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What do you do with zombies in Matthew? A call for help

I can just imagine it. I’m hanging out at home, trying to relax, when someone knocks on my front door. Normally I would just sit quietly and hope they go away. But, for some reason, this time I actually get up.

Hello….Um….Zechariah?

Yup.

Aren’t you dead?

Yup. Now be quiet and pay attention. I have something important to tell you.

Okey dokey. Dead guy tells me to pay attention. I’m paying attention. Of course, I’m also reaching behind the door for my pitchfork, or whatever zombie killing devices they used in ye old Israel.

The tombs were also 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. (Mt. 27:52-53)

There’s been a lot of discussion about this passage in the last few days. And, I have to admit, that I’ve never been terribly comfortable with it. What exactly are we supposed to make of a bunch of dead people who suddenly walk out of their tombs and go sight-seeing in Jerusalem?

Some years back I got into a discussion about this passage with a friend. And, I argued at the time that I thought maybe this should be interpreted non-historically. I hadn’t really studied the passage, so it was just speculation, but I pressed on it a bit and tried to argue that Matthew was using this as a symbol of a deeper theological truth. Many friend kept pushing back, though, and after a while I realized that I was only doing that because this passage seemed too weird to be true. Zombie sightseers? Really? That’s just too weird.

But, here’s the problem. “Too weird to be true” just isn’t a very good argument.

Of course, the story raises some interesting questions. Why don’t the dead come out right away? Why do they wait until after the resurrection? What happens after they go into Jerusalem? Do they just hang out for a while, or do they turn to dust at midnight? And, why doesn’t anyone else talk about this stuff? Shouldn’t more people be commenting on such an amazing event? Why is it only in Matthew?

But, although those are interesting questions, none of them really say anything about whether this actually happened. They just re-emphasize how weird this story is. And, I believe lots of things that seem pretty weird to many people: the Trinity, the incarnation, and the resurrection being rather high on that list. Those are weird, but I still believe them. Why is this any different?

Too-weird-to-be-true isn’t going to cut it.

But, quite a few people think there are reasons for reading this text non-historically. And, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their arguments go beyond my feeble too-weird-to-be-true “argument.” As we’ve seen over the last few days, Michael Licona holds this position, and both Mike Bird and John Byron have stated that they agree.

So, my question is: Why? Can anyone provide a good reason for reading Mt. 27:52-53 non-historically? I’m not even all that concerned with whether you agree with the argument, as long as it’s a good (or at least interesting) one. What are the best reasons for reading this passage as anything other than historical narrative? And, just to be clear, it has to be better than too-weird-to-be-true.

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When is an inerrancy debate not really about inerrancy?

Most of the time.

I hadn’t intended to write more about the Licona controversy and the inerrancy debate (here’s my first post), but I’ve gotten enough questions that I think I need to say a bit more. If you’d like to read more about the discussion, I’ve included some of the more important links at the bottom of this post.

The Basic Issues

  • Michael Licona understands the dead rising in Mt. 27:52-53 as a non-historical literary device rather than an actual historical event.
  • Many have argued that this is incompatible with inerrancy as defined by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) because it’s an example of “dehistoricizing” (see Article XVIII).
  • Licona claims that he believes in inerrancy and that his position on Mt. 27 is not incompatible with inerrancy. (I do not know whether Licona affirms inerrancy as defined by CSBI. But, for the sake of this post, I’ll assume that he does.)
  • Somebody is wrong.

According to CSBI, to affirm that the Bible is “inerrant” means you affirm that because God only speaks truth, and because the Bible is fully and wholly inspired by this truth-speaking God, the Bible speaks with “infallible divine authority” and is “without error or fault in all its teaching.” And, this infallible inerrancy extends to everything that it touches on, including “the events of world history.” So, for example, if the Bible makes a historical claim like “David was the king of Israel,” then it either must be the case that David was in fact an actual and historical king of Israel or inerrancy is false.

And CSBI is very clear in rejecting any attempt to “dehistoricize” scripture by turning historical events into non-historical events. In other words, you don’t get to dodge the Virgin Birth by turning it into a mere symbol of Christ’s unique significance. If the Bible presents it as an historical event, then it was one. You can reject the CSBI definition of inerrancy, but you can’t slip around it quite that easily.

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

Like most things, it’s a bit more complicated in practice.

