I would like to examine Matthew 27:51-54 in light of what we know of Jewish burial practices in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, and then ask two questions, 'What happened to these resurrected saints?' 'What is the prophetic significance of the veil of the Temple being torn in two from top to bottom and the saints being resurrected?'
In my younger days in Jerusalem, I enjoyed exploring the ancient burial caves throughout the city. I also had the privilege of working with, and learning from, Dr. Gabriel Barkay. In my estimation, he is the world’s expert on the history and archaeology of Jerusalem. Among other things, we surveyed together a number of burial caves in and around Jerusalem, mostly of the Iron Age (the period of the Judean Monarchy), and even excavated a handful of them. The most important caves were at Ketef Hinnom (the “Shoulder of Hinnom”), below the St. Andrew’s Scottish Church, on the edge of the Hinnom Valley. This is where the two oldest Biblical texts found to date were discovered (Franz 2005).
In my studies of the funerary practices and burials in Jerusalem, one passage of Scripture especially interested me as I visited ancient tombs in Jerusalem. It is Matt. 27:51-54:
Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many. So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God’!
I would like to examine this passage in light of what we know of Jewish burial practices in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, and then ask two questions, “What happened to these resurrected saints?” “What is the prophetic significance of the veil of the Temple being torn in two from top to bottom and the saints being resurrected?”
Second Temple Burial Practices
A Jewish person who died in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period was usually buried before sundown, or at least within 24 hours of death. The body was taken to the family’s rock-cut tomb where it was washed and wrapped in burial shrouds and placed in a burial niche called a kok (kokim plural) that was in the tomb, or on a bench in the tomb called an arcosolia. The body was left to decay.
The family would return to their home and have a seven day period of intense mourning called shiva. They would turn over the bed of the dead person, smash any pottery vessels that were in the house because they were ritually defiled by the dead, and the men would not shave for the week. The extended family and friends would visit and consol the bereaved family on the loss of their loved one. After the week was over, the immediate family had a less intense period of mourning for thirty days, called sholshim. On the one year anniversary of the death of the individual, the family returned to the burial cave and gathered the bones of the dead, anointed them with olive oil and wine, and then placed them in a bone box called an ossuary. The ossuary was then placed elsewhere in the tomb.
The rock-cut tombs where the dead were buried were located outside the city walls of Jerusalem. More than a thousand burial caves from the Second Temple period have been surveyed and / or excavated in the area of Jerusalem. Archaeologists have determined that these tombs are located within three rings, or circles, surrounding the city (Kloner and Zissu 2007). The inner circle consisted of tombs in the Hinnom Valley to the west and south of the city and the Kidron Valley and the range of the Mount of Olives to the east of the city. The middle ring included the Valley of Rephaim and the back side of the Mount of Olives. The outer ring consisted of tombs that were 4 or 5 miles away from Jerusalem, but still within Jerusalem’s environs. It was from these tombs that the resurrected saints came forth.
The Gospel of Matthew and the Resurrection of the Saints
The gospel of Matthew the only gospel to record the account of the opening of the tombs and the saints being resurrected.
Matthew, also called Levi, was a scribe and a tax collector (Mark 2:14; 3:18; Matt. 9:9; 10:3). He was also the author of the gospel that bears his name. This book was written primarily to the Jewish people to demonstrate that the Lord Jesus was the fulfillment of all that the Hebrew prophets wrote about, and spoke, concerning their Messiah, the Son of God. The key word that is used over and over in the book is the word “fulfilled.” Usually, “that which was fulfilled that was spoken by the prophets, or written by the prophets.” Verses of the Hebrew Scriptures are quoted over and over again in this gospel. Matthew assumes his readers have a Jewish mindset, that they know the Torah, and they are familiar with rabbinic theology, and therefore does not explain some things. Christian readers need to know this material as well, in order to fully appreciate the words of this gospel because it is a Jewish book.
It should be observed that the resurrection of the Hebrew saints occurred when Jesus rose from the dead. Chronologically, that would have occurred by Sunday morning. What was going on in Jerusalem on Sunday morning of Passover week? For this we need to turn to the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Omer of the Firstfruits of the Barley Harvest
The LORD has a divinely ordained agriculture / religious calendar that began in the month of Aviv, also known as Nisan. Moses, being a prophet (Deut. 18:15), wrote of this divinely given calendar in what is known as the “Feasts of the LORD” found in Leviticus 23. This calendar could also be seen as God’s prophetic program of redemption for individuals as well as nationally, for all Israel. The Sunday morning after the Shabbat that followed the Passover was the harvesting of the omer of the first fruits of the barley harvest (Lev. 23:9-14).
