Matthew 27.50-53: A Short Analysis

By Samuel M. Frost, Th.M.

A friend of mine, Mark Cox, got me thinking the other night on this troublesome little passage in Matthew.  The text in question, from the ESV, is as follows:

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. 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.

If we survey the parallel accounts in the Synoptics (using Throckmorton, Jr., Gospel Parallels – Nelson, 1979) we find that Mark and Luke both record the rending of the temple veil.  Neither include the resurrection or earthquake, though all include the darkening of the day by a storm.  The Gospel of Peter (dated 70-160 C.E.), the work of a Docetic, also includes the tearing of the veil.  It appears, then, that this was a very early account of events that happened when Jesus died.

Matthew’s addition, however, stands alone.  The author stands alone in many inclusions of the Hebrew Bible in terms of rendering them “fulfilled” in the life and ministry of Jesus, and I will argue that he is doing the same here, yet with such a tact that his theological point is not to be missed.

First off, constructing a time-line of events, Jesus dies, and an earthquake happened (Jerusalem suffers from many earthquakes having two fault lines of the Great Rift Valley – the last major earthquake was in 1927).  Matthew 28.2 records a “great earthquake” which, again, none of the other accounts have.  Was this a second quake, or was he alluding to the one in 27.51?  Regardless, the sun was darkened by storm clouds and there was a “quake” and the rocks were “split” (same word for the veil being split).  Matthew obviously wants us to see the hand of God here in these phenomena.

From one point, the splitting of the Temple veil was a meaning that carried with it the idea that the way into the Holy of Holies (the veil separated the Holy Place of the Temple from the Holy of Holies, which only the High Priest could enter) was now “opened.”  The symbolism here is enormous (for example, see Floyd V. Filson, The Gospel according to Matthew, Harper’s NTC, 1960).  Even if the curtain to the Holy Place was meant, the meaning is still the same (later developed in Hebrews).  This would have also carried the meaning of the end of the older covenant made with Israel when read in light of the fact that Matthew has Jesus inaugurating a “new covenant” rite in his death.

The land shook and the rocks split which would have been the cause some of the tombs being opened.  The hillside surrounding Jerusalem are marked by tens of thousands tombs, many of which are quite visible today that date back to the Second Temple era (2nd century B.C.E-1st century C.E.).  Most these tombs were “corked” with a stone (there is some debate as to whether Jesus’ tomb was corked or a circular stone was “rolled” – corked stones are “rolled” as well on a wheeled platform because of their weight).  Regardless, at this point there is not real controversy.

The real fun begins with verses 52-53.  “Many saints” (we don’t know how many, three would suffice, or four, whatever) were “awakened”.  We are to assume, quite safely, that these were folks who had died within the last few days (people die every day in my small town of 18,000, so I imagine they were dying everyday in the large City of Jerusalem and adjacent area).  Jewish mourning for a dead person did not drag on for days before the burial.  When a person died in a Jewish family, they would “rend” their garments (keriah).  Death is a separation, and Jesus “gave up his spirit” – his spirit departed his body, which is a rending, a separation.  The separation of the veil curtain meant death.  Hebrews 10.20 states that Jesus “by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his flesh.”

Jewish burials, like with Lazarus, take place within a day or two (Concerning Death: A Practical Guide for the Living, Ed. Earl A. Grollman, Beacon Press, 1974). These recently deceased “saints” would have been either entombed in a ossuary, or laid (like Jesus) in a hewn out slab within the tomb itself.  Lazarus was not in an ossuary, either.  He would not have been able to walk out.  Jewish belief in resurrection of the dead was anti-cremation.

Where these tombs were around the city we are not told (there were thousands).  One could have been over there in the west, and another in the east.  Who knows?  Their “bodies” (somata, plural) were “raised” (egeiro), and “after (meta) his rising (egersis, a noun form of the verb, a hapax here, used only once) they came out.  Then they went back into the city (because tombs were outside the city) and were seen by many.  Could you imagine seeing Grandma again after you just laid her to rest a couple of days ago!

Now, we have to stop here because I said, “they came out.”  The question is, “when” were they raised?  The second question is, what kind of resurrection was this?  First, as to when they “arose” it appears from many translations that they arose when Jesus died.  However, this would mean that they sat in their tombs until Jesus was raised (which Calvin called, “absurd”).  Another reading, however, is that the tombs were opened on the day he died (due to the earthquake), but they were not raised until after Jesus was.  The text would then read, “…the rocks were rent and the tombs were opened (period).  And (later) many bodies that had been asleep awoke and came out of the tombs (that were made open three days prior) after his resurrection…”  This reading has it that the tombs were opened on Friday, but the bodies of the saints were not raised until after Jesus.  The fact that the author has “after” here is that Jesus, throughout the New Testament, is the First born from the dead, the First-fruits, and the first to be raised.  In other words, there is theology going on here.  One cannot have resurrection prior to the First, who is Jesus.

