Press Release: Michael Licona Response to Norm Geisler

Norman Geisler has taken issue with a portion of my recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, in which I proposed that the story of the raised saints in Matthew 27:52-53 should probably be interpreted as apocalyptic imagery rather than literal history. In response, Dr. Geisler has offered strong criticisms in two Open Letters to me on the Internet. Until now I have been unable to comment because I have multiple writing deadlines, two September debates in South Africa for which to prepare, and, consequently, no time to be drawn into what would probably turn into an endless debate. I shared these first two reasons with Dr. Geisler in an email several weeks ago. Yet he insisted that I “give careful and immediate attention” to the matter. I simply could not do this and fulfill the pressing obligations of my ministry, which is my higher priority before the Lord.

Dr. Geisler questions whether I still hold to biblical inerrancy. I want to be clear that I continue to affirm this evangelical distinctive. My conclusion in reference to the raised saints in Matthew 27 was based upon my analysis of the genre of the text. This was not an attempt to wiggle out from under the burden of an inerrant text; it was an attempt to respect the text by seeking to learn what Matthew was trying to communicate. This is responsible hermeneutical practice. Any reasonable doctrine of biblical inerrancy must respect authorial intent rather than predetermine it.

When writing a sizable book, there will always be portions in which one could have articulated a matter more appropriately. And those portions, I suppose, will often be located outside the primary thesis of the book, such as the one on which Dr. Geisler has chosen to focus. When writing my book, I always regarded the entirety of Matthew 27 as historical narrative containing apocalyptic allusions. I selected the term “poetic” in order to allude to similar phenomena in the Greco-Roman literature in general and Virgil in particular. However, since Matthew is a Jew writing to Jews, “apocalyptic” may be the most appropriate technical term, while “special effects” communicates the gist on a popular level.

Further research over the last year in the Greco-Roman literature has led me to reexamine the position I took in my book. Although additional research certainly remains, at present I am just as inclined to understand the narrative of the raised saints in Matthew 27 as a report of a factual (i.e., literal) event as I am to view it as an apocalyptic symbol. It may also be a report of a real event described partially in apocalyptic terms. I will be pleased to revise the relevant section in a future edition of my book.

                                                                                                Michael R. Licona, Ph.D.
August 31, 2011

 We the undersigned are aware of the above stated position by Dr. Michael Licona, including his present position pertaining to the report of the raised saints in Matthew 27: He proposes that the report may refer to a literal/historical event, a real event partially described in apocalyptic terms, or an apocalyptic symbol. Though most of us do not hold Licona’s proposal, we are in firm agreement that it is compatible with biblical inerrancy, despite objections to the contrary. We are encouraged to see the confluence of biblical scholars, historians, and philosophers in this question.

W. David Beck, Ph.D.
Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
James Chancellor, Ph.D.
William Lane Craig, D.Theol., Ph.D.
Jeremy A. Evans, Ph.D.
Gary R. Habermas, Ph.D.
Craig S. Keener, Ph.D.
Douglas J. Moo, Ph.D.
J. P. Moreland, Ph.D.
Heath A. Thomas, Ph.D.
Daniel B. Wallace, Ph.D.
William Warren, Ph.D.
Edwin M. Yamauchi, Ph.D.

42 Responses to “Press Release: Michael Licona Response to Norm Geisler”

  1. Egad. Genre is certainly an important and valid consideration in analysis of a text, but oh, the fun and games one can play with it.

    Is this compatible with inerrancy? Well, I guess you’d have to say yes, in that a creative mind can spin fanciful methods for disbelieving a thing and yet not allowing that it is “wrong.”

    So what can you say about the eminent wagons he has circled. Yeah, he’s managed to pull it off deftly and not color outside the lines–not exactly. But that’s because he’s moved the lines when you weren’t looking.

    If you’ve had practice playing games with the text in “peripheral” chapters, say Gen. 1 or the book of Revelation–it’s a “genre” thing, you understand–then sooner or later you can use the same moves on something more central. And Matthew 27 is pretty dang central, if you ask me.

    Within “inerrancy,” I guess, but it hope these friends and colleagues will whisper that this isn’t exactly scintillatingly good exegesis, and represents a bad trend.


  2. I have to admire Dr. Licona’s humility. If I were given an ultimatum like that, my response would have been along the lines of “I don’t answer to you. I will get around to a response when or if I decide to”.

    But I guess the community is small, and it’s best to keep everybody happy if you expect to continue to work in it.

  3. Holy Cow! Or perhaps I should say, “sacred cow.” Dr. Licona sure dodged the bullet there. Almost got thrown out of the club. This kind of stuff just tickles me the wrong way. Scholars should be able to have discussions about interpretation and genre without having to worry whether their colleagues are going to disown them for the breach of some dogma or another. I’m happy that so many professors came to Dr. Licona’s defense, but they shouldn’t have had to. He didn’t do anything wrong.

