What about Matthew 27:52 and 53?

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. [1]

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. [2]

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. [3] 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. [4]

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.

Endnotes

[1] 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.)
[2] A list is included at the end of the article, for those who are interested.
[3] See The Companion Bible by E. W. Bullinger on John 3:13 and its context.
[4] Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1964), vol. 2, p. 337

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24 comments

  1. As my husband and I read aloud the death of Jesus, our devotion for Good Friday, I questioned the verses in Matthew 27-52:53. This question was answered by your research and ultimate posting. THANK YOU. BE BLESSED IN YOUR RESEARCH.

  2. So basically, just throw out the verses. Easy!

    1. Honest Biblical translation requires we do textual work, which is what this article points out. No one has “just thrown out verses,” as you accuse. The verses are proven to be a scribal addition, which is a corruption of the text.

  3. Praise to be God forever…..

    Thank you for your tremendous revelation of this verse….. God Almighty will give you more and more revelations …. and will use u as a royal diadem in His hands…. amen

  4. 53. KJV: And came out of the graves after his resurrection , and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. ….
    The idea that they arose before his resurrection is in direct opposition to what the scripture says. 52. The graves were opened, the bodies of the Saints arose, (53) and came out of their graves after his resurrection.
    In vs 54 the centurion is watching the grave of Jesus when the earthquake happens. Now surely you’re not supposing that the centurion is watching his grave before his death. This is in fact what you are saying when you say they arose before Christ and therefore contradicted Christ being the “first fruits”.
    Vs. 50- says Jesus yielded the ghost. Vs. 51 begins with the veil of the temple and the earthquake. 52-53 tell us about the dead rising because of earthquake. Vs. 54 explains that the earthquake which caused the dead to arise, took place while the centurion and others were watching the tomb: not at the moment Christ yielded the ghost in Vs. 50.
    Thank you though, I hope this helps someone. A lot happens in Vs. 27 of Matthew. Vs. 53 clearly states the Saints rose after ‘his’ resurrection. Since Chapter 27 is about the death and resurrection of Christ, ‘his resurrection’ can be none other than Christ. Vs54. Goes on to tell us the earthquake and all that came from the earthquake happened while the centurion was at the tomb. 56-66 goes back and forth a bit telling how his body came to the tomb, Piates part in it, Mary and Mary’s part as well. It is important to read scripture in it’s implied context. When something isn’t making sense, like for instance how could the Saints arise before Christ had risen, we should always trust that the scripture is the inspired Word of God and look for contextual clues that will shed better light on a subject. In this case reading Vs53-54 tells us what happened in Vs50 took place before 53-54.

    1. Daniel, I appreciate your perspective but we disagree for all the reasons cited in the article. There is a flow between verses 51-52 that indicates that at the death of Christ, the Temple curtain was torn from top to bottom, the earth shook, rocks split, and some tombs broke open,a nd some dead people came to life, but waited until after Christ’s resurrection to go into the city.

      As we stated, “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.”

      Other than Christ, all who have died are dead and are in the grave awaiting the ressurection.

    2. Perfect response! This is how I have come to understand these verses.

    3. Amen.
      My thoughts exactly.

  5. A lot happens in Chapter 27, not vs.27; my apologies.

  6. It’s the Word of God! There are NO mistakes or inconsistency. Everything is there for a reason

    1. We agree that God communicated His Word to men, which they intern wrote. But you fail to understand the process of copying those texts multiple times and the errors that can, and at times were, introduced. The field of textual comparison and research is required to reconstruct, as best as possible, the original communication, which we no longer have. The sis why there are differences between various “versions” such as the KJV (V standing for the word “version” and the NIV (version).

      1. I read many versions…
        But along if you really look at the versions and pray… the Holy Spirit and will help you to see that Jesus rose first.
        It could be no other way.
        Love you, brother.

    2. Amen brother!

  7. I have a question. Since we can to some degree of certainty establish that these two verses are not part of the original, God-breathed text, it opens up a great deal of ucertainty about any number of passages. It is one thing to know that it is a manuscript variant and we can see if it’s a late one or majority one .. But once we have established there are errors in the earliest we have, how can we be sure that there aren’t more errors. There are obvious ‘candidates’ where we study the vocabulary (word choice) but there might be more errors spread all over the place. The fact that a verse doesn’t seem to be odd doesn’t prove it hasn’t been changed. And the fact that it would be referenced in another gospel wouldn’t prove it either, since there are plenty of views among scholars to how the gospels inyerraleted when they were written so its possible that Matthew used Marcs gospel (for instance) and copied across his additions. (I am a Christian btw).to me, in light of this, Bart Ehrmsn’s uncertainties don’t seem too far fetched. I m not negating that the the core truths like resurrection are necessarily uncertain but it doesn’t help my faith to have in front of me a book that I am not sure if I can fully trust. I can read a verse and just because I do not have the time nor vocation to study it lingustically and textually I might always be in doubt whether I should trust it or not. Sorry for a lenghty question. It’s not a question out of curiosity but out of need. How do you approach it, or what would you advice someone like me.

  8. Simply put, KJV will fulfill your search for the truth. Why else would God mention in Revelation that those who manipulate or change the texts are destined for eternal damnation? Probably because he knew it would be changed, and continue to change. My heart goes with KJV and it hasn’t let me down thus far.

    1. You are making the classic mistake of thinking the KJV is the “text.” The “V” in KJV stands for “version,” which means it is simply an English version, or translation, of the Greek and Hebrew texts. Here is a full explanation.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftdYhrqum8s

  9. I found this article fascinating. Thank you for your in depth research and writing. As I’m preparing for Holy Week, (and I’m a relative newcomer to Christ) I was reading Matthew 27. I’m familiar with the three hours of darkness and the torn curtain…but when I came across vs. 52-53…I was thinking, “just who are these ‘bodies’?” Again, your article was exactly what I was looking for, a great read and explanation. Thank you!!

  10. I am persuaded by the entire scope of holy scriptures that Mt 27:52-53 ARE SPURIOUS and stick out like a sore thumb and smell fishy…. like Mt 28: 19b “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit.” The Companion Bible by E W Bullinger does not question these additions in his notes, and he was also wrong about including Mk 16:9-20.

  11. Hebrews 13:2 – textual corruption also?

  12. Do the jews, recognize an earthquake in Jerusalem circa 33 A.D.? Anyone else support the story of the tearing of the Curtain in the temple? Is it only Matthew? And then, why only Matthew?

  13. The key of understanding Matthew, 27v52;53 is the words First fruits, and the number 144000.
    Read 1st, Corinthians, Ch, 15v20;26. + Rev, 14,v1;5 This is your answer, There are only three phases of the resurrection of man kind, Christ the first fruits, #1, afterwards they that are Christ at His coming, the rapture #2, then the end, #3 First Corinthians 15v22;24

  14. The name of the Father, The name of the Son, The name of the Holy Ghost is JESUS.
    AMEN, and AMEN.

  15. @Grady…that’s the most bizzare unstabstantiated statement I’ve heard in quite awhile !

  16. When you are awaken by the Spirit Holy that resurrected Father YAHweh’s Son That Spirit bears witness to your spirit and you know what you know and why you know it.
    1 YAHchanan 4: 1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, to see whether they are from Father YAHweh; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

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