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Matt. 27:51b (NA28) ... καὶ ἡ γῆ ἐσείσθη καὶ αἱ πέτραι ἐσχίσθησαν,  52 καὶ τὰ μνημεῖα ἀνεῴχθησαν καὶ πολλὰ σώματα τῶν κεκοιμημένων ἁγίων ἠγέρθησαν,  53 καὶ ἐξελθόντες ἐκ τῶν μνημείων μετὰ τὴν ἔγερσιν αὐτοῦ εἰσῆλθον εἰς τὴν ἁγίαν πόλιν καὶ ἐνεφανίσθησαν πολλοῖς. 

Matt. 27:51b (NRSV)  … 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 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

This question is focused very narrowly on apocalyptic symbolism in reference to the resurrection and appearance to many of the saints in Matt. 27:52-53. From what we know of Apocalypticism in Second Temple Judaism and from what we can infer about authorial intent in Matthew 27:51b-53, from an analysis of the text itself, is there any basis for considering “tombs also were opened …” as an example of apocalyptic symbolism? J. J. Collins [Collins 1997:110-112] considers resurrection a major component within the apocalyptic world view. But this is different from a claim that resurrection functions as a symbolic element within the apocalyptic genre.

The question is about the meaning of the text Matt. 27:52-53 as we have it with special attention on detecting and interpreting symbolism within Eschatological and/or Apocalyptic registers.

What this question is not about:

  • it is not about the historicity of the event, not the question: Did it happen?
  • it is not about modern historiography applied to the Gospels.
  • it is not about Biblical inerrancy.
  • it is not about the lack of synoptic parallels.
  • it is not about the synoptic problem.
  • it is not about source criticism (what was Matthew’s source …).

[1] John J. Collins. 1997. Apocalypticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls (The Literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls; Routledge).

  • I'm not sure if your question is asking where or not the "opening of the tombs" is a 'type' of the Resurrection of the Just(it is), or whether the authorial intent was to write in "apocalyptic symbolism"(it wasn't-if you take the view he was recording the event). Of course, Modern Textual Criticism will say it is, and without an unbiased historical record of the same event, you are back where you started-authorial intent. The context is not symbolic, and Matthew is recording an event in Real Time, vs a "prophetic message" of a future date. – Tau Jun 1 '15 at 3:52
  • Mike Licona "Many evangelical scholars interpret the celestial phenomena in Acts 2 and Matthew 24 as apocalyptic symbols with no corresponding literal events involving those celestial bodies. I became persuaded that the raised saints in Matthew 27 belonged to the same genre." The problem is to demonstrate that within an apocalyptic text resurrection functions as a symbol. – C. Stirling Bartholomew Jun 1 '15 at 16:57
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    @Tau It is really distracting (and not useful to others) when you use technical terms with broadly agreed upon meanings to mean something different than everybody else does by them. As this is not the first instance of this error, please note the normative use of the term Textual Criticism refers to a specific aspect of hermeneutics that deals with discrepancies between different source manuscripts of the same document. As far as I can make out your comment is not actually a reference to the issue of textual criticism, modern or otherwise. – Caleb Jun 4 '15 at 11:04
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    While I understand what you are seeking for (examples of literary use of resurrection bodies as apocalyptic symbols of something), I struggle with what is to me a false dichotomy when you state: "The question is about the meaning of the text Matt. 27:52-53 as we have it ... it is not about the historicity of the event, not the question: Did it happen?" If a record of an historical event is "the meaning of the text" (at least in part), but you eliminate that from discussion, then you have eliminated a real (or at least open and honest) pursuit of "the meaning of the text." – ScottS Jun 4 '15 at 17:38
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    Could you edit your question to include a definition of exactly what apocalyptic symbolism is according to scholars? – James Shewey Dec 20 '16 at 15:00
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There is no basis for considering this passage an example of apocalyptic symbolism. Rather, it is a literal fulfillment of a promise that the LORD had made to Israel through prophet Ezekiel:

“Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it,” declares the LORD.’” (Eze 37:12-14).

I will highlight the exact correlation between the two passages by placing each action promised by the LORD through Ezequiel, in its two statements, next to its fulfillment recorded by Matthew:

  • Behold, I will open your graves / when I have opened your graves

  • The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised;


  • and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; / and [I have] caused you to come up out of your graves, My people.

  • and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection


  • and I will bring you into the land of Israel. / and I will place you on your own land.

  • they entered the holy city and appeared to many.

In fact, I think that Matthew did not state that this event was fulfillment of a prophecy in the Old Testament, as he did in many other passages of his Gospel, because the correlation between these two passages was so precise, so clear, so evident, that he thought it was not even necessary to point it out. Since he was writing for people familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, his readers would notice the correlation immediately by themselves.

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The text has two meanings here: 1. a literal and 2. a figurative/proleptic. That is to say, they truly were resurrected, as Lazarus was, but not in the eternal resurrection, which will happen in the eschatological End of the Days, for both Lazarus and those mentioned to be resurrected in Matt. 27:52 later died again and will be resurrected after the Second Parousia of the Lord.

However, the resurrection of the righteous men in Matt. 27:52 prefigures and foreshadows the final resurrection of all humans, just like the prophesy of the ruin of the Temple of Jerusalem by Vespasian and Titus in 70 AD immediately is merged in Matthew 24 with the events of the apocalyptic End of the History, foreshadowing them.

Also, it has a metaphoric-spriritual meaning, for the resurrection of a man to the new life in divine Grace is possible only through the Cross: that is to say, unless you crucify your sins and sinful inclinations and unless you are co-crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20) and die for the lusts of this world, Christ's ἐνέργεια (the action of His Grace) (Col. 1:29) will not start in your heart the salvific process that leads you to becoming a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17). Thus, the Matt. 27:52 indicates that even biologically living men can be dead because of not hearkening to Christ's calling and can be resurrected to His Life through the mystery of the Cross: co-crucifiction of oneself with Christ and death for sin ("world") and the ensuing resurrection to the new life in Him.

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This is a truly wonderful question. I must say when I read it, I have this overwhelming sense of Melchizedek. As far as a shadow or a likeness of things to come. In 53 we see they came out of the graves AFTER His resurrection. Certainly we must view that as a foreshadowing. He died and was resurrected. Those who die in Christ are resurrected to eternal life.

Hope we're aligned on that, I think I understood the spirit of your question. God bless.

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