Over the years I have come across some verses in the Bible that strike me as just plain odd. I cannot figure out what they mean much less why the author included them. With this in mind, I decided that from time to time I would touch on those verses that are perhaps ambiguous, confusing or just plain bizarre.
Over the years these Matthew 27:51-53 has raised more questions than answers for me.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 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. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. (NRSV)
I am never sure what to make of these verses. With the exception of the veil being torn, everything else is unique to Matthew’s Gospel. What is particularly odd is the statement about bodies of saints being raised and appearing to people in Jerusalem. While I have occasionally heard these verses preached, there are a number of questions that they raise.
1.Since the saints seem to have been raised when Jesus died and did not appear until “after his resurrection,” where were they for three days? Were they sitting in their tombs waiting until Sunday?
2.If they did go into Jerusalem and appear to people, what happened to them? Did they die again? Were they taken up to heaven? Are they still walking around today?
3.If such an event did happen, why does no one else in the New Testament mention it? This seems to be so fantastic that it surely would have caused a stir among the early followers of Jesus and one would expect Paul to list these “raised saints” among the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection in 1 Cor 15:5-8.
New Testament commentators are not always helpful. They usually label these verses as “strange,” “peculiar,” or “mysterious.” But many do not address the bigger question of historicity: did this event actually happen. I will tip my hand and admit that I have my doubts. I wonder if perhaps Matthew is doing something theological here.
Since this only occurs in Matthew’s Gospel and he places it immediately after the death of Jesus, it seems likely that Matthew is making a theological statement about the significance of Jesus’ death. The raising of the dead suggests that Jesus’ own death broke the power of death over them. Their appearance in Jerusalem is twofold. It may be an allusion to the vision of dry bones in Ezekiel 37:12 which states: “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.” Matthew routinely takes Old Testament passages that applied to Israel and reapplies them to Jesus (cf. Matt 2:15 and Hosea 11:1) and this may be another instance. Second, the fact that the “raised saints” make no appearance in Jerusalem until after Jesus’ resurrection recognizes that Jesus was the first among many to be raised from the dead.
Is it possible that there is a historic core to this story? Yes. In his commentary on Matthew, Donald Hagner suggests that perhaps there was an earthquake in Palestine around the time of Jesus’ death. The earthquake may have caused some tombs to break open which suggested resurrection to the witnesses. Matthew incorporated these stories as a foreshadow of the eventual resurrection of all saints empowered by the resurrection of Jesus (p. 852). Thus, it is possible that Matthew has woven together scripture (Ezk 37:12), a historical event (the earthquake), and the Jewish/Christian hope of resurrection to create a rich, theologically symbolic picture of the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
What do you think? I would be interested to hear your thoughts and comments.