September 18, 2015

Matthew 27:51-54 – Understanding a Difficult Text

by Lyndon Unger


If you loosely follow evangelical apologetics circles like I do, you’ve possibly run across the name Mike Licona.  A few years ago he was involved in a kerfuffle when he questioned the historicity of Matthew 27:51-54 in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.  He commented on “that strange little text in Matthew 27:52-53, where upon Jesus’ death the dead saints are raised and walk into the city of Jerusalem” (548) and wrote:

“it seems to me that an understanding of the language in Matthew 27:52-53 as ‘special effects’ with eschatological Jewish texts and thought in mind is most plausible. There is further support for this interpretation. If the tombs opened and the saints being raised upon Jesus’ death was not strange enough, Matthew adds that they did not come out of their tombs until after Jesus’ resurrection. What were they doing between Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning? Were they standing in the now open doorways of their tombs and waiting?” (552)

Licona closed of his discussion of Matthew 27:51-54 writing, “It seems best to regard this difficult text in Matthew as a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that impending judgment awaited Israel” (553).  How did that idea fare for him?

Not so well.


Upon being challenged on his view of inerrancy by none other than Stormin’ Norman Geisler: he has a whole section on his website dedicated to Licona, including support from Ergun Caner and Al Mohler.  Licona responded with his own letter including a list of scholars who didn’t think he was challenging inerrancy, and the battle raged on as my disinterest grew exponentially.  After the dust settled, Licona lost his job with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board and resigned from Southern Evangelical Seminary, but quickly was hired by Houston Baptist University.  I’m glad that he’s still working and contributing too.  Mike Licona isn’t some sort of heretic (that I know of).  He’s a rather capable apologist with a flaw common to most apologists; he has precious little training in the proper interpretation of the Scripture.

It seemed like Mike Licona couldn’t figure out what relevance Matt. 27:51-54 had to the surrounding text, mostly on the basis of a rather strange interpretive assumption, so he made a bizarre leap.  He attempted to explain the inclusion of Matt. 27:51-54 into the surrounding text by suggesting that it was cryptically illustrative.  He made that leap on the basis of arguing that it was of a different genre than the rest of the surrounding text.  I’d like to take a stab at addressing the same conundrum without resorting to such inventive explanations, not because I’ve got anything against Licona but because I love tackling difficult texts.

Let’s get our “Bible Geek” on, and see if some quick but careful study leads us to doxology.

Sound fair?


So, the previous section of Matt. 27:45-50 reads:

45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.”

Here’s some quick observations:

–  In Matt. 27:45, there was an eclipse, or some other condition resulting in darkness (it may not have been an eclipse), that was three hours long.  This is certainly significant, especially in relation to the Messiah, but I’m not going to work through this specific detail right now.  In a nutshell, darkness during the day is often a sign of divine judgment (Is. 13:9-11, 24:21-23; Jer. 15:9; Ez. 32:3-7, etc.) as the sun is too ashamed to “look” upon what’s happening.

– In Matt. 27:46, Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1.  This isn’t a statement that God had forsaken him, but rather a proclamation of victory from the cross itself.  The rest of Psalm 22 is quite indicative of the blessing that Jesus anticipates from the cross; in his brutal agony, Christ knew that God would still keep his promises (Ps. 22:19-31).

– In Matt. 27:47-49, people didn’t understand what was happening and didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, so they put words (and wine) in his mouth where as others simply made fun of him (i.e. Jesus knew the frustration of social media 2,000 years before it existed – Heb. 4:15 anyone?).


– In 27:50, Jesus cried out with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit, fulfilling John 10:17-18.

– So in summary:

a.  Creation understood what was happening (God was keeping his promises).

b.  Christ understood what was happening (God was keeping his promises).

c.  The creatures didn’t understand (and thought Jesus was an idolater)

d.  Christ understood what had to happen and carried out his mission (God was keeping his promises).

This then leads to the following pericope: Matt. 27:51-54 (though I’ll include up to vs. 56):

51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Here’s some quick observations:

– In 27:51, the curtain of the temple was torn.  Some have thought that this “curtain” was the curtain to the Most Holy Place, but it is hard to say.  Without getting into the frustrating debate that surrounds this question (for starters, feel free to investigate The Veil Of the Temple in History And Legend by Daniel M. Gurtner – JETS 49/1, March 2006), I’ll just say that I loosely lean towards the idea that the torn veil was likely the outer curtain that separated the court of the men from the temple.  The obvious reason being that if the curtain into the Most Holy Place would have torn, nobody would have seen it (both veils were quite likely in front of wooden doors – see 1 Ki. 6:31-34, 7:50 + Ex. 26:33, 2 Chron. 3:14 + Heb. 9:1-5).  The Pharisees would have likely not told anyone and covered up that strange and damning sign, seeing that they covered up the resurrection itself and also replaced all the veils yearly.

temple veil

I have other reasons for my loosely held suspicions on this matter, but that’s certainly not the purpose of this post.

