Fathers Know Best?

What do the church fathers say about Matthew 27? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Norman Geisler has come to picture obsession to the extreme. For years now, he’s been harping on Matthew 27 and really, not producing anything new. In all this time, he could have gone out and read Burridge on why the Gospels are Greco-Roman Bioi or gone to the best scholarly monographs he could find on the passage in Matthew 27, but instead, he just wants to repeat the same material.

So now he’s gone to the church fathers. Now I’m sure we’ll all agree that while the church fathers have authority, they are not the final authority. What matters most is what the Scripture says. Still, it would be foolish to just dismiss all the church fathers. Their views should be taken seriously.

But do they really agree with Geisler?

Let’s start with Geisler’s citation of Ignatius’s epistle to the Trallians.

What does the text supposedly say?

“For Says the Scripture, ‘Many bodies of the saints that slept arose,’ their graves being opened. He descended, indeed, into Hades alone, but He arose accompanied by a multitude” (chap.Ix, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. I, p. 70).

Why do I say supposedly?

Because there are two versions of the epistle. There is the shorter version and the longer version. Most scholars consider the longer version to be spurious.

So let’s go to chapter 9 of the shorter version. What do we see?

9:1 Be ye deaf, therefore, when any one speaketh unto you apart from Jesus Christ, who is of the race of David, who was born of Mary, who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died, in the sight of the things that are in heaven and on earth and under the earth;

9:2 and was truly raised from the dead, his Father having raised him up; according to the similitude of which also his Father shall raise up us who believe in him in Christ Jesus, apart from whom we have not the true life.

Why was the spurious version cited? Why is this not pointed out?

Either A) Geisler does not know and this is an error of ignorance that calls the research ability high into question

or B) It is known and is ignored, in which case facts are being ignored to suit an agenda.

I think it’s best to be generous and go with A.

Let’s now look at the epistle to the Magnesians.

According to Geisler.

“…[T]herefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master—how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher? And therefore He who they rightly waited for, being come, raised them from the dead”[Chap. IX] (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. I (1885). Reprinted by Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, p. 62. Emphasis added in all these citations).

While some connect this to Matthew 27, nothing in the context demands it. Further, what does it mean, “When he came?” Nothing is said about the death of Jesus or about opening of the tombs. It could be referring to Matthew 27, but the text does not demand it.

The next statements are from the lost fragments of Irenaeus. The problem is many scholars consider these lost fragments to be spurious. Once again, the problem is the same as in the first citing of the epistle of Ignatius.

Next is Clement of Alexandria. What do we have from Geisler?

“‘But those who had fallen asleep descended dead, but ascended alive.’ Further, the Gospel says, ‘that many bodies of those that slept arose,’—plainly as having been translated to a better state”(Alexander Roberts, ed. Stromata, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. II, chap. VI, 491).

But what do we find earlier?

But how? Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept in ward and guard? And it has been shown also, in the second book of the Stromata, that the apostles, following the Lord, preached the Gospel to those in Hades. For it was requisite, in my opinion, that as here, so also there, the best of the disciples should be imitators of the Master; so that He should bring to repentance those belonging to the Hebrews, and they the Gentiles; that is, those who had lived in righteousness according to the Law and Philosophy, who had ended life not perfectly, but sinfully. For it was suitable to the divine administration, that those possessed of greater worth in righteousness, and whose life had been pre-eminent, on repenting of their transgressions, though found in another place, yet being confessedly of the number of the people of God Almighty, should be saved, each one according to his individual knowledge.

So a question.

Does Geisler think the apostles went and preached the Gospel to those in Hades? If not, why not? If so, on what grounds since this is a testimony centuries later?

Now of course, it could be that Clement really sees the resurrection of the saints as historical and that must be taken into consideration, but it is not the final authority.

Next comes Tertullian. What does Geisler quote?

“’And the sun grew dark at mid-day;’ (and when did it ‘shudder exceedingly’ except at the passion of Christ, when the earth trembled to her centre, and the veil of the temple was rent, and the tombs burst asunder?) ‘because these two evils hath My People done’” (Alexander Roberts, ed. An Answer to the Jews, Chap XIII, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, 170).

