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In 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, we read of Christ as firstfruits but in Matthew 27:52-53, we read that at the death of Jesus Christ, many saints arose. How do I then draw the line in explaining Christ as the firstfruits since a group arose before him?

[Matt 27:52-53 WEB] The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection, they entered into the holy city and appeared to many.

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  • The short answer is that Christ resurrection was in a permanent way. Yes, Christ was not the first to rise from the dead and others died again. His resurrection was to a life that knows no death. His is the life and truth that CONQUERED death.
    – Mr. Bond
    Mar 30, 2023 at 13:35
  • The Matthew zombie account was a dramatic invention, which Paul would be either unaware of or would have simply ignored just as he ignored and rejected the virgin birth narrative which was a similar dramatic invention for prophecy application. See the related question on that passage with Michael Licona explanation.
    – Michael16
    Mar 30, 2023 at 14:39
  • We don't participate in the earlier ones, but in his. Mar 30, 2023 at 17:16
  • The Matthew account is of the first fruit early harvest that Christ was part of. However, Matthew's account is likely not depicting zombies, but describing fleeting ghost like appearances (e.g. illocal manifestations) of some of the O.T. saints. The big show of what glorified bodies were capable of was likely limited to Jesus' appearances with his disciples, eating, being touched, etc.
    – Jess
    Mar 31, 2023 at 22:18

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Matt 27:50-53 contains a list of events:

  • Jesus expired and at that moment the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom
  • the earth quaked
  • the rocks split open
  • the tombs broke open
  • the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised
  • After Jesus’ resurrection, when they had come out of the tombs, they entered the holy city and appeared to many people

Look at this list carefully. The exact time of this list of events given for the first three and the last two, namely

  • at Jesus' death (1) the temple curtain was torn, (2) the earth quaked (3) the rocks split
  • at Jesus' resurrection (1) some saints were raised from the dead (2) they entered Jerusalem

Thus, it is a mistake to assume that the resurrection of the limited number of saints occurred at Jesus' death precisely because the resurrection of these saints is recorded as occurring just after Jesus' resurrection, three days later.

Therefore, 1 Cor 15:20-23 is quite correct - the resurrection of Jesus, the "first fruit", enabled the resurrection of others; this event is a foretaste of the general resurrection discussed in 1 Cor 15.

The Pulpit commentary makes this same point:

Verse 53. - Came out of (ἐξελθόντες) the graves after his resurrection. The masculine participle, not agreeing with "bodies" (σώματα), denotes the personality of the bodies of the saints, that these arose perfect in soul and body. They could not rise before Christ rose. "Christ the firstfruits, afterwards they that are Christ's." Ewald and others have understood "after his resurrection" to mean "after he raised them from the dead." But the language is against such an interpretation, and there can be no reasonable doubt that the words refer to Christ's own resurrection. If it be contended that the word used, ἔγερσις, is active in sense, we may reply that, granting this, it merely emphasizes Christ's voluntary action in raising himself. As was said above, St. Matthew anticipates the regular sequence of events in order to complete at one view his accounts of the portents that attended the death and resurrection of Christ.

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  • You get massive kudos and extra credit for reading the entire passage in context, including the key phrase, "after his [Christ's] resurrection," rather than immediately discounting the "zombie" event as a contradiction and a myth somehow added later to Matthew's account. :-) Thank you.
    – Dieter
    Nov 26, 2023 at 1:15
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TL;DR: The resurrection that Paul is talking about is a permanent resurrection as an immortal spirit being, and has nothing to do with individual resurrections back to physical life that have occurred from time to time.

But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.

— 1 Corinthians 15:20–23

There are many examples of being resurrected, such as when Jesus resurrected Lazarus, as described in John 11. But these were simple bodily resurrections from death to life. The resurrected person was the same person they were when they died, physically and mentally unchanged.

Being raised from the dead is not the same as being part of "The Resurrection" that Paul was speaking of.

Many of God's annual holy festivals are about harvest, a harvest that symbolizes God's plan for mankind. God wants everyone to receive the spiritual seed that is planted at Baptism, and wants each person to help that seed grow by developing their character by following Jesus's example.

During this current age, only a relatively few people will be called for this purpose. When Jesus returns, these "elect", whether dead or buried at the time will be part of the first general resurrection, and will be converted into immortal spirit beings.
(A much larger second resurrection will occur at the end of the Millennium.)

Each year, on the first Sunday within Passover week, the priests offer a sheaf of wheat to God. This is known as the firstfruits offering, and symbolized Jesus's own rebirth as an immortal spirit being and acceptance to God on the Sunday during Passover following his resurrection.

As Paul alludes to, Jesus fulfilled this symbolism. But there is a later spring harvest, corresponding to the rest of what Paul is saying. When Christ returns, the elect will be "harvested" in the "first resurrection" (Revelation 20:4–6).
(The people in the second resurrection will be taught God's way and receive their own opportunity to be saved at the end of the Millennium.)

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There is no point is in trying to harmonize this apparent contradiction. Paul's writing presents strictly historical and ignores all legendary stories such as the Matthew 27:52-53, and even the virgin birth narrative.

