the real issue

It is amazing that so many people have so little understanding of the real issue in the Geisler/Licona debate. Having discussed this issue with both Mike Licona and Norman Geisler, I think I can clarify what is actually going on. In his book on the resurrection, Licona says that statements in Matt. 27:52-53 are apocalyptic and therefore do not refer to any actual historical events because, as apocalyptic, Matthew did not intend that they be taken as historical. Geisler argues that this is a denial of inerrancy while Licona claims that this is a matter of interpretation, not inerrancy.

First of all, it is unprecedented that an author, including Matthew, would stick a piece of apocalyptic literature in the midst of historical reports. As Grant Osborne puts it, “Would Matthew switch back and forth from history to legend to history without some type of hint? In fact, the entire crucifixion scene — Jesus’ remarkable serenity throughout the day, the darkness, the tearing of the curtain, the earthquake, the raising of the saints — transcends history and demonstrates the intersection of human history by divine power. If there is a supernatural God, there is no reason to deny the historicity of this scene” [Grand R. Osborne, Matthew, in Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 1044.]. But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that this is the case. Licona and others have argued that, as apocalyptic literature, Matthew did not intend that this statement be taken as historical fact. Not only is it nearly impossible to know with any degree of certainty what the intent of an author was, it is even more difficult to prove one’s suppositions about an author’s intent. In a comical video designed to ridicule Norman Geisler, the ghost of Christmas past takes Geisler back to 1983 and the ETS controversy surrounding a member who was accused of denying inerrancy. At one point, the ghost asks Geisler something like this: “Isn’t an author’s intent part of understanding the text?” The maker of the video has Geisler answering yes to this question. Unfortunately, the makers of this video did not bother to try to understand either Geisler or his position on such an issue, and Geisler has written enough that it would take far less energy to discover his position than to produce a video. Geisler would never have answered yes to such a question. All it would have taken for the makers of the video to understanding Geisler’s position would have been actually read some of his writings, especially his article on “Does Purpose Determine Meaning.”

The point of Geisler’s article was to demonstrate that since it is nearly impossible to know an author’s purpose/intent, an interpreter cannot use his suppositions about intent to determine the meaning of his text. That being the case, Licona and those who try to defend him on this point are utterly mistaken about resting their argument on suppositions about Matthew’s intent. We cannot know Matthew’s intent, and, consequently, we cannot use that supposition as a basis to tell us what Matthew’s text means.

But, let us suppose that we can know Matthew’s intent and that this intent is that these two verses are apocalyptic literature, this does not in fact eliminate the problem. In defense of Licona’s claim, Licona and others have attempted to appeal to an analogy between statements in Revelation and the statements in Matthew’s Gospel. For example, some have argued that if we take Matthew’s statement literally, we would have to believe that Satan is a literal dragon. But this completely misses the point. In Revelation, although Satan is indeed not a literal dragon, the symbol of the dragon symbolizes a literal Satan, a being that actually exists. An analogy of Matthew’s statements with Revelation is a faulty analogy. What Licona is saying is not that the raising of some of the bodies of the saints is an apocalyptic statement about a real event, but that such an event did not in fact occur. But this is not what biblical apocalyptic statements do. In Revelation, if indeed it is apocalyptic literature, which is not at all backed by scholarly opinion, the apocalyptic statements are indeed symbolic, but they are always symbolic of some actual reality, and the events in Revelation, though symbolized, are nevertheless actual events; either events that have occurred or events that will yet occur. Licona is saying that Matthew did not intend that the reference to the raising of some bodies of the saints be understood as referring to actual events. This is a totally different matter.

Secondly, Licona and others claim that Licona’s position is a matter of interpretation, not a matter of inerrancy. The problem with this claim is that the word ‘interpretation’ is very ambiguous. If we use the term ‘interpretation’ to mean what the words and phrases say as linguistic and syntactical units, then Licona is simply wrong. Understanding the meaning of the words and statements as linguistic/syntactical units does not yet address the question of whether the statements refer to actual historical events. Everyone who reads these verses understands the same linguistic/syntactical meaning of the words: “And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised. (They came out of the tombs after his resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.)” (Matt. 27:52-53). The tombs were opened, the bodies were raised, etc. That is simply the linguistic/syntactical meaning of the words and phrases. Once we have established what the linguistic/syntactical meaning is, then we should go on to address the question of whether those events actually occurred. So, for Licona et al. to claim that Licona’s claim is just a matter of interpretation are seriously misrepresenting the case, and, I think, seriously misunderstanding the case.

