September 22, 2018

Difficult Scriptures: Matthew 27: 50-53

Then Jesus shouted out again, and he released his spirit.  At that moment the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, rocks split apart,  and tombs opened. The bodies of many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead.  They left the cemetery after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city of Jerusalem, and appeared to many people (Matthew 27: 50-53, NLT).

I thought this would make a perfect Difficult Scriptures entry for the week of Halloween. Just what is going on here?

Matthew is the only gospel writer to include this brief story, and he offers us no help or clues as to its meaning. So I need your help for me to see what this means. How dead were these who were raised? Long-ago dead or freshly dead? What did they do in Jerusalem? And did they just hang around for a while and then head back to their graves?

Your turn. Help me to understand this difficult scripture.


  1. I was just thinking about this earlier today. How I wish the Bible included some interviews of Lazarus and these other folk raised from the dead. Just think of the speculation that could have eliminated!

    Do we have any other corroboration of this event? Josephus, for example?

  2. they were just “mostly dead”

  3. My lunch break is just about ended, so I’ll just give some short, knee-jerk answers… 😉

    > Just what is going on here?

    The loosening of death’s hold over the world is being shown forth, all brought about through Jesus’ sacrifice. It is also a foreshadowing of the bodily resurrection at the end of time.

    > Long-ago dead or freshly dead?

    I would suggest freshly dead because if they were long-ago dead one might expect the people to be raised would be some of the great figures of Jerusalem’s past and, if so, one would expect them to be named.

    > What did they do in Jerusalem?

    Shouted the praises of God – I like to think that’s what I would do if I was raised from the dead.

    > And did they just hang around for a while and then head back to their graves?

    I would suggest that they returned to their graves after a short time because, again, otherwise I would expect some of them to be named.

    • Pastor Troy says:

      I tend to like your “knee-jerk”. 🙂 I just want to add one thought.

      I like to suppose amongst the many lessons we can learn about God’s saving grace to OT as well as NT saints, even though nothing can be proven, that they eventually, and shortly after, arose at some point just as Christ did. For if we agree that they were “a foreshadowing of the bodily resurrection at the end of time” then surely a “second” death has, or had, no power over them.

      It’s just a thought.

    • I’d say these short, knee-jerk answers sound good to me!

  4. I have never quite understood what is going on here. We don’t get any further mention of what is going on (no more than we find out what happened to Lazarus, or the widow’s son, or the daughter of Jairus) and that little statement just kind of slips on by.

    It’s actually a kind of joke saying in Ireland (or at least, round there here parts, in my home); my mother often quoted “The dead arose and appeared to many” when my siblings and I, in our teenage years, finally surfaced from bed looking less than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.


    • The ones to whom they appeared must have known the resurrected person they were seeing was someone who had prevoiusly died, or how did they know they were risen? I tend to favor the thought that when the ressurected Jesus ascended into heaven, these other folks went along for the ride…. and are there with Him now in their ressurected bodies… Whatever the case, sometime in the next 100 years or so those of us discussing it here may get a chance to chat with some of those who were among the raised on that day some 2,000 years ago…. Then we’ll know the rest of the story…. :>)

  5. Christiane says:


    sounds like the beginning of the new age . . . . the fulfillment of prophecies.
    “Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

    Isaiah 26:19 But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.

    Isaiah 51:17 Awake, awake! Rise up,

    Isaiah 52:1 Awake, awake, O Zion, clothe yourself with strength. Put on your garments of splendor, O Jerusalem, the holy city.

    Isaiah 60:1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.

    Luke 1:78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven

    Luke 15:24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
    So they began to celebrate.

    Romans 13:11 And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”

    • Christiane says:


      “Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

      He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve.

      The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit.’ He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying:

      ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’

      I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell.

      Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.”

  6. I don’t know how long these people had been dead, but I don’t think they hung around town for a while and then went back to the tomb. I think they hung around until they died “again” either from disease, accident or anything else we all die from. I think the raising of them was just another sign from God that a truly miraculous thing occurred when God-in-the-flesh (Jesus) died.

