Matthew 27: What's up with the undead touring the city like it's no big deal?

I have been wrestling with this passage for the last couple weeks, from Matthew 27:50-54 (NIV below), and would be interested in hearing the thoughts of the community here:

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

This is…wild. This unexplained couple of sentences, thrown out there like it’s no big deal, then onward to the next scene. I don’t get to be the personal arbiter of what is and is not true, but I am finding this miracle very hard to believe, and I can’t just shut down and make myself believe it (as if that would be real belief anyway). As far as physical miracles go, this seems significantly more incredible and unsupportable than the resurrection of Christ. Would this not have gone down in history as the (other) craziest event, ever?

(Side note, I love the image of the curtain tearing and opening our access to God through Christ.)

I think I have been forming a mental construct something like “OK, well there’s a bunch of saga in the Old Testament, particularly in Genesis, and we can’t always determine exactly what is literal or historically accurate, but the New Testament is telling everything straight up”. Perhaps I was oversimplifying, because this passage is cracking at that construct. I don’t subscribe to “inerrancy” in any sense of the word, but still I like my New Testament sealed nicely in a jar. Loosening the lid makes me uncomfortable. Any pearls of wisdom? I am asking the community here because nuance beyond “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is sometimes hard to find elsewhere.

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I have looked at that passage and am just as fascinated by it as you. Is this a reference to the siege of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 AD? Or perhaps we are indeed reading of events that actually happened the day Christ died. I have not come to any conclusion. Is it commentary on what it means for the world at the exact moment of Christ’s death? For a believer this is quite significant. I’m curious as to what others might have to say about this.

I found this link on the first page of Google results for a search about this. Never heard of the website, but he makes some thoughtful points. I’m not sure I agree with his conclusions, but it’s worth considering.

Basically, he says (TL;DR), all the early manuscripts of Matthew have these verses and so do most of the Church Fathers, but otherwise they look suspiciously like additions to the text, given [1] the earthquake theme before and after and the overall flow of the passage when read without these two verses; [2] the odd vocabulary for “raising” used here, which is more characteristic of later writing; and [3] the host of narrative and theological inconsistencies raised by this event — to say nothing even of its sheer unlikeliness, which was your primary point.

Indeed a strange passage, and one seldom preached at Easter. It is especially strange in that it is not mentioned in the other gospels or anywhere else.

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Apparently, they only came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection, which was three days after the events recorded here. Odd place for Matthew to put this detail, especially since it doesn’t have too much to do with the passion of Christ, but rather with his resurrection. I don’t know how else to explain it, other than to say that some dead people really were resurrected when Jesus was resurrected and then appeared to people to demonstrate God’s power.

That said, the article @AMWolfe posted raises some very interesting points.

Ah, and the folks over on that website are non-Trinitarian. Whelp, that doesn’t help.

Aha! Thanks for ferreting that out, Jay. Wheat / chaff…
Such is what you find when you do random Google searches.
Still, some interesting background and reflections on the passage.

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@jpm The ‘anywhere else’ is particularly controversial. I would expect Josephus to mention a bunch of dead Jewish religious leaders walking around. He doesn’t. The closest he comes is the following:

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds…”

The astute here will note that I pulled that quote from the Testimonium Flavianum, a source that has plenty of issues in and of itself.

It is also worth noting that Josephus had plenty of reason to discount any crazy zombie story, especially one that might confirm the Messiah. Which brings us right back to where we started…not knowing much of anything. But as near as I can tell, that is the closest we have an outside souce.

Agree . One might think such an occurrence would be mentioned by Luke in Acts or Paul. It makes you wonder what would have then happened to the resurrected. To heaven? To die again? Would this episode differ from Lazarus or be the same?
As you say, we don’t know much, but it makes you wonder.

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Just don’t try claiming it is just apocalypic imagery if you have an ETS membership. :slight_frown:

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I was thinking about this only yesterday, as it happens. The very strangeness, combined with the matter of factness of the account, suggests we’re missing a context that would make its significance clearer. We are not first century Jewish Christians, and to pretend we know the culture so well as to understand the significance of every reference is sheer folly. To reject a story because of our ignorance is worse. The Evangelist wrote for people much closer to the events - and they knew what he meant.

The episode isn’t told as if it were an apocalyptic insertion, in my book, but neither is it told as something entirely bizarre and wondrous - just an unusual additional occurrence in relation to the even more unusual - and epoch-making - occurrence of the Resurrection. And as has been pointed out, it’s inserted as an aside in the Passion, rather than the resurrection narrative, apparently because the enabling earthquake happened at the point of Jesus’s death.

At a general level it makes complete sense as a sign of the significance of Jesus’s death and rising: he is the forerunner and enabler of the general resurrection, the hope of Israel. So for holy men (unspecified - recently bereaved rabbis? Biblical saints?) to be included in the power of the resurrection, as a foretaste of what is to come, makes sense. That tells you that people weren’t seeing ghosts - it was bodily resurrection that Messiah brings. The wording would seem to allow (just about) for a visionary sign, given to many people; as if people were seeing what would certainly come about at Christ’s final return - but it reads more like, say, Matthew’s slaughter of the innocents - actual events in the gospel narrative with prophetic significance…

Yet clearly the risen saints didn’t stick around long, and it’s not clear whether they were spotted going in the street as people walked past, or visited living relatives, or what. To me, that sounds more like an event already known tto the early Jewish Church well enough not to need the detail we want, perhaps like what astrological sign the Magi actually saw; then probably associated with the known birthdate of Jesus, but now a disputed mystery.

