There is a passage in Matthew’s Gospel which says something quite astonishing but then leaves us starved for more information: 

[When Jesus died on the cross], the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (Mt. 27: 52-53). 

It is a very mysterious text that does not lend itself to simple or satisfying explanations. Was this reported elsewhere in literature from time? Why do the other Gospels not mention something so startling? Who rose? How many? What happened after they rose? Did they go back to life in Jerusalem or did they appear for only a moment? 

We are simply left to wonder as to the details. But we must recall that each of the Evangelists selected their material carefully and according to set purposes. Brevity of written texts in those times was more important than verbiage given the costly nature of writing long before the printing press. 

Matthew seems to have two purposes in mind: he reports what actually happened, but he does this with the goal of showing how scripture is fulfilled. For example, 

  • Therefore prophesy and tell them that this is what the Lord GOD says: 'O My people, I will open your graves and bring you up from them, and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, My people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. (Ezekiel 37:12-13)
  • I will ransom them from the power of Sheol; I will redeem them from Death. Where, O Death, are your plagues? Where, O Sheol, is your sting? (Hosea 13:14) 

The main purpose of Matthew in recounting the event seems to be a relating of the fulfillment of Scripture, not reporting all the details as if we were watching an episode of the “night of the living dead.” 

Further, the rending of the veil in the temple and the earthquake reported in earlier verses of the same passage are not just events; they are signs of God’s judgment on this world. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “Christ gave the world the only serious wound it ever received, the wound of an empty tomb.” This world is shaken by Christ’s death and the rending of the veil indicates He, and not the Temple rituals, has opened the way out of this world and unto the Father. 

The details of the passage about the dead come forth and appearing to many are sparse. But what should be avoided is the elaborated notions of our imagination that the dead emerged from their tombs and wandered the streets in a zombie-like way. This is not an American horror film being described. Rather, Matthew asserts that many (indicating more than a few, but not necessarily thousands, hundreds or even dozens) rose bodily and appeared to many (again, indicating more than a few, but not necessarily thousands, hundreds or even dozens). How they appeared and to whom is not elaborated. But the text does not directly report them walking about Jerusalem and being seen indiscriminately by everyone. It may well have been a select number who were privileged to encounter the risen dead. It is similar to the way that Scripture reports the appearances of Jesus: He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen--by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. (Acts 10:41) 

Beyond this, the details permit little more than speculation about this mysterious and wondrous incident. 

St. Thomas Aquinas, basing his views on Jerome, says several things about this passage in his Commentary on Matthew :

First of all he does not think this event actually happened at this moment of the Lord’s death, but only after the Lord’s resurrection. And thus Matthew puts it here as a kind of proleptic. St Thomas says, 

And one should note that although this was said in the description of Christ’s death, yet one should understand that it was said by way of anticipation, because it was done after the resurrection; for Christ is the first begotten of the dead (Rev 1:5).

Further, he speculates on the possibility that the Holy City mentioned here where they appear may not have been Jerusalem at all, but the Holy City called heaven. He writes: 

And they came into the holy city, not because it was holy [at that time], but because it had been before; how is the faithful city, that was full of judgment, become a harlot? (Isa 1:21). Or, it is called holy because holy things were done there. Or, following Jerome, [they entered] into the holy city, namely the heavenly city, because they went with Christ into glory. And appeared to many. 

He also concludes that they rose and did not die again at some later time

There is usually a question about these people, whether they rose again and died again, or did not die. It is agreed that some have arisen and later died, like Lazarus. But one can say about these people that they rose and did not die again, because they rose for the manifestation of Christ’s resurrection, and it is certain that Christ rising again from the dead, dies now no more (Rom 6:9). Also, if they had risen only to die again, it would not have been a kindness shown them but rather an injury; therefore they rose to enter into heaven with Christ.

St. Thomas also summarizes the Church Fathers in the Catena Aurea. Here are a few citations: 

  • Hilary of Poitier describes the earthquake and the dead coming forth as a kind of judgment on this world: "The earth quaked," because it was unequal to contain such a body; "the rocks rent," for the Word of God that pierces all strong and mighty things, and the virtue of the eternal Power had penetrated them; "the graves were opened," for the bands of death were loosed. "And many bodies of the saints which slept arose," for illumining the darkness of death, and shedding light upon the gloom of Hades, He robbed the spirits of death.
  • John Chrysostom speaks of the event as a great victory for those who had died in friendship with God awaiting the Messiah: When He remained on the cross they had said tauntingly, "He saved others, himself he cannot save." But what He would not do for Himself, that He did and more than that for the bodies of the Saints. For if it was a great thing to raise Lazarus after four days, much more was it that they who had long slept should now show themselves alive; this is indeed a proof of the resurrection to come. But that it might not be thought that that which was done was an appearance merely, the Evangelist adds, "And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many."
  • Remigius says: We ought therefore to believe without hesitation that they who rose from the dead at the Lord's resurrection, ascended also into heaven together with Him.
  • Origen does not deny the event but spiritualizes its ongoing meaning for us:These same mighty works are still done every day; the veil of the temple is rent for the Saints, in order to reveal the things that are contained within. The earthquakes, that is, all flesh because of the new word and new things of the New Testament. The rocks are rent, i.e. the mystery of the Prophets, that we may see the spiritual mysteries bid in their depths. The graves are the bodies of sinful souls, that is, souls dead to God; but when by God's grace these souls have been raised, their bodies which before were graves, become [p. 965] bodies of Saints, and appear to go out of themselves, and follow Him who rose again, and walk with Him in newness of life; and such as are worthy to have their conversation in heaven enter into the Holy City at divers times, and appear unto many who see their good works.

And thus passage, fascinating though difficult, is explained in various ways by the Patristic and scholastic tradition.