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On that (in)famous "saints rising" passage in Matthew 27

Why this post?

I am right now in the midst of writing an entire book on literary device theories and the historicity of the Gospels, using the work of Michael Licona as one of my main foils. (See here for all of my New Testament posts to date and here for a gateway to my 2017 Licona series. Scroll down in the latter for blurbs on each of the 2017 posts in the series.)

It suddenly struck me that I have no place in that book that really fits for a discussion of the passage that many people (unfortunately) think criticism of Licona's work is "really all about"--namely, the raising of the saints narrated in Matthew 27:51-53.

Since I like my work to fit together with a clear logical structure, and since I already have several appendices on other topics planned for the book, I was rather puzzled about what to do. It is a sociological fact that much controversy swirled around Licona's questioning of the historicity of this Matthew passage in his 2010 book, The Resurrection of Jesus, and that is how it has come about that so many people think that this is all "just about that." One of my major goals in the enormous amount of work I have done thus far is to dispel that mistaken view. Indeed, all of my work in disagreement with Licona could be written without mentioning that passage! (That's not to say there wouldn't be any connection. Just that it isn't necessary to discuss it to write what I've written. And the connection is somewhat indirect.) So the last thing I want to do is to create confusion once again on that point.

The decision that I've made in the end is to write up a thorough, careful post on the subject. (This one.) I will explain here why this discussion is somewhat tangential to the subject of the book. And I will discuss why I believe Licona's arguments for ahistoricity at that point in Matthew are weak. Then, in the book, I will include a footnote that refers to this post, summarizing very briefly what I say here and sending readers here for more details. It's perhaps not a perfect solution to the practical and organizational issues, but I think it's the best solution I can come up with.

Here's the short explanation of why the raising of the saints passage is not the same as the other passages discussed in my forthcoming book: In the case of the raising of the saints, Licona's suggestion has been that, in that very passage, Matthew intended his readers to understand that the raising of the saints (at least, and possibly also the earthquake) was not meant to be historical. (I say "suggestion" because he has repeatedly declared himself not fully decided on the matter, though he says he "leans" toward thinking it was unhistorical. In his 2010 book he said that ahistoricity as a poetical convention was "most plausible," p. 552.) This suggestion about what Matthew intended his readers to understand is quite different from many other suggestions of literary devices that Licona makes, and that is what makes it different from most of what I'm discussing in my book.

In general, the literary devices that Licona discusses in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels are (as I copiously document in my series and in my book) invisible within the document itself. Licona makes this clear himself in the book. The claim about the audience is not (this must be emphasized) that they could have looked in some special way at that passage, recognized some tell-tale sign or "tag" in that text, and concluded that this part of this passage was not historical. Rather, the claim about the audience is that they would have realized that certain types of changes might be made somewhere or other in this type of document and that they would not have minded that. The claim is that it was rather like your going to a movie based on true events. You may not know which characters, dates, and events are changed, but you know that some of them somewhere in the movie probably are.

Licona lists two different "devices," one of each kind, in an on-line debate with Bart Ehrman:

Bart’s second argument for his position that the New Testament provides a historically unreliable account of Jesus is “there are things related in the Gospels that did not happen as narrated.” He says that I agree with this. I suppose he’s referring to my positions that John probably changed the day and time of Jesus’s crucifixion and that the saints raised at Jesus’s death were probably added by Matthew as special effects (Matthew 27:52–53). I lean toward those interpretations and think they resulted from John’s and Matthew’s use of literary conventions in use at the time they wrote.

But when it comes to John's allegedly moving the date of Jesus' crucifixion (and hence of the Last Supper), in his book Licona says this,

John appears deliberate in his attempts to lead his readers to think the Last Supper was not a Passover meal. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 156

Licona concludes that it really was a Passover meal, per the Synoptics, which is why he thinks there is a contradiction and part of why he thinks John moved the day of the crucifixion. This is exactly the opposite of saying that John intended his readers to understand that the narration of the day of the Last Supper was not historical. The idea, rather, is that in the narrative "world" of John's Gospel it really does look like the Last Supper was not a Passover meal. (Needless to say, I disagree with this interpretation of John, as do Craig Blomberg and other scholars, but I'm not going to go into a digression on that here. I'm pointing out what Licona's picture is of John at this point.) Although Licona lists in the on-line debate only two "devices" that Ehrman might have in mind, there are a great many more invisible "devices" that Licona has suggested since then. These are discussed in my series and book. More recently, in a debate with Ehrman Licona suggested that Luke narrated realistically as if Jesus' first appearance to his disciples occurred in Jerusalem when in fact it occurred in Galilee.

In contrast, Licona suggests that Matthew did "intend his readers to understand" that the raising of the saints, in particular, was not historical.

So if he is calling these both "conventions" or "devices," he's using that concept in two quite different senses. His advocacy of invisible devices, where there is no tag in the text, is far more widespread, and that is what I focus my book on. In that sense, the claim about the raising of the saints is the exception in Licona's theories, because of this matter of what supposedly the readers would have understood, and it can be confusing to focus on an exception in discussing what is wrong with a scholar's theories.

I firmly believe that it was Licona's claim that original audiences would have understood that Matthew didn't intend the raising of the saints to be historical that garnered a certain amount of sympathy and caused various people to say that his position on that point was compatible with inerrancy. After all, if it would be (as he seemed to imply) merely a matter of understanding a literary convention or idiom that the audience would have recognized in that passage, then that would seem to be no problem for the concept of error. It would just (allegedly) be a matter of understanding the language or cultural idiom used in that very passage.

Now, a big problem there is that Licona's argument for such a claim was really not strong at all, as I shall go on to discuss in this post. I think his critics at the time recognized that. And I think that there is a legitimate instinct to object, like this: "If you have nothing but a really flimsy argument for the claim that something in the Gospels would have been understood to be unhistorical, then the claim seems arbitrary and not subject to control. And this also provides evidence that your judgement is questionable and hence that you are likely to accept other such claims in all sorts of unpredictable places. You can't just say out of the blue, without any good argument, 'I'm sure the original audience would have understood that that was not intended as historical' and get a free pass for dehistoricizing some passage, no matter how historical it appears to be and no matter how weak the reason you provide." That is an understandable perspective as well. We can't just sit atop a mountain and decide whether someone's position is defensible.

However, the claim was out there--namely, that Matthew "intended his audience to understand" that this was not historical. And that made it seem much more harmless. People could say, "Oh, well, I disagree with him on that, but at least he's saying it would have been understood."

I think that this dynamic helps to explain both the opposition that Licona encountered about Matthew 27 and also the support that rose up on his side.

Since Licona has since then gone on to develop and defend at length a whole suite of claims about literary devices where he does not make any attempt to argue that the device was visible in that passage or could have been picked out by the audience, by some convention or other, while reading that passage, it seems to me most profitable to focus on that later book and those later claims. And that's what I've been doing with most of my time.

Here, however, I'm going to pause and talk a bit about Licona's arguments that Matthew did not intend the raising of the saints (and possibly the earthquake) to be taken as historical. That way, it cannot be said that I did not address it anywhere.

Here is the passage in Matthew, from the NASB, for reference:

And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:51-54)

I find it especially notable that the passage expressly says that the centurion saw the earthquake. I'll return to this point.

"Are we really to believe?"

Here is a 2011 paper in which, subsequent to his 2010 book, Licona further discussed the theory that the raising of the saints is non-historical. In The Resurrection of Jesus, he discusses this topic in some detail on pp. 548-552.

Licona acknowledges that there are some items of evidence against the ahistorical conclusion. One of these that he mentions is that none of the church fathers seems to have interpreted the text that way. The other is that Tacitus also attests to some of the phenomena that Josephus attests to before the destruction of Jerusalem, and Licona thinks it possible that Tacitus might be an independent source. The Tacitus reference is actually a pretty big blow to the theory of a convention of ahistoricity applying to narrated "apocalyptic" phenomena, as I'll discuss below. I don't think Licona realizes just how big of a blow, but he at least acknowledges that it is counterevidence. Here I'll be discussing the evidence that Licona alleges supports the apocalyptic convention theory.

One major misfire is found at a point in the EPS paper where Licona is discussing a passage in the poet Virgil about alleged portents at the time of Caesar's death. There is a problem right at the outset in using an overtly poetic text as an argument for "poetic elements" in overtly historical texts, but set that aside just for the moment. Licona lists a bunch of such portents that Virgil describes (in poetry), which range from things that could happen naturally to things that sound quite bizarre. He follows that up with:

We do know that a comet appeared at that time because we have corroborating reports from the Chinese. It also appears very likely that Mt. Etna erupted around that time. However, we also know that no visible eclipses were viewable from within the Roman empire in 44 BC. And are we to believe that cattle spoke, streams stood still, dark intestines appeared outside of animals and that pale phantoms were seen at dusk when Caesar died? If you regard any of these as poetic additions, then you will understand that the ancients could mix factual observations with poetic devices.

