Raymond E. Brown
Brown [The Death of the Messiah. 1994] suggests that Matthew draws on "diverse popular traditions" (p. 1128) for the various apocalyptic signs deployed here, and he acknowledges that the resurrection of the saints is "a Matthean development" that goes beyond any older traditions that he may be using (page 1120).
John Dominic Crossan
Crossan discusses the "Harrowing of Hell" briefly on [Historical Jesus], (387-89) as part of his treatment of the death and burial traditions.
He notes that the harrowing of Hades was a major theological issue in early Jewish Christianity since it was "in Sheol, Hades, or Hell, that the souls of holy and righteous, persecuted and martyred Jews awaited their final and promised deliverance." In the account of Jesus' suffering, his death was necessary both as an historical fact that could not be avoided and as a theological device to allow Jesus to enter the house of "those that slept," the dead.
While barely mentioned in the NT and soon marginalized as an embarrassment to developing classical theology, the harrowing of hell remains an important theme in Eastern iconography. It also survives as the brief statement within the Creed: "he descended into Hell."
Crossan suggests four reasons for this theological theme being pushed to boundaries of Christian belief:
1. It was an intensely Jewish theme, and the Christians were increasingly non-Jewish in character.
2. It was intensely mythological, and involved three related motifs: "a deception in which the demons were allowed to crucify Jesus not knowing who he was; a descent that was the actual reason for his death and burial; and a despoiling whereby Jesus, as Son of God broke open the prison of Hell and released both himself and all the righteous who had preceded him there."4. If Jesus was manifested to the dead and led them in triumph directly to heaven how was it possible for him also to be manifested to the apostles between resurrection and ascension? What of their mandate from the risen Jesus? Crossan notes how the tradition sought to resolve that dilemma in the Shepherd of Hermes, Similitude 9.
3. It created many theological problems as Christianity developed: was repentance required of them? were they baptized? etc
The commentary on page 264 of The Acts of Jesus notes that Matthew has the revived saints confined to their tomb cells until after Jesus himself has been raised from the dead, since they could not pre-empt Jesus by appearing in public prior to his own resurrection.
The only published voting data relevant to this cluster concerns the earthquake described in Matthew's account of the crucifixion. In the inventory of events listed in The Acts of Jesus, the tradition of the earthquake and the resurrection of the sleeping saints is not identified separately but is simply treated as part of Matthew's account of the death of Jesus.
Luedemann [Jesus], (248) suggests "the tradition in Matt. 27.52-53 could be combined with the tradition preserved in Paul of Jesus as the firstsfruits of those who have fallen asleep (I Cor. 15.20). Accordingly, Jesus' 'resurrection' is the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead. But Matthew fits this tradition to his view that Jesus was raised on the third day and therefore the resurrection of the righteous from their tombs which is mentioned could take place only after the resurrection of Jesus and not on the day of Jesus' death."