In Matthew 27::52-53 the Savior dies and is still hanging on the cross. The veil is ripped in two and the graves open and saints witness in the city of Jerusalem. Matthew is the only gospel that mentions this phenomenal occurrence and my question is the timing. The Savior hasn’t been resurrected so how can other dead saints be resurrected before Him? In 3 Nephi 23 the Savior makes mention that there were saints coming out of their graves in the America’s as well.
Thanks for your excellent question, which points up the value of careful scripture study and thought: When we read the scriptures closely and really ponder what we’re reading, we come up with thoughtful questions such as yours. Pursuing those questions can often lead us to a more profound understanding of the scriptures and, in many cases, a deepened testimony through experiences with the Spirit.
At the same time, when asking such questions, it’s important that we consider them with an honest, open interest, scrupulously avoiding any sort of cynical or “gotcha” mentality. When we approach such questions with faith and humility, the Spirit will teach us and our understanding will grow and deepen. If we have instead a prideful or belligerent attitude, the Spirit will withdraw and leave us to our own devices, frustrating our efforts and darkening our minds.
A first concern should be to understand the context in which things are presented. The context will often change, so that what appears to be a straightforward context turns out to be more subtle than first thought. A second principle that goes hand-in-hand with the first is to read the whole text, not just taking a word, phrase, verse, or sentence in isolation.
As you note, the general context of Matthew 27 is the crucifixion and death of Christ. A first quick reading might therefore suggest that the opening of the graves took place at the moment of Christ’s death by crucifixion, along with the rending of the temple veil. But let’s read verses 50 through 53:
Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
See that bolded part? The resurrection of these Saints took place after Jesus’ resurrection. Like many statements in the gospel of Matthew, this phrase was added by the gospel’s author to emphasize Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy. In the middle of talking about the moment of Jesus’ death, the author decided to throw in the parenthetical tidbit that, oh, by the way, the rending of the temple veil and the rending of the rocks also signified the rending of death, and we know that because after Jesus rose again from death, so did many (not just a few) of the Saints.
(And which prophecy did this fulfill? Why, the one given by the ancient prophet Enoch, a part of whose record we have in Moses 7:55-56: And the Lord said unto Enoch: Look, and he looked and beheld the Son of Man lifted up on the cross, after the manner of men; And he heard a loud voice; and the heavens were veiled; and all the creations of God mourned; and the earth groaned; and the rocks were rent; and the saints arose, and were crowned at the right hand of the Son of Man, with crowns of glory…)
Your question about the New World account of Jesus’ appearance to the Nephites as recorded in 3 Nephi 23 likewise deserves a careful reading. When exactly did Jesus appear to the Nephites? Immediately after his resurrection, or perhaps very soon thereafter? No, not at all. 3 Nephi 8:5 tells us that Jesus died on the fourth day of the first month in the 34th year of the Nephite calendar. Therefore, Jesus rose on the seventh (or possibly the sixth) day of the Nephite year 34—that is, right at the very beginning of the year. But at the end of 3 Nephi 10, we learn that Jesus appeared to the remnant of the Nephites “in the ending of the thirty-fourth year“, almost a full year after His resurrection.
By that time, many of the Nephite Saints who had already died had resurrected and been seen by many. A generation earlier, the Lamanite prophet Samuel had prophesied that “many graves shall be opened, and shall yield up many of their dead; and many saints shall appear unto many.” This prophecy had been duly recorded by the faithful Nephite prophets. In 3 Nephi 23, Jesus scolds the prophet Nephi for failing to note that Samuel’s famous prophecy had actually been fulfilled, in that the people had witnessed that many of the saints had arisen and appeared to them. By the time Jesus appeared to the Nephites, eleven or so months after his resurrection, the resurrection of these Nephite saints had already taken place, probably many months before.
Keep reading carefully, John, and keep asking questions. If you approach your questions with humility and a pure desire to understand, you will many times experience gaining insights through revelation from the Spirit. You will learn to read the scriptures carefully and prayerfully. You will make connections that escaped you before. And you will learn humility and patience, as some of your questions are answered while others remain for months or even years or decades. It’s all part of the glorious process of learning to read, value, and love the word of God.