(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The resurrection of the sleeping saints from their tombs

51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was split from top to bottom into two, and the earth shook, and the rocks were split,

52 and the tombs were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised,

53 and coming out from the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and were disclosed to many.

What does the peculiar and commonly overlooked incident of the resurrection of the saints at the time of Jesus’ death (Matt. 27:51-53) tell us about the meaning of Easter? From a historical-critical perspective the little story is highly problematic and has had even some more conservative commentators scratching their heads and wondering what it’s doing there. A.B. Bruce tentatively suggested more than 100 years ago that we “seem here to be in the region of Christian legend”. R.T. France thinks that the historical character of the account must be a “matter of faith, not of objective demonstration”. Even Leon Morris seems reluctant directly to affirm its historicity, preferring to say that Matthew is “giving expression to his conviction that Jesus is Lord over both the living and the dead”.1

This seems to be the consensus: the incident looks historically suspect (what sort of resurrection was this? were they raised before Jesus was raised? what happened to them? why is there no mention of it elsewhere?), but that doesn’t matter too much because its significance lies in the theology. As Hagner writes: “The problem is that the event makes little historical sense, whereas what does make sense is the theological point that is being made.” It probably has to be understood, therefore, as a “piece of theology set forth as history”.2

On the whole, I am inclined to agree with Hagner, though to say that the “event makes little historical sense” is not quite the same as saying that it could not have happened. But what exactly is the theological point that is being made? Is Matthew simply asserting, as Morris thinks, that Jesus “is Lord over both the living and the dead”? Is the incident to be taken as a prefiguring of a final resurrection and a final victory over death, which is roughly where Hagner ends up?

Commentators usually assimilate the resurrection of the saints to the resurrection of Jesus. We think we know what Jesus’ resurrection means—the final victory over death, etc.—so that must be the theological significance of this dubious account of the saints coming out of their tombs. But I think that we may gain more by turning that assumption around and arguing that the significance of Jesus’ resurrection is to be found in this very peculiar, very Jewish, and very biblical story of the saints being raised from their opened tombs.

Three Old Testament passages shed light on the eschatological significance of the episode: Isaiah 26:19, Daniel 12:2, and Ezekiel 37:12-14.

1. Isaiah 26:19 is part of a prophecy of the restoration of Jerusalem and of Judah, when the impious and the strong cities are brought down, and the humble and godly are lifted up. The people suffer a “small affliction” of God’s “chastening”, like a woman who cries out in labour, before giving birth to salvation (26:17-18 LXX). Then we have a statement about the dead being raised from their tombs (only in LXX) as part of the healing of Israel:

The dead shall rise (anastēsontai), and those in the tombs (mnēmeiois) shall be raised (egerthēsontai), and those in the earth shall rejoice; for the dew from you is healing to them, but the land of the impious will fall. (Is. 26:19 LXX)

But not quite yet. Isaiah urges the people to hide themselves for a while, “until the wrath of the Lord has passed”.

For look, the Lord from his holy place brings his wrath upon those who dwell on the earth; the earth will disclose its blood and will not cover the slain. (26:21 LXX)

The raising of the dead from the tombs, therefore, belongs to a narrative of impending wrath: God will defeat the godless nation that has oppressed his people (in this context probably the Assyrians), he will remove unrighteousness from Israel, and he will restore his people. The unrighteous dead—the powerful enemies of Israel—”will not see life, nor will physicians raise them up (anastēsōsin)”; they have been brought down and destroyed. But Israel’s dead will be raised, and those who are “in the land” will rejoice.

2. We have a similar scenario in Daniel 12. At the climax of the crisis of the covenant provoked by Antiochus Epiphanes, Israel will face an unprecedented “day of affliction” when the “whole people will be lifted up”, and there will be a limited resurrection of Israel’s dead:

And many of those sleeping in the flat of the earth will rise, some to everlasting life, others to disgrace, and others to dispersion and everlasting shame. (Dan. 12:2)

Jesus alluded to this passage in the parable of the weeds: when Israel is judged “at the close of the age”, the Law-breakers will be thrown into the fiery furnace, but the “righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:41-43; cf. Dan. 12:3). As in Isaiah 26 this “resurrection” forms part of the salvation of the people of God during a period of eschatological crisis, when they are threatened with destruction by a pagan empire.