Whoa, wait just a minute here. The question is not whether we believe that these things actually happened! The question is whether a given author who reported them believed them and whether he expected his readers to believe them. There is a serious false dichotomy here: Either you personally have to believe that bizarre things actually happened or you have to believe that those items are "poetic additions" and that "the ancients" who wrote about them didn't believe them themselves and expected their readers to understand that they didn't happen.

That is a huge false dilemma, and anachronistic to boot. Why assume that everything that sounds weird, crazy, and impossible to us would also sound weird, crazy, and impossible not only to an ancient author but to his readers, and that he would know that it would sound that way to his readers, and that he would therefore expect his readers to be able to separate the factual from the fictional in his reports of phenomena? This "are we to believe..." argument from incredulity is an extremely poor argument when an alleged convention of the time is in question.

Lucian's trolling

In an earlier post I wrote about the satirist Lucian, who wrote a work called "How to Write History." There I talked about Lucian's high standards in that work for serious historical writing and about how Licona took a couple of passages from "How to Write History" quite badly out of context, engaged in highly dubious interpretation, and gave a misimpression of the actual thrust of that work in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels. In fact, to some extent Licona does the same occasionally in his 2010 book as well. For example, in The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 35, n. 24, Licona confronts a place where Lucian says, "The sole mission of the historian is this: To tell it as it occurred." Licona says that this was Lucian's "dictum" "for writing history apart from biography," thus giving the impression that Lucian limited his statement about the role of the historian to "history apart from biography." Lucian does no such thing whatsoever anywhere in the work.

But here we have to discuss another aspect of Lucian: As a satirist he had plenty of contempt for his fellow man, and when he wasn't giving serious advice about writing history, he was evidently not above hoaxing people in daily life. (Let me just add here that privately making fun of people you think are stupid by seeing what tall tales they will swallow is not confined to the ancient world and is not a "literary device." The technical term for it is "being a jerk.") What is rather astounding is that Licona seems to think that an incident in which Lucian brags about taking in some credulous listeners helps to support the theory of a convention of understood "apocalyptic language" in the ancient world, when it supports exactly the opposite.

Lucian tells the story of how he told a tall tale to some people he obviously regarded as fools about a public suicide that he witnessed. Obviously, if Lucian's audience understood that all such talk was just an apocalyptic convention, he would not have had the fun of taking them in. Here is the passage from Lucian quoted by Licona.

I assure you, my friend, I had no end of trouble, telling the story to all while they asked questions and sought exact information. Whenever I noticed a man of taste, I would tell him the facts without embellishment, as I have to you, but for the benefit of the dullards, agog to listen, I would thicken the plot a bit on my own account, saying that when the pyre was kindled and Proteus flung himself bodily in, a great earthquake first took place, accompanied by a bellowing of the ground, and then a vulture, flying up out of the midst of the flames, went off to Heaven, saying, in human speech, with a loud voice:

“I am through with the earth; to Olympus I fare.”

They were wonder-struck and blessed themselves with a shudder, and asked me whether the vulture sped eastwards or westwards; I made them whatever reply occurred to me.

As Licona also mentions, Lucian went on to tell with obvious amusement about someone else carrying out the same trick with the credulous, making use of a detail from Lucian's own previous tall tale:

On my return to the festival, I came upon a grey-haired man whose face, I assure you, inspired confidence in addition to his beard and his general air of consequence, telling all about Proteus, and how, since his cremation, he had beheld him in white raiment a little while ago, and had just now left him walking about cheerfully in the Portico of the Seven Voices, wearing a garland of wild olive. Then on top of it all, he put the vulture, swearing that he himself had seen it flying up out of the pyre, when I myself had just previously let it fly to ridicule fools and dullards.

Obviously, this is not what Licona is trying to claim that Matthew was doing! The whole point of the theory about the passage in Matthew is that he was supposedly using some kind of "convention" and meant his readers to "understand" that certain parts of what he told were not historical. This is worlds away from making fun of one's audience privately by making up a silly tale and seeing if they will swallow it, as the trolling Lucian and the grey-headed man were doing.

Licona simply lists these passages among other alleged examples of apocalyptic language in Roman literature, saying that they are "also of interest" (p. 549). What he does not seem to realize is that this text is "of interest" precisely in showing that an audience of "ancient people" might very well believe such stories, which is exactly the opposite of the conclusion he is arguing for from the presence of "apocalyptic language" in Roman death scenes.

Weak arguments from Roman texts

As already noted, Licona seems not to realize that one probably should not use totally poetical texts to argue for a convention of writing about portents with a wink and a nod in historical texts. So the fact that the poets Virgil and Lucan (not to be confused with Lucian) wrote poetry that included supernatural portents at the time of Caesar's death is probably irrelevant to whether or not Josephus or Tacitus believed the portents that he wrote about at the time of a death or some great event. Whether the poets did or didn't believe what they wrote or expect their readers to believe it, since their genre is manifestly not that of serious historical reportage, citing poetry (as Licona does) does not address the question at issue concerning conventions.

Licona does cite several historical writers--Dio Cassius, Plutarch, Josephus, and Tacitus--who report wonders on the occasion of great events. These range from the appearance of apparitions to raining blood to the appearance of a giant snake on the occasion when Octavian enslaved Egypt. (I should mention in passing that the "apparitions" in these works are not allegedly people physically raised from the dead, as in Matthew. For example, in Plutarch the scary apparition that appears to Brutus identifies itself as Brutus's "evil genius.") You can read Licona's summaries here, and they appear accurate as far as the description goes of the texts in question.

The question then, is this: How well do these reports support the conclusion that the writers did not believe that the portents occurred and that they expected their readers not to believe that they occurred and that they expected their readers to know that they did not intend the reports to be taken as historical? For that is the supposed thesis about Matthew, and that is the kind of convention that these reports are supposed to support. And the answer is, "Not very well."

These passages are particularly questionable as evidence for that complex thesis given that, as Licona admits, the lists of portents in question sometimes include natural events like a comet or volcanic eruption that probably really did occur at approximately the times in question.

Licona confusedly uses the inclusion of the comet and a volcanic eruption to conclude that "there are obvious additions that appear to be poetic in nature." Why would one draw that conclusion rather than the opposite conclusion--that the writers and their likely audiences believed that what we would (rightly) consider impossible and crazy things were actually not much less probable as portents than a comet or volcanic eruption? In other words, the mixing of what we think could be natural events with what we think are crazy superstitions could just as easily (or maybe more easily) mean that the people in question didn't regard the latter as self-evidently crazy superstitions. There is certainly nothing in the texts of Josephus, Tacitus, Plutarch, or Dio Cassius to mark the distinction that Licona wants to make between "poetic additions" and real events. On the contrary, they are all listed in a heap and narrated with apparent seriousness. Why not take that as evidence in itself?

Licona appears to have no answer to this other than a sort of "Aw, c'mon" comment such as already discussed in the above section--"Are we really to believe," etc. Well, no, we aren't going to believe it. But that doesn't mean Dio Cassius didn't believe it and/or didn't expect his readers to believe it.

Perhaps (at least as likely) the attitude of Dio Cassius et. al was something like this: "Well, what the heck? I have a report of all this weird stuff happening, and I know that portents do sometimes happens, so who knows? It's in one of my sources. I'll just put it all in there and let people decide what to think for themselves."

But there's more: There's actually pretty strong evidence that Tacitus really did think that some things that we would roll our eyes about did happen. Licona doesn't seem to recognize the full force of this passage from Tacitus, though he does note it as some counter-evidence. Here's Tacitus, on alleged portents before the Fall of Jerusalem:

Prodigies had occurred, which this nation, prone to superstition, but hating all religious rites, did not deem it lawful to expiate by offering and sacrifice. There had been seen hosts joining battle in the skies, the fiery gleam of arms, the temple illuminated by a sudden radiance from the clouds. The doors of the inner shrine were suddenly thrown open, and a voice of more than mortal tone was heard to cry that the Gods were departing. At the same instant there was a mighty stir as of departure. Some few put a fearful meaning on these events, but in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire. These mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth. I have heard that the total number of the besieged, of every age and both sexes, amounted to six hundred thousand. All who were able bore arms, and a number, more than proportionate to the population, had the courage to do so. Histories 5.13

Tacitus doesn't include all of the portents at this time noted by Josephus, but there is no pattern whereby he includes the more naturally plausible ones. For example, he doesn't include a report found in Josephus about a man who went about prophesying doom, which isn't particularly supernatural. At the same time Tacitus includes hosts joining battle in the skies, a sudden radiance from the clouds, a huge door opening without natural causes, and spooky voices and sounds, supposedly of supernatural origin. Tacitus says that various Jews put various meanings on these events, meaning that Tacitus believes that the Jews took these to have actually happened. Even more pointedly, Tacitus himself obviously intends his readers to believe that these events occurred, because he is making his own comment on the stubbornness of the Jewish character in not realizing from these portents that something terrible was about to happen. If Tacitus meant this to be understood as non-historical, it would make no sense for him to draw this moral from it.

