By Frank Morison
By all the ordinary standards of human reasoning, the mystery attaching to the person of Christ ought to have terminated with His death and burial. That He really did die in the full physical meaning of that term we have already judged to be one of the certainties of history, and we have seen how a consistent and straightforward account is given of the steps taken to give the body a respectful burial. I cannot personally see anything in the accounts of the crucifixion and burial that is not deeply and profoundly true to expectation. The whole account reads like an actual, unvarnished, and even naïve transcript from real life. Yet when we turn over the page to the events of the succeeding days we run into a situation that, were it not for the complete singularity of certain aspects of the problem, would be utterly unbelievable by any student acquainted alike with history and the conclusions of modern thought.
It is because I believe there are things lying hidden beneath the surface of the narrative that must profoundly modify the construction we place upon it, that I will ask the reader to consider first the trend of events from about six o'clock on Friday afternoon to the setting out of the little party of women at dawn on Sunday morning.
It will be remembered that of the nine persons known to have been present in Jerusalem on Friday afternoon who were sympathetic to the cause of Christ, we were able definitely to trace seven. The apostle John was found with Maw the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross, and, if the inferences we drew are correct, he left shortly after the final agony to escort his charge to a place of safety and retirement. The three women; Mary Magdalene; Mary, the wife of Cleophas; and Salome, were also discovered in the neighborhood of the cross, while later in the afternoon Joseph of Arimathea and the councilor Nicodemus appeared on their self-appointed mission to give an honorable burial to the body of Jesus.
Thus, seven out of the nine people are definitely accounted for. Concerning the two absentees, Peter's grief and shame at his panic-stricken denial of his Master will sufficiently explain his remaining in close retirement, while the ninth member of the group the woman Joanna turns up in connection with the expedition to the tomb on Sunday morning.
A moment's reflection will show, therefore, that what we may call the active and mobile section of the party of Jesus within the walls of Jerusalem was limited to the three women -Mary Magdalene; Mary, the wife of Cleophas; and Salome, supported, so far as her official duties would allow, by the woman Joanna.
It is only when we realize that these three or four women bore the whole brunt of the crisis that so suddenly descended on the party of Jesus, carrying on bravely and doing of their own initiative what the situation seemed to demand, that we begin to see the tragic events of this particular weekend in all their naked realism and to discern the meaning of much that would otherwise remain obscure. For that these women did sustain the full impact of the crisis alone, cut off from effective communication with their friends save for such help as could be given by distracted Peter and preoccupied John, seems to be written plainly in the narratives.
Let us try to reconstruct the scene, taking as our guide the most ancient record, the Gospel of Mark. Fortunately the testimony of Mark, so far as our present inquiry is concerned, is very clear and definite. It will be remembered that in describing the final scene at the Crucifixion, he writes:
There were also women beholding from afar: among whom were both Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of loses, and Salome.
Then, after relating in the briefest possible manner the facts of the interment, Mark continues:
And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of loses beheld -where he was laid. And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, they come to the tomb when the sun was risen.
Now there are two very interesting things that stand out from this narrative and demand attention.
1. The precedence given to Mary Magdalene, as though she were in some way the recognized leader and dominant personality of the group.
2. The curious disappearance of Salome during the actual interment of Jesus.
We may pass over for the moment the point with regard to Mary Magdalene. But the references to Salome are suggestive and throw real light on the narrative. Mark is rather careful about his names and places. He explicitly names Salome as being present at the Crucifixion. He also mentions her as being one of the women who visited the tomb at dawn. Yet it was only the two Marys who stayed behind and "beheld where he was laid."
This pointed omission of Salome during the actual interment can hardly have been accidental. It must mean that the writer of Mark's Gospel wished to convey that Salome had gone away, presumably on some pressing business.
What that business was can be inferred with a degree of probability so high as to amount almost to certainty. It should be remembered that Mary, the wife of Cleophas, and Salome were cousins and throughout their terrible ordeal, when companionship and mutual help meant so much, were acting in close concert with Mary Magdalene. Further, both women were related to Mary the mother of Jesus, while Salome herself was the mother of the apostle John.