An obvious problem here is all it says is that the tombs burst open. That could easily happen in an earthquake. There is no mention of saints coming out. Now Geisler could say is that Tertullian did fully have in mind that scene, but that would be claiming to know authorial intent, which he says cannot be known.

Next he says this about Hippolytus

“And again he exclaims, ‘The dead shall start forth from the graves,’ that is, from the earthly bodies, being born again spiritual, not carnal. For this he says, is the Resurrection that takes place through the gate of heaven, through which, he says, all those that do not enter remain dead” (Alexander Roberts, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, The Refutation of All Heresy, BooK V, chap. 3, p. 54). The editor of the Ante-Nicene Fathers footnotes this as a reference to the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27:52, 53 (in Note 6, p. 54.), as indeed it is.

But is it indeed? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. Could it not refer to the future resurrection, especially since it is also in the future tense? Of course, it could refer to Matthew 27, but must it do so necessarily?

What about Origen?

Now to this question, although we are able to show the striking and miraculous character of the events which befell Him, yet from what other source can we furnish an answer than the Gospel narratives, which state that ‘there was an earth quake, and that the rock were split asunder, and the tombs were opened, and the veil of the temple was rent in twain from top to bottom, an the darkness prevailed in the day-time, the sun failing to give light’”

Once again, the tombs are open, but there’s no mention of saints getting out and walking around. Again, Geisler cannot appeal to anything else here because he says we can’t know authorial intent.

Geisler also goes to chapter 36. What does the chapter say in that work?

Celsus next says: What is the nature of the ichor in the body of the crucified Jesus? Is it ‘such as flows in the bodies of the immortal gods?’ He puts this question in a spirit of mockery; but we shall show from the serious narratives of the Gospels, although Celsus may not like it, that it was no mythic and Homeric ichor which flowed from the body of Jesus, but that, after His death, one of the soldiers with a spear pierced His side, and there came thereout blood and water. And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true, and he knows that he says the truth. Now, in other dead bodies the blood congeals, and pure water does not flow forth; but the miraculous feature in the case of the dead body of Jesus was, that around the dead body blood and water flowed forth from the side. But if this Celsus, who, in order to find matter of accusation against Jesus and the Christians, extracts from the Gospel even passages which are incorrectly interpreted, but passes over in silence the evidences of the divinity of Jesus, would listen to divine portents, let him read the Gospel, and see that even the centurion, and they who with him kept watch over Jesus, on seeing the earthquake, and the events that occurred, were greatly afraid, saying, This man was the Son of God.

Again, no mention here. Strange isn’t it?

For Cyril, I see no reason to doubt that this is referring to Matthew 27 and this must be taken seriously, but it is also about 300 years after the event.

Next is Gregory of Nazianzus.

“He [Christ] lays down His life, but He has the power to take it again; and the veil rent, for the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened;5 the rocks are cleft, the dead arise. He dies but he gives life, and by His death destroys death. He is buried, but He rises again. He goes down to Hell, but He brings up the souls; He ascends to Heaven, and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead, and to put to the test such words are yours” (Schaff, ibid., vol. VII, Sect XX, p. 309).

This could indeed be a reference to Matthew 27, but it could also have in mind a passage like Ephesians 4. Mike Licona would want to know how this would work with Jesus being the firstfruits of the resurrection. If Jesus is the first to rise in a new and glorified body, how is it that these saints arise in such a body before Jesus? It is a question Geisler needs to take seriously.

We have no beef really with what is said later by the early fathers, but it’s worth noting that the earliest references possible to this do not mention it. In fact, this could be along the lines of what some scholars would say is legendary development. I’m not saying that it is, although we all do know legends did arise around Jesus. That does not mean that they are found in the Gospels of course. Gnostic Gospels and such contained stories about Jesus we would call legends. In fact, some of our Christmas tradition comes from the Proto-Evangelium of James. (Not really a Gnostic Gospel, but rather something that could have been seen as Christian fiction.) It is doubtful that Geisler thinks Jesus struck down bullies with death as a child or extended the length of planks of wood for his Dad or brought clay pigeons to life, but these are accounts found in other works and at times, even some Christians got confused.

