Since there are many ways to read the Bible, I wanted to understand multiple points of view, that being: 1) those who understand this as a non-literal, non-historical event (modern, liberal scholars, perhaps) – this question; 2) those who interpret this event as literal – see my other question.

And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; 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. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God. (Matthew 27:51-54, KJV)

With phenomenal events such as an earthquake so mighty it opens a number of graves and then the righteous dead arise and interact with the community, one would expect Matthew to explicate these miracles beyond the pithy lines in his text; or, at least, expect the other evangelists to also document these incidences in their narratives. The Markan narrative denotes the temple’s rented veil and the centurion’s response, but does not make any mention of an earthquake or the resurrection of saints. Similarly, Luke and John do not make even the slightest reference to these events.

Additionally, during Peter’s pontifical address during Pentecost, not even a nebulous reference to a powerful earthquake or the resurrection of these saints is conveyed. Pentecost occurred fifty days following Christ’s resurrection and the supposed Holy Ones’ appearance to “many.” Therefore, the omission of these events in Peter’s address, especially to an audience that were likely witnesses to these events, is a curious oversight.

Why didn't the other Gospel writers write about these? Why aren't there other extra-biblical sources for these events? It seems like more than Christ's followers would have witnessed these events.... And it certainly seems like something people would continue to talk about for ages thereafter... Are there other sources that may imply the opening of tombs and rising of the deceased? Or were only the righteous ones able to "see" these?

Just confused why no one else mentions it. (Please correct me if I'm wrong!)

Did Matthew have a reason as to why he interpolated this into the text (if we take the stance that it isn't a literal event)? If so, what role does this pericope play? How does it assist in the overall message that Matthew is conveying to his audience? Is there some symbolism? If so, what?

  • Also, I've also found this pericope fascinating, and while I know it's not pertinent to our salvation to know more about this event -- it's not the core message -- Christ's Atonement & Resurrection is -- I just never hear it referenced in Church or by any other Christians. Why is that? (Although I suppose that's a separate question) Aug 20, 2016 at 16:44
  • Whose opinion do you want? Theologians who believe in the inerrancy of scripture will answer this very differently from "liberal" theologians. Aug 20, 2016 at 19:06
  • @Nathaniel, I'm not sure if you are commenting on my question or to user51778's comment? (sorry if I misunderstand). But in case you're responding to my question, I'd be open to either opinion. I'd love to hear yours if you have one. I didn't really mean for this to be opinion-based, but, I see how it's interpreted as such now. Aug 20, 2016 at 19:27
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    @ButterflyandBones Yes, my comment was directed at your question. The difficulty with questions that allow competing viewpoints is that, using their votes, people will pick the one that they think is "right," not the one that is the best answer. So someone who thinks the Bible has no errors might downvote Ben's answer, not because the answer is bad, but because they disagree with his premises. So it's important to specify whose opinion you want. You could ask a separate question asking for the other view. Aug 20, 2016 at 19:40
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    @Nathaniel That Lazarus kind of question is more interesting because it's asking why those who think it was real think it was not included in the other gospels. If this Matthew story isn't real the the simplest explanation is he just made it up! There's nothing to explain about the other gospels. For this question to be interesting it would have to tightly focus on those who believe in the scripture's inspiration and probably some kind of infallibility, but who think the story was allegorical or something.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 21, 2016 at 1:59

2 Answers 2


If Mark and/or Luke used Matthew as a source, then it seems most plausible to me to explain their omission as disagreement with Matthew---i.e., they thought it did not actually happen. If instead they did not use Matthew as a source, then they may simply have been unaware of the tradition. In this case, it was either an invention of Matthew, or comes from an earlier source independent of Mark and Luke.

Note that Mt 27:53 refers to a time after Jesus' resurrection. A minority of scholars believe this should be placed, furthermore, after Jesus' second coming, or some other significantly later date than the resurrection. However, this is a minority view and seems more speculation than anything supported by the text itself.

In the end, we just don't know the origin of this tradition, why Matthew's description is so brief and stingy on details, nor why other early Christian authors failed to mention it. Even the best answers I've seen, in my opinion, are little more than speculation.

