Matthew 27 contains one of the strangest events in the New Testament. As Jesus Christ hung on the cross, he “cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up his spirit” (27:50). And as he died, several startling events took place. I say several because in these three verses we see nine verbs employed (seven finite verbs and two participles). That makes for an action-packed three verses. And while most of the seven verbs state remarkable events, it is the timing of events that makes for a challenging passage. Matthew writes,
51 And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split.
52 The tombs 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 entered the holy city and appeared to many (27:51-53).
- The veil torn from top to bottom
- Earth shook
- Rocks were split
- Tombs opened
- Bodies of saints raised
- They entered the city
- They appeared to many
The challenge is this: does the expression “many bodies of the saints who had fallen sleep had been raised” refer back to the “tombs were opened” or is it contemporaneous with the expression “and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered the city and appeared to many?” The reason this is a challenge is obvious: it either states that some were raised when he died and the tombs were opened (and perhaps others were raised later) or, when he died the earth shook and split the rocks opening the tombs but no one was raised until he was raised. A quick of English versions demonstrate the challenge and quite frankly some reluctance to make a clear distinction. The NIV suggests that these saints were raised when Christ died, while the KJV and NASB suggest that while the tombs were opened at his death, the saints themselves were not raised until Christ was raised. Obviously the Greek text cannot with certainty determine which is correct and allows for both. I tend to lean toward the latter position that there was a delay from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning. This is simply because the participle “coming out of their tombs” is so closely tied to Sunday and the temporal indicator “after” (μετά) Christ’s resurrection. Secondarily, and this is a bit of theological exegesis before the exegete is done, but since Christ is the first fruits of those who are never die again (1 Cor. 15:23), one does wonder if these saints who had fallen asleep needed to follow him in resurrection and not precede him. A layout of these three verses is helpful in showing the flow of the verbal forms and how the actual coming out of the tombs of the saints does seem closely tied with Christ’s resurrection in verse 53.
51 Καὶ …..ἰδοὺ τὸ καταπέτασμα τοῦ ναοῦ
ἐσχίσθη ἀπʼ ἄνωθεν ἕως κάτω εἰς δύο
ἡ γῆ ἐσείσθη
αἱ πέτραι ἐσχίσθησαν,
τὰ μνημεῖα ἀνεῴχθησαν
πολλὰ σώματα τῶν κεκοιμημένων ἁγίων ἠγέρθησαν,
ἐξελθόντες ἐκ τῶν μνημείων μετὰ τὴν ἔγερσιν αὐτοῦ
εἰσῆλθον εἰς τὴν ἁγίαν πόλιν
Just some thoughts….