FAQ: I am aware of the truth of God’s Word that when a Christian dies, he is actually dead, and not alive somewhere in an incorporeal form, but awaiting the coming of Jesus Christ to raise him from the dead. Along that line, Matthew 27:52 and 53 (about dead people getting up out of their graves when Jesus died) seem like very strange verses. Can you shed any light on them?
Your question is a common one among those interested in spiritual matters and the integrity of the Word of God. Matthew 27:52 & 53 has caught the attention of readers for centuries because of the notable miracle that those verses describe. Most Bible students recognize that verses 52 and 53 are “strange,” and that there is no other verse of Scripture that mentions this amazing occurrence nor anything else like it. To begin with, let us look at the immediate context surrounding the verses in question:
Matthew 27:50-54 (NIV)
(50) And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
(51) At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split.
(52) The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.
(53) They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
(54) 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!”
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. For the record, the veil being rent from top to bottom was a very significant phenomenon, especially to those of Israel familiar at all with Old Testament typology of the coming Messiah. Via a striking and forceful metaphor, God Almighty earthshakingly emphasized that the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, would open the way into His heart of hearts for all who would choose to believe on him after his resurrection. Hebrews 9:1-14 and 10:1-14 make this clear.
This record of the earthquake, the rocks being split, the graves being opened, and the dead being raised occurs only in Matthew, and it contains some apparent inconsistencies. This short work will examine these verses in three ways: the textual and Patristic evidence, the content and context, and how they can be properly understood.
Texts and Patristics
There are no manuscripts of Matthew in Greek, Latin or Aramaic that omit these verses. All the textual families have the verse. This means that if these verses are an addition or contain added material, it would have had to have been done very early, no later than the first part of the second century. Although it is very unusual to have an addition to the text present in every extant manuscript, it has been known to happen, and interestingly enough, in Matthew. 
The patristic literature also contains these verses, indicating that they are either original or an early addition to the biblical text. “Patristic” comes from the Latin word for “father,” which is “pater,” so the word “patristic” is used by scholars for the writings of the early theologians, who are known as “the Church Fathers.” The list of the Church Fathers who referred to these verses in Matthew or to what they cover, graves being opened and dead getting up, begins very early, with Ignatius (c. 35-107) and includes a number of well known men. 
The list is long and varied, and in the patristic literature most events in Scripture are not represented and preserved as well as Matthew 27:52 and 53 is, however, these events occurred at the time of Jesus’ death, which is a subject all theologians dwell on, so they get quite a bit of attention. That brings up an interesting point: there are times when it would seem natural for those early theologians to have referred to these events, when in fact they did not. This fact is contributing evidence to the belief that when Matthew wrote his Gospel, it did not contain these verses. However, it is always dangerous to argue from silence.
Content and Context
In spite of the textual evidence for Matthew 27:52 and 53, there are some very disturbing things about these verses. First and foremost is that if “many” of the Old Testament saints arose and went to Jerusalem, why are they not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament? In fact, the entire event is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. This seems quite incredible if it actually occurred. Are we to believe that “many” Old Testament saints such as Joshua, Josiah or Jeremiah got up from the dead and entered Jerusalem, but never joined the apostles? When Lazarus was raised from the dead, he rejoined Jesus and the apostles.
The traditional answer to why these saints did not join the apostles or are mentioned elsewhere is that when the saints got up from the dead they were in their glorified bodies and at some point, perhaps very shortly after witnessing in Jerusalem, they ascended up into heaven, and thus would not have been around for the events in Acts. However, that cannot be, because Scripture is very clear that Jesus is the “firstfruits from the dead,” in other words, Jesus was the first person raised to everlasting life.
1 Corinthians 15:20-23 (KJV)
(20) But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
(21) For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.
(22) For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
(23) But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
The Old Testament and Gospels have records of people being raised from the dead, but all those people were raised in their normal bodies and died again. They were not raised to everlasting life because Christ had not yet been raised from the dead. The “many holy people” Matthew refers to as being raised were raised when Jesus died, and not after his resurrection, so they could not have been raised to everlasting life. Some Bible teachers try to avoid that conclusion by saying 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.
Other theologians point out that these “holy ones” did not enter Jerusalem until after the resurrection, but that really misses the point. If someone was raised from the dead with a glorified and everlasting body before Jesus was, then that person would have been the “firstfruits from the dead,” and not Jesus. If these saints spent three days near their tombs, this in itself is a problem, because these verses seem to have a chronological inconsistency. What would be the point in raising them from the dead just to have them stay near their tombs, and then appear in Jerusalem three days later? If God got them up to be witnesses, would they not begin witnessing immediately? It seems that they would.
