By Frank Morison
If we are to gain a teal insight into the events immediately following the death of Christ we shall have to begin by studying carefully the situation as it probably existed about four o'clock on Friday afternoon.
Hitherto we have approached this subject almost exclusively from the official and priestly point of view. That point of view was extremely important in the earlier stages of the case. The prosecution was the priests', and it was vital to our purpose to know what lay behind it. But with the achievement of their main object, these official representatives of Jewry recede temporarily into the background and a new group of people takes their place. It is with this group the personal friends and adherents of Jesus-that we shall be chiefly concerned in the next two or three chapters. Let us begin by considering who these people were, and what the documents tell us with regard to them.
If we exclude Mary and Martha of Bethany, and their brother Lazarus, who, for certain reasons that we shall discuss later, are not heard of in connection with the final tragedy, we are left with a group of sixteen persons, all of whom are known to have belonged to the inner circle of Christ's personal supporters:
The eleven surviving apostles.
Mary the mother of Jesus.
Mary, the wife of Cleophas.
Salome, the wife of Zebedee.
Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward.
To these should perhaps be added two men of a higher social class, who, though not openly avowing discipleship, were apparently strongly sympathetic toward the cause of Christ Joseph of Arimathea and the councilor Nicodemus.
According to the narratives, every one of these eighteen persons was present in Jerusalem or its vicinity at this particular Feast. We have documentary track of them all. This is particularly important in the case of the women, because, as we shall see, their evidence carries special weight in certain contingencies that were shortly to arise.
Now the question we have chiefly to consider here is this: In what way did the blow occasioned by the summary arrest and crucifixion of Christ fall on this little group of people? What were the exact circumstances in which they realized what was happening and how did they behave under the stress of events that not only brought death to their Leader, but were destined profoundly to affect their own lives?
Fortunately we can answer this question for the disciples outright. There does not seem to be any reasonable doubt that full realization came late on Thursday evening. The special solemnity of the words of Jesus during the Supper in the upper room had doubtless prepared them for some undefined catastrophe. But it was probably only when Judas arrived with the armed contingent that the dastardly and terrible character of the betrayal came home to them. After a brief and futile attempt at resistance on the part of Peter, the majority of them appear to have fled. The night passed into the morning with Jesus in the hands of His captors and His most intimate followers scattered and terrified by what they had seen.
Before the day was more than an hour old, however, two of these men, Peter and John, reappear in the dangerous and highly compromising neighborhood of the high priest's house. It seems reasonable to assume that they entered the city by following closely on the heels of the arrest party. If we are to accept the accounts given to us of the arrest, it was a somewhat heterogeneous body that accompanied the officers of the Sanhedrin to the Garden of Gethsemane. Arrangements had doubtless been made at the gates to readmit this gathering on the return of the expedition, and it should not have been difficult in the darkness and general confusion for Peter and John to have slipped in without their identity being recognized. Once inside the city gates they would probably follow the main body to the high priest's house, where John's acquaintance with the fortress seems to have served them in good stead.
With regard to the other nine disciples, it is doubtful whether any of them slept in the city that night. They were evidently panic-stricken, and fled to avoid the possibility of arrest. Admitting the known fact that the rules governing the opening of the gates of the city after sundown were greatly relaxed during the feasts, when many pilgrims slept in booths on the surrounding hills, it seems very unlikely that men under a sudden impulse of fear would risk detection by seeking admission at such an unusual hour. It is far more likely that they took a quite different course, which will be dealt with fully in a later chapter.
The women of the party were, therefore, in all human probability, cut off from direct knowledge and participation in this affair until at any rate the nocturnal phase of the trial of Jesus was over. It should not be forgotten that while news flies quickly in these days of newspapers, radio, and television, the conditions in Old Jerusalem were peculiar. The arrest of Jesus was not decided upon until very late the previous night when the majority of citizens had gone to bed. The return of the arrest party was probably made by the least frequented route, and there would be few stragglers in the upper city at that hour. The circumstances therefore favored that degree of secrecy so much desired by the priests. When the gates opened at sunrise and people began to pass in and out, rumors of the dramatic night proceedings doubtless began to circulate and a steadily growing stream of curious people probably made their way to the upper city. But it seems to be implied in the narratives that anything like a wide or universal realization of what was taking place was delayed until later, when the great tragedy was being consummated.
We shall, therefore, be very near to the real truth in this matter if we assume that the women of the party did not learn of the deadly and menacing turn that events had taken until early on Friday morning, either through the spread of rumors, or (as is more likely) by a hurried visit from Peter or John. To those who loved Jesus it would be a prime consideration to inform His mother at all costs.
If this is a reasonably accurate estimate of the position, it will be seen that the working efficiency of the party of Jesus in Jerusalem on Friday morning was reduced from sixteen persons to seven, of whom five were women. Had any of the nine remaining disciples succeeded in joining forces, either with Peter and John on the one hand or the women on the other, it seems incredible that we should not have heard of them.
The probability, too, that none of these nine men had yet returned is very greatly strengthened by the fact that the people we hear about in connection with the final scene at the cross are drawn from this same group of seven persons. And they are all there except two' whose absence is justifiable. No anguish could prevent the mother of such a Son from being present in the hour of His final agony, and we find Mary at the foot of the cross. John, too, is there, anticipating in fact the sonship he was so soon to adopt. Mary, the wife of Cleophas, Salome, and Mary Magdalene are at a respectful distance.
