There is Something Strange about Jesus’ Death! What Happened in Matthew 27:52-53?

Jesus died–
the veil was torn–
there was an earthquake–
and immediate resurrection of saints!

The remarkable events recorded in some verses of Matthew 27, which occurred at the very moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, have been passionately debated for years. Scholars are ‘all over the map,’ so to speak, about what is really meant by this short description in the Bible’s first Gospel.

(50)”Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. (51)At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. (52)The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. (53)After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. (54)Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” (Matthew 27:50–54, NRSV).1

This written account not only contains inconsistencies, but the events concerning the saints are only described in the book of Matthew. There is some variation of all New Testament wording between various translations, mostly due to the fact that the original manuscripts of the New Testament were written letter-after-letter with no punctuation and no spacing between words, pages, or paragraphs. And of course, there were no divisions by verse numbers, either. Basically, all decisions on punctuation and division are the translator’s choices, as well as interpretation. Even so, let’s try to understand the meaning of the curtain tearing in verse 51, and then give attention to the resurrection event in verses 52 and 53.

The Curtain was Torn

The mentioned earthquake in verse 51 must have been a powerful one, because not only did the earth (soil) shake, but the rocks (bedrock) split. The curtain (veil) of the temple/tabernacle was torn from top to bottom, signifying an act of divine intention sent from heaven to earth, for if it was torn by human hands grabbing at the curtain to avoid falling (if even possible), most likely it would have been torn from the bottom to the top.

According to 1 Kings 6:19-20, the inner part of the sanctuary was about 30 feet high, so any curtains there would have to be about 30 feet long. But there has always been debate about which curtain Matthew refers to: the inner separating the Holy of Holies, or the outer separating the court of the gentiles from the inner working of the Temple. The Bible description is not specific.

Most commentators believe that the earthquake and tearing of the curtain signify “that the old system of law and sacrifice had become obsolete with the death and subsequent resurrection of the Messiah,”2 but there are other ideas, too. Some suggestions are: an act of divine judgment that foreshadows the destruction of the temple in AD 70; a removal of the barrier that separated sinners from God; or it signified the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God.3

One writer’s detailed suggestion is: “regardless of which curtain was in Matthew’s mind, the theological significance remains—if the inner curtain was split, then the separation between God and humanity had been removed and the covenant given to Moses at Sinai had been completed, rendering the annual temple sacrifice . . . as well as the whole sacrificial system obsolete. If the outer curtain was split, Jesus’ death had accomplished what Matthew has only been hinting at all along in his Gospel—the gentiles now have access to the worship of Yahweh through Jesus’ fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant that, through his seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed.”4

For me, personally, it is only logical that the main curtain or veil that was separating the two chambers—the Holy and the Most Holy—was the one torn. This is the one which represented the division between God’s pure holiness and mankind’s unclean sinfulness. The Most Holy room was where the High Priest sprinkled the blood on the Day of Atonement, to be accepted by God. “But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come . . . he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption,” (Hebrews 9:11–12).

The Resurrection of Saints

In explaining the cause of these events, verse 51 is quite straightforward, but the inconsistencies in verses 52 and 53 are many. Verse 52 tells us that the tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints arose (or were raised). Tombs in Israel typically consisted of a small, slightly underground cave, the mouth of which was covered by a large, disk-shaped rock. This rock was rolled into place by means of a shallow trench at the tomb’s entrance.5 Now, tombs being opened are reasonable to believe, as there are many historical notes of earthquakes causing graves and the buried bodies to be exposed, but not, of course, dead bodies being brought to life. So, was that event a part of the first resurrection to life for the saints (i.e., the body of Christ, Christians, the church6)?

There are places in the Bible where a particular person was raised (e.g., Lazarus), but it never says that their “body” was “raised” (or arose). When Jesus or others brought individuals back to life, it was never described in that way (Luke 7:15; John 11:44; Acts 9:41; etc.). Also, if we are to believe that when Jesus died this event was a resurrection, why were only some of the saints raised and why is it not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible?

Some Bible teachers suggest that the phrase, “after his resurrection,” in verse 53 refers to the entire event, and that the dead were not raised until after Jesus’ resurrection. “However, that is not how the Greek text reads. The raising from the dead is clearly set at the time of the death of Christ. Thus if they were raised, they could not have been raised with everlasting bodies.”7 The first resurrection (to immortality) will not come until after Christ returns. “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first,” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). And this is the explanation believed by Augustine, Jerome, and Thomas.8

If verse 53 implies that, after Jesus’ resurrection, the saints came out of the tombs and entered Jerusalem and were seen by many, does this mean they came back to life and just laid around or relaxed inside their opened tombs, waiting until after Jesus was resurrected three days later?