So it is clearly wrong to assume that our ideas of what counts as weird or impossible were held by the ancient writers in question, or their expected audiences, and hence we cannot use those ideas as a sorting tool for separating "poetical" elements from those the author intended to be taken as historical.

Weak arguments from Jewish writings

In his book, Licona also has an argument from Jewish writings. There he heaps up references (taken from Raymond Brown and Robert Gundry) containing supposedly apocalyptic language, intended to show that it was a Jewish convention to say things like what Matthew says and not intend them to be taken historically but rather symbolically.

One of the most striking things about this list of references is how many of them concern the earth quaking. As mentioned above, Matthew definitely appears to be narrating the earthquake with the intention that it be taken as historical, because he expressly says that the centurion saw the earthquake. Yet in the book Licona uses a pile of references, many of which refer to the earth quaking (usually overtly poetically, as I'll show in a moment) as though this supported the open ahistoricity of the entire passage in Matthew. But that is to attack the historicity of the passage at its strongest point. And it isn't particularly relevant to the historicity of the raising of the saints, either.

Here's an example of the passages Licona lists to which Matthew may be "alluding."

16 The waters saw you, God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
17 The clouds poured down water,
the heavens resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
18 Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked. (Psalm 77:16-18)

Here's another:

Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them, and the mountains quaked; and their corpses were as refuse in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still. Isaiah 5:25

No, these really do not look like anything Matthew is alluding to in his passage. Matthew expressly talks about a specific, visible earthquake at a specific, historical moment (when Jesus had just died) that was seen by a specific, visible person (the centurion). That is not at all like these passages. It is not as though the Psalmist names someone who was struck between the shoulder blades by one of God's "arrows"!

For that matter, the very fact that we can ask about when (in Matthew's narrative) the holy people arose in relation to Sunday (see below), because Matthew says that they entered Jerusalem after Jesus' resurrection, makes that passage different from any of these Old Testament poetical or prophetic passages. Matthew gives a specific tie-down in time for the resurrection of the saints. The same cannot be said for the mountains quaking in Isaiah.

(It is sometimes rather astonishing how insensitive some scholars can be to genre, although those very theorists frequently talk about genre. This is not the only example I could give of this phenomenon.)

Other verses from the Old Testament cited by Licona are prophecies of future judgement where we simply don't know what the events are going to look like, either because the prophecy gives only the vaguest idea about when they will occur or because we can be pretty sure that they haven't happened yet. These include, for example, the prophecy of the destruction of Gog and Magog in Ezekial 38:19, which mentions an earthquake.

In the New Testament, this point about prophecy of the future is relevant to Jesus' mention of celestial phenomena in the Olivet Discourse, e.g., Matt. 24:29-30. It's probably worth saying: When apocalyptic language describes the actual apocalypse, the end of all things, the end of the world, and the second coming of Christ, we probably should not be quick to assume that there will be no astonishing, literal cosmic phenomena. Presumably, we'll know the answer to that eventually.

Licona also cites Daniel 12:2, which says,

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.

I don't know what they quote at Licona's church, but last I checked the line, "I believe in the resurrection of the body" was part of the Apostle's Creed, and "he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead" was in the Nicene. The final judgement, including the physical resurrection of both the evil and the good, is a basic article of the Christian religion, and that certainly sounds an awful lot like what Daniel is describing here. This is a particularly poor data point to use for arguing that Matthew expected his readers to understand that he didn't mean the resurrection of the holy ones at Jesus' crucifixion to be taken as historical.

Licona also cites the passage in I Kings 19 where Elijah witnesses an earthquake, shattered rocks, and a fire in an experience with God, but in that case why not think that Elijah actually witnessed an earthquake, shattered rocks, and a fire? It is certainly far from obvious that the author of I Kings expects his readers to think that this did not really happen. Indeed, when these frightening phenomena are replaced with a still, small, voice Elijah covers his face with his cloak and goes out to the mouth of the cave, which sounds like a description intended to be taken historically and literally.

In Ezekiel 37, God uses the image of dry bones coming to life as a metaphor for the return of Israel to its land. God himself even explains the metaphor:

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land.

It should go without saying that this is pure, overt metaphor, not a narrative of an event of holy ones rising from the dead at a particular time and place.

These are the kinds of Old Testament passages that are used to argue for "apocalyptic language" in Matthew. It is a collection of intrinsically disparate materials, none of which provide good arguments that Matthew is narrating non-historically or expected his readers to understand him thus, either about the earthquake or about the raising of the saints.

Licona has one other type of argument from the Old Testament, an argument from supposed prophetic fulfillment. Here's how it goes:

The same may be said of the celestial phenomena tied to the Pentecost event in Acts 2 where Luke seems to link the wonders in the sky and signs on the earth prophesied by Joel to the wonders and signs performed by Jesus and His apostles, even using the same terms in the same context to describe them. Yet, Joel lists these as blood, fire, vapor of smoke, the sun going dark and the moon turning into blood. But these phenomena apparently did not occur on that day. Moreover, Joel as repeated by Peter says that in that day “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Luke then reports Peter encouraging the Jews to call on the name of the Lord and be saved. Then he reports that about 3,000 believed that day. Thus, Peter appears to believe the prophecy of Joel was fulfilled at Pentecost.

As this argument goes, Peter must have believed that the celestial or astonishing natural phenomena ("wonders in the sky," "blood, fire, and smoke") in the passage in Joel 2:28-32 were non-literal, since they did not happen in Acts 2 and since Peter says that the prophecy in those verses of Joel was fulfilled in Acts 2.

This is a fairly shaky inference. One major problem with it is that it ignores the way that Jewish interpreters of the OT often gave an application of an OT text that was fairly different from the apparent original meaning, requiring something like a double fulfillment or multiple applications of the text. One example of this is that Matthew 2:15 says that the flight to Egypt fulfilled Hosea 11:1, which says, "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and out of Egypt have I called my son." But it is quite obvious that Hosea 11 is giving the history of the nation of Israel. In fact, immediately in Hosea 11:2 it tells about how Israel went astray and sacrificed to Baal, which clearly does not apply to Jesus. Similarly, Matthew applies the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:15 to the slaughter of the innocents by Herod. But in its original context, Jeremiah 31 is very likely talking about the forthcoming Babylonian captivity.

On the face of it, Joel 2 appears to be talking about what we would call "end times." It therefore falls into the category of prophecies whose fulfillment may or may not appear literal to those who live at the time. We don't know, because the end time events have not yet occurred.

It would be wooden and anachronistic to assume that a Jew of Peter's time would be saying that there was one and only one way in which an OT prophetic passage was fulfilled and that everything must be fulfilled from that passage precisely on one particular day. Indeed, that is in general a wooden way to interpret prophecy.

One can also note that all three Synoptic Gospels record darkness at the time of Jesus' crucifixion and that Peter, who applies the reference to signs on earth to Jesus' miracles, may have thought of the darkness at the crucifixion as a partial (and in this case literal) fulfillment of the passage in Joel when it says that the "sun will be turned into darkness." The very fact that Jesus' miracles may be in Peter's mind as the "signs on earth" means that he is not seeing the fulfillment of Joel 2 as all happening on just one day but rather in a somewhat on-going fashion. Peter also did not know when Jesus would return and may have guessed that it would occur sooner following the day of Pentecost than has turned out to be the case. We should not be over-confident about what sort of phenomena Peter did or did not think might happen in the near future when he spoke at Pentecost.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all with Licona's argument from Peter's application of Joel 2 is the simple fact that Joel 2 is manifestly prophecy worded in fairly high-flown language, not narrative of a specific past historical event. We already know that prophecies can be dark and ambiguous and that the specifics of their fulfillment may be understood and recognized only after the fact. What Joel 2 and Peter's use of it do not illustrate, regardless of what precisely was in Peter's mind, is a convention, understood by readers in Matthew's time, of taking narrative of an amazing event on a specific, named occasion in space and time, found in an otherwise historical work, to be non-historical.

In fact, none of these passages, either Roman or Jewish, are at all clear examples of that sort of convention. The argument that such a convention existed and that Matthew's readers would have picked out just certain events (just the raised saints? just the raised saints and the earthquake?) and understood them not to be intended historically is thus quite dubious.