The problem with this interpretation is that it appears somewhat forced.  It is agreed hands down that Jesus’ resurrection was indeed the first of its kind.  It was not the first if we mean that it was the first resurrection whatsoever.  Many have been raised from the dead in the Bible.  They died again, however.  Their resurrections were resuscitation.   What is called popularly, “Near-Death Experiences” (NDE).  Anthony Peake, for example, states, “I still argue that these people when they have near-death experiences, are having “near” death experiences, not actual death experiences in that they do come back. They do come back to this place and they do come back and exist in this place and survive in this place. They come back to be able to tell us of the experience that they had” (link).  Thus, the NDE is indeed a real death.  There is much scientific documentation on this phenemenon. “Actual Death Experience” (ADE) is that, death.  In spite of a rather misleading title, “near” death, the patients do actually die.  They just “come back”.  It is not my intent to support any of these claims.  I am just looking for a definition.

Thus, all of the resurrections prior to Jesus’ resurrection were of the NDE kind.  Lazarus’ resurrection (and it is called a “resurrection” as are those in the text before us) was a NDE.  And, with all of these cases, all of them, they eventually died again (ADE).  However, with the man, Christ Jesus, we are told, “We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6.9).  Thus, Jesus’ resurrection was permanent.   Jesus ascended to his Father after he came out of the tomb the morning of his resurrection (John 20.17), which states, “Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending (present tense) to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”  Here, then, is what I mean by the kind of resurrection Jesus experienced, and the kind of resurrection that had gone on before.  They died again.  Jesus could die no more.  This preserves, then, the essence of what is meant when it is said, “he is the firstborn from the dead.”  His resurrection was a permanent resurrection with regard to his body.

This idea is guarded in either interpretation of the text before us.  The issue is, then, what kind of resurrection did these saints experience?  Was it the kind that Jesus experienced?  If so, then we can understand why some interpreters would render the text to convey the idea that Jesus was first raised, and then the “many saints” were raised.  These saints were raised with the same quality of body that Jesus had, and would not die again.  Rather, apparently, without being told in the text, they eventually ascended into heaven as well.  However, as stated above, this appears to strain the text.

My understanding is that the text is fairly straightforward, regardless of how incredible this miracle is.  It happened.  And, like many commentators, we find a possible allusion to a couple of Hebrew texts.  The first is the story of 2nd Kings 13.21, where we read, “Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.”  This is a resurrection story of the NDE kind.  Thus, when Jesus died, there was an earthquake, and some tombs were broken open.  Some of the recently dead (within a few days) arose and stood again.  They didn’t come out until after he was risen from the dead.  They made their way to the city (to see their loved ones, no doubt) and appeared to many of them.  These are NDE’s.  They died again.  This is the simplest reading of the text.  We are not told what caused them to remain in their tombs for three days, regardless of Calvin’s charge of absurdity.  Maybe they were talking with angels.  Who knows?

Some may object that such a resurrection would have had been reported.  Well, it was.  Matthew is reporting it.  Why is his report ipso facto rejected as an account?  Second, one of the interesting things about Lazarus’ resurrection is that after four days he came to life, too.  Yet, we do not see any other account of this resurrection except in John.  Lazarus “fell asleep” (John 11.11).  His body was four days in the tomb (they did not hesitate entombing him after his death, perhaps even that day, as we see in Jesus’ case – the Jews did not wait long as mentioned above).  But, as we know, Lazarus died again.  His resurrection was a NDE.  Jesus didn’t.

One other thing in John’s text is that Martha affirms her belief in the resurrection of the dead “at the last day” (John 11.24), and Jesus does not correct her.  Rather, he raises Lazarus from the dead that day.  Lazarus’ resurrection, therefore, was not the “last day” when, according to John, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6.40).  We are safe to conclude then, that the resurrection of these few saints at the time of Jesus’ death was not “the last day.”  They died again.  Jesus didn’t.

However, there is one last text in the Bible of the Judaism that has been frequently mentioned in the commentaries when dealing with this text.  Daniel 12.2 reads, “and many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”  The shared vocabulary here has caused many commentaries to see an “echo” or “allusion” in Matthew.  “Many”, “saints”, “sleep” and “shall awake” (Theodotion has egeiro, the oldest text, supposedly, has anistemi) are the shared words (see New English Translation of the Septuagint).  Is Matthew winking at this text?