Now, if by the term ‘interpretation’ we mean inferences and/or implications from the text that we might draw, or whether the statements refer to actual events, or genre classifications, or other aspects that the term ‘interpretation’ has been used to mean over the years, Licona is certainly not wrong, but in this case his claim is certainly irrelevant to the issue. Although it may be interpretation in the latter sense, to say that Matthew’s statement does not refer to any actual historical event(s) is simply not a matter of interpretation in the former sense. Rather, it is a matter of whether Matthew was telling the truth or not. As we have said, even apocalyptic statements are symbols of actual historical things or events, and, whether apocalyptic or not, there is nothing in the text that would lead one to think that Matthew is not referring to actual historical events. So, if the events did not actually occur, then Matthew’s text is presenting these events as if they occurred when in fact they did not. This is clearly a matter of inerrancy.

An even more obvious instance is when Licona says certain statements in John’s Gospel are candidates for embellishment. An embellishment is when an author puts something in the text which he knows did not occur, but he puts it in for effect or impact. In another place Licona says that John actually changed the hour of the day from what the other Gospel writers reported and that John purposely made this change when he knew it was not the actual time. Licona is saying John actually misrepresented the time. What can this be if not lying? And it is certainly not a matter of interpretation. Licona is denying inerrancy, unequivocally.

Licona is not saying that this is merely apocalyptic literature, but that, as apocalyptic literature, Matthew did not intend for these statements be taken as referring to historical events. Even in the wildly fantastic statements in Enoch, one can only assume that Enoch believed that the events he describes actually occurred. Whether they occurred or not, Enoch presents them as actual events. Nowhere does Enoch say he did not believe his apocalyptic descriptions and symbols referred to actual historical events, so we can only grant that he in fact did believe this. Now, if it turns out that the events Enoch described did not actually occur, then we would be justified in saying his text was in error and Enoch was mistaken.

This is the same thing Geisler is saying about Licona’s claims. Licona claims that the events in Matt. 27:52-53 did not actually occur because, as apocalyptic literature, Matthew did not intend them to be taken as referring to historical events. But Licona cannot know Matthew’s intent, and even if he did, it does not follow that because a text is apocalyptic that it cannot or does not refer to historical events. To claim that the events in Matthew’s text did not actually occur is simply not a matter of interpretation. Even if we take Matthew’s text to be apocalyptic, which is by no means certain, Matthew presents the events as actual historical events or as symbols of actual historical events, but nevertheless as events that actually happened. If they did not occur, Matthew’s Gospel is in error, and this is certainly a matter of inerrancy.

Thomas A. Howe, Ph.D.

About Tom Howe

Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages at Southern Evangelical Seminary
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9 Responses to the real issue

  1. nazam44 says:

    I don’t really understand why only Licona is being pick on for having the view that he does about the raised saints? The first time I heard of this view was not from Licona but from Bill Craig back in 2007 in his debate with James Crossely.

    • Tom Howe says:

      I certainly do not want to appear as if I am picking on Licona. Mike Licona is an accomplished scholar on the front lines of apologetics. He has, I think, successfully debated with atheists and others for Christ. It happens that the view Licona espouses in his book on the resurrection of Jesus is, I think, a compromise on inerrancy. It is the view with which I have issue, not with Licona either as a scholar or as a Christian. Indeed, I have no status or authority by which to “pick on” Licona. I would not call myself a scholar, yet I think it is important to debate this issue. Licona expressed his view in print, and it is simply the way debates are conducted to refer to the view as Licona’s view simply because he expressed it in print. Thanks for your observation.

  2. humblesmith says:

    Regardless of who holds it, the so-called ‘apocalyptic view’ is equally poor. Licona seems to have been the one who brought it to the surface. It is warmed-over Form Criticism, which resulted in the inerrancy controversies of 30 years ago. It seems every generation has to go through the same learning pattern.

  3. Paul K. says:

    Well done, Tom! You hit the nail on the head.

  4. Trevor Mander says:

    Do you think Licona will start inventing alternate non-miraculous stories so that he can have a focus for the apocalyptic? eg. ummm… dead bodies being allegories for believers who had fallen away from following Christ being shamed by his suffering to return into the city and witness to him. It would be making it up from thin air of course, mixed with an anti-supernatural bias, but the only alternative to the logical dilemma you pose.

  5. Robert Nowell says:

    I am a layman. I do not know Licona or even who he is. It doesn’t matter… the personages do not matter. One has to insert themselves into the text to change the clear meaning that literal saints were resurrected and seen. Matthew was a witness of these events. We were not. We can either believe his account or refuse to believe it. We are not allowed to presume to assume the mind of Matthew. We are only allowed to take Matthew’s words as he has given them and assign to them their normal meaning. Anything beyond this is tampering with God’s word. Not a wise thing to do.

  6. here says:

    The design for the web site is a bit off in Epiphany. Nevertheless I like your weblog. I might need to use a normal web browser just to enjoy it.

  7. Terri Hayden Kisamore says:

    Sorry to do it this way, but Mr. Tom Howe, this is from a former co-worker at Liberty, Terri Hayden Kisamore. Just wanted to say Howdy! Do you have a Facebook page??

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