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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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


For More Information:

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


Flotsam and jetsam (1/25)

Religious beliefs should never be privileged over other beliefs, simply by virtue of being religious. Either a particular belief is relevant to eligibility for employment or it is not.

So I’m beginning to wonder if it’s “a wrap” on this whole “missional” movement splash, especially in terms of church planting? I can definitely see the wind being taken out of the sails for some. I’ve been particularly curious about crickets I hear when bringing up a few issues among missional Christians:

More importantly for us, the interpretive principle by which one ancient interpreter handled this specific issue is a very common one in contemporary Christian interpretation: using other parts of the Bible to inform our interpretation of Genesis. The question, then, is: how our application of this principle differs from this one example below, if at all?

From the point of view of biblical faith, there is no inherent value in suffering. Like much that is evil in our world, human suffering is a perversion and a disruption of what should be. It has entered the world because of the dislocation of the relationship between human beings and their creator – the good God who purposed his creation for his own delight and that of his creatures. Suffering is an aberration – it has no value for its own sake. It is not good in and of itself. In the Psalms of the Old Testament, we read some impassioned pleas to God about the absurdity of suffering.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/24)

Arminians affirm everything necessary for a fully evangelical soteriology; Calvinists require more.  Why?

I simply want to introduce you to a side of him that you may not know, and hopefully to persuade you that he does, after all, belong to the human race. And I want to do that by focusing on two of his close friendships.

I have been taught the historical-grammatical approach to biblical hermeneutics both as an undergraduate student and as a graduate student. It has been useful, but it always left me wondering how this approach allows for the Scriptures to be the book of the church rather than merely an open source. It was not until this last semester when I encountered the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer that my paradigm was shaken.

  • Denny Burk offers a lengthy discussion of the textual problem in Luke 23:34 and why think thinks many experts are wrong when they conclude that Jesus’ prayer “Father, forgive them…” was not original.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/7)

  • Matthew Flanagan has begun posting a revised version of his argument regarding the genocide of the Canaanites. Today’s post argues that Joshua should be read as hagiography rather than literal history:

Thus Joshua itself appears to be full of ritualistic, stylised, formulaic language. It therefore looks like something other than a mere literal description of what occurred. In light of these facts Wolterstorff argues that Judges should be taken literally whereas Joshua is hagiographic history; a highly-stylised, exaggerated account of what occurred, designed to teach theological and moral points rather than to describe in detail what actually happened.

  • iMonk reflects on the significance of the Christian calendar after Epiphany.

But for now, in these days following Epiphany, it is time for one remarkable Jesus-prompted surprise and delight after another! Our minds boggle and heads shake at the insightful words Jesus speaks. Our jaws drop in amazed wonder to see him exercise power over nature, bring wholeness to broken lives, and restore vitality where death once reigned. Fear and dread knot our stomachs as cosmic conflict erupts. But Christ speaks with authority, and all is peace.

  • And, here’s a list of the Top 10 Bizarre Toys for Kids. I have to warn you, some of these are seriously twisted and I’m pretty sure that I’m going to need therapy now. The “God Almighty” toy at the top of this post comes from this list.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/5)

  • Adam Copeland offers a discussion between a Twitter lover and a Twitter skeptic on Twitter Theology.

    I’m saying the Twitter community is one way—and a very helpful and cool way—of experiencing, showing, and living out those connections of our Church-connected theology.

    Somehow, however, as we have left allegory behind, perhaps killing it off precisely because of its religious origins, we have ended up leaving viewers and readers with oddly literalistic interpretive skills.

    So yeah, the coffee tastes a little burnt, it’s often hard to find a table, and occasionally they play Willie Nelson. But I’m sticking with it, because for all the prayers I’ve prayed, the conversations I’ve had where I felt the Holy Spirit move, for all the significant moments on my journey that I’ve had and am yet to have at St. Arbucks, I’m grateful.

    • Bill Mounce discusses “church nice” – our tendency to ignore sin for the sake of “peace.”

    Isn’t it interesting how explicit Scripture is? If you have something against someone, it is your responsibility to go to them (Matt 18:15). If you know your brother or sister has something against you, it is your responsibility to go to them (Matt 5:23-24). It is always yourresponsibility.

    Flotsam and jetsam (12/27)

    This article challenges that belief by questioning some of Dembski’s assumptions, pointing out some limitations of his analysis, and arguing that a design inference is necessarily a faith-based rather than a scientific inference.

