Michael Licona on the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27

Mike Licona's new book on the resurrection of Jesus
Mike Licona's new book on Jesus' resurrection: buy it!

Michael Licona, in his awesome must-read book on the resurrection, argues that the earthquake and resurrection of the saints story is probably not historical, but is instead apocalyptic imagery. Norman Geisler, another Christian apologist, disagreed with this view publicly, claiming that it compromises inerrancy. Must we accept that the earthquake and resurrection of the saints is real history in order to be inerrantists?

I got permission from Michael to post this Facebook note verbatim.

Full text:

Norman Geisler has taken issue with a portion of my recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, in which I proposed that the story of the raised saints in Matthew 27:52-53 should probably be interpreted as apocalyptic imagery rather than literal history. In response, Dr. Geisler has offered strong criticisms in two Open Letters to me on the Internet. Until now I have been unable to comment because I have multiple writing deadlines, two September debates in South Africa for which to prepare, and, consequently, no time to be drawn into what would probably turn into an endless debate. I shared these first two reasons with Dr. Geisler in an email several weeks ago. Yet he insisted that I “give careful and immediate attention” to the matter. I simply could not do this and fulfill the pressing obligations of my ministry, which is my higher priority before the Lord.

Dr. Geisler questions whether I still hold to biblical inerrancy. I want to be clear that I continue to affirm this evangelical distinctive. My conclusion in reference to the raised saints in Matthew 27 was based upon my analysis of the genre of the text. This was not an attempt to wiggle out from under the burden of an inerrant text; it was an attempt to respect the text by seeking to learn what Matthew was trying to communicate. This is responsible hermeneutical practice. Any reasonable doctrine of biblical inerrancy must respect authorial intent rather than predetermine it.

When writing a sizable book, there will always be portions in which one could have articulated a matter more appropriately. And those portions, I suppose, will often be located outside the primary thesis of the book, such as the one on which Dr. Geisler has chosen to focus. When writing my book, I always regarded the entirety of Matthew 27 as historical narrative containing apocalyptic allusions. I selected the term “poetic” in order to allude to similar phenomena in the Greco-Roman literature in general and Virgil in particular. However, since Matthew is a Jew writing to Jews, “apocalyptic” may be the most appropriate technical term, while “special effects” communicates the gist on a popular level.

Further research over the last year in the Greco-Roman literature has led me to reexamine the position I took in my book. Although additional research certainly remains, at present I am just as inclined to understand the narrative of the raised saints in Matthew 27 as a report of a factual (i.e., literal) event as I am to view it as an apocalyptic symbol. It may also be a report of a real event described partially in apocalyptic terms. I will be pleased to revise the relevant section in a future edition of my book.

Michael R. Licona, Ph.D.

August 31, 2011

And then there is this addendum to the letter:

We the undersigned are aware of the above stated position by Dr. Michael Licona, including his present position pertaining to the report of the raised saints in Matthew 27: He proposes that the report may refer to a literal/historical event, a real event partially described in apocalyptic terms, or an apocalyptic symbol. Though most of us do not hold Licona’s proposal, we are in firm agreement that it is compatible with biblical inerrancy, despite objections to the contrary. We are encouraged to see the confluence of biblical scholars, historians, and philosophers in this question.

It has come to my attention that this matter may become a political/theological hot potato. The scholars on the list have stood with me. It was not my intent to amass a huge list. It was my intent to demonstrate that a significant number of the most highly respected evangelical scholars, all of whom are members of ETS, see no incompatibility between the position I took in my book and the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The list has served its purpose. I have no desire to be the cause of pressure brought on those who have stood with me or on their academic institutions. Therefore, I have decided to remove the list of names for the present time at least. In no case, did an institution demand that their professors withdraw their names.

A number of scholars have suggested that this discussion is better played out in the theatre of an academic forum. I could not agree more! Southeastern Theological Review (STR) has offered to host a ‘virtual’ roundtable discussion involving several significant scholars commenting on my book. A main subject of this roundtable will be the raising of the dead saints in Matthew 27:52-53. This roundtable discussion(s) will be posted on the STR web site and will precede a full journal devoted to my book in the Summer 2012 edition of STR.

[UPDATE: Originally, Dr. Licona had included a list of incredibly conservative evangelical scholars but then asked for the names to be withdrawn, and replaced with the two paragraphs above.]

My take

I think that Matthew is using apocalyptic imagery in Matthew 27. I also think that if the event was historical, then it would have been recorded by Josephus or other historians. And I hold to inerrancy.

Dr. Licona is hardly a squish on doctrine, so I don’t think it was nice for Dr. Geisler to attack him in public like that. Bringing additional facts to a debate is permissible, but attacking someone like Dr. Licona over inerrancy is personal. Frankly if I had to choose who is making a bigger impact for Christ at this time, I would choose Dr. Licona. I haven’t read anything by Dr. Geisler in about a decade, nor has he been in any debates recently that I am aware of. I would not recommend his work either.

