Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Geisler Pulls His Second False Alarm

Just recently Norman Geisler issued a second “open letter” to Mike Licona concerning the issue of Matthew 27, and as before, my position is as one who thinks Licona’s final conclusion is incorrect even as I do not consider his methodology incorrect. In that light I will again have much less to say about Geisler’s second false alarm than Licona himself might say in his own defense. Particularly, where Geisler gives six reasons why the text is historical, I won’t be presenting the same answers Licona would. However, I will defend the methodology Licona uses in general principle.

Argument one: ….in this very text the resurrection of these saints occurs in direct connection with two other historical events—the death and resurrection of Jesus (vv. 50, 53).

Geisler unfortunately does not grasp the absurdity of this “argument by proximity.” It would be as though a politician were delivering a speech on some important local issue (say, clean water) and paused to illustrate with a joke, or some sort of story, and Geisler argued that because the joke or story is told in direct connection with “other real life events,” this means the joke or story was intended to be “real life” as well.

Unfortunately, such arguments by proximity are far from sound, especially in dealing with high-context literature. Geisler might object that the politician makes his joke or story obvious, either by noting that he is about to tell a joke, or by a change in tone, or some other means. That would fail him here not only because we are only dealing with a text (and therefore lack aural cues such as a change in tone), but also because as a high context text, Biblical readers (or actually, in most cases, hearers) would be expected to be clued in to what within the text designates it as something other than narrative history. Geisler’s argument is thoroughly graphocentric, and without recognition of the varied ways in which in ancient narrativist might insert non-historical material in a narrative. None of that proves that any particular text is not meant to be taken as narrative history; I am only saying that Geisler has far too simplified a view of the matter, and that his answer is not reflective of the realities of ancient composition techniques.

In the case of Matthew 27, I don’t find any clues of non-historicity; though I do find them in another place in Matthew in which Judas is said to have gone and hung himself. The clue there is the clear allusion to the traitor Ahitophel – plus the external clue that Luke reports the death differently. So while I do think Licona is wrong about Matthew 27, it is not because he failed to notice (as Geisler so insultingly implies) that the account of the saints was surrounded by accounts of other historical events. Geisler’s familiarity with ancient literary techniques, especially those of a high context society, simply isn’t broad enough.

Even more absurdly, Geisler thinks the use of words like “quake” and “rocks” and “bodies” indicate that the text is historical. This too is a useless criterion, since jokes, legends, and analogies are just as able to use the same words. Again, this does not mean I agree with Licona’s conclusion; it only means that Geisler’s counterargument is invalid.

Geisler’s second reason is little more than a variation upon the first and so warrants no more comment. His third reason also shows a remarkable lack of grasp of ancient literary practice:

Third, this text lists the same kind of evidence for the resurrection of these saints as is listed elsewhere for Jesus' resurrection: [1] the tombs were opened; [2] the tombs were empty; [3] the dead were raised; [4] there were physical appearances; [5] many people saw these resurrected saints (cf. Mt.27; 1 Cor. 15). In brief, if this is not a physical resurrection, then neither was Jesus' resurrection (that preceded and prompted it) a physical resurrection.

This fails not only on the same point above, but also fails to recognize that the parallelisms are the product of a text constructed for memory. This in turn means that they do not speak for or against historicity. Indeed, many of these same “evidences” would also be given for the return from the dead of figures like Romulus, Osiris, and other pagan figures. In his own way, Geisler has unwittingly granted credence to those who argue for “pagan copycat” dependencies for the story of Jesus on that of figures like Romulus and Osiris. It might occur to Geisler that these “evidences” are simply what would naturally be expected to be given in a case of a body risen from the dead – just as, in a murder case (whether real life or fictional), we would expect to have as evidence: [1] a body was found; [2] a murder weapon was discovered; [3] the suspect took flight; [4] there was blood evidence; [5] there were witnesses to one or more related events.

For his fourth point, Geisler quotes Ellicott's Commentary as saying that the brevity and simplicity of the statement in Matthew 27 distinguishes it from legend. I have two comments, one an answer, one an observation. The answer is that Ellicott is wrong: Brevity and simplicity are not suitable criteria for distinguishing legend from fact. The criteria have absolutely nothing to do with one another; it is as easy to sum up a legend in one sentence (“alligators live in that sewer”) as it is to tell it in an hour long story. There are no “typical characteristics” with respect to length when it comes to myths or legends.

