In Promptu Ponere–A Response to Norm Geisler’s Petition Against Mike Licona

by Max Andrews

Norman Geisler has recently been emailing a petition against Mike Licona to members of the Evangelical Theological Society.  I have been able to obtain a copy of the petition.  Please download the petition here.  (I have not edited the petition in any way except for removing Geisler’s email at the bottom since that is private information).

Please see My Support and Endorsement of Mike Licona as well as my first response to Geisler in The Disputatio.

My conclusion about this whole situation and petition is that this is presumptuous and a demonstration of either a refusal, inability, or lack of attention to sources, context, and footnotes (Yes, he actually blatantly ignored footnotes…).  Additionally, this is a complete abuse and neglect of the scholarly process of handling the material in a way to wrestle with the claims and issues being made.  There is no consideration for the evidence Licona uses.  This is embarrassing.  This is what one may expect from a bad blog by someone who has no credentials.  This isn’t following the evidence.  Below are the points of contention Geisler has listed on the petition.  All formatting is original and emphases are Geisler’s.

“There is somewhat of a consensus among contemporary scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography (bios).  Bioi offered the ancient biographer great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches…and they often included legend. Because bios was a flexible genre, it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (34, emphasis added in this and following citations).

I’m not sure what the problem is here.  Is it that Licona identifies the Gospels as bios or does Geisler not like the implications bios has on genre and literary elements?  What you don’t see in this petition is the footnote that takes up nearly a whole page.  Licona goes on to discuss the issue of demarcation between history and legend by precedent of Lucian, Eusebius, and Tacitus.  Again, what’s the problem with this?  First year Bible students learn the genre of the Gospels as Greco-Roman biography and Licona brings another element of the genre to our attention.  I’m not quite sure why this is problematic.

“For this reason, we get a sense that the canonical Gospels are reading authentic reports of Jesus’ arrest and death…even if some embellishments are present” (306).

I’m convinced Geisler did not read the whole context of the given text.  Prior to this sentence, Licona is describing the historical evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion and the historical context.  Given the data Licona is using, certain elements (particularly those that may be embarrassing) were either added or removed.  Licona qualifies this when he says “[a third] evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is that the Passion Narratives appear largely credible given their satisfying of the criterion of embarrassment and the plausibility of certain peripheral details” (just read the preceding paragraph).  Even so, these aspects are peripheral and still do justice to the historicity of the resurrection.  Also, just read the next sentence.  Licona adds that the embarrassing elements weigh in favor of the presence of historical kernels and that there is great plausibility to the execution of Jesus and that details that may or may not have been embellished are peripheral, Licona makes that quite clear.

“A possible candidate for embellishment is Jn 18:4-6” (306, n. 114).

My comments of the preceding citation would be applicable here as well.  Just to give the context of this footnote, here’s the rest of it: “We may also note with L.T. Johnson (1996) that ‘in none of the canonical Gospels is the scandal of the cross removed in favor of the divine glory’ such as seen in the Gnostic gospels (150).

“It can forthrightly be admitted that the data surrounding what happened to Jesus is fragmentary and could possibly be mixed with legend, as Wedderburn notes.  We may also be reading poetic language of legend at certain points, such as Matthew’s report of the raising of some dead saints at Jesus’ death (Mt 27:51-54) and the angels at the tomb (Mk 16:5-7; Mt 28:2-7; Lk 24:4-7; Jn 20:11-13) (185-186).

