Michael Licona on the Resurrection of Jesus

Michael R. Licona
The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach
Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010.
Available at Amazon.com.

I did not think anyone could or would write a book on the resurrection bigger and better than N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. But Michael Licona comes close on both fronts. It includes a magisterial treatment on historiography taking into account scientific, philosophical, and legal matters. There is an exhaustive analysis of the historical sources to the resurrection. Licona also goes on a meticulous and painstaking analysis of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection including the fact of Jesus’ death, appearances to the disciples, the conversions of Paul and James, and the empty tomb. He also makes a thorough engagement with historical-critics who explain the resurrection faith of the early church in other ways (e.g., Geza Vermes, Michael Goulder, Gerd Ludemann, John Dominic Crossan, Pieter Craffert). My favourite quote is this one: “It is surprising to find biblical scholars who appear to regard themselves as pioneers in adopting a postmodern approach, apparently oblivious to the fact that others have already camped there, extinguished their fires, scattered the ashes and returned home to realism” (p. 614). In sum, Licona has produced a judicious and balanced historiographical engagement with the historicity of the resurrection.

Michael Licona is a distinguished Christian apologist (see his website here), so I find it all the more disturbing to read about the avalanche of criticism he is receiving from Norman Geisler (here and here) and Al Mohler (here) that Licona has somehow stepped over the boundaries of “inerrancy” due to his take on Matt. 27.51-53. Licona is accused of “dehistoricizing” the resurrection of the saints. Geisler even goes so far as to say that Licona should “be considered unorthodox, non-evangelical, and a dangerous precedent for the rest of evangelicalism”. Mohler is genuinely affirming of Lincona’ defense of the historicity of the resurrection, nonetheless, Mohler concludes: “Licona has not only violated the inerrancy of Scripture, but he has blown a massive hole into his own masterful defense of the resurrection”.

Michael Lincona makes his own response to Norm Geisler at Renewing the MindBrian LePort has a good wrap up on the debate and I also recommend the reflections of Marc Cortez. My gut feeling is that if you are gonna draw a line between the good guys and the bad guys and put Licona on the side of the bad guys, then your heresy targeting system needs to be seriously re-calibrated!

But people need to evaluate the debate for themselves. Here is the text in question, Matt. 27.51-53:

51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split
52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.
53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
(NIV)

What is the fuss? Well, Lincona calls Matt. 27.52-53 a “strange little text” (p. 548). Many strange phenomena like earthquakes and cosmic portents were said to accompany the death of great leaders in ancient sources. Licona writes: “[I]t 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 were 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?” Lincona then regards “this difficult text in Mathew as a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that the impending judgment awaited Israel” (pp. 552-53).

In my chapter about the resurrection in How Did Christianity Begin: A Believer and Non-Believer Examine the Evidence, co-authored with James Crossley (London: SPCK, 2008/ Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), I said in a footnote about Matt. 27.51-53: “My understanding of this text is that it is not historical and it blends the present and the future together so that Matthew provides a cameo of the future resurrection at the point of Jesus’ death to underscore its living-giving power” (p. 69, n. 30). That was my off-the-cuff thought, but I stand by it, since Matt. 27.51-53 is a strange story that is reported nowhere else in Christian or non-Christian literature.

I don’t see any reason why Licona’s or my interpretation of Matt. 27.51-53 does not conform to a view of scripture as infallible, inspired, and authoritative. I think it explains the text and it explains why you don’t hear Josephus or Tacitus talking about the day that many Jewish holy men came back to life.

But I see further problems with Licona’s critics. If I can give another example, is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16.19-31 a “true” story or a “parable”? Now the word parable does not occur! What if I said that it was a true, literal, and factual story about the afterlife in Hades and everyone who called it a parable about riches and possessions was using ancient genres to dehistoricize the Bible and deny the existence of the intermediate state? Does believing that Luke 16 is a parable violate inerrancy? To employ the logic of Geisler and Mohler, I’d have to say, “yes”. But is it hermeneutically responsible to rule certain literary genres out of bounds based on theological prolegomena, rather than discern them based on the phenomenon of the text and its relationship to extant biblical and non-biblical literature? Moreover, Geisler and Mohler are systematicians, not New Testament scholars, and most of those who came to Licona’s aid in his open letter are New Testament scholars. I think there’s a big lesson to be learned in that!

  • Brendo

    Bigwords hurt my head! But you make some valid arguments!

  • Brendo

    Bigwords hurt my head! But you make some valid arguments!

  • Dan Hanlon

    I recommend Daniel Gurtner’s book: The Torn Veil. He offers an apocalyptic reading of the events that accompany Jesus’ death in Matthew.