My observation: Ellicott’s commentary was written in the 1800s. If this is what Geisler takes to be a suitable source for research, as though nothing has happened in the intervening 150 or so years to help us understand the Bible more and better, then we would be far better off if Geisler himself withdrew from making defenses of the Christian faith, for he is making apologists look insensate by using such badly dated (and, yes, wrong) material. The irony is that Geisler will later have some innately disparaging remarks about scholarship, which apparently do not apply as long as you were a scholar who wrote in the 1800s.

Geisler’s fifth point is that “some of the elements of this story are confirmed by two other Gospels.” Well, no – the very specific element Licona is discussing is not; in any event, this is yet again the same fallacious “argument by proximity” as in point one. His sixth point is also merely a reformulation of “argument by proximity.” So in the end, Geisler presents only three real arguments.

Once this is done, Geisler reiterates the implied threats of the original open letter and the alleged incompatibility of Licona’s argument with the stance of ETS on inerrancy. I will not repeat myself on this, save to point out that it was second-tier non-scholars like Geisler (his degrees are not in fields directly relevant to Biblical interpretation) and Lindsell who decided that views of scholars like Gundry and Licona were not in line with inerrancy. However, it is the latter, not the former, who are in a far, far better position to decide what first century authors would have regarded as “inerrant,” and as one who has also studied that point in depth, I will affirm that Geisler continues to be in the wrong, and if ETS holds to the same view, then it is frankly time to either clean that house, or start another house where minds are in operation rather than being placed in a sheep pen by alarm-pullers who read the Biblical text like it was written with Western moderns in mind. (For the record, I am not a member of ETS, though I was for a short time; I found it to be of no use to me.)

In the end, though, Geisler’s error remains the same: He wrongly assumes that arguing that the Bible reports, eg, something legendary AS LEGEND is the same as saying it is reporting falsehood. This simple point has apparently continued to elude Geisler ever since the time of the similar controversy surrounding Robert Gundry. His complaint of Licona “dehistoricizing” is thus akin to objecting that the same is done when someone argues that proverbs in Proverbs are not absolutes: Whether the text was meant to be taken as history in the first place is the very question that is under consideration.

After this, Geisler offers a brief defense of ICBI as the “standard” to follow. I have no horse in that debate, but I find it telling that much of Geisler’s argumentation in this area amounts to “it’s been this way for a long time” and “lots of people accept it,” which are quite obviously bad reasons to accept anything as a standard, regardless of the value of the ICBI as an instrument. If majority rather than sustained argument is to be the measure, then we are better off not being part of an organization like ETS, which ends up being no more than a “good old boy” organization where tyrants and bullies pretend to be deities who whip others into the party line not because of evidence or argument, but just because “that’s the way we do things here.” The very fact that half of Geisler’s “six” arguments are the same, and that all of them are fallacious, is as well reminiscent of how “good old boys” mount their token defenses, intended to do no more than imitate the semblance of a reasoned discourse.

The final section deals with particular objections why one might consider Matthew 27 non-historical, none of which have any bearing on any argument I would hold. So with that, we move only for some comments on Geisler’s conclusion:

In conclusion, Licona has not publically recanted his published view denial of the historicity of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27. Until he does so, his view on this matter should be considered unorthodox, non-evangelical, and a dangerous precedent for the rest of evangelicalism.

Really now? In reply, I would say: Geisler’s admonition to put “Lordship over scholarship” is fundamentally a case of ostrich action at its finest. Licona is not doing any such thing; rather, Geisler is putting “lordship” (lower case l) over scholarship – which is to say, he is using his bully pulpit to harass, hound, and denigrate Licona and his work, to “lord it over” others in a flagrant abuse of power and influence. For that, he should be ashamed of himself, and no amount of decorating the text with "we love you brother" commentary will change that. The "good old boys" do that too - right before they punch your career or your reputation in the nose.

This might all be of no matter if Geisler actually produced some sound arguments for his views, but as happened with Gundry, what was offered was unworthy of serious consideration, which is all the more amazing given that I do, in the end, disagree with Licona’s conclusion. One of our grave mistakes has been maintaining a divide between the academy and the church at large, such that it was apologists like Geisler and Lindsell who became the leaders rather than the apologist-scholars like Licona and Wallace. Of course, not all non-scholar apologists are of that order, but enough of them are – and enough of our leaders are – that this latest situation is an example of our failure coming home to roost.


  1. Looks like the pajama terrorist [JP Holding] strikes again!

  2. Whatever that's supposed to mean. Do return when you have something intelligent and relevant to say.

  3. Pajama Media refers to those who contribute to online news sites because the writers and reporters can do their job while wearing pajamas.

    Some people hold to the (unreasonable) view that old-style media is more reliable and has more integrity.

  4. Somehow I knew that was an intelligent comment (sarcasm). As if dressing in a stuffy sweater like Geisler's would make a difference.