And consider another scholar’s comment: “If the resurrected saints were martyrs who died at the hands of the people of Jerusalem like the prophets, sages, and scribes described in [Matthew] 23:37, their appearance in the city would have been interpreted as a bad omen and terrified the people . . . [and if] these saints announced Jesus’s identity as the Messiah and proclaimed his resurrection power, this too would likely have struck terror in the hearts of the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”9 Wouldn’t there be a record of this disorder in the city? And besides, there are no extra-biblical sources for this resurrection event, either.10

If there really was a resurrection of some saints, was it one to immortality or just temporary, like that of Lazarus? Why weren’t they with Jesus when he appeared after he was raised? Why did Jesus not make mention of them? Why didn’t they join the apostles? Why didn’t the apostles make mention of this miracle? Where were these saints on the Day of Pentecost? Should this be considered ‘part one’ of the first resurrection expected after Jesus’ return, or as a separate resurrection event? This is all very odd, indeed! So many questions, but no answers. The Bible says nothing more about these resurrected people.

Various ideas abound about verses 52 and 53. One thought is that “Matthew’s account was never meant to be seen as historical in the first place.” Maybe he inserted the raising of saints to represent an earlier apocalyptic fragment inserted into the passion narrative, or even to foreshadow the final resurrection.11 Someone even thought that the verses represented a “hymn, or some familiar liturgical formula, which talked about the great and glorious Resurrection of the Dead, the day when all the dead will be raised (the saints first, and then others).”12

In his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, academic Michael Licona spoke of classical parallels in ancient literature and apocalyptic language and wrote that the difficulty with Matthew 27:52-53 is what he called the description of a poetic device added to communicate “special effects, with eschatological Jewish texts and thought in mind.”13 What? Special effects! It is difficult for me to get my mind around what he is talking about. All these people seem to be going out on a limb looking for understanding when there may be a much simpler answer. No one wants to provoke any possible idea of inerrancy14 of the bible, but maybe those two verses just don’t belong there!

What if they shouldn’t be there?

There is no record of any earlier Greek, Latin, or Aramaic manuscripts that do not include this event, but it isn’t unheard of for things to be added or inserted into scripture after the fact, usually when an interpreter, translator, or copier has an agenda. Although unusual, it has been known to happen before and there was a span of time up to the first part of the second century where these two verses could have been added. “The first thing to notice is that (in any version of Scripture) if we delete verses 52 and 53, the biblical text flows smoothly, as the earthquake recorded in verse 51 is referred to by those in verse 54.”15

“Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” (Matthew 27:50-51, 54).

There are a couple of other reasons to believe that these verses were added later. First, Jesus said, “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation,” (John 5:28-29). However, at the event of Jesus death and resurrection, he did not shout or call out that demand, as he had done previously when Lazarus died (John 11:43). And second, we are assured that no one has been resurrected to eternal life yet, except Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52).

There is one more very important fact to consider. “The most unusual word in Matthew 27:53 is ‘resurrection’. The particular Greek word in this instance is egerais, and this is the only time it is used in the New Testament. Indeed, it is used only once in the Greek Old Testament [Psalm 139:2] . . . . Although the word was used in reference to the raising of the dead, it was not used that way in Christian literature until the Church Father, Irenaeus [AD 130 – AD 202].” Many believe verses 52 and 53 were written a little later than the Gospel of Matthew and then imported into it. “Although there is no ‘absolute proof’ that Matthew would not have used the word, it is very unusual that its only occurrence in the entire New Testament is in this one difficult section.”16

As said, there is no proof to this, and I’m not suggesting that it must be the case. I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God written by man, but not all of that record survives into our Bible, or has been discovered, as yet—newer discoveries still happen. All I’m saying is that it may be possible that these two verses had been placed where they are by other means or for other reasons and that leaving them out would make much more sense.