  4. I agree with Dan. I’m hardly at the level of scholarship of Dr. Licona, but as I study, I’ve come up with ideas. I always check them with friends I trust for accountability. I was convinced several years ago that many men go apostate once they believe they’re above accountability. I’d be afraid to share my ideas if I were afraid to be taken to task like that.

    At least in IT, if I come up with a strange idea, I won’t get ostracized from the community. I’ve wanted to post Bible studies on my blog for years, but I don’t want to deal with other Christians coming at me like that. I’ve been on Christian forums and blogs, and seen just how uncharitable we can be with each other over a point that may not have been communicated as clearly as it could have.

  5. As to ‘inerrancy’, the Bible (a translation of the Scripture) is NOT without error. The Scripture we have as based on the mss is NOT without error (otherwise, why we study textual criticism at all?); only the Word of God is. It is our believers’ and scholars’ job to read the Word of God in the Scripture.

    Is Geisler a believer in literal 24-hr creation day, I wonder?

    As to the text of Mt 27, it is important to have a proper paragraph. Here is how I read:

    (v. 51) And, look intently! the heavy veil [in the Holy Place] of the Temple Sanctuary was torn into two, from top to bottom as the earth shook,
    and the rock-masses were split, (52a) and the memorial-tombs broke open.
    [paragraph break]
    (v. 52b) Yes, many of those God’s consecrated — who had fallen asleep [in death] — had their bodies raised [to life];
    (v. 53) Having come out of the memorial-tombs after Yeshua Himself being raised up, they entered into the Holy City and appeared to many.

    The vv. 52b-53 is simply fast-forward to a future event in apocalyptic language.

  6. Dr. Geisler is not a believer in 24 hour day creationism. He has been known to align himself with Hugh Ross and the day-age theory. Just FYI.

  7. This passage should be taken as it is written.

    Leave it to “scholars” to come up with an interpretation that no one in their plain normal reading of the text, would ever come up with such as this contrived eisegesis.

    The biggest miracle of all time had just occurred, namely the resurrection of the Son of God, who was God manifest in the flesh.

    So, why is it hard to believe those in the graves arose, came out their graves (at the time of Christ’s resurrection) and walked around the city appearing to many?

    Come on people -don’t we have better things to do than to try to put clear, plain, obvious and succinct passages likes these into an “apocalyptic” setting ?

    Lastly, even if one concedes that there are ESCHATALOGICAL overtones to be be inferred from this passage, you can still approach this passage in the manner that nearly ALL prophetical passages are foretold: That being an ALREADY (CURRENT) / NOT YET fulfillment.

    For example, the multitude of passages in the major and minor prophets referring to the regathering and restoration of Israel to the land was fulfilled after the Babylonian captivity, but also will ultimately be fulfilled in the millennium.

  8. Wow – theology by peer pressure. Or maybe it is “career pressure”.

    ML and others need to take a stand on their own views instead of pandering these thin, circular arguments designed to appease the ‘voting members’.
    If the ETS and others define inerrancy in such a way, then fine, let it go. Their version of inerrancy dies the death of a thousand qualifications and requires some very fancy footwork to maintain.

  9. Amazing. Licona writes a monster of a book defending one of the central claims of Christianity, and he gets called out for not being in line with Geisler’s view of Matthew 27.

    Licona shouldn’t even have to acknowledge this head-in-the-sand reaction to his views.

  10. Erik,
    I have to agree with you. I had thought about starting a Bible study blog but soon realized that the better it is the more people you attract. The more people you attract the more trolls seem to pop up and try to hijack the conversations.

    I am a little put off my Geisler (who I respect and have enjoyed many of his books) even hinting about Mike Lacona having any duplicity. I have also enjoyed watching Mike’s debates and defending the faith quite well. When I read Mike’s understanding of Matt 27 (a passage that has perplexed many) I just thought, “That’s interesting.” It is time for a passing of the torch to younger apologists and Mike is definitely making a mark in this area.


  11. Geisler’s response to Licona’s above response:

    Geisler’s statement here stands out to me:

    “Eighth, Licona reveals the basis of his own problem when he admits that his view on Matthew 27 “is based upon my [his] analysis of the genre of the text” and that this was based on a comparison with “similar phenomena in the Greco-Roman literature in general.” But this is clearly not the way to interpret a biblical text which should be understood by the “historical-grammatical” method (as ICBI held) of (a) looking at a text in its context and (b) by comparing other biblical texts, affirming that “Scripture is to interpret Scripture” (as ICBI mandated). The proper meaning is certainly not found by superimposing some external pagan idea on the text in order to determine what the text means. By this same kind of fallacious hermeneutic one can also conclude that other biblical stories, like the Virgin Birth and Resurrection of Christ, are just legends too, along with the creation record in Genesis 1-2.”