All this is in accord with expectation. Even if the eleven disciples had been at hand to share the responsibilities and sorrows of that awful morning, we should still have expected the women to have been present. The frailest women are drawn irresistibly to ministrations to the dying, even under conditions that will fray the nerves of strong men. But the picture of these solitary women and the disciple John "standing by" in the hour of supreme crisis and doing what they could is very human and very true to life. If real history was ever written, surely it is this.
[Peter I take to have been in close retirement, an utterly humbled, repentant, and broken man, while Joanna (in view of Herod's temporary residence in the city) was probably occupied with her official duties.]
Consider now the events that immediately followed. That Jesus Christ died on the cross, in the full physical sense of the term, even before the spear wound was inflicted by the Roman soldier, seems to me to be one of the certainties of history.
All the accounts affirm it, and if the earliest record (that of Mark) is trustworthy, 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 and is dealt with in a later chapter.
Now all the four writers agree that, shortly after the death of Jesus, Pilate was approached by Joseph of Arimathea for permission to bury the body. Whatever doubts may attach, therefore, to other aspects of the tragedy, it seems indisputable that this man, a person of social distinction and even of official status, so far detached himself from the priestly party as to seek permission to give the crucified Prisoner an honorable burial.
It is sometimes suggested that Joseph's motive in performing this act was to comply with the Jewish law with regard to burial. I find it difficult to accept this suggestion in face of the evidence. There were three bodies to be disposed of before sunset, not one, and there is not the slightest trace of any solicitude on the part of Joseph for the two robbers. His sole motive and preoccupation seems to have been to pay a personal and individual respect to the remains of Jesus. So far from weakening this supposition, the few details given in the Gospels with regard to Joseph strengthen it. We are told that "he consented not" in the Sanhedrin "to the death of Christ." Luke says he "was looking for the kingdom of God." John, rather more explicitly, but in quite different language, says "he was a disciple, but secretly, for fear of the Jews." But great events call forth heroic traits in the character of men, and when Jesus was beyond the further pursuit of His enemies, Joseph seems to have risen to the level of his own secret aspirations. He had the courage to go to Pilate and ask for the body.
If we were left simply with the Synoptic Gospels we should be compelled to believe that Joseph of Arimathea acted in this matter entirely alone. John, however, contributes here an item of information, which, while unexpected, is by no means improbable. We are told that when Joseph had secured the permission of Pilate to bury the body, he brought Nicodemus with him the man who, according to the same writer, came to Jesus by night.
I am not unmindful of the suspicion that exists in the minds of many competent critics with regard to facts reported solely by John, and upon which the Synoptists are silent. But the present case is surely exceptional. The apostle John is the only canonical writer who tells us anything about Nicodemus at all. Moreover, the two men had obviously much in common. Both were apparently drawn from the ruling class. Both held a secret but sincere regard for the personality of Jesus. That sooner or later they would come together was almost inevitable, and at what hour more likely than this, when the disfigured body of One whom they reverenced was about to be cast into a dishonorable grave! It was their last and only opportunity of rendering to Christ that outward allegiance they had denied to Him in life.
Now it is necessary to remember that the effective Christian witnesses of what took place at this stage were in all human probability limited to the three women: Mary, the wife of Cleophas, Salome, and Mary Magdalene. That the mother of Jesus herself collapsed when the end came may be regarded as certain. The Gospel record plainly implies it. The tortured heart and brain, wrought to the extremest pitch of anguish by the sufferings of the agonized figure on the cross, would surely stand no more. Utter physical weakness and exhaustion would be the penalty she would pay for those few but awful hours at the foot of her dying and tortured Son. She would need all the loving and solicitous care of John to get her back through the rough crowds to their temporary home in Jerusalem.
But there is a very steady and consistent testimony in the Gospels that at least two of the other women stayed to see it through. They are expressly mentioned by the Synoptic writers, and in each case there is a curious suggestion of their viewing the burial from a little distance off, as though the circumstances forbade their giving any actual assistance. That seems to express accurately the probabilities of the situation. If the unanimous assertion of the four writers is. true, that Joseph of Arimathea (a rich man and presumably a complete stranger to the women) conducted the burial, then their natural reticence to say nothing of the difference in their social positions would account sufficiently for their standing aloof.
But there is one final consideration that must, I think, rank as one of the certainties of history. In no conceivable circumstances could Joseph of Arimathea alone have carried out what is recorded of him. There must have been helpers. The task of winding the body in a sheet eight feet long (the traditional Jewish practice) would have required at least two pairs of hands. The distance to be traversed from the hill of public execution to the garden grave could hardly have been short, and it must have required the strength of at least two grown men to carry a body the very wounds of which made it more difficult to handle. It is a significant thing that while the Synoptists make no reference to Nicodemus, they are also silent on the question of the helpers. Surely this is a case in which the presence of helpers is implied, and Nicodemus, being a complete stranger to the women, was possibly regarded as one of them.
It may seem a comparatively insignificant matter whether Joseph was assisted in his task of burying the body of Jesus or not, but, as we shall see in a later chapter, it has an important bearing on the problem before us.
Such, then, in broad outline is how the crisis overtook the friends of Jesus in Jerusalem on that Friday, ever memorable in human history. Looking at all these considerations squarely, *e receive an impression of this far-off event that is not only true to the narratives, but also palpably true to life. The broken fragments fit together and make a coherent and intelligible whole. It does not seem too big a claim to make that in this restrained and quiet narrative we have the irreducible certainties of a situation that, if unparalleled in its consequences, was very simple and very human in its essential details.
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. The reader will understand why.
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.