The whole point of this section is that given certain elements of bios “it is unlikely that the historian may conclude what is true beyond all doubt on these matters.”  Licona is wrestling with the task of defining the line of demarcation between what are elements of the historian’s “horizons.”  The nature of bios introduces the task determining such a demarcation because rarely ever is there raw facts.  Is should be easily conceded given the differences in the Gospels and what the authors report, the details, and the way the report them vary depending on what the authors are trying to convey.  This is hardly problematic in recognizing categorically.  Indexing what passages are and are not raw facts is the task at hand–where it can be problematic.  However, where there is not a clear line of demarcation we should be willing to acknowledge these as problematic and leave our dogmatic interpretations to the side while we practice our scholarship and debate these indexicals and where the line of demarcation rests.  Additionally, why didn’t Geisler note Licona’s modesty in the claims about the poetic elements?  Here’s the footnote to the whole passage.  Footnote 180 on page 186 reads:

“That angels are part of a poetical genre is not so strongly supported.  However, R. Brown (1993) argues they are “describing God’s visible presence among men” (260; see also 129, 156).  Quintilian provides a list of devices for praising gods and men in Greco-Roman writings (Instiutio Oratoria 3.7.10-18), although angels are not included in the list.  Josephus reports that he employed beautiful narrative, a harmony of words and adornment of speech in his writing of history in order to provide a reading experience that is both gracious and pleasurable, although he was careful to omit no facts and to conform to the standards expected of historians in his day (Ant. 14.1-3). See also Eccles 12:10.”

There is “…‘a weird residual fragment’ in Matthew (Mt. 27:52-53).  If taken literally, there would have been many, perhaps hundreds of empty tombs around Jerusalem on that first Easter” (527-528).

I don’t know how to respond to this one.  I’m utterly flabbergasted.  I can offer two answers.  Either Geisler is utterly irresponsible or he is intentionally misleading.  Licona is discussing a view offered my John Dominc Crossan.  If he read the few sentences prior to this to give a context or if he even knew the section (5.5) was all about Crossan!  Additionally, pay no attention to footnote 242, which appears right after “that first Easter.”  Footnote 242 attributes this to “Crossan, ‘Appendix’ in Stewart, ed. (2006), 182; cf. Crossan in Crossan and Wright, ‘Dialogue’ in Stewart, ed. (2006), 27.”  Again, either Geisler was incredibly irresponsible in reading this section and reading the footnotes or he is being intentionally misleading.  I’ll let you decide on which one it is.

“This strange report in Matthew 27:52-53 attempts to retain the corporate harrowing of hell and the individual preascension appearances.  However, ‘the magnificent harrowing of hell is already lost in that fragment’s present redaction’” (530).

First of all, pay no attention to the footnotes at the bottom of the page.  The footnote to this passage reads: “Crossan in Stewart, ed. (20060, 181.”  Additionally, is it wrong to say something is “strange?”  Strange things plague the Bible in many different genres.  Surely, I cannot be the only one to think it was strange for Lot’s wife to be turned in to a pillar of salt.  How about the book of Revelation?

“This brings us to that strange little text in Matthew 27:52-53, where upon Jesus’ death the dead saints are raised and walk in the city of Jerusalem…. Raymond E. Brown notes that similar phenomena were reported at the death of Romulus and Julius Caesar…. In a clearly poetic account, Virgil reports that the following sixteen phenomena occurred after Caesar’s death:..” (548).

Again, there isn’t anything dishonest or wrong in believing something to be strange nor does it contribute to dehistorization.  Remember the preceding context and the discussion Licona is having.  These poetic elements were added to engage the reader.  Similar to the way salt functions with food and flavor so does poetry to the narrative.  It’s not an implicit or explicit denial of the historicity of the events of which the narrative includes.  This is purely a literary element historians used when using bios. When comparing the phenomena of the earth shaking, pale phantoms being seen, and other phenomena, Licona is doing this to show the role of poetry in bios.  Would Geisler be more upset if Licona said that these accounts literally happened?  If these phenomena related to the deaths of Romulus and Caesar were literally true how should we compare it to the phenomena following the death of Jesus?  Should we dismiss the Roman accounts as simply being wrong?  By what standards should we dismiss them? Such hypotheticals are only to show the implications of how historical events in bios are to be understood if we dismiss the evidence of potentially qualifying poetic elements.

“…it seems to me that an understanding of the language in Matthew 27:52-53 as ‘special effects’ with eschatological Jewish texts and thought in mind is most plausible…. Matthew may simply be emphasizing that the great king has died.  If he had one or more of the Jewish texts in mind, he may be proclaiming the day of the Lord has come” (552).

