Norman Geisler has recently been emailing a petition against Mike Licona to members of the Evangelical Theological Society. I have been able to obtain a copy of the petition. Please download the petition here. (I have not edited the petition in any way except for removing Geisler’s email at the bottom since that is private information).
My conclusion about this whole situation and petition is that this is presumptuous and a demonstration of either a refusal, inability, or lack of attention to sources, context, and footnotes (Yes, he actually blatantly ignored footnotes…). Additionally, this is a complete abuse and neglect of the scholarly process of handling the material in a way to wrestle with the claims and issues being made. There is no consideration for the evidence Licona uses. This is embarrassing. This is what one may expect from a bad blog by someone who has no credentials. This isn’t following the evidence. Below are the points of contention Geisler has listed on the petition. All formatting is original and emphases are Geisler’s.
“There is somewhat of a consensus among contemporary scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography (bios). Bioi offered the ancient biographer great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches…and they often included legend. Because bios was a flexible genre, it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (34, emphasis added in this and following citations).
I’m not sure what the problem is here. Is it that Licona identifies the Gospels as bios or does Geisler not like the implications bios has on genre and literary elements? What you don’t see in this petition is the footnote that takes up nearly a whole page. Licona goes on to discuss the issue of demarcation between history and legend by precedent of Lucian, Eusebius, and Tacitus. Again, what’s the problem with this? First year Bible students learn the genre of the Gospels as Greco-Roman biography and Licona brings another element of the genre to our attention. I’m not quite sure why this is problematic.
“For this reason, we get a sense that the canonical Gospels are reading authentic reports of Jesus’ arrest and death…even if some embellishments are present” (306).
I’m convinced Geisler did not read the whole context of the given text. Prior to this sentence, Licona is describing the historical evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion and the historical context. Given the data Licona is using, certain elements (particularly those that may be embarrassing) were either added or removed. Licona qualifies this when he says “[a third] evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is that the Passion Narratives appear largely credible given their satisfying of the criterion of embarrassment and the plausibility of certain peripheral details” (just read the preceding paragraph). Even so, these aspects are peripheral and still do justice to the historicity of the resurrection. Also, just read the next sentence. Licona adds that the embarrassing elements weigh in favor of the presence of historical kernels and that there is great plausibility to the execution of Jesus and that details that may or may not have been embellished are peripheral, Licona makes that quite clear.
“A possible candidate for embellishment is Jn 18:4-6” (306, n. 114).
My comments of the preceding citation would be applicable here as well. Just to give the context of this footnote, here’s the rest of it: “We may also note with L.T. Johnson (1996) that ‘in none of the canonical Gospels is the scandal of the cross removed in favor of the divine glory’ such as seen in the Gnostic gospels (150).
“It can forthrightly be admitted that the data surrounding what happened to Jesus is fragmentary and could possibly be mixed with legend, as Wedderburn notes. We may also be reading poetic language of legend at certain points, such as Matthew’s report of the raising of some dead saints at Jesus’ death (Mt 27:51-54) and the angels at the tomb (Mk 16:5-7; Mt 28:2-7; Lk 24:4-7; Jn 20:11-13) (185-186).
The whole point of this section is that given certain elements of bios “it is unlikely that the historian may conclude what is true beyond all doubt on these matters.” Licona is wrestling with the task of defining the line of demarcation between what are elements of the historian’s “horizons.” The nature of bios introduces the task determining such a demarcation because rarely ever is there raw facts. Is should be easily conceded given the differences in the Gospels and what the authors report, the details, and the way the report them vary depending on what the authors are trying to convey. This is hardly problematic in recognizing categorically. Indexing what passages are and are not raw facts is the task at hand–where it can be problematic. However, where there is not a clear line of demarcation we should be willing to acknowledge these as problematic and leave our dogmatic interpretations to the side while we practice our scholarship and debate these indexicals and where the line of demarcation rests. Additionally, why didn’t Geisler note Licona’s modesty in the claims about the poetic elements? Here’s the footnote to the whole passage. Footnote 180 on page 186 reads:
“That angels are part of a poetical genre is not so strongly supported. However, R. Brown (1993) argues they are “describing God’s visible presence among men” (260; see also 129, 156). Quintilian provides a list of devices for praising gods and men in Greco-Roman writings (Instiutio Oratoria 3.7.10-18), although angels are not included in the list. Josephus reports that he employed beautiful narrative, a harmony of words and adornment of speech in his writing of history in order to provide a reading experience that is both gracious and pleasurable, although he was careful to omit no facts and to conform to the standards expected of historians in his day (Ant. 14.1-3). See also Eccles 12:10.”