3. The thought of dead Israel being brought from opened tombs is found in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, where it functions more clearly as a metaphor for the spiritual transformation of the nation following judgment and exile:

Therefore, prophesy, and say, This is what the Lord says: Behold, I am opening your tombs and will bring you up out of your tombs and bring you into the land of Israel, and you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves so that I might bring my people up out of their graves. And I will give my spirit into you, and you shall live, and I will place you upon your own land, and you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will act, says the Lord. (Ezek. 37:12-14 NETS)

So whether or not the event actually occurred, the Old Testament background suggests that the story of the raising of the dead from their tombs at the time of crucifixion has national significance. At a time of eschatological crisis, in a manner that lies somewhere on a spectrum between the symbolic and the literal, the dead are raised from their tombs as a sign that YHWH is acting decisively through impending tumultuous events—right through at least to the first horizon of the Jewish War—to judge and restore his people. Given this narrative framework and the likelihood that the story derives in some measure from Jewish apocalyptic tradition, I would argue that the resurrected “saints” are to be understood as righteous Jews who died at the hands of Israel’s enemies—the Greeks or more recently the Romans. In Daniel 7 the “saints of the Most High” are those Jews who were persecuted by Antiochus Epiphanes for their loyalty to the covenant.

Finally, I would suggest that Matthew intends his readers to understand that the death and resurrection of Jesus was like—was congruent with—the death and resurrection of those who would be raised from their tombs during a time of crisis, when God would judge and restore his people. The resurrection of the saints certainly points to a final victory over death, but in context its significance is historically constrained: it means, in effect, that Israel will not be defeated by the death and destruction of the coming period of wrath; on the contrary, through this crisis YHWH will establish his people in newness of life. That is the theological frame in which the death and resurrection of Jesus is to be understood.

  • 1. For the references see D.A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary, 850-51.
  • 2. D.A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary, 851.


Hello Andrew

I've been reading your blog regularaly for a while now.  Thanks for your insights as we all 'wrestle with text & tradtion(s)', so to speak.  I've also really benefited from a link you gave to: Martin Scott's Eschatology Podcasts: http://3generations.eu/blog/?page_id=2640. 

Re: this blog. Could it be accurate to say that Matt 27:51-53 might be something like an "apocalyptic midrash"?  That Matthew and his hearers (being Jewish, with Matthew writing to fellow Jews); that they may have understood the "literal  symbolism" in a way like you've outlined above?  

Whether Matthew used "apocalyptic midrash" or not, you've got me to thinking on this.  Thanks!       



Rick, I’m not sure what the exact implications of calling this passage “midrash” would be. My suggestion, however, is that what is going on here is not so much (re-)interpretation of the Old Testament passages in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection as (re-)interpretation of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the light of the Old Testament passages. The first approach would amount, in effect, to a Christianizing of scripture; the second would be Matthew’s way of assimilating Jesus’ death and resurrection into the narrative of judgment and restoration.

Another thing to consider here is the relation between event and interpretation. Much of what happens in the Gospels is interpreted in the light of the Old Testament. The problem this creates is that it is not always clear what is to be taken as historical event and what is to be taken as interpretive or midrashic (?) fiction. Is there a historical kernel to the story of the resurrection of the saints—perhaps just the breaking open of tombs by an earthquake, the exposure of corpses—that has been overlaid with symbolic details? It would be very difficult to say with any confidence. As so often, the question of what the passage means is much more productive than the question of whether something actually happened.

Please be aware that any tine God, Jesus, Jesus Christ the Holy Spirit or any referrence to any of the diety is spoken of it is referrenced as a capital H as in He, Him, His, His own, Hisself etc. John 3:16 is an excellent example.

This also indicates what the author of Matthew thought of the destination of the dead. They were in their graves awaiting resurrection, not brought down from heaven.

Quite right, Paul. Peter?

The exception proves the rule. Or rather, where was Jesus when his body was in the tomb, but before Easter Sunday? (Quite wrong, Pau)l.

At risk of trivializing this, surely Jesus was simply dead. He was in the tomb. But as Peter later said, Jesus was not abandoned to Hades, he was not left in the grave, he was not left dead, his flesh did not see corruption (the women only went to embalm his body two days after he died); he was raised to new life (Acts 2:31).

Was he simply dead? What about 1 Peter 3:18?

So we have a passage with information that seemingly contradicts your ideas and your response is "that passage proves the opposite of its clear meaning because it is an exception."

How do I answer that? 

Look, I don't know where Jesus was when his body was in his tomb, and neither do you. The issue that I brought up was what the author of Matthew thought about the fate of the dead. Apparently he didn't think that the immortal souls of the dead were in the sky, because they came to life from the ground. 

A friend of mine was confused over the idea of there being a BODILY resurrection of the early church martyrs, he agreed that the early church martyrs WERE resurrected and are with Christ now. He said, "I think the 'first resurrection' is metaphorical in that it is merely speaking of the immediate vindication of those who were martyred in the first century and their high status in the kingdom seated with Jesus at the present time. But it isn't bodily, yet (otherwise there would be some kind of historical evidence for a bodily resurrection of martyrs in the first century, just like we have historical evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus)."

Could you help me clarify this for him?

