IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 21, May 22 to May 28, 2000


by Dr. Knox Chamblin


A. The Tearing of the Curtain. 27:51.

1. The place. This curtain is either the one which hung in front of the Holy Place (Ex 26:36-37), or the one which divided the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place (Ex 26:31-35). As that passage shows, both were made of the same material. Matthew does not clearly specify which curtain is meant. Good arguments can be advanced for each choice (Gundry, 575; Carson, 580). Given the NT's theological reflection on the event (notably Heb 6:19-20; 9:11-28; 10:19-22), I conclude that the inner curtain is meant. For some interesting parallel accounts in Jewish literature, see Hugh Montefiore, Josephus and the New Testament, 16-22.

2. The meaning. Matthew's word order is that the curtain "was torn from top to bottom in two" (contrast the order in NIV). He thus emphasizes both that the curtain was completely severed, and that this was God's action. What is God declaring?

a. Covenant fellowship. The essence of the covenant, as God declares e.g. in Jer 31:33 (the promise of the New Covenant), is: "I will be their God, and they will be my people." Now, by virtue of the atoning death of Jesus, his people's sins are forgiven (1:21; Jer 31:34b) and they are granted direct access into God's holy presence. The coming of Immanuel has already testified to God's intention to bring that fellowship to full realization (1:23; 28:20). Now, by the rending of the veil, God demonstrates that through Christ's coming and death, the people of God are ushered into the most intimate imaginable fellowship with him. Thus did Jer 31:31-34 prophesy, and thus has Jesus' work now made possible. Cf. Heb 4:16 et passim.

b. The end of Mosaic ceremonial. Jesus has taught that his coming makes OT ceremonial obsolete - without abrogating the underlying moral law (see comments on 15:1-20). Furthermore, Jesus has prophesied the destruction of the temple. This is to come about, not only in judgment upon Israel but also as a visible demonstration that the temple ritual is no longer needed. The death of Jesus makes it obsolete. The tearing of the curtain symbolizes the destroying of the whole temple of which the curtain is a part. See further Carson, 580-81.

B. The Breaking Open of the Tombs. 27:51b-53.

1. The language. Verses 51-53 are a single sentence in the Greek text (in NIV the one sentence becomes four). The construction is paratactic (the clauses stand beside each other) rather than hypotactic (where some clauses standunder others). As is common in parataxis, the clauses are joined by the conjunction "and" (kai): "And behold the curtain of the temple was torn..., and the earth shook, and the rocks split, and the tombs broke open and the bodies of many...were raised to life, and having come out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city...." This structure connects these events in the closest way. The theological upheaval reflected in the tearing of the curtain, finds a geological counterpart in the quaking of the earth and the splitting of the rocks. The immediate purpose of the latter is to break open the tombs and to set their occupants free. John Wenham makes the reasonable suggestion (adopted by Carson, 581) that a period be placed after the words "broke open." Given the paratactic structure of 27:51-53, a new sentence may just as appropriately begin with "and the bodies" as with "The tombs" (cf. NIV). If we adopt Wenham's punctuation, the raising of the saints is more closely associated with what follows (v. 53) than with what precedes (vv. 51b-52a), and we can more readily conclude that the "raising" of the saints (not just their emergence from the tombs and their appearances) occurs after Jesus' resurrection (he remains the "firstfruits," 1 Cor 15:20- 23). V. 53 is better rendered in RSV ("and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went...") than in NIV ("They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went...").

2. The theology. If the "raising of the saints" comes after Jesus' resurrection, why has Matthew recorded the event here rather than in ch. 28?

a. Death and resurrection. Matthew's placement affirms that there is the closest connection between Jesus' death and resurrection. Already - even before Jesus' burial - Matthew speaks of a time "after Jesus' resurrection" (v. 53). His very death assures that he will be raised; God will allow nothing, not even Death, to sever the intimate fellowship (11:26-27) between Father and Son. Already at the crucifixion those divine powers are at work which shall attend the resurrection; there is an earthquake both here (v. 51) and in 28:2. Death and resurrection are also inseparable for believers: Now that Jesus' atoning sacrifice has been offered, the OT saints (the "many holy people" of v. 52) are saved from the consequences of their sins and gain the right to resurrection life. They depend on Jesus' work as much as later believers (Rom 3:25-26). More generally the promise for believers is that by virtue of Christ's victory over Sin and Death, those who die in him shall at his Return be raised from the dead and be given bodies like his own glorious body (Phil 3:20-21; 1 Cor 15). Mt 27:52-53 foreshadows that great event.

b. Apocalypse now and then. Apocalyptic signs are associated with both Jesus' death (the darkness, v. 45, the shaking of the earth, the splitting of the rocks, and the breaking open of the tombs, vv. 51-52) and his resurrection (the earthquake and the appearance of the angel, 28:2-3). The phenomena of 27:51-52, in that they occur at the time of Jesus' death but help to bring about occurrences after his resurrection, unite these two events in the closest way. Neither Jesus' death alone, nor his resurrection alone, but the two together mark the dawn of the Last Days and foreshadow the great apocalypse at the End (cf. comments on 24:7, 29-31; 27:45).