    I conclude that most if not all of Foucault’s condemnatory remarks concerning the subject are not intended as a death sentence for the subject per se; rather, his objective is to lay to rest a particular socio-historical construction of the subject and subjectivity. That is, Foucault’s critique is directed expressly at themodern construction of an ahistorical, autonomous subject as sovereign originator of meaning, one untainted by his own particular historical and socio-political context.

    Pride – Plagiarism is driven by the refusal of limitation. A student comes up against their own intellectual limits, the time allotted in a busy semester, etc., and, unwilling to accept limitation, compensates by deception.

    Deconstruction and Hermeneutics: Placing Jacques Derrida and Hans-Georg Gadamer in Non-Dialog (Paper)

    The PDF document that I am providing for download is a copy of the paper I wrote for the Th.M. class where we explored the relationship between philosophy and (Christian) theology. I should note that it was a better writing experience than it is a paper. I decided to take on the overwhelming tasks of juxtaposing Hans-Georg Gadamer and his philosophical hermeneutics with Jacques Derrida and “deconstruction”.

    What will make this paper frustrated for the reader is that I go back and forth between writing for a novice and writing for someone familiar with the subject. In part, this is likely because I wrote as a novice trying to become more familiar with the subject so there was an evolution in my own thinking over the course of working on this project. Also, as anyone who has studied Gadamer and/or Derrida could have told me, if the paper is going to be around five thousand words just focus on one person. There is no way to give either philosopher sufficient attention at twenty five hundred words a piece.

    So now that I have told you why not to read it let me tell you why you may want to read it: the subject is interesting. Gadamer and Derrida met in person in 1981 to discuss this very relationship. Many people are still baffled at the results. I will leave it you to decide on one thing: does reading this paper make you want to know more about either Gadamer or Derrida? If so, I count it a success.

    Download here: LePort. Deconstruction and Hermeneutics


    Incorporating Lyotard’s Narratives: How Does the Gospel Stand Out?

    [This is a guest post by Andy Peloquin and is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

    James K. A. Smith in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? outlines the implications of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s definition of postmodern as the “incredulity toward metanarratives” on Christianity.  Smith states that Lyotard’s definition has been “bumper stickered” into a misconception of his critique of modernity, especially by Christians who see a threat to the Christian narrative of God’s overreaching purpose found in scripture.  He states that this misconception is to be found in misunderstanding what Lyotard means by metanarrative.  It is often thought to regard a story great in scope, but Smith indicates that this was not Lyotard’s concern.  Rather it was the nature of the narrative’s claims: “metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal stories do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason.” (65)  Thus there exist grand stories in non-modern periods but the distinguishing fact in modernism is legitimization to a universal.  This concept of legitimacy is what Smith indicates is the focal point for Lyotard to demark between modern and postmodern.  For modernity, it is science (universal reason) that legitimates its claim. Science is in opposition to narrative which does not attempt to legitimize its claims but only declare them in a story (65).  This point is important for Smith to draw out in order to claim that Lyotard’s denunciation of metanarratives is good for the church.  In brief summary, Smith indicates the Church has co-opted the modern methodology and so attempts to rationalize scripture through the use of reason.  Instead the church should simply proclaim the narrative of scripture on its own terms without worrying about legitimization.  Thus the church can legitimately speak of the grand story of scripture on its own grounds without compromising that story.  The problem that Smith notes, however, is that you then have a plurality of these narratives which are in themselves all legitimate, with none able to appeal to a higher judge of legitimacy.

    How does this then affect our proclamation and defense of the gospel?  Smith critiques what he calls the classic view of apologetics as being modern in its use of reasoning.  He advocates for a ‘presuppositional’ style in which all presuppositions are laid out and then the gospel is proclaimed in its narrative through the power of the Holy Spirit.  I think this is the greatest difficulty to overcome and I was a little disappointed in the lack of explanation/exposition of this.

    If the Christian story is one of many other equally legitimate stories and there cannot be an appeal to a higher judge to show one better than the other, than how can we speak clearly the message of the gospel among so many voices?  I like Smith’s appeal to the Holy Spirit but I would have liked a more robust defense and explanation here of what this looks like in the everyday.  What do we do with a culture (such as in Portland) that evaluates all these stories as equally legitimate (‘what works for you’) and/or thinks they are just the same story leading to the same end (religious pluralism)?  What is more, what do we do with this apologetic in the context of a culture (such as Chinese) that already easily syncretizes various religious systems and so would have no problem with accepting the gospel or just parts, into their narrative – especially if they see them as equally legitimate?  How do you adequately address the uniqueness of the Christian faith story as we see given in it (i.e. Jn. 14:6) in this system?

