Michael Licona on the Resurrection of Jesus

Michael Licona on the Resurrection of Jesus September 14, 2011

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!

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