Jim, I’m not sure I can give a satisfactory answer to that question. The hope is generated that those who suffer on account of their witness to Christ in the foreseeable future of the New Testament—that is, up to the defeat of paganism—will share not only in Christ’s sufferings and death but also in his resurrection and reign. Did Paul expect a visible resurrection of the martyrs, in the same manner as Jesus’ resurrection? Does John’s symbolic language in Revelation 20:4-6 point in that direction? Did the authors of the New Testament believe their apocalypticism? Or did they understand that it constituted a symbolic account of more mundane events? What sort of narrative do we have in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17? These are very difficult questions to answer.

My assumption is that we are to think of the resurrection of the martyrs as being essentially of the same kind as Jesus’ resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:35-49), but I have to accept that there was apparently no physical and visible resurrection of the martyrs in the manner attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. In view of that, we might as well call it a metaphorical resurrection. But if we are going to use the same language of vindication, status in the kingdom, etc., then surely that is tantamount to saying that they have shared in Jesus’ resurrection?

One way to solve exegetical problems with this passage is to use the text in Codex Sinaiticus: και2532 πολλα4183 σωματα4983 των3588 κεκοιμημενων2837 αγιων40 ηγερθησαν1453 και2532 εξελθοντες1831 εκ1537 των3588 μνημειων3419 μετα3326 την3588 εγερσιν1454 αυτου846 εις1519 την3588 αγιαν40 πολιν4172 και2532 ενεφανισθησαν1718 πολλοις4183 (The text [but without the Strong numbering] was taken from that given along with digital images of the manuscript at http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/.)

Since Sinaiticus leaves out the words “and the memorial tombs were opened” and “entered,” a much easier to understand translation is possible: Literal rendering: “And many bodies of sleeping holy ones were raised up, and, projecting from the tombs, after the raising of Him, in the holy city also they were made known to many.” Paraphrased rendering: “And many bodies of holy ones were thrown out and projected from their tombs. After Christ’s resurrection, they also became known to many in Jerusalem.”

That “projecting” (εξελθοντες1831) is an accurate rendering of the Greek is shown by its usage elsewhere with this meaning. εξελθοντες1831 is from ἐξέρχομαι1831, which has this as one definition: “Of inanimate entities go out … Of a sword ἐ. ἐκ τ. στόματος came out of [projected from] the mouth Rv 19:21” (BDAG Lexicon). That “made known” (ενεφανισθησαν1718 is passive voice; from ἐμφανίζω1718) is an accurate rendering is also seen from a definition of it: “Declare, make known” (Thayer Lexicon).

It was no doubt due to restricted sabbath day travel that some who saw the dead heaved up from their tombs at the time of Jesus’ death did not come into Jerusalem and report the occurrence until the first day of the week, after Jesus was raised. Those within a sabbath day’s journey (3,000 feet) of Jerusalem would not have gone out to a burial area on the first day of the festival of Unfermented Cakes, for by doing so they chanced contracting ritual uncleanness by touching or being close to a grave, which would make such a person not able to enjoy the festival and fellowship.

It’s an interesting argument, Greg.

  • ἐγείρω may be an odd word to use in the context. Are there instances of it being used in this way?
  • It’s harder to translate ηγερθησαν as “thrown out” when we have μετα την εγερσιν αυτου (“after his resurrection”) a few words later.
  • Surely εξελθοντες describes movement? The sword in Revelation 19:21 comes out in order to be used. It doesn’t simply “project out”. If the movement (present participle) accompanies the becoming known to many, it can’t have happened earlier. This seems to me a farly substantial objection to the interpretation.
  • I’m not sure that the bodies of the dead can be the subject of ενεφανισθησαν if it means “were reported”. You’d have to look more widely at usage.
  • εις την αγιαν πολιν is a little hard to explain. Why not just εν or the dative?
  • The other big question would be which represents the more likely revision. Is a scribe more likely to have introduced the idea of mass resurrection here or to have tried to obscure it?

Thank you for your insightful comments, Andrew. They have caused me to reconsider what I have written. Since the majority of manuscripts include the words omitted by Sinaiticus, this leads to the possibility that the copyist of this passage in Sinaiticus purposely omitted these words because he sought to obscure any tendency toward understanding that this was referring to a mass resurrection. It would be more logical to accept the majority reading, so I am now going to offer a rendering of the generally-accepted text:

A literal translation: “And the tombs were opened and and many bodies of sleeping holy ones were raised up, even coming out of the tombs. After the raising of Him, they came to public knowledge in the holy city also; they were reported to many.” Paraphrased rendering: “And the tombs burst open, causing many bodies of deceased holy ones to be lifted up and even thrown therefrom. After Christ’s resurrection, they became public knowledge in the holy city Jerusalem also, being reported to many.” (Notice that I enter a stop after ‘coming out of the tombs.’)