    Something I wonder about, though, is that it sounds like they were raised from the dead at the moment Jesus died, but stayed in the cemetary until Jesus was resurrected. So what did they do…just sit around, shooting the breeze with the other newly-raised-from-the-dead folks, waiting for the moment Jesus was raised with a special resurrection body? I think they just had the run-of-the-mill body and would die like we all die. They didn’t have the kind of body Jesus had. He was the first to be like that.

    “many godly men and women.” I wonder what MANY is? 10? 20? 100? I would guess people who were not disciples of Jesus would say that the people had not really been dead, but were like in a coma. They would have to explain why these people all came out of the coma at the same time though!

    These are just my thoughts on this passage. I should look around for some commentary on it.

  7. I took a NT course on-line through Tyndale seminary in Toronto last year and this came up. I’ll give you the interpretation my prof gave us providing my notes are good 🙂 I should note that Tyndale is an evangelical school, though evangelicals in Canada generally aren’t quite as umm… hardcore as the US variety.

    So, he begins that if this really happened it would have been noted elsewhere and it hasn’t been. He moves on to say that it is important to know the Jewish genre of literature that was common in the day. There was the “re-written Bible” and it was new stories and speeches of Biblical people. It was not read as literal historical events but as an interpretation of history. It did not indicate what was true and what was modified to make a point. Ancient historians didn’t seem too bothered by things like hardcore facts and CNN wasn’t there to record it all live. He believes (and I’m going to presume others hold this view as well though I had never heard it before) that this may be behind Matthew’s story. It was considered a legitimate way of talking about the past and the people who would have read this at the time would have understood what he was doing. It may not have been literally factual but it tells a truth. And the point of Matthew telling this story was that Jesus’ death meant life and resurrection to the people of Israel.

    I think this seems reasonable. The story is told almost in passing and it isn’t mentioned by anyone else. You’d think it would have been a big deal to someone besides Matthew and it would be worth writing down somewhere.

    Just my 2cents worth 🙂

    • cermak_rd says:

      Even when I was a Christian I never took this one literally for the same reason, that is, someone else other than the Evangelist would have taken note and reported on it. The dead walking is just, well, it would have been big news even back then.

  8. I think the footnote from the Orthodox Study Bible summarizes it as well as anything longer I’ve heard or read.

    “The completeness of the salvation won by Christ is signified in the resurrection of the saints from the OT. This guarantees the promise given to Ezekiel that God can and will one day open the graves of all mankind (Ezekiel 37:1-14). The saints entering the holy city is an icon of resurrected humanity entering the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 11:10; 12:22,23; Rev. 21:2 – 22:5).”

    • I like this interpretation, though I am far from being Orthodox.

      I don’t know why people cannot just take the passage as it is. This is why I have such utter distaste for modernistic influences affecting our hermeneutics.

  9. Buford Hollis says:

    This is one of the many improbable stories which Matthew tells in order to make Jesus seem to be the messiah. Here Jesus is is made to fulfill Ezekiel’s vision of the Resurrection of the Dead. Since people obviously still die, Christians now shift this expectation to the indefinite future (except for the crazies, of course). Meanwhile, Mark and Luke have darkness cover the earth, in what Christians have rationalized as an eclipse (using the same sort of natural euhemerism by which the “Star of Bethlehem” has been reinterpreted as a comet or astrological conjunction) .

    BTW, David Ulansey has a good commentary on the tearing of the temple veil, which is described (the veil, not the tearing) in other sources. Apparently this was a big carpet-like cloth with an image of the stars and planets. The symbolism is that Christ’s death broke through the cosmos into a luminous, “hypercosmic” sphere which exists beyond the fixed stars (in keeping with the cosmology of the time).