  • Dan Hanlon

    I recommend Daniel Gurtner’s book: The Torn Veil. He offers an apocalyptic reading of the events that accompany Jesus’ death in Matthew.

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  • David

    Words like infallible and inerrant always confuse and get in the way of honest efforts to interpret scripture. Apart from no internal scriptural claim on the words, no one can ever agree on what they mean by them either!
    I look forward to checking out Licona’s book. Thanks for the review.

  • David

    Words like infallible and inerrant always confuse and get in the way of honest efforts to interpret scripture. Apart from no internal scriptural claim on the words, no one can ever agree on what they mean by them either!
    I look forward to checking out Licona’s book. Thanks for the review.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1846284634 Ray Pennoyer

    Three quick points:

    First, Licona’s proposal on Matt 27:51-53 is indeed intriguing (as anticipated by your footnote) and his book sounds terrific overall.

    Second, it is unfair to bracket out the concerns of systematicians since they are not “New Testament Scholars” – even if some, like Geisler, seem to have gone over-the-top. They bring a different set of questions to the table, questions that evangelicals (at least) have historically considered legitimate.

    Third, the systematicians have a point: Except for the “fantastic” content of this little pericope, there is nothing in the narrative to tip us off that Matthew the theologian-historian is now suddenly using a poetic device. How is the reader supposed to know this distinction in Matthew’s intention? Are we saying he expected his readers or hearers to know simply because of the extreme and unexpected miraculous content with apocalyptic accents? Very difficult to say – set as it is in the context of a larger narrative that describes many instances of divine, miraculous activity!

    Thanks for the post – Ray ww.nestheology.org

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1846284634 Ray Pennoyer

    Three quick points:

    First, Licona’s proposal on Matt 27:51-53 is indeed intriguing (as anticipated by your footnote) and his book sounds terrific overall.

    Second, it is unfair to bracket out the concerns of systematicians since they are not “New Testament Scholars” – even if some, like Geisler, seem to have gone over-the-top. They bring a different set of questions to the table, questions that evangelicals (at least) have historically considered legitimate.

    Third, the systematicians have a point: Except for the “fantastic” content of this little pericope, there is nothing in the narrative to tip us off that Matthew the theologian-historian is now suddenly using a poetic device. How is the reader supposed to know this distinction in Matthew’s intention? Are we saying he expected his readers or hearers to know simply because of the extreme and unexpected miraculous content with apocalyptic accents? Very difficult to say – set as it is in the context of a larger narrative that describes many instances of divine, miraculous activity!

    BTW, I don’t think the analogy of the Rich Man and Lazarus will finally hold up. It is a story told by Jesus the parable-teller and is naturally taken as such in context.

    Thanks for the post Mike – Ray ww.nestheology.org

  • Apologianick

    Ray wrote:

    there is nothing in the narrative to tip us off that Matthew the theologian-historian is now suddenly using a poetic device.

    Reply: But how do we know there was nothing that tipped off the ancient audience who was more familiar with the work of the time in a high-context society and would have recognized veiled allusions we miss?

    This is the constant problem. It’s reading the Bible like a 21st century person instead of a 1st century person.

  • Apologianick

    Ray wrote:

    there is nothing in the narrative to tip us off that Matthew the theologian-historian is now suddenly using a poetic device.

    Reply: But how do we know there was nothing that tipped off the ancient audience who was more familiar with the work of the time in a high-context society and would have recognized veiled allusions we miss?

    This is the constant problem. It’s reading the Bible like a 21st century person instead of a 1st century person.

  • Dongarlington

    Yes, Gurtner makes a point: “For it is important to realize that, as scholars have (rightly) described these images as ‘apocalyptic’, such ‘apocalyptic writings are frequently far more tolerant of inconsistency and repetition’ than when read literally” (The Torn Veil, 152, quoting J. J. Collins). However, it is possible that time, in a post-resurrection setting, does not have the same significance as it does for those of us who exist this side of the final event of history.

  • Dongarlington

    Yes, Gurtner makes a point: “For it is important to realize that, as scholars have (rightly) described these images as ‘apocalyptic’, such ‘apocalyptic writings are frequently far more tolerant of inconsistency and repetition’ than when read literally” (The Torn Veil, 152, quoting J. J. Collins). However, it is possible that time, in a post-resurrection setting, does not have the same significance as it does for those of us who exist this side of the final event of history.

