Bible Bite: Matthew 27:51-54

Bible Bites Teeth

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 Norm Geisler (he has a whole section on his website dedicated to Licona…including support from the clearly unbiased voice of Ergun Caner…*cough*) 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 (mysteriously) from Southern Evangelical Seminary, but quickly got hired by Houston Baptist University.  After all, Mike Licona isn’t some blazing heretic; he’s a rather capable apologist with a flaw common to most apologists; he defends the Bible but has precious little training in its proper interpretation (a flaw that is common of many popular apologists).

I don’t bring up all this old news to trot through all the various issues or take a cheap shot at apologists. The church is definitely blessed by the work of many apologists at defending the historicity and reliability of the text of scripture.  Apologists are just not the guys I would normally go to for their work at interpreting the text of scripture (at least beyond a surface level).  When it comes to making sense of the text, their typical training rarely gives them the necessary tools.


It seemed like Mike Licona couldn’t figure out what relevance Matt. 27:51-54 had to the surrounding text, so he made a leap and attempted to explain its inclusion into the pericope 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 (a difficult sell, to say the least).  I’d like to take a stab at addressing the same conundrum without resorting to such inventive explanations.

I’ll do it fairly quickly too.  Let’s look at the setup in the previous section of 27:45-50:

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 27:45, there was an eclipse, or some other condition resulting in darkness, 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 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 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 word (i.e Ps. 22:19-31).

– In 27:47-49, people didn’t understand what was happening and didn’t understand (or weren’t really listening to) what Jesus was saying so some 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 as a summary:

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

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

c.  Creatures didn’t understand (and somehow thought Jesus was an idolater)

d.  Christ understood what had to happen (and kept 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 possibly damning) sign, seeing that they covered up the resurrection and replaced all the veils every year anyways.

temple veil

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

– Either way, 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 (another symbolically important event).

– 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.  Some have thought that those raised saints were raised when the tombs were split and “sat around” all weekend, waiting for Christ to be raised, but that’s forcing the text.  The tombs were split at the same time as the veil, but the saints came forth after Christ.

In other words, the death of Christ opened the tombs and lead to a resurrection…not the promised resurrection, but a little foreshadowing of it.  Seeing that only a small number of dead saints were raised, this resurrection was likely a demonstration of Christ’s power to keep his promises regarding the final resurrection.


Not only were the dead saints raised, but also 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…and 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.

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

In other words, Christ brings life to all…but that’s not the end of the passage.

– 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 the 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 here:  Christ sustains his own.

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.


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 the gospel accounts were written, remember) and the apostles (namely Paul).  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 events to illustrate the very meaning of those same events; namely that in Christ, life is available to dead saints and dead sinners alike.

Somebody give me a pulpit!

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “Feel Some Preachin’ Comin’ On!” Unger

17 thoughts on “Bible Bite: Matthew 27:51-54

  1. You said the darkness might have been caused by an eclipse. On the 15th day of the month, when the Passover was observed, the moon was full so a solar eclipse was impossible.

    • If only God could have figured out some way to…oh YEAH!

      HE’S GOD!

      The main “pay attention to this” nature of a supernatural sign of judgment is the “supernatural” part. The “supernatural” part is what makes supernatural signs of judgment kinda stand out. God may not have used an eclipse, hence I used “might”, but to say it was “impossible” is, well, to kinda miss the rather obvious point to a supernatural sign of judgment.

      I obviously don’t know whether or not it was an eclipse as the text doesn’t say, but the state of the moon at any point doesn’t make it “impossible” for the creator of the universe to cause his creation to do anything.

    • There are numerous techniques for divesting a feline of its epidermis. If one struggles to find a natural explanation to what is otherwise considered to be a supernatural event, one can indeed find that explanation, and it can be only a natural one, but one still shrouded in mystery.

      If a black hole, any one of a variety of sizes and distances from the Earth scenarios to pick from, would do a drive by, that would offer a natural explanation for a number of the described events.

      The ability of two interacting black holes to kick one out into space “is turning out to be an important process in a wide variety of astronomical settings,” says Mihos. “It gives the observers something to look for and the theorists something to keep scratching their heads over.”

        • No, just the opposite. As a practical matter there are very few scenarios involving black holes that are survivable by individuals, planets, solar systems or even galaxies. To me, one either accepts that supernatural events occur or one doesn’t.
          In this case, knowing about astronomy as a scientific discipline should not mean that every Biblical event thought of as supernatural, actually has an offsetting otherwise rational natural explanation. The idea that one needs to search in earnest for such an explanation in the fist place suggests that nothing miraculous truly actually occurs, but rather that this event is just a manifestation of human observational bias conflated with the desire to see a miracle is at work. In this particular case I am suggesting in the process of letting that hubris of mind that takes one towards that goal of finding only a natural event working within a supernatural one, ironically in the end one might find that instead, in some cases like this one, a natural event offers up an even more baffling and troubling explanation.
          What you said about it brought tears of grief to my eyes. Personally, “as the sun is too ashamed to “look” upon what’s happening”, is an as exquisitely sad, wrenching, disturbing, and as well as complete an explanation as I’ll ever require.