I simply don’t know how we should interpret this text. I take the agnostic position.  However, I don’t see how this is a denial of inerrancy.  Given the historical perspective supported by eschatological Jewish texts Matthew may have intended this to be apocalyptic imagery.  If this is what Matthew meant and this is how the readers would understand it then I see no problem.  It would be problematic if Matthew intended it to be literal and Licona denied it as literally happening but that’s not the situation here.  Wherever there is debate as to the genre of a particular passage surely Geisler won’t accuse one or both parties of denying inerrancy.  Apparently, there is no room for literary debate for Geisler and certain SBC leaders.

It seems best to regard this difficult text in Matthew as a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that impending judgment awaited Israel” (553).  (Emphasis added in all these quotations.)

See my above comments.  Note:  We cannot render certain texts as difficult.  Biblical grammatico-historical exegesis should never be regarded as a difficult task. (I’m being sarcastic to show the ridiculousness of all of this).

Geisler’s right, the issue is methodological, but Licona’s methodology is far more reliable and evidentially supported than Geisler’s methodology. This isn’t scholarship.  It would be irresponsible for anyone to respond to Geisler’s petition without researching the issues themselves. Once one goes back and examines Geisler’s contentions it will be clear that he’s way out of line and unsubstantiated.

Is Geisler just being irresponsible when it comes to scholarship or is he being intentionally misleading?  You decide.


21 Responses to “In Promptu Ponere–A Response to Norm Geisler’s Petition Against Mike Licona”

  1. Geisler is just being embarrassing. This is a personal crusade of his now and the great danger is he’ll bring down evangelicalism and Inerrancy in the west if he is not stopped in this. I took a screen shot of his home page the other day. There were eight articles on the page concerning Mike. EIGHT! How many better targets could Geisler be going after and instead, he’s going after someone who is a leading Christian scholar and apologist on a minor minor point.

    The atheist world is watching and laughing. (I check regularly doing a web search to see what they’re writing) To be fair, they all think what Geisler’s doing is terrible because they recognize that even if Mike is wrong, he is a scholar and he is being scholarly.

    Thanks for the witness to the world Geisler. Already I’m not interested in joining the ETS now. I wonder how many others who are wanting to rise in the evangelical world are not going to any more and let their minds be kept away from ETS because of you?

  2. It’s like Geisler skimmed the pages to find anything remotely offensive to his sensibilities. If I’m discussing critical scholarship, of course I’m going to use the terminology they use. Pleading that he ignored Licona’s context isn’t enough. If Geisler couldn’t see that Licona was handling those Crossan quotes in a critical way while using Crossan’s terms (while altogether disagreeing, of course), then Geisler has forgotten how to read. Joining ETS would definitely be a waste- Geisler is busy burning it to the ground.

    By the by- I would love to get a copy of Lincona’s paper he presented the other night at ETS. Hope to see it soon.

  3. I would actually venture to think he hasn’t done much of this research for the petition at all; probably students at his employ. This would explain the “forgetting” to note that Licona was quoting Crossan in the relevant sections, Geisler’s petition mistakes (repeatedly listing Article XIII), and the like.

  4. I thin he is being irresponsible, he does not seem to be open to an alternate interpretation. As christians we must be careful to not let dogma cloud our reasoning.

  5. I find it ironic that the Licona’s, who have complained more than anyone about how debates shouldn’t take place on the internet, are the one’s who keep posting more internet blogging links. This could have been solved much easier if Mike just would have responded to Norm, or called him up once it was released onto the internet. I think most of this is Mike not following through with Matt.18 than a scholarly debate. Obviously the whole known world can tell you have a problem with Norman Geisler.

  6. I see Bryan left no reply to what had been said by me but instead continued another ad hominem. Let’s see. The Licona’s have complained more than anyone else? Ironically, he says this while later saying Mike did not immediately reply. Personally, there’s only been one person in that clan doing a lot of responding on the blogs, and that’s me. Having said that, I’m not technically a Licona.

