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.
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.]
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.