We conclude that there is still much research to be done on this question but let it be known the difference. When a question like this is raised, it is better to debate the question without settling it, than it is to settle it without debating. We prefer the former. Geisler seems to prefer the latter.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

The Future of Biblical Scholarship

What is in store for the future of biblical scholarship? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

I do a lot of debating and the idea amongst atheists is that Christians don’t do real research. They want to defend their pet doctrines. They presuppose everything beforehand and never really examine the case. All that matters is “God said it” and then we’re done.

The controversy involving what happened with Mike Licona back in 2011 was a great example of this and a huge embarrassment to the Christian church and evangelicalism. Instead of going out and dealing with the interpretation of Licona, if it was found to be false, the bullets started firing immediately crying “Heretic!” with an Inquisition squad ready to come out.

So let’s get this straight. We have what has been the most in-depth defense of the resurrection of Jesus meant to silence skeptics and we’re going to go against it because it went against a secondary doctrine of Inerrancy supposedly? We are going to implicitly say that Inerrancy is more important than the resurrection? Are our priorities out of whack?

In fact, the book didn’t even call Inerrancy into question. By that standard, any time Licona said an event is “Highly probable” or something of that sort, we should have raised the alarm. After all, how could an event be “probable.”? It’s part of the “Word of God.”

What Licona did was he met the skeptics on their own turf and he fired a massive attack into their camp. What was the evangelical response? Ditch him. Leave him there. Of course, this isn’t true of all evangelicals. There were a number of scholars in the field who sided with Licona.

Friends. Let’s suppose a work came out like this that explicitly denied Inerrancy. I still say we should celebrate it. Why? Because this was a case of trying to prove the most important point of Christianity. As Michael Patton said, there should have been twenty letters of commendation before there was one of condemnation.

Historically, Gary Habermas has been the #1 name in the field of resurrection stories. Licona has been his main student. What are we to do now with him? Because he has not interpreted everything the way some people want it to be interpreted, do away with him. Licona does believe in Inerrancy, but keep in mind we are not trying to convert people to Inerrancy. We are trying to make them disciples of Jesus. I’m fine with someone coming to say “Jesus is risen!” if they’re not quite willing to sign the line on Inerrancy. If you’re not, you’ve got a serious problem.

Licona talks about teaching a seminary class in the article (Link below) and having a student with tears in her eyes crying about contradictions she thought existed. Let’s start with a simple question.

Let us suppose that beyond the shadow of a doubt a contradiction was proven in Scripture. This is purely hypothetical. I don’t think it has, but let’s suppose it was.

What would that do to your Christianity?

If you’re one of those Christians who says “My faith would be shattered immediately and Jesus would not have risen from the dead” you have a problem.

Many of us would say “Well I’d have to adjust my view of Scripture and of inspiration, but I’d still have the resurrection.”

You know why? Because we think the resurrection can be established historically if you treat the Bible just like any other ancient document. If you have to treat it with kid gloves, then you’re not really playing fair. You’re doing special pleading.

If you don’t think the resurrection can be shown to be a fact that way, then might I suggest that you could have a more fideistic approach?

It’s a shame this was happening in a Seminary class also.

Licona goes on in the article to describe how he went to the gospels and compared what he saw to Plutarch since the gospels are considered by NT scholars to be ancient biographies.

A lot of stink has been raised over this. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that it’s wrong that the gospels are Greco-Roman biographies. I think they are, but let’s suppose it’s wrong.

Here’s the reply. So what?

So what? What are you talking about?

What I mean is, you can take what your opponents will likely accept from critical scholarship, say Bart Ehrman for instance, and have it be that you can assume they are Greco-Roman biographies and then still say “Here’s how Greco-Roman biographies work. The gospels do the exact same thing. Why is that a problem?”

This is exactly what I do as a non-scientist. I am not qualified to discuss evolution, so I will grant it for the sake of argument. Why? My opponents do accept it by and large. Therefore, I can meet them on their own grounds and ask “How does this show that Jesus did not rise from the dead?”

