Ten Reasons for the Historicity of the Resurrection of the Saints in Matthew 27
Norman L. Geisler 2011
The text in question reads: “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt 27:50-53).
In The Resurrection of Jesus, Mike Licona denies the historicity of what he calls this “strange little text” (548), claiming that it is not to be “taken literally” (527) but is “legend” (34) or a “poetical device” (553) in “eschatological Jewish” (552) language, providing “special effects” (552) for His death and the “impending judgment” (553).
However, there are many good reasons to reject this “dehistoricizing” of the text:
1. This passage is part of a historical narrative in a historical record—the Gospel of Matthew. Both the larger setting (the Gospel of Matthew) and the specific context (the crucifixion and resurrection narrative) demand the presumption of historicity, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary in the text, its context, or in other Scripture—which there is not.
2. This text manifests no literary signs of being poetic or legendary, such as those found in parables, poems, or symbolic presentations.* Hence, it should be taken in the sense in which it presents itself, namely, as factual history.
3. This passage gives no indication of being a legendary embellishment, but it is a short, simple, straight-forward account in the exact style one expects in a brief historical narrative.
4. This event occurs in the context of other important historical events—the death and resurrection of Christ—and there is no indication that it is an insertion foreign to the text. To the contrary, the repeated use of “and” shows its integral connection to the other historical events surrounding the report.
5. The resurrection of these saints is presented as the result of the physical historical resurrection of Christ. For these saints were resurrected only “after” Jesus was resurrected and as a result of it (Matt 27:53) since Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the dead (1Cor 15:20). It makes no sense to claim that a legend emerged as the immediate result of Jesus’ physical resurrection. Nor would it have been helpful to the cause of early Christians in defending the literal resurrection of Christ for them to incorporate legends, myths, or apocalyptic events alongside His actual resurrection in the inspired text of Scripture.
6. Early Fathers of the Christian Church, who were closer to this event, took it as historical, sometimes even including it as an apologetic argument for the resurrection of Christ (e.g., Irenaeus, Fragments, XXVIII; Origen, Against Celsus, Book II, Article XXXIII; Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, Chap. XIII).
7. The record has the same pattern as the historical records of Jesus’ physical and historical resurrection: (a) there were dead bodies; (b) they were buried in a tomb; (c) they were raised to life again; (d) they came out of the tomb and left it empty; (e) they appeared to many witnesses.
8. An overwhelming consensus of the great orthodox teachers of the Church for the past nearly two thousand years supports the view that this account should be read as a historical record, and, consequently, as reporting historical truth.
9. Modern objections to a straight-forward acceptance of this passage as a true historical narrative are based on a faulty hermeneutic, violating sound principles of interpretation. For example, they (a) make a presumptive identification of its genre, based on extra-biblical sources, rather than analyzing the text for its style, grammar, and content in its context; or, (b) they use events reported outside of the Bible to pass judgment on whether or not the biblical event is historical.
10. The faulty hermeneutic principles used in point 9 could be used, without any further justification, to deny other events in the gospels as historical. Since there is no hermeneutical criterion of “magnitude,” the same principles could also be used to relegate events such as the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Christ to the realm of legend.
Six Reasons Why Denying the Historicity of this Text is Contrary to the Doctrine of Inerrancy
1. The historic doctrine of Inerrancy affirms the complete truthfulness of all of Scripture “in all matters upon which it touches” including “the events of world history.” Thus, the Gospel narratives (of which Matthew 27:50-53 is one) should not be “dehistoricized” (see ICBI “Chicago Statement on Inerrancy,” Article XVIII and “A Short Statement” nos. 2 and 4).
2. Affirming the historical truth of this text in Matthew 27 has been the overwhelming consensus of the great orthodox teachers of the Christian Church for the past nearly 2000 years. So, any denial of its historicity has virtually the whole weight of Christian history against it.
3. The largest organization of scholars in the world who affirm inerrancy (The Evangelical Theological Society) declared that views like this that dehistoricize the Gospel record are incompatible with inerrancy, and, hence, they asked a member (Robert Gundry) to resign by an overwhelming vote (in 1983) because he had denied the historicity of sections in Matthew. The only real difference to Licona’s approach in Matthew 27 is one of the type of extra-biblical literature used— apocalyptic vs. midrash.
4. The official statements of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), the largest group of international scholars to formulate an extended statement on inerrancy, explicitly exclude views like this that “dehistoricize” Gospel narratives. As a member of the ICBI drafting committee, I know for certain that views like Robert Gundry’s were a specific target when it declared: “We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching…” (“Chicago Statement on Inerrancy,” Article XVIII), and “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightfully be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual” (Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics, XIII).
5. The ETS has adopted the ICBI understanding of inerrancy as their guide in determining its meaning. And the ETS excluded a member who dehistoricized sections of the Gospel like this. And it was because of instances like this, where members redefine doctrinal statements to suit their own beliefs, that the International Society of Christian Apologetics (www.isca–apologetics.org) added this sentence: “This doctrine is understood as the one expressed by the Framers of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in its ‘Chicago Statement’ and as interpreted by the official ICBI Commentary on it.”
6. Neither the Evangelical Theological Society nor ICBI, in their official statements and actions, have allowed divorcing hermeneutics from inerrancy by making the vacuous claim that one could hold to inerrancy regardless of the hermeneutical method he employed and the conclusions to which it leads, even if it dehistoricized the creation story, the death of Christ, or His resurrection. If they did, then they would no longer be an “Evangelical” theological society.
*One figure of speech, “asleep,” is used which means literal death (John 11:11, 14; 1 Thess. 4:15, 16).