Michael Licona has recently come under fire from Norman Geisler, James White, and Jamin Hubner for what he wrote about the resurrection of the saints in Mt 27:52-53.
Unfortunately, Licona has been treated rather shabbily–inasmuch as his critics haven’t bothered to engage his actual argument. Not only is this unfair to Licona, but it’s ineffectual from an apologetic standpoint since it leaves his actual argument untouched.
Licona presents a detailed defense of his interpretation (548-53). Instead of directly engaging Licona’s argument, Geisler preemptively discounts his interpretation because it generates problematic consequences.
ii) Geisler also uses his disagreement with Licona as a pretext to rehash his old fight with Gundry. That’s extraneous to the issue at hand.
It’s fine for Geisler to draw attention to potentially problematic consequences with Licona’s interpretation, but that should be a supplement to his objection rather than a substitution for directly addressing Licona's detailed supporting argument.
I think Geisler is trying to take a shortcut. Rather that starting from scratch by directly engaging Licona’s argument, it looks like a cut-n-paste exercise where he recycles his old objections to M. J. Harris et al. And others, who ought to know better, simply piggyback on Geisler.
Licona’s discussion assumes that this incident presents unusual difficulties if taken literally. I myself don’t find anything notably problematic about this incident. It’s a rather enigmatic event because Matthew only gives the reader a thumbnail sketch of what happened. As such, he leaves our idle curiosity unsatisfied. We’d like to know more. But that's often the case.
I expect his brevity is due in part to the fact that he’s writing to contemporaries, some of whom would be in a position to fill in the blanks. He refers to this incident in passing because it would be familiar to some of his readers. Some of them were in Jerusalem at the time. They have inside knowledge. That can be frustrating to a modern reader, who isn’t privy to the same background information.
The account itself makes perfect sense in Matthew’s narrative theology. The resurrection of Christ lays the foundation for the resurrection of the just. And the resurrection of this subset of the just is a pledge of things to come. It graphically grounds the resurrection of the just in the resurrection of Christ. Connecting the past and the future is a cause/effect relation, with a linking event in the then-present.
It’s an amazing event, but no more so than any other miracles in Matthew’s gospel.
On 185-86 of his book, Licona uses the word “legend.” Needless to say, “Legend” is a hot-button word. But in context, I don’t think Licona was classifying the Matthean pericope as a legend. Rather, that’s part of his inference-to-the-best explanation methodology. He’s listing a range of logically possible options; then, by process of elimination, zeroing in on the most probable explanation. He mentions the “legendary” explanation to eliminate that alternative as a less likely explanation.
You test the “Resurrection hypothesis” against competing hypotheses, based on 5 criteria. The hypothesis which meets all five criteria, or comes the closest, is the preferred hypothesis.
Mind you, I personally cringe at this way of framing the debate. It also depends on whether this is simply an apologetic strategy, or a genuinely open-ended dialogue.
Via Raymond Brown, Licona cites descriptions from Plutarch, Ovid, Virgil, and Pliny that are allegedly similar to the Matthean pericope. On the next page, he also cites Lucian and Dio Cassius. However, this raises two questions:
i) What is the genre of these sources? How does that compare with the genre of Matthew?
ii) How relevant are these Gentile writers to Matthew? He’s a Jew, and he’s writing for the benefit of Jews. So it’s not like audience adaptation for Gentile readers.
Licona also cites Josephus. However, he says:
Josephus reports that even the strangest of these things actually happened (550).
But assuming that Josephus is relevantly parallel to Matthew, wouldn’t this imply that Matthew, too, reports the resurrection of the saints as an actual event?
Licona then shifts to eschatological imagery in the OT prophets. Here he’s on somewhat firmer footing. However, this raises additional questions:
i) Sometimes OT prophets employ stock imagery. But at other times they employ literal imagery. Licona needs to establish, in any given case, whether an OT prophet is speaking literally or figuratively.
ii) Even if an OT prophet is using figurative imagery, you must still identify the literal, real-world referent of that metaphor. What event does the metaphor stand for?
iii) In addition, is Licona saying that Matthew is alluding to these passages? That this is the background material for the Good Friday “effects”? Or is he just treating this as generic, free-floating imagery. It makes a difference in terms of how Matthew understood his own account.
Licona also cites OT seismic and resurrection passages. But this raises the same questions:
The fact that a NT account may have OT precedent doesn’t imply that the NT account is a poetic device. In a prophecy/fulfillment scheme, we’d expect the OT prophecy to correspond to a future event. Even if the prophetic imagery is figurative, it will still have a real-world analogue. There must be some concrete correlation.
Matthew adds that they did not come out of their tombs until after Jesus’ resurrection. What were they doing between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning? (552).
i) But that’s a disappointing objection. To begin with, he footnotes Crossan and Borg to support that objection. But they are hardly reliable. Both of them automatically discount the supernatural.
ii) In addition, the syntax of the Greek sentence is ambiguous. It can be rendered in more than one way. And that affects the sequence of events. Surely Licona is aware of that fact. Cf. J. Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2005), 1215-16.
