Volume 45 - Issue 3

Hermeneutics and Historicity in the Matthean Crucifixion Narrative: A Response to Daryn Graham

By Daniel M. Gurtner


This short piece takes up some challenges to Daryn Graham’s article, “The Earthquakes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” While the present author agrees with Graham on the historicity of the events in question (Matt 27:51–54), the author exposes some hermeneutical challenges in Graham’s treatment of the material. In his attempt to answer the question, “What happened?,” Graham risks misunderstanding distinctive hermeneutical nuances pertinent to answer the question, “What does it mean?”

For readers of the Gospels who hold to their historical reliability and aim to take seriously their message(s) to the church, it is important to listen carefully to what a text is doing. This is to ground any interpretation in the author’s intent. Any serious attempt to place the narrative of the text within the setting of the first century is a commendable task. Daryn Graham endeavors to do that very thing in his treatment of Matthew 27:51–54, a text that furnishes readers with some formidable challenges. In “The Earthquakes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Graham analyses the effects of the earthquakes at the crucifixion of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel in relation to (1) their potential damage to the temple, (2) the darkness, (3) the splitting of the stones, opening of tombs, and resurrected saints, and finally (4) the response by the centurion and his companions.1 His concern throughout pertains to the “factual” nature of the Gospel of Matthew, utilizing “contemporaneous geological, archaeological, and historical contexts in an historical manner.” This “extra-biblical data,” he contends, strongly supports the First Gospel’s “factual basis.” I share this view with Graham, affirming entirely the historicity of the entire account. At the same time, I find problems with some of his hermeneutical frameworks related to Gospels scholarship in general and his interaction with my own published work on the subject in particular. My purpose here is to address the former in light of the latter.

1. Historicity in the Gospels

The objective to affirm the factual basis of the account is a commendable endeavor, particularly when it is carefully aligned with the intent of the author. For example, today interpreters intuitively and rightly know that statements like “the sun went down” (Judg 14:18; 19:14; Jer 15:9; Dan 6:14) are not intended by the author to claim that the sun revolves around the earth, but merely acknowledge that from an earthly perspective the sun descends to the western horizon until it is no longer visible. Similarly, we intuitively understand that “the Lord is my rock” (2 Sam 22:2; Ps 18:2; cf. Pss 18:46; 19:14; 28:1; 31:3; 42:9; etc.) is not a geological statement, but a theological one for which a literal understanding would distort the intent of the author. The point is that our notion of “facts” must not be imposed on, and so potentially distort, the meaning of the author. At least we need to be open to the possibility that, though our questions are not irrelevant, they may not be the same as those of the original author. A responsible hermeneutic must always endeavor to first determine the author’s original intent to the original readers,2 though Matthew 27:51–54 has caused trouble for interpreters. A Gospel narrative may be entirely historical without the author intending to argue for its historicity any more than other biblical texts intend to argue for the earth revolving around the sun. This is not to deny their historicity in any respect, but rather to focus on the intent and burden of the author, which may or may not be intent to argue for their historicity.

An example that comes to mind is in the book of Galatians, where Paul goes to great pains to articulate the essential tenets of justification by faith. Yet he does not argue for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Christ in Galatians, as he does elsewhere (e.g., 1 Cor 15); he only mentions it (Gal 1:1). It is clearly the case that he believed in the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Christ, but in Galatians at least it does not seem he felt the burden to argue for it in his letter to the Galatian Christians. In other words, these are by no means irrelevant questions but they may sometimes not be the author’s primary concerns in his particular context.

I share the view of the evangelist that, I think, plainly takes it for granted without argument that the entire pericope (Matt 26:51–54) is all historical. What is less clear, and the subject of much speculation,3 is the author’s meaning to his original readers by what he has written and how he has written it. In this respect, Graham and I are asking related but different questions. His question is “did it happen?” and my question is “what does it mean?” While I do not doubt that it happened, I have made no attempt to argue for its historicity. Other scholars, including Graham, have undertaken to answer the historical questions. Nevertheless, Graham makes claims about my work on this passage that I do not intend; at the same time his claims expose some hermeneutical challenges as surveyed above. These are evident in two instances in which Graham’s explicit engagement with my own work displays problems.