Misunderstanding another scholar

Licona devotes some paragraphs of his EPS paper to comments about the alleged badness of claiming that this or that position is incompatible with inerrancy. In the course of those comments, he cites two scholars who, he says, also question the historicity of the raising of the saints. One of these is William Lane Craig, and that interpretation (one finds upon checking) is accurate. Craig did indeed indicate in the place Licona cites that he doesn't think that event in Matthew is historical but rather "apocalyptic language."

The other citation, however, seems to embody an inaccurate interpretation. Here is what Licona says about Craig Blomberg:

Pertaining to the temple curtain splitting and the raised saints, Craig Blomberg writes, “All kinds of historical questions remain unanswered about both events.” In the book Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? edited by Paul Copan, William Lane Craig responded to Jesus Seminar fellow Robert Miller who claimed that Matthew freely added to Mark’s Gospel the story of the resurrection of the saints, a story which Matthew did not take literally, but included it as a figurative expression of the apocalyptic significance of Jesus’ death. Dr. Craig commented, “Dr. Miller’s interpretation of this passage strikes me as quite persuasive, and probably only a few conservative scholars would treat the story as historical." Does Geisler think Blomberg and Craig are likewise denying biblical inerrancy because, like me, they remain undecided pertaining to how Matthew intended for his readers to interpret the raised saints?

While the phrase "remain undecided pertaining to how Mathew intended for his readers to interpret the raised saints" is somewhat ambiguous, the strong implication is that Craig Blomberg, like William Lane Craig, thinks it at least somewhat plausible that the raised saints verses are non-historical. If that is not what Licona meant, he should not have grouped these two together and written in this way, because that is certainly the impression given.

In fact, that does not appear to be an accurate interpretation of that sentence from Blomberg when it is seen in context. In the immediate paragraph where it occurs, one might think Blomberg is going in a non-historical direction, but if one reads just one more paragraph, things appear quite different. Here is the long context of that sentence in Blomberg's commentary on Matthew.

27:51-53 Here appear the second and third events from the world of nature which testify to the monumental significance of the crucifixion. One apparently natural event, an earthquake, leads to two somewhat supernatural effects. The temple curtain is split “from top to bottom,” perhaps to symbolize God acting from heaven, and the cemeteries disgorge their dead. Yet it is not bones but risen bodies that emerge! Like the preternatural darkness, earthquakes and resurrections resonate with strong apocalyptic overtones (cf. esp. Amos 8:9). The latter event is perhaps the most unusual in all of the Gospels and found only in Matthew. All kinds of historical questions remain unanswered about both events, but their significance clearly lies in the theology Matthew wishes to convey. Judgment against the temple has begun (recall chaps. 23-24), and a new age of salvation history has dawned. The temple curtain that was torn was probably the one that separated the court of the Jews from the court of the Gentiles. Ephesians 2:14 seems to recall this rupture when reflecting on the abolition of the barriers between Jew and Gentile in Christ. Garbled accounts of the torn curtain may be reflected in other Jewish sources too (see, e.g., Josephus, J.W. 6.5.34 and b. Yoma 39b), but it is hard to be sure. As an alternative, if the curtain protecting the holy of holies was in view, then Matthew’s point could be the new access to God provided by Jesus’ atoning death (as in Heb 4:16). The resurrections illustrate the teaching of I Cor 15:20-22. Christ is the firstfruits of the new age, guaranteeing the bodily resurrection of all his people. “Holy people” (often translated saints) apparently refer to selected Old Testament believers. This episode further foreshadows I Cor 15:23. As the NIV stands, Matthew’s account contradicts Paul, inasmuch as the saints actually precede Christ out of the tomb. But the text should probably be punctuated with a period after the “tombs broke open.” Then the rest of vv. 52b-53 would read, And the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life, and, having come out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection, they went into the Holy City [i.e., Jerusalem]. Contra the NIV rendering of v. 53, there is no “and” in the Greek nor any other reason to pause between “tombs” and “after.” If these saints were genuinely resurrected rather than simply revivified or reanimated like Jairus’s daughter or Lazarus, then presumably, like Jesus himself, they appeared to others only for a short time and were eventually taken to heaven. But the text refuses to satisfy our curiosity about these points. It is interesting, however, to note Matthew’s twofold reference to Jews and Jerusalem as “Holy” (“holy people,” v. 52; “holy city,” v. 53) even after his sweeping condemnation of Israel in chaps. 23-24. Hints again emerge that a remnant in Israel will be preserved.

I note that Blomberg takes the earthquake to be historical right at the outset. His vague mention of "historical questions" that "remain unanswered," together with the emphasis upon theological meaning in the first paragraph might be taken to mean that he questions the historicity of the raised saints. But as one moves to the second paragraph one sees him taking it to be historical. His comments about the punctuation of the verses and their relationship to when the holy people came into Jerusalem would be pointless if the event did not occur. His reference to when they returned to heaven seems definitely to take their resurrection to be historical, as does the question of what their resurrection was like:

If these saints were genuinely resurrected rather than simply revivified or reanimated like Jairus’s daughter or Lazarus, then presumably, like Jesus himself, they appeared to others only for a short time and were eventually taken to heaven. But the text refuses to satisfy our curiosity about these points.

If Blomberg thought it plausible that the text is simply non-historical, these remarks would make no sense. The natural interpretation is that Blomberg takes the raising of the holy people to have occurred but recognizes that there are still things we don't know about the nature of their resurrection and what happened next. In fact (see next section) this paragraph directly contradicts Licona's own interpretation of the passage in another way concerning whether or not the narrative appears to be saying that the raised people hung around outside the city until Sunday--another point Licona may have missed.

This is not the first time that I have found a misunderstanding of a fellow scholar simply by looking up the context of a quoted sentence. This sometimes arises when Licona thinks that another scholar is in agreement with himself in questioning historicity. In an on-line debate where Licona indicated that he is unsure about the historicity of the infancy stories in Matthew and Luke, he misinterpreted Jonathan Pennington, taking him to be describing a real, vexing, possibly intractable problem with the infancy stories, when in fact Pennington was just setting up his own sensible solution. See the update at the end of this post. In the case concerning Blomberg and the raising of the saints, probably the most charitable conjecture is that Licona didn't read more of the context in Blomberg's commentary.

The event itself

I'm not going to spend a lot of time discussing purely skeptical cavils that have been directed at the raising of the saints. My main point has been to argue that Licona's case for a convention here, understood by the readers, making the event non-historical, is extremely weak. Indeed, it is quite arbitrary to select that event to question, especially given that Mark and Luke confirm the darkness and the rending of the veil of the Temple. A fairly obvious conclusion from the three Synoptic accounts taken together is that it was widely agreed among Christians that several portentous, probably miraculous events really did occur at the time of Jesus' death. The earthquake (causing the rocks to split) and raising of the saints are just two of these that happen to be related in Matthew alone. Earthquakes, as Licona himself notes (The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 551) are geologically common in that region, though Matthew would probably have believed that this particular one was divinely ordained at that time rather than occurring by coincidence. What Licona does not seem to recognize is the extreme epistemological arbitrariness of picking out just this or that portentous event to think of as a "poetic addition," especially when the claim is supposed to be that the original readers would have understood which ones were not intended to be taken as historical.

As far as the historicity of the event itself, skeptics make a dismissible argument from silence on which I will spend virtually no time. There was no Jerusalem Times, no live-blogging, no day-to-day Roman account of what was happening. Nor do we have anything detailed of that kind from the Jewish side. If some people were raised from the dead at this time, they would not have gone about emitting a special glow. One presumes that only those capable of recognizing them would have known for sure who they were and that they had previously been dead. (Here I disagree with Blomberg's theory that these were probably named Old Testament figures.) Of course the story would have gotten about from friends of the previously deceased, which is presumably how we have Matthew's account. If we applied a wrong historical standard that every event has to be duplicated in other accounts, we would have virtually no ancient history at all.

We should also (needless to say) not be influenced by the sheer bullying of skeptics like Ehrman who like to use the word "zombies" concerning this passage. Jesus allegedly raised people from the dead. If Jairus's daughter was not a "zombie," presumably neither were these. Supposedly we are not being influenced by a sheer anti-supernatural bias, yet the contempt that emanates from skeptics when pressuring Christians about this passage positively shouts "anti-supernatural bias." Why should we give an inch to that?

A supposed oddity that moves Licona is the question of what those raised were doing from Jesus' death to his resurrection:

There is further support for this [non-historical] interpretation. If the tombs opened and the saints being raised upon Jesus' death was not strange enough, Matthew adds that they did not come out of their tombs until after Jesus' resurrection. What were they doing between Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning? Were they standing in the now open doorways of their tombs and waiting? The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 553

Licona's footnote at this point cites John Dominic Crossan for this objection. Perhaps instead he should have asked evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg, who discusses this very issue in the very next paragraph after the one Licona himself cites. As Blomberg rightly points out, the Greek of the passage in Matthew in no way requires that these people were physically raised at the time of Jesus' crucifixion, much less that they hung around aimlessly until Sunday. Rather, the passage indicates that the tombs were opened and that at some time thereafter holy people were raised, coming into the city of Jerusalem on or after Easter Sunday, when Jesus was raised. The passage does not say precisely when they were raised after their tombs were opened.

