For those that don’t follow the inside baseball of baptist theological debate, there has recently been a very public back and forth(mostly forth) between Mike Licona and Norman Geisler over Licona’s comments about the historicity of Matthew 27:51-54. Now, Albert Mohler has weighed in with his own chastising of Licona and public call for him to change his position. Here is the text in question:
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. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
In Licona’s most recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, he says this about the above passage:
This brings us 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. During Jesus’ crucifixion and upon his death, Mark and Luke report two phenomena that occurred: there is darkness and the temple veil is torn in two (Mk 15:33, 38; Lk 23:44-45). John is silent on the matter. Matthew likewise reports the darkness and tearing of the temple veil but adds four more phenomena: the earth quakes, the rocks split, the tombs are opened, and the dead saints rise up and walk into Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection (Mt 27:51-54).
Raymond E. Brown notes that similar phenomena were reported at the death of Romulus and Julius Caesar.296 Confining himself only to those who wrote within one hundred years on either side of Jesus’ death, his examples include Plutarch (Rom. 27.6; Caes. 69.4), Ovid (Fast. 2.493), Cicero (Rep. 6.22), Virgil (Georg. 1.466-488), Josephus (Ant. 14.12.3; 309) and Pliny (Nat. 2.30; 97). In a clearly poetic account, Virgil reports that the following sixteen phenomena occurred after Caesar’s death: prolonged darkness, dogs and birds acted unusually, Etna erupted, fighting in the heavens was heard, the Alps shook near Germany, a powerful voice was heard in the groves, pale phantoms were seen at dusk, cattle spoke portents, streams stood still, the earth opened up, ivory idols wept and bronze idols were sweating in the shrines, dark intestines appeared outside of animals in their stalls, blood trickled in springs, wolves howled, lightning appeared in a cloudless sky, a bright comet was seen.
Given the presence of phenomenological language used in a symbolic manner in both Jewish and Roman literature related to a major event such as the death of an emperor or the end of a reigning king or even a kingdom, the presence of ambiguity in the relevant text of Ignatius, and that so very little can be known about Thallus’s comment on the darkness (including whether he was even referring to the darkness at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion or, if so, if he was merely speculating pertaining to a natural cause of the darkness claimed by the early Christians), 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.
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?
–Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus
In contrast to Licona’s critics, I have not cherry picked fragments of his comments to make him look glib. I quoted a large part of what he said in full. When you read the entire text, you see the flow of his argument much more clearly than you would when reading Geisler or Mohler’s commentary on it. I’m a stickler on large quotes. Especially when you’re going to to call somebody down in public. It just will not do to quote sentence fragments when someone’s reputation and career is on the line. But that seems to be Mohler and Geisler’s motif. Mohler’s article in particular reads like a political op-ed in the Washington post, rather than a technical critique of the argument’s merits or lack thereof. It contributes nothing to the debate except rhetoric.
I, for myself, have no problem with a literal interpretation of this passage. I also don’t mind it being taken as period-accurate embellishment. I’m agnostic on the matter. If I had to pick one side or the other I would fall on the literal historical event side. But, like I said, it’s not a hill I’m going to die on. The reason I have no problem with either side is that this is simply a hard passage.
The fact that this is a hard passage of scripture seems non-controversial to me. I mean, what are these raised dead? They clearly are not glorified bodies since the passage indicates they were raised prior to Christ himself(the “firstfruits” of the resurrection). So, sans glorified body, what did they eat and drink in the tombs while they were waiting for three days to come out? What happened to them when they finished walking around Jerusalem? Did they continue on living, aka Lazarus, or did they return to their tombs and re-die? Why are these details missing, when in every other case in scripture resurrection from the dead is treated with the utmost detail? Mohler addresses this line of questioning by saying:
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.
–Albert Mohler, Blog
Of course, it’s not that simple. When an event is described, we have no choice than to make deductions about intervals between beacon points within the narrative. If someone says “Joe stood in the doorway, staring at the sun.” And the very next line says, “One day, six years later, Joe heard the phone ring. He picked it up…,” are we to believe that Joe stood in the doorway for six years until the phone rang? Of course not. It’s perfectly valid to mentally fill in that gap with something akin to normal everyday life.
When Matthew says, “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,” this is not easy to interpret. There is a gap with no clear indication from the preceding or postceding landmarks as to what could have happened in the middle. The harder it is to bridge that gap, the more likely it is that the passage isn’t meant as a historical event. You could say something like “if God raised them then he would have given them food and water for a few days while they waited, or miraculously made their bodies not need these things.” But, that seems like a dodge. The fact that none of these details are present is rather odd when compared to the other resurrection accounts.
Like I said, I believe the account is historical. But it’s still a tough passage. Admitting that doesn’t sabotage inerrency in the slightest.
It’s also worth noting that the most probably cause that I can see of Geisler picking up his pitchfork against Licona in the first place is because Licona mentions Robert Gundry in his discussion of this passage. Robert Gundry was expelled from ETS after a push by Geisler in the early 80′s. This fact makes me wonder if Geisler simply had a knee-jerk reaction to seeing Gundry’s name as a reference. Who knows?
My biggest concern, however, is a broader one about on-line theological debate. This whole thing smacks of the NT Wright controversy all over again, as we have prominent evangelical leaders calling out a well-respected New Testament scholar publicly over one controversial statement in a massive work. And, just like with Dr. Wright, it’s all being done at lightning speed on the internet. This has the effect of speeding up the debate to a break neck pace, so that there is very little room for charity and thoughtfulness.
Evangelical leaders need to learn how to use their internet voices in a responsible way. Careers and reputations can be ended overnight with a single 500 word blog post from a person with the right pedigree. That type of power must be treated with care. Debates such as this one need to be initiated and incubated at ETS, or within theology journals. Or, heaven-forbid, in private discussions. Email still works, and so does the phone.
NT Wright got the chance to eventually clarify his position at last year’s ETS. This is partly because of his very long body of work and immense level of respect within the evangelical community. My fear is that Dr. Licona will not get that same opportunity. The veiled threats from Mohler of being expelled from ETS are simply mean spirited and extremely premature.
In much the same way that John Piper set his will against NT Wright early on in that discussion and never stopped publicly savaging him, it seems that Mohler and Geisler have unilaterally decided that Licona is unorthodox with virtually no input from other textual scholars. This is not a good sign for the state of public evangelical debate.