2. The Veil and the Centurion

The first issue in Graham’s treatment of my work pertains to the rending of the temple veil (Matt 27:51). Though he is correct that I argue that the inner curtain of the temple is likely in view, he is mistaken when he claims that I base that claim “on the grounds that the inner curtain receives more prominence and attention in the Old Testament and in Hebrews.” Though the inner veil is more prevalent in the Hebrew Bible, that fact does not ground my rationale. My work begins with exhaustive lexical analysis that favors this identification, augmented in a complete diagram of the veil and curtain language in the structure of the tabernacle.4 I also offer an exhaustive account of veil language in the Old Testament in the LXX, MT, Peshitta, and Vulgate,5 a detailed comparison of the veil language in the two tabernacle accounts,6 and a thorough analysis of the use of καταπέτασμα and פָּרֹכֶת in the Old Testament.7 But more weight can be placed on the Greek syntax in Septuagint contexts than simply on word usage. The very thesis and burden of my published treatment on this matter,8 which Graham cites only in part, is that there are various syntactical features evident in the LXX that help identify when the καταπέτασμα–which can be used for a number of hangings in the LXX—is to be identified with the inner veil (פָּרֹכֶת) and when it may be identified with another of the temple or tabernacle curtains (מָסָךְ). This may be further augmented by the etymology of the word καταπέτασμα.9 I do not regard “prominence and attention” as sufficient grounds for identifying Matthew’s veil.

This misunderstanding leads to other problems in Graham’s discussion of the torn veil, where he asks whether the tearing of temple curtain was the result of earthquake damage or, in his words, an “act of God.” The fundamental flaw at the outset is the dichotomy between the two from a biblical perspective. For example, the account of the exodus reads as follows:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. (Exod 14:21–22 ESV)

The Exodus narrative makes clear that it is a “strong east wind” that drives back the waters (Exod 14:21), and yet elsewhere the movement of the waters of the Red Sea are explicitly attributed to God (Deut 11:4; Josh 2:10; Ps 106:9). The point is that the manner in which the question is posed necessarily creates a false dichotomy that does not seem to be embraced by the biblical authors. Whether an earthquake so damaged the temple so as to rend the veil or whether it was a unique and supernatural work whereby the veil was torn without natural cause, God caused it to be torn. This example exposes a false dichotomy in Graham’s hermeneutic that becomes more problematic elsewhere.

My reading of just what the centurion saw is less important for my reading of the passage, but Graham’s treatment of my reading exposes more methodological issues. I argue that what the centurion saw was the earthquake and the things that follow for two reasons: First, Matthew explicitly says that they saw “the earthquake and what took place” (ἰδόντες τὸν σεισμὸν καὶ τὰ γενόμενα), and since Matthew says first that the veil was torn, “and the earth shook, and the rocks split,” it seems natural that the evangelist is referencing the earthquake and what follows. In my opinion this interpretation is merely suggested but not decisive, though it is widely held. The second reason I argue that the centurion and company saw the earthquake, etc., and not the veil is that from any of the proposed sites of Golgotha the veil of the temple would not have been visible. Whether Jew or Gentile, the topography renders it impossible. The Herodian temple faced east, with the doors and curtains facing that direction, toward the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives. Golgotha likely lay to the west, some distance from the temple, outside the Second Wall of Jerusalem and, though traditionally at the top of a hill, was surely too low an elevation to see the temple proper atop Mount Zion. Graham speculates that “it is more than likely the centurion and his guard inspected the torn curtain sometime over that period.” This reading argues that the centurion’s profession (Matt 27:54) occurs after Jesus’ resurrection (see Graham’s “Table 1”), whereas the more natural reading has the soldiers with Jesus at least from the governor’s headquarters (Matt 27:27) through the crucifixion and subsequent profession (Matt 27:54). In the end, this theory must remain speculation without any evidence. Moreover, it ignores the important work of K. L. Waters, who demonstrates the temporal-spatial collapse evident here and characteristic of apocalyptic literature elsewhere.10 This leads me to a more substantial concern.

3. Historicity and Apocalypticism

I argue that the rending of the veil in Matthew, like that of Mark,11 is a literary device used to introduce an apocalyptic vision, and that the centurion and his companions see the vision comprised of the splitting of stones, raising of holy ones, etc. It is a historical vision of historical events. Graham mistakenly claims that my reading denies the historicity of the events: “Gurtner claims that these events were not historical, but formed an apocalyptic vision that was experienced by the centurion guarding Jesus at his crucifixion.” 12 Graham seems to presume in his statement, “not historical, but formed an apocalyptic vision,” that if one affirms the latter one must deny the former. If I understand him correctly, this is a failure to recognize the nature of apocalyptic material in narratives, which I have addressed elsewhere.13 Here it is sufficient to indicate that the nature of apocalyptic literature in general and apocalyptic interpolations in particular is that they articulate the significance of events in “symbolic” terms. “Symbolic” may be imaginative in some apocalyptic literature, but when utilized in a narrative it must be recognize that the symbolic nature is subsumed within a narrative context, and takes on its character. Classic examples from Matthew are the baptism and the transfiguration. In the former, Jesus comes out of the water “and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:16–17 ESV). The opening of heaven and a voice speaking from heaven are historical—they happened—but also classically apocalyptic in nature. Similarly at the transfiguration Jesus was “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (Matt 17:2–3). Then, Jesus “was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified” (Matt 17:5–6).