– After the way into the temple was opened for all (we’re a kingdom of priests with open access to God, but only Christ is the high priest and only he enters into the Most Holy Place), the creation confirmed the momentous nature of the death of Christ with an earthquake.

I’d say that the splitting of the temple veil (and the earthquake) marks out a rather monumental improvement in God’s salvific economy; the new covenant.  Jer. 31 and Heb. 8-10 talk about this in detail (among other places).  In the event of Christ’s death (and coming resurrection), the new covenant was set in motion and things would be forever changed as all believers would now have personal and unmediated access to God.

The idea here is that Christ provides divine relation.

– Then, in 27:52-53 there’s an indication of the meaning of the death of Christ.  This is seen in the physical resurrection of many “saints who had fallen asleep.”  Now many tombs were split open (possibly the rocks which were split were tomb-sealing stones), but only the “saints who had fallen asleep” were raised, emerging from their tombs after Christ rose from his.  This was the passage on which Licona got hung up.  He seemed to think that those raised saints were raised when the tombs were split and “sat around” all weekend, waiting for Christ to be raised.  I’d argue that such an idea is forcing the text.  The tombs were split at the same time as the veil, but the saints came forth after Christ.  There’s no reason to think that the saints were resurrected at the time of the splitting.  It’s far more likely that the saints were resurrected at the time of Christ’s resurrection, emerging a short time after he did.

The death of Christ opened the tombs and his resurrection was followed by a mass resurrection, but not the final resurrection.  This was just a little foreshadowing of it, and all those who came back to life would have died again (like the other folks Jesus raised from the dead before his personal resurrection).  Seeing that many (not all) of the dead saints were raised, this resurrection was likely a demonstration of Christ’s power to keep his promises regarding the final resurrection.

The idea here is that Christ provides physical life.


Not only were the dead saints raised, but something equally important happened in the following verse.

– In 27:54, the centurions who were with Jesus and keeping watch over him, saw the earthquake and pronounced “Truly this was the Son of God!”  That statement is a statement of belief in the person and claims of Christ; it’s a proclamation of faith.  That faith isn’t the logical response to an earthquake.  That faith is a product of a sovereign work of the Spirit of God in the heart of sinful men.

The passage is laying out that Christ not only has the power to raise dead saints, but also dead sinners.

The idea here is that Christ provides spiritual life.

– That’s not the end.  There’s that strange little extra passage in 27:55-56 where it mentions the women who were watching from a distance.  They’re the ones who had “who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him.”  There’s Mary, his disciple.  There’s Mary, his mother.  There’s Mary, the mother of two of his disciples.  They’re all there when none of his other disciples are (according to Matthew).

I’d dare suggest that there’s one final, and powerful, point being made.

Those women, the ones who had watched him die and had seen the aftermath, were still around.  That’s really important to catch.  I mean, his disciples were gone but their moms were still hanging around.  Christ sustains his own by his own power, not because of their own boldness or gifting or strength.  They remain and there’s no real explanation why, short of some sort of divine power that’s keeping them going.

The idea here is that Christ provides supernatural preservation.


So, I’d suggest that Matthew 27:51-56 is a very interesting text; it’s recording an event that foreshadows the coming teaching of both the disciples (this happened before any of the New Testament was written, remember) and the apostles.  It’s a little glimpse into how God was already pointing to the good news about Christ in the very scene of his death.

God was orchestrating the events to illustrate the very meaning of those same events:

In Christ, incredible and insurmountable life is available to dead saints and dead sinners alike.

God seems to do that, but that’s also one of the innumerable reason why we call him “holy”.

I feel some doxology coming on.

Lyndon Unger

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Lyndon is a pastor/teacher who’s currently between ministry work and in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Witness Protection program. If you think you saw him didn’t.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Amen Michael!

  • Very helpful, Lyndon. However, it reminded me of a question that would be a side trail to this. I’m sure you’re expecting it :-). The Scripture says that believers die once, and absent from the body is present with the Lord, and that we’ll be free of sin in heaven. So why would the risen saints have to die again? How does that work?
    Thank you.

    • Jason

      Verses like Hebrews 9:27 tell us that it is appointed for man to die once and then be judged, as a general statement. That is the design of things. Miracles are outside of the general prescription of how things work (not all water turns to wine and people don’t spend a great deal of time walking on it).