    This could have been easier if Mike had responded to Norm? Well here’s the problem with that. The post of Norm was already public. That bypassed Matthew 18 and so the response needed to be public also. You wanna know why Mike did not respond publicly? He was a little busy at the time as Geisler knew preparing for two debates that he was going to be doing very soon in South Africa. Also, when he was writing his responses, he spent much time drafting them and discussing them with family and friends to make sure they were good. He went and talked to the scholars about his position first as well.

    No. The world cannot tell Mike has a problem with Geisler. In fact, Mike has no animosity of any sort towards Geisler. In fact, when I bring up the link of Geisler’s home page, I count 8 links pertaining to Mike Licona. When I bring up Mike’s home page, you know how many links I see on the home page relating to Geisler?


    This would have been handled better had Geisler not gone with an open letter but instead let Mike operate on his schedule and then deal with the objection. After that, it would have been better for Geisler to go to the round table talk. Instead, we got the heavy hand and we got even those who support Mike are being uninvited from conferences and losing jobs over it.

    This is not the way for evangelicalism to go and it will lead to only more problems in the future if it’s allowed.

  7. Wow, Mike puts another piece out on the internet. I guess this debate should only take place within scholarly circles…. please. Guess the knife can cut both ways:

    P.S. this view does not even address a single argument used by Geisler. In fact, go read his letters, especailly letter 2 and it answers nearly all of these most basic objections.

    • He’s limited in time and space. It even says it in there, it’s a presented paper not a refutation. What are oh talking about both ways? You seem really on edge and anxious about this. I sense a deep animosity towards Mike. You alright?

  8. The idea of “knife cuts both ways” is very simple. It’s not anxious or on edge. But simply calls for consistency from both Licona and his supporters. Since you guys like actual arguments, here you go:

    1) If ALL scholarly debate ought to take place in the academy, then Licona should only respond in scholarly journals and conferences.
    A) This is both the explicit and implicit claim by Licona and his supporters.
    B) For both Mike and his supporters seem to consider the internet and general population to not be the appropriate place for such a debate.

    2) Licona does not only respond in scholarly journals and conferences.
    A) This is what Licona is clearly doing in this video.
    B) By posting your articles on his FB.
    C) By posting his responses on his FB.
    D) By posting the responses of others on his FB.
    E) By posting an audio and PDF paper on his website.

    3) Therefore, not ALL debate ought to take place in the academy.

    If he is going to criticize Geisler for putting things on the internet, claiming that it is unscholarly; then Licona should at least be consistent and not place things on the internet, because it is unscholarly. But, I guess if Licona can place things on the internet and he is not considered to be unscholarly, then Geisler should be able to place things on the internet and he not be considered unscholarly for doing so.

    Point being, by posting articles, eliciting Christianity Today to write an article and then putting it on his FB, and putting videos on the internet; he is just stirring the pot to provoke Geisler to respond. If he actually would like him to stop, one good measure would be to stop posting new information on the internet and on his website.

  9. Seriously Bryan. What’s your issue with Mike? Are you aware Geisler has been the one on the onslaught from the beginning and he’s not letting go? I have no reason to think Geisler is checking Mike’s Facebook page and his supporters have free reign to talk about this all they want since Geisler was the one who made this a public issue. That bypassed the scholarly debate route.

    Keep in mind Mike offered the chance for a scholarly round table discussion and Geisler refused.

  10. Premise 3 should read: 3) Therefore, not ALL scholarly debate ought to take place in the academy.

  11. Hi Bryan, your premise (1) is a non-sequitur, as far as I can tell. I take it to be definitional that scholarly debate ought to take place in scholarly circles, otherwise how is it a scholarly debate? Perhaps you mean:

    1*. If all scholarly debate ought *only* to take place in the academy, then Licona should only respond in scholarly journals and conferences.

    But in that case I’m not so sure the rest of your argument is sound (I’m open to being corrected).


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