It has seemed to me for quite some time that the questioning of the historicity of this passage arises in no small part from the fact that Matthew is so brief about it. This brevity about that particular supernatural event causes even some Christians to feel, without being able to put their finger on why, that there is something odd and lacking in verisimilitude about that one short part of the passage. Matthew ties the event down (as already mentioned) by saying that the graves opened at the time of the crucifixion and that the holy people entered Jerusalem after Jesus' resurrection. But he does not name any of those who arose and does not tell us any more about them, including what happened to them. Contrast, for example, John's naming of Lazarus and mentioning that he was present at a later dinner in Jesus' honor, that people came from miles around to see him, and so forth. Matthew does not give us any such details about those who arose at this time. But it is a huge leap to conclude therefore either that it did not happen or, still more implausible, that Matthew did not even believe that it happened. I myself am inclined to guess that Matthew may have known no more than what he says here. If that conjecture is right, then he did not personally know any of the people who (he believed) rose from the dead. He had to take the word of others. If the story came to Matthew at one or more removes and/or some time after the events, that could well explain its inexplicitness. In contrast, many events in the Gospels are related in a way that gives us reason to believe that the authors knew a great deal about them and may even have witnessed the events themselves. It is this contrast, even within the crucifixion narrative, that strikes the reader oddly when reading the very few words Matthew devotes to the resurrection of the saints.

From a purely secular perspective, the conjecture that we have here an account of this particular event at some remove(s) makes that event perhaps somewhat less probable than some others related in the same document, though the general reliability of the document should still be taken into account. But it certainly does not mean that it did not happen, it does not justify the use of a consideration like "that seems weird to me" as a criterion of ahistoricity, picking out one or two narrated events to doubt from the others around, and it does not at all justify the conclusion that Matthew did not mean it historically.

Update: I am adding a link to an excellent supplementary article by Christopher Haun on this same topic. What Haun has done is something that I didn't do: He's gone to the Church Fathers, both those whom Licona discusses and others whom he didn't, and looked up their interpretation of the passage. Haun has also looked up a bunch of pseudopigraphical literature and shown that it also interpreted the passage as literal. This is relevant to showing how the passage was understood by ancient readers, even if the work in question was not written by the person whose name was put on it. This is truly useful, painstaking work, and it shows that the situation is much more unequivocal as far as ancient interpretations of the passage even than Licona portrays it as being.

Comments (34)

Well-researched, well-reasoned, and well-said, Lydia. I appreciate all your attempts to raise the bar of logical rigor in evangelical scholarship. Maybe the need of the day is logic? Better to train and exercise the logic muscles of the mind than learn the game of telepathically necromancing the authorial intention from somewhere outside of the text to override the surface meaning. Also preferable to the use of genre criticism (or any other form of criticism) to give 007 license to dehistoricise and deliteralize.

You made so many good points. Totally agree that the “that seems weird to me” should not be a criterion for ahistoricity. Nailed it.

I was very pleased to see your point of: “The question then, is this: How well do these reports support the conclusion that the writers did not believe that the portents occurred and that they expected their readers not to believe that they occurred and that they expected their readers to know that they did not intend the reports to be taken as historical? For that is the supposed thesis about Matthew, and that is the kind of convention that these reports are supposed to support. And the answer is, ‘Not very well.’" Agreed! I like that approach. Licona’s theory is actually testable. And theories should be put to the test. “Test everything and hold on to what is good” (1 Th 5:21). In my testing of this theory, I found thirty-or-so references by ancient Romans to one or more of the events in Mt. 27:45-54. I was surprised to find that many. There may be more. Not a single one of the thirty Romans showed the slightest awareness of the authorial intention Licona expects them to have assumed. Thirty strikes and you’re out. If the ancient Romans didn’t see it, we shouldn’t either. At this point I’m convinced that anyone who sees a Roman influence on Matthew is hallucinating.

Also good and neglected points about “that doesn't mean Dio Cassius didn't believe it and/or didn't expect his readers to believe it,” and “There's actually pretty strong evidence that Tacitus really did think that some things that we would roll our eyes about did happen.” Suggests that someone built a house on sand. A little rain comes and the house washes away.

Also glad you touched on Peter’s surprising application of Joel 2:28-32 to the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Very important point. Very cutting-edge too. There is a long-standing prejudice in the post-Augustinian world against the literal interpretation of passages that may (or may not) be prophetic/eschatological/apocalyptic. The early Augustine seemed open to literal interpretation of prophecy. The later Augustine not so much. Maybe he got tired of waiting for Jesus’s visible return and decided to say, “Well he is here now invisibly and spiritually”? In Mike’s speech to the EPS where he defended his view of Mt 27, that anti-literal prejudice seemed to stand out and be in part based on the idea that Peter set a precedent in de-literalizing Joel’s prophecy. I’m glad to see your recommendation to be open to other possibilities. I think Augustine set the precedent, not Peter. Reminded here of the *somewhat helpful* book by J. Dwight Pentecost titled New Wine: A Study of Transitions in the Book of Acts (Kregel, 2010). The fifth chapter is titled “The Relation of Joel’s Prophecy to the Signs” [of Acts 2:14-21]. In that chapter, JDPentecost touches on the three major interpretations of Peter’s “this is that” phrase in Acts 2:16. I can’t say that he decisively solves the problem with utmost persuasiveness but at least he’s talking about what most gloss over. For better or for worse, he leans away from the near-and-far view in favor of a third possibility that takes things literally and depends on some dispensational axioms about the Lord’s future plans for Israel. While I’m quite open to his third possibility, I still find myself leaning towards his second (near-and-far-but-still-literal) view.

Thanks, Christopher. Yeah, as I said, when "apocalyptic language" refers to the *actual apocalypse*, then all bets are off about what is going to happen. Presumably we all do believe that the world is going to end someday and that the real second coming of Jesus is going to be kind of a big deal. Maybe even cosmic.

I guess the genteel NT scholarly approach is akin to "we are all preterists now." :-)

This is timely as I saw Licona's appearance on SJ Thomason's show (the live feed popped up on my YouTube account probably because I'd watched your appearance a few days earlier).

Licona brought up many of the examples you cite (comets, black intestines outside of cattle, earthquakes etc). Funny old world to see you address this less than a week later!

As the Licona appearance was live, I did put forward a question to see what Licona thought of undesigned coincidences, but for some reason I guess it wasn't chosen. That would have been something to see ;)

Yes, I haven't had a chance to watch that interview myself, but I received a summary that I assume was semantically correct, and it sounds like he brought up *once again* the alleged problem of what the newly raised were doing in between the crucifixion and Jesus' resurrection. It's odd that he's never even addressed the fact that Matthew's text does not require us to think that they actually arose at the time of the crucifixion but only that their graves were opened at that time and that they arose thereafter. And this isn't just me saying that. It's a long-standing answer to that claim and, as mentioned in the main post, advocated by Craig Blomberg, whom Licona himself cites, on the same page that Licona himself cites. (Wrongly implying that Blomberg agrees that the entire incident is plausibly ahistorical.)

That is, of course, in addition to all the other things such as the misleading use of "paraphrase," the attempt to use the harmless "spotlighting" to give the impression that nothing he is doing is very controversial, and all the rest. Most of it will be familiar to (and answerable by) those who have followed my work.

Well the guy (unfortunately I can't remember his name) who asked most of this initial questions, did ask him the difference between paraphrase as we would understand it today and what he thought the ancients meant by it.

I can say from the live chat most weren't impressed, which I took as a good sign.

Joel Rodrigues. Yes, Joel and I discussed that matter when I did an interview with them a couple of weeks ago. He and I also discussed it a few months ago when we tried unsuccessfully to do an interview. (It had to be redone due to equipment problems.) So he's very up on this issue and knows that the use of "paraphrase" that Licona makes is highly confusing. I knew he would not be thrown. Part of what happens is that Licona gives the impression of having all this highly specialized knowledge that one just has to take his word for, so one never knows how impressed a larger audience is going to be with that alleged specialist perspective.