  2. “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.”

    Hi Lyndon, are these two verses to be understood literally, factually historical, OR symbolically,allegorically?

    I’ve heard or read derisive arguments from non-believers that Scripture has zombies and that Christians believe in zombies.

    If one understands these verses as historical fact, I can understand where the derision from non-believers originates. How do I respond to these folks?

    • Hey there Truth. All passages in scripture are to be taken as non-figurative language unless we have reason to suggest otherwise (i.e. a poetic form, an obvious simile, clear prophetic hyperbole, etc.)

      Why do people assume that the same God that can give LIFE to a dead body cannot heal the physical decomposition of that same body?

      How irrational is that?

      There’s no reason at all to suspect that the people who came out of the tombs were decomposed, zombie-like people. When Jesus came out of his tomb, he looked different (in a strange way that scripture doesn’t explain), but he looked totally human (i.e. not decomposed at all). The whole nature of the sign would be overturned if people came out all necrotic and partially decayed.

      The fact that they “appeared to many” must mean that people somehow recognized them, or nobody would have known that they (meaning the dead saints) appeared at all. They would have just thought they were demons or some form of monsters, not ex-dead fellow citizens. They recognized the raised saints enough to say “Hey! Aren’t you dead?”

      That should definitely tell us something.

      • “Why do people assume that the same God that can give LIFE to a dead body cannot heal the physical decomposition of that same body?”
        How big, or small, of a miracle do you want to try and envision here? If one is not satisfied with “God did it”, and leave it at that, then far more troubling considerations follow.
        The question you asked assumes a parochial view of death in a typical human body. If a body is decomposing, I guess we’re not talking about the resurrecting of the desiccated remains of an ossuary, then by definition there is abundant (non human bacterial) life there.
        To begin with, in a normal “living” body, bacterial cells outnumber human cells at a ration of at least ten to one, not to mention other parasites or any viral loads present. In other words, any “living” human is more non human than human, in terms of numerical comparisons of types of cells (not by weight percent or volume percent of course). If one is defining death in legal terms, that is one view of death that doesn’t consider the process of decomposition. Specifically, the telltale sign of decomposition is the presence of NH2(CH2)5NH2 formed by the carboxylation of lysine by bacteria in decaying animal flesh. That compound is in fact so wretched that the IUPAC name 1,5-diaminopentane is seldom used, and its common name ‘cadaverine’ is used, and along with the similar compound putrescine, those common names for both chemical compounds are used instead of the proper IUPAC nomenclature; and their presence is usually proof of some sort of life. If the ‘mechanics’ of the miracle is thought involve the altering a diseased cell into a health one, how difficult would it be to morph the otherwise healthy bacterial cell, apparently in real abundance at the putrefaction stage, into human cells? The only real question would be which human cells to use as templates? Since women are chimeras, and women that have had a human a fetus implant in their uterus are also micro chimeras, good thing Lazarus was male. Notice how a pithy question about what would happen in this process to women who were in some stage of pregnancy at the time of death, and then resurrection, won’t get asked or answered. The question about the resurrection of the micro chimera will be summarily ignored as well. I mean, if the resurrection story gets a jaundiced eye by some, a hyper technical following of the specific biology involved could lead to an account in that same story where a 20 year old man has his dead 40 year old mother come back life, then give birth to his identical twin; and that would really be too much for most people nowadays to begin to understand, let alone back then.

  3. Well, I was hoping to hear more, but you glossed over it, Lyndon.

    The questions this one verse raises are thought provoking.

    1) did the dead saints (recognizable and ‘good’ people) go back in the grave or…?

    2) if they didn’t go back into the grave (like Lazarus (or did he?)) where did they go? Heaven?

    3) if they went to heaven (and ‘when’ is another question. With Christ after His 40 days or…?), who went? In other words; did the power of the resurrection of Christ have only a limited effect for a limited area, as in Jerusalem, or…?

    4) when Christ went into ‘hell’ or ‘lower regions’ then ‘ascended on high, leading a host of captives’ begs the question(really several): when Christ left hell, did he leave the OT saints there to await the final resurrection at whatever time frame your eschatology demands?

    I do not mean to be provocative, but this one verse raises issues that might demand us to re-assess our thinking. It does mine.


    M. Howard Kehr

    • Thanks for the questions!

      The raised saints died again since this wasn’t the “resurrection unto life” that Daniel and Jesus spoke about.

      Why would Lazarus not have died again? His resurrection wasn’t the “resurrection unto life” either. That’s the one unto eternal life.

      Christ never went to Hell; he died and went to “the grave”. I’ve written on that here in another place.

      Many of our questions come from unnecessary assumptions, but if you limit yourself to what the the text says, many peripheral questions disappear.

        • Glad I could help (hopefully). Sorry if the previous comment came across as snappy: I wrote it on my phone while feeding toddlers so it was tossed out rather quickly.

        • Honestly? You didn’t help, but that’s okay.

          Snappy? More of a dismissive tone, but that’s okay too, you can’t offend me unless I let you.

          Let me search for the link to what you wrote about Christ in the grave and read it, before I decide to ask the follow on questions.

          M. Howard Kehr

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