Matthew and Sinai

Another argument for taking the events in Matt. 27:51–54 as literal, historical events is the relationship that these descriptions have with Theophanies in the Old Testament. Jeffrey Niehaus has published a remarkable book tracing the theophanic appearances of God throughout the Old Testament (Jeffrey J. Niehaus, God at Sinai: Covenant & Theophany in the Bible and Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995).). What is significant in relation to the Matthew passage is the recurring presence in theophanies of the darkness, dark clouds as Niehaus discusses this with reference to the Sinai theophany:

Yahweh tells Moses to consecrate the people for two days because on the third day “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud” (be‘ab he‘ãnãn, Ex 19:9). Yahweh’s coming is portrayed with theophanic language: e.g., “thunder” (qõlõth, 19:16), “lightning” (berãqîm, 19:16), “thick cloud” (‘ãnãn cãbed, 19:16), “smoke” (‘ãšan, 19:18), and “fire” (’eš, 19:18). some phrases are used now for the first time: “a very loud trumpet blast” (šõphãr hãzãq, 19:16), “the smoke billowed up” (wâya‘al ‘ašãnô, 19:18), “like smoke from a furnace” (ke‘ešen hakibšãn,[,K], 19:18), “the whole mountain trembled violently” (wâyeherad kãl hãhãr me’õd, 19:18). A subsequent account in Exodus 20 echoes these descriptions: “thunder” (haqqôlõth, 20:18), “lightning” (hallappîdim, 20:18), “the trumpet” (qõl hašõphãr, 20:18), “”the mountain in smoke” (hãhãr ‘ašen, 20:18), and “thick darkness” (hã‘arãphel, 20:21) (Niehaus, Sinai, 195.).

At another place, Niehaus specifically refers to Matt. 27:51 in relation to the Sinai type theophanies. In his discussion of Joel’s prophecy as referred to in various New Testament passages, He states, “Matthew adds that when Jesus died, ‘The earth shook and the rocks split’ (Mt 27:51), familiar features of Old Testament judgment theophaines” (Niehaus, Sinai, 328.). In his discussion of three New Testament mountains that hark back to the Old Testament, the mount of the beatitudes, the mount of transfiguration, and the mount of crucifixion, Niehaus points out, “Just as those first two ‘mountains’ [beatitudes and transfiguration] alluded to events of Sinai, so does the third (Mt 27:45–56). . . . We note here that it contains key elements of an Old Testament theophany. In particular the darkness (Mt 27:45) and earthquake (v. 51) echo the ‘dark cloud’ (Ex 19:16) above Sinai and the ‘violent trembling’ of the mountain (v. 18) as God descended upon it” (Niehaus, Sinai, 340.). And again Niehaus refers to the Matthew passage as reminiscent of Sinai: “Darkness and earthquake not only remind us of God’s descent on Mount Sinai; they also elicit a human response that we have come to expect in any Sinaitic theophany: that of fear. When the centurion and others saw the earthquake and all that had happened, ‘they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God”’ (Mt 27:54; cf. Mk 15:39; Lk 23:47)” (Niehaus, Sinai, 364.).

The association of the events recorded in Matt. 27:51–54 with the Old Testament theophanies, particularly at Sinai, once again argue that these events, including the raising of the bodies of some of the saints, must be taken as literal, historical events. To deny the historicity of these events would be to rob the text of this significant connection, particularly of demonstrating that Christ is not only the Resurrection and the Life, but He is also the Judge Who will judge the world—He is God in the flesh.


About Tom Howe

Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages at Southern Evangelical Seminary
This entry was posted in Inerrancy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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