Many Bodies of the Saints Arose

A note on Matt.27.51‑53

"The earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many." Thus runs Matthew's account, and since no other Evangelist records the incident, it stands as a somewhat strange statement, difficult of comprehension. For long it was suspected that the passage was an interpolation on the part of some ancient copyist, but it has been traced back to the earliest manuscripts known and there seems to be no valid reason for doubting its authenticity. The phrase "and the graves were opened" is not found in the Sinaitic, and both Sinaitic and Vatican MSS omit "and went". It seems that Matthew has indeed recorded an actual happening and it is worthwhile to seek the true significance of the account.

The apparent sense of the passage is that at the time of the crucifixion many of the "holy ones"‑saintly men‑of Israel rose from their graves and were seen walking about Jerusalem. The unusual nature of such an occurrence has led some to offer alternative explanations. One suggestion is that the earthquake opened up many of. the tombs—which were for the main part cut in the rocky sides of the Mount of Olives—and that the bodies were exposed and some thrown into the city precincts. The suggestion hardly meets the sense of the account and appears to be little more than an attempt to offer an alternative. Another explanation is that the followers of Christ at the time of his arrest, fled for hiding to the tombs, and only ventured forth after his resurrection. The known antipathy of every God‑fearing Jew to the ceremonial uncleanness resulting from contact with tombs—especially at the time of the Passover‑would make this supposition extremely improbable, and this hypothesis also does not fulfil the plain meaning of the words. Amazing as the statement may be, it seems as if there were in very fact certain ones raised from the dead at that time as one of the "signs" attendant upon the culmination of our Lord's life at Calvary.

Because the Lord Jesus Christ himself was to be the first one to be raised from the dead in the true "resurrection" sense ("Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept") it is clear that these who were thus brought back to the world of men were raised only for a short time and must ultimately have gone back into the grave, in like manner to Lazarus and others whom Jesus restored to earthly life during his ministry. This is borne out by the word used for "arose"‑egeiro‑meaning to wake up or rise up, and is the word used in Matt.24.24, "There shall arise false Christs", John 7.52, "Out of Galilee ariseth no prophet" and for the raising of Jairus' daughter and the widow of Nain's son. The word for "resurrection"‑anastasis‑is not used in such cases.

Another difficulty is the statement that these awakened ones did not come into the holy city until "after his resurrection" as though they lingered among the tombs for three days before showing themselves. Again it is noted that "anastasis" is not the word used in verse 53. A word employed nowhere else in the New Testament is employed‑egersis‑and the meaning of this word is that of a rising up or being set up. The Septuagint uses the same word in Psalm 139.2 "Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising" while a further instance of its use in our Lord's day is found in the Apocrypha.1 Esdras 5.62, "Singing songs of thanksgiving unto the Lord for the rearing up of the house of the Lord," speaking of the building of the Temple after the return from the Captivity. It is possible therefore that the reference in verse 53 is not our Lord's resurrection at all but to his being "raised up" or "set up" on the cross, on Calvary. Certain it is that there is no indication in any of the New Testament stories of the Resurrection that dead men recently restored to life were appearing in Jerusalem. The whole tenor of the Resurrection story centres around the disciples' ignorance that anything unusual was transpiring until our Lord himself appeared to them in various guises.

There is nothing said as to what these awakened ones did after appearing in the streets, and no indication that they were seen again, or even that the rulers and Pharisees knew anything about them at all. We have but a single statement of an isolated incident the more mysterious because of its brevity. The darkness lasting three hours, from noon until three o'clock; then the earthquake, of itself not an uncommon thing in Jerusalem; then this mysterious appearance of saintly ones of old, risen as if in protest against the tragic deed then being consummated on Golgotha. The expression "seen of many" would at least indicate that there were sufficient witnesses to attest the reliability of the record, according to Jewish ideas, and these three words ought to be taken as sufficient authority for believing that the incident took place exactly as related.

Then it was all over. The earth ceased to tremble, the sun came out again, and those visitants from the past were seen no more. Perhaps their brief span of waking life lasted only between the time of the earthquake and that hour when Joseph of Arimathea came to Pilate and besought the body of Jesus. It may have been that they were after all not the ancient dead, but very recently deceased righteous men who came back into the city with their grave clothes and all the signs of death upon them, rendering the city itself ceremonially unclean by their presence at the very time of its most solemn feast, and so symbolising in the most expressive fashion possible the position of that city in the sight of God. If this be the true purpose of the occurrence, with what fearful foreboding must the witnesses have gazed upon‑and perhaps recognised‑these death‑like messengers and maybe sensed something of the doom which even then was gathering around the city which had rejected and crucified the Prince of Life.