Concerning this harvest, Moses wrote:
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: “When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf [omer] of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. [the barley harvest is in view, the wheat harvest is not for almost two months]. He shall wave the sheaf [omer] before the LORD, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. And you shall offer on that day, when you wave the sheaf [omer] a male lamb of the first year, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the LORD. Its grain offering shall be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering made by fire to the LORD, for a sweet aroma; and its drink offering shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin. You shall eat neither bread nor parched grain nor fresh grain until the same day that you have brought an offering to your God; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.”’
There was a debate in the First century BC and early First century AD between the Pharisees and the Sadducees concerning the timing of this event. The Sadducees, rejecting the oral law and traditions of the Pharisees, understood the phrase in verse 11, “the morrow after the Sabbath”, in a literal sense, i.e. the day following the first Shabbat after the Passover (Sunday morning). The Pharisees, on the other hand, understood Shabbat in verse 11 as being a Festival Day, the first Day of Passover (Danby 1985:506, footnote 1). In AD 30, the year that the Lord Jesus was crucified, the Pharisees would have gathered the omer on Friday night after sundown. I suspect that there were two separate events that year. The Pharisees would have conducted their gathering of the omer on Friday night and the Sadducees would have gathered their omer on Sunday morning. The Mishnah, the rabbinic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, devotes one chapter of Tractate Menahoth to the gathering of the omer in the fields and its processing in the Temple (Danby 1985:505-507).
The Lord gave Moses the instructions concerning the Feasts of the LORD. These feasts had an agricultural and religious purpose to teach the people to trust the Lord, and Him only, in their daily lives throughout the year. But they also had a prophetic purpose concerning God’s program of redemption. The first two feasts are Passover (Pasach) and Unleavened Bread (Lev. 23:4-8).
The Apostle Paul referenced Passover and Unleavened Bread in a discussion on church issues, saying:
Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:7-8).
Also the Apostle Peter alludes to the Passover Lamb when he describes the redemption purchased by the Lord Jesus as being “with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:19; cf. Ex. 12:5; Lev. 22:18-20). This is the Lamb that John the Baptizer pointed to when he saw the Lord Jesus coming toward him at Bethany beyond the Jordan when he said: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The Lord Jesus is the fulfillment of the Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread.
But what of the omer (sheaf) of the first fruits of the barley harvest? The Apostle Paul gives us a hint as to its meaning when he wrote to the Church at Corinth about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. He stated:
But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” and he went on to say, “But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterwards those who are Christ’s at His coming (1 Cor. 15:20, 23).
Let us use our sanctified imaginations for a minute. Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon; Saturday was Shabbat, a day of rest. Most people in Jerusalem probably stayed home that day and reflected on the monumental events that transpired that week in Jerusalem. On the first day of the week, Sunday morning, there was a group of women who went out the Gennath Gate (Garden Gate) to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in order to anoint the body of Jesus.
There were also other groups of people leaving the city of Jerusalem early that morning as well. These people followed the Sadducean tradition concerning the cutting of the omer of barley. They were heading toward the barley fields in the Valley of Rephaim, just to the west of Jerusalem (cf. Isa. 17:5). Can you imagine them leaving the gates of the city with sickle in hand and baskets on their shoulders, and having a festive attitude as they went forth to harvest the omer? As they walked on the paths to the barley fields, they saw some people approaching them, heading toward the Holy City. One was their previously dead Uncle Eliyahu, another was Grandpa Akiva, as well as cousins Yonah, Elisheva and Batya, all dressed in tattered burial shrouds! Imagine their shock. “Hey, Gramp, what are you doing here? We buried you twenty years ago!” And the same question was asked of the others also. This was an experience that went against their theology because the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body (Acts 23:8)!
In 1973 there was a Jewish burial cave that was excavated on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. It consisted of seven kokhim with five articulated skeletons and nine ossuaries in them (Rahmani 1980:49-54). On the lid of ossuary no. 2 there was an Aramaic inscription that was translated by Prof. Frank Moore Cross as followed: “No man can go up (from the grave), nor (can) ‘El’azar or Sappirah.” Cross attributed the denial of the resurrection to either Hellenized Jews or Sadducees (1983:245-246).
What Happened to these Resurrected Saints?
