Licona’s basis for assigning Matt. 27:52-53 to Jewish Apocalyptic language or poetic device is incongruent with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy for two fundamental reasons. It abandons the grammatico-historical method and it uses external pagan sources resulting in the dehistoricization of the biblical text.
The temptation for each of us is to lean upon something other than Scripture to explain events or teachings in Scripture that threaten our highly prized trophies. For me, it seems the temptation for Dr. Licona is to find a solution to “the strange little text” in Matthew leaning “mostly” on his trophy of a purely historiographical method. I am not casting stones at the method at all. What I am saying is that this method also has an ethical component and since it is a Christian scholar employing it, he is obligated to subject even that method to the Christian ethic. I have read Mohler’s, Geisler’s, and Holding’s response to Licona’s treatment of the passage. I side with Mohler and Geisler in their view that Licona’s exegetical method is not in keeping with a proper view of Inerrancy, especially the one outlined in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
The first problem I see with Licona’s treatment of this event is that it is not guided by the grammatico-historical method. There is no good reason not to begin with historical narrative in this text. After all, one third to one half of these phenomena are recorded in the other gospels. Would it make sense for Matthew to mix in actual historical events with poetry without any literary distinctions whatever? There simply is no good reason to read Matthew as recording anything other than historical narrative in this text.
Secondly, Licona seems to elevate historiography to a place he should not: a place where all historical narratives mentioned in Scripture must be provable using its methods to maintain fidelity. Otherwise, we may just have to abandon the grammatico-historical method for something that does not threaten our trophy. Just as the scientist refuses to believe what science cannot explain and the rationalist rejects anything that does not comport with his theoretical framework, the historian has trouble accepting anything that cannot be proven using the historical method. Scientists may worship the scientific method. Rationalists worship reason. Historians can be guilty of worshiping historical method. I am not saying that Licona is in fact guilty of this. However, I am saying that his language and method of interpreting this text run perilously close to that appearance. I think this is the slippery slope Geisler frets about and rightly so. After all, it is not as if we have not seen it before. When the scientist encounters anything in Scripture that threatens his trophy known as the scientific method, he revises Scripture to harmonize it with his trophy. When the Scripture confounds the rationalist, he does the same. We have also seen the historian revise Scripture time and again so that it comports with his ultimate commitment to the historical method.
Finally, to answer the question regarding Licona’s violation of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy we turn to the Statement itself. Article XVIII of the Statement says, We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.
It seems to me that Licona wonders from the GH method in his exegesis of Matt. 27:51-54. It also seems clear that Licona does call on external sources to dehistoricize Matthew’s record, which the GH method would understand as simple historical narrative and therefore a literal resurrection of saints. Licona refers to Raymond Brown’s own reference to the reports of the death of Romulus and Julius Caesar. This seems to be the very thing the Statement on Inerrancy condemns when it denies the legitimacy of going to such sources that lead to this dehistoricizing that Licona engages in.
R.T. France comments on this text, “We can only speculate on what a cinecamera might have recorded, and on why the appearance of “many” dead worthies to “many” people left no other trace in historical sources. As with many of Jesus’ scientifically unexplainable miracles, Matthew is not interested in satisfying our natural curiosity or answering empirical skepticism.” [France, R.T. NICNT, Mathew, 1081]
Even N.T. Wright comments, “But it remains the case that the events Matthew describes in 27.51-3, as well as being without parallel in other early Christian sources, are without precedent in second-Temple expectation, and we may doubt whether stories such as this would have been invented simply to ‘fulfill’ prophecies that nobody had understood this way before. This is hardly a satisfactory conclusion, but it is better to remain puzzled than to settle for either a difficult argument or the possibility. Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms, there is no way of finding out.”
This last sentence in Wright seems to me to be the most plausible explanation for Licona’s interpretation of Matt. 27:53-54. Since Licona is predisposed to historical method, the temptation is to rely on that method too heavily rather than the simple record of Scripture itself. Scripture was not written to satisfy our every curiosity. There are theological implications in this event that Licona does not address. I do not find fault in this fact because it is not the purpose of Licona’s work to provide a theological treatise of the resurrection. However, Scripture was not simply written to provide us with a record of redemptive history. Even historical narrative serves to transform our hearts and renovate our philosophy and worldview. This event in Matt. 27:51-53 looks forward to a coming resurrection of all those who place their faith in Christ. Because he lives, we too shall live forevermore. Even historians should account for this purpose in the biblical text when seeking to harmonize historical narrative with historical method.
Licona violates the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy because he permits his overreliance on historical method to cause him to deviate from the grammatico-historical method in his exegesis of this passage. Secondly, he introduces external sources that, in the end, result in a dehisotiricizing of the text in question. These movements violate the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, article XVIII. Moreover, an overreliance on the historical method to the subjugation of the grammatico-historical exegesis logically lends itself to a denial of inerrancy, or at a minimum, a far more liberal definition of it. The starting point once more brings us back to the question of authority. Is the Bible the Word of God because it passes the test of the historical method? Conversely, is it the Word of God because it is self-attesting, produced by God Himself? If we rely on anything other than the Word of God to demonstrate that the Bible is the Word of God, then authority necessary resides outside Scripture. The implications for inerrancy in this case are enormous.