Matthew 27:52-53

Can anyone explain to me the precise meaning of Matthew 27:52-53, the resurrection of saints at the time of the crucifixion:

“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”

I cannot find any good explanation of this event and what it means.

Thanks for any assistance.


Well your not the only one. Here is what the Navarre Bible Commentary says about those verses:
'These events are undoubtedly difficult to understand. No explanation should say what the text does not say. Nor does any other part of Holy Scripture, or the Magisterium of the Church, help to clarify what actually happened.
The great Church writers have suggested three possible explanations. First: that it was not a matter of resurrections in the strict sense, but of apparitions of these dead people. Second: they would have been dead people who arose in the way Lazarus did, and then died again. Third: their resurrection would have been definite, that is glorious, in this way anticipating the final resurrection of the dead.
The first explanation does not seem to be very faithful to the text, which does use the words “were raised”. The third is difficult to reconcile with the clear assertion of Scripture that Christ was the first born from the dead. St. Augustine, St. Jerome and St. Thomas are inclined towards the second explanation because they feel it fits in best with the sacred text and does not present the theological difficulties which the third does.

Thank you very much.

It is difficult to understand and I would welcome any other viewpoints or an authoritative teaching on this passage.

Many thanks.


This is the one I favor because of the tearing of the Temple veil and the description of the environment when Jesus passed to Eternity. That “veil” is thin between the living and those passed, what with the Kingdom being at hand and all, and Jesus’ death had to be a cosmically cataclysmic event tearing the very fabric of Time. Suddenly, some of those passed became visible to the people.

I have heard this explained as the logical outcome of Christ’s death liberating the righteous deceased from the limbo of the Father’s, or “Abraham’s bosom” and that as they were brought into heaven they may have appeared to believers as a sign of the resurrection to strengthen or awaken their faith, as resurrection of the body was a “hot topic” in Judaism at that time.

This is a very hard passage to understand as it suggests (states?) that resurrected saints actually appeared to many people at the time of Jesus’ death and presumably resurrection.

This is an incredible event and would have had enormous evangelistic significance among the Jews of this momentous time.

Yet there is no record elsewhere in the Gospels or Scripture generally that I can find.

Thank you to all who have assisted me.



I believe the second “option” mentioned by CalCatholic seems the most probable. Quite frankly, these two verses have “stumped” Doctors of the Church as to their true meaning, so I KNOW that I cannot provide an answer.

One that is similar to the second option discussed by CalCatholic, but that has somewhat of a different take on what happened, is found in A Commentary on the New Testament, that was published by the “old conservative” Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (my own name for them) - the group responsible for my much beloved Confraternity Bible - not the new CCD membership responsible for the NAB and NABRE.

The CCD commentary on these verses states in relevant part:

"This event is to be connected with our Lord’s descent into limbo (cf. 1 Pet. 3:19; 4:6). But this passage is somewhat obscure; some interpreters hold that these “saints” rose in their glorified bodies and ascended with Christ into heaven; others think that they appeared in the manner of ghosts (what we, today, call spirits) and then returned to their tombs; for the rest of the New Testament seems to imply that Christ alone is ‘the firstborn from the dead’ (Col. 1:18) and that no one has risen or will rise in a glorified body before the Last Day (excepting, of course, our blessed Lady’s Assumption into heaven)."

A couple of points regarding Catholic theology on what happened as a result of Christ’s death:

  1. Heaven was opened for the first time since it had been closed by the sin of Adam and Eve.

  2. Many “saintly” people, such as Abraham, Moses, Elijah, et al., had to wait on Christ to die so that Christ’s death would accomplish the redemption - the “buy back” of oneness with God - the atonement. 1 Peter speaks to this about Christ preaching to the captive souls after his death, as almost all Catholic theologians believe this refers to Christ telling the “captive souls” in Purgatory/Limbo of the Fathers (probably the same status, but just given different names) the good news: heaven has been opened!

  3. The New Testament, after the gospels and Acts, speak quite a bit about the second coming and final judgment where men’s souls will be reunited with the earthly bodies. If one were to interpret Matt. 27:52-53 literally, then this would definitely be an exception to the second coming/reunion.