    • Buford Hollis says:
    • “Meanwhile, Mark and Luke have darkness cover the earth, in what Christians have rationalized as an eclipse ”

      Dante would agree with you about the rationalisation being a bad idea, even a weakness and lying; from the “Paradiso”, Canto XXIX, the Primum Mobile (Heaven of the Angels):

      “‘One says that at Christ’s passion the moon turned back
      and interposed itself in such a way
      the sun’s light did not reach below.
      ‘He lies, for the light chose to hide itself.
      And therefore Spaniards and Indians,
      as well as Jews, could all see that eclipse take place.
      ‘Florence has not as many named Lapo and Bindo
      as it has tales like these that are proclaimed
      from the pulpit, here and there, throughout the year,
      ‘so that the ignorant flocks return from feeding
      fed on wind. And that they fail
      to see their loss does not excuse them.
      ‘Christ did not say to His first congregation:
      “Go preach idle nonsense to the world,”
      but gave to them a sound foundation.
      ‘And that alone resounded from their lips,
      so that, in their warfare to ignite the faith,
      they used the Gospel as their shield and lance.”

      So we can accept it as a miracle or deny it happened, but to assign a naturalistic explanation is fallling between two stools.

      • An eclipse? At a festival that starts on a full moon?

        • The thought is complicated, but what Dante is saying is that those preachers who provide a ‘rationalistic’ explanation for the darkening of the sun (e.g. that it was an eclipse) are guilty of denying the miracle and are preaching falsehood.

          As you say, we’re left with either acknowledging a miraculous darkening of the sun, or an invented incident to bolster the claims of a fake messiah. But “explaining” it (the way the walking on the waters was recently “explained” as being a temporary ice-floe on the lake and that’s what Jesus walked out on) is not feasible.

    • Buford, I’m glad you mentioned Ezekiel’s dry bones coming to life; and the veil adorned with stars and planets. A professor of mine had mentioned the veil too, and the tearing of it appears to symbolize the changing of the old order into the new heaven and new earth, with Jesus breaking through, as you said.

      I can’t agree with you though about this being improbable, or that Matthew was trying to make Jesus “seem to be the messiah”. It’s bigger than that.

    • That’s interesting about the stars and planets on the veil. Remember those passages in the prophets that referred to the sun and moon no longer giving light? I’m pretty sure that was cosmic language used to describe the judgment of God.

      So maybe the tearing of the veil, which had those symbols on it, as well as the land being covered in darkness, signifies that the judgment of God had fallen on Jesus?

  10. With the darkness, earth-shaking and resurrections, the New Heaven and New Earth had begun. This is part of Inaugurated Eschatology, or the “already/not yet” concept of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    And why not? God in the flesh had just been murdered, offered as a sacrifice for the sins of the very ones who murdered him (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”). Why would this not turn the universe upside-down?

    While some of today’s end-times gurus insist that Bible prophecies such as Joel, Zechariah, Daniel, etc., are still in the future (and therefore the gurus can hold a monopoly on interpretation), this looks as if the end times had already started with the crucifixion of Jesus.

    And although some say that the Temple in Jerusalem must be rebuilt in order for the prophecy of its destruction to be fulfilled (“not one stone shall be left standing”), they overlook that the Romans destroyed it utterly in 70 A.D. The literalists say that the Western, or “Wailing” Wall still exists and therefore the Temple was not taken down to the last stone, but that wall is a minor retaining wall and hardly would have disqualified Jesus’ prophecy.

    In the “already/not yet” approach to theology, the process of the Kingdom coming has “already” started but is “not yet” consummated. Stay tuned.

  11. What if that is exactly what happened; and it was mentioned so that we would know it happened and will happen again? Other than that I see everything else as supposition and conjecture.

  12. Buford Hollis says:

    THEY MADE THIS INTO A COMIC!!! You have GOT to check this out!

    • I’m sorry to start up with the nit-picking, but really, Mr. Liefeld!

      Firstly, the bodies which were raised were not zombies (and the modern iteration of zombies to boot, that is, flesh-devouring monsters. I am a strict traditionalist in the matter of zombies. Tourneur over Romero every time!).

