And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain fo the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matthew 27:50-53)Many times we -- comfortable moderns with a safe distance from the Bible -- take some of the things said by the gospels with a grain of salt. After all, if all the miraculous signs recorded at Jesus' death and resurrection had really occurred, wouldn't someone else have mentioned them?
Actually, other people did mention them; it's just a sign of our own unfamiliarity with the early church that such questions get raised. Here I'd like to spend a little time reviewing the mentions made of some of the miracles at Jesus' death and resurrection, focusing on documents written before the Council of Nicea. This is not an exhaustive list of the material, either; I consider it more of a "highlights" document containing some but not all of the materials readily available in the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF).
Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch
Antioch was an important center of early Christianity. Peter is reckoned as the first Bishop of Antioch, having taught there before he went to Rome. Ignatius, third bishop of Antioch, was a student of John the apostle, and was reported to have been made Bishop of Antioch by Peter. Of writings that survive and are attributed to him, seven are commonly reckoned as legitimate and authentic writings. From those letters of his reckoned as legitimate:
Letter to the Magnesians, Chapter 9:
… that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master – how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their teacher? And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, being come, raised them from the dead. (ANF Vol 1 p. 62)Letter to the Trallians, Chapter 9
He truly assumed a body, for ‘the Word was made flesh,’ and lived upon earth without sin. For says He, ‘Which of you convicteth me of sin?’ He did in reality both eat and drink. He was crucified and died under Pontius Pilate. He really, and not merely in appearance, was crucified, and died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. By those in heaven I mean such as are possessed of incorporeal natures; by those on earth, the Jews and Romans, and such persons as were present at that time when the Lord was crucified; and by those under the earth, the multitude that arose along with the Lord. For says the Scripture, ‘Many bodies of the saints that slept arose,’ their graves being opened. He descended, indeed, into Hades alone, but He arose accompanied by a multitude; and rent asunder that means of separation which had existed from the beginning of the world, and cast down its partition-wall. (ANF Vol 1 p. 70)
Sextus Julius Africanus
Africanus was a Christian historian born around 160 A.D. and living til around 240 A.D. He lived for a time in Jerusalem and in Emmaus. Speaking of Christ, he writes of the miracles associated with Jesus' death and resurrection, even citing non-Christian contemporary historians on their notice of various miracles:
As to His works severally, and His cures effected upon body and soul, and the mysteries of His doctrine, and the resurrection from the dead, these have been most authoritatively set forth by His disciples and apostles before us. On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of is History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the Passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? … Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Ceasar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth – manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? (ANF Vol 6 pp. 136-137)
Eusebius the Historian
Eusebius of Caesarea's greatest contribution to the church may well have been his extensive quotes of earlier documents, many of them now lost to us and preserved only by him. He preserves a record of a conversation involving Thaddaeus, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus:
And Thaddaeus said: For the present I will be silent, but, because I have been sent to preach the word of God, assemble me to-morrow all the people of thy city, and I will preach before them, and sow amongst them the word of life, and tell them about the coming of Christ, and how it took place; and about His mission, for what purpose he was sent by His father; and about His power and His deeds, and about the mysteries which He spake in the world, and by what power He wrought these things, and about His new preaching, and about His abasement and His humiliation, and how He humbled and emptied and abased Himself, and was crucified, and descended to Hades, and broke through the enclosure which had never been broken through before, and raised up the dead, and descended alone, and ascended with a great multitude to His Father. (ANF Vol 8 p. 653)
Alexander of Alexandria
Alexander of Alexandria died around 328 A.D. and so is not, like Thaddaeus, in a position to know for himself what happened in those days. But he does show that in the early church, the teaching of those others raised from the dead and the other miracles associated with Jesus' death and resurrection was taken for granted. If, as Africanus records, the earthquake and darkness were common knowledge and common memory even among the pagans, then we may better understand the early church's boldness in this.
For when our Lord was suffering upon the cross, the tombs were burst open, the infernal region was disclosed, the souls leapt forth, the dead returned to life, and many of them were seen in Jerusalem, whilst the mystery of the cross was being perfected; what time our Lord trampled upon death, dissolved the enmity, bound the strong man, and raised the trophy of the cross, His body being lifted up upon it, that the body might appear on high, and death to be depressed under the foot of flesh. Then the heavenly powers wondered, the angels were astonished, the elements trembled, every creature was shaken whilst they looked on this new mystery, and the terrific spectacle which was being enacted in the universe. Yet the entire people, as unconscious of the mystery, exulted over Christ in derision; although the earth was rocking, the mountains, the valleys, and the sea were shaken, and every creature of God was smitten with confusion. The lights of heaven were afraid, the sun fled away, the moon disappeared, the stars withdrew their shining, the day came to end; the angel in astonishment departed from the temple after the rending of the veil, and darkness covered the earth on which its Lord had closed His eyes. Meanwhile hell was with light resplendent, for thither had the star descended. The Lord, indeed, did not descend into hell in His body but in His Spirit. He forsooth is working everywhere, for whilst He raised the dead by His body, by His spirit was He liberating their souls. For when the body of the Lord was hung upon the cross, the tombs, as we have said, were opened; hell was unbarred. The dead received their life, the souls were sent back again into the world, and that because the Lord had conquered hell, had trodden down death, had covered the enemy with shame; therefore was it that the souls came forth from Hades, and the dead appeared upon the earth. (ANF Vol 6 p. 301)