An Open Letter to Mike Licona on his View of the Resurrected Saints in Matthew 27:52-53
by Norman L. Geisler
I have examined your work on the resurrection (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP, 2010). Overall, it is a massive (718 pages), scholarly resource, and I commend you for your efforts and for your defense of the bodily resurrection of Christ.
There is, however, one thing I found in it that raises some serious questions. You speak of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27:52-53 after Jesus’ resurrection as a “strange little text” (548 cf. 556). Indeed, you call it “poetic” or “legend” (185-186). You appear to include the angels at the tomb (Mk. 16:5-7) in the same category (186). You speak of it as similar to Roman legends that use “phenomenal language used in a symbolic manner” (552). You add, “…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). You say that by this legend “Matthew may simply be emphasizing that a great king has died” (552). You add, “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). You conclude 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).
Then you address the obvious problem that “If some or all of the phenomena reported at Jesus’ death are poetic devices, we may rightly ask whether Jesus’ resurrection is not more of the same” (553, emphasis added). This is a very good question. However, your answer is disappointing.
First, you say that “There is no indication that the early Christian interpreted Jesus’ resurrection in a metaphorical or poetic sense to the exclusion of it being a literal event that had occurred to his corpse” (553). But neither is there any indication in the text that a historical understanding of the resurrection of the saints should be excluded from this text. Indeed, the reference to these saint’s “bodies” coming out of “tombs” and going into the “holy city” (Jerusalem) and “appeared” bodily to “many”—all as a result of Jesus’ literal death and physical resurrection—are too many physical details to take this as purely poetical. And just because one event (Jesus’ resurrection) is a bigger event would not, by the same reasoning, make it any less a legend. There is no less evidence in the text that the smaller event (the resurrection of the saints) is any more metaphorical, to the exclusion of life returning to their dead corpses as well than there was Christ’s resurrection which was the cause of it.
Your second reason is even less convincing. You argue that Jesus’ resurrection must have been literal (and the resurrection of these saints was not) since “no known Christian opponent criticized the early Christians or their opponents for misunderstanding poetry as history” (553). But this is a well-know fallacy of an argument from silence. Further, why should the enemies of Christians focus on this relatively minor byproduct of Christ’s resurrection when the major issue was whether Christ had risen bodily from the grave. Neither did they concentrate on attacking the resurrection (resuscitation) of Lazarus or others who came back from the dead by the hands of Jesus and the apostles. After all, the essential truth of Christianity did not rest on these resurrections, as it did on the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:12-19).
Finally, the same mistake seems to be occurring in your interpretation of this text as is made by many current liberal scholars in dehistoricizing other biblical texts, namely, using extra biblical sources as determinative for understanding a biblical text. So what if other Roman or Jewish legends are similar? The context of biblical text and other biblical texts are the best way to understand what a given passage is teaching. And both of these favor a literal interpretation of the resurrection of these saints as a “firstfruits” of Jesus’ resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20). Using extra-biblical sources in this way is similar to the false analogies used to deny the Virgin Birth of Christ because there are similarities with other non-Christian “virgin birth” stories. They both overlook crucial differences! None of these legends involve the Second Person of the Triune God becoming incarnate in human flesh as the New Testament does.
In short, dehistoricizing a seemingly incidental event in the biblical record may seem to be a relatively minor issue , but it is in fact very important. This is so for several reasons.
First of all, what is being done here is the same basic thing that Robert Gundry did in dehistoricizing sections of Matthew and for which he was asked to resign from the Evangelical Theological Society in 1983. How then can another evangelical interpretation of the same kind be overlooked as unimportant to orthodox Christianity? In fact, being one of the ICBI framers, I can tell you that we had Gundry in mind when we framed Article XVIII of the famous “Chicago statement” (which speaks against “dehistoricizing” the Bible). And even The Evangelical Theological Society has adopted the ICBI statement as its guideline for understanding inerrancy.
Second, the size and relative significance of the event that is being dehistoricized is not relevant to the importance of the hermeneutical issue, namely, the principle being used to undermine the historicity of biblical events. Once upfront genre decisions are made based on extra-biblical legends, then one has adopted a hermeneutic that can undermine orthodox Christianity
In brief, I heartedly agree with the first part of your title (“The Resurrection of Jesus”) but cannot concur with the last part of it (“A New Historiographical Approach”). We don’t need a “new” historical approach. The “old” historical-grammatical approach is sufficient, as it has been down through the centuries. Indeed, if the principles of your historical approach (of using extra-biblical material as determinative of the meaning of a biblical text) were used consistently on the Bible, then it would undermine orthodoxy by dehistoricizing many crucial passages of the Bible.
Your brother in Christ,
*I sent a copy of the letter to Mike over a month ago. He has not yet responded to its points but said he is still considering the matter, though he anticipated that it would take him some time.
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