It is possible.  That it is emphasized that Jesus is the “first” to be raised, and that these others (few in number compared to Daniel‘s vision) may be saying this: the resurrection of the dead in Daniel has begun with Jesus, the First (with many to follow in the last day).  However, because this resurrection of the few recently dead saints was not “the last day”, and these certainly were not “raised unto eternal life” or “eternal contempt” (hardly), then Matthew is previewing what resurrection will be.  Jesus’ resurrection, of one who died, was entombed for three days, and rose again in the same body, and ascended into heaven (everlasting life) with the same body is what Daniel foresaw for that day, the last day.  It will be a resurrection of bodies.

That even Daniel tells us the resurrection is at the last day is found in Daniel 12.13, ‘…and you shall stand again eis sunteleion hemeron, in the last of the days” – the last day.  Sunteleia is singular (last) of the days which equals “last day.”

In so many words, then, Matthew has indeed placed the resurrection of Jesus on a level all of its own.  Daniel’s resurrection is on the same level.  Jesus is the First to be raised of this kind.  However, when he died the bodies of many saints awoke and stood again – which denotes the kind, but gives total preference to Jesus.  These saints did die again.  Jesus’ body did not die again.  But, in the resurrection in the last day, the bodies will be raised (what Paul called a “mystery”) and these bodies shall die no more.  Matthew has defined what resurrection of the dead looks like (it involves bodies), and has defined the nature of the body with Jesus (the first of its kind).  The “hope of Israel” has come in Jesus.  The Spirit that raised him from the dead is already at work in believers, and “shall also quicken your mortal bodies” (Romans 8.11).  The Spirit is the guarantee of the better resurrection.  All the others died again (a fairly good resurrection for Martha because she got to spend more time with her brother, Lazarus).  But the better resurrection will be when “death is no more.”  Matthew has defined in Jesus what that is, what it looks like, and what it shall be.  Jesus’ resurrection was the appearance of the “last day” in the future brought into the present.  He is the Beginning and the End.  Worship Him.

More on Preston

By Samuel M. Frost Th.M.

The continued informal, written “debate” between my former Mentor Mr. Preston and myself may appear to many to simply be a waste of time.  It’s not.  Many have benefited from this in seeing just how disparaging the orthodox view is compared to Preston’s.  For that I will continue to engage in this venue of writing responses (to which there appears to be no end in sight).

Part of my point is to show how far the view of Covenant Eschatology (Preston’s novel approach) is with mainstream Christianity.  Preston’s view has not even convinced a good number of Full Preterists (which is another name for Preston’s view).  So, I am not alone here.  Of course, we could all just be “deluded” and off our rockers.

Preston’s latest “response” continues down the same line as he has before: Sam has almost, if not completely, lost his mind.  Sam “flip flops”.  Sam “makes things up as he goes along.”  Sam “lies.”  Same “twists words” out of context and deliberately “misrepresents” Preston.  And so on.  I understand full well the “attack the opponent” and “poison the well” techniques used in argumentation.

Notice this comment, for example, from Preston about my view, “He is on record saying he is not interested in what the Bible says about when fulfillment would be.”  Folks, this is just false.  As I noted in one of my first articles, Preston equates his view with the words of Scripture, and I stated that I was not interested in what Preston thinks on this, but what the Bible says.  To reject Preston’s view is not to reject the Bible.  To reject my view is not to reject the Bible.  Yet, Preston, I should add, knows full well that I made this distinction.  As a theologian who concentrates on the area of Eschatology, is Preston actually saying that I wrote somewhere, “I do not care what the BIBLE says about when fulfillment will be”?  No.  You will not find this statement anywhere.  This is “poisoning the well.”  It’s a lie.  A falsehood.

On the point of Ezekiel 7, Preston wants to suggest that I am one of the “scoffers”.  Well, again, this is just false.  I do scoff at Preston’s view, but not Ezekiel.  Ezekiel announced the imminent end (589 B.C.).  It happened.  It was the “end of all things.”  Well, “all things” has to be understood from the context.  The world did not end in 589 B.C.   As I have written in my book, Why I Left Full Preterism, there have been many “days” of the LORD when he shows up with great wrath.  And, as I explicitly wrote in my book, “we do not deny that AD 70 was a ‘day of the Lord’…we deny that it was the last day of the Lord” (p. 31).  Thus, any text of “imminent” context found in the NT must be investigated in each and every case.  I am not sure if Preston realizes it or not (my sarcasm is thick here), but I do call myself, or my view, Historic or Orthodox Preterism.  He seems to be under the delusion, or wants his readers to think that I am under the delusion that AD 70 was merely an incidental event.  I have never said nor suggested that.  It’s just not the event of all events that Preston makes it out to be, where all that God ever intended to be fulfilled was fulfilled (which, is the main cause of concern when Christians first hear of this view, because it immediately raises the concern of Church History – and the attempts to address 2000 years by the Full Preterists are all over the place here).

