Making Sense of a Strange Biblical Text2
One of the more challenging texts in the NT is found in Matthew 27:51-54. It concerns a rather bizarre event in the wake of our Lord’s death on the cross.
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 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. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
Who were these “saints” and what was the nature and meaning of their “resurrection”?
There are three ways of translating the Greek text, each of which yields a different sequence of events.
(1) Some argue that the saints are raised when Christ dies but remain in the tombs until after his resurrection. Only then do they depart from the tombs and enter the city. If so, one wonders what they were doing in the tombs, and why.
(2) Others say the saints are raised when Christ dies, leave their tombs at that time, and go somewhere else in the vicinity of Jerusalem until after Jesus is raised. They then make their appearance in the city.
(3) My opinion is that the saints are raised only after and because of Christ’s resurrection. They enter into the city at that time (i.e., on Sunday). We should put a full stop or period after v. 52a, as seen in the translation of the ESV – “The tombs also were opened.” In other words, the opening of the tombs and the resurrection of the saints do not occur simultaneously, on Good Friday, but are separated by the three days in which the body of Jesus lay dead.
It may seem strange that the tombs are opened on Good Friday when Jesus dies but the saints are not raised until Sunday after Jesus is raised. But we must remember that the breaking open of the tombs was designed to signify Christ’s breaking the power of sin by his death, not to let the resurrected saints out. If these saints were raised in supernatural, glorified bodies, as I believe they were, they would not have been impeded by material substance anymore than Jesus was. The rock covering the tomb of Jesus was removed not to let Jesus out, but to let the witnesses in.
Thus, my conclusion is that the graves were opened at the moment of Christ’s death to bear witness to the power of his sacrifice over the tyranny of sin. “The later appearance of the saints in the city then demonstrates the power of his resurrection, by which God fulfills his promises to the saints of old and through which he promises resurrection to all who fall asleep in Jesus” (John Wenham, 152).
So, with what kind of bodies were they raised, and what happened to them?
If they were raised like Lazarus, with bodies the same as before their death, they most likely died yet again, or they could have been translated into heaven like Elijah was.
However, it seems most likely that they were raised with glorified and supernatural bodies, identical with that of Jesus. If so, they were probably translated to heaven or possibly constituted a glorious retinue for Jesus at his ascension.
Some object to this latter view on the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:20 – “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” But this is a valid objection only if we assume that the saints were raised on Friday when Jesus died, but before he himself was raised. On the other hand, if, as I have argued, these saints were raised and entered the city only after and because of Christ’s resurrection, then he is certainly the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Finally, who were these “saints”? The use of this word to identify them hints that they were certain well-known OT and intertestamental Jewish believers, spiritual heroes and martyrs (such as, perhaps, John the Baptist). But there is no way we can be dogmatic on this point.