A Critique of the Genre Interpretation of Matthew 27:51-53 in Dr. Michael Licona’s work, The Resurrection of Jesus

A Critique of the Genre Interpretation of Matthew 27:51-53 in Dr. Michael Licona’s work,
The Resurrection of Jesus


by Dr. F. David Farnell, Ph.D.
January 31, 2012


After examining the primary sources regarding the controversy, two essential factors may be noted:

First, Licona’s work exhibits many commendable items.  For instance, it presents a strong stance on the historical basis for Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead.  One can be encouraged that in light of historical criticism’s attack on the miraculous since Spinoza and the Enlightenment, Licona has maintained the historical, orthodox position of the church.

Second, unfortunately, while Licona’s work defends Jesus’ bodily resurrection ably, the assumption of genre hermeneutic known as apocalyptic or eschatological Jewish texts whereby Licona dismisses the historicity of Matthew 27:51-53 (and its recording of the resurrection of saints) results effectively in the complete evisceration and total negation of His strong defense of Jesus’ resurrection.

Licona labels it a “strange little text” (Resurrection, 548) and terms it “special effects” that have no historical basis (Resurrection, 552). His apparent concern also rests with only Matthew as mentioning the event.  He concludes that “Jewish eschatological texts and thought in mind” as “most plausible” in explaining it (Resurrection, 552).  He concludes that “It seems best to regard this difficult text in Matthew a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that impending judgment awaited Israel” (p. 553).

This conclusion is subjective, arbitrary, hermeneutically quite unnecessary.  Nothing demands such a conclusion in the context or supports such a conclusion.

If the events in Matthew 27:51-53 are held that way, nothing—absolutely nothing— stops critics from applying a similar kind of logic to Jesus’ resurrection.  Licona’s logic here is self-defeating and undermines his entire work on defending the resurrection.

Several arguments prevail against Licona.  Many have already been mentioned.  So I will add only a few.

First, Licona appears to take other events in immediate context both BEFORE AND AFTER this passage as historical (Jesus crying out, veil of temple split, earthquake, the centurion crying out).  Merely because he finds these events “strange” is rather subjective.  His idea of “What were they [the resurrected saints] doing between Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning?” shows that an acute subjectivity reigns in Licona’s hermeneutical scheme.

Second, no literary signals exist to the readers that Matthew has switched from historical narration of the events surrounding the crucifixion.  The passage flows both before and after as a telling of the events with no abrupt disjuncture.  How would Matthew’s readers have recognized that the events, before and after, were historical in time-space but not the immediate passage?

How would Matthew’s readers have been able to distinguish the genre change from historical narrative to what Licona term’s “symbolic” based in eschatological Jewish texts.

 It is highly dubious that Matthew 27:51-53 or Revelation should be associated with Jewish Apocalyptic literature.  While Revelation may share some highly superficial characterstics, such as symbolism, it DOES NOT share the dualism, pessimism, determinism, pseudonymity or rewritten history transformed into prophecy that characterized such Jewish literature (see Leon Morris, Apocalyptic, 1972).

Licona’s decision for such a genre linkage has no substantial reason.  It is arbitrary.

Finally, since as Licona argues most of our historical knowledge is fragmentary, should not the passage be given the benefit as history.  NOTHING in the CONTEXT precludes its history and NOTHING in the context negates its history, except a subjective bias that the story is “strange.”  This is an existentialist interpretation of what something means “to me” (i.e. Licona).

I would lovingly ask Mike Licona to reconsider his position.  All of us have had times when we have reconsidered positions and changed as we grow in the faith and wisdom as Christians and in the love of the Lord Jesus.


F. David Farnell, Ph.D.

Professor of New Testament

The Master’s Seminary


More about Dr. Farnell here.


To see an index of other articles on the “Licona Controvery” please click here.

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