There are three possibilities as to what happened to these resurrected saints. First, they are still alive today. I have lived in Jerusalem, on and off, for more than thirty years. I’ve met a lot of people in that city. I even met some people who thought they were Jesus, or Elijah, or John the Baptist, but I have never met anybody that was 2,000 years old. So I think we can safely assume that they are not alive today.
The second possibility is that they died again. We have no Scriptural warrant for this claim, nor are there any Jewish or Church traditions that states they died again. So I think we can dismiss this idea.
The third possibility, and the one I believe is correct, is that they ascended into Heaven with the Lord Jesus forty days after His, and their, resurrection (Cambron 1973:57, 146-147, 334). Let’s examine the account of the ascension of the Lord Jesus to Heaven. After the Lord Jesus gives another commission to His disciples for world evangelism (Acts 1:8), Luke records:
Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven’ (Acts 1:9-11).
There are several things to notice in this passage. First, “a cloud” received Him out of their sight. Most commentators would state that when Jesus ascended, He disappeared into a cloud, a vaporous mass. But Dr. Luke may be using this word in another way. When the Apostle Paul describes the return of the Lord Jesus in the air for His saints, what has been called the Rapture of the Church, he states: “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). It is important to note that in the Greek text, there is no definite article before “clouds.” So the text should state that the living saints shall be caught up “in clouds” to meet the Lord Jesus in the air. At the Rapture there would be a cloud of saints over North America, a cloud over Europe, a cloud over South America, Asia and Africa.
I believe that Dr. Luke is using the words “cloud” in this manner, as a collection of saints. Thus, the cloud that received the Lord Jesus above the Mount of Olives was a cloud of the saints that were resurrected in Jerusalem when the Lord Jesus was resurrected. This was the first fruits of a greater harvest to come and the prophetic point of the Feast of the LORD. The Israelites were to bring the first fruits of the barley harvest to the Temple and the priest would wave the omer (sheaf) before the LORD and acknowledge His provision for the harvest and trust Him for the full harvest in the months to come. In the prophetic analogy, the priest would not wave one stalk [Jesus] before the LORD, but rather, a sheaf [Jesus and the Jerusalem saints that were resurrected at the same time that He was]. Thus, this fulfilled the prophetic aspect of the Feast of Firstfruits and what Paul wrote, “Christ, risen from the dead, has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Notice also the words of the two men in white apparel, most likely angelic beings. They said: “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into Heaven.” When the Lord Jesus returns to earth with His saints at His revelation as the King of kings, and Lord of lords, the Apostle John states that “He is coming with clouds [of saints], and every eye shall see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. Even so, Amen” (Rev. 1:9; cf. Rev. 19:11-16).
The prophet Zechariah predicted that the Messiah would return to the Mount of Olives with all His saints (Zech. 14:4-5). The words of the two angels were that the Lord Jesus would return the same way He left. He will one day visibly return to the Mount of Olive with His saints. If he returns with saints, then He must have left with saints as well! The saints that He left with were those resurrected from the graves around Jerusalem at His resurrection, but one day He will return to earth with more than just these resurrected Jerusalem saints. He will have all His Church saints, those who have trusted Him as their Savior, from Pentecost to the Rapture, with Him as well (cf. John 5:25-29).
The Significance of the Rent Veil and the Raised Saints
Remember those Sadducean Jerusalemites who were amazed at seeing their resurrected relatives? They were perplexed about what was going on. The last question that needs to be addressed: “What is the significance of the veil of the Temple being torn in two and the saints being resurrected?” In order to answer this question, the larger context of the crucifixion in Matthew’s gospel needs to be examined (Senior 1976; Witherup 1987). In verses 39-44, there are two groups of people that mock the Lord Jesus because of His claim to be the Son of God.
And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God come down from the cross’ (27:39-40).
This first group of people invoked the testimony of the false witnesses at Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin. The false witnesses said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days’” (Matt. 26:61). They misconstrued the words of the Lord Jesus because He was speaking of the temple of his body (John 2:19-21). Nevertheless, the high priest put Jesus under oath and said, “Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!” Jesus acknowledged, “It is as you said” (Matt. 26:63-64). The people in the first group used satanically inspired words when they said, “If You are the Son of God.” These are the same words Satan used when he tested the Lord Jesus from the pinnacle of the Temple (Matt. 4:6).
The second group of people, the chief priests, scribes and elders, mocked Him. They said:
He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God’ (27:42-43).
