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Archive for September 20th, 2011

Apparently the issue of Michael Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53 has fueled some controversy ever since Norman Geisler has come out with his open letter raising concern about his non-literal interpretation of the Saint’s resurrection after Jesus’ death.  The passage from Matthew 27:52-53 is as follows from the New American Standard Bible:

The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the [a]saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.

This upcoming Thursday I will be getting my hands on Licona’s magnificent work, largely to read this new contribution to the defense of the Resurrection but also to see Licona’s view and reasoning for his interpretation for myself.  I have not read either Al Mohler’s or Norman Geisler’s open letters and what I have read thus far have only been from apologetics’ bloggers whose posts have been favorable towards Licona.

While I understand that the weight for Licona’s position should be evaluated from his own writing, I am beginning to be somewhat concern with how some of his supporters are going about defending Licona.  I don’t doubt these individual have a passion for defending Christianity.  But sometimes one might be more passionate and have blindspots we aren’t aware of.  While I don’t have all the time in the world to write on how everybody is wrong, I think I narrow my comment to that of Michael Bird, whom I believe Christians will probably begin to know more and more of in the coming years in the field of Christian historical and evidential apologetics (if they don’t know him already).

The issue is identifying the genre of the Biblical passage in question.  In terms of calibrating the literary form, Bird provided this reasoning for a non-historical interpretation:

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.

What struck me about his argument was what I highlighted in bold above, which I repeat again: “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.”  I think Bird’s method behind his conclusion about Matthew 27:51-53 is flawed.  For one thing, this is an argument from silence.  That is, there is the flaw in the reasoning that if a pericope was not mentioned anywhere else outside of scripture, it must not have been the case historically, and therefore what is written in the Biblical text is deem as non-historical in it’s genre.  To invoke the apologetic cliche, the absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence.  Secondly there are many things in the New Testament or the life of Jesus that are not mentioned by Josephus or Tacitus.  Does that mean that events recorded in the Gospels such as the woman at the well in John 4 or Jesus as a twelve year old apologist in Luke 2 are nothing more than non-historical literary forms?  I don’t think Bird would want to say that.   I don’t state that so as to be uncharitable but I wish to point out that Bird’s reasoning here for Matthew 27:52-53 raises more problem than it answers.

Bird also stated the following,

“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!”

I think Bird might be reading too much into Geisler and Mohler being systematicians here.  I don’t believe it is an issue of Systematic theology versus New Testament theology.  This sets up an unnecessary false dilemma.  Even if it’s true that those who are supporting Licona are NT scholars, it seems that Licona’s position and that of Bird’s are a minority position even among Evangelical New Testament scholars.  Hence I don’t believe it is “a big lesson to be learned” as Bird might suggest.  Moreover, I might be mistaken since I have yet to read Mohler’s open letter, but did he not invited Licona to an open forum of some kind with the faculty of Southern Seminary?  The faculty includes NT scholars that are reputable such as Tom Schriner.

I close with what I believe are the real questions for Licona and Bird, that I will be asking myself when I read Licona’s work this Thursday:  How does one establish the literary form of Matthew 27:52-53 being unhistorical in a manner that does not bring more problem (logical fallacies, inconsistencies, self-defeaters) than answers?  How does one prove Matthew was engaging in Greco-Roman literary genre when Matthew seem to address largely a Jewish audience?  And the Greco-Roman texts that are being cited as examples of what Matthew 27:52-53 were participating in–can one establish definitively that they were meant not to be taken historically?

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