A Second Open Letter to Mike Licona on the Resurrection of the Saints of Matthew 27

A Second Open Letter to Mike Licona

on the Resurrection of the Saints of Matthew 27

Professor Norman L Geisler, Ph.D.

August 21, 2011


Almost two months ago, I wrote Mike Licona a private letter expressing my concerns about his published view in The Resurrection of Jesus (RJ) that the story of saints resurrected after His resurrection in Matthew 27:52-53 was not historical.  He spoke of it as a “strange little text” (548 cf. 556).  Indeed, he called it “poetic” or a “legend” (185-186).  He appears to include the angels at the tomb (Mk. 16:5-7) in the same category (186).  He speaks of it as similar to Roman legends with “phenomenal language used in a symbolic manner” (552).  He adds, “…it seems to me that an understanding of the language in Matthew 27:52-53 as ‘special effects’ with eschatological Jewish texts and thought in mind is most plausible” (552).  He says that by this legend “Matthew may simply be emphasizing that a great king has died” (552).  He adds, “If he has one or more of the Jewish texts in mind [that contain similar legends], he may be proclaiming that the day of the Lord has come” (552).  He concludes that “It seems best to regard this difficult text in Matthew as a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that impending judgment awaited Israel” (553).

In my Open Letter to Mike Licona a few weeks ago (see www.normangeisler.com) I spoke of how this dehistoricizing of Matthew’s inspired account was contrary to the stand of The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) which asked Robert Gundry to resign by an overwhelming vote of the membership in 1983 for the same basic reason.  I also pointed out that this kind of “dehistoricizing” of the Gospel record is contrary to the statements of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) whose statement was accepted by the ETS (of which Mike Licona is a member) in 2003 as a guide in understanding of what their inerrancy statement meant.


Unfortunately, since Mike has chosen not to respond publically to my Open Letter, or to me privately, I wish to appeal again for him to reconsider his view.  There are two major points I wish to express.  First, there is no good grounds for taking Matthew 27:15-53 as not historical.  Second, this dehistoricizing of sections of a Gospel inconsistent with the standard view on inerrancy as held by the Evangelical Theological Society and the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.

On The Inconsistency of Licona’s View with the Text of Matthew 27:50-53

            This text at issue is in Matthew 27 which affirms that when he died “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and  yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (vv. 50-53 ESV).  Now there are many reasons this text in this context should be taken as historical and not as a legend.


First of all, in this very text the resurrection of these saints occurs in direct connection with two other historical events—the death and resurrection of Jesus (vv. 50, 53).  There is no reason here to take the resurrection of Jesus as historical and the resurrection of the saints as a legend. Hence, to borrow the subtitle from Licona’s book, it appears that this “New Historical Approach” which employs extra-biblical sources to determine the meaning of this text has led him astray.  Indeed, there are many reasons in the text itself to take these resurrections as a literal events, including the terms like “earth,” “quake,” “temple,” “veil,” “rocks,” “tombs,” “bodies,” “asleep” (dead), “raised,” and “appeared”—all of which speak of a physical event elsewhere in the New Testament.  Indeed, the crucial word associated directly with the resurrection of these saints resurrection (viz., “raised”—egiro) is also used of Jesus’ resurrection in the 1Corinthians  when Paul speaks of Jesus dying for our sins and being “raised” (egiro) again (1 Cor.15:3-4).  And the word for “appeared” (Mt. 27:53) after his resurrection is an even stronger word than usual,meaning”become visible, appear…make known, make clear, explain, inform, make a report esp. of an official report to the authorities” (Arndt and Gingrich, A Geek-English Lexicon of the NT, p. 257, emphasis added).


Second, there is a direct connection between the resurrection of these saints and Jesus’ resurrection.  For the text is careful to mention that they did not come out of the tombs until “after” Jesus’ resurrection (v. 53).  Indeed, Paul calls Jesus’ resurrection “the firstfruits” (1 Cor. 15:23), so, it is only proper that He should emerge from the dead first.  Thus, speaking of the resurrection of these saints after Jesus’ resurrection and as a result of it makes no sense, if their resurrection, unlike Jesus’ resurrection, is a mere legend.


Third, this text lists the same kind of evidence for the resurrection of these saints as is listed elsewhere for Jesus’ resurrection: [1] the tombs were opened; [2] the tombs were empty; [3] the dead were raised; [4] there were physical appearances; [5] many people saw these resurrected saints (cf. Mt.27; 1 Cor. 15).  In brief, if this is not a physical resurrection, then neither was Jesus’ resurrection (that preceded and prompted it) a physical resurrection.  Or, conversely, if Jesus’ resurrection was physical, then so was the resurrection of these saints in Matthew 27 a physical resurrection. Thus, denying the physical resurrection of these saints undermines belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus.


