In case you have missed it, and chances are good you have, there is yet another mini-storm brewing in the conservative evangelical world that is causing folks to “takes sides” as it were and engage in responses that, as usual, end up being antithetical to the very core message we are debating.
Michael Licona is a Christian apologist and former staff member with the North American Mission Board who has written a massive work defending the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The book is called “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.” Coming in at 718 pages, the book is way down on my reading list because I just don’t have the time to engage that many scholarly pages and, to be honest, I’m not currently interested in the recent scholastic attacks on the resurrection. Nevertheless, from what I understand about the book, it has become an instant classic that matches and defeats other scholarly works labeling the resurrection as mere fiction or fantasy.
The controversy surrounds Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53. That portion of Scripture describes a rather unusual and somewhat bizarre occurrence. Here is the text:
“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.”
To be sure, this is a puzzling text and has left me scratching my head more than once. This account of the dead saints rising from the grave is only found in Matthew’s Gospel and leaves us asking the question, why? Licona essentially views these verses as poetic license on the part of Matthew and compares it to apocalyptic literature which heavily uses symbolic language much like we read in Revelation. In other words, dead guys and gals weren’t really walking around Jerusalem after the resurrection of Jesus.
Licona’s views on this passage are really secondary to the overall message and effectiveness of his 718 pages, and yet when Dr. Norman Geisler called him out on it this summer, it was enough to start folks talking. Geisler accused Licona of violating the inerrancy of Scripture with his interpretation of Matthew 27 – and Licona is certainly an advocate of inerrancy. According to Geisler, Licona has made the mistake of “dehistoricizing” Scripture, and if taken to the next step, could put several critical passages of Scripture in jeopardy as being simply poetic license. Dr. Mohler joined in the discussion with a recent article of his own, supporting Geisler’s conclusions. Then, in an irenic response, Licona defended himself with a Facebook update.
I find both parties to be off their rocker.
First, Geisler and Mohler seem to be going a bit overboard with their accusation that Licona has broken his own commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture. I believe intelligent Christians can interpret a passage of Scripture through the lens of a different hermeneutic and still embrace the text’s inerrancy. That does not necessarily mean that all interpretations are equally valid and there are certainly guidelines by which we should be correctly reading Scripture. Robert Stein’s “A Basic Guide To Interpreting The Bible: Playing By The Rules” is a great place to start to help with those questions. And yet, when critically thinking Christians arrive at different conclusions and the text itself does not make clear a certain method to read the narrative, then we should be willing to debate and disagree without accusations.
Second, Licona just makes a weird argument. Granted, I have not read his book so I recognize the limitations of these next comments, but the thrust of his massive book is a defense for the truthfulness of the supernatural resurrection from the dead, namely Jesus’. Surely no Christian, especially a conservative Christian, would argue against the Gospel’s historical nature, and Licona’s book is a defense of that very thing. Yet, when it comes to what he calls a “strange little text”, he kicks into the briefest of apocalyptic language, seemingly just to make sense of what the Bible teaches. So, it just seems strange to me that Licona devotes hundreds of pages to defending supernatural resurrection, only to argue it away when it comes to the saints in verses 52-53. Why read the entirety of Matthew’s Gospel, and certainly chapter 27, as history and then suddenly shift gears for what is admittedly a couple of strange verses? Even more troubling is the huge door this opens for skeptics. The next argument for any skeptic of Jesus’ resurrection is to say right back to Licona, “thank you for making my argument for me.” In other words, if the resurrection of the saints in these verses is simply poetic license and symbolic, why isn’t the account of Jesus’ resurrection the same thing? Good question. My hunch is that Licona would argue that the historiographical evidence shows strong support for Jesus’ resurrection but that the resurrection of the saints has little to no extra-biblical evidence. But if we start relying on only what we can corroborate with extra-biblical evidence in order to hold to the historicity and truthfulness of Scripture, then we find ourselves in waters that will quickly drown us. This is exactly what the infamous “Jesus Seminar” was all about, limiting Jesus to only what we can corroborate with extra-biblical sources in order to find the “real Jesus”, and is what Geisler is ultimately worried about.
The topic is an interesting one, but I think both Licona and those who are accusing him are off the mark. Is Licona wrong on his interpretation? Yep, I think so. Does that mean he has betrayed the inerrancy of Scripture? Nope, I think not.