  4. We know that Christ had not yet gone to Heaven when he appeared to the Apostles and Mary Magdalene, as he cautioned Mary to not touch him as he “had not yet ascended to his Father in heaven”.

As I cannot imagine any human beings, no matter how holy, ascending to heaven before Christ, I lean towards the “ghost” explanation, and that their appearance to many people was simply more evidence (in addition to rending the Temple Veil) that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah. Once Christ ascended, I think one would see a procession from Purgatory of those souls who had finally been purged clean.

The lone exception would be Christ’s mother, as defined by the dogma of the Assumption.

Sam: This is very helpful, thank you.

It just continues to perplex me that such an incredible event for the Jewish people as the resurrection and apprearance of their (and our) Jewish saints was not recorded by another Gospel, nor referenced (as far as I can find) by Paul or any other NT writers.

Thanks again.


It may be a priority thing. I mean, nobody could have thought of anything bigger than Elijah coming back – big excitement, lots of wondering whether John the Baptist or Jesus might be Elijah – and then, as excited as Peter is at the moment to see Elijah back and Moses to boot, in the end he’s much more impressed by Jesus’ Transfiguration than by the visitors who dropped by.

Similarly, a few more patriarchs and saints returning from the dead and dropping by (as apparitions or otherwise) is nothing, compared to Jesus Christ returning from the dead in His living body.

I can’t remember whether it was Mark’s or Matthew’s Gospel that was intended for the Jews since there were Traditional Jews that did believe in resurrection/afterlife. However, I am not 100% sure of this or maybe even completely wrong about it.

Does anyone out there in CAFland know?.

Knight - Graham,

Having thought more about your original question and then your last post about why nothing else was recorded about this appearance of many dead saints, this led me to conclude that the “second” explanation I described (referring to the ghostly or spirit apparitions) is probably the most accurate.

Christ spent quite a bit of time amongst his people trying to convince them that his Father’s kingdom was at hand. Not some avenging army ready to overthrow the yoke of the Romans as God had done with Moses and the Egyptians - but a new kingdom in which heaven had been re-opened, mankind was redeemed through Christ’s passion, and man would be able to be saved if he cooperated with God in abiding by the “new” teachings of his son while Jesus was on earth.

To further “solidify” belief in Jesus as the Messiah, several events are recorded: Jesus’s resurrection, the veil in the Temple is torn, many more miracles occur (such as illnesses/diseases healed and spirits of many long-since dead people appearing throughout the land), and Christ remaining amongst his Apostles for a certain number of days, all the while teaching them and then giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

You wonder why, in particular, the resurrection of the spirits of many dead, holy people were not recorded in later books of the NT. I think (and of course, this is only my opinion) the events I just mentioned occurred within a very small window of time after the Passion of Christ. Remember that mankind tends to be, by nature, “hard headed”. We, as a whole, are usually not given over to miracles (although we see miracles everyday around us). I think the events that WERE recorded served a particular purpose: to instill and “harden” the beliefs of those closest to Christ before his death. Once this was accomplished, miracles by Christ were no longer “needed” - it was then the time of MEN to spread God’s word and convert the world. Christ’s “job” was done. He had done all he needed to do to prepare and strengthen his chosen ones for their difficult job that lay ahead: the conversion of a world.

So I think that while some of these miraculous events, that occurred immediately after Christ’s death, were recorded for posterity and to further cement the belief of who Christ really was, the recapitulation of such events was not necessary. They served their limited purpose. Now, the job of conversion lay with the Apostles.

And look at what a job they did . . . :thumbsup:

I have always viewed Christ as wanting people to believe his WORDS and how strong they were and the depth of their meaning. Remember that Christ was very sparse with his miracles. He did not want to come across as some sort of magician. He wanted people to focus on what God was SAYING, and not be awed by cures that people would soon disregard as tricks.