Fourth, as Ellicott’s Commentary puts it, “the brevity, and in some sense, simplicity, of the statement differences [sic] it very widely from such legends, more or less analogous in  character… and so far excludes the mythical elements which, as a rule, delights to shows itself in luxuriant expansion” (vol. VI, p. 178).  In brief, the typical characteristics of a myth as found in apocryphal and other literature of that time is not found in this text.

Fifth, some of the elements of this story are confirmed by two other Gospels.  For both Mark (15:38) and Luke (23:45) mention the renting of the veil in the temple (Mat. 27: 51) as a result of Jesus’ death as well.  But Luke’s writings in particular have been historically confirmed in nearly one hundred details (see Colin Hemer, Acts in the Setting of Hellenic History). There is no reason to believe he is less historically accurate in mentioning this detail.  And if this part of the story is factually confirmed, there is no good reason to reject the rest of it.


Finally, the cumulative evidence for the historic and non-legendary nature of this text is strong.  In fact, the story is interwoven with the historic evidence surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ in such as manner that the denial of the resurrection of the saints undermines the historicity of the resurrection of Christ in the same text.


 On the Inconsistency of Licona’s View with the ETS and ICBI View on Inerrancy


The Evangelical Theological Society is on record in the Robert Gundry case as rejecting this kind of dehistoricizing of the Gospel record as inconsistent with their view of the inerrancy of Scripture.  In 1983 by an overwhelming vote the ETS members Robert Gundry was asked to resign from the ETS for holding a similar view in which he dehistoricized sections of Matthew’s Gospel.  Since Mike Licona is a member of ETS, it follows that his view is inconsistent with the ETS stand on inerrancy.

Of course, Licona can argue that it is not inconsistent with his personal or private view on inerrancy, but that is not the point we made in our Open Letter, nor is it the point here.  The fact is that the society of scholars to which he belongs has already ruled against the view which he embraces.  Further,  Licona is on record affirming that a text should be interpreted in accord with the “author’s intent” (RJ, 85) or “authorial intent” (RJ, 195).  Thus, it would be inconsistent, if not dishonest, to reject the ETS and ICBI framer’s intent when interpreting its inerrancy statement.  Unfortunately, it is this kind of dishonesty that erodes the integrity of a doctrinal statement.  For example, in 1976 the ETS Executive Committee confessed that “Some of the members of the Society have expressed the feeling that a measure of intellectual dishonesty prevails among members who do not take the signing of the doctrinal statement seriously. Other members of the Society have come to the realization that they are not in agreement with the creedal statement and have voluntarily withdrawn. That is, in good consciencethey could not sign the statement” (1976 Minutes of the ETS Executive Committee, emphasis added).  If one cannot sign a statement in good conscience according to the intent of the framers, then, of course, resigning is the honest thing to do.

Furthermore, in 2003 the ETS accepted the ICBI interpretation as the guideline for interpreting what inerrancy means by an overwhelming 80% vote.  Thus, it too can be used as a test of whether Licona’s view is consistent with what the framers mean by inerrancy.  And an examination of the following citations from official ICBI statements and official commentaries on them make it clear that denying the historicity of sections of the Gospels is inconsistent with its view on inerrancy.

Consider the following ICBI statements (emphasis added):  “We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit. We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science” (Article XII).  And “By biblical standards of truth and error (in Article XIII) is meant the view used both in the Bible and in everyday life, viz., a correspondence view of truth.  This part of the article is directed toward those who would redefine truth to relate merely to redemptive intent, the purely personal, or the like, rather than to mean that which corresponds with reality” (Sproul, Explaining Inerrancy (EI), 43-44).  Thus, “… all the claims of the Bible must correspond with reality, whether that reality is historical, factual or spiritual” (Sproul, EI, 41).


ICBI added, “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.”  Hence, “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).  The official ICBI commentary adds, “Though the Bible is indeedredemptive 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).  “When the quest for sources produces adehistoricizing 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, an official commentary titledExplaining Hermeneutics (EH). It reads: “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual” (EH, XIII).  Further, “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).


As one of the framers of the ICBI statements, I can say with certainty that our expressed intentions of the ICBI framers is directly contrary to Licona’s dehistoricizing of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27:51-53.  In fact, Robert Gundry, who was asked to resign for a similar view, came up by name to the framers when we penned our statements.


Objections Sometimes Raised Against the ETS and ICBI View of Inerrancy


Those who defend the Gundry-Licona type view of “dehistoricizing” parts of the Gospels have offered several objections to this kind of critique over the years.  These will be brief addressed here.