Another verse that contradicts any theory that Old Testament believers got up from the dead in their new and everlasting bodies and then shortly ascended to heaven, is that John 3:13 affirms that when the book of John was written (perhaps 80-90 AD), no one was in heaven but Jesus.
John 3:13 (KJV)
And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
Although most modern versions of John 3:13 have the shorter version, omitting the last phase about Jesus being in heaven, it is our belief that it is original, and part of the narration of John, not part of Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus.  If no one was in heaven except Jesus by the time the Gospel of John was written, then there is no way that those Old Testament believers could have gotten up unto everlasting life, because there is no way they could have (or would have) been alive throughout the entire period covered by the book of Acts and not been mentioned or had a noticeable impact.
Even assuming that these Old Testament believers got up from the dead in their fleshly bodies, only to die again shortly afterwards, presents some serious problems. The question as to why they stayed by their tombs for three days still exists. Also, the lack of biblical evidence that they were up and around is a major problem. Did no one notice them for three full days? That is hardly likely. Also, since they obviously got up as a witness that Jesus was the Christ and would get up, why did they not get word to the apostles who were living in fear during those same three days (John 20:19)?
Furthermore, where were they when the apostles were first hearing about the resurrection? Evidence for the resurrection was coming to the Apostles from many places. Peter and John went to the empty tomb, but were not convinced (John 20:3-10). Mary Magdalene told them she had seen Jesus, but they still did not believe (Mark 16:9-11). Later Mary and all the women told the disciples about the angel at the tomb who said Christ was raised, but they still did not believe (Luke 24:1-11).
As Jesus’ tomb was outside the city, and there were many tombs all over that whole area, it seems logical that some of the disciples would have encountered a few of these risen saints. Then Jesus appeared to two disciples as they walked to Emmaus, and those two traveled back to Jerusalem and told the disciples about it (Luke 24:13-35), and it was while they were all talking that Jesus appeared in the room with them. By that time it was Sunday evening (John 20:19). It seems impossible that “many” Old Testament saints had been raised for three days and had begun to enter the city of Jerusalem and this would not have been reported.
Another question to be asked is where were these “many saints” on the Day of Pentecost? The number of disciples was specifically given at about 120. That is not a large number considering the many lives that Jesus touched. Are we to believe that those saints who were raised from the dead were included in that number? There is just no evidence for that, yet it is difficult to believe that the “many” saints who rose from the dead would not join the disciples. What else would they do? Where would they go? All of their families were long dead and they would not have had any jobs or places to stay. Certainly they would have joined the disciples for support, yet they are missing on the Day of Pentecost.
Furthermore, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter assured the crowds that David died and was buried, and his tomb was still known (David’s body, 1000 years old, would have been decayed and gone). Had David just been resurrected and walking around Jerusalem witnessing, it seems certain that Peter would have mentioned that fact, and not said that he was dead. Of course, David might have been one saint that God did not raise, but then that weakens Peter’s argument, which was to show that Jesus is the firstborn from the dead. That could have been disputed if there were other Old Testament people now walking the streets of Jerusalem.
Consider also that the unbelievers and the critics of the apostles never mentioned them. The religious leaders of Jerusalem, for example, accused the apostles, saying, “…you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching…(Acts 5:28). Surely, if even a few Old Testament believers were also in Jerusalem and had appeared “to many,” the religious leaders would have been concerned about that also, yet there is no mention that they even knew that anyone else was spreading the teaching of Christ’s resurrection. The problems mentioned above are not the only difficulty with these verses in Matthew. The vocabulary in the verses is problematic. We will look at two words in the order they appear in the verses: “bodies,” and “resurrection.”
Verse 52 says that many “bodies” of the holy people arose. At first this seems unusual because the vast majority of the time it is the “people” who arise, not just the body. It was Lazarus who came out of the tomb, not Lazarus’ body. Thus this vocabulary of the “body” usually hearkens to later debates when Gnostics and Neoplatonists were bringing into Christianity their ideas about the soul living on after death, and saying that only the body would need to get up because the soul would return to it from heaven, where it had been since the death of the body. It is true that Isaiah 26:19 says that in the future dead bodies will arise, and Romans 8:11 mentions life being given to our “mortal bodies.” However, the fact that “bodies” is used in Matthew 27:52 makes it suspect.
