‘Many Bodies of the Holy Ones Were Raised Up’
“THE earth quaked, and the rock-masses were split. And the memorial tombs were opened and many bodies of the holy ones that had fallen asleep were raised up, (and persons, coming out from among the memorial tombs after his being raised up, entered into the holy city,) and they became visible to many people.” (Matthew 27:51-53) Catholic scholar Karl Staab calls this event that occurred at Jesus’ death “most mysterious.” What happened?
Epiphanius and other early Church Fathers taught that the holy ones literally came to life and went with the resurrected Jesus to heaven. Augustine, Theophylactus, and Zigabenus believed that these dead ones received a temporary resurrection but later returned to their tombs. The latter opinion, however, “did not gain wide recognition,” comments scholar Erich Fascher. When rendering Matthew 27:52, 53, many modern Bible translations give the impression that a resurrection took place. Not so the New World Translation, which points to the effects of an earthquake. Why?
First, whoever “the holy ones” were, Matthew did not say they were raised up. He said their bodies, or corpses, were. Second, he did not say these bodies came to life. He said they were raised up, and the Greek verb e·geiʹro, meaning to “raise up,” does not always refer to a resurrection. It can, among other things, also mean to “lift out” from a pit or to “get up” from the ground. (Matthew 12:11; 17:7; Luke 1:69) The upheaval at Jesus’ death opened tombs, tossing lifeless bodies into the open. Such occurrences during earthquakes were reported in the second century C.E. by Greek writer Aelius Aristides and more recently, in 1962, in Colombia.
This view of the event harmonizes with Bible teachings. In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, the apostle Paul gives convincing proof of the resurrection, but he completely ignores Matthew 27:52, 53. So do all other Bible writers. (Acts 2:32, 34) The corpses raised up at Jesus’ death could not have come to life in the way Epiphanius thought, for on the third day thereafter, Jesus became “the firstborn from the dead.” (Colossians 1:18) Anointed Christians, also called “holy ones,” were promised a share in the first resurrection during Christ’s presence, not in the first century.—1 Thessalonians 3:13; 4:14-17.
Most Bible commentators have difficulty explaining Mt 27 verse 53, although several of them suggest that Mt 27 verse 52 describes the opening of tombs by the earthquake and the exposing of newly buried corpses. For example, German scholar Theobald Daechsel gives the following translation: “And tombs opened up, and many corpses of saints laying at rest were lifted up.”
Who were those that “entered into the holy city” a considerable time later, namely after Jesus had been resurrected? As seen above, the exposed bodies remained lifeless, so Matthew must refer to persons who visited the tombs and brought news of the event into Jerusalem. Thus, the rendering of the New World Translation deepens Bible understanding and does not confuse readers concerning the resurrection.