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Who Moved the Stone? 3. What Happened Before Midnight on Thursday

By Frank Morison


      I suggested on an earlier page that considerations of time played a peculiar and decisive part in determining the events that immediately preceded the death of Christ. If we wish to get at the real truth about this matter we must study it with our eyes, as it were, constantly upon the clock. Particularly is this the case when we approach two very important elements in the case: The dealings that the Jewish leaders had with judas and later with Pontius Pilate.

      Both these men played a strange and, at first sight, an inexplicable role in the happenings of those twelve hours that closed the earthly life of Christ. Let us begin by considering the case of Judas.

      The first thing that challenges thought about the affair of Judas is the very curious fact that Caiaphas and his friends should have found it necessary to employ him at all. Why does this man Judas come suddenly into the story? What was it that he could offer the priests that was not theirs already by virtue of their official status? Why should even the trivial amount of the blood-money have been expended in securing his services?

      These questions are vital, and affect profoundly our reading of the whole case. To regard Judas merely as a common informer, ready (for a consideration) to lead the authorities to the secret hiding place of his erstwhile Friend and Leader, is absurd. Jesus was not in hiding. From the moment He arrived at Bethany late on Friday afternoon, no attempt seems to have been made to conceal His movements. He appears to have attended a dinner in His honor at the house of Simon the leper, either on Saturday or Tuesday evening. On three successive days (Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday) He journeyed openly to Jerusalem, returning to Bethany each evening.

      It is ridiculous to suppose, when even as early as Sunday morning vast numbers of the populace knew sufficient of His movements to throng the roadside to Jerusalem, that the leaders themselves were ignorant of His whereabouts. The fact obviously is that they knew very well. On any one of the four critical evenings they could have sent swiftly and secretly to Bethany and effected His arrest. Why was it not done? What was it for which they were waiting, and only Judas could supply?

      It is customary to meet these questions by laying stress on that part of the answer that is recorded in the Gospels: the fear of the people. It does not appear, however, to have been widely discerned that, quite inevitably, this was only half of the real truth and that the other half was withheld.

      It must not be forgotten that the Gospels were written from material gathered mainly from the party identified with Christ. Judas died without disclosing his secret and the Jewish leaders would hardly have been likely to betray it. But to suggest that all Judas did was to take the officers of the Sanhedrin to a lonely and secluded spot where they could secretly arrest Jesus, when they could have done it on their own initiative in the early hours of any morning at Bethany when the villagers were asleep, or at a suitable spot on the road across Olivet on any evening except Wednesday, or throughout Wednesday in the quiet groves of that tiny and peaceful hamlet, is to miss entirely the subtlety of the psychological factors that are involved here.

      To avoid any possibility of misunderstanding on a vital point, let me say here that I would be the very last to deny that fear of the people carried great weight with the Jewish leaders. No one knew, no one could know, what would be the political consequences of the forcible seizure of the person of One whom a large section of the populace regarded as the Messiah of prophecy. The whole situation was unprecedented, and one of extreme sensitiveness and delicacy. Everything these men did was done, as it were, with a furtive glance over the shoulder towards that unfathomable entity, the popular will.

      But mere fear of the people does not explain some of the strangest things about the affair. Something Judas told the priests caused them to precipitate events at the last moment; to go through with the thing at a time that presented the maximum legal and official difficulties. It caused them to keep the strangest appointment between a wanted man and His persecutors of which history gives us any cognizance. It led them to send to Him, an undefended man in a lonely and deserted garden at midnight, an imposing and even ridiculous display of force, supplemented by precautions, the meaning of which no one can mistake.

      What does all this signify? Personally, I am convinced that beneath the ostensible and acknowledged fear of the people, there was a deeper and more potent fear -- a fear that explains all their singular hesitancies and vacillations, until a welcome message reached their astonished ears -- the fear of Christ Himself.

      Lest this should seem to be a strange and unfamiliar thought, let us look at the facts. It is impossible to dissociate these men from the mental limitations and superstitions of their age. Whether the reader believes that the miracles of Christ were actually performed or are merely the legendary ascriptions of a superstitious and unscientific age, the fact remains that the personal ascendancy and repute of Jesus during His own lifetime was immense. The stories of His cures of the blind, the paralytic, and the possessed were widespread. They came from all parts of the country and were apparently implicitly accepted even in high quarters in Jerusalem. The fact that He possessed certain definite powers beyond the normal does not seem to have been doubted by His contemporaries.