The account of the zombies is clearly a theological fiction, and is not supposed to be taken as a historical fact. The passage is not just disturbing to the modern man, but it was so since the beginning; as a result we see that the third century Egerton Papyrus 3, which is attributed to Origen, removes the phrase of tombs opening and appearing to many. He apparently tries to allegorize the passage of resurrected saints surrounding the holy city. The textual details of that papyrus are found in this article ΜΕΤΑ ΤΗΝ ΕΓΕΡΣΙΝ ΑΥΤΟΥ A Scribal Interpolation in Matthew 27:53? by Charles Quarles, 2015 (TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism) arguing in defence for the textual authenticity of the phrase "after his resurrection". Note, the fact that the saints after resurrecting waiting till Christ's resurrection does not solve the contradiction, since they had already been woken up; they were apparently waiting and lingering to walk few steps to enter the city.

The Matthew 27:52-53 account is best explained as a Haggadic Fiction. Dale C. Allison, Jr. in the book The Resurrection of Jesus Apologetics, Polemics, History 2021, nicely summarizes the scholarly interpretations and handling of the passage. It is a fact that even some good conservative scholars have begun to correctly interpret the passage as an allegorical fiction. See chapter 7 Resurrected Holy Ones?, page 167 onwards:

The questions are so strange because Mt. 27:51b-53 is so strange. Strauss remarked: “to render this incident conceivable is a matter of unusual difficulty.”14

Michael Licona shares Hagner’s judgment, although his justification is a bit different. Focusing on the prodigies often associated, in antiquity, with the deaths of important figures,15 he comes to this verdict: Mt. 27:51b-53 is written in the language of “special effects,” The piece is “poetic.” It emphasizes “that a great king has died,” and perhaps that “the day of the Lord has come.”16

CONSCIOUS HAGGADIC FICTION?
I concur with Licona’s historical judgment: Mt. 27:51b-53 is not history. I very much doubt, however, that the evangelist Matthew—as Licona and others hold17—was being consciously poetic, or that he anticipated readers who would find purely theological meaning. John Calvin, because of his Renaissance education, was quite aware that “the ancient poets in their tragedies describe the sun’s light being withdrawn from the earth when any foul crime is committed, and so aim to show a portent of divine wrath: this was a fiction that drew from the common feelings of nature.”18 Yet Calvin simultaneously thought that the sun did indeed go dark when Jesus died.19 In other words, the Reformer could discover a literary trope and history in one and the same sentence. Maybe it was not so different in Matthew’s time and place.

The issues here quickly become complex. An increasing number of scholars have proposed that some stories in the gospels should be understood as purely metaphorical. Such stories, in the words of Marcus Borg, “are not based on the memory of particular events, but are symbolic narratives created for their metaphorical meaning. As such, they are not meant to be historical reports. Rather, the stories use symbolic language that points beyond a factual meaning.”20 Roger David Aus is of like mind: the gospels preserve haggadic tales that, in their original Jewish-Christian settings, were not mistaken for history as it really was. Hearers instead “greatly appreciated” a “narrator’s creative abilities in reshaping traditions already known to them in order to express a religious truth (or truths) about Jesus, their Lord, the Messiah of Israel.”21

If Borg and Aus are right, the way is open to supposing that a Jewish evangelist could have incorporated or created an episode, such as the resurrection of the holy ones, whose fictional character he and his first audience took for granted.22 Literal readings came later, through misunderstanding.

Yet the gospels do little, in my judgment, to make us think that their authors intended any of their narrative materials to be understood as purely metaphorical.23 The same is true, I now wish to argue, of Mt. 27:51b-53 in particular.

(1) Matthew 27:51b-53 makes three large claims. First, there was an earthquake. Second, “holy ones” came to life. Third, they appeared to many in Jerusalem. While all this may strike us as fantastic, we have no reason to imagine that any of it would have surpassed the boggle threshold of Matthew or his first readers. He, who otherwise believed that miracles enveloped Jesus’ life, knew scriptural texts that recount earthquakes in the past and that prophesy them for the future.24 The evangelist also believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and would raise others at the last judgment.25 And he knew about the resurrected Jesus appearing to others (28:7, 9-10, 16-20). Nothing in 27:51b-53 transgresses the possibilities that the rest of the narrative establishes for believing readers.

(2) We must not confuse what seems legendary to us, or at least many of us, with what seemed legendary to those in another time and place.26 Consider the list of wonders in y. ‘Abod. Zar. 42c (3:1)

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    Even if we allow that this event didn't happen, there still remain the various other accounts of resurrections (e.g. Lazarus). Unless all of those can be explained away too, this post doesn't really answer main point of the original question. Mar 31, 2023 at 18:41
  • It's interesting how Allison does not consider the perspective that Matthew is simply describing a small (i.e. many, but not all) number of fleeting ghost like apparitions (via physical illocal glorified bodies) taking place for a short period of time, as a consequence of the harrowing of hades (Orthodox view). Allison has spoken sympathetically of the seeing of ghostly apparitions. So, I don't know why he can't see that as a reciprocal analogy. A traditional Lutheran hermeneutical analysis of the text can be found here. scholar.csl.edu/cgi/…
    – Jess
    Mar 31, 2023 at 23:23
  • Ray it does answer the que perfectly. Lazarus is totally unrelated and irrelevant.
    – Michael16
    Apr 1, 2023 at 3:38

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