Good question....

...SURELY that thing about all those resurrected people walking around in Jerusalem after Jesus' death is bogus, right?

[created 4/8/97 | great Pushback submitted Jul/2010]
Someone wrote in...

In spite of my view that skeptical objections to miracles are largely without foundation, I have struggled lately with Matthew 27:52-53. I can understand and sympathize with non-believers like XXXXX who consider this passage to be blatantly unbelievable. Unlike Jesus' miracles, which are organically related to his ministry, this story seems "stuck on" and apparently is so bizarre that Harper's Bible Commentary actually advises us to ignore it. If a passage such as this appeared in another claimed revelation I doubt that Christians would take it as anything but a very tall tale. I'd appreciate any ideas on how to deal with this passage when I'm trying to get a doubter to accept the reasonableness of the Christian position on New Testament miracles.
ZZZ, thanks for your question and your interest in sharing the message of our Wondrous One...

Matthew is written to the Jew (generally) so we should look there first for some clue as to what is going on...

Once we start looking around for clues in the Jewish background, a strange situation develops-the passage creates the opposite problem for us! In other words, the passage will seem to be so tightly-woven into Matthew's portrayal of the Messiah that we might have to ask why Mark and Luke didn't mention it!

Let's first make some notes about the passage...

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. 52 The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

A few quick notes about what we DO know:

  1. Jesus dies with a loud cry.
  2. The veil of the Temple of torn in two from top to bottom.
  3. There was an earthquake of some sort (common for that area).
  4. The rocks split (a more severe earthquake)
  5. Bodies of many (but not all) Jewish saints came back to life (of some type-natural or supernatural)
  6. They come out of the tombs in which they had been buried.
  7. They went into the "holy city" (undoubtedly Jerusalem)
  8. They became visible to many people (but not all).
  9. The events above concerning the raising/appearing of the saints occurred AFTER the resurrection (most probable punctuation/division of the verse-see standard commentaries).

And a few notes about what we DO NOT know:

  1. How many were raised.
  2. Whether they were in natural-but-mortal bodies (e.g. Lazarus), natural-but-immortal bodies (e.g. post-resurrection, pre-ascension Jesus), or supernatural/glorified bodies (e.g. post-ascension Jesus in Revelation).
  3. How long they remained on earth (till Jesus ascended? Until they died?).
  4. Whether they only appeared to believing Jews (cf. Acts 10.40-41) or anyone.
  5. Why ALL the saints were not raised?

(Matthew is not particularly interested in satisfying our curiosity-instead, as we shall see, he is trying to confront us with the awesomeness of Christ's work!)

So, let's look at this passage from a few different data-points:

  1. First of all, in a major section of Jewish thought of the day (i.e. the rabbinical strains that later became Mishnaic Judaism) the bodily resurrection of OT Jewish saints would occur when messiah came. They literally expected a bodily resurrection (like that in the passage under discussion) to occur at the revealing of the messiah...

    Indeed, one rabbi was recorded as saying this:

    "R. Jeremiah commanded, 'When you bury me, put shoes on my feet, and give me a staff in my hand, and lay me on one side; that when Messiah comes I may be ready." (cited in Lightfoot, _Commentary of the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, in.loc.)
    Much of such rabbinical lore had an element of truth in it; and this was no exception...the Messiah DID produce SOME resurrections of SOME the saints--but only as a first-fruits of His work...

    So, in keeping with Matthew's Jewish-oriented message, it makes sense for him to record this action of the Messiah.

  2. This event actually DOES mesh 'organically' with the general topics in NT teachings: Jesus teaching about resurrection to Mary in John; the Christ as firstfruits in Paul; and Christ leading 'captivity captive' (OT saints in Sheol released at the TRUE atonement)...

  3. These types of resurrection people (probably in normal form, like Lazarus was raised) form the basis for one argument of the first apologists of the faith, Quadratus. He was an very early 2nd century apologist (writing sometime during the reign of Hadrian, 117-138ad), and we have only one fragment of his (cited from GASC:36):
    "But our Savior's works were permanent, for they were real. Those who had been cured or rose from the dead not only appeared to be cured or raised but were permanent, not only during our Savior's stay on earth, but also after his departure. They remained for a considerable period, so that some of them even reached our times."
    Now it would be highly unusual for someone raised in 33 AD to live naturally another 90-100 years (to the times of Quadratus' writings) but this is not necessarily the scope of his reference to 'our times'...this latter phrase could often mean plus-or-minus 50-75 years, allowing SOME of these saints to die naturally again (as would have the resurrected Lazarus, the widow's son, etc.) after a few decades.

    The point is that resurrections are not isolated phenomena--they were a bit more widespread than the few individual cases mentioned in the gospels would lead us to believe...Eutychus by Paul, the group at the Crucifixion--indeed, even Ireneaus--a half century later--could write of resurrections in Christian Churches (A.H. 2.32.4)...

    Indeed, stories and legends of these risen saints circulated and were embellished over time. They show up in several of the NT apocryphal works (e.g. The Greek Apocalypse of Ezra 7.1-2, Gospel of Nicodemus 17ff). For example, in this later work (Gospel of Nicodemus/Acts of Pilate), there is the story of Simeon and his sons (living in Arimathea), who were raised at that time, whose tombs were still open (for inspection!), and who wrote sworn testimony to their resurrection. While many of these stories are no doubt fanciful embellishments of the passage in Matthew (apocryphal writings generally "filled in the gaps" left by the biblical writers), there may be some historical core behind such related stories as this one about Simeon.

