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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
SAINTS.—The word ‘saints’ (οἱ ἅγιοι) occurs in the Gospels in Matthew 27:52 only. Elsewhere in the NT it is never used of any but Christians (e.g. Acts 9:13, Romans 12:13, Revelation 11:18). In the LXX Septuagint (Daniel 7:22; Daniel 7:25; Daniel 7:27; Daniel 8:24) ἅγιοι is the equivalent of קְּרשׁים ‘the holy ones’ (i.e. angels). The root idea seems to be that of ‘separation,’ so that a ‘saint’ is one who is separated, consecrated, one who belongs to God. Its occurrence in Matthew 27:52 opens up the entire question of the meaning of the section. The incident is peculiar to the First Gospel, and occurs in the course of the narrative of our Lord’s crucifixion and death. It is stated that at the moment of His death there was a supernatural earthquake which caused the tombs to be opened, and that immediately following His resurrection on the first day of the week many bodies (σώματα) of dead saints arose from their graves, and the persons (ἐξελθόντες, masc.) thus raised from the dead appeared in the city of Jerusalem to many. Several theories have been put forward to account for this remarkable statement.
1. It is said to be an interpolation. In reply, it is argued that the textual evidence of Manuscripts and Versions is exactly the same for this passage as for the rest of the First Gospel. It is also urged that the incident seems plainly referred to as early as Ignatius (Ep. ad Magn. 9).
2. It is said to be a legendary addition. It is thought that the graves were rent by an earthquake which actually occurred, and that then this statement was subsequently added as a spiritual explanation of the natural phenomenon. Bruce (EGT [Note: GT Expositor’s Greek Testanent.] , in loc.) says: ‘We seem here to be in the region of Christian legend.’ Meyer takes the same general view. Those who oppose this view argue that textual considerations give no indication of a later addition, and that the writer of the First Gospel evidently believed in the incident, and wished his readers to do the same.
3. It is accounted for as a wrong explanation of incidents which were in themselves true. Farrar (Life of Christ) suggests that these ghostly visitants were the product of the imagination of those who were impressed by the events then taking place. To this it is replied that there is no trace of it in the narrative which now is, and apparently has been from the first, an integral part of this Gospel.
4. It is explained by saying that we have in the incident a striking testimony to the supernatural character and far-reaching power of our Lord’s death; that not only did it affect nature (earthquake), the Jewish economy (the rent veil), and human life (centurion), but that its influence penetrated even to the unseen world. The narrative as it stands says that it was at the moment of His death that the tombs were opened, but that the actual rising of the saints did not take place until after the Lord’s resurrection. He was ‘the first-fruits of them that slept.’ The fact that the incident is found in one Gospel only is, it is urged, no necessary argument against its credibility. On this view, the question as to who were the saints would seem to be answered by the narrative itself. The tombs were near Jerusalem, and the fact of recognition implied in the appearance of the risen ones in the city suggests that the saints were some of those who, during their earthly life, had been led to faith in Jesus as the Messiah: godly people of the type of Anna, Simeon, Zacharias, and Elisabeth. Those who accept its genuineness fully recognize that the incident is mysterious, but they point out that the narrative as it stands is a calm, quiet statement, marked by reserve and by the absence of all legendary details. The upholders of the authenticity consider it full of spiritual meaning as to the supernatural character of our Lord’s death in relation to the holy dead, holding that it was a manifestation of His power over death and the grave (1) by the resurrection of some from Hades, (2) by the clothing of them with a resurrection body, and (3) by permission to appear to those who knew them. On this theory the narrative is to be accepted as it is, and the exegesis of the passage strictly adhered to without endeavouring to draw conclusions which go beyond the brief record.
Literature.—(1) in favour of historicity: Alford, Com. in loc.; Westcott, Introd. to Gospels4 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 329 f.; Thinker, vol. v. (2) in favour of legendary character: Bruce, Meyer, etc.
W. H. Griffith Thomas.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Saints'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/s/saints.html. 1906-1918.