At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matt 27:51-53)The NIV rendering, given here, includes in a footnote an alternate translation of the last sentence: "They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people." The Greek text is ambiguous, but this minority reading doesn't seem very popular. It shows up in Wycliffe and the Good News Bible, but not in most mainstream English versions.
Perhaps it would seem a bit too ominous if the tombs broke open on Friday and nothing came out until Sunday. It might also make more sense, as St. Chrysostom suggests, that the death cry of Jesus raised them:
And together with these things He showed Himself also by what followed after these things, by the raising of the dead. For in the instance of Elisha; one on touching a dead body rose again, but now by a voice He raised them, His body continuing up there, on the cross.This is an interesting parallel to contemplate. He refers here to the incident recorded in 4 Kingdoms (2 Kings) 13:21, in which a corpse inadvertently touches the bones of the prophet Elisha and is raised to life. St. Chrysostom is saying that this popular proof-text for saints' relics also prefigures the effect of Jesus's cry on the cross. So much greater than the greatest Old Testament prophets, no physical contact is necessary, but merely his final shout of victory breaks open the ground and calls forth the saints of old.
We might also surmise that if the raising was meant primarily as a sign of Jesus's own pending resurrection, it would need to show some manifestation beforehand. St. Chrysostom again:
Again they said, “He saved others, Himself He cannot save,” but He while abiding on the cross proved this most abundantly on the bodies of His servants. For if for Lazarus to rise on the fourth day was a great thing, how much more for all those who had long ago fallen asleep, at once to appear alive, which was a sign of the future resurrection. For, “many bodies of the saints which slept, arose,” it is said, “and went into the holy city, and appeared to many.” For in order that what was done might not be accounted to be an imagination, they appear, even to many, in the city.Still, I have to wonder: what were these raised saints doing for three days in or among the tombs? Were they such scrupulous observers of the Sabbath that they sat quietly and waited until they could travel forth on Sunday? Or were they just wandering aimlessly among the tombs like so many zombies, lacking the intelligence to find a way out? Or did it take them three days to reach Jerusalem at some slow, stilted pace? Perhaps many of them came from great distances, and they mustered at some staging location outside the city before entering on Sunday.
Whichever translation one prefers, it still must have been a shocking event. We're given no details of their appearance. Presumably people knew whom they were seeing, but how? Period clothing? Accent? Did they have accurate depictions of them to compare? Or did their appearance somehow betray that they were recently raised from the dead? Blessed Theophylact, in his Explanation of Matthew, doubts that this was a final resurrection. If they were raised only temporarily, to return to their graves a few days later, what kind of bodies would they have had?
In the debates surrounding interpretation of the Apocalypse, the Preterist view is that which sees many of the images fulfilled in the first century--in the events surrounding Jesus's death and resurrection, the ministry of the Apostles, and the destruction of Jerusalem. Might we not take Matthew's account here as favoring a Preterist view of the Zombie Apocalypse?