Objection One: ETS and ICBI are not the Final of Infallible Word on Inerrancy


Some have disowned the ETS and ICBI statements on inerrancy.  After all, as these objectors correctly point out, these statements are not infallible.  This is true, but then too no creedal statements are infallible, even The Apostle’s Creed is not infallible. Only the Bible is God’s infallible written Word of God.  Nonetheless, there are good reason to accept these early creeds as a guideline for Christian belief.  And, since there were no explicit early creedal statements on the Bible, there are several reasons to accept the ETS and ICBI statements as guides on this inerrancy issue.


First of all, it is the standard to which Licona and supporters refer when they claim his view is consistent with inerrancy.  After all, Licona is listed as a member of the ETS which has adopted the ICBI statement as a guide to understanding inerrancy.  So, he is being judged by his own standard.


Second, it has been well established that the total inerrancy view expressed by  the ICBI has been the historic view held by the great church teachers down through the centuries (see John Hannah, Inerrancy and the Church; John Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: The Roger/McKim Proposal).


Third, ETS is the largest conservative scholarly society in the world (with some 4000 members).  Hence, it statement on inerrancy carries more weight than any private opinions on the matter, even among some of its members.

Fourth, since the ETS statement is short, its members decided to accepted the ICBI statement on inerrancy as a guide to its meaning in 2003 by an overwhelming 80% vote.


Fifth, the ICBI statement has been the standard view on the topic among American evangelicals for the last generation.  Hence, there is no need to reject it now, particularly for “a new historical approach” that is contrary to the historical-grammatical approach which has been at the basis of orthodoxy down through the centuries.


So, in view of the foregoing evidence, the burden of proof  falls on any individual who pit their private view of inerrancy against the historic view down through the centuries, as is expressed in the ICBI statements on the issue.  And, as we have shown, Licona position clearly contradict what the ETS (to which he belongs) and ICBI framers meant by inerrancy.


Objection Two: Matthew 27 is the Only Reference to this Event


It is objected that since the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 is based on a single text, its historicity is in doubt.   However, from an evangelical view of Scripture (which Licona claims to hold), this is a clearly an unjustified assertion.  How many times does an inspired record have to mention an event for it to be true?  Many historical events in the Gospels are mentioned only once, including Jesus talking to the woman at the Well (Jn. 4) and his speaking to Nicodemus (in Jn. 3) in which He used the famous words, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3).  Also, the encounter with the Rich Young Ruler and the story about Zaccheaus are only mentioned once (Lk. 19), as are numerous other things.  Further, as noted above, there are some aspect of this story (namely, the death and resurrection of Jesus and even the renting of the temple veil which is confirmed by both Mark  (15:38) and Luke (23:45).


Furthermore, many events from the ancient world survive by only one record.  So, by the logic of this objection, we would have to eliminate much of ancient history, to say nothing of much of the Bible!


Objection Three: Open Genealogies Support a Non-Literal View of Matthew 27


Robert Gundry raised this objection when he was asked to resign from ETS in 1983. In short, it is argued that Matthew 1:8 leaves out three generations when it lists Jesus’ ancestry (cf. 1 Chron. 3:11-12).  Hence, it is argued that that there is no reason to take passages like Matthew 27:51-53) as historical.  However, as any student of logic can quickly determine, this conclusion does not follow from the premises. For there is a big difference between abbreviation in a literal genealogy and taking the persons listed in it as non-literal.  Summarization of historical factsand dehistoricizing of themare really different things.  Thus, this objection is based on a false comparison.


Objection  Four: Many Inerrantists take Sections of Prophecy as Non-literal


It is sometimes objected that if some prophetic events can be taken in a non-literal way without denying inerrancy, then why can’t some events in the Gospels (like Matt. 27:52-53) be taken as non-literal and this view still be considered consistent with the doctrine of inerrancy?  Here again, we have a misplaced analogy for several reasons.


First of all, there is a difference between history and prophecy.  The question in Matthew is about a historical book, not a prophetical book.  Even if apocalyptic language can sometimes be taken to refer to non-literal events, it would not necessarily follow that this is true of historical sections of the Bibleespecially those directly connected with the resurrection of Christ.


Second, the use of figures of speech in apocalyptic discourse does not necessarily mean that it is not referring to literal events.  For example, speaking of the Devil as being “chained” (as a figure of speech) does not mean there is no literal Devil (Rev. 20:1), nor that he won’t be restrained in some manner.  Likewise, other figurative language need not be taken to mean it does not refer to literal events.


