“they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Matthew 27:52-53 has caught the attention of readers for centuries because of the notable miracle that those verses describe. These verses occur immediately after the death of Jesus recorded earlier in the chapter.
In this third sign that Matthew records in association with Jesus’ death-resurrection event, it seems that a point is being made about the effectual power of the cross for not just opening up the way to God but also to the conquering of the power of death itself (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54-57). Just as Jesus had died and been raised back to life, the record of people being raised from the dead testifies to the victory over death that Jesus has brought about as Messiah.
It is most likely that the significance of this death-resurrection sign is that it is a prophetic foreshadowing that points to the resurrection of everyone who believes that God raised Jesus from the dead (some see an echo here of Ezek. 37:12-14). As Leon Morris remarks concerning this sign, “Matthew is making the point that the resurrection of Jesus brought about the resurrection of his people” (The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Matthew). Thus, in a dramatic way, the death and resurrection of Jesus will end the power of death itself.
Despite the testimony that this last sign of Jesus’ death-resurrection seems to provide, it raises a number of questions about details surrounding this sign.
One question that is hotly debated is whether or not these “many saints” were raised in glorified bodies or their natural bodies. The traditional answer to that question is that when the saints got up from the dead they were in their glorified bodies and then, at some point, perhaps very shortly after going into Jerusalem, they ascended into heaven. However, the biblical evidence is against the saints being raised in glorified bodies. Jesus Christ had not yet been raised from the dead, and Jesus was the “firstborn out from among the dead” (Col. 1:18; cp. Rev. 1:5), and the “firstfruits” from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20, 23). Some Bible teachers try to get around this objection by asserting 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 the reading of the Greek text. According to the text of Matthew, the saints were raised from the dead when Jesus died. R. C. H. Lenski gets around the firstfruits argument by saying that Jesus is still the firstfruits from the dead even though these many saints were raised before him, because the saints stayed around their graves for the three days before appearing to people and thus gave time for Jesus to get up (The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel). But that is an unjustified sidestep of the problem: if many people were resurrected in glorified bodies before Jesus was, then Jesus was not the firstfruits from the dead.
Another reason the saints could not have been raised from the dead in glorified bodies and shortly after that ascended into heaven is that when the Gospel of John was written (perhaps 80-90 AD), no one was in heaven but Jesus. The textual evidence is that the way John 3:13 is written in the KJV represents the original reading of the Greek text, and it says, “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.” Thus, when John wrote, no human was in heaven but Jesus. That would mean that the many saints were still on earth in glorified bodies at least until the Gospel of John was written, perhaps 50 years later, which stretches the limits of credulity. [For more on the correct translation of John 3:13, see commentary on John 3:13 and 3:16].
There is another piece of supporting evidence that the “many saints” had not been raised in glorified bodies and quickly ascended to heaven. On the day of Pentecost, only 50 days after Jesus died, Peter taught the crowds that part of the proof that Jesus was indeed “Lord” and “Christ” was that Jesus’ had been raised from the dead and had ascended to the right hand of God, and that this was in contrast to great men like David who were still buried in the ground (Acts 2:24-33). But if “many saints” had also been raised from the dead in glorified bodies, and also ascended into heaven, then a large group of saints, including Jesus, had been raised and ascended to heaven, and that would have considerably weakened Peter’s argument because then Jesus would have not been special, he would have been part of a group. Opponents could have simply said that lots of people were raised and ascended, so why was Jesus different from the others (even though we know he was).
The evidence from Acts and the early Church leads us to conclude, but the Bible never specifically says, that the many saints got up in their natural bodies and died again quite quickly. But even if that was the case, there are still many unanswered questions about the event. For example, who were these many saints, and how would people know they had been raised from the dead? Also, what was the reason they stayed near (or perhaps even “in”) the tombs for three days before going in to Jerusalem? Also, why is there no other mention of them in the Bible? The chief priests apparently knew nothing about them, and were concerned only that Jesus’ tomb be sealed (Matt. 27:62-66), and why did none of those “many saints” get word of their resurrection to the apostles who were living in fear during those same three days (John 20:19)?
Also, after the three days were over and they went into Jerusalem, why does the biblical evidence lead us to believe they never appeared to the Apostles? After all, evidence of Jesus’ resurrection was coming to those confused believers from many sources; Mary Magdalene, the other women, Peter himself, and the men who were on the road to Emmaus, so why not from a few of those “many saints” as well? Another concern is how these many saints would rejoin society. Theories differ, and perhaps a possible one is that these people had not been long dead, as many assume, but had just recently died and simply returned to their families (cp. The Pulpit Commentary).
Most conservative commentators recognize there are difficulties with the record in Matthew but just take what Matthew says at face value without commenting too much about it or offering potential solutions to those problems. Many other scholars recognize problems with Matthew 27:52-53 and offer different solutions to them. A common one is that Matthew is speaking in an apocalyptic fashion and using a word-picture that draws on Old Testament motifs and connects Jesus’ death and resurrection to the future resurrection of believers. Another explanation is that by the time Matthew wrote, there was a tradition that the event had happened, and Matthew pulled that tradition into the text (Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel of S. Matthew). A. B. Bruce writes: “We seem here to be in the region of Christian legend” (The Expositor’s Greek Testament). However, it seems very unlikely that Matthew would put apocalyptic typology, legend, or tradition into the Gospel of Matthew as if it were literal history. A few Bible teachers have suggested that the record was added to the early texts of Matthew, but there is no textual evidence for that. So as obscure as it is, it seems that to show that the death of Jesus conquered death for everyone, when Jesus died some dead believers got up from the dead for a few days then rather quickly died again, awaiting the first resurrection.
As a side note, Matthew 27:53 uses the Greek word egersis (#1454 ἔγερσις), “resurrection,” and this is the only time it is used in the New Testament. In fact, it is also used only once in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, and that usage was not about getting up from the dead, but arising from sleep. “You know when I sit and when I rise” (Ps. 139:2). The word means “a waking up as from sleep, a rousing or rising up.” As far as all other extant Greek literature is concerned, egersis was not used of rising from the dead until the Church Father, Irenaeus. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel, vol. 2, p. 337). Several scenarios are possible: by the time Matthew wrote, Christians were using “egersis” 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.