      It is difficult to read the Gospels impartially, particularly the closing chapters, without realizing that the nimbus of mystery that encircled the person of Jesus reacted most powerfully on the plans of the leaders. They were dealing with an unknown and incalculable quantity, and their acts plainly show it. Throughout the four critical days that preceded the day of the arrest, when, had He wished, Jesus could have raised the city to an unimaginable pitch of tumult and excitement, they behaved like men under the compulsion of some secret fear. There is none of that swift and decisive grappling with a dangerous situation that we might have expected from men occupying the seat of power. Hesitancy and vacillation are written upon their acts. Even after the terrific and scathing denunciation on Tuesday afternoon, they left the initiative with Christ. Indeed, it is one of the master facts of this strange narrative that the initiative remained with Christ even to the end.

      Personally, I cannot avoid feeling that, in all their dealings with Jesus, these men were apprehensive of something happening that they did not care to define. They seem to have been in some doubt whether even a considerable force would be adequate to take Him, and that in the last moment He might even prove to be unarrestable. This impression is unmistakably strengthened by their singular behavior in the matter of Judas.

      Nothing can be clearer than that, throughout the week preceding the arrest, there was some impediment that led to the event being postponed to the eleventh hour, when in the nature of things their difficulties were increased. The first interview with Judas seems to have promised well because we are told:

      And they, when they heard it, were glad, and promised to give him money. And he sought bow he might conveniently deliver him unto them (Mark 14:11).

      If we are to follow the chronology of the Gospels, this happened at the very latest on Tuesday, after the dinner at the house of Simon the leper. Yet still no overt move was made. It was not until late on Thursday night, when Judas hurried from the Supper room, that their hesitation changed into resolution, and a phase of intense and feverish activity set in.

      Now it is just here that the element of time becomes so important and illuminating. If the arrest of Jesus had followed within a short time of His arrival in the Garden, it would be a legitimate assumption that Judas's part of the pact was limited to warning the authorities where He could be found late on Thursday evening and accompanying the arrest party for purposes of identification. This assumption presupposes that it was a deliberate part of the leaders' plans to effect the arrest on the last evening before the Feast, so as to give the minimum opportunity for a popular reaction.

      Plausible as this explanation appears at first sight, it will not stand examination. The facts point in quite a different direction. Suppose the understanding the priests had with Judas was this: "We intend to take Him on Thursday night. Remain with Him until you are absolutely sure of His movements, and then come quickly and tell us. We will do the rest." It is obvious that a plot of this kind implies that all needful preparations for so important an event would have been made. The officers of the temple guard detailed to accompany the expedition would have been warned and in readiness. Within a few minutes of the receipt of the message the arrest party would have been mobilized and ready to move off.

      Did things take this course? Most assuredly they did not. An extraordinary and intensely suggestive delay of several hours intervened between the time when Judas withdrew from the Supper party, and the arrival of a motley and miscellaneous contingent (armed, one might say, to the teeth) in the Garden of Gethsemane. What is the historical explanation of that delay? Consider the situation carefully and mark its strangeness, for it is full of strange, and otherwise unaccountable things.

      First, and foremost, there is the delay of something approaching three hours between the departure of Judas from the supper chamber and the arrival of the arrest party in Gethsemane. That this period could hardly have been shorter will be apparent if we piece together the unmistakably historical events that intervened. I have already referred to the length of time that must have elapsed in the Garden itself to allow for the thrice-repeated waking of the disciples. The fact that these men went to sleep at all points to a very late hour and a long vigil before fatigue overcame the natural desire to keep awake and to share with their Master whatever danger or experiences the night might bring. We do not know how long they resisted the temptation, but when sleep would no longer be denied, we can hardly assume that less than half an hour elapsed between each waking. This, with the half-hour roughly occupied in the walk from the city, brings us to two hours. To this we must add the time required by the conversations in the Supper room after Judas had left and (if John's account is trustworthy) by the lovely nocturnal prayer in the street without, before the party finally wended its way to the gate of the city.

