N.T. Wright, among others, point out that the disciples belief in the resurrection of Jesus was remarkable given the concept of the resurrection in Jewish theology. In the first century, Jews believed that the resurrection would not occur until the end of the age. At that time, some of the more righteous believers would be resurrected (Daniel 12:1-2). The idea that someone would be resurrected before the last day was inconceivable in Second Temple Judaism. Therefore, the resurrection of Jesus must be factual, according to Wright, because the disciples would not have invented something that was contrary to their understanding of the resurrection.
That brings us to Matthew 27:51-53.
v. 51--At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split.
v. 52--The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.
v. 53--They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
Matthew is the only gospel writer to mention this event. Why is that? Matthew is commonly believed to be written to a Jewish audience to convince them of the messiahship of Jesus. Thus, these Jews needed something to overcome their objection about the timing of the resurrection. I believe Matthew 27:51-53 was inserted for this purpose.
Did the resurrections mentioned there literally happen? It seems extremely unlikely. Even such a staunch evangelical apologist as William Craig doubts the literalness of this account. He says:
Suppose Matthew didn't mean for this to be taken literally? Suppose it's just part of the apocalyptic imagery typical of Jewish apocalyptic writings, a way of portraying how age-shifting Jesus' death was? Then our problem is that we're taking literary imagery in an inappropriate, literalistic way, and the problem is not with Matthew but with us.
If the resurrections mentioned in Matthew really occured, don't you think there would be some mention of it somewhere else? How could such a momentous event go unnoticed and unmentioned by the other gospel writers, by Josephus or any other source. It is inconceivable to me that someone would not have mentioned these resurrections.
A blogger, Jason Engwer, responds to this objection:
Matthew only mentions the event briefly, which undermines the critic's assumption that anybody who believed in the event would have thought so highly of it as to be sure to mention it in our extant literature. Matthew mentions it, as he mentions many other things, but he doesn't seem to have thought that it deserves as much attention as critics suggest.
Some Christians writing shortly after the gospel of Matthew was composed (Clement of Rome, Polycarp, etc.) didn't comment on the event of Matthew 27, even when they were discussing the topic of resurrection. We know that it was common for the Christians of that time to interpret the gospels in a highly historical manner, so it seems unlikely that they didn't comment upon this passage as a result of viewing it as non-historical. Apparently, these early Christians, writing shortly after the time when Matthew's gospel was composed, didn't think that mentioning the event of Matthew 27 was as important as some modern critics suggest.
I am sorry but I can't buy that response. If the resurrection of one man, namely Jesus, shook up Jerusalem as the apologists claim, why wouldn't the resurrection of "many" not have shaken it up even more? The passage says that these newly resurrected saints appeared to many people. How could something like that go unnoticed and unreported? It couldn't.
So, if Matthew 27:51-53 did not literally happen, which even Craig leans towards, why should we accept Matthew's account of Jesus' resurrection as literal? The fact is we shouldn't. The apologist cannot "have his cake and eat it too." Either both resurrections were literal or both were metaphorical.
N. T. Wright in The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 636 concludes his discussion of this passage by saying:
It is impossible, and for our purposes unnecessary, to adjudicate on the question of historicity. Things that we are told by one source only, when in other respects the sources are parallel, may be suspect, especially when events like earthquakes were (as 24:7 makes clear) part of the stock and trade of apocalyptic expectation. But it remains the case that the events Matthew describes in 27.51-53, as well as being without parallel in other early Christian sources, are without precedent in second-temple expectation, and we may doubt whether stories such as this would have been invented simply to "fulfil" prophecies that nobody had understood this way before. This is hardly a satisfactory conclusion but it is better to remain puzzled than to settle for either a difficult argument for probable historicity or a cheap and cheerful rationalistic dismissal of the possibility. Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out.
First, note that Wright (as Craig) does not want to defend the historicity of this passage. He says it might just have happened but we can't know. By the way, I would say the same thing about the resurrection of Jesus.
Second, he says that no one would have invented this story. Oh really? I beg to differ. Because the Jewish expectation was that the resurrection would not begin until the end of the age, some Jews might have objected to the idea of Jesus being resurrected. Matthew's inclusion of the resurrection of many of the saints would answer the objection (at least to some degree.) That would also explain why its contained only in Matthew's gospel. The apocalyptic language does not work against this interpretation but rather in favor of it.
As Robert Price in The Empty Tomb (p. 11)humourously remarks: "when we see multitudes of local saints rise from their tombs in the vicinity of Jerusalem, are we to suppose that they were on a mere furlough from Sheol, due back after Easter vacation? Surely for this writer, the general resurrection had begun." .