Recently, Licona has modified his previous position:
Although additional research certainly remains, at present I am just as inclined to understand the narrative of the raised saints in Matthew 27 as a report of a factual (i.e., literal) event as I am to view it as an apocalyptic symbol. It may also be a report of a real event described partially in apocalyptic terms.
To say the account is a real event partially depicted in apocalyptic terms is a more defensible alternative.
In his book, Licona says:
During the past three years, I have attempted to divest myself of preconditioning and have worked toward experiencing empathy when reading the works of those with whom I do not agree…I have been able to experience what I believe was a neutral position for a number of brief periods. During these, I have been so uncertain of what I believe in terms of Jesus’ resurrection that I prayed for God’s guidance and continued patience if the Christianity I was now doubting is true. I was walking on a balance beam and could have tipped toward either side…I am doubtful that I will conclude that the resurrection of Jesus did not occur. However, I believe myself very open to the possibility that the historical evidence for the event is not strong enough to place the resurrection hypothesis far enough along on my spectrum of historical certainly to warrant a conclusion of “historical.”…I am convinced that my interest in truth supersedes my fear of embarrassment and disappointment (131-132).
This raises a number of issues:
i) Apparently, Licona precipitated a crisis of faith by bracketing or suspending his Christian commitments. Putting his faith on hold while he tried to give the other side a fair hearing. Truly assuming the viewpoint of the other side. Not just for the sake of argument.
On this methodology, no position has a head-start. You identify with each position, making each position your own.
ii) That goes far beyond critical sympathy. And it betrays a basic flaw in his methodology. For one thing, he collapses the distinction between what is historical and what is demonstrable. Even if you couldn’t prove the historicity of the resurrection using his 5-point criteria, or inference-to-the-best explanation, that simply reflects the limitations of proof.
For instance, most things that happen in history go unreported. In that respect, we can never prove they happened. Yet it would be irrational to doubt that many things have happened, for which we have no record. No specific evidence.
iii) In addition, I understand that in apologetics we often cite corroborative evidence for Scripture rather than using Scripture itself as evidence. But Scripture ought to be evidentiary to a Christian, even if that’s not evidentiary to an unbeliever. It should count for Christians, even if it doesn’t count for unbelievers.
iv) This also exposes the weakness of a top-heavy apologetic, where the Resurrection is the lynchpin for everything else we believe. On that model, the evidence for the Christian faith is only as good as the evidence for the Resurrection. But that’s terribly myopic.
v) On a related note, Licona needs to shift to a more holistic religious epistemology, like Newman’s illative sense and Polanyi’s tacit knowledge. It’s often impossible to retrace all the lines of evidence for what we believe. Impossible to explicate all our reasons in a formal argument. Human experience operates at a more subtle, elusive level.
vi) By the same token, even the “right” methodology won’t immunize us from possible doubt. An apologetic method (be it evidentialism or presuppositionalism) is no substitute for faith. An apologetic method can’t be the source of faith. The aquifer must lie elsewhere, and deeper.
vii) One source of doubt is the failure to think through an issue. However, an opposite source of doubt is to overthink an issue. The paralysis of analysis. Indeed, philosophers are notorious for doubting the indubitable.
It’s possible to work yourself into an artificial state of doubt by staring at the same “problem” all the time. So it’s important to strike a balance. Sometimes we just need to take a break. Get some fresh air.
viii) On a related note, Christian apologists aren’t disembodied minds. Their faith can be affected by their moods, and their moods can be affected by what’s going on in their life. The aging process. A marriage going through a dry spell. Regrets and disappointments. A death in the family. Lost opportunities. Unanswered prayer. The wear and tear of life in a fallen world.
And there’s no guarantee in life that you will find your way out of the tunnel in this life. Some Christians may die depressed.
viii) It can also be a problem if we only read the Bible to defend the Bible rather than reading the Bible to water our soul.
ix) The notion of disinterested commitment to truth for truth’s sake, just pursing the truth wherever it takes you, sounds very pure and noble. But it’s actually quite shortsighted. Naively idealistic.
What if following the evidence wherever it leads you ends up leading you into a blind alley? What if pursuing the truth wherever it takes you is a trip to nihilism?
Are you getting closer to the truth, or farther away? Truth is only a value in a worldview that values truth. If, in your disinterested pursuit of truth, you wind up leaving truth behind as you hurtle headfirst into nihilism, then there’s nothing very truth-affirming about the conclusion.
Seems to me that Licona fails to appreciate the stark alternatives. What if going wherever the evidence leads you is a one-way ticket to nowhere? Are you really making progress? Or do you find yourself out of gas, out of water, in the middle of the desert? A no-man’s-land with no way forward and no way back?
Mind you, I don’t think the evidence points away from Scripture. But even if it appeared to do so, that doesn’t mean the “truth is out there,” in some alternative to Christianity.