      If anyone will sit down in the twilight of some quiet evening and read through this section of the narrative, and reflect upon it as he goes, he will find it all amazingly true to life. But he will find also that the set pace of the events cannot be rushed or hurried. He will be constantly tempted by stray words and allusions rather to slow down the pace and to allow a longer period than we are now contemplating. Can we imagine, for example, the disciples on arriving at Gethsemane on some obviously strange and mysterious errand, lying down and going to sleep forthwith? Human beings are not built that way. There would be a period during which whispered questions and vague surmises would pass from lip to lip. There would be long moments of anxious waiting and wondering until one by one, from sheer fatigue, they dropped to sleep.

      Now this very significant gap of at least three hours in the movement of an otherwise tense and closely knit drama has to be explained. It is imperative that we should know what Judas was doing all the time, and especially why, when the expedition did at last set out, Judas knew where he would find Jesus. In some ways this is the master fact of the situation. When we know that, we have the key to what is surely the strangest episode in history.

      Primarily, the impression the records give is that the message Judas brought found the Jewish leaders in some way unprepared. Personally, I cannot escape that impression, and further reflection serves only to deepen it. Had it been a deliberate part of the Jewish plan to postpone the arrest of Jesus until the latest moment on Thursday and to carry it through regardless of consequences, there would have been signs of preparedness and organization. These men did not know where they might not have to send to secure their Prisoner. They might even have to go as far as Bethany. Indeed, the probabilities were strongly in favor of that course, for who could have foreseen that the wanted man would wait conveniently in a neighboring garden? In this case Nemesis would have swiftly overtaken Jesus when the secret rendezvous was known, as it must have been within a few minutes of Judas's departure from the Supper table.

      Instead of this, we get a delay running into hours, a circumstance that might easily have been fatal to the success of the whole expedition. Had the wanted man been any ordinary fugitive, it would have failed.

      The more closely the facts of this momentous episode are considered, the stronger the impression becomes that the visit of Judas to the priests that night, while not wholly unexpected, put their problem in a new and urgent light. Time was needed for consultation, for the taking of great decisions, for the improvisation of means, and when the expedition to Gethsemane did at last move off, it did so at the earliest possible moment consistent with these hurried preparations. I submit that the narratives, as preserved in the four Gospels, bear that interpretation and no other.

      Now there are two factors in this very interesting situation that are unmistakably historical, and that, dovetailing as they do into each other, explain the delay. The first is that the message Judas brought from the Supper room contained a new and surprising piece of information that completely resolved the hesitation and doubts of the rulers. The second is that Christ Himself was challenging and indeed facilitating His own arrest.

      Whatever may have been the actual words employed, the burden of the conversation Judas had with the priests must have been this: "He is thinking and talking of death. He is going to the garden at the foot of Olivet and will wait there till I come. Make your arrangements quickly and I will take you to Him." There seems to be no escaping this inference because it is buttressed at both ends by the silent but unimpeachable witness of the behavior of the two principal actors in the drama. We have documentary track of both parties. We know that Judas took the expedition unerringly to the groves of Gethsemane, despite the darkness and the extreme lateness of the hour. We know that Jesus waited in those very groves, to the exhaustion of His friends, and would apparently have gone on waiting even to the dawn.

      We do not ordinarily get a situation like that without implying something that, from sheer poverty of language, I must call an understanding. Let no one hastily jump to the conclusion that there was a kind of pact between Jesus and His betrayer. I do not think it was like that in the least. Jesus was a master of psychology, and His irrevocable determination to deliver Himself to His accusers that night was accomplished by infinitely subtler means. But when Judas left the upper room on an ostensibly innocent mission' he knew of a surety two things. He knew that Jesus was going to the Garden of Gethsemane and he knew also that His spirit was already bending to the Cross. These two great facts coming in fortuitous combination were his great opportunity and his supreme temptation.

      His alert brain was quick to perceive that this was better news than he had ever hoped to carry to his new masters. The impediment was gone. For this night at least Jesus would not resist arrest. The mood of surrender was on Him. It only remained to send quickly to achieve their purpose.