      Secondly, they were RIGHTEOUS men and women, not hordes of the Undead raised as a diabolic army to destroy the corpse of Jesus.

      Thirdly, he gets the sequence wrong about Judas – Satan “entered into” him before his suicide.

      It’s a groovy plot, and I particularly like the notion of Lazarus, Superhero, but nah. Can’t suspend the disbelief 🙂

      Besides, for all your Zombie(!) Christ needs, I recommend the play “The Resurrection” by W.B. Yeats:

      “The heart of a phantom is beating! The heart of a phantom is beating!”


      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Though the idea of staging this passage as a 1st Century version of “Thriller” DOES have its own weird appeal…

        I can even hear Vincent Price reading that verse with the appropriate musical background…

  13. I apologize in advance for the semantical ticky-tackiness. If they died a second time, can these really be considered resurrections? I believe Tom Wright suggested they should be considered as resuscitations instead. If so, then it is reasonable to assume they eventually returned to their tombs, either shortly thereafter or later from natural causes.

    It still has the effect of demonstrating the loosening of Death’s hold over creation.

    By my albeit limited understanding, being the first fruits of the dead, Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of what will be true for all who believe. If we assume that means that Jesus is no longer subject to death, and these people died, then there was no resurrection for them, only a sign of the defeat of death (as well as their future resurrection). Just a thought.

  14. tikhon, yes, I think resuscitation may be a better word than resurrection for what happened to these folks. They were raised like Lazarus was raised or like the little girl that Jesus raised from the dead was raised. They will have to die again and stay dead until the actual resurrection at the end of time. That’s my take on it, as someone who thinks this actually happened, although I am “open” to interpretations that it could have been symbolic. But, it does not have the “scent” of symbolic things the way other things do in the Bible, in my humber opinion.

  15. “humble” opinion, not “humber” opinion. Sorry.

  16. In my memory, the saints went through the streets prophesying. I checked several versions (ESV, NIV, KJV) and those words just aren’t there. They all say “appeared to many.” They were godly men and women (saints) from the past, so I think it’s safe to assume they witnessed/testified/preached to those they appeared to, but I really thought the Bible said so. Memory is generative I guess. This is certainly a passage you don’t hear read on Easter Sunday.

  17. Cedric Klein says:

    I have no idea of this is 7th-Day Adventist doctrine or if this was just one minister’s speculation but I heard it suggested on a radio show that these people were revived, given Resurrection bodies after Jesus arose, ascended with Him & are the 24 Elders in Revelation. I tend to agree with all but the latter. Also, I would say they were the recently deceased.

    The JW NWT Bible indicates that the bodies of known righteous people were ejected from the tombs outside the city & were seen by people coming into Jerusalem. I have no idea how this plays out in the Greek.

  18. When my dad was living, he was a man of few words. He didn’t tell a lot of stories about his life, but when he did tell one, the story would be short. I mean he would say something like, “When I was in the first grade, I rode a horse to school.” [end of story]

    I always asked him a lot of questions like, “Where did you put your horse when you were in class?” and he would answer the questions with short details. (“They had a place where you could tie them up. Other kids rode horses to school. And when you tied up your horse you gave him something to eat.”)

    I have always thought that this gospel account was that sort of story–like the Lord (or the gospel writer) is being taciturn. I would like to ask a lot more questions.

    In our brotherhood we had an elderly preacher who was very knowledgeable in God’s Word. He said that the events in passage were the reason that the resurrection of Jesus was so widely believed. I mean, someone would mention Jesus’ death, and the people hearing the story would say something like, “Yes, I remember when that happened. That was about the time that Uncle Levi came back from the dead. You know, we were eating breakfast, and we heard that knock on the door….”

    I think that there is a lot of truth in that.