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    The question then is: "Why would Matthew add this in if it wasn't a de facto event?" Aug 20, 2016 at 17:53
  • @ButterflyandBones, I gather Ben provided this answer before the question was changed to ask for a non-literal understanding of these verses. As it stands, this 'answer' basically says "I don't know," which is certainly not the perspective of critical scholars who consider this event non-historical.
    – Schuh
    Aug 21, 2016 at 16:58
  • I agree with @user51778. Questioning why one Gospel author includes material which the other Gospel writers omit can sometimes, with some biblical scholars, originate in a view of Scripture which assumes that Scripture is neither inspired nor accurate. That, my friend, can be an awfully slippery slope leading to you know where! The questioning I refer to can also at times be based on the assumption that because we live in "modern" times, our scholarship today is, ipso facto, so much better than the scholarship of previous, naïve, and gullible generations. I, for one, reject that assumption. Aug 21, 2016 at 17:08
  • @rhetorician I don't think it's a matter of ancient scholars being "naive" or "gullible," but they just didn't have all the tools that we moderns have. They also hadn't discovered some of the very important things that we know today, e.g. the variations in the Biblical manuscripts and the complex inter-relationships in the synoptic texts. What is worse, they don't always tell us why they conclude what they do. When are they just making guesses and when do they have access to valuable information we don't have anymore today? They rarely tell us.
    – Ben W
    Aug 21, 2016 at 17:19
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    @BenWallis: The fact remains: many liberal biblical scholars today do not believe the Bible is inspired, let alone inerrant. Moreover, the historical/critical scholarship of today is simply an extension of a phenomenon which began in the "Enlightenment" and simply devolved into various incarnations of unbelief, anti-supernaturalism, a "man is the measure of all things" anthropology and theology, and a host of other arrogant half-truths, misconceptions, and deceptions. I care not how great "the tools we moderns have." Jettison supernaturalism and the Deity of Christ, and you've got bupkes. Aug 22, 2016 at 0:37

I have heard the following argument (which is not the traditional understanding of Christianly as far as I know):

What is described here is not a physical event: i.e., not a literal physical coming out of the graves; it is rather a description of the resurrection. The resurrection here is being a spiritual revelation - which is a one Jesus speaks about for example when he says:

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” (John 3).

Those who were close to Jesus received the resurrection in the context of the trauma they had following the crucifixion. Later appears the term Holy city, which again is not a physical city - in particular not Jerusalem after the crucifixion.

[I will mention, that in the broader context of this argument - namely that the resurrection is a revelation to be received before death - is contradictory to Christianity today, and akin to the stance we find in the Gospel of Philip (not in the Canon) for example:

"Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error. If they do not first receive the resurrection while they live, when they die they will receive nothing."

Another possible support for this view, some find in Luke 20:

Crispin Fletcher-Louis takes one step further. According to him, “those worthy of resurrection” are already taking part in angelomorphic life. ... Luke is not anticipating a general resurrection but “a present (spiritual) resurrection of Christians from amongst a dead society.” This means that, for Luke, salvation is already experienced within the Christian community

The other side of the debate can be found in 2 Timothy 2:18:

men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some.

  • I don't follow any of this argument, it has no direct supporting evidence at all
    – Adam
    Apr 4, 2021 at 20:46
  • @Adam, it is indeed not explicit - as sometimes things of this nature tend to be. I believe that a reading of the texts is possible to understand the (doctrine of) resurrection as spiritual. The reply of Jesus to the Sadducees in Luke 20 (and Mat.) is example of this. I read the response of Jesus as denying physical resurrection and I'm not the only one as I gave the ref to Crispin Fletcher-Louis.
    – d_e
    Apr 5, 2021 at 20:43
  • Hmm, Jesus modelled to us a way of life. He was incarnate in the flesh, lived in the flesh, died in the flesh and was (by his words to doubting Thomas), raised in the flesh. When he went up into heaven, two angels said to those watching, "men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven, this SAME Jesus will come again in the same manner you saw him ascend to heaven" (paraphrased in my own words) None of that is mysterious or spiritual. Revelwtion also describes the second coming with "there will be the shout of the archangel, every eye will see Him...nothing spiritual about this.
    – Adam
    Apr 5, 2021 at 21:51
  • Further ref: Galadari, Abdulla, Reincarnation vs. Resurrection: The Debate Ends (2012). In the paper the given Mat text is quoted and then: "Although it may be understood that the event has taken place as tombs in the ground opening up and the bodies of righteous people were resurrected, it may also be understood that the righteous souls that are dead inside their bodies (tombs) have been resurrected with life in their bodies"
    – d_e
    Apr 22 at 20:49

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