I recently ran across this 9/14/11 post by Albert Mohler weighing in on recent controversy over apologist Michael R. Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP, 2010). Licona is a Liberty University grad who has taught NT at Southern Evangelical Seminary and has also worked for the NAMB of the SBC. The point of contention relates to Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27:51-54 and inerrancy. Here is Mohler’s summary:
The issue of greatest concern with regard to Licona’s own argument is how he deals with Matthew’s report that “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.”
Earlier in his book, Licona had suggested that some of the biblical material might be “poetic language or legend at certain points,” specifically mentioning Matthew 27:51-54 as an example.
That statement is deeply troubling, but when he turns his full attention to Matthew 27:51-54, his argument makes a turn for the worse. He refers to “that strange little text in Matthew 27:52-53, where upon Jesus’ death the dead saints are raised and walk into the city of Jerusalem.”
Licona then refers to various classical parallels in ancient literature and to the Bible’s use of apocalyptic language and, after his historical survey, states: “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.”
Special effects? Licona then writes:
“There is further support for this interpretation. If the tombs opened and the saints being raised upon Jesus’ death was not strange enough, Matthew adds that they did not come out of their tombs until after Jesus’ resurrection. What were they doing between Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning? Were they standing in the now open doorways of their tombs and waiting?”
This is a very troubling argument. First of all, if we ever accept the fact that we are to explain what anyone in the Bible was doing when the Bible does not tell us, we enter into a trap of interpretive catastrophe. We are accountable for what the Bible tells us, not what it does not.
Licona eventually writes, “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.”
He even seems to catch himself at this point, conceding that if the raising of these saints, along with Matthew’s other reported phenomena, is a poetic device, “we may rightly ask whether Jesus’ resurrection is not more of the same.”
This is exactly the right question, and Licona’s proposed answers to his own question are disappointing in the extreme. In his treatment of this passage, Licona has handed the enemies of the resurrection of Jesus Christ a powerful weapon — the concession that some of the material reported by Matthew in the very chapter in which he reports the resurrection of Christ simply did not happen and should be understood as merely “poetic device” and “special effects.”
This past summer, evangelical philosopher Norman Geisler addressed two open letters to Michael Licona, charging him with violating the inerrancy of Scripture in making his argument about Matthew 27:52-53. Licona, Geisler argued, had “dehistoricized” the biblical text. As Geisler made clear, this was a direct violation of biblical inerrancy. Licona’s approach to this text, Geisler argued, “would undermine orthodoxy by dehistoricizing many crucial passages of the Bible.”
Cleary Licona has drunk deeply from the wells of the historical-critical method. His interpretation of this passage is yet another example of what Greg Beale has called “the erosion of inerrancy” among contemporary evangelicals.
Licona’s discomfort with the miraculous account of those who were raised (resuscitated) just before the resurrection of Jesus in Matthew 27 reminded me of another unconventional take on this passage presented by Craig T. Evans in the article “Textual Criticism and Textual Confidence: How Reliable is the Scripture?”, which he contributed to The Reliability of the New Testament (Fortress, 2011): pp. 161-172.
Evans trumps Licona not by arguing that the first evangelist added this supposedly legendary detail as a “special effect” but by arguing that it was never part of the original text of Scripture to begin with. What is more, he makes this conjecture despite the fact that there are no extant texts of Matthew that omit the passage!
Evans observes: “Although we have no manuscript evidence of which I am aware that suggests that these verses [Matt 27:51b-53] are not part of Matthew’s original narrative, I suspect that they too, were added to the text by an early Christian scribe, perhaps inspired by the Greek version of Zechariah 14:4-5….” (p. 166). Craig suggests this bold conjecture, because, like Licona, he finds the passage to be “puzzling” (p. 166). Licona thinks the passage is absurd, asking in disbelief, “Were they standing in the now open doorways of their tombs and waiting?” Evans, likewise, asks if they “loitered in their tombs until Sunday” (p. 166). Evans adds: “The addition of the story of the raised saints is chronologically clumsy and in my opinion does not reflect the literary skill of the Matthean evangelist,” so, he says, it may well be a “a scribal gloss” (p. 167).
Both Licona and Evans demonstrate the poverty of Biblical interpretation under the influence of secular scholarship. If an account does not match up with one’s naturalistic worldview then it must be a legendary element added as literary device (so Licona) or even not a part of the text of Scripture at all (so Evans). Licona’s approach is a threat to the neo-evangelical construal of “inerrancy.” Evans’ approach is a more fundamental threat to the stability and integrity of the text of Scripture itself. Evans’ take also demonstrates where modern text criticism is heading. In the past, texts have been challenged due to variations in transmission (e.g., Vaticanus and Sinaiticus omit the traditional ending of Mark [16:9-20] so modern critics place the text in brackets or drop it to the footnotes). The brave new frontier of text criticism, however, is the elimination of passages from the text of the Bible based on theological persuasion, even when lacking actual textual support. Note: Gordon Fee has done the same with 1 Corinthians 14:33-35.