There is “…‘a weird residual fragment’ in Matthew (Mt. 27:52-53). If taken literally, there would have been many, perhaps hundreds of empty tombs around Jerusalem on that first Easter” (527-528).
I don’t know how to respond to this one. I’m utterly flabbergasted. I can offer two answers. Either Geisler is utterly irresponsible or he is intentionally misleading. Licona is discussing a view offered my John Dominc Crossan. If he read the few sentences prior to this to give a context or if he even knew the section (5.5) was all about Crossan! Additionally, pay no attention to footnote 242, which appears right after “that first Easter.” Footnote 242 attributes this to “Crossan, ‘Appendix’ in Stewart, ed. (2006), 182; cf. Crossan in Crossan and Wright, ‘Dialogue’ in Stewart, ed. (2006), 27.” Again, either Geisler was incredibly irresponsible in reading this section and reading the footnotes or he is being intentionally misleading. I’ll let you decide on which one it is.
“This strange report in Matthew 27:52-53 attempts to retain the corporate harrowing of hell and the individual preascension appearances. However, ‘the magnificent harrowing of hell is already lost in that fragment’s present redaction’” (530).
First of all, pay no attention to the footnotes at the bottom of the page. The footnote to this passage reads: “Crossan in Stewart, ed. (20060, 181.” Additionally, is it wrong to say something is “strange?” Strange things plague the Bible in many different genres. Surely, I cannot be the only one to think it was strange for Lot’s wife to be turned in to a pillar of salt. How about the book of Revelation?
“This brings us to that strange little text in Matthew 27:52-53, where upon Jesus’ death the dead saints are raised and walk in the city of Jerusalem…. Raymond E. Brown notes that similar phenomena were reported at the death of Romulus and Julius Caesar…. In a clearly poetic account, Virgil reports that the following sixteen phenomena occurred after Caesar’s death:..” (548).
Again, there isn’t anything dishonest or wrong in believing something to be strange nor does it contribute to dehistorization. Remember the preceding context and the discussion Licona is having. These poetic elements were added to engage the reader. Similar to the way salt functions with food and flavor so does poetry to the narrative. It’s not an implicit or explicit denial of the historicity of the events of which the narrative includes. This is purely a literary element historians used when using bios. When comparing the phenomena of the earth shaking, pale phantoms being seen, and other phenomena, Licona is doing this to show the role of poetry in bios. Would Geisler be more upset if Licona said that these accounts literally happened? If these phenomena related to the deaths of Romulus and Caesar were literally true how should we compare it to the phenomena following the death of Jesus? Should we dismiss the Roman accounts as simply being wrong? By what standards should we dismiss them? Such hypotheticals are only to show the implications of how historical events in bios are to be understood if we dismiss the evidence of potentially qualifying poetic elements.
“…it seems to me that an understanding of the language in Matthew 27:52-53 as ‘special effects’ with eschatological Jewish texts and thought in mind is most plausible…. Matthew may simply be emphasizing that the great king has died. If he had one or more of the Jewish texts in mind, he may be proclaiming the day of the Lord has come” (552).
I simply don’t know how we should interpret this text. I take the agnostic position. However, I don’t see how this is a denial of inerrancy. Given the historical perspective supported by eschatological Jewish texts Matthew may have intended this to be apocalyptic imagery. If this is what Matthew meant and this is how the readers would understand it then I see no problem. It would be problematic if Matthew intended it to be literal and Licona denied it as literally happening but that’s not the situation here. Wherever there is debate as to the genre of a particular passage surely Geisler won’t accuse one or both parties of denying inerrancy. Apparently, there is no room for literary debate for Geisler and certain SBC leaders.
“It seems best to regard this difficult text in Matthew as a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that impending judgment awaited Israel” (553). (Emphasis added in all these quotations.)
See my above comments. Note: We cannot render certain texts as difficult. Biblical grammatico-historical exegesis should never be regarded as a difficult task. (I’m being sarcastic to show the ridiculousness of all of this).
Geisler’s right, the issue is methodological, but Licona’s methodology is far more reliable and evidentially supported than Geisler’s methodology. This isn’t scholarship. It would be irresponsible for anyone to respond to Geisler’s petition without researching the issues themselves. Once one goes back and examines Geisler’s contentions it will be clear that he’s way out of line and unsubstantiated.
Is Geisler just being irresponsible when it comes to scholarship or is he being intentionally misleading? You decide.