This devoted band of women must have had two intense preoccupations during the terrible closing hours of the crucifixion. The one was solicitude for their great Leader who was passing through frightful tortures to His end. The other was an equally intense solicitude for their kinswoman, the mother of Jesus herself. So long as life lingered in the body of Jesus the whole emotional field would be flooded with thoughts and solicitude for Him. But when release came at last with a great cry from the dying Man, the other preoccupation would assert itself.
We do not know, we cannot know, what earnest but fruitless attempts were made that day to keep Mary away from the cross. She was no longer young, and the bloody scene of a triple crucifixion was no sight for an overstrained and utterly heartbroken woman. Personally, I think that the whole weight of the advice and entreaty of the little party must have been exerted against it. But the mother instinct was too strong. She insisted on being with her boy to the end; and who could deny her the right if she was determined to exercise it?
But I do not think that anyone outside the medical profession can gauge the physical risks she ran, or how near the heart-rending ordeal brought her to fatal seizure. The woman that John led away from that frightful scene was surely already half-fainting, dazed, and in less than half an hour, as fuller realization came, would surely collapse.
At a respectful distance from the cross our three women ire watching. As the great cry goes up it is clear that the end has come, and they see John leading the distracted mother, lust to the outskirts of the crowd, and then painfully and slowly citywards. A hurried consultation is held. Someone must go to the aid of the stricken woman, while the others do what they can for Jesus. Salome volunteers, for it is her son John who is leading the bereaved mother home.
That, I take it, is the true reading of these events. It would have had to be inferred even if the Gospels contained no hint of it. But the language of Mark is to my mind conclusive.
Thus in the very earliest of the records, the record that is universally judged to be the closest in point of time lo the events themselves, we get this vivid picture of a tiny remnant of the party of Jesus reeling under the shock of the crucifixion, disposing their limited forces as best they could to meet unprecedented emergencies Peter overwhelmed with remorse and shame remaining in strict retirement; John, with the aid of Salome, tending the stricken mother now committed to their charge; Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, assisted as circumstances permitted by Joanna and Salome, making their tentative arrangements for paying the last tribute of love and friendship to their dead Leader.
Such, as I read it, was the position lust after sunset on Friday, when the beginning of the Sabbath set a limit to any further operations at the tomb of Jesus. It is all very human and very true to life. It is the kind of situation all of us, and especially every woman, can understand.
Now it is one of the unmistakable inferences from the narratives that this particular poise of events persisted practically unchanged throughout the ensuing Sabbath, and that when the women retired to rest on Saturday evening it was with the definite intention of rising early the following morning to go to the tomb.
Usually, when one is trying to reconstruct a scene, after an interval of centuries, and, as in this case, with records that are admittedly brief, one has to rely on the cumulative effect of small details to discover the key facts of the situation. But in the present instance the records themselves are explicit. All four writers testify that the time of the visit was about daybreak, that is to say, much before the hour when ordinary people would be about. Mark's statement is that it was "very early . . . when the sun was risen." Matthew says, "as it began to dawn." Luke describes it as "at early dawn." The writer of the Fourth Gospel (in this case an important witness) gives it as "early, while it was yet dark."
I cannot personally find any grounds, in the slight variation in these statements as to whether the sun had actually risen or not, for doubting the central fact in these quotations. One must not overlook the fact that the sun rises very quickly in southern latitudes, that women are specially prone to unforeseen delays when engaged in joint expeditions, and that while they doubtless rose when it was still dark, the sun was probably some degrees up by the time they got to the tomb. In any case, the unanimous witness of the four documents is that it was early, and at the first available moment after the Sabbath.
So much for the element of time. Let us now consider the personnel of the expedition. If we put the four records side by side and select what is emphatically asserted in common by them all, we find them in complete agreement about one thing, viz., that somewhere about the time the sun was due to rise Mary Magdalene arose and went to the sepulchre.
This minimum statement of the facts is contained in a passage in the Fourth Gospel that has perhaps been more widely scrutinized and discussed than any other passage in literature:
Now on the first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, while it was yet dark, unto the tomb, and seeth the stone taken away from the tomb. She runneth therefore, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we know not where they have laid him.