On "paraphrase" I would add this: This has nothing to do with how the ancients understood the word. They had the word "paraphrasis," and it meant pretty much what we mean by it, as far as I can tell. There is no evidence of any ancient author who would have called the writing of entirely different scenes to express extrapolated theological concepts that he hypothesized from other scenes a "paraphrase." In fact, in a post where he argued for the view that the "I am" sayings are not recognizably historical (while simultaneously refusing to commit to it), Licona referred to what John did on that theory as akin to a "modern paraphrase." Well, that doesn't make sense either, because that would not at all be a "modern paraphrase." What did that even mean? But is it a "modern paraphrase" or a "special, ancient-y paraphrase"? What this bizarre use of "paraphrase" really is is an invention of recent biblical scholars as a kind of absurd euphemism for, "John made stuff up." John in particular, since they really think John is quite unhistorical in various places, but in the highly specific sociological circles in which they wish to have influence, it doesn't always do to admit that out loud. So they are just abusing the term "paraphrase" in a disguising manner when speaking or writing to conservative audiences because of sociological factors peculiar to our own time period. It isn't an ancient/modern thing at all.

Ehrman himself admits there was no Jerusalem Times from that period or Roman Gazette. There was no reason for either the Romans or the Pharisees to record the reports of risen saints. That makes it no less likely that the account was completely historical.

Blomberg is updating his commentary on Matthew.

It looks like Lydia's lengthy review of Licona's book in The Global Journal of Classical Theology has been published:
Tolle lege!

Richard, right. The thing is that skeptics will sometimes say, "Why don't we have any other reports of this from secular sources?" This sort of argument from silence is just *so* poor, and that was what I was responding to in my ref. to "no Jerusalem Times." It's incredibly anachronistic to look at some event in the Bible and demand that it be duplicated in some (vague) other "secular source." It's like people are projecting the information age back onto the 1st century and assuming that if something was impressive or exciting in any city anywhere it got written down in "some secular source" and preserved, and we should just be able to look it up and find it elsewhere. And if we can't, that's allegedly an argument that it never happened. Completely wrong. I don't know if Ehrman specifically makes that argument from silence about the raising of the saints, but it's very common. In fact, when I was preparing this post one of my Christian friends asked me if I would be addressing that objection, so that's why I put that in there.

Steve, that's interesting. I hope Blomberg hasn't changed his mind on the raising of the saints, because when he wrote that edition, he didn't seem to have serious doubts about it. :-)

John, thanks for the link! I didn't have it myself yet!

Some believe (like I do) that the resurrection of the saints might have been the fulfillment of the "wave/sheaf offering" of Lev. 23:9-14. That explains why Matthew records it, while the other Gospels don't. Since Matthew was particularly and primarily written for both a believing and an unbelieving Jewish audience. The other 3 Gospels weren't written specifically to Jews and therefore the authors understood that many of their Gentile readers wouldn't get the Torahnic allusion and would likely think the account as being too far fetched to have actually happened. But it wouldn't necessarily have been incredible for the Jewish readers of Matthew.

I think there's a danger for apologists who get used to all the good evidence for the Resurrection and then come across an event like the one in Matthew for which there isn't corroboration.

Geoff, interesting thought. There is a sense in which "resurrection only" has come to be a kind of informal approach in certain evidentialist circles. Virgin birth? Well, maybe we could do without it and still be Christians, though we'd have to change our theology a bit. But we'd still have the resurrection. Gospel of John? Nah, you don't need it to establish the resurrection. Deity of Christ? Well, let's say "Danielic son of man" for right now and hope that people will be, shall we say, inspired to think of Jesus as God once we establish the resurrection. Infancy narratives? Wellll, I dunno. They aren't as well-attested as the resurrection. Maybe we don't need 'em.

And so on, and so forth.

Minimalism has become the watchword, and people *truly* believe that they are strengthening their case by being so dubious about a lot of other things. I call it the Yugo approach to apologetics, with the added confusion of thinking that a Yugo is a stronger and more dependable vehicle than an SUV because it's "stripped down" to the bare necessities. I swear, there is some kind of notion of conservation of epistemic force going on here, which leads to a positive fear that if we try to defend the historicity of anything other than the resurrection, we are dissipating our available "evidence force units" across too many items! But that is definitely not how the epistemology works here. Indeed, by defending the historicity of the documents qua documents, we *strengthen* the case for the resurrection. And simultaneously give ourselves reason to believe specific stories in the documents that don't happen to have separate corroboration. (As indeed many events in history don't.)

My guess is that some can get used to all the corroboration for the Resurrection and then don't know what to do with say the resurrections in Matthew. It's not so much-Resurrection only but, in this case at least, start to doubt things in Scripture because there isn't the same level of outside attestation.

I, and I think you're on the same page, go with a route that supports the trustworthiness of the documents in general and the apostolic witness to those events. It's like they bought into "great claims require great evidence" is needed for every particular. But I don't need outside evidence for every single miracle.

Just a thought that at the core of this is an existential problem.

I see that as a spin-off of what I call a "pericope-by-pericope" approach. In this approach, we "test events," going through the documents event-by-event to decide which ones are well-supported and which ones we're going to doubt.

I actually saw someone recently use the phrase "these events are reliable." What?? Events are not reliable. That's just a category error. Witnesses, sources, documents are (or aren't) reliable. Events are not reliable. What he meant was that he thinks certain events happened and can be established. But too often the approach taken to that is to try to defend each event as if it is isolated. As if we are suffering amnesia about whatever else we might know about this author or his work.

As you say, the much better approach is to look at the documents as wholes.

Much good work has been shown by Lydia on how 'unique' (and not in a good way) the NT guild can be, but from what I can gather this pericope by pericope approach is literally unheard of in most other areas of history. It almost certainly rests on assumptions like form criticism.

The criteriological approach was developed as part of the quest for an historical Jesus "behind" the Gospels. So in that sense it is unique to biblical studies.

I've been both intrigued and saddened to see evangelical scholars explicitly aligning themselves with such an approach--e.g., speaking of "mining" facts "out of" the Gospels. Touting the lists made by a scholar like E. P. Sanders of such facts as, "Jesus had controversies with the religious leaders" and the like. Hey, look, we can find this list of facts in the Gospels, and they are acknowledged by liberal scholars. Woo hoo!

Great line, Lydia, and gave me a good chuckle. Thanks for the rest of the blog, too, which I finally got to finish reading today. Excellent points, and very thorough.

The thing is that skeptics will sometimes say, "Why don't we have any other reports of this from secular sources?" This sort of argument from silence is just *so* poor, and that was what I was responding to in my ref. to "no Jerusalem Times." It's incredibly anachronistic to look at some event in the Bible and demand that it be duplicated in some (vague) other "secular source." It's like people are projecting the information age back onto the 1st century and assuming that if something was impressive or exciting in any city anywhere it got written down in "some secular source" and preserved, and we should just be able to look it up and find it elsewhere. And if we can't, that's allegedly an argument that it never happened. Completely wrong.

Lydia, that's a really great point. Very well said.

I myself am inclined to guess that Matthew may have known no more than what he says here. If that conjecture is right, then he did not personally know any of the people who (he believed) rose from the dead. He had to take the word of others. If the story came to Matthew at one or more removes and/or some time after the events, that could well explain its inexplicitness.

I am not convinced. First, either the dead so raised were like Lazarus, in a standard human state - and can be presumed to have lived on, for years. They would have been around to interact with while the Apostles were in Jerusalem, such as at Pentecost. Or, if they were in a resurrected state like Jesus, they would have been remarkable (like Jesus) for doing things like walking through walls, etc, and would have been talked of much.

Secondly, Matt reports them as "saints" (or, in some translations, holy ones). This was not the usual way to refer to the Patriarchs of old, but of those who were of the community who followed Jesus and lived in faith. (And if they were from the class of the Patriarchs of old - who would have known who they were? - nobody had pictures of them. "Hi, I am King David, come back from the dead"..."right, uh, let me get some men with the white coats.") Now, maybe Matthew didn't know any of the recent saints from among Jesus' followers who had recently died - but why not? He had been with Jesus for most of 3 years. And I am convinced that all of the Apostles would have either remained with Peter in Jerusalem for quite some time after Pentecost, or would have been in and out of the city constantly to check back with Peter and James and John there - either way, they would have quickly become acquainted with "saints" who had risen from the dead. Surely these men and women would have been celebrities in the Christian community, and much celebrated - at least, after Jesus ascended and was no longer the ongoing topic of news of each day. Surely they would have been introduced to the Apostles and become known to them, at least some of them. I find it implausible that Matthew would not have details on ANY of them.

I think it far more likely that Matthew simply didn't want to put in a lot of detail on the matter. Whether it was writer fatigue, or a positive intention to be sparse for some reason, or he was running out of scroll space and needed to keep it brief, who knows? But all through the Gospels (and it happens in all of them) they have this frustrating habit of bare references that we wish they had fleshed out with detail, and we have nothing to go on with but the one point they mentioned. Have you never wondered about things in the Gospels that are reported far too tersely? The fig tree Jesus cursed? Peter's non-present wife?