The most unusual word in Matthew 27:53 is “resurrection.” The Greek word 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, in Psalm 139:2, “You know when I sit and when I rise.” The word means “a waking up as from sleep, a rousing or rising up.” 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. 
Several scenarios are possible: by the time Matthew wrote, Christians were using egerais to refer to the resurrection because it can mean a waking from sleep, and Matthew used it that way. Or Matthew may have been the first to use it that way and the concept spread in Christianity. What we believe, however, is that this verse was 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.
From the evidence given thus far, there is really no honest way to absolutely exclude these verses from the text, even though they cause some serious difficulties in the biblical record. They are not missing in any of the Greek texts of this section of Matthew. They are referred to by many Church Fathers and, lastly, although the vocabulary is not common, it does not demand that the section be considered a later addition to the text. We can conclude that if Old Testament believers were raised, they were not raised to everlasting life. It is possible, but as we have seen, unlikely due to lack of supporting evidence, that they were raised and then died again in a few weeks or months.
It is interesting that some have used the record in Matthew to try to prove that there is life after death, but nothing of the kind can be proven from this record. The “saints” were dead, not alive. There is nothing in the record that says that they were alive in any way, or that their “souls” were returned to them from heaven. It simply says that their bodies were raised. If anything, this record shows that dead people are quite dead until they are raised to life by the Lord Jesus. Even if there were people who did get up from the dead at that time, they (like Lazarus and others who were raised) later died again and are still dead, awaiting the Lord Jesus to give them everlasting life.
In closing, it is important to note that a study of textual corruption shows that many additions or deletions to the original biblical text were due to an agenda being promoted by the particular translator. In regard to Matthew 27:52 and 53, it is our opinion that whoever added them there was trying to promote the error now all too common in Christianity, which is that there is life after death independent of being given new life in a new body by the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ at his appearing.
No one could, or will, rise from the dead and remain alive prior to the glorious moment when the Lord Jesus appears and gives new life to all those who believed in him. Amen.
A list of Church Fathers that includes Matthew 27:52 and 53
- Ignatius (c. 35-107). The Bishop of Antioch, Syria. He was alive during the lifetimes of the Apostles, but of course he would have been much younger, having been born 5 to 10 years after Jesus’ death. He was eventually martyred in Rome. [Vol. 1, pp.62, 70].
- Irenaeus (c. 130–200). Bishop of Lyons, France [Vol. 1, p. 573].
- Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215). A theologian and martyr [Vol. 2, p. 491].
- Tertullian (c. 160-225). Called the “father of Latin theology,” he was a theologian, apologist and prolific writer who lived in Carthage [Vol. 4. p.137].
- Julius Africanus (c. 160-240). A Christian writer whose chief contribution to us today is his History of the World. He was instrumental in the erection of the public library in the Pantheon at Rome [Vol. 6, p.137].
- Origin (c. 185-254). A theologian from Alexandria, Egypt who eventually founded a school of theology in Caesarea, Israel. He was imprisoned and subjected to prolonged torture during the persecution of the Roman emperor Trajanus Decius, and then survived only a few more years. [Vol. 4, p. 444].
- Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-236). The most important theologian of the Roman Church in the third century [Vol. 5, p. 230].
- Cyprian of Carthage (b.?, martyred September 14, 258). Bishop of Carthage [Vol. 5, p. 587].
- Recognitions of Clement (c. 200-250). This is part of the literature that was attributed to Clement but recognized by scholars as being too late for his writings [Vol. 8, p. 88].
- Gospel of Nicodemus. An apocryphal work and not a genuine Gospel, but it probably dates to 250-300 A.D. [Vol. 8, p. 435].
- Eusebius (c.260-340). A Bishop of Caesarea who was called “the father of Church history” [Vol. 8, p. 653].
- Alexander of Alexandria (b.? – 328). A Bishop of the Church at Alexandria, Egypt. [Vol. 6, p. 301].
The volume and page numbers in brackets refers to the pages in Ante-Nicene Fathers, the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Hendrickson Publications, Peabody, MA, 1994), which is a reprint of the 1885 edition by the Christian Literature Publishing Company.
 It seems very clear that “in my name” was changed to “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in Matthew 28:19 (M. Graeser, J. Lynn, J. Schoenheit, One God & One Lord (Christian Educational Services, Indianapolis, IN, 1999) p. 448.)
 A list is included at the end of the article, for those who are interested.
 See The Companion Bible by E. W. Bullinger on John 3:13 and its context.
 Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1964), vol. 2, p. 337