    My first question is, Who died and made him boss?

    Second, I think Geisler fails to consider the influence the Greco-Roman-Judean culture had on the human authors of scripture (in this case, Matthew), and how light can be shed on obscure, confusing, or odd passages. This reminds me of the recent conversation D.A. Carson had with John Piper on this issue here (

    Geisler seems more concerned with strong-arming Licona into playing by his rules then exploring whether Matthew actually wrote this portion of his gospel using apocalyptic imagery! If Matthew meant it to be apocalyptic in nature and not historical, then Geisler is completely without merit in his accusations.

    I think his discussion needs to focus on the areas of extra-biblical research Licona used to support his view, and not how he offends the statements of a vague and outdated document. Geisler hand-waving away the evidence Licona used because it was extra-biblical in origin is unscholarly of him. Rather then discount his view because of its effect on inerrancy, Geisler should first ask whether his definition of inerrancy is large enough to contain the full breadth of scripture in the first place. For all we know, Geisler’s view could be the one doing a disservice to scripture by limiting the full range of meaning Matthew intended to communicate!

    I’m glad Licona has a list of fine scholars who back up his methodology, and I hope Geisler comes to realize the advantage of intellectual humility when trying to understand the full meaning of scripture.

  12. Time for me to jump in. As can be found elsewhere, I happen to be Mike’s daughter and an apologist in my own right as a student at SES. What has happened has been immensely disappointing and I plan on putting a response up myself later today. My father-in-law has wrestled with the text and this is his honest conclusion based on his understanding of the writings. This is not in any sense a denial of the power of God. He firmly believes in that. He believes God can raise the dead and will in the end so let us not say it is a way of denying something that should be plainly obvious.

    Unfortunately, few are willing to read his side of the argument and why he says what he says. Now even fewer will read it because of Geisler’s attack on it. I find Geisler’s arguments to be weak as well and pretty much repeating the same thing over and over and saying “Who cares what the scholars say?”

    Well we all should. These people are in a far better position to understand the NT than Geisler who is not a NT scholar.

  13. RE: #11 Greg M.

    May I suggest it is an overstatement to say these scholars “backed up his methodology.” They testified to his evangelical bona fides, and denied that his assertion was an issue of inerrancy.

    There is a problem here, in my opinion, and I hope that some of these scholars give some attention to it, even as they defend their colleage.

    Does Geisler have a right, duty, place to object? Of course he does. This community thing everyone talks about. Includes him. I’d support his intuitive response at least that something is not quite right about Licona’s treatment of this bit of text. “Inerrancy” is, granted, not the right category–technically.

    But its a controversial suggestion Licona makes, and for good reason. The particular conclusion is of less moment than the technique that got him there. Frankly, I think it’s a bit of a cheat. Sincerely, done, I have no reason to doubt. But still not quite kosher. And that is something that will need to be talked about, whatever you think of the personalities of Geisler and Licona and the chatter back and forth.

  14. Marv,

    I assumed they wouldn’t affirm Licona’s position as one within the bounds of inerrancy if they didn’t think his methodology was legitimate. BU that’s my assumption and reading. In light of this, I didn’t think it was an overstatement to say that they “backed up his methodology”.

    I agree with you though, that this issue needs to be talked about. But I also agree with Licona’s daughter-in-law above us, in post #12, when she says that Geisler is not a NT scholar. He is instead a theologian and a philosopher. Which is no surprise why he is primarily concerned with a theological issue and not a hermeneutical one.

    I think this is why he made this issue into a theological one. It is his strong point. I think it is also why he did his hand-waving trick and outright rejected Licona’s methodology. Questioning his convictions and subtly reminding him of what happened to Robert Gundry just made him look silly with his “my way or the highway” attitude.

    Personally, no single author in my library is more represented then Norman Geisler, but this is simply one thing that I am not impressed with. After the recent “witch hunts” directed at competent, Evangelical Christian scholars these past few years, I have no desire to see new ideas suppressed because their conclusions do not fit well with our theological traditions.

    Echoing back to CMP’s post on Doubt and Roman Catholic Scholarship, I wonder whether an Evangelical could ever be an honest scholar with Norman Geisler or the ETS looking over your shoulder?

  15. “But its a controversial suggestion Licona makes, and for good reason. ”

    Is it really that controversial? Other than with Geisler, I mean. I was surprised at Geisler’s letter when I first read them. I remember reading N.T. Wright putting forth a similar view in his widely acclaimed Resurrection of the Son of God a few years ago. Did that get questioned too? Or am I remembering that incorrectly? I’ll have to check when I get home…

  16. Big typo on my part. I meant to say I’m married to Mike’s daughter. Oh well. If someone can edit that that’d be great.

