A Response to Mike Licona’s Defense of Dehistoricizing the Resurrection of the Saints in Matthew 27

A Response to Mike Licona’s Defense of Dehistoricizing the Resurrection of the Saints in Matthew 27

Norman L. Geisler

I wish to express my appreciation to Mike Licona for his belated response to some of the issues I raised about his view over two months ago.  While this response was no doubt prompted by the superb treatment of the matter by Dr. Al Mohler that was just placed on his web site, Licona’s response is better late than never. Before addressing Licona’s defense of this view, it is noteworthy that he acknowledges that it is a denial of the historicity of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 and says clearly, “which is my position.”  Indeed, he has still not retracted his in-print view that this event is a “legend.” As for Licona’s defense of his view, he offers several arguments.  Let me address them briefly.

First, he claims that his view is in accord with the doctrine of inerrancy. However, the Evangelical Theological Society, which is the largest group of scholars in the world based on inerrancy, pronounced the same kind of dehistoricizing of the Gospel record as incompatible with its view on inerrancy. Indeed, they requested that Robert Gundry resign (by an overwhelming vote) for holding a similar view which dehistoricized sections of the Gospel of Matthew.  Licona makes no mention of this crucial fact, but insists on redefining inerrancy to fit his errant view. However, in the light of the Gundry decision, Licona has no grounds on which to stand to claim his view is consistent with the historic view of inerrancy, which was embraced by the founders of ETS.

Second, Licona appeals to the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) statements on inerrancy to support his view of “deshistoricizing” Matthew’s account.  However, the ICBI statements on this matter specifically refer to this process as being contrary to inerrancy.  Indeed, as one of the framers of the ICBI statements, I can verify that we explicitly had Gundry’s views in mind when we condemned dehistoricizing the Gospel record. An official ICBI statement declared, “All the claims of the Bible must correspond with reality, whether that reality is historical, factual or spiritual” (Sproul,Explaining Inerrancy (EI), 43-44).  Also, “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis…and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture,” not extra-biblical texts used to determine the meaning of the biblical text.  Further, the ICBI framers said: “We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing,dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship” (Article XVIII). Also, “Though the Bible is indeed redemptive history, it is also redemptive history, and this means that the acts of salvation wrought by God actually occurred in the space-time world” (Sproul, EI, 37). Again, “When the quest for sources produces a dehistoricizing of the Bible, a rejection of its teaching or a rejection of the Bible’s own claims of authorship [then] it has trespassed beyond its proper limits (Sproul, EI, 55). Also, “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual” (Explaining Hermeneutics (EH), XIII). “We deny that any event, discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the traditions they incorporated” (EH XIV bold added in all above citations). Clearly, Licona’s views are not exonerated, but condemned, by the framers and commentaries of the ICBI statements.

Third, Licona begs the question by assuming that we should approach the Gospel record by not prejudging whether it is historical or not.  However, it is not a bias to consider the Gospel records as historical for several reasons: (1) They present themselvesto be giving history (cf. Matt 1:1, 18; 2:1). Luke, for example, claims explicitly that he is recording accurate history (Luke 1:1-4), and Matthew records the same basic historical events as Luke; (2) Luke also provides historical crosshairs with eight historical figures (Luke 3:1-2), all known to have lived at that time; (3) All the main events of Matthew are taken to be historical, even by Licona, including the birth, life, works, words, death and resurrection of Jesus. Why then should not the rest of the book be considered historical as well? Thus, the burden of proof rest on anyone who denies the historicity of a section of the Gospel.  And to comb through contemporary extra-biblical sources, as Licona does, to find legendary material that seems similar to something in the Gospels and then use it as hermeneutical determinative of what the Gospel writer meant is a completely misdirected way of interpreting Scripture. What is more, the presumption of the historical nature of the Gospel is supported by the weight of nearly two thousand years of the Christian Church.  Furthermore, as I mentioned in a previous Open Letter, there are crucial differences between this type of extra-biblical literature and the biblical text?

Fourth, Licona refers to using “authorial intent” to determine the meaning of a statement, but he refuses to take the “authorial intent” of the meaning of ETS and ICBI statements on inerrancy seriously.  If authorial intent is definitive in the meaning of a text, then as an ICBI framer, I can verify that Licona’s Gundry-like views of dehistoricizing Matthew 27 are not compatible with the ICBI statements.  In fact, we had the very thing in mind when we spoke against “dehistoricizing” the biblical narrative by that very name.

Fifth, what is more, Licona violates another standard hermeneutical principle by taking ICBI texts out of contexts.  The ICBI statements only allow the use of extra-biblical data to “clarify” the meaning of words in the biblical text and “prompt” a reexamination of the biblical text itself, which is the final authority.  ICBI never allowed extra-biblical data to be hermeneutical determinative of the meaning, nor of the historicity of the text. As Dr. Mohler correctly noted, they cannot be used to “invalidate” the teaching of a biblical text.  In fact, ICBI explicitly condemns this extra-biblical practice used by Licona and affirms that “Scripture is to interpret Scripture” and that by the “grammatico-historical” method alone. Nowhere did ICBI claim that extra-biblical writings were to be used to override the meaning of biblical writings as understood in their context and by other Scriptures.  In fact, it stated just the opposite (see above).

