Didache

The apocalyptic Didache XVI:5-6 and the equally apocalyptic Matthew 27:51-53 provide similar war information

The apocalyptic Didache XVI:5-6 and the equally apocalyptic Matthew 27:51-53 provide similar war information

(51) And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; (52) the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, (53) and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

The tearing of the veil of the Temple is mentioned in Mark (and Luke), and at first sight Matthew’s overheated fantasy has been at work in the rest of this fragment, introducing an earthquake that has otherwise remained unreported, and also that same impossible event of people coming out of their tombs. Maybe Matthew wanted to underline the cosmic importance of Jesus’ death with these extraordinary accompanying events? I suppose in this mythological context we are urged to interpret ‘who had fallen asleep’ as ‘who died’, although the basis meaning of κοιμαω is ‘to sleep’.

I would like to reconsider this text starting from the presumption that its author, just like the author of Didache XVI, has tried to convey historical information, not in a journalistic way but in a veiled way so that it was only accessible to insiders.

The veil of the Temple is the first element. Maybe we should take the hint seriously and consider its tearing to be a pars pro toto for the destruction of the Herodian Temple. It might be a chronological marker, a veiled way to say: I, Matthew (or whoever the real author was) am describing things that happened in 70 CE.

Then comes the earth that shook. Is it necessary to interpret ἡ γῆ ἐσείσθη as the natural phenomenon of an earthquake? Maybe not. In War IV:286 Josephus describes a thunderstorm: ‘For during the night a devastating storm broke out; a hurricane raged, rain fell in torrents, lightning flashed continuously, accompanied by fearful thunderbolts, and the earth quaked (σειομενης της γης) with extraordinary rumbles.’ Is Josephus describing an unreported earthquake or only giving a detailed account of a violent thunderstorm?

Maybe it’s possible to discern sources of heavy trembling during the battle of Jerusalem. I see at least three of them: the coming down of ballista stones, the beating of the battering ram against the walls of the city, and the falling down of huge ashlars when the walls were pulled down shortly after the capture.

Then comes the splitting of the rocks, and maybe it is not implausible to see the shaking of the earth and the splitting of the rocks as cause and effect. What wartime activity made the πετραι (rocks, blocks of stone) split? I think the battering ram is the best candidate. Its use and the resulting damage is described in War V:23-28 and VI:222 and 394. I quote this last verse: ‘When a section of the wall was broken through, and some of the towers gave way before the battering rams, the defenders immediately took flight and even the tyrants were filled with a terror unjustified by the situation.’

And then the holy ones are raised: And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

Here as well as in the garden of Gethsemane we encounter people who sleep. Maybe they all had fallen asleep because they were lethargic, exhausted and depressed as part of the terminal phase of famine? Did they come out of their tombs, had their bodies been covered with earth? No, they came out of μνημεια, memorials with spacious underground dwellings for the well-to-do deceased, which could be used as hiding places or as a last refuge for the terminally starved to die undisturbedly. Jesus’ rising is chronologically connected with this appearance of the emaciated survivors of the siege. I will return to this connection later.

Allow me this new translation with minimal comments (between [  ]):

And look, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom [as part of its destruction]; and the earth shook, and [→ so that] the blocks of stone were split; the memorials also were opened, and many bodies of the holy ones who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the memorials after his rising they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

I believe that just like Didache XVI, Matthew 27:51-53 provides us with a series of chronological markers that the core events described in the Gospels took place during the time of the culminating events of the war of the Jews against the Romans in the summer of 70 CE. Schematically it looks like this.

Fragment

Veiled description

Overt description

Timing

Didache XVI:5-6

Fiery trial

Burning of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem

Beginning and end of August 70 CE

 

Sign spread out in the air

Smoke production of the burning of the Temple

Beginning of August 70 CE

 

Sound of the salpinx

Roman final victory over the Jews

End of August 70 CE

 

Rising of the moribund

Appearance of survivors from their hiding places

End of August / beginning of September 70 CE

Matthew 27:51-53

Tearing of the veil of the Temple

Destruction of the Temple

Beginning of August 70 CE

 

The earth shaking

Ballista stones, battering ram, demolition of walls and towers

April to September 70 CE

 

Blocks of stone split

Effect of battering ram or demolition

April to September 70 CE

 

Appearance of holy ones who had fallen asleep

Appearance of survivors from their hiding places

End of August, beginning of September 70 CE