Learn more about Dr. Licona

Here is Dr. Licona’s web site. I have an autographed copy of Mike’s new book, and I bought another one for reading. I highly, highly recommend this book, but for students who have read an introductory book on the resurrection first. Here is the best introductory book on the resurrection of Jesus, authored by Michael Licona and Gary Habermas. Both books I would say are essential for anyone who claims to be a mature Christian. These are required reading.

If you would like to hear Michael in a debate with skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman, click here for the playlist. This is their 2nd debate, and Michael pwns Bart.

22 thoughts on “Michael Licona on the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27”

  1. Given Geisler’s support of Ergun Caner and his attacks on Calvinists I don’t give him any credibility.

    On the other hand, frankly, Licona has lost all credibility with me and I believe interpreting this section as he has is a dance with heresy.

    That Josesphus doesn’t mention it? Pfft. He didn’t mention Christ waslking on water, feeding 5000, or raising the dead either and they are all enough out of the ordinary that ….

    Licona, I am done with you.


    1. Miracles performed before a select audience in obscure locations is one thing. The dead returning to life in a major metropolis and appearing to many? Someone’s going to write that down! In fact, if it’s a historical event why didn’t Mark write about it?


  2. So you think it was sort of a moment of screaming, “fire and brimstone, cats and dogs living together… total anarchy!”

    Shrug. I find it a lot easier to believe that there were earthquakes and some dead people resurrected. A lot of stuff happened in the ancient world. Earthquakes are and were super super common in Palestine, as you’ll find out by reading Eusebius, and yet people did still regard them as omen material, as you’ll also find out by reading Eusebius. (The book on the saints and martyrs in Roman Palestine. It’s the one with the beautiful description of a tsunami that killed the guys who were killing martyrs.) Dead Sea fault (rift valley stuff), Carmel fault, all kinds of fun faults.

    And if Jesus Christ is rising from the dead, I’d expect that the event having a few beneficial, foretaste-type effects on nearby dead bodies wouldn’t be all that strange. He had already been known to raise the dead; why would this be any less believable than Him eating fish and saying “peace” to everybody? Why would signs stop after the Resurrection, or not accompany the Crucifixion? Why would anyone assume it has to be a literary device? Are you also going to assume that all the prophecy fulfillments are non-literal also? Are you going to claim the cursing fig trees and healing the blind man were non-literal, just because they involved symbolic messages also? Where do you stop?

    Weird stuff happens. It’s weird that a tornado stopped the British Army and Navy’s little party in DC and environs in 1812; but it really did happen. And just because whirlwinds are part of apocalyptic imagery and are symbolic of God’s power and a bunch of other stuff, that doesn’t mean that the US and the UK forces were using literary devices when they reported the tornado’s occurrence and effects.

    Heck, I don’t have any particular reason to disbelieve the weird prodigies reported by Suetonius during important moments of Roman history, because you can have two headed lambs any time, but of course they’re going to be remembered more by the Roman Weekly World News if they happen right before Julius Caesar gets himself stabbed.

    I fully realize that you can’t treat ancient accounts as being the same genre as news articles or history textbooks. But this “it was just poetic apocalyptic signage” argument — it seems to be introducing an unnecessary level of complexity to the account. All the Resurrection accounts have a quality of understatedness; they leave the amazingly amazing amazingness language to the poets and hymnwriters of later times.


  3. I’m inclined to agree with Maureen.

    Re Licona’s views, he seems to have reconsidered and adjusted them himself, if I understand the last paragraph of his letter correctly.

    The issue with Geisler seems to be that he needs to give Licona a chance to respond and bear in mind his heavy schedule without jumping up and down for an answer.


    1. Glenn, respectfully, from what you wrote(” I go with what the Scripture says – face value”) for two reasons.

      First, translations are usually same meaning different form. But, in some translations like KJV(I have great respect for this translation) you cannot read 1 John 5:78 at face value due to it being a major variant to prove the Trinity which was not needed as Matthew 28:19 and other passages do this just fine.(See books like “Reinventing Jesus” by Daniel Wallace and others on why this variant is a major problem)

      Second, respectfully, we cannot just read all(emphasis on all) of Scripture at “face value” as that oversimplifies good exegesis. Some(emphasis on some) of the Text can be read at face value. GaryT. Meadors, ThD Professor of Greek and New Testament Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, I think explains it best that there different types of teachings in the Bible that can be read at face value while others take a little bit more digging into historical background and such to interpreting as correctly as possible. He writes:

      “Going( beyond the immediate contexts and claiming that there are larger implications that teach us in those contexts, especially when a series of texts is evaluated, is a noble task. Let me illustrate this by a threefold model to account for how the Bible teaches. One can think of the Bible teaching us at three levels: direct teaching (teaching that best represents what the original author intended the original audience to understand from the text) implied teaching (teaching that seems reasonably clear by examining how texts speak; for example, Paul’s speaking to Philemon about Onesimus, while never directly stating a view on manumission, implies a softer approach to an indentured servant) creative constructs (theologically constructed views that interpreters argue best represent the totality of the Bible) One could think of direct teaching by noting how the New Testament abrogates the normative food laws of the Old Testament in Acts 10:9–16 and 1 Timothy 4:3–5. This is teaching that requires our acceptance. implied teaching can be no less demanding although not backed by a non-debated proof text. The Trinity is a nonnegotiable belief for Christians, but it is an implied teaching. Creative constructs, however, represent more debatable categories that usually require certain interpretive grids for reading texts. Views on eschatological issues such as the millennium and the rapture of the church, and even forms for doing church, usually fall into systems that endeavor to make sense out of numerous connected texts by imposing certain grids by which these texts are read.” (1)

      I am open to feedback.

