Roundtable Discussion Regarding Michael Licona’s Interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53

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.



About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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4 Responses to Roundtable Discussion Regarding Michael Licona’s Interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53

  1. craighurst says:

    I am by no means an expert on inerrancy and NT interpretation but I felt Geisler was way off in his reaction to Licona’s position. I was also disappointed in how Mohler handled it as well. Geisler owes Licona and the rest of the evangelical world an apology.

    I don’t agree with Licona’s position on the text but I don’t see it as an issue of inerrancy. It’s an issue of genre interpretation and it should be left at that.


  2. After reading the round table discussion, I posted a link to this on my Facebook, essentially saying that I was encouraged by both Copan and Blomberg’s responses. What follows are some add’l comments by Craig Blomberg and Mike Licona, which I believe highly relevant.

    “Craig Blomberg: In 1986 I wrote an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society pointing out that Matthew 17:27, sometimes called the miracle of the coin in the fish’s mouth, is not a narrative, like all the other accounts labeled miracles in the Gospels. It is merely a command from Jesus to Peter to go catch a fish, find a coin in its mouth, and use it as payment. We are never told if Peter even went and, given his track record, we can hardly assume that automatically happened. No one has objected to the article that I’m aware of in the last 26 years. But when I called out Norm Geisler in the Southeastern Journal of Theology Roundtable discussion over Mike Licona’s views, he created this blog. Geisler has spent most of his career, unable to be involved in give and take with people whose views he disagrees with. You’ll never find him in debates or in round-table discussions. The only thing he knows how to do is pontificate, and he frequently misrepresents the positions of those he has decided to attack. Now, having just turned 80, he seems worse than ever. Not only is the title of the blog completely inaccurate, but so is quite a bit of its actual contents.”

    “Michael Licona [to] Craig Blomberg: It appears that’s Geisler’s mode of operation. He posted a document containing 9 statements where he quoted me from my book. He naively failed to consider the context in which they were made, 2 of which were of me summarizing the views of John Dominic Crossan. Geisler made it look as though these were my positions! This was pointed out to Geisler and he just merely said he stood by his document.”

    “Paul D. Adams: Thanks Craig Blomberg and Michael Licona, for chiming in here. It’s most unfortunate that the charges leveled by Geisler have had any impact. So far as I understand, they really are groundless with respect to inerrancy. I remember ETS in Orlando (’98) in which Geisler was the guest speaker at evening dinner (Craig Blomberg will likely recall as well) and once again brought up the issues surrounding the Murray Harris controversy re: the resurrection, despite the fact that it had been settled to TEDS’s satisfaction and the wider evangelical community (with thanks to Drs. Demarest, Nicole, and Erickson whose committee report graciously concluded the beliefs of Dr. Harris, though unique, were within the bounds of orthodoxy). Incidentally, I’ll never forget Don Carson’s pained expression and dropped head when Geisler mentioned it. All this to say that, I prayerfully hope that Geisler (and Mohler) will recant their strong and exaggerated response. Unless and until they do, my head is dropped and my expression is pained.”

    “Craig Blomberg: Indeed, Paul. If that was Orlando, wouldn’t it have been 2000? At any rate, don’t hold your breath or (hang your head) waiting for any recanting–I’ve never heard either man admit a mistake or an overreaction on any topic ever in their public careers.”


  3. Rodd says:

    I believe that if you break it down sentence by sentence, matthew realizes the “tombs broke open” meaning peoples minds were opened finally to the love of Christ but were still unsure of what to do, the bodies of many holy people had died and were raised to life implicating that they woke up and finally acknowledged the fact that the son of God had truly been with them yet he was crucified among them because they did not know , “they came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people also implies that Jesus’ teachings and the good news began to spread like wildfire for the very first time with “ULTIMATE PROOF ( His Resurrection) and its been on fire ever since, you have to understand that it took Jesus 3 days to rise from the dead, “what was everybody doing for those 3 days, how did they feel for those 3 days, lost, confused, filled with uncertainty, again going back to the verse, “they came out of the tombs “AFTER” Jesus’ resurrection, as Christ appeared as the Risen Jesus so did people “wake Up” and start spreading the news in the city for themselves ! my best analagy,


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