  17. My bad… I checked the book when I got home, and Wright did not put forth this view in Resurrection of the Son of God. He mentions something similar to it, along with other scenarios, but ultimately rejected them all opting instead for seeing it as a historical, if vague and “odd” in its telling.

  18. William Craig holds a similar position to that of Licona. In the book “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate Between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan” (Baker, 1998) Craig is responding to the liberal NT scholar Robert Miller who has said regarding the Matt 27.51-53:
    “To put it bluntly, there is no good reason to think that this event really happened.” (p. 90) Miller then goes on to talk about how Matthew wanted this section taken symbolically. (Miller uses this to advance the thesis that the entire resurrection narrative is symbolic and non-historical.) In response to this Craig states:
    “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.” (p. 165) Of course, Craig goes to defend the historicity of the rest of the resurrection narrative as well as the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I’m not persuaded by this Licona/Craig interpretation regarding Matt 27.51-53 but I wonder why Geisler didn’t go after Craig earlier? I would like to see more from Licona and Craig on how they see their views here are consistent with espoused views on inerrancy.

  19. ISTM that Geisler pulled a similar stunt in 1987 re: Murray J. Harris and his view of the resurrection, ultimately attacking Dr. Harris, TEDS, and The Evangelical Free Church of America. See Harris’ book From Grave to Glory: Resurrection in the New Testamen, Including a Response to Norman L. Geisler, 1990, Academie Books (Zonderan). ISBN 0-310-51991-8

  20. The editor/deleter doesn’t work. Please delete my response 20. I reworded it better in 21. Thanks!

  21. Wrong response deleted :( For some reason I can never get the Ajax editor or deleter to work right when I try to use it; IE seems worse than Firefox, though.

    Please rephrase my first sentence as:

    “ISTM that Geisler did something similar in 1987….”

    I shouldn’t have characterized Geisler’s behavior/response re: Harris as a “stunt,” because I assume he was being serious.

  22. J.P. Holding from has gotten involved now.

    Starting to get interesting!

  23. As I posted a comment earlier, it is essential to settle first what is meant by ‘inerrancy’. Here is one I just came across:

    RE Brown, The community of the Beloved Disciple, (1979 Paulist) p. 193, fn. 343:

    Inerrancy comes into play, not in reference to either the origin or historicity of a story like that of Cana, but in reference of its teaching “that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.” (Vatican II, Dei Verum, no. 11)

  24. I hope Mike Licona has the sense not to get drawn further into an internet squabble; they are rarely edifying.

  25. Mike won’t get in the internet squabble. That’s for the rest of us.

  26. I’ve come late to this post via the more recent December 2011 discussions about Geisler calling Licona a heretic.

    I think that this issue goes a long way to explaining why politicians never make definitive statements and you can seldom understand a legal document.

    I recently heard a radio show featuring Ron Gleason on the death penalty. He brought up the desire of people to demand 100% be it accuracy or whatever. 100% isn’t always possible and as Dirty Harry says “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

    Also many in the church have been talking about how relativistic our society has become. I think it is time for them to take a look at themselves and ask that question.

    Finally, this labeling people heretical is just starting. The Preterists and Dispensationalists take that view of each other. Young and Old Earth. Toss in Missional, Emerging, etc. and we’ve got more heretics that stakes and wood can handle.

  27. I see a lot of people bashing Dr Geisler here because he stands up for defending inerrancy of scripture and proper interpretation of scripture. The fact is Licona clearly admits to using methods outside the accepted practices adopted by ETS.

    Dr Geisler is not the only scholar who accepts the ICBI and ETS position on Biblical interpretation. As a member of ETS Licona says he accepts it too, but clearly does not follow it.

    This point should be obvious, but there is a difference between God-breathed, inspired by the Holy Spirit scripture and pagan literature and cultural practices. That is why Biblical interpretation is defined as it is by ETS and ICBI. The Bible is the inspired Word of God and is His revelation to us, not the words of some really smart men. To compare miracles of God to events in pagan history where such events may or may not have occurred seems…well, wrong.

    As Jeff Ayers #7 said, “The passage should be taken as it is written”. That’s what the writer conveyed as inspired by the Holy Spirit. Matthew Henry wrote in his concise commentary, “To whom they appeared, in what manner, and how they disappeared, we are not told; and we must not desire to be wise above what is written.” God inspired Matthew to write what he did and nothing else.

    Dr Geisler is correct in challenging those who attempt to put more meaning than what God intended and how they do it. The passage is what it is, amazing evidence of the power of God. Let’s stop trying to humanize and demythologize it.


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