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Who Moved the Stone, part 2.

Happy Easter!

It’s Easter week! Dr. Jeremiah Mutie takes a look at Frank Morison’s classic work, Who Moved the Stone? This is the second installment in our series, you can find the first one here.
Psychologically speaking, Claudia must have overheard the conversations between her husband and the mysterious mid-nigh visitor. Morrison writes almost in tongue-and-cheek: “Now does anyone with personal knowledge of the immemorial characteristics of women suppose for a moment that an incident like this would pass without Claudia wanting to know something about it? She would not have been a woman if she had not been curious, and we may be practically certain that before they retired to rest that night there was some conversation about the unexpected visit, the identity of the Prisoner, and the reasons (satisfactory or otherwise) behind the arrest. Anything that foreboded trouble between her husband and the Jews had a special interest for Procula” (49–50). This is clearly confirmed by her terse message to her husband the following morning, as recorded by Matthew: “While he [Pilate] was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him” (Matt 27:19). In any case, by the end of the night, the deal was closed: Jesus’ fate was determined. As we would say, the rest from this point onwards was mere academics.
Morrison now shifts his attention to the developments of that Friday afternoon. Concerning the key physical aspects, we note that all accounts confirm that Jesus was dead. Morrison writes: “Pilate himself verified this point by direct inquiry of the centurion, before giving permission for the disposal of the body. No one seems to have questioned the fact at the time, or at any period during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. It was reserved for the Rationalist Venturini at the beginning of the nineteenth century to advance the curious thesis that Jesus only swooned and recovered later in the cool of the rock-hewn grave. This theory has, however, been conclusively answered by Strauss” (64). In an astonishing admission, before he proceeds to the critical events of thirty-six hours late, Morrison writes: “Thus Jesus, in the austere but exact phrasing of the Apostles’ Creed, ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried . . .’ I have put dots in place of the famous context because as a young man I used to stop dead at this point in the English Church Service, set my teeth tightly, and refuse to utter another word” (67). And then he makes these earth-shaking comments, which offer the clearest response to the question of why his original book “refused” to be written: “But today I feel different. I have wrestled with that problem and found it tougher than ever I could have conceived possible. It is easy to say that you will believe nothing that will not fit into the mold of a rationalist conception of the universe. But suppose the facts won’t fit into that mold? The utmost that an honest man can do is to undertake to examine the facts patiently and impartially, and to see where they lead him. That is what I propose to do in the following chapters” (67, emphasis added).
Again, we will retrace his presentation of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ in a much-summarized manner here. He focuses his attention to the discovery of the empty tomb on that early Sunday morning by the women, led by Mary Magdalene. At least these other names have been mentioned as being part of the party that went to the tomb that morning: Mary, the wife of Cleopas, Salome (Mark) and Joanna (Luke). Thus, the party comprised of either three or four women (debates continue). But what were the women going to the tomb to do? While the Gospels are not clear on this subject, the fragment known as the Gospel of Peter provides some finer details, writing: “Now early on the Lord’s day Mary Magdalene, a disciple of the Lord, which, being afraid because of the Jews, for they were inflamed with anger, had not performed at the sepulcher of the Lord those things which women are accustomed to do unto them that die and are beloved of them -took with her the women her friends and came unto the tomb where he was laid” (Gos Pet 50–51). Thus, they were going there to do a perfectly natural rite. Morrison explains further: “It was widely accepted in the East that decomposition of the body of a dead person set in on or about the third day after death. It was necessary, therefore, to perform the rites the women had in view at the earliest possible moment consistent with the observance of the Sabbath. That moment was undoubtedly at sunrise on Sunday morning. They would clearly choose an early hour to avoid publicity. They could hardly go before sunrise because it would be dark, and possibly also because the city gates would not be open” (76). But then there was a problem: the body was missing!