“I understand your views very well,” writes Preston.  Well, no, he doesn’t if he says that I care nothing about fulfillment.  He doesn’t if he says I “ignore” the time-statements of imminence.  The text of 1st Peter, where this beloved Apostle wrote, “the end of all things is at hand”, could be in reference to the coming catastrophe of Jerusalem’s demise.  However, and this is critical to understand for it really gets to the heart of the whole matter, to force Peter into meaning that he believed the resurrection of the dead was right around the corner is a whole other issue.

Listen to Preston’s words here: “The only reason that Frost– or his commentators- attempt this totally unjustified, non-contextual ploy is because of their materialistic attachment to the idea of physical bodies coming out of the dirt.”  Please note this.  “Because” of their materialistic attachment to the idea of physical bodies coming out of dirt.  Note the “mockery” of this doctrine.  It is a mocking of what the overwhelmingly vast majority of the Church has believed and believes.  However, there are good reasons for believing, not in the caricature of Preston’s malign asserts, but in what the Scriptures say.  The Orthodox view didn’t just fall out of the sky.  And, it is here, precisely on this issue, that rather than see the “clear” presentation of Paul in 1st Corinthians 15 as speaking of a bodily resurrection, Preston takes what he sees as “clear” time texts and reinterprets Paul’s “body” language to fit with AD 70.  And, it is precisely here that within Full Preterism itself as a whole that a massive dividing line has been drawn against Preston’s reinterpretation (ala Max King).  So, it’s not just “me”.

At first Preston wants to make it appear as if I “make this up” as I go along.  Here he states that “his commentators” do, in fact, exist.  It’s just that they are “deluded”.  Men like Calvin, or Moses Stuart, or Rosenmueller, Charles,  Maurer and others.   He quotes from an article I wrote 7 years ago as “proof” of my “constant flip-flopping.”  Well, Preston should be careful here.  If a person who is, say, a Dispensationalist comes across a book by John Bray or John Gill and becomes a Preterist (changes their view), is that a “flip flop”?  Let’s say this same person then reads Edward Stevens or John Noe and becomes a Full Preterist.  Flip flop?  Then, let us say that this person comes across Max King and Don Preston’s books, and they become a believer in Covenant Eschatology.  Flip-flop?  If a person who watched these changes of his one-time fellow Dispensationalist, would he be able to charge him with, “flip-flopping”?  In Preston’s world, there is no room for a person changing his mind upon further study.  There is no room whatsoever.  But, the above account is my own.  Was Preston charging me with “flip flopping” then?  No.  Ad hominem’s never work, Don, old friend.  Yes, I have used them.  They never work, or prove anything.  At bottom, they prove that a person “changed their mind.”  Is that a crime?

Preston writes, “So, even though Daniel does predict the resurrection that does not mean that the resurrection would occur at the time that heaven itself designated!”  Note the set-up here.  If heaven declared that the resurrection is to happen “at the time” (AD 70, for Preston), and Frost negates this, then Frost is negating Scripture.

All that Preston has to do at this point, or anyone else for that matter, is take one of the Commentaries I mentioned, Moses Stuart, and turn to his comments on Daniel 12.  I couldn’t have written it better myself.  Stuart is recognized as one of the foremost textual scholars of the 19th century.  This does not make him correct.  It does, however, add weight.  My claim is not made up.  It is not baseless.  I am not “flip-flopping” with “every” paper I write.  This is, again, poisoning the well.  Make your opponent look like a total idiot.  Total idiots can’t be right.  Therefore, Frost is wrong.  Now, to some extent, I agree that I am a total idiot.  Ask anyone that knows me.  But, on Scripture, my entire mood changes.  These are the oracles of God – to be handled with extreme care.

Secondly, and please forgive me if I cannot expound on the entirely of the Book of Daniel at this time due to space (!), my critical studies on this book (over 2 decades) have favorably (among peers) landed me in a very comfortable interpretation – having been a Full Preterist, a Dispensationalist (as a kid growing up), a Preterist (which is a very common interpretation).  Seeing Daniel from several angles over my career allows one the luxury of arguing several sides from the standpoint of previously held convictions of what the Book said.  However, “towing the line” and “going with the flow” was never really my cup of tea, especially when it comes to interpretations (and especially in Daniel which has been subjected to a myriad of interpretations).  Hence, I have launched out on writing a Commentary.