Again, the changing of appearance, brightened clothing, appearance of other figures, and the voice from heaven are all familiar from apocalyptic contexts. These the evangelist has utilized in a narrative, and so they are historical. But a dichotomy between the apocalyptic and the historical is foreign to the narrative of the first Gospel. The language “apocalyptic” and the extensive scholarship which examines it is complicated, but it is problematic that Graham takes no pains to examine the nature of apocalypticism when critiquing my apocalyptic reading as “not historical.”14 Graham himself has embraced Ulrich Luz’s call for a broad understanding of the Gospels’ “historical and cultural context.” For Graham, the physical setting of the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus (Matt 27:51–53) are replete with historical evidence from the physical setting, notably enumerating the accounts of earthquakes. These are important factors, but they should be balanced with others such as ancient literature that employs similar features.15 Graham does this to some extent, but without serious regard to apocalyptic texts or the scholarship that has made such headway in the last four decades.

4. Conclusion

There is much about which Graham and I agree in this complicated passage. We both fully affirm its historicity and try to make best sense of it in Matthew’s context. With our differing objectives we naturally approach the subject differently. My concern in this brief response is to clarify what may be ambiguous regarding my previous work and to offer a few hermeneutical nuances that attempt to take account of important but neglected factors, including topography, apocalypticism, etc., that facilitate a more holistic and broadly contextual understanding of these events.

[1] Daryn Graham, “The Earthquakes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Themelios 45 (2020): 537–57.

[2] Here I find the “Chicago Statements on Biblical Hermeneutics” to be instructive, especially Article XX. See also the collection of essays in Norman L. Geisler, ed., Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980).

[3] See Daniel M. Gurtner, “The Rending of the Veil (Matt. 27:51a par): A Look Back and a Way Forward.” Themelios 29 (2004): 4–14.

[4] Daniel M. Gurtner, The Torn Veil: Matthew’s Exposition of the Death of Jesus, SNTSMS 139 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 203–4.

[5] Gurtner, Torn Veil, 205–8 (Appendix 1).

[6] Gurtner, Torn Veil, 209–11 (Appendix 2).

[7] Gurtner, Torn Veil, 213–15 (Appendix 3).

[8] Daniel M. Gurtner, “LXX Syntax and the Identity of the NT Veil,” NovT 47 (2005): 344–53.

[9] Daniel M. Gurtner, “Καταπέτασμα: Lexicographical and Etymological Considerations on the Biblical ‘Veil,’” AUSS 42 (2004): 105–11.

[10] K. L. Waters, “Matthew 27:52–53 as Apocalyptic Apostrophe: Temporal-Spatial Collapse in the Gospel of Matthew,” JBL 122 (2003): 489–515.

[11] See Daniel M. Gurtner, “The Rending of the Veil and Markan Christology: ‘Unveiling’ the ‘ΥΙΟΣ ΘΕΟΥ (Mark 15:38–39),” BibInt 15 (2007): 292–306.

[12] He cites my The Torn Veil, 138–98.

[13] Daniel M. Gurtner, “Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in the Gospel of Matthew,” BBR 22 (2012): 219–40.

[14] The starting point for the discussion of apocalypses and apocalypticism is John J. Collins, “Introduction: Towards the Morphology of a Genre,” Sem 14 (1979): 1–20; and John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016). No works on apocalypticism are cited in Graham’s essay.

[15] See Daniel M. Gurtner, “The Veil of the Temple in History and Legend,” JETS 49 (2006): 87–114.

Daniel M. Gurtner

Daniel M. Gurtner completed his PhD at the University of St. Andrews and has written extensively on the Gospel of Matthew and Second Temple Judaism. He is the author of The Torn Veil: Matthew’s Exposition of the Death of Jesus and co-editor of the award-winning T&T Clark Encyclopedia of Second Temple Judaism.

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