Sixth, not only does Licona violate sound interpretive principles, but he draws a false analogy between using symbolic language and dehistoricizing a text.  For example, simply because the Bible speak of Satan under the figure of a “dragon” (an example Licona gives) does not mean there is no literal Satan, nor a literal fall of Satan and a third of the angels (Rev. 12).  In fact, the book of Revelation even interprets these symbols as referring to literal persons and event (cf. Rev. 12:9).  Therefore, the use of symbolic language and figures of speech in the Bible in no way justifies taking the individuals and events as non-historical and legendary, as Licona does with the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27. The ICBI statements make this very clear.  What is more, no such language is used in the simple unembellished accounts of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27, which Licona denies as historical.

Seventh, Licona ignores virtually all the arguments we presented for the historicity of the resurrection of these saints in Matthew 27 and then claims that we beg the question in favor of the historicity of the event in question. To state just a few of these arguments given in favor of historicity of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27: (1) It occurs in a book that present itself as historical (cf. Matt 1:1,18); (2) Numerous events in this book have been confirmed as historical (e.g., the birth, life, deeds, teachings, death, and resurrection of Christ); (3) It is presented in the immediate context of other historical events, namely, the death and resurrection of Christ; (4) The resurrection of these saints is also presented as an event occurring as a result of the literal death and resurrection of Christ (cf. Matt. 27:52-53); (5) It has all the same essential earmarks of the literal resurrection of Christ, including: (a) empty tombs, (b) dead bodies coming to life, and (c) these resurrected bodies appearing to many witnesses.  In view of all of this, there is simply no reasonably way one can dehistoricize the resurrection of these saints, particularly based on alleged similarities with extra-biblical stories and expressions.  Indeed, to dehistoricize the resurrection of these saints is to dehistoricize the resurrection of Christ which is said to be the cause of it.

Eighth, Licona claims the extra-biblical literature containing phenomena similar to the raised saints in Matthew 27 may provide insights pertaining to how Matthew intended for us to interpret his raised saints. However, in support Licona offers more false analogies such as the use of figures of speech of events today.  But no one claims that the “earth-shaking” events of 9/11 were non-historical or poetic devices used to describe what every eye-witnesses knows to have taken place in the actual space-time continuum. We validate the historicity of this event by the eyewitnesses who experienced the event  and who recorded it as actual history. If someone 2,000 years from now interprets the events from 9/11 as apocalyptic or legendary, then they will be in error.

Ninth, it is understandable that Licona would be “grateful to the Southeastern Theological Review for their invitation to participate in a round table discussion on the meaning of this text and the solution” that he proposed.  However, we must be careful not to place too much weight on such a meeting, particularly because some of those involved have already placed approval on his view in a recent Open Letter released by Licona. Hence, it may be a case of the fox guarding the hen house!  There are far bigger and better scholarly circles than this, such as, the nearly 300 international scholars who formed the ICBI statement on inerrancy and its statements which declare that views like Licona’s were incompatible with the view of full inerrancy which declared that the Bible is wholly and completely without error and denied all dehistoricizing of the Gospel record.

Tenth, Licona claims that to reject a view like his is to “stifle scholarship.”  In response, we do not wish to stifle scholarship but only to reject bad scholarship.  Further, as Evangelicals we must beware of desiring a seat at the table of contemporary scholarship, which is riddled with presuppositions that are antagonistic to Evangelical Christianity. Indeed, when necessary, we must place Lordship over scholarship (2 Cor. 10:5). We do not oppose scholarship, but only scholarship whose presuppositions and methodological procedures are opposed to the Faith once for all committed to the saints.

Unfortunately, Mike Licona refers to Dr. Mohler and me as “detractors.”  In response, I would like to repeat that I have both love for Mike as a brother in Christ and respect for him as a scholar.  However, I have a higher respect for the truth of God’s inerrant Word and for my duty to defend it.  And I am firmly convinced that the Gospel record is seriously undermined by this kind of Second-Temple, pro-legendary interpretation that denies the sufficiency of the historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture and flies in the face of nearly two centuries of Christian consensus on the historicity of the Gospel record. Hence, while I am not a detractor, I do believe that Dr. Licona needs to be a retractor of this serious challenge to the complete historicity and full inerrancy of the Bible.  Since he has expressed some doubt about his own view in his previous Open Letter, I would hope that his doubt about his own hermeneutics would not decrease and that his certainly about the inerrancy of the whole Gospel record, including this text, would increase.  I am praying to that end.


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