Why do I do this? I do it because I want to convince my opponents of one thing. I want to convince them Jesus rose from the dead. They might disagree with me on Inerrancy. That’s fine. They might have different views on creation. That’s fine. They might have different hermeneutics than I do. That’s fine.

Getting them to know Jesus is risen is central.

Instead, we’ve had this whole tirade against the gospels being Greco-Roman biographies.

Consider what someone like Al Mohler said according to the article.

“First, we cannot reduce the Gospels to the status of nothing more than ancient biographies. The Bible claims to be inspired by the Holy Spirit right down to the inspired words,”

When did Licona say the gospels were just ancient biographies? Nowhere that I know of. He said they were biographies. That’d be like saying we can’t say the Epistles of Paul are epistles because they cannot be “just epistles.” To say they are Greco-Roman biographies is not to say necessarily that they are just that.

Second, down to the inspired words?

In Matthew 3:17, we read these words at the baptism of Jesus.

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:11 says this:

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke 3:22 also says this:

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke and Mark disagree, but Matthew is different. Matthew has the voice speaking for the crowd. Mark and Luke have the voice speaking to Jesus? Which is it? Let’s suppose it was even the crazy idea of a work like the Jesus Crisis which has such ideas as the sermon on the mount being said twice with different tenses. Let’s suppose the voice said the first to the crowd and then the second to Jesus. (Because apparently, one voice was not enough for everyone to grasp.) You still have the problem of why would someone just leave out some of the words of God speaking?

If there is paraphrasing going on, then are we saying the very words of God were paraphrased? They might not have been quoted word for word?

Let’s consider another example. How about Peter’s confession of faith?

Matthew 16:16

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Mark 8:29

“You are the Messiah.”

Luke 9:20

“God’s Messiah.”

Again, there are differences. Mark and Luke are closer. Matthew agrees with the Messianic motif, but adds in that Jesus is the Son of the Living God. Isn’t that something important to include?

One more example. At the Transfiguration, what did God say?

Matthew 17:5

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Mark 9:7

“This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

Luke 9:35

“This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

Each of these are different, and these are the words of God!

Now someone might say “Nick. Look. Each of these is pretty similar to each other. The wording may not be the same, but the thrust of the message is the same.”


Mohler is putting on the text a modern category of exact wordage. The ancients would not have cared about that. For a modern look, I had a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness today. I called some family members saying “I said X, she said Y, I replied with Z, etc.” Chances are, when I told that story, I did not get the exact wording right. That’s okay. I did not tell it the same way every time. That’s okay. I don’t know anyone who would say I was lying about the story or misrepresenting it. Even today, we know that the gist is what matters.

This would also be true for the Sermon on the Mount. Why assume Jesus gave a great sermon like that only once? If you’re a speaker, like I am, you know that you give the same talk many times in different places. You can also vary it some depending on your audience. In fact, it’s quite likely a lot was left out of this sermon. Why? The whole thing can be read in about fifteen minutes! Most speakers in the past spoke a lot longer than that! Heck. If that’s all it takes, Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 that leads to 3,000 conversions can be read in about a minute or two. How many of you would like to speak for that long and get that response?

The Bible is only interested in the main gist of the message getting out. We today can do this. We can summarize a talk by talking about the main points without saying every word the speaker said.

Thus, Mohler in doing this is expecting the Bible to read like a modern document. It’s not going to. The Bible needs to be treated by the standards of its own time and not the standards of our time. This even includes the idea about interpreting it according to “plain” language. Plain to who? Why plain to a 21st century American? Maybe it’s different for a 16th century Chines man, or a 14th century Japanese man, or a 12th century Frenchman, or a 9th century Englishman, or a 1st century Jew.

Some might think it’s cultural prejudice to give the 1st century Jewish standard the main role in interpretation.

No. It’s not. It’s just smart thinking. It’s a 1st century Jewish document. Shouldn’t we expect it to read like one?

Mohler is not done. He goes on to say:

“The second problem is isolating the resurrection of Christ from all of the other truth claims revealed in the Bible. The resurrection is central, essential and non-negotiable, but the Christian faith rests on a comprehensive set of truth claims and doctrines,” Mohler said. “All of these are revealed in the Bible, and without the Bible we have no access to them.”