      These people were not experiencing the resurrection of the saints that will occur before Jesus catches His whole church up into the clouds (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). This is what such verses are promising is the general order of things following death.

      It’s possible God could have given them their imperishable bodies at that time as an extra special exception to the normal appointment, but we have no reason to believe he did. I feel like someone with an imperishable body would catch a bit of attention.

      • Ivan

        Great post Jason. Thanks for sharing. I wonder how does the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 and what Jesus tells the Thief on the Cross in Luke 23:43 play into answering Linda’s questions? Lisa’s reference to 2 Corinthians 5:8 would appear to apply to something that happens to the believer after Christ’s work here on earth but Matthew 27:51-56 is referencing those who died in Christ before His work. Would it be correct to say that the place where “Abraham’s bosom/Paradise” was the place where believers in Christ went before His work here on earth and now after the atonement “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”?

        • Jason

          Now we get into the area with plenty of debate. My understanding of how the resurrection can be a future event and still be immediate togetherness with the lord is that our time, from Gods perspective, transfers directly to the resurrection upon death.

          This is why it made sense for Jesus to say that Abraham saw His day and was glad (in John 8, where He otherwise suggests His existence outside the time of His earthly ministry).

          The immediate judgement of the wicked makes the coming judgement a sham trial.

          The parable was a spin on a traditional Jewish parable with the change condemning the self righteous man instead of the one the Pharisees considered “cursed”.

    • Still Waters

      Part of the answer to your question may lie in the Transfiguration, when Elijah and Moses appeared with Christ. Somewhere in the past, I had heard that Elijah’s and Moses’ appearance was possible because they were the only two people who had been taken by God, so their bodies were translated rather than buried. I realized later that explanation wasn’t correct, because Deuteronomy specifically states that Moses was buried. It was just that nobody but God knew where his grave was. Enoch was the other person besides Elijah who was translated.

      So, if God intervened miraculously in returning Elijah and Moses to the earth to prove that Christ, the Son of God, is greater, then it seems that the return of the other Old Testament saints to the earth was another miraculous demonstration that Christ was the Messiah for which they had waited. As an aside, the Holy Spirit’s work is evident in both the Transfiguration and the resurrection of the saints in that Elijah, Moses, and the other saints were recognized by people even though no portraits or busts existed to show what they looked like.

      • Jason

        While this doesn’t necessarily answer the question of why we assume those resurrected saints died again (since we aren’t told Elijah and Moses died again after the transfiguration, and I personally doubt they did), I found it useful for the sake of expanding on the concept of the relevance of such miracles as a testament to the resurrection of the dead in Jesus (a historical reminder of Mark 12:27).

        • Still Waters

          I wasn’t trying to suggest that Elijah and Moses died again after the Transfiguration. Then again, the account of the resurrection of the OT saints also does not specify whether they died again or not. In neither case does it say what became of the saints; in both cases, Christ is the focus. Perhaps they were all simply translated into Heaven as Elijah and Enoch were. Perhaps the timeless nature of eternity allows for an interaction of past, present and future that we cannot fathom. Whatever the explanation is, we aren’t given it. There are mysterious passages, like the burial of Moses and the dispute over it between Satan and Michael, which are only related in Scripture, with no further explanation given. But the revealed and stated character and will of God is sufficient reason to know that such strange passages as Matthew 27:53 in no way contradict such straightforward passages like Hebrews 9:27 – which was the original point of Lyndon Unger’s post in the first place.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Jason adequately deals with the idea below: Heb. 9:27 is a general principle but there are certainly possible exceptions – i.e. Jesus died but didn’t face judgment, right?

      Regarding why the risen saints would have to die again, I’d suggest that their resurrection wasn’t the final resurrection (so no glorified bodies).

      As for how that works?

      I wish I could answer that satisfactorily – Dueteronomy 29:29.

  • Lars B

    “The passage is laying out that Christ not only has the power to raise dead saints, but also dead sinners.” –Nice!

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks Lars!

  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    Question: Is there any validity to the Gospel of Nicodemus/Acts of Pilate that claims to have testimony from two who had been raised from the dead after the resurrection of Christ?

    • Lyndon Unger

      ANY validity? Who really knows, though apocryphal literature is often theologically biased in a cultic/heretical way and generally quite unreliable.

      What I would consider interesting is the raw fact that, as the Acts of Pilate says (2:1), “Nevertheless it is more marvelous that he rose not alone from the dead, but did raise up
      alive many other dead out of their sepulchres, and they have been seen of many in Jerusalem.”

      That suggests that the fact of other resurrections was at least known by some in that era, though whether or not there was oral tradition and/or historical records outside of Matthew’s account is a fact lost in history.