    Is Objectivity lost, or just playing hide-and-go-seek? Smith, Derrida, Carson, and maybe even Sailhamer

    [This is a guest post by Tim Hankins and is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

    In the second chapter of Who’s Afraid of Post-modernism, Smith argues that Derrida‘s assertion “there is nothing outside the text” is not the villain that the caricaturization by some in the Church have made it out to be. He does so by examining “whether Derrida’s claim that everything is interpretation is antithetical to orthodox Christianity.” Indeed he posits that Derrida’s assertion is appropriate and useful. His argument can be framed in the contrast between his fictional renditions of the events of the cross as seen by two fictitious natives of Jerusalem. The first is from the perspective of a Jew who saw Jesus as a pathetic Nazarene whose followers were deluded, the second from the perspective of a Roman centurion who proclaimed that truly this man is the son of God. He argues that both saw the same events and yet each had differing interpretations of those events. From this model, Smith argues that the Gospels themselves are interpretations and that is a good thing.  Conversely, Smith disagrees with Carson’s argument in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, that if the Gospels are only an interpretation then we can’t know if they are true. Smith pronounces that Carson’s argument “simply conflates truth with objectivity”. He posits that truth does not require objectivity.

    I will readily admit that I have not read a translation of Derrida’s On Grammatology in English much less in Derrida’s French, so I have to assume that Smith accurately represents Derrida. Having said that, Smith presents Derrida as arguing against the trend to get at the events behind the text, that the reader’s access to those events is through the text itself, so that “there is nothing outside the text” (p.38). At this point it seems that Derrida is in cahoots with Sailhamer, so that Sailhamer’s Text or Event argument in Introduction to Old Testament Theology is simply a biblical application of Derrida’s principle. Yes the events themselves happened, but scripture is the divine interpretation, the “God’s Associated Press” news articles on (then) current events. This idea does have much to commend it. First and foremost, as Derrida and his sidekick Sailhamer profess, attempts to reconstruct the events from the accounts given in the text miss the point, it is the text that informs us, the text that is inspired, the text that we learn from, not the events. We cannot access the events themselves. We have no window, no fourth dimensional rewind to use to go back and watch the events of which the Bible speaks for ourselves. What is more, even if we did, we might have a very different take than what is written in scripture!  So we necessarily are to rely on the text because it is God’s interpretation on those events, and thus by definition TRUE. Apologetically then this view might provide Christians a way to refute differing claims, other interpretations of the events depicted in scripture; that just because someone else interprets the events differently does not invalidate the divine scriptural interpretation or make it any less TRUE.

    I am quite comfortable with Smith’s argument thus far, at least assuming I am correctly understanding and representing him here. But within the larger discussion of subjectivity and objectivity, Smith is identifying the events as the objective, and interpretation of those events as subjective interpretation. Yet it is at this point in his argument that I find Smith’s argument to become a bit . . . squirrely. Up to this point he has pretty solidly used the events as the object, text as subjective interpretation, but without warning he shifts the object to the text (scripture) and the subject to the readers of scripture (p.51 Texts in Community). He suddenly starts “applying” his principle in interpretation of scripture, a distinctly different subject than scripture as the interpretation of events. Yet he does not even camp out here, but the shifts once again (p. 54 Seeing the World through the Word) so that the object is the world and we are the subjects interpreting the things we see, which he argues should be through the interpretive lens of scripture. While objectivity is not necessarily Smith’s main point, he makes enough of an issue about it that I am surprised that he abandons it without much ado.

    While I agree that scripture is a TRUE “subjective” interpretation of “objective” events, when we shift things to look at scripture as the object, would scripture not then be “objectively TRUE”? It would seem that Carson’s argument is not necessarily antithetical to Derrida’s (as presented by Smith). They simply have differing objects. Carson (again as presented by Smith) seems to be arguing that when it comes to scriptural interpretation, reading and understanding the Bible, that the authority lies in the object, the Bible. which is TRUE. This means that scripture can be both the subjective divine interpretation of events, without threatening its truth as the object of Christian study. Thus the Bible remains objectively TRUE and subjective interpretation simultaneously.