Before concluding his discussion on the interpretation of the facts of the “missing body,” Morrison retraces the question of the “men who fled in the night.” Nine disciples were reported to have fled after Jesus’ arrest (Judas Iscariot was the betrayer; Peter followed the arresting party until he was discovered and fled and John is present at the cross with Jesus’ mother). So, where were the rest of the party (as well as Mary and Martha, who seem to disappear suddenly from the story)? With good reasons, Morrison suggests that, for fear of being arrested also, these disciples most probably tried to hide in Bethany, and then headed further towards Galilee (86).
Back to the facts of the “missing body.” Morrison begins by summarizing the prevailing hypotheses at that point in history to account for the empty tomb (as he notes, while “Four of them assume the vacancy of the tomb as a historic fact…the others take the more extreme view that the story is either entirely apocryphal or that the tomb was not investigated under the conditions described in the Gospels” (88). These are, “1. Joseph of Arimathea secretly removed the body to a more suitable resting-place. 2. The body was removed by order of the Roman power. 3. The body was removed by the Jewish authorities to prevent the possible veneration of the tomb. 4. Jesus’ life was not really extinct. He recovered in the cool of the grave. 5. The women mistook the grave in the uncertain light. 6. The grave was not visited at all and the story about the women was a later accretion” (89). After assessing all of these hypotheses, Morrison turns to what he believes is the “historic crux of the problem,” a problem that cannot be ignored. He writes: “The actual position is peculiar, and, I believe, unique in history. It is not that one or two emotional women who had been specially identified with the closing scenes of the Crucifixion received a presentiment that Jesus had risen and persistently asserted it in the teeth of hostile denials and the half-expressed doubts of their friends. Such a view of the situation will not stand a small part of the historic strain that has to be placed upon it. It is that the whole party, including the nine men who fled at the arrest, and certain independent persons who have not previously come into the story, were convinced that something had occurred that changed their entire outlook. It turned their dejection into triumph and their sorrow into an intense joy” (104). This fact, he contends, must be contended with.
Indeed, according to him, one of the most peculiar aspects of this story pertains to the succeeding days and weeks after the discovery of the empty tomb. For the starter, as Morrison notes, “The story of the Resurrection, which was taught and preached throughout the ancient world during the first forty years of the Christian era, was not told or created by outsiders, but by the original band of followers of Jesus. They did not wait two or three decades before giving their version to the world. They began their organized campaign within two months of the occurrences. Within three decades most of them had perished violently for their adhesion to this very story” (108). Moreover, more significantly, we do not see any early attempts either by Jesus’ friend or by foe, to provide the physical evidence of the remains of Jesus Christ (and neither is there any attempt to provide the living person of Christ as the swoon theory would purport to argue). As Morrison notes, “It is impossible to read the records of the period without being profoundly impressed by the way in which, for friend and foe alike, the tomb of Jesus sinks into utter and undisturbed oblivion. No one in later years seems to have gone to Joseph’s garden, and looking at the rock-hewn cave, to have said, ‘This is the place where the Lord is buried.’ No hostile investigation seems to have been made to show that the martyred remains of the great Teacher still lay where they were deposited some days, weeks, or months earlier” (111). Further, “Still more strikingly, no one pretending to have an intimate and special knowledge seems to have said, ‘Not here was He ultimately buried, but there.’ Instead of these quite natural consequences flowing from so extraordinary an event, we get this stony appearance of indifference. From the moment the women returned from the Garden, the tomb of Jesus passed, historically, into complete oblivion” (111). In fact, according to him, we would expect there to be a controversy between even amongst the growing body of Christ’s followers on this very same issue had there been any doubts/questions. “But there is no trace of any such controversy. The assumption that the tomb was empty seems to have been universal. The only controversy of which we have any record, and it was clearly a heated one, was on the vexed question as to whether the disciples had secretly removed the body. This, 1 say, is a very formidable fact. It suggests that something had already occurred to make the vacancy of the tomb common ground, and to place it high out of the reach of dispute or argument” (112).

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