One need only look at what the Apostles did after Christ’s death and Ascension. Although they, too, performed miracles, their focus was on spreading God’s word - which was the prime focus of Christ while he was alive on earth. Jesus wanted to change men’s hearts - not follow him only because he could raise the dead or cure the blind.

Thus, I think that what was recorded of these post-death events that occurred immediately after Christ died, was done so to preserve the fact of their occurrence, but that was it. More important things lay ahead.

I hope this makes sense. :slight_smile:

I started this thread a while ago and just noted that Mark Shea has posted on this topic:

In a way you could say that John did report this first resurrection of man via Revelations 20. In Catholic theology, the thousand years is regarded as the period between Christs resurrection and His coming again to judge the living and dead.

Revelations 20 - And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3 He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.

4 I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.

These resurrected men who won’t see a second death and will presumably reign with Christ, the Holy Spirit on earth, are obviously something to give us great hope and confidence in the extent of our Fathers love for us!

I believe the reason that God allowed some OT saints to rise from their graves at this time was because the restoration of the people of God was described in the OT prophets as a resurrection from the dead. The people of Israel in sin and exile are described as being dead.

Baruch 3:4–8 (RSVCE)
4 O Lord Almighty, God of Israel, hear now the prayer of the dead of Israel and of the sons of those who sinned before thee, who did not heed the voice of the Lord their God, so that calamities have clung to us. 5 Remember not the iniquities of our fathers, but in this crisis remember thy power and thy name. 6 For thou art the Lord our God, and thee, O Lord, will we praise. 7 For thou hast put the fear of thee in our hearts in order that we should call upon thy name; and we will praise thee in our exile, for we have put away from our hearts all the iniquity of our fathers who sinned before thee. 8 Behold, we are today in our exile where thou hast scattered us, to be reproached and cursed and punished for all the iniquities of our fathers who forsook the Lord our God.’”

Again in Ezekiel 37 Israel is described as a valley of dry bones.

When the prophets speak of the restoration of Israel they use the image of a resurrection. See for example Hosea 6:1-2)

Hosea 6:1–2 (RSVCE)
1 “Come, let us return to the LORD;
for he has torn, that he may heal us;
he has stricken, and he will bind us up. 2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.

Psalm 85:6 (RSVCE)

  6 Wilt thou not revive us again,
  that thy people may rejoice in thee?

There are other passages like that but I think the most important one is from Ezekiel

Ezekiel 37:11–14 (RSVCE)

11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and I have done it, says the LORD.”

Dr Scott Hahn writes:

‘‘Early prophets caught a glimpse of God’s plan to raise Israel up from the dead (Isa 26:19, Hos 6:2)…Resurrection can be used as a metaphor for ‘‘restoration from exile’’ (Ezek 37:11-14).’’ (Scott Hahn, Catholic Bible Dictionary, p.768)


‘‘Hosea depicts Israel’s restoration from exile as a third-day resurrection (Hos 6:2). Since the Messiah represents Israel in the fullest sense, embodying both its vocation and destiny, Christ’s own Resurrection initiates the resurrection of Israel from a state of spiritual death (Rom 11:15, 25-27).’’ (Scott Hahn, Icsb, p.155)

N.T Wright also remarked:

‘‘Ever since Ezekiel 37, the idea of resurrection had been used as picture language for the true return from exile’’ (Tom Wright, Luke for everyone, p.188).

So given all this I believe that by allowing these OT saints to rise God is showing that the cross has brought about forgiveness of sins and now the restoration of the people of God is beginning. The cross of Jesus is what accomplishes this. The Holy Spirit had revealed this to Ciaphas

John 11:49–52 (RSVCE)
49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; 50 you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

And as Jesus himself says.

John 12:32 (RSVCE)
32 and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

Finally then. Matthew 27:52 is a historical even that prefigures what God will do in restoring his people. Not only Israel but also all mankind through his universal Catholic Church. This is why pauls says that when we are baptized, we are raised from the dead (Col 2:11 ff, Rom 6:3-4)

Here is what St. Thomas Aquinas has in his personal commentary on Matthew

Concerning these bodies of the saints, the question is usually raised, whether or not they were going to die again. It is undisputed that some men rose again, after they had died, such as Lazarus. But concerning these men it can be said that they rose so as not to die again, because they rose for the showing of Christ’s Resurrection. Now it is certain that Christ rising from the dead will now die no more. Likewise, if they had risen, it would not have been beneficial for them, but rather detrimental; wherefore, they rose as being about to go with Christ into heaven.