      [It adds greatly to the verisimilitude of the story when we remember that the arrangement to meet in Gethsemane was probably arrived at quite naturally and in the ordinary course of events. Judas had apparently certain duties to perform on behalf of the band that necessitated his absence for a while, and it is natural that a place should be appointed where they should meet prior to returning in a body across the hills to Bethany. The Garden of Gethsemane was a peculiarly appropriate place for the rendezvous, because it stood in the triangle between the two most frequented routes over the shoulder of Olivet to the little hamlet. Both of these mountain tracks, in addition to the main road (which skirted the garden), led to Bethany.]

      With this new fact uppermost in his mind, Judas, in all human probability, hurried direct to the high priest's house. His private business, even if he now intended to go through with it, could wait. It was of supreme importance that the machinery of state should be put into action without delay.

      What, then, would be the effect of this intelligence on Caiaphas and the little coterie of Sadducees whose interests were so closely involved in the death of Christ? Fortunately we are able to define the answer to this question pretty accurately, because there were two fundamental things about the situation that, from their standpoint, outweighed every other consideration and governed their policy.

      In the first place, it would have been fatal to their interests to have made an unsuccessful attempt to arrest Jesus at this particular juncture. By this I mean that, if, after launching their venture, it had failed through causes that could even remotely be attributed to the supernatural, the damage to their prestige would have been irreparable.

      Second, it would have been even more dangerous to have arrested Christ and to have been compelled to hold Him without trial during the seven days prescribed by the Feast. This they simply dared not do. Jerusalem at feast times, with its huge nonresident population, was notoriously turbulent and prone to high feelings. They could probably count on the popular stupefaction occasioned by so resounding an event as the arrest of Jesus lasting a few hours, but reaction would follow swiftly.

      To men confronted with these alternatives, the news that Judas Iscariot brought late on Thursday night ameliorated their problem and increased its practical difficulties tenfold. It ameliorated it because it gave them the assurance and certainty of arrest. It told them that the time of their opportunity had come. It increased their difficulties because it came at such a late hour as to render it almost certain that they must face the second and more deadly of their perils.

      The practical question that arose immediately, therefore, was probably this: "Can we possibly carry the thing through all its inevitable legal stages in time to secure execution before sundown tomorrow?" It was a very big and complicated issue, not lightly to be answered.

      I cannot see that this question could have been answered offhand even by the high priest himself, fortified as he undoubtedly was by the secular wisdom and long experience of his father-in-law Annas. The plan demanded consultation at least with the representative men of the different groups constituting the Sanhedrin. The situation was so entirely without precedent. And failure to carry the whole process through, even by a hair's breadth, involved consequences of a very dangerous order.

      Whatever else, therefore, had to be done, some considerable part of those three hours must have been occupied in hurried consultations, in swift passings to and fro between the executive sitting at the high priest's house, and those indispensable leaders of Jewish thought on whom they must rely for ratification in the Sanhedrin. All this is written plainly between the lines of the narrative. But was there something else? Personally, I think there was.

      Whatever interpretation we put on the circumstances leading up to the arrest of Christ, it seems to me certain that, before the fateful word was given to the arrest party to proceed to Gethsemane, some communication must have taken place between the Jewish leaders and Pontius Pilate.

      It is against everything we know about the character of Pilate and the nature of the Roman occupation to assume that a serious case like this could have been thrust upon Pilate early on Friday morning without his knowledge and without first ascertaining his readiness to take it.

      The fact that none of the four Gospel writers refers to a prior consultation with Pilate is not difficult to understand. They were writing from their own particular standpoint. The assent of Pilate to the Jewish plans would seem to them of small moment and was in any case an administrative detail in which they had probably little interest. But the moment we put ourselves in the place of the priests we see how very vital it was that, late as the hour might be, the consent and cooperation of the procurator should be obtained.

