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Matthew 27:52

Question from a visitor:  

Matthew 27: 52-53 says the saints arose from their graves and appeared to many in the holy city. Is there any more info on this in the bible?  

Reply from Christian Data Resources:  

Thank you for your question.  This is a tough one, and I've often had questions about it.  There is a wide range of views on it, and it's such a difficult passage that many theologians don't even address it.  First, let me quote from various commentaries: 
 
Barnes - "It is probable that they were persons who had recently died, and they appear to have been known in Jerusalem; at least, had the ancient saints risen, they would not have been known, and would not so soon have been credited as those who had recently died." 
 
Gill - "... these were saints, and such as slept in Jesus; and of whom he is the first fruits that now rose; and not all, but many of them, as pledges of the future resurrection, and for the confirmation of Christ's, and the accomplishment of a prophecy in Isaiah 26:19. And they rose in the same bodies in which they before lived, otherwise they could not be called their bodies, or known by those to whom they appeared: but who they were is not to be known; some have thought them to be the ancient patriarchs, as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, &c. In the Septuagint on Job 42:17, Job is said to be one of them, and a tradition is there recorded, which runs thus:
 
   'it is written, that he rose with whom the Lord rose.' 
 
But it should seem rather, that they were some later saints, such as Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, John the Baptist himself, good old Simeon, Joseph the husband of Mary, and others, well known to persons now alive. Some think they were such, as had been martyrs in the cause of religion; and so the Persic version renders the words, 'and the bodies of many saints who suffered martyrdom, rose out of the graves.'" 
 
Wesley - "... (perhaps Simeon, Zacharias, John the Baptist, and others who had believed in Christ, and were known to many in Jerusalem,) And coming out of the tombs after his resurrection, went into the holy city (Jerusalem) and appeared to many - Who had probably known them before: God hereby signifying, that Christ had conquered death, and would raise all his saints in due season." 
 
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown - "... These sleeping saints (see on [1377] 1Th 4:14) were Old Testament believers, who-according to the usual punctuation in our version-were quickened into resurrection life at the moment of their Lord's death, but lay in their graves till His resurrection, when they came forth." 
 
Falwell - "This incident is stated only by Matthew and indicates that the Old Testament believers were resurrected after His resurrection and appeared unto many.  It is properly supposed that they were resurrected from 'paradise,' or 'Abraham's bosom' and taken to heaven by the Resurrected Christ (cf. Ephesians 4:8-9)." 
 
Now, although this is not definitive, I believe that when the Old Testament saints encountered death, their souls were not taken directly to heaven, as is now the case with New Testament believers.  Instead, the Old Testament believers were taken to a place called 'paradise' (Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 12:4, Revelation 2:7), or 'Abraham's bosom' (Luke 16:22-23).  Then, upon the event of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, these Old Testament saints were resurrected.  Today, now that Christ's resurrection has already occurred, when Christians die, we are taken directly to heaven. 
 
Incidentally, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16:23 refers to a place called "Hades," which is where the rich man was.  This seems to be to "opposite" of the place of "paradise" where Lazarus was.  This would imply that, in Old Testament times, those who died were taken to one of these temporary chambers, awaiting their transaction:  either from paradise to heaven; or from Hades to Hell.  This probably also explains the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, which would equate to Hades in this case. 
 
I hope that this helps to answer your questions on a difficult passage.  If not, please reply. 
 
Thanks,
 
Owen