Matthew 27:51-53 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
51 And look, 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 holy ones who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and they having come out of the tombs after his resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
These verses are one of the bigger Bible difficulties talked about recently, but fail to be in some of the more popular books on Bible Difficulties, such as Norma l. Geisler’s Big Book of Bible Difficulties and Gleason L. Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. What really happened?
The apologetic’s Study Bible says, “Presumably the tombs were opened when Jesus died, and the saints were raised and came out when Jesus arose, later ascending at His ascension. Matthew referred to their resurrection here apparently because he wished to link the messianic victory and end of the age represented by that resurrection with the death of Christ. That they “appeared to many” indicates that Matthew’s intention in this report was historical, for the detail is irrelevant if his intention was merely symbolic.” Were these holy ones truly resurrected, and taken to heaven with Jesus? This is the position of the early Church Father Epiphanius. However, another position by Augustine, Theophylactus, and Zigabenus, saying that these holy ones were resurrected, but that they were not taken to heaven, more along the lines of being revived from death, like Lazarus was, only to die of old age. Dr. Craig Blomberg writes, “If these saints were genuinely resurrected rather than simply revivified or reanimated like Jairus’s daughter or Lazarus, then presumably, like Jesus himself, they appeared to others only for a short time and were eventually taken to heaven. But the text refuses to satisfy our curiosity about these points.”
52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the holy ones who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and they having come out of the tombs after his resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
What did Matthew really say?
What Matthew wrote was “many bodies of the holy ones who had fallen asleep were raised,” (Greek verb egeiro, meaning, “to raise”). This can refer to a resurrection but like any word, the context determines the meaning because all words have multiples meanings. The Greek verb can mean “lift out” of a pit (Matt. 12:11), “rise” up from the ground (Matt. 17:7), “stand up, get up, rise up” from supper (John 13:4), or “raise up” (Lu 1:69), as a reference to Jesus as a horn of salvation. Look at verse 52 again, he did not say that these saints [holy ones] were “raised,” that is resurrected, but that their dead “bodies … were raised.” Moreover, Matthew does not say that they came back to life. It could be as simple as the tombs were popped open from the powerful earthquake and the dead bodies were tossed out of the tomb for all passerby’s to see. This is still staying with the historical account.
It does seem that when “the earth shook,” with the rocks being split, “the tombs also were opened.” Thus, again, lifeless bodies were being thrown out into the open for all to see. When we look to 1 Corinthians chapter 15, and the apostle Paul’s defense of the resurrection of Jesus, it causes us to pause in our interpretation of Matthew 27:51-53. If many saints had been resurrected at the time of Jesus as well, who came out of the tombs and went into the holy city and appeared to many people, why does Paul not use this, as it would have been a well-known historical event?
When Peter speaks of Jesus’ resurrection (Ac 2:32, 34), he does not mention the supposed resurrection of many in Matthew either, even though it is seemingly very relevant to both Paul and Peter’s subject matter. Lastly, these holy ones, who were supposed to be resurrected at the time of Jesus execution, waited days until Jesus’ resurrection to enter into Jerusalem? Rather, it seems that God caused an earth to shake, which knocked open the tombs, spilling the bodies of holy ones out into the open. After Jesus resurrection, a substantial time later, people who had been to the tombs, took note of the many dead bodies and brought this information back to Jerusalem.
52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the holy ones who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and they having come out of the tombs after his resurrection, they [not referring to the “many bodies”] went into the holy city and appeared to many.
Many are disturbed when one sets this aside as not being a resurrection. I certainly would not call it “poetic” or “legend,” as was the case with Mike Licona, who writes, “It can forthrightly be admitted that the data surrounding what happened to Jesus is fragmentary and could possibly be mixed with legend, as Wedderburn notes. We may also be reading poetic language or legend at certain points, such as Matthew’s report of the raising of some dead saints at Jesus’ death (Mt 27:51-54) and the angel(s) at the tomb (Mk 16:5-7; Mt 28:2-7; Lk 24:4-7; Jn 20:11-13).” I would disagree with this assessment.
The events that took place are actual historical events, but what happened exactly is what is up for debate. Even after having offered all of that I have in the above, I am not opposed to their having been a reviving of recently dead holy ones in a resurrection. It says, “… and they having come out of the tombs after his resurrection they [people] went into the holy city and appeared to many.” The Greek verb is in the plural masculine, which seems to be referring to the people that saw the dead bodies, not a reference to dead bodies themselves, which were mentioned in verse 52 (neuter in Greek). However, some on the other side would likely argue that once they were resurrected, they were no longer dead bodies (neuter); they were people (masculine). However, I would suggest that the “they having come out” … “they went into the holy city” is referring to those in the cemetery or those passing by the cemetery at the time of the earthquake (vs 51), who saw the dead bodies being thrown (egersis, raised) from their tombs
The one aspect that slows me from not being able to just accept that if it was other people reporting the dead bodies being knocked from the tomb is the fact that they were saints, (i.e., holy ones). It seems only significant if there was a resurrection, not if dead bodies were simply being knocked from tombs, which resulted from the earth being shaken. Moreover, it says, “many bodies of the holy ones who had fallen asleep were raised.” If the powerful earthquake had simply rocked tombs to the point of knocking bodies out of their tomb, it would have been randomly believers and nonbelievers. The account explicitly refers to only saints or holy ones as being raised. Either way, it is a historical account, and the details will be made known to us one day, after Jesus second coming.
 Ted Cabal et al., The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 1457.
 Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 421.
 Michael R. Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Kindle Locations 1845-1847). Kindle Edition.