A fiery debate has erupted over a leading Southern Baptist apologist's questioning of Matthew 27. The question: whether Matthew's reference to many saints rising from their graves after Jesus' resurrection might not be literal history.

The theological war of words, spurred by high-profile open letters and retorts on the Internet, has raised questions about the meaning of biblical inerrancy. It has also led to the departure of Michael Licona as apologetics coordinator for the North American Mission Board (NAMB).

At issue is a passage of Licona's 700-page The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, published in 2010 by InterVarsity Press.

"Based on my reading of the Greco-Roman, Jewish, and biblical literature, I proposed that the raised saints are best interpreted as Matthew's use of an apocalyptic symbol communicating that the Son of God had just died," said Licona, former research professor of New Testament at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Licona voluntarily resigned from the seminary on October 4 after the print version of this article went to press.

In a series of open letters posted online, Norman Geisler, distinguished professor of apologetics at Veritas Evangelical Seminary in Murrieta, California, objected to Licona's characterizing the passage as a "strange little text." Geisler accused Licona of denying the full inerrancy of Scripture. He also called for Licona to recant his interpretation, labeling it "unorthodox, non-evangelical, and a dangerous precedent for the rest of evangelicalism."

In a 2,800-word blog post, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, praised Licona's book as "virtually unprecedented in terms of evangelical scholarship" and "nothing less than a masterful defense of the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."

Yet Mohler devoted most of the post to criticizing what he called Licona's "shocking and disastrous argument" concerning the bodily resurrection of the saints.

Licona replied to Geisler that additional research has led him to re-examine his position. "At present I am just as inclined to understand the narrative … as a report of a factual (i.e., literal) event as I am to view it as an apocalyptic symbol," Licona wrote.

In the wake of the controversy, a number of leading evangelical scholars came to Licona's defense—some publicly, others privately.

"I know a good number of evangelical seminary professors who have privately expressed support for Mike Licona but cannot do so publicly for fear of punitive measures," said Paul Copan, an apologist and president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

In comments to Christianity Today, Craig Blomberg, a New Testament professor at Denver Seminary, complained of "the tragedy of 'witch hunts' of this nature." He accused Licona's critics of "going after fellow inerrantists with whom they disagree and making life miserable for them for a long time in ways that are unnecessary, inappropriate, and counterproductive to the important issues of the Kingdom."

Bill Warren, director of the Center for New Testament Textual Studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said Licona has earned more leeway than some in the evangelical academic community are affording him.

"What should be kept in mind," Warren said, "is that a person who has been well-received, written prolifically in multiple contexts, and taken firm stands in the apologetic arena in defense of orthodoxy surely should not be tossed aside based on his interpretation of one passage in a massive volume."

Daniel B. Wallace, New Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, said he disagrees with Licona's interpretation but considers the issue hermeneutical, not a challenge to biblical inerrancy.

"If we view our own interpretation to be just as inerrant as the Scriptures," he said, "this could ironically elevate tradition and erode biblical authority."

Already, at least two Southern Baptist entities—the New Orleans seminary and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention—have rescinded invitations for Licona to speak at apologetics conferences, Licona said.

The NAMB, meanwhile, eliminated Licona's position. Licona said the decision came after he offered to resign rather than cast a shadow over the board and its president, Kevin Ezell.

"I love NAMB and Kevin and wanted to protect them," Licona said. "They then decided to make the call and eliminate my position. Now that the issue has escalated far beyond what I had ever expected, it was definitely a good decision."

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today articles about biblical inerrancy and interpretation include:

A New Bible Battle | It's not about doctrine but our use of Scripture. (October 7, 2011)
How to Read the Bible | New strategies for interpreting Scripture turn out to be not so new—and deepen our life in Christ. (October 7, 2011)
Battle for the Bible Translation | Our movement is wide enough to include a variety of methods. (September 2, 2011)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.