      Jonathan H

      (1)Meadors, Gary T. (2009-11-17). Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology (pp. 10-11). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.


      1. Jonathan H

        I fully understand proper hermeneutics, so I don’t need the lecture. We are talking about a specific passage here, and the attempt to make it apocalyptic where there is no apparent intent in the Bible to do make it so. It is presented as historical fact. Sort of like 6 days for creation, which too many want to say is merely figurative or that they can mean all sorts of things, just to fit in what so-called “science tells us.


  4. Glenn, respectfully, I was not lecturing as I worded it in a way that was assertive, but respectful. I said “respectfully” enough to show my intent or tone of my comments. Also, at the end of my comments I said I was open to feedback indicating this was a discussion and not a one sided exchange of ideas.

    Secondly, with respect, I think talking about the creation debate is a weak analogy or faulty analogy(1) to the debate about the historicity of Matthew 27:52-53. If you would like to discuss what Ignatius wrote about the event or the other phenomena like the darkness, tearing of the veil, etc in the other gospels then that would pertain to the discussion as this sheds light on what was going on in the 1st century when the gospels were written by Matthew and others. The Hebrew etymology debate on the meaning of the word “day” does not have any essential links to what Licona and Geisler(both men I respect and I think edify the Church with their work they have and will do God willing) are debating about.

    Respectfully, this debate at hand on Matthew 27 is not Geisler vs Licona, us vs them, or you vs me……it is all of us vs the problem through a peer review process that can be candid, but respectful trying to sharpen each other as believers.

    Jonathan H

    (1) Geisler and Brooks describe a faulty analogy as follows, “Faulty Analogy. The technique of arguing by analogy has produced some very convincing arguments. However, not all analogies are created equal. Some simply aren’t as relevant as they claim to be because of a critical difference in the things compared. Remember, as long as you ignore the differences, everything is the same. This fallacy deals with the misuse of analogies in logical argument. One who commits this error is saying, “Accept this because of these (superficial) similarities with that.” As we said, sometimes analogies can be used to present very strong and effective arguments, but analogies are good only when there are strong similarities and only nonessential differences between the things being compared. But if the similarities are only accidental or the differences are essential, then the argument suffers and can be accused of this fallacy. Likewise, if some similarities are found but there is an essential difference in the aspect being compared, the analogy can be invalidated.” Ronald Brooks;Norman Geisler. Come, Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking (p. 88). Kindle Edition.


    1. Well, respectfully, Ignatius wasn’t at the scene, was he? My point is that Matt 27 is not apocalyptic in nature, rather it is historic.

      And, no, we are not talking about false analogy by comparing it to other historical material in the Bible. Matt 27 is intended to be as historical as Gen.1, neither being figurative or mystical or anything else. The genre is historical in both cases, so the analogy was proper.


    1. Now don’t be upset at me, but although I agree across the board with Al Mohler on his positions on other issues than this one, I have virtually no respect for the man as an authority on Christianity, especially on this Matthew 27 issue, since I don’t think he is truth-centered. He isn’t a reflective man, he doesn’t know how to persuade, and he’s not a scholar. He doesn’t know why he believes anything that he affirms, in my opinion, and he could not commend anything that he believes to anyone else, with any persuasive authority.


      1. I don’t know if I would characterize Mohler as an authority on Christianity. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I don’t think even he would characterize himself as such.
        The only proper authority I acknowledge re Christianity is God.
        That said, you haven’t said what you think of his point in the article. Did you read it?


          1. OH, no! You’re beyond the pale!!


            But at least when I send you books to fix your non-substance-dualism, you are open-minded and you read them. Mohler isn’t.


          2. The way you see Licona treated here is the way I see people treat me over those issues that you remember well. ;) And I think the approach and rationale is the same in each case.


  5. Why attack Licona over his understanding of Matthew 27 to be apocalyptic imagery? Holding to such a view doesn’t undermine inerrancy or salvation, so why should Geisler have taken issue with Licona over that?


    1. Geisler has suffered a lot of blows to his ego over the last decade or so, mostly at the hand of his fellow Christians (especially James White). Maybe he just needed a victory for a change. This whole thing smacks of extreme arrogance from my point of view. Geisler must think he’s a very important person to expect that Licona should drop everything he’s doing and give immediate attention to Geisler’s criticism, and to suggest something inappropriate about Licona not responding or not responding right away. I don’t see that Licona owed him any response at all, much less an immediate one.


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