  19. I’ll add the obligatory C. S. Lewis quote to the discussion:

    “[Jesus] was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to ‘borrow death from others.'” — God in the Dock

    The key phrase is in quotation marks, probably indicating that it’s someone else’s idea. I don’t know the original source to it (George MacDonald? St. Athanasius?); can anyone fill us in?

  20. At the risk of being tried as a heretic and sentenced to burn with green wood, I have to take a cue from Buford and wonder–since only the Matthew account describes the resurrections, and the overarching theme of Matthew is to tie the prophecies of the Son of Man to Jesus as the Messiah and his Kingship, etc. etc.–I have to wonder if the author(s) had taken a few [ahem] liberties>/i> with the story to, like Buford suggested, make a point.

    • I, too, must take the “heretical” position that liberties were taken by the author – or some later scribe got a little quill happy.

    • I thought dry wood was supposed to be worse? Green wood produces smoke and renders the person unconscious.

  21. Because the rest of Matthew’s Gospel is written and presented as a historical narrative of Jesus’ life, I think this refers to an actual event. Regardless, this scripture has never particularly bothered me. I expect that these people were raised similar to Lazarus, not given immediate resurrection bodies. I’m not sure if it’s already been mentioned here, but I suspect that if these people were raised as such, there would be no immediate indicator that they had ever been dead to begin with. It’s quite probably they went around witnessing, but most who saw them (understandably) just didn’t believe they had ever been dead in the first place and assumed it was some sort of hoax. Only those who would have recognized some of resurrected (such as friends or family members) here would be in shock, I expect. So really, I don’t envision an event nearly as dramatic as a pack of walking dead!

    As for why it’s not mentioned elsewhere, I think we in the age of cheap paper and unlimited electronic writing capacity tend to take this privilege for granted. Scrolls were only a certain length, and probably expensive; it’s likely that all of the Gospel writers would have liked to include more information but just didn’t have space for it.

  22. A couple of people here have already mentioned Ezekiel 37, which connects resurrection from the dead with Israel’s return from exile and spiritual renewal. If Matthew is invoking Ezekiel 37, maybe he’s also doing it to tell his readers that the end of Israel’s (and humanity’s) exile has been accomplished through Christ.

  23. Here’s an interesting thought. Not one of those people who were raised from the dead had any knowledge of Jesus as the Christ, yet they were raised from the dead. Explain that one under the evangelical guise that we have to “believe” in order to be accepted by God.

  24. Brother Bartimaeus says:

    I always seem to be last to the party, but just couldn’t let this one go.
    I think those citing Ezekiel above are definitely on to something, but are getting hung up on bodily resurrection.  As God says in Ezekiel,  “these bones are the people of Israel”.  The people lack hope because of the exile/captivity, and it is the living people who claim that they are “dry bones”.  Their bodies aren’t being resurrected, but the people are being resurrected into hope.
    Who might have been the recently dead godly men and women who arose on Jesus’ death and then appeared in Jerusalem in after the resurrection?  It was the disciples, and all those who put their faith and hope in Jesus.  They all had died, and were raised into a new life with Christ!

  25. Unbelievable. Just the other day I was telling my wife about the fact that the Bible discussed zombies. I was kinda joking, of course.

    Went to Southern Seminary and I asked two professors about this passage. I never got a satisfactory answer. There’s some great discussion here.

  26. What I find interesting is that as far as I can tell this verse and Lk 1:70 are the only verses in the gospel where the word holy/saints (hagios) is applied to a person. This is the only verse where it is commonly translated as “saint.”

    This jumped out at me because of course the term “saint” tends to be more of an NT term – a follower of Christ – and of course prior to the death of Christ there were no “saints” as we think of them today. So, this is applying an NT concept to the OT.

    Of course, there has to be some kind of NT/OT continuity (what about everybody who died before Christ came?). It just really seems out of place to me, which makes it difficult to fit into my understanding since it fits neither the OT nor the NT models cleanly.

    I wonder what the textual support is for this passage – is there any evidence at all to suggest that it might have been added later, or do we have every reason to believe that it is original?