Matthew 27:52-53, A Physical Resurrection?

And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. 

//I don’t want to talk about Matthew … I really want to talk about Ezekiel. Particularly, dem dry bones. Ezekiel had a vision where he watched a valley of bones assemble itself into a great, living army. The vision concludes with this promise from God:

Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves.

Scholars of Ezekiel, however, know that this promise is presented as a parable of God restoring His nation of Israel. It’s not about dead people coming to life again, it’s about going home from captivity in Babylon. Ezekiel makes this quite clear; it’s impossible that any ancient reader of scripture could misunderstand this, and think Ezekiel was writing about real graves being opened.

However, in the years after Ezekiel prophesied, many Jews did appear to believe in a physical resurrection. The book of Revelation promises just such a physical resurrection, and as I’ve pointed out, Revelation is essentially a rewrite and reinterpretation of Ezekiel. Another Johannine writing that draws heavily upon Ezekiel—John’s Gospel—tells of a coming hour when all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth. Today’s verse in Matthew describes such a resurrection, which surely was meant to symbolically indicate that the new age had begun.

Question: Could these New Testament writers, who surely knew precisely what Ezekiel meant, have also meant their “resurrection” from the grave to be in a non-literal manner?


  1. Lee,

    This passage from Matthew is one of the more interesting one’s in all the New Testament. I am willing to consider this resurrection event may be a figurative one rather than a literal one and, if so, that it works as a powerful literary device. I think Matthew placed it where he did so readers would make a direct connection between Jesus’ sacrificial death and the resurrection of believers both before and after the cross.

    However, having said all of this, had Matthew meant the resurrection scenario of verses 52 & 53 to be merely symbolic, I doubt he would have included the details found in verse 51, “and the earth shook and the rocks were split.” Verse 51 seems to indicate there was an earthquake of some magnitude that would have provided a physical means be which these resurrected persons could escape their tombs. This is a lot of detail for a purely symbolic resurrection.

    So my position would be that you are correct. There is a great deal of symbolism in the passage; however, I think the passage represents an actual event – similar to the resurrection of Lazarus.



  2. Lee Harmon

    Hi Clark, thanks for the thoughtful reply! Of course, I personally think the Lazarus raising is meant as a parable…

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