c. Resurrection and fellowship. Matthew associates the rending of the veil and the saints' resurrection in the closest way. As the rending of the veil shows, Jesus' death opens the way to the deepest fellowship between God and his covenant people. But if his people are to enjoy such fellowship, they must be integrated - or, to be more precise, reintegrated - by the reunion of body and soul in the resurrection. They will not experience fullness of fellowship until their bodiless state is ended (cf. 2 Cor 5).

d. Resurrection and witness. After Jesus is raised, the resurrected OT believers "went into the holy city and appeared to many people" (v. 53b). On one view this verse witnesses to the saints' entry with Jesus into the Heavenly Jerusalem (thus Jerusalem Bible, note on v. 53, following the early Fathers). While in all probability this is a genuine resurrection (one like Jesus' rather than like Lazarus') by virtue of which these saints would experience heavenly glory before the consummation, it is much more likely that v. 53b refers to the earthly Jerusalem (cf. 4:5). By "appearing to many," the OT saints bear a witness - anticipating the witness that believers generally will bear to the risen Christ and his saving work (28:7-8, 18-20). The placement of this reference here rather than after the account of Jesus' resurrection, teaches (1) that once Jesus has been raised from the dead, believers must witness not only to that event but to Jesus' death as well, for both events are vital for accomplishing salvation and bringing in God's Final Rule (cf. a. and b. above; and 1 Cor 1:18-31); and (2) that the twofold event of Jesus' death and resurrection means restored and deepened fellowship not only with God but with human beings as well (cf. c.; and comments on 22:29-33).

C. The Ascription Concerning Jesus. 27:54.

1. The soldiers' exclamation. Mk 15:39 and Lk 23:47 speak of the centurion alone; in Mt he represents the soldiers under his command. He is responding to "the earthquake and all that had happened." Insofar as he voices pagan beliefs, the centurion presumably considers Jesus to be "a divine man or deified hero" (Lane, Mark, 576) - "a son of God" (NIV mg.). See William Manson, Jesus the Messiah, 105. Yet it may be that the centurion, under the impact of these events (and the person at their center), perhaps combined with Jewish influences (gained during his tour of duty in Palestine), voices a more Jewish belief - namely that Jesus is "the King of the Jews" (cf. v. 37), the Davidic Messiah, "the Son of God" (NIV) in the sense of Ps 2:7 and Jn 1:49.

2. Matthew's confession. It is doubtful that the centurion himself meant more than what is suggested under 1. But it is certain that Matthew does; in recording these words, Matthew says in effect that the centurion spoke greater truth than he realized. On the lips of Matthew the words "Surely he was the Son of God" are an ascription not merely of messiahship but of deity (cf. comments on 16:16). The Greek of Mt 27:54 differs from the Markan parallel (15:39) in two important respects. Mt omits Mk's anthropos ("man") and alters the word order from huios theou to theou huios, both for the purpose of accentuating Jesus' deity (Gundry, 578). The declaration is particularly significant at this juncture of the Gospel. Here we have a Gentile - indeed a company of Gentiles - proclaiming truth about Jesus in the face of the Jews' and the Romans' condemnation of Jesus, and proclaiming that truth in the very terms which had brought about his death (cf. comments on 26:63-64). He is the Son of God, he is the the King of the Jews, and in a deeper sense than the Roman soldiers knew. For he is not merely a divinized man; he is God the Son. And he is not merely great David's greater Son, he is David's Lord (22:41-46), Yahweh himself. Moreover, the present scene forms a kind of inclusio with that of 2:1-12, where it is Gentiles who come to worship the King of the Jews in face of the Jews' attempt to destroy him.

D. The Women's Vigil. 27:55-56.

1. Their identity. Among the "many women" at the cross were "Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee's sons." Joining this information to that of Mk 15:40 and Jn 19:25, I conclude (i) that "Mary the mother of James and Joseph" is Jesus' mother (cf. 13:55; Jn 19:25), and (ii) that "the mother of Zebedee's sons" is named Salome (Mk 15:40) and is the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus (cf. Jn 19:25; and comments on Mt 20:20). See further Carson, 583.

2. Their faithfulness. The presence of "many women" at the cross, accentuates the absence of Jesus' male disciples. The latter are last mentioned in 26:56, where they desert Jesus and flee; they do not reappear until, in response to Jesus' summons, they meet him in Galilee (28:16). That the women watched "from a distance" (v. 55), indicates female reticence in a male-dominated culture (Gundry, 579). Their present vigil continues at the tomb (v. 61; cf. 28:1). Cf. Dorothy Sayers: "Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man.... A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as 'the women, God help us!' or 'the ladies, God bless them!'; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend" (A Matter of Eternity, 95).