As a child I’d often convince my parents to give me one Christmas gift early, typically after our church’s Christmas Eve service. Wisely they would give me a good gift, but not the best one—that would be saved for the next day. I got a foretaste, but not the full meal.
Something like this happens in the peculiar scene narrated only by Matthew right after the death of Jesus:
The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matt. 27:52–53)
Though indeed weird at first glance, there is a reasonably clear path through its maze. Let’s unpack three key questions.
1. Did This Really Happen?
One of the biggest controversies about this passage in recent years concerns its historicity. There are two views.
Pointing to portrayals of heroic deaths in Greco-Roman literature, some argue that the scene is essentially apocalyptic CGI, intended by Matthew not as a record of real events, but as a kind of “special effects” symbolizing the dramatic significance of Jesus’s death.
Although the apocalyptic flavor of the scene is important, a better argument can be made that Matthew intends this scene to be taken as plain, historical fact.
First, there’s little dispute today that the entire passion narrative fits in the genre of a historical account.
Second, Matthew goes out of his way to emphasize how the surrounding details and this scene had eyewitnesses: the centurion and others “saw” the earthquake and everything else (Matt. 27:54), and the resurrected saints “appeared to many” (27:53)—language quite similar to 1 Corinthians 15:5–8.
Matthew intends this scene to be taken as plain, historical fact.
Finally, this scene is part of one sentence that begins in verse 51, with each part linked by the word “and”: curtain torn and earthquake strikes and tombs opened and saints raised and appeared in the city. The torn curtain is narrated in the other Gospels as historical, so the “CGI” view would require Matthew to switch genres to apocalyptic symbolism mid-sentence, with no grammatical signal. The Gospels do, indeed, contain embedded genres like parables and sermons, but they’re clearly signaled (“he spoke a parable”). And the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24–25) has apocalyptic elements, but it looks forward, whereas Matthew 27:52–53 looks backward in time.
In short, there’s no reason to doubt that Matthew intends us to read this as real history.
2. What Exactly Happened?
Though historical, the scene still presents us with some puzzle pieces to fit together.
Jesus breathes his last (Matt. 23:50), and immediately the temple curtain is torn and an earthquake strikes (23:51). This forceful earthquake causes the tombs to crack open—understandably, given that many tombs in Palestine were cut into rock (John 11:38). These tombs housed “many bodies of the saints” (23:52). The word “saints” (or “holy ones”) is often used for the pious people of God. Given that their bodies were still in the tombs, these saints were likely not patriarchs from centuries past, but more recent followers of Jesus.
Given that their bodies were still in the tombs, these saints were likely not patriarchs from centuries past, but more recent followers of Jesus.
After Jesus’s own resurrection, these saints “went” and “appeared” in the holy city (Matt. 23:53). Some have wondered whether these saints were “raised” (23:52) on Good Friday but then sat in opened tombs before going into the city on Easter Sunday—odd behavior indeed.
A better scenario emerges when we notice how Matthew interlocks this scene with the next chapter: namely, earthquakes coinciding with the tomb-opening of both the saints and Jesus (Matt. 27:51; 28:2), and the subtle foreshadowing of Jesus’s resurrection in 27:53, which Matthew doesn’t actually narrate until 28:5–6. He times the saints’ resurrection appearances after Jesus’s own but narrates theirs out of order to deal with these saints in one fell swoop, and thereby maintain focus on Jesus in the next chapter.
The sequence, then, is as follows:
Jesus dies → saints’ tombs open → Jesus’s tomb opens → Jesus is raised → saints are raised → eyewitness appearances of both.
This preserves Jesus’s place as the true “firstfruits” of resurrection (1 Cor. 15:23), rather than certain other saints preceding him.
Matthew doesn’t tell us what happens to these saints after they appear in the “holy city.” Some suggest this was their final resurrection and that they later went to heaven with Jesus. Others suggest these saints were only temporarily brought back to life and would eventually die and await the final resurrection—like Lazarus, among many others (John 11). Certainty is difficult because Matthew is silent. What we do know is that they appear in Jerusalem, the mother-city that had rejected Jesus, as proof of his victory.
3. What Does It Mean?
Having attempted to clarify the historical details of the scene, I offer three perspectives on its interpretation.
a. Theology (Proper)
The main actor of this scene is God himself. The verbs in this passage (“was torn,” “shook,” “were split,” “were opened,” “were raised”) are all passive and imply God as the acting agent. His power breaks through even when all seems to be lost—just as he will be the one who raises Jesus from the dead in the next chapter (cf. Rom. 8:11).
The darkening of the sky (Matt. 27:45) and rock-splitting earthquake (27:51) evoke the cosmic upheaval accompanying the Day of the Lord (e.g., Isa. 5:25; 24:18; Joel 2:10; Nah. 1:5–6). Likewise the end-times raising of the dead is anticipated in many Old Testament texts (e.g. 1 Sam. 2:6; Pss. 16:10; 49:15; Job 19:25–26; Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2). Indeed, Ezekiel prophesies that revived bodies will visit the Holy Land (Ezek. 37:12).
But this apocalyptic coloring doesn’t make Matthew’s scene unhistorical. Rather, it deliberately invokes Old Testament ideas to convey the significance of what is taking place. The eschatological Day has been inaugurated: the judgment of God has been brought forward in time, expressed at the cross, and the hope of future resurrection has appeared in part.
The foreshadowing of resurrection in this scene—immediately after Christ breathes his last—connects victory to the seeming defeat.
The insertion of this peculiar scene between Jesus’s death and resurrection shows the power of both: his death breaks our tombs open, bringing us out from death’s curse; and his new life makes possible our new life. Indeed, the foreshadowing of resurrection in this scene—immediately after Christ breathes his last—connects victory to the seeming defeat.
These raised saints entered earthly Jerusalem where the temple veil had been torn (Matt. 27:51). The way into God’s presence was opened. But Matthew’s peculiar scene is only a foretaste. The full meal will come in heavenly Jerusalem, when God’s true temple will be open and unveiled (Rev. 11:19), and the resurrected saints will dwell with the triune God forever.