Third, consistent evangelical inerrantists (whether Pre- Post or A-millennial) do not deny the literal, historical nature of the Second Coming regardless of whatever figures of speech may be used to describe it.  But what Licona has done is to deny the very historical nature of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27.  And he has done so with a text that does not use figurative, apocalyptical language, but refers to literal events like Christ’s death, resurrection, and bodies being raised from tombs and appearing to many in the city of Jerusalem.  Thus, it makes a big difference when one denies the historicity of this kind of event, as Licona has done.


Objection Five: Taking Matthew 27 as Non-literal is no Different than Accepting an Old Earth View


It is argued that if one can take the “days” of Genesis in a non-literal way and yet be considered consistent with inerrancy, then why can’t they take a section of Matthew 27 non-literally also be considered consistent with inerrancy?  It is a known fact that many strict inerrantists from B.B. Warfield and A.A. Hodge to the modern ETS fathers and ICBI framers hold an “Old Earth” view which they believed was consistent with a strict view of inerrancy.  However, this too is an unjustified comparison.  For the Hebrew the term “day” (yom) is used of a literal but longer period of time than twenty four hours in many places in the Old Testament.  This is true of numbered series of days (cf. Hosea 6:1-2) and days with “evenings and mornings” (Daniel 8:14, 26) connected to them.  It is also used in the Genesis creation record (Gen. 2:4) of more than one twenty-four hour day, referring as it does to all six days of creation.

However, in none of these cases is “day” used of non-literal events.  Thus, ICBI inerrantists insist that denying the literal historicity of Genesis 1-3 and beyond is inconsistent with inerrancy.  Indeed, Article XII of the ICBI “Chicago Statement” reads: “We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”  And Article XIII of the ICBI statement on Hermeneutics reads: “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual.”  Thus it rejects the view of “Some, for instance, [who] take Adam to be a myth, whereas in Scripture he is presented as a real person.”  And indeed it should reject those views that deny the historicity of the Genesis record since many crucial New Testament teachings are based on it, including the Fall  (Rom. 5:12-17), and Christ’s called the “Last Adam” after His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:45).


So, while the age of the earth is not a test of inerrancy orthodoxy, the literal historicity of Genesis 1-3 and following is.  So, contrary to this objection, accepting the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 as legend is contrary to orthodoxy, but accepting the Genesis record as history (regardless of the age of the earth) is not.  Indeed, there are many orthodox ways to hold an “Old Earth” view and still believe that the “days” of Genesis are literal historic days, whether solar days or longer (see Geisler, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, Appendix 4).

Objection Six: Other Inerrantists Agree that This View is Orthodox

Sometimes others who claim to believe in inerrancy, even ETS and ICBI kind of inerrancy, are cited in support of Licona’s view.  Dr. William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas have been put in this category.  However, it is important to note that neither of these men—nor others like them—accept Licona’s view that the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 is a legend.  And as for believing that Licona’s view is consistency with inerrancy, as we have shown above, they cannot mean consistent with what the ETS and ICBI framers meant by inerrancy, and the ETS is the organization to which Licona belongs.  And, as Licona himself holds, the intent of the author is definite for the meaning of a text.  Further, as we have shown, the ETS rejected Gundry’s view and adopted the ICBI interpretation of inerrancy which explicitly rejects dehistoricizing the Gospel record such as Licona does. Indeed, there is no real grounds for claiming that Licona’s view is consistent with the framer’s intent of ETS or ICBI.

Concluding Comments

In conclusion, Licona has not publically recanted his published view denial of the historicity of  the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27.  Until he does so, his view on this matter should be considered unorthodox, non-evangelical, and a dangerous precedent for the rest of evangelicalism. And what is so sad is that his view is unnecessary.  Actually, his otherwise generally good treatment of the resurrection of Christ would be enhanced, not diminished, by holding to the historicity of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27 which, indeed, is listed as one of the literal fruits of Christ’s own resurrection.  My prayer is for Mike to make this change, improve his tome on the resurrection, and make his view consistent with his claim to believe in inerrancy.  I like Mike as a person and love him as a brother in Christ, and it would be a shame to see him fall permanently from the ranks of consistent biblical inerrantists.

With over a half century of experience in the scholarly world, I would also add one last word to other young evangelical scholars: resist the desire to be an Athenian (Acts 17:21).  There is something more important than having a seat at the table of contemporary scholarship; it is putting Lordship over scholarship when necessary.  Further, there is something more important than “a new historiographical approach”;  it is the “old” historical approach which takes the Gospel record—all of it—as historical.  It has served the Church well for nearly 2000 years, and there is no good reason to change it now.



Copyright © 2011 NormanGeisler.net – All rights reserved