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.