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The Real Crux of the Problem: Hermeneutics

All of this hinges on whether the Bible does in fact present some event as an actual historical event. Take, for instance, the six days of creation. Although many hold that Genesis 1 is historical and must be read that way, many other evangelicals disagree. Instead, they contend that Genesis 1 is doing something else (e.g. giving theological truths about the origin of the universe, offering a poetic account of creation, etc.). But, and this is key, when evangelicals read Genesis 1 in these ways, they are not rejecting inerrancy. They can still hold that Genesis 1 is infallible and inerrant in every way. They are simply arguing that the biblical authors never intended anyone to read Genesis 1 as describing literal, historical events. So, to read them that way is to misread the text.

In other words, it’s not that they think Genesis 1 tries to describe history and fails. They don’t think it is even trying to describe history, or it’s describing history with highly poetic language. It’s not wrong; it’s just doing something different. And, whatever it’s doing, it’s doing it inerrantly.

Now, is this an example of dehistoricizing a text? Are these people simply taking an obviously historical text and turning it into non-history so that they can avoid its clear implications? If so, then even though these people might still use the word “inerrancy,” it would not be the CSBI kind of inerrancy.

I don’t think so. I think we should reserve “dehistoricizing” for situations where a story that gives no indication of being anything other than historical is suddenly re-read as being non-historical. So, for example, to read the story of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and conclude that this never really happened, and that the story actually refers to the spiritual gathering of believers in heaven, that would be an example of dehistoricizing. (I don’t know anyone who actually does that with this story.) There’s nothing in the text to suggest that this is anything other than an historical account of a real event (though described, of course, from a particular perspective). But, regardless of how you read Genesis 1, I think we should all recognize that there are reasonable arguments for reading it as something other than six literal days of creation. You can disagree with those arguments, of course. That’s where the fun is. But, let’s at least acknowledge that these people can point to many elements in Genesis 1 as indicating that this text was never intended to be read as literal history. So, they’re not simply dehistoricizing; they’re trying to read the text the way the authors intended.

In other words, this isn’t a debate about inerrancy. It’s about hermeneutics. What is the proper way to understand Genesis 1, and are there indications in Genesis 1 that it is anything other than straightforward history? What is the genre of Genesis 1, and how did the original authors intend for it to be read? These are all hermeneutical issues. And, they’re all worth discussing. But, none of them necessarily undermines inerrancy.

Now, CSBI does deal with issues of hermeneutics, but not very thoroughly. All it says is that Scripture is “to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis.” And this doesn’t really solve our problem. As CSBI recognizes, grammatical-historical exegesis takes into account things like genre and literary devices. So, a grammatical-historical method could still read Genesis 1 as poetry (or whatever) if there are indications that this is how the text should be read.

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Hermeneutics & the Licona Debate

What does any of this have to do with the Licona debate? Quite simply, this is not a debate about inerrancy either. Everyone involved in the discussion affirms inerrancy. And, I haven’t heard anyone say that they’re defining inerrancy in any way other than that affirmed by CSBI. So, let’s take them at their word and assume that they do in fact believe what they say they do.

As with Genesis 1, this is a debate about hermeneutics. Licona claims that Matthew intended for us to read 27:52-53 as an “apocalyptic” device that highlights the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. According to him, this was a common literary device in Greco-Roman culture and that Matthew would have expected his readers to know this and read the text accordingly. In other words, he’s not saying that Matthew claimed that people rose from the dead and that Matthew was in fact wrong about this. He’s saying that Matthew never intended us to think that people actually rose from their graves.

So, the question is not whether Licona rejects inerrancy, but whether he is correct in his interpretation of Mt. 27:52-53. Does he in fact have good evidence for maintaining that this is how Matthew and his readers would have understood this text? In other words, can he demonstrate that “rising from the grave” was a literary device and would have been understood as such in Matthew’s day? That’s a hermeneutical question.

Now, I’ll have to be honest here, I’m not convinced by Licona’s argument. Mt. 27:52-53 sure looks and feels like a seamless part of the historical narrative in which it’s contained. So, I’m having a hard time seeing the basis for saying that these verses are a non-historical literary device, while the surrounding verses are historical. But, I haven’t studied the text myself. So, maybe there’s more to the argument than I recognize.

The point is, this is a debate about hermeneutics. It is not a debate about inerrancy. It could end up having implications for inerrancy if the hermeneutical issues are resolved and it’s concluded that this was not an accepted literary device in Matthew’s day. To continue reading the text as poetic then would be to dehistoricize the text and reject inerrancy. But, that is not where we are in the discussion at this point.

So, let me say it again. This is not a debate about inerrancy. At least, it shouldn’t be. And, escalating it into a debate about inerrancy at this juncture is neither wise nor helpful. It distracts from the real issues and prevents people from taking an honest look at what may be a legitimate interpretive possibility.

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For More Information:

I’m sure there are many others, but this should be more than enough.

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