In 2010 Michael Licona published an impressive work on the resurrection of Jesus with IVP Academic entitled The Resurrection of Jesus. In Matthew 27:52-53 we read
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.
In explaining this verse Licona wrote, “It seems best to regard this difficult text in Matthew as a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that impending judgment awaited Israel.” (553)
Norman Geisler and Albert Mohler issued critiques of Licona’s interpretation. In a recent roundtable discussion a group of scholars, including Licona, met and discussed the issues surrounding the verse and its implications for inerrancy. Early on Licona admits to having doubts about his original interpretation but has not come to any firm conclusions. He says,
Since my book was published, I have found additional ancient reports that confirm this interpretation and others that cast doubt on it. Accordingly, I am presently undecided pertaining to how Matthew intended his readers to understand the saints raised at Jesus’ death. More research needs to be conducted. It’s a tough passage.
The interaction is an enjoyable read. Towards the end of the discussion I note a bit on tension between Craig Blomberg and Daniel Akin. Blomberg says,
The slippery slope argument was often applied in the ETS debate over Gundry. But look at the rest of his scholarly career—a detailed commentary on Mark with ringing endorsement of historicity, continued updates of a standard NT survey, and a collection of essays on how older Christian interpretations are often better than newer, revisionist ones. And none of this was done to placate his critics who had disowned him. The pages in Dr. Licona’s book that have been debated are miniscule in number. The strengths of his apologetic so far outweigh the weaknesses that it is tragic to realize that his career could wind up being marked by this one controversy that was so unnecessary. Debate exegetical details in the standard scholarly outlets by all means, but please, Drs. Geisler and Mohler, stop ruining people’s lives. The world is watching and many of them are rejecting Christianity precisely because too many of us act like this too often. Having said all that, I do think this forum has helped solidify my interpretation of the raising of the saints as historical.
Rounding out the discussion we then hear this from Daniel Akin.
Let me speak as clearly and plainly as I can as a former Academic Vice President and Dean of the School of Theology, and now the President of a “Great Commission” evangelical seminary. My perspective will be criticized by some and well received by others. I have learned this reality goes with the assignment the Lord Jesus has placed upon me. Given his current understanding of Matthew 27 and what he thinks are acceptable literary genres that may be applied to the Bible, would I consider inviting Dr. Licona, as has been done in the past, to speak on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary? The answer is yes, I would. I do not have to be in lock step agreement with someone to have them come to our campus and speak to our students. I have often said that were he alive I would gladly invite C. S. Lewis to come to our campus and “stay awhile!” I do not agree with all that Lewis believed, but I know my students would be blessed and edified by exposure to this man. When it comes to Dr. Licona, my critique of and opposition to his position is well known and is a matter of public record. I would have little fear that anyone would think that I endorse his position of Matthew 27. And, I believe he still could address well things of importance to our students. His defense of the empty tomb and bodily resurrection of Jesus certainly comes to mind. But, I need to raise and answer a second question. Would I extend to Dr. Licona an invitation to join the faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary? The unequivocal answer is no, I would not. There is too much at stake when it comes to “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The apostle Peter makes it clear that “we did not follow cleverly devised myths” (2 Pet. 1:16). Dr. Licona’s view of Matt. 27:51-54 opens a theological Pandora ’s Box that does not rightly interpret the text, nor does it encourage confidence in the historical veracity and accuracy of the Word of God. Dr. Licona may remain “presently undecided pertaining to how Matthew intended his readers to understand the saints raised at Jesus’ death.” I have no such ambiguity when it comes to the faculty that will teach at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Finally, let me say I regret Dr. Blomberg’s rhetoric concerning Al Mohler. His singular written response to Dr. Licona’s book was respectful and measured. Nothing he said could fairly be construed as attempting to ruin Mike’s career. Why Dr. Blomberg believes this, or that Al owes Mike an apology, mystifies me. I strongly disagree with him on both of these points.
I encourage anyone who is interested in this topic to read this discussion. It is excellent. But, we’re not quite done. Geisler has responded in a lengthy critique to Blomberg. Just so you get the flavor of Geisler’s essay, the title is “The Erosion of Inerrancy Among New Testament Scholars: A Primary Case in Point–Craig Blomberg.” Geisler concludes,
The point is simply this: Blomberg is not in a good position to defend Licona’s position, for many of Blomberg’s positions are even worse than Licona’s. With friends like Blomberg, Licona does not need any enemies. Blomberg himself as well as his assertions constitutes evidence against his very own positions while affirming the warnings and concerns of Licona’s critics concerning Licona’s approach.
Just when you thought the dust was settling on this debate, it gets all fired up again.