to write a first-hand account of what happened in the neighborhood where I was staying, as late as St. John wrote his gospel.
This experience brings up a point that I don't think I've ever heard anyone make about the dead rising in Matthew.
All things being equal, it would have been a miracle if, after the resurrection of Jesus, a few strange and ultimately untrue rumors had NOT circulated through the early Christian community.
The rumor that people were being dragged from trains and killed turned out, unfortunately, to be completely true.
The rumor that the water was being poisoned turned out, it seems, to be false. (Not that we drank tap water in India at the time, anyway.)
The rumor about CIA involvement was also, I think, false. It did keep us in check, though, as westerners in India.
One might even propose a general rule of thumb:
"Whenever any traumatic and hugely significant event occurs, unless they are supernaturally suppressed, dramatic rumors are bound to be generated, some of which will turn out to be untrue."
If that is so, the distant rumor of the walking dead, if false, should be seen as an outlier, which in no way affects the truth of the other miracles in the gospels. Jesus having died in the way all the witnesses tell, and then rising from the dead, would certainly generate rumors. Some Christians believe the Holy Spirit guided the evangelists to choose only those rumors which are based in reality. But skeptics who do not assume that, should not be surprised to discover a few such outlying rumors around the fringes of the main story.
This conclusion is greatly strengthened by the character of those other miracles. It is strengthened by the fact that many are attested from multiple sources, often very early ones, that many include numerous realistic details, embarrassment even, along with "undesigned coincidences," as I will demonstrate.
One should not confuse a shrub for a forest. Matthew's odd story is unlike all the rest of the miracles in the gospels, as they are unlike the talls tales in popular ancient fiction (and even some history).
But gazing at a shrub, say a huckleberry bush on a stump in front of a stand of redwoods, does give one renewed respect for the mighty forest. Look carefully and seriously at the miracles of Jesus, and the very context that skeptics so often cite, sets them apart even more magnificently.