If the resurrection is central, essential, and non-negotiable, haven’t we already isolated it? It is in a category all itself. The reality is the resurrection is different from the other claims. Let’s demonstrate this.

We can have Mohler make a historical case for the turning of water into wine without just “The Bible says so.”

Then we can have him make one for Jesus rising from the dead the same way.

Which one will have more evidence. Which one will have more impact? Which one will change Christianity the most if it was found to be false?

It looks like Mohler is really afraid to put the Bible to historical investigation, but why should we think this? If someone is convinced Scripture is from God Himself, then one should say “Go ahead. Hit it with your best shot.” If we are not willing to do that, then we are not really treating it like a trustworthy text. It’s easy to say the Bible cannot be attacked if you remove it from all threats.

On top of this, Licona is doing his work to deal with supposed contradictions in the Bible and see if he can find some answers. How is it undermining the Bible if you seek to explain why the Bible is the way it is? If you’re going out to defend the idea that the Bible is without error, how can you be attacking it?

Next we have words from Jim Richards of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

“Although the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has enjoyed a ministry relationship with Houston Baptist University for nearly 10 years, that relationship is not one whereby the convention participates in the governance of the university. Our relationship with HBU is based on a mutual affirmation of a high view of Scripture,” Richards said.

“The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention was formed on a commitment to biblical inerrancy, that the Bible is true in all that it asserts. Certainly, our churches, board and convention messengers expect our ministry relationships to be compatible with this core value. We will be in conversation with President Sloan regarding HBU’s response to Mike Licona’s comments bearing on the reliability of Scriptures,” Richards said.”

Once again, Licona has a high view of Scripture. He only differs on an interpretation. Note that Licona has never once said “I think the Bible contains errors” or “I think the Bible is wrong” or anything like that. He has repeatedly denied it, but for his opponents, it is not enough. What matters is what they want to see. For them, if he is not interpreting it the same way, then cast him to the lions!

May God richly bless Robert Sloan, president of HBU, for the following:

“Dr. Michael Licona is a very fine Christian. We trust completely his commitment to Scripture. There are those who disagree with his comments on what is a very difficult passage (Matthew 27:45-53, especially verses 52-53), but Mike Licona’s devotion to the Lord Jesus, his magisterial defense of the resurrection, his publicly and solemnly declared affirmation of the complete trustworthiness of Scripture and his worldwide efforts to win others to Christ give us full confidence in his work as a teacher, colleague and faculty member of Houston Baptist University,” Sloan said.”

Sloan has it right. He is being a fine academic and looking at the character of Licona and the quality of his work. Would that other people would take the same approach!

What does this have to do with the future of scholarship?

It appears an impasse is here. What are we to do? I have a strange idea with this.

Let’s be people that say “We will follow the evidence where it leads!” When we meet a contrary idea to our own, let’s examine the evidence. By all means, we have our presuppositions. Let’s be aware of those. Let’s do our best to put them to aside and study. We want atheists who are studying the text to do the same. If our presuppositions were right, great! If they were not, great! Why is that great? It’s because we’ve learned something that we would not have known. We have gained truth, and that is always to be preferred.

If people like Al Mohler have the day, we can expect scholarship will decrease. Already, I have seen some people who will be our future scholars say they want no part of groups like ETS to avoid being criticized for their work. They want academic freedom. Already, I have seen people saying that they do not want to defend Inerrancy because it has become too much of a sacred cow. Already, this controversy has been used by atheists, Muslims, and others to demonstrate Christians cannot get along with themselves.

With Inerrancy, I have seen people have their faith fall apart when all is based on this doctrine. I’m not saying it’s unimportant. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying we don’t hang our hats on it. By all means, defend it. By all means, address contradictions. This is fine and good. Just remember the main point is Jesus is risen. There are times even I tell people that I don’t care if the gospels have some minor disagreements. Let’s deal with the central claim. We don’t get rid of other ancient sources because of minor disagreements. Why do so with Scripture?

It’s up to us to determine where we’ll go with scholarship in the future, but I hope we’ll hold to following the evidence where it leads realizing that if our beliefs are true, the evidence should show that.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

The Baptist Press article can be found here