      The rest of the long passage, involving Annas and Caiaphas going to Arimathaea and speaking with Simeon’s sons, Karinus and Leucius (who apparently wrote about the afterlife), seems to be rather silly and over-the-top. It reads like a poorly concocted tale and conveniently rips off a whole lot of scripture to make Karinus and Leucius sound all “bibley”.

      I know guys who speak like Karinus and Leucius, but they’re all religious hucksters.

      Needless to say, it’s not inspired Scripture and I’m HIGHLY suspicious of anything beyond the basic fact of other resurrections.

      • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

        Lyndon, thanks for taking the time to answer my question in depth. Very helpful.

        • Lyndon Unger

          I do what I can Jane!

  • jacob.bratcher

    Brother Unger, though this question is totally unrelated to your article, I have to ask: Do you know what artist produced that painting which you used as an illustration in this article, of the temple veil being rent from top to bottom? I found it to be the most emotionally impactful piece of art I’ve seen in some time; but sadly, Google searches aren’t helping me out any with background details about it. Thanks!

    • Lyndon Unger

      Sadly, no. I try to grad images and link to originals whenever I can, but in this day and age people rip off art and use it like crazy. I THINK I found it here (since I just looked and I didn’t link it properly…doh!), but that likely doesn’t help a bit as it’s clearly ripped off from somewhere else:

  • Thinking

    Did the centurion and those with him express full confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior or just an acknowledgement that Jesus was more than a man? We can’t be sure. It does indicate a sense of awe at unnatural events that were somehow involved with Jesus death.

    Seems if someone has a preconception about God’s sovereignty they could assume something that is not there, but I hope they were saved if not then afterwards.

  • Johnson Pang

    Thanks for the post Lyndon. I think it would be improved if you left out the comment about Licona having “precious little training in the proper interpretation of the Scripture.” Unless you know that is really the root of the issue, there are many people who have great training, yet make interpretive decisions we don’t agree with.

    • Lyndon Unger

      You tell me:

      Most apologists don’t have any training in biblical languages at all, let alone adequate training in original languages and Hebrew/Greek exegesis.

      Many apologists don’t have much serious theological training, or anything beyond an intermediate grasp of hermeneutics.

      Here’s a test: name me five apologists who have written any serious exegetical treatment of ANYTHING that is utilized outside their specific field (i.e. a commentary or technical work on a specific exegetical topic/issue that is utilized by scholars who aren’t apologists). I’ve done some reviews of various apologetic literature and though I like the historical and logical content, the exegetical work is usually sophmoric (at best).

      That doesn’t mean that they’re stupid.

      It does mean that they’re not exegetes.

      If it makes you feel better, I’m not a philosopher or a historian, though I dabble in those areas as an enthusiast. I’m under no delusion that I’m competent at either, and don’t ever try to pass myself off as someone who is.

  • Barbara

    Lyndon, I love that, even with your trials and struggles you still post and work hard at helping us figure things out. This was fantastic and Made several things so clear , like the “snick” sound you hear when the last puzzle piece gets put into place 😄 when Linda asked why did the saints that were raised have to die, and Jason mentioned someone would notice a not dead saint after too long, well I thought, what a cool show that would make! Like, the guy who never dies and following him through all of history, maybe how he related to the church through history. Instead of solving crimes(as some TV never dead shows do) it’s all about the interrelationships he has through history. I know, fantastical. I’m weird. Anyway, the few scriptures you cited and the thoughts on the rending of the veil really was exciting and I love being energized by the scripture. Thanks so much!

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks Barbara!

      I’m glad to have energized you by means of the best energy source I know of!

      You’re not weird though. That would make an interesting show…though I think I’ve seen it.

      Wasn’t the last name of that guy “McLeod?”

      • Barbara

        You may be right. Even just last year “Forever” was on and the poor guy wouldn’t die, but end up in the ocean alive again. 😄 !

  • I always enjoy your posts Lyndon. The pictures you find show your sense of humor and also your deep belief. Would you call those people who came out of their graves and walked into the holy city and appeared to many zombies?

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks so much for the kind words!


      Not zombies. Resurrected saints.

      The modern idea of zombies carries the idea of re-animates bodies that are rotting. Every time people were resurrected in the Bible, whatever necrosis had already occurred was instantly healed.

  • tovlogos

    Amen Lyndon — Very tight.

    “I’d argue that such an idea is forcing the text.” Absolutely. You are a stickler on context which serves to avoid exegetical drifting. Even after years of study simply oversights can ruin a thesis.

    A keeper.

  • Johnny

    That was a most excellent study of this text, one that I know I’ve puzzled over. Thank you.

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