There could indeed be a lot of reasons, Tony, and I don't want to be dogmatic about my guess that Matthew didn't know any more detail. It's often been conjectured that these people ascended at the time of Jesus' own ascension. I just throw that out there FWIW. I'm not sold on that at all, but if true, it would mean that they didn't continue to be known in the Christian community for a long time thereafter. I believe that conjecture is usually treated as "going together" with their possibly being raised in exalted bodies similar to that of Jesus.

Another bit of conjecture: Matthew didn't want their names put out in the open for fear of reprisals. John's gospel, being later, is more likely to name names. Like the guard having his ear cut off by Peter. (if memory serves)

The truth is we don't know.

I find myself usually not impressed by what are called "protective anonymity" arguments. I've seen some really weak ones, even from otherwise sensible people. Here's one of the worst: Richard Bauckham's argument that Mark suppressed the name of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet because it would have been seen as a Messianic, hence political, claim that Jesus was the Messiah. The Christians were shouting from the rooftops that Jesus was the Messiah. Nobody was trying to suppress the possibly damning affirmation that Jesus was the Messiah because it was "political" and dangerous. Here's another: Thiessen's suggestion that the Synoptics suppressed the name of Peter as the person who cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest, because that might have gotten him in trouble. In reality, Peter was practically walking around with a target painted on his back from the day of Pentecost onward. I don't think this would have made matters significantly worse.

This one I'm just not impressed by, either. Even by the time Matthew was published, the rationale that the Jewish leaders had for considering murdering Lazarus (as recounted in John) was long past. That impulse arose (pun intended) from the highly specific circumstances: Jesus was personally on earth, Lazarus was turning into a flash point for messianic enthusiasm surrounding Jesus. The leaders wanted to suppress messianic hopes surrounding Jesus that they were afraid would lead to a rebellion against Rome, causing a Roman backlash. Once Jesus was killed and ascended, that was all moot. Certainly, the Christians *in general* were hated and persecuted at the behest of the Jewish leaders (Saul's persecution, for example), but the claim that you were a person raised from the dead no longer made you a special target. The treatment would be inconsistent, in any event, since the Synoptics do name Jairus, who could presumably attest that his daughter was raised. They also name others who were recipients of miracles (Bartimaus, for example), without seeming to worry about special persecution of those individuals.

One name that I think tends to refute *most* arguments from protective anonymity is Joseph of Arimathea. He is found boldly named right in Mark, the earliest Gospel. If anybody was going to get in trouble for something, it would have been he. He was a member of the council. Yet Mark names him right up front. And of course all the Synoptics name women who saw Jesus' empty tomb and/or saw Jesus alive.

So I just see too many obvious counterexamples to a pattern of protective anonymity, and I find the attempts to make out that the anonymous people were special to be unconvincing.

I do agree with you that we have no less reason to accept Matthew’s story of the resurrection of the saints at Jesus’ resurrection (call it the RS) than any other Gospel miracles. But I also like the minimalist approach to the resurrection evidence. I think we should use more evidence when the situation seems appropriate, e.g. a chance for a long conversation with a non-Christian friend, but sometimes again a minimalist approach is the best approach. Sometimes we only have time to say very little and we need books which help us to think through just what little we can use and still have a very persuasive argument. Minimalists helps us to understand just how strong the various lines of evidence and argument actually are and how the different lines fit together.

I don’t think we have good reason to argue for other doctrines (virgin birth, deity of Jesus, etc.) without the resurrection and other traditional evidences (such as messianic prophecy). Once the resurrection is established we can establish Jesus’ supernatural knowledge and truthfulness, and, following from that, the truth of his direct followers’ teachings as found in the NT. (At least that’s the argument very roughly.) So the virgin birth, deity of Jesus, etc. simply follow from the resurrection evidence.

I love the work you and Tim do but I also greatly appreciate Michael’s contribution to apologetic scholarship. I know there is more history behind your disagreement (disagreements?) with Michael than I’m aware of, but I sincerely hope that both of you appreciate and support each other in your work. Your disagreements help to sharpen each other’s work, strengthening the good and removing the bad. I hope there is no personal division or even animosity between you. The diverse members of the body of Christ must support each other, rejoicing when the other flourishes and mourning when the other fails or falters.

Just a couple of other comments. One reason only Matthew mentions the RS could be that it was witnessed only by a few individuals and once the appearance stories got circulated they just sounded like ghost stories, which of course were not unknown at this time. Ghost stories, even with accompanying earthquakes, were not going to make the top news accounts of the day and they certainly were not going to be taken back to Rome or passed on to the historians of the time. Maybe the RS witnesses were for this reason somewhat ignored by church leaders/teachers at first but if they kept up their insistence that they really did see these people their claims may not have been entirely forgotten. With the major lines of oral history being developed without mention of the RS, a minor line of oral history could have developed including it and that line was picked up by Matthew (or he may himself have been an RS witness).

One other minor point, it seems to me to be more likely these were OT saints God had selected to be among the first fruits of the resurrection just as Jesus was the first of the first fruits. No, they weren’t recognized because they had something like "glowing bodies" but if their bodies were like Jesus’ they were physical and they had supernatural abilities, like being able to appear and disappear at will, walk through walls, or even expose gaping wounds for investigation. So there are ways they could have been recognized as resurrected bodies and not as ghosts and they need not have been recently deceased.

There is an entire section of my talk on maximal data that addresses the claim that we have to use a minimalist form of the argument because we only have so much time. I give examples of at least equally short versions that point to the maximalist case and are not based upon trying to whittle down our premises to what is accepted by a majority of scholars. Here's the link to that webinar, and I've provided the link right where I talk about this issue. But I hope you'll watch a lot more of it.


Let me also add that the accuracy of the Gospels does not per se follow from the resurrection, so I think that link in your attempt to chain everything back to the resurrection is weak. For example, it would be possible that Jesus rose from the dead but that the authors of the Gospels didn't report his claims accurately. In order to know *what* teachings were vindicated by his resurrection, we should be able to defend the *reliability* of the Gospels in recording his teaching. That requires our taking a robust approach to the documents' reliability that goes beyond routing everything through the resurrection.

As far as my objections to Dr. Licona's work, this isn't really a matter of "history" between us, and it certainly isn't a matter of personal animus of any kind. It's a matter of my thinking that his literary device approach is quite seriously wrong and needs to be answered. I've done that at great length. If you're interested, I hope that you will follow up. I have an entire book coming out on this topic. Here is the wrap-up post from my series last year. Feel free to browse from there to what interests you. You can scroll down in the post to find short synopses of other posts.


Your disagreements help to sharpen each other’s work, strengthening the good and removing the bad.

I have certainly studied his work in great detail. It won't be possible for me to sharpen his work if he will not read and engage with what I've written, as he has expressly and publicly stated that he refuses to do. We were given the opportunity for a scholarly, civil exchange/dialogue in the pages of the highly regarded journal Philosophia Christi, but he declined, as he has declined several other such suggestions. Certainly he does not have to answer anything I have written, but if there is to be any "sharpening" going on, he would at least have to read and consider. As of now all the evidence is that he is explicitly unwilling to do that, preferring to indicate that I do not have the required credentials to have an opinion worth taking seriously on these topics. That is, of course, his choice and his right. I will just continue with my work, and I hope in so doing to minimize the confusion that I believe will be caused otherwise by the widespread acceptance of his compositional device theories.

One other minor point, it seems to me to be more likely these were OT saints God had selected to be among the first fruits of the resurrection just as Jesus was the first of the first fruits. No, they weren’t recognized because they had something like "glowing bodies" but if their bodies were like Jesus’ they were physical and they had supernatural abilities, like being able to appear and disappear at will, walk through walls, or even expose gaping wounds for investigation. So there are ways they could have been recognized as resurrected bodies and not as ghosts and they need not have been recently deceased.

That's possible. In the context of the post, I made the "glowing bodies" comment to point out that this event need not have been something extremely widely known--a spectacular event known to everyone in Jerusalem for its highly notable effects. This was one part of my response to the argument from silence (made by some skeptics) that we should question its historicity because we do not have other accounts of it. I'm sure you would agree with all of that, as your comment shows.

Minimalists helps us to understand just how strong the various lines of evidence and argument actually are and how the different lines fit together.

I'm afraid I can't agree there particularly as regards the appearance claims. I discuss this at length in the webinar linked above. When one makes the appearance claim such that it is widely agreed upon by scholars across the ideological spectrum, it actually weakens it greatly so that it does not contribute to a good inference to the best explanation for the resurrection. When one continues to insist that it *does* do so, even when thus watered down so as to be widely accepted, that actually causes *error* and confusion about just how strong the lines of evidence actually are. There is, in a sense, a constant jumping back and forth between an actually useful appearance claim and an appearance claim that is widely accepted even by otherwise skeptical scholars. I discuss all of this in detail in the webinar, so if you're interested, be sure to have a listen.