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  • http://brianmaiers.wordpress.com Brianmaiers

    I thought Mohler’s post was odd too. I read his (Mohler’s) blog occasionally and he rarely puts forth any positive contribution to Christian thought. The blog is like a list of things he doesn’t like. I don’t think I am being unfair. I don’t really know what the guy loves, but am pretty clear on what he is against .

  • http://brianmaiers.wordpress.com Brianmaiers

    I thought Mohler’s post was odd too. I read his (Mohler’s) blog occasionally and he rarely puts forth any positive contribution to Christian thought. The blog is like a list of things he doesn’t like. I don’t think I am being unfair. I don’t really know what the guy loves, but am pretty clear on what he is against .

  • 123

    I am not sure of any other parables, which specifically name people. The passage in Luke does not seem to fit the criteria of a parable.

  • 123

    I am not sure of any other parables, which specifically name people. The passage in Luke does not seem to fit the criteria of a parable.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1846284634 Ray Pennoyer

    123 wrote: “I am not sure of any other parables, which specifically name people. The passage in Luke does not seem to fit the criteria of a parable.”

    True, Abraham and Lazarus are named. But notice that “the rich man” is not. And it seems to me that Jesus (and Luke) tip us off to the parable genre in a number of ways. Revisit with me the first few lines in Luke 16:

    19 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.

    How great are the chances that this would be taken as a historical narrative from a teacher who has a habit of teaching in parables? Not too high, I don’t think. And all the more so when the pericope goes on to describe a conversation between “heaven” and “hell”! So I don’t think this is a good parallel to what may be going on in Matthew 27.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1846284634 Ray Pennoyer

    123 wrote: “I am not sure of any other parables, which specifically name people. The passage in Luke does not seem to fit the criteria of a parable.”

    True, Abraham and Lazarus are named. But notice that “the rich man” is not. And it seems to me that Jesus (and Luke) tip us off to the parable genre in a number of ways. Revisit with me the first few lines in Luke 16:

    19 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.

    How great are the chances that this would be taken as a historical narrative from a teacher who has a habit of teaching in parables? Not too high, I don’t think. And all the more so when the pericope goes on to describe a conversation between “heaven” and “hell”! So I don’t think this is a good parallel to what may be going on in Matthew 27.

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  • Michael Jensen

    The strangest phrase you used here was ‘the logic of Geisler and Mohler’….

  • Michael Jensen

    The strangest phrase you used here was ‘the logic of Geisler and Mohler’….

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  • John Thomson

    Historical or ahistorical I rather like the suggestion that the naming of Lazarus indicates that in a story and world where beggars are non-people they are not so to God. Lazarus has an identity. He matters.

  • John Thomson

    Historical or ahistorical I rather like the suggestion that the naming of Lazarus indicates that in a story and world where beggars are non-people they are not so to God. Lazarus has an identity. He matters.

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  • jeff

    It is not true that it is not talked about in CHristian literature, Origen, Jerome talked about it. The resurrection is symbolic. Does that mean it did not happen. Jerome says they only appeared to certain holy people

  • jeff

    It is not true that it is not talked about in CHristian literature, Origen, Jerome talked about it. The resurrection is symbolic. Does that mean it did not happen. Jerome says they only appeared to certain holy people

  • Just Sayin’

    Odd that the publisher has put out such a big tome as a paperback only.

  • Just Sayin’

    Odd that the publisher has put out such a big tome as a paperback only.

  • VanBerean

    “Matt. 27.51-53 is a strange story that is reported nowhere else in Christian or non-Christian literature.”

    Any comments on these reports Michael?

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2011/09/early-christian-and-non-christian.html

  • VanBerean

    “Matt. 27.51-53 is a strange story that is reported nowhere else in Christian or non-Christian literature.”

    Any comments on these reports Michael?

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2011/09/early-christian-and-non-christian.html

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  • http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp Mike Bull

    Not sure what the problem is with Matthew 27. Resurrection is always corporate, always plural. Christ, the first “grain of wheat,” handed the baton on to His disciples and they did the same – as grains of Pentecostal wheat. Their deaths resulted in what Revelation calls the “first” resurrection – all the Old Covenant saints entering into their rest, seated on thrones and judging (taking vengeance) on the leaders of Israel. That’s what Revelation’s about.

    So the stuff that happens at the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ-as-Israel was a microcosm of the events that would happen to Israel herself over the following generation – “this generation.”

    Judas was expelled, Judah was expelled. The rocks were split and the veil was torn – the Land was divided by the Gospel and the Temple was destroyed. And the small-scale resurrection in Matthew 27 prefigured the ascension of the “saints under the altar,” who had to wait until the final legal (i.e. “two”) witnesses testified against the Herodian Sodom/Egypt/Jericho/Babylon.


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