Support for our rendering: “Raised up”: This is ηγερθησαν1453, and is from ἐγείρω1453, which has the meaning of “to move someth[ing] from its position by exerting effort in overcoming resistance, lift up … (Jos. Bell. 5, 471 speaks in the pass. of the dust that ‘is raised’). Cp. Mt 12:11” (BDAG). Josephus’ usage of ἐγείρω1453 in the passive voice is similar to here in Matthew, for both are referring to a force from the earth (Josephus to an underground tunnel collapese) that ejects substance upward: “to men oun prwton meta tou koniortou kapnoV hgeireto.” “Now at the first [after the collapse] there arose a very thick smoke and dust” (Antiq of Jews 5, 11, 4 [5, 471]). Matt 12:11 refers to lifting a sheep out of a pit.

“Came to public knowledge in the holy city”: This is εισηλθον1525, a form of εἰσέρχομαι1525, and can have the meaning of entering the realm of public knowledge: “Metaphorically used … of entrance into any condition, state of things, society … to come before the public: 2 John 1:7 (Rec.); to come to men, of Christ, John 18:37; eiserchomenos eis ton kosmon, when he cometh into the world … Heb. 10:5” (Thayer 2ag). Christ’s ‘coming into the world’ in Heb. 10:5 happened when Christ was baptized and came into public view (cf John 1:6-10). Not that Jesus had been a recluse and unknown to people before, but now, what he could do and what he had to say, became public knowledge. His ‘coming’ was not that of movement in space, but of movement into the sphere of public knowledge. 2John 7 in RT reads, “For many deceivers are entered [εισηλθον1525] into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (KJ). These had entered the realm of public knowledge in John’s time; spatial movement was not a requisite. Similarly, these holy ones metaphorically came into public view in Jerusalem when ‘they were made known to many’ there.

Being the “holy city” and not having tombs therein (with few exceptions; see below), this expulsion of corpses would not have been observed within Jerusalem, and people would not have gone out among the tombs during a festival for fear of becoming ceremonially unclean and unable to celebrate the festival or enjoy fellowship. Neither would people have entered into Jerusalem from anywhere farther than a Sabbath day’s journey (3,000 ft) on that intervening Sabbath day. Thus, Matthew notes that the knowledge of this occurrence came to Jerusalem “also” (και2532) when the report was made therein after the intervening Sabbath.

“Jerusalem … No graves could be maintained there except those of the house of David and the prophetess Huldah, which existed since the days of the early prophets” (Talmud, Aboth 5, 8 [incorporating the comments of R. Nathan]).

“Were reported”: This is ενεφανισθησαν1718 passive voice, from ἐμφανίζω1718, and can be defined as meaning: “Report … Pass[ive], GDI 2502 B 41” (Liddel & Scott 3). This reference in L & S is to “enefanizqh toiV ieromnamosi ta omologa.” “The compacts were reported to the magistrates” (Sammlung der griechischen Dialekt-Inschriften [Anthology of Inscriptions in Greek Dialects] by Hermann Cellitz §2502, vol. 2, p. 659, Gottingen, Germany, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Publishing, 1899). If details regarding a compact can be reported to others, so can details concerning dead bodies. In this passage in Matthew, details of what had been heretofore hidden (the corpses) were reported. Two other Scriptural passages use ἐμφανίζω1718 in regard to what had been hidden up to that time (conspiracies to commit murder), the details of which were then reported: “Don’t tell anyone that you have reported [ἐμφανίζω1718] this [the conspiracy against Paul] to me” (Acts 23:22; NIV). “Esther … declared [ἐμφανίζω1718] to the king the matter of the conspiracy” (Esther 2:22; LXX; Brenton).

I think these references give sufficient support for my translation, though I do admit that ἐμφανίζω1718 in the sense I am rendering it is not the usual sense (and this probably led the scribe of the passage in Sinaiticus to omit it). It would seem to be a matter of choosing this somewhat unusual usage of this word over rendering it and the rest of the passage in such a way as to support a mass resurrection. The idea of a mass resurrection at that time is frought with so many problems and contradictions of the rest of Scripture that choosing a somewhat unlikely rendering of a single word is much to be preferred to rendering an entire passage in a way that creates disharmony in Scripture.

In regard to εις1519, which translates “in” in the phrase, “in the holy city,” we read of it referring to “direction toward something without ref[erence] to bodily motion … after verbs of saying, teaching, proclaiming, preaching, etc. … διαμαρτύρεσθαι εἰς Ἰερουσαλήμ, μαρτυρεῖν εἰς Ῥώμην bear witness in Jerusalem, Rome Ac 23:11” (BDAG 1bb). Rending εισηλθον1525 as “came to public knowledge” makes it a ‘verb of saying,’ enabling εις1519 to be used in this sense.