Copyright © 2019, Dr. Ray Hermann
OutlawBibleStudent.org

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References & Notes

  1. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2. Heiser, Michael S., The Bible Unfiltered: Approaching Scripture on Its Own Terms, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017), 160.
  3. Quarles, Charles, “Matthew 27:51–53: Meaning, Genre, Intertextuality, Theology, and Reception History,” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, JETS, June 2016), vol. 59, no. 2, p.273.
    Note: this reference is also available online, https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/59/59-2/JETS_59-2_271-286_Quarles.pdf
  4. Smith, James-Michael, “Exegesis of Matthew 27:51-54, a Closer Look at a Biblical Anomaly,” (JMSmith.org, retrieved 20 June 2019), p. 5, http://jmsmith.org/downloads/Matt-27-Open-Tombs-and-Walking-Dead.pdf
  5. Ibid., p. 6.
  6. Note: For many Christians, the saints are New Testament followers of Christ still buried on earth, while some also believe they include the Old Testament believers of Yahweh (e.g., Noah, Moses, etc.). But for Catholics, the saints are only New Testament righteous people that are already in heaven, after having been canonized by the Pope.
  7. “What about Matthew 27:52 and 53?” (Truth or Tradition, retrieved 14 June 2019), https://www.truthortradition.com/articles/what-about-matthew-2752-and-53
  8. “Matthew 27:52-53,” (Catholic Answers, May 2011), https://forums.catholic.com/t/matthew-27-52-53/238623
  9. Quarles, Charles, “Matthew 27:51–53: Meaning, Genre, Intertextuality, Theology, and Reception History,” (see above).
  10. Rochford, James M. “Is Matthew 27:51-53 historical?” (Evidence Unseen, retrieved 28 June 2019), http://www.evidenceunseen.com/theology/scripture/is-matthew-2751-53-historical/
  11. Smith, James-Michael, “Exegesis of Matthew 27:51-54, a Closer Look at a Biblical Anomaly,” pp. 6, 10, 11, (see above).
  12. Bennett, Kevin, “The Veil Torn, the Earthquake, and the Resurrection of the Dead – Matthew 27:51-54,” (One Faith, One Church, 22 October 2015), http://www.onefaithonechurch.com/the-veil-torn-the-earthquake-and-the-resurrection-of-the-dead-matthew-2751-54/
  13. Mohler, Albert, “Biblical Inerrancy and the Licona Controversy,” (Christian Headlines, 14 September 2011), https://www.christianheadlines.com/columnists/al-mohler/biblical-inerrancy-and-the-licona-controversy.html
  14. Note: Biblical inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is without error or fault in all its teaching or, at least, that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.
    “Biblical inerrancy,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 23 June 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_inerrancy
  15. Bennett, Kevin, “The Veil Torn, the Earthquake, and the Resurrection of the Dead – Matthew 27:51-54,” (see above).
  16. “What about Matthew 27:52 and 53?” (see above).
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4 thoughts on “There is Something Strange about Jesus’ Death! What Happened in Matthew 27:52-53?”

  1. Hi Dr Hermann,
    Thank you for citing my hypothesis in your article, and for treating it fairly amid such esteemed company. Whatever the origins of these verses, may this passage and the whole canon of scripture continue to inspire and provoke many like us, who delve and inquire.
    Kevin Bennett

    • I appreciate your article, and in fact your whole site. And this because it feels very Bereanesque. I have had the pleasure of doing some intense Bible study (self-led) over the past three years. I have also been a believer for 30 years and so I’ve heard thousands of sermons.

      I’ve never had any reason to question the Bible and have told many people that I believe it to be the inspired word of God written by man. But the more that I study, the more I realize that there are things about the Bible that could make other people feel like it can not stand up to their claim that it is inerrant. Like for example the dialog in John 3 that presumes the Greek double meaning of the word “anew.” And since there’s no double meaning in the Aramaic, then it makes me wonder if Jesus actually said that, or if the Greek writer introduced that concept…or maybe the entire conversation!

      So it’s things like that, as well as topics you addressed in this particular article above that makes a Berean-minded person have to ask some harder meta-questions at times like, How can we realistically take the Bible at face value without doing some intense study about nearly every single sentence?

      I still trust the Bible . . . The problem that I have though, is that it becomes almost impossible for me to raise any sort of questions along these lines with certain people, without apparently destroying their faith.

      • Thank you for your comment and for sharing your own thoughts and concerns. And thanks for the nice comment about this web site. Like you, I had that same problem, but over the years I have worked out an approach that works for me.

        There are some well documented errors in the Bible; some by translation problems, some by copy errors, and some by agenda. I have read and studied these problems and have accepted most as being reasonably explained. It is a case of knowing where they are and being aware of them.

        For others, like the one in my article, I just have to examine them under the microscope, so to speak, and come to a conclusion. That is what I’ve done on this one. Although I imply what my own opinion is, I don’t try to “sell” it to others—only present the evidence and let others make up their own mind.

        Another is the one you mentioned, John 3:3. There is a lot of debate and it is interesting to see what others believe, however I approach these problems this way: (1) analyze to whom the passage is directed, (2) read a reasonable amount before and after the verses to see the context in which it is used, (3) apply logic to its use, (4) gather other opinions, including reading various translations [every now and then something will hit me and I’ll say to myself “Why didn’t I think of it that way before?”].

        Once you reach a comfortable decision, stick with it until evidence arrives that changes your mind. We can’t go around “nit picking” every verse in the Bible. Don’t worry about what others may be there, just work on one at a time and then let it be until other evidence surfaces. God will direct you and, if you get it wrong, he is not out to get you on a technicality. If you are sincere in learning the truth, he will help you get there, even if it takes several steps.

        Prayer will help. And remember if prayer is a message to God, a gut feeling may be God’s answer to your message.

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