      If anyone feels that the received narrative does not quite carry this conviction, let me enjoin him to consider carefully one small but significant circumstance. There is a deeply rooted tradition in the early Christian literature (supported, of course, by John's detailed account of the Roman trial) that Pilate departed from the usual practice on this occasion by coming out to the Jews, so as to meet their ceremonial objection to entering the Court of the Stranger on that day. The reason was of course that time did not permit of the necessary purification prior to the Feast. If this is a historical fact it can mean only one thing, viz., that had it not been for the supreme and urgent case of Christ, Pilate would have held no court on that day. It would have been absurd, in the ordinary course of events, to hold judicial proceedings on a day when, in the nature of the case, the principal officers and witnesses could not be present. The fact that Pilate did sit on that day and that without apparent demur he proceeded to hear the case in the open space outside the praetorium points to an understanding of a very definite kind.

      Thus, if we try to get into the inner mind of the priests and look at the very complicated problem they had to solve at short notice, we see that some kind of communication with Pilate was inevitable. They were suddenly offered the opportunity of arresting Jesus under unexpectedly favorable conditions. It was night, and the populace were preoccupied with the preparations for the Feast. Moreover, the prospective Prisoner Himself was strangely willing, and in some inexplicable way seemed to be facilitating their plans. From the purely political side the course was clear. The door they expected they would have to force stood open.

      On the other hand, the legal difficulties were immense. The problem of assembling the court after nightfall, of getting together the necessary witnesses, and of arranging for a full session of the Sanhedrin the next morning called for hard thinking and rapid organization. Much would necessarily have to be left to chance and to the hope of things working out roughly to plan. But the broad lines of their program would have to be settled before beginning the action that was to put their fortunes to the test.

      But even when the bard minimum of their essentials had been settled -- the arrest, the midnight hearing to formulate the charge and secure conviction, the early meeting of the Sanhedrin to ratify the finding -- there still remained one supreme question to which a definite answer must be forthcoming. Could they secure the Roman conviction in time to guarantee crucifixion before the Feast? Would Pilate be willing to hear the case under the peculiar conditions they were bound to impose? Would he insist on a full trial or could they count on a formal endorsement of a finding previously arrived at by their own courts?

      Such questions as these would ordinarily be settled through official channels and as a matter of administrative routine. There must have been some kind of calendar for the trial of Jewish prisoners, whose cases necessitated review by the procurator, and in the preparation of this calendar Pilate's personal convenience would invariably be consulted.

      The extreme urgency of the present case, however, precluded reliance on these channels. It was already very late in the evening. If the conviction was to go through, it was imperative that some kind of provisional arrangement should be made with the procurator to hear the case early the next morning.

      There was probably only one man in Jerusalem who could seek an audience with Pilate at an hour ordinarily devoted to his private pleasure. That man was Caiaphas, the high priest, and it was Caiaphas, in all human probability, who went. He alone could present with the full authority of his supreme office the high reasons of state behind the prosecution.

      It may seem a small matter whether the titular chief of the Jewish nation visited Pilate at a very late hour on that memorable evening or not. But if things took the course that we will discuss in the next chapter, it will be found that that unrecorded visit has profound and far-reaching significance. It explains something that on any other supposition is wholly inexplicable. I mean the very curious behavior of Pilate the next day during the critical hours that decided the fate of Christ.

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See Also:
   Who Moved the Stone? Preface
   Who Moved the Stone? 1. The Book that Refused to be Written
   Who Moved the Stone? 2. The Real Case Against the Prisoner
   Who Moved the Stone? 3. What Happened Before Midnight on Thursday
   Who Moved the Stone? 4. A Psychological Parallelogram of Forces
   Who Moved the Stone? 5. The Situation on Friday Afternoon
   Who Moved the Stone? 6. Thirty-Six Hours Later
   Who Moved the Stone? 7. On the Behavior of Two Sisters and the Men Who Fled in the Night
   Who Moved the Stone? 8. Between Sunset and Dawn
   Who Moved the Stone? 9. The Historic Crux of the Problem
   Who Moved the Stone? 10. The Evidence of the Principal Fisherman
   Who Moved the Stone? 11. The Evidence of the Prisoner's Brother
   Who Moved the Stone? 12. The Evidence of the Man from Tarsus
   Who Moved the Stone? 13. The Witness of the Great Stone
   Who Moved the Stone? 14. Some Realities of that Far-Off Morning
   Who Moved the Stone? 15. The Servant of the Priest

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