And coming out of the tombs after his resurrection, came into the holy city. And note that although this was said at Christ’s death, nevertheless, it is understood to be said by anticipation, because it happened after Christ’s Resurrection; because Christ is “the first begotten of the dead” (Apoc. 1, 5). And they came into the holy city, not because it was then holy, but because it had been holy before; “How is the faithful city, that was full of judgment, become a harlot?” (Is. 1, 21). Or it is called holy because holy things were conducted there. Or, according to Jerome, it is said into the holy city, namely, the heavenly city, because they came with Christ in glory, and appeared to many. For as Christ has the the power to show Himself to whom He will, so it is understood concerning glorified bodies.

You are right, Matthew’s gospel was originally written in Aramaic for the Jews, then translated into Greek.

There was a sharp division between beliefs about the resurrection. Scripture testifies that the Sadducees did not believe in it. Also, a similarly puzzling passage is contained in Acts, when Peter escaped from prison and went to the house.

Acts 12:14-15
4 On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It is his angel.”

As if it was common knowledge that a persons’ guardian angel would have an appearance like the person? Or that it was a messenger spirit that looked like the person?

I have always leaned toward the 2nd of these interpretations, because the text is specific that they came out of their tombs AFTER the resurrection. I thought He took them with him to heaven, in fulfillment of the scripture:

Ps 68:18
8 You ascended the high mount,
leading captives in your train
and receiving gifts from people,

These saints did not precede but followed Jesus resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection occurred on the day the first fruits of the barley harvest were waved before the Lord. Jesus was resurrected first, then his mother Mary, then these others. All as part of the wave offering that was the first fruits of the barley harvest. The offering could not be just one seed (barley kernel) (Jesus) because that would not constitute a sheave of grain. Also, it was a harvest, they had to die before they could be harvested, so all these had died and after Jesus were raised bodily and incorruptible. And Jesus proceeded to His Father shortly after His encounter with Mary Magdalene, because by the evening He is saying put your hand in my side, see that it is really Me.
Grace and peace,

Can you harmonize your statement with the Scripture?
“…and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep [died] were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many”.

Even if they do not come out of the grave, they still are alive before Christ resurrects.

I would be interested in what you think about this:

– If they raise before Christ does, they cannot have glorious bodies, because of the very privilege of the Christ. Then they wait for 2 days in the tombs, with all the needs of a mortal body (eating …) and still “appear” to people in Jerusalem, where “appear” could stand for “were seen”

– If they raise after Christ resurrection, why did Matthew say that they raise after his death?

Also, the so-called Church of the Great God (seemingly Evangelicals or Pentecostals or so) say that the wording means physical resurrection only

Matthew’s wording clearly describes these saints as revived to normal, physical life. Like all humans before and after them who were resurrected, they all died again.

Well, they re not catholic, but i once again stick to the physical resurrection only theory, without saying it is the only meaning or denying the eschatological sense.

I believe you are misreading Matthew. You assume that your understanding of the text must be correct. The graves were opened at the time of Jesus’ death. It does not say these saints were raised at this time, rather sometime before they came out of the tombs they were raised. In the Greek all the verbs are aorest except having fallen asleep, aorest usually means occurring at a point in time in the past. There is no more link between ‘were raised’ and ‘graves opened’ than ‘coming forth’ so the text can and does because the scriptures cannot contradict each other mean they were raised at the time they came forth. These were the first of the Old Testament saints that were going with Jesus into heaven, not waiting for the second coming. 1Co 15:23 Christ is the first fruits, But the first fruits is not one kernel of wheat but a sheave and it was waved the earthquake at the resurrection would wave these kernels.
Grace and peace

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