This second group, predominately Sadducean, mocked His claim to be the Son of God. They also invoked Psalm 22:8: “He trusted in the LORD, let Him rescue Him; Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him.” Unwittingly, and possibly, unknowingly, they fulfilled the words of verse 7 as well, “All those who see Me ridicule Me; they shoot out the lips, they shake the head, saying, ‘He trusted in the LORD.’”
With the death of Christ, the tables are turned on the mockers. God the Father had said of His Son at His baptism, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). And again at the Transfiguration, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him” (Matt. 17:5).
The Lord Jesus was suspended between Heaven and earth while there was darkness over the face of the earth for three hours. At the ninth hour, He cried out with a loud voice, in Hebrew, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Ps. 22:1). This was the opening lines of Psalm 22, the same psalm the chief priests, scribes and elders invoked. Now the Lord Jesus invokes it.
A Jewish person in the Second Temple period would have most, if not all, of the psalms memorized. When this passage was read in Matthew’s gospel, the answer to that question was obvious. Psalm 22:3 states, “But You are holy!” Because of the holiness of God, the Father could not look upon His Son as He became sin for us, and took all the sins of all humanity upon Himself (II Cor. 5:21; I John 2:2), so darkness covered the earth. Matthew records that: “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit” (27:50). John reveals those words: “It is finished!” (19:30). After paying the full price for all sin, the Lord Jesus voluntarily gave up His life (John 10:11-18).
In a Jewish court of law, a fact is established by two or more witnesses (Deut. 17:6-7; 19:15). God the Father gave two signs to the nation of Israel in order to vindicate His Son. The first, at His death, the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom. Only God could do this, thus it was a divine sign. The message of the torn veil was two-fold. The negative aspect was that God was finished with the corrupt priesthood, mostly controlled by the Sadducees. But on the positive side, it showed that all sin had been paid for and there was no more need for sacrifices because the way to God was open to all, both Jews and Gentiles. This message was not lost on the centurion and his men who were guarding the tomb of Jesus. They saw all that transpired - the darkness and the earthquake - and feared greatly. The centurion said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (27:54).
This was the beginning of the fulfillment of Psalm 22:27-28: “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You. For the kingdom is the LORD’s, and He rules over the nations.” It also affirms the creed that the Apostle Paul began the book of Romans with:
Concerning His Son, who was born of the Seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. Jesus Christ our Lord (1:3-4).
Matthew recorded the Gentiles expression of faith in the Lord Jesus as the Son of God. This was to provoke Israel to jealousy (cf. Rom. 11:11-14). Interestingly, a few years later, Dr. Luke recorded that “a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Had they thought through the theological implications of the veil being rent?
The second sign, at the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, was that many saints from Jerusalem were raised from the dead. This showed the Sadducees that there was a bodily resurrection. Perhaps their minds would go to the prophet Ezekiel and his vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37:1-14). The Lord prophesied through Ezekiel that these dry bones were the whole House of Israel (37:11), and said of them:
Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the Land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it (37:12-14).
The Jerusalem saints that were raised were just the firstfruits of a greater harvest / resurrection to come. Ezekiel described the resurrection of those in the House of Israel who died outside the Land of Israel (contra Grassi 1964-1965). At the end of days, those outside the Land of Israel will be resurrected and brought back to Jerusalem.
Applications for Us
There are at least three applications for us today. First, even though people mock the Lord Jesus Christ and deny He is the Son of God, God has already vindicated His Person and work. This was done by rending the veil from top to bottom to show the mockers their words are empty. It also showed that the Lord Jesus had paid for all sin and the way to God was open to any and all who would put their trust in Him.
This leads to the second application that is seen in the rent veil. Now the way into the Holy of Holies is open because of the death of Christ. He offers the free gift of salvation, a home in heaven, the forgiveness of sins, and Christ’s righteousness, to any and all, both Jew and Gentile, who would put their trust in Him as their Savior. Have you trusted the Lord Jesus to forgive all your sins?
The final application is seen in the resurrection of the saints from Jerusalem. This gives every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ the assurance that one day there will be a resurrection and believers in the Lord Jesus will live eternally with Him. These Jerusalemite saints were the first fruits and guarantees that there will be a greater resurrection to follow. For those who have trusted Christ, there is no fear of death. One day we will either be taken in the Rapture, or raised from the dead if we have already died.
A moving video on archaeology related to the Passion Week, by Joel Kramer of Sourceflix (Off site link).
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