I’ll definitely look at your webinar. I should have done that before sending you comments since I suspect I’ve made you repeat a lot that you’ve already stated and argued.

No problem. I just repeated something really brief, and I'll leave the rest to be found on the webinar itself. I hope it'll be useful!

There's a lot of good material here, but I do have some critical remarks of my own to share on this subject:

It suddenly struck me that I have no place in that book that really fits for a discussion of the passage that many people (unfortunately) think criticism of Licona's work is "really all about"--namely, the raising of the saints narrated in Matthew 27:51-53...It is a sociological fact that much controversy swirled around Licona's questioning of the historicity of this Matthew passage in his 2010 book, The Resurrection of Jesus, and that is how it has come about that so many people think that this is all "just about that."

Not quite Lydia.

The controversy you're alluding to here began with Geisler, who was concerned that Licona's treatment of Matthew 27:52-53 resembled the work of Robert Gundry and other "liberal scholars" who undermine orthodoxy by "dehistoricizing" the Bible. Insofar as Licona's analysis of this passage was similarly motivated by such tendencies in scholarship it ran afoul of the Article XVIII of the Chicago Statement, which defines the consensus view of biblical inerrancy for evangelicals. The same concerns were also expressed a couple months later in an essay by Albert Mohler in saying that "Dehistoricizing this text is calamitous and inconsistent with the affirmation of biblical inerrancy." In the wake of this criticism, Licona subsequently resigned from the positions he occupied at Southern Seminary and the North American Mission Board.

However, the point I would like to make here is that the initial concern with Licona's work was primarily of a theological kind, not historical and epistemological. Geisler and Mohler were far less concerned over whether Licona had rightly understood the extra-biblical Greco-Roman sources that he cited in support of his conclusions so much as whether those conclusions were consistent with the prevailing understanding of biblical inerrancy. This is why for me (and I would imagine for others as well) the tendency has been to interpret any such criticism of Licona as being "really all about" defending a certain understanding of biblical inerrancy, since those were the anxieties that led him to seek employment elsewhere.

I firmly believe that it was Licona's claim that original audiences would have understood that Matthew didn't intend the raising of the saints to be historical that garnered a certain amount of sympathy and caused various people to say that his position on that point was compatible with inerrancy.

Or it could be that what garnered sympathy was the fact that Licona's reputation and livelihood was being threatened in a very public way over his analysis of an obscure and difficult passage in Matthew buried deep in a massive book devoted to defending the resurrection of Jesus. Critics like Geisler came across to many as neurotic obsessives who were prepared to end this man's career over what should be seen as a minor point of disagreement.

It has seemed to me for quite some time that the questioning of the historicity of this passage arises in no small part from the fact that Matthew is so brief about it. This brevity about that particular supernatural event causes even some Christians to feel, without being able to put their finger on why, that there is something odd and lacking in verisimilitude about that one short part of the passage.

The obvious problem with Matthew 27:52-53 is that it seems to contradict Paul's doctrine of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. An event in which "many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised" recalls prophetic language from the Old Testament that arguably anticipates the resurrection of the dead (particularly, Ezek 37:12-13 and Dan 12:2). On the other hand, Paul teaches that the saints will not be raised until the coming of Christ (1 Cor 15:23), which is an event that remains to occur. Blomberg senses this sort of tension between Matthew and Paul in the middle of the quoted passage you provide but fumbles the argument. So the event seems dubious on independent theological grounds wholly apart from the brevity with which it is recalled.

I just now found Boreas's (to my mind, rather silly) comment "backstage" in the unpublished comments folder, where it had languished because of too many links.

I'll respond briefly.

Boreas weirdly complains about my statement that "controversy swirled around Licona's questioning of the historicity of this Matthew passage in his 2010 book" on the grounds that the controversy began with Norman Geisler's objections to the passage. Huh? So I say "controversy swirled" and don't give a blow-by-blow account of the controversy, including saying who first raised objections, and this merits a chiding, "Not quite, Lydia." ??? What's that all about. Boreas's account of the controversy is...guess what? An account of controversy swirling! Which is precisely what I said! I suppose that my phrase "controversy swirled" was considered "not quite" correct because I did not anathematize Norm Geisler? Or because I did not imply that Geisler and the several others who agreed with his concerns (Boreas himself also names Mohler) do not count as capable of making controversy swirl because...something? Because they are just fundamentalists or crazy or bad guys or whatever? One is only supposed to say "controversy swirled" if the people raising objections fall at a wider span of points along an ideological spectrum?

Or is it that the statement that "controversy swirled" about that passage in the 2010 book is too *neutral* and could be interpreted as at least allowing for the possibility that it was *understandable* that that passage of Licona's book was found controversial by someone? Someone might think (heaven forbid) that Licona said something *controversial* in his 2010 book, and we mustn't say anything that anyone could take that way! No, no, one can refer to the controversy only in a way that is firmly partisan on the side of saying that Geisler and co. were bad guys and obsessive nuts. A neutral characterization like "controversy swirled" is not accurate because it doesn't take sides? Ridiculous. This is carping of the most tedious variety.

Or it could be that what garnered sympathy was the fact that Licona's reputation and livelihood was being threatened in a very public way over his analysis of an obscure and difficult passage in Matthew buried deep in a massive book devoted to defending the resurrection of Jesus.

This is in response to my (to my mind, carefully fair-minded) conjecture about what caused people to think that Licona's position on the Matt. 27 passage was compatible with inerrancy. Certainly the sociological feelings Boreas describes were at work in people's minds and emotions. I wasn't denying that. (But again, I guess I was supposed to talk about it so as to be sure to fly a flag of anathema against the "other side" in the controversy.) But that doesn't explain why people were convinced that the position *really was* compatible with inerrancy, as a logical matter. I was trying, y'know, to stick to ideas rather than personalities and persons and to talk about how ideas interact and what implies what. That, evidently, wasn't good enough for Boreas.

On the other hand, Paul teaches that the saints will not be raised until the coming of Christ (1 Cor 15:23), which is an event that remains to occur.

Golly, then I guess Lazarus and Jairus's daughter didn't rise from the dead either. What shall we do?

This is quite a poor attempt to place Scripture at odds with Scripture, entirely unnecessarily. Blomberg doesn't "fumble" anything. He merely acknowledges that the passage does not indicate what sorts of bodies the people were raised with in Matthew 27--were these resurrections like those of Lazarus or did they have resurrection bodies?

If they did arise in resurrection bodies on Easter, Christ would still be the firstfruits. (I deal in the op with the claim that they actually rose on Friday, which is not a necessary interpretation.) Paul's statement about others who will be raised incorruptible at Christ's second coming in I Cor. 15:23 could (obviously) apply to the *vast majority* of those who will rise with resurrection bodies. He doesn't have to note every exception. When Jesus says that no man has ascended into heaven other than the one who came down from heaven, the Son of Man (John 3:13), does this mean that Jesus was denying the Old Testament story that Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and a chariot? See?? This is the sort of attempt to create tensions and contradictions among different Scripture passages that is more worthy of Bart Ehrman than of anyone who thinks of himself as a Christian. And frankly, I have little patience for it.

While doing some reading elsewhere I found a quote related to the literary device theorist topic I thought some here might find interesting if they don't already know about it.

“In battling against people who would subject historical studies to the dictates of literary critics we historians are, in a way, fighting for our lives. Certainly, we are fighting for the lives of innocent young people beset by devilish tempters who claim to offer higher forms of thought and deeper truths and insights—the intellectual equivalent of crack.”

Given what I've ready on the subject, it seems an apt comparison.

I don't have the book, but this is supposed to be page 49 of G.R. Elton's "Return to Essentials. Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study". The book was written in 2002, but it says this is the text of lectures he gave in 1990.

Since Jews didn't embalm their dead, these were either very freshly interred saints looking and smelling very much like Lazarus, or the disarticulated contents of an ossuary; not re-animated but fully resurrected. I don't see any theological problems with such a thing happening as has been alluded to: The Earthquake breaking open the tombs and shattering the bone-boxes, which no one touched for fear of being unclean at Passover and on the Sabbath; and then, three days later, each pile of bones disappearing in a burst of light and a resurrected body materializing and de-materializing at will for the next few days or weeks. Given how easy it was for the authorities to discount that Jesus had arisen, it's no surprise that there is no other record. With all the miracles in the gospels of which there is no other record, we shouldn't even expect one. How were these resurrected saints recognized? Well, how were Moses and Elijah recognized? I imagine they identified themselves, and in their glorified bodies no one was inclined to disbelieve them.

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