Preston makes a few comments on Daniel 12 (which I already know his view like the back of my hand).  I once preached the very points he makes here.  With conviction.  Yet, there were always “unanswered questions” I had in the back of my head.  “Tow the line…..ignore them.”  Having left Full Preterism, I am now at a place where I am no longer ignoring them.  They nagged me then, and they nag me now (nagging is not allowed in Preston’s world, one might be guilty of “thinking outside the box”).

Let the reader notice in Preston’s response that not once….not once, does he mention Daniel 11.  Actually, Daniel 10-11.  Two whole chapters.  Preston, rather, starts with chapter 12, as if it is somehow dislodged from the two previous chapters.  But, there is one, clear undeniable phrase in Daniel 12.1: “At that time….”  And, we know that this phrase directly links us with 11.45.  Directly.  There is no denying this, or getting around it.  It is a time statement, a time text.

“At that time, Michael shall stand up.”  At what time?  Here is a bona fide time statement if there ever was one.  At that time.  “That” time.  What time?  When?  Well, 11.45 answers this: “He will pitch his royal pavilion between the sea and the beautiful holy mountain, and he will meet his doom with no one to help him.”  There are many, many commentaries that write, convincingly, that this is Antiochus Epiphanes IV (I even have a Full Preterist commentary that asserts the very same thing!).  As stated, this is not the place to go into the details involved.

But, Preston wants to give the impression that the questions, “how long until these things are accomplished” in chapter 12 begins with chapter 12.  Rather, the whole vision of what is the subject matter starts in chapter 10!  Preston somehow forgot chapter 11.  The angel in chapter 12 alludes to two events already mentioned in chapter 11.  “The power of the saints shall be scattered/shattered” (12.7), and “the abominations that causes desolations” (12.11).  In Daniel 11.22, “And the arms of the flood are overflowed from before him, and are broken; and also the leader of the covenant.”  “Forces will be levied by him; they will desecrate the temple, the fortress; they will abolish the regular offering and set up the appalling abomination” (11.31).  Doesn’t sound too good for Judah.  “The knowledgeable among the people will make the many understand; and for a while they shall fall by sword and flame, suffer captivity and spoliation” (11.33).  Folks, Judah suffered a horrible period of years under Antiochus IV, where even a massive faction of Jews killed their own people.  The High Priest was slaughtered.  An idol was set up in the Holy of Holies.  A pig was slaughtered as well.  Absolute blasphemy.

Whatever the case, the context of chapter 12 is clearly chapter 11 (and the massive support of the commentaries, Jewish and Christian are simply too overwhelming to ignore).  Preston has built his entire case, it seems, on a very shaky interpretation – not a Praeterist one, at that.  The Praeterist view is that Antiochus IV is the “King” here, and the power of the saints were indeed shattered under his footsteps….for a time.  Those that “instruct many” and were “righteous” (we read about them in 1st and 2nd Maccabees), along with those of the same tribe of Judah that were “corrupt” and “deceived many.”  Of them, the many, they shall be raised to everlasting doom.  Of the same “many” (Judah), they are promised to be raised to “everlasting life.”  We are not told when (and of the import of what kind of “resurrection” we are talking about, one need only read one of the most famous chapters in Jewish history, 2nd Maccabees chapter 7).  Now, Preston can scoff, flail his arms, and quote his commentaries, and that’s fine.  We disagree.  But, the charge that I “make this stuff up as I go along” is entirely false.  It’s a lie.  The readers have to make up their own mind.  There are alternatives that are more sound than Preston’s truly “made up” corporate body resurrection (invisible body resurrection) –that has historical depth.

The fact of the matter is, the incredible history of Judah from 165/164 B.C.E. to the time of Christ sets the stage for his ministry.  All the chief characters are a direct result of Antiochus IV’s rampage (which is also explicitly mentioned in Daniel 8, and I would add Daniel 7 and 9 – let me add irony here: it was a Full Preterist that has recently helped me in my interpretation here).  Even the members of the Qumran Community are a direct result of Antiochus IV wrath, and what played out as a result.  Hanukkah comes from this time, the “festival of lights” mentioned in John’s Gospel.  Did Moses command this feast?  Jesus does not appear to be celebrating it.  He is walking around Solomon’s Porch (not actually Solomon’s Porch, but Herod’s porches that were named after Solomon).

Any way.  Food for thought.