This past Spring I was invited by the Southeastern Theological Review to join a roundtable discussion about Michael Licona’s recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus. That discussion will soon appear in the Summer, 2012 issue. Participants included myself, Danny Akin, Craig Blomberg, Paul Copan, Michael Licona, and Charles Quarles. Licona has written an excellent volume on the resurrection and I was pleased to be a part of the conversation.
The discussion was not only about Licona’s book, but particularly about the controversy over his view that Matt 27:52-53 may not be historical when it describes graves opening and people rising from the dead after the resurrection of Jesus. Licona argues that this portion of Scripture might be apocalyptic imagery similar to that of Matt 24 (Olivet discourse) or Acts 2 (Peter cites Joel).
I found the roundtable discussion to be balanced, cordial, and respectful as each individual pressed their point. I disagreed with Licona’s interpretation of this passage and argued that we have very little reason to take it as anything but straightforward historical narrative. In addition, I found the appeal to Matt 24 (and Acts 2) to be unconvincing for the following reason:
[Licona] defends the possibility of the symbolic view by drawing comparisons between Matt. 27:51-54 and the apocalyptic imagery in Matthew 24. However, the nature of these two passages is very different. Most notably, Matthew 24 is the teaching of Jesus about the future, whereas Matthew 27 is the description of the narrator/author about the past. If apocalyptic portions were to be inserted into a book that is primarily historical narrative (which certainly can happen), we would expect it to be done more often in the former manner and less often in the latter.
In fact, I am not aware of any examples in biblical literature where apocalyptic imagery appears in a historical book (like the Gospels) on the lips of the narrator. In Acts 2, for instance, it is not the narrator who is offering the apocalyptic imagery, but Peter himself as he recites and applies the book of Joel. But, I may very well be mistaken about this trend!
Towards the end of my portion of the article, I sum up my approach to Licona’s view:
No, I do not think that Licona’s view would constitute a violation of inerrancy… However, when we evaluate a certain position, we should do more than answer the narrow question of whether it violates inerrancy. Inerrancy is not the only critical issue we should consider. A view can have other problems—or could lead to other problems—even if it is not a violation of this important doctrine. My concern about Licona’s position falls into this camp. Personally, I think the evidence for taking Matt. 27:52-53 as non-historical and symbolic is pretty thin. And when the basis for a certain interpretation is that thin, it raises concerns about whether the same hermeneutical method could possibly be employed when we are faced with other passages that prove to be problematic or embarrassing. In fact, I think this is probably the main issue that has been driving this whole controversy.
Please check out the full article available here (thanks to the Southeastern Theological Review for permission to post). And be sure to read Licona’s excellent book on the resurrection. A must read for anyone interested in this subject.