  4. Paul's argument in Col 2.15:" And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross." MIGHT find a reference to this 'public' display of the resurrection power of Jesus.

  5. Its tight coupling in the narrative with the torn veil, suggests that it too is part of the dramatic display of God's 'change of program' for His longer is access to God 'covered with a veil' and no longer are His saints covered with 'the veil of death'...

  6. It is this last point that tips us off to what Matthew is likely demonstrating/pointing out in this passage: that the rising/appearing of the saints is INTIMATELY CONNECTED with both the literary texture of the passage AND with the ministry of the Jewish Messiah...

    • The connection with the preceding image (i.e. the earthquake and rocks) shows up in the Jewish connection between the two in the thought of the day. So Raymond Brown, in his 1,600 page magisterial work on the Death of the Messiah, gives us the archeological background in DM:1123-1124:
      The connection of the tomb openings with the preceding rending of the rocks is splendidly visible in the Dura Europos synagogue wall-paintings that portray the raising of the dead as part of the enlivening of the dry bones in Ezek 37--a 3d-cent. AD tableau that is very helpful in understanding how Matt and/or his readers might imagine the scene he is narrating. There in the splitting of a mountain covered by trees (almost surely the Mount of Olives rent by an earthquake), rocks are rent, thus opening up tombs burrowed into the sides of the mountain and exposing bodies of the dead and their parts. A figure is depicted who may be the Davidic Messiah (see Ezek 37:24-25) bringing about this raising of the dead. Earlier and contemporary with the writing of Matt there is testimony to the importance that Ezek 37 had for the just who died for their convictions about God. At Masada, where Jewish Zealots made their last stand against the Roman armies in AD 73, in the floor of the synagogue were found fragments of a scroll on which was written Ezekiel's account of his vision of the raising of the dead bones. Consequently, even apart from the Dura Europos picturization, Ezek 37:12-13 may be the key passage behind Matt's description both in this line and in what follows, for it offers the only opening of tombs (as distinct from the simple raising of the dead) described in the OT. The people of God are assured that they will come to know the Lord because: "I will open your tombs [mnema], and I will bring you up out of your tombs, and I will lead you into the land of Israel."
    • Its connection with the messianic ministry of Jesus (of primary concern to Matthew) is also seen:
      The coming of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus was understood not as the final manifestation of the kingdom (i.e., the culmination when the Son of Man would gather before him all the nations, assigning those who are to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, as in 25:31-34) but as an inbreaking inaugurating and anticipating it. Similarly, this raising of "many bodies" as Jesus dies is not the universal final resurrection but an inbreaking of God's power signifying that the last times have begun and the judgment has been inaugurated. [DM:1126]
    • And finally, its connection with the presentation motif of Matthew (i.e. relating the events surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus to its OT background) is seen through the explicit Ezekiel imagery:
      Matt's second motive in adding v. 53 was the fulfillment of Scripture. Above I pointed out how much Ezek 37 with its creative description of the enlivening of the dry bones influenced Jewish imagination in picturing the resurrection of the dead. The first part of Ezek 37:12-13, "I will open your tombs," probably shaped the third line of the quatrain of Matt 27:51b-52b, "And the tombs were opened." But the Ezek passage continues: "And I will bring you up out of your tombs, and I will lead you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord." Even as elsewhere Matt enhances the scriptural background and flavoring of material taken from Mark, so here scripturally he goes beyond the quatrain by offering in 27:53 the fulfillment of the rest of the Ezek passage: "And having come out from the tombs, . . . they entered into the holy city [of Jerusalem]." Another biblical passage may have shaped Matt's addition, especially the last clause "and they were made visible to many," i.e., Isa 26:19 (LXX): "Those in the tombs shall be raised, and those in the land [or on the earth] shall rejoice." Thus in what he has added to Mark (both the quatrain taken over from popular tradition and his own commentary on it), Matt has developed the theological insight. In apocalyptic language and imagery borrowed from Scripture he teaches that the death of Jesus and his resurrection ("raising") marked the beginning of the last times and of God's judgment...[DM:1140]
    Thus the passage finds connection with (1) the Jewish milieu, (2) the messianic mission of Jesus, and (3) the OT prophetic writings about the Messiah. Far from being simply 'stuck on', it is very much a part of the Jewish context in which Jesus ministered and in which Matthew wrote.

Overall the passage makes the theological connections clear for the reader. Brown summarizes this well, noting that this small passage...
...offered a dramatic way in which ordinary people familiar with OT thought could understand that the death of Jesus on the cross had introduced the day of the Lord with all its aspects, negative (divine wrath, judgment) and positive (conquest of death, resurrection to eternal life).' [DM:1137]
[Also, from this analysis, it should be quite clear as to why it did not show up in Luke-writing to the Gentiles, and in Mark-an abbreviated version of Peter's core preaching (written down by a Hellenistic Jew). It would not have been relevant to their literary purposes.]

In this small section, we see also a microcosm of the future: judgment will come (and we will be held accountable-each of us) and yet God has graciously made a 'way of escape,' created by the awesome death of the Messiah Jesus (for you, for me, and for your friend...)

Hope this helps,

glenn miller, 4/7/97
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