What doesn’t seem to wash is the idea of an event invented by the Church to add spice to the story. Think about it - the Messiah has been raised from the dead and has ascended to the Father, sent his Spirit, and the Church has that message to proclaim, in the power of signs, wonders and powerful preaching. There’s nothing you need to add to that. Actually, inventing a story of some other guys rising as well detracts from the story, rather than adding to it.

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Here’s how D.A. Carson viewed it in his commentary on Matthew:

J.W.Wenham … has convincingly argued that a full stop should be placed, not after “split” (v.51), but after “broke open” (v.52) [Note: the ESV, above, follows Wenham here. Contrast the NRSV and NIV]. The tearing of the veil and the opening of the tombs together symbolize the first of twin foci in Jesus’ death and resurrection. On the one hand, Jesus’ sacrificial death blots out sin, defeats the powers of evil and death, and opens up access to God. On the other, Jesus’ victorious resurrection and vindication promise the final resurrection of those who die in him.

The resurrection of ‘the holy people’ begins a new sentence and is tied up only with Jesus’ resurrection. So Matthew does not intend his readers to think that these ‘holy people’ were resurrected when Jesus died and then waited in their tombs till Easter Sunday before showing themselves. The idea is a trifle absurd anyway: there is no more reason to think they were impeded by material substance than was the resurrected Lord, the covering rock of whose grave was removed to let the witnesses in, not to let him out. The ‘holy people’ were raised, came out of the tombs, and were seen by many after Jesus rose from the dead. There is no need to connect the earthquake and the breaking open of the tombs with the rising of ‘the holy people’: the two foci must be differentiated.

On several details we are told little. For instance, it is unclear whether the resurrection of ‘the holy people’ was to natural bodies (cf. Lazarus) or to supernatural bodies. The latter is perhaps more likely; and in that case they did not return to the tombs, and their rising testifies that the Last Day had dawned. Where they ultimately went Matthew does not say. Were they ‘translated’? Nor does he tell us who they were; but the language implies, though it does not prove, that they were certainly well-known OT and intertestamental Jewish ‘saints’, spiritual heroes and martyrs in Israel’s history (cf. the terminology in Isa.4:3; Dan.7:18; Tobit 8:15;1 Enoch).

Christy refers to the controversy over evangelical scholar Michael Licona’s suggestion that the passage should not be taken literally. I posted this criticism of him in Jay’s original inerrancy thread. Licona responds to the controversy in his essay When the Saints Go Marching In. Worth a read.

Definitely worth a read. Thanks for posting the link.

To piggyback on this, and respond to the original poster @Josh:

When I first read The Meaning of Jesus, a dialogue between NT Wright and Marcus Borg, myself in a very skeptical place, I was really quite unimpressed at the time with Wright’s defense of the virgin birth. As I recall, what he said amounted to, “Sure, it doesn’t seem plausible, but hey, once you believe in the incarnation and the resurrection, the word ‘plausible’ has to be re-evaluated a bit, no?”

I think that’s the same sort of defense one has to mount for this passage. If we assent to the veracity (however mysterious / scientifically inexplicable) of Jesus’s incarnation and resurrection, it won’t do to accept it as if begrudgingly, as if, “Well, ok, but no more of this funny miracle business.” While we don’t have to completely shed skepticism, it behooves us to submit to the fact that if we situate the resurrection of Jesus in the center of our historical narrative, we have to allow that the world is a mysterious sort of place where miraculous things do happen, especially such as reinforce the narrative of Jesus’s centrality and kingship over creation.

It reminds me of CS Lewis’s famous line, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”


Raised as a Catholic, I’ll admit I considered the sola scriptura doctrine of the evangelicals somewhat irrational, since the gospels were admittedly not ‘handwritten accounts’ by eye witnesses of Jesus’ teachings. After becoming acquainted with the Blogs and Forum on BioLogos, I have become more respectful of their position. So I want to be sure that the rest of this NOT seen as criticism from some ‘superior’ position but an honest effort to understand what I see as a perhaps unnecessary obstacle to Christian Faith.

Every year during Holy Week Matt.27;50-54 is read from the pulpit in Catholic churches. The laity are expected to accept it as literally historical–no questions asked. But, as the responses to this thread clearly point out, it IS a BIG DEAL to anyone whose brain is operating. And it has been controversial for centuries. It is an obstacle to Faith seeking Understanding. The links to Licona’s position on Mark 27 was enlightening to me.

Albert Mohler’s comments on Licona’s book, The Resurrection of Jesus, was favorable: “The 700-page volume is nothing less than a masterful defense of the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Belief in Jesus’ resurrection is fundamental to accepting the Gospel as God’s word which is to be obeyed. But what about Matt 27? In his essay, “When the Saints Go Marching In” Licona states: _Does the matter concern a fundamental? It if doesn’t, then write a critique of the interpretation in a journal article or a book. Discuss it in your classroom. But going on a rampage against a brother or sister in Christ for differing on a non-fundamental issue brings no glory to the kingdom of our Lord Jesus

I read this as saying: "The story that, upon Jesus’ death, saints came to life, left their tombs and were seen on the streets of Jerusalem, might be just that–a story. It has no bearing on obeying Jesus’ teachings. In regard to the inerrancy of Scritpure the Chicago Statement seems clear: "Those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to show the reality of their discipleship by humbly and faithfully obeying God’s written Word."**

There is nothing in Matt. 27 that we could consider as a teaching that Jesus wanted us to obey. So, even maintaining sola scruptura, we could consider this passage as a story that the Church fathers wanted included to emphasize to the converts to the early church that Jesus life was truly world-shaking. They should not be faulted for not seeing that it might have an opposite effect upon prospective converts in our "scientifically enlightened"(?) age.
Al Leo


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