What inferences are we to draw from this passage? Did Mary Magdalene go alone to the sepulchre? The question is a vital one, and we should think well before returning too confident an answer. For my own part, after reading the passage through again and again, I cannot help feeling-that if the writer of the Fourth Gospel had realized at the time that this question of the women was going to become a matter of deep interest to millions of readers in succeeding centuries, he would have modified the literary construction of this particular sentence so as to remove the obvious non sequitur of the plural "we."
It is not the custom of the apostle John to be intentionally obscure or confusing when describing matters of fact. On the contrary, his work contains examples of some of the most lucid and vivid descriptive writing in literature. He commands a literary technique capable of expressing the most delicate nuances of meaning and he almost invariably uses it to produce an impression of pellucid clarity.
But in this passage -- whether from a momentary inattention or because the subject of Mary's friends did not seem to him important, I know not -- he has achieved one of the outstanding literary examples of obscurity in the Gospels. He begins by describing Mary's departure for the tomb at a time when few people would be about unless they had risen with the intention of accompanying her. He describes her as running back in a state of great excitement to tell Peter and John, and he records what is clearly a deeply imprinted recollection of her breathless and historic utterance: "They have taken away the Lord, and we know not where they have laid him."
Why this incomprehensible "we" if it was not part of his understanding of the mailer that Mary did not go unattended and that she was reporting what she had found, or rather failed to find, in company with others?
Considerable light is thrown on this matter by a study of the famous fragment of the so-called Gospel of Peter. The writer of this fragment also gives supreme prominence to the action of Mary Magdalene, but he adds a phrase that would have removed entirely the obscurity in John:
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 sepulchre 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.
Here we get part of what is almost certainly the true picture: Mary Magdalene as the prime mover in all this strange business of the surreptitious visit to the tomb, but accompanied, if only for safety and for decency's sake, by her own chosen and intimate friends, women of wider experience and maturer years.
If we turn now to the accounts in the three Synoptic Gospels we are immediately impressed by their solidarity with this point of view. All three writers say with the utmost certainty and definiteness that Mary, the wife of Cleophas, went with Mary to the tomb. Mark says that Salome accompanied them, and Luke mentions Joanna as the third member of the party. Having regard to the solemnity and uniqueness of the occasion, is it not at least possible that all four women went?
The more one considers the peculiar circumstances of this historic moment in the lives of these simple people, the more certain does it seem that, could we go back to Jerusalem in the dim dawn of that memorable Sunday, we should see Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, accompanied either by Salome or Joanna, trudging sorrowfully through the narrow unlighted streets of the lower city on their way to pay the last tribute of respect to their dead Leader.
It is important that we satisfy ourselves beyond any reasonable possibility of doubt as to who it was who first visited the sepulchre on Sunday morning because the moment we allow these women to approach the burial-place of Christ we reach the startling abnormality that, according to their report, the body was no longer there. This fact is stated or implied so definitely in the records that it compels us to face sharply and at once a phase of the history that must rest basically upon the evidence and upon nothing else.
The first thing that arrests attention in this connection is that the object with which these women visited the tomb was a perfectly natural one, and the hour at which they did so was consistent with their purpose. 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.
We are therefore very amply within the field of historic probability when we picture this little party of three or four women approaching the tomb in the dim dawn of Sunday morning. But this is not the only fact recorded in the Gospels that looms solid and very real through the mists of time. I mean the preoccupation of the women with the difficulties they were likely to experience with the stone that, according to all the documents, was placed against the entrance to the grave.
The question as to how they were to remove this stone must of necessity have been a source of considerable perplexity to the women. Two of them at least had witnessed the interment and knew roughly how things stood. The stone, which is known to have been large and of considerable weight, was the great difficulty. When, therefore, we find in the earliest record, the Gospel of Mark, the words, "Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the tomb?" we can hardly avoid feeling that this preoccupation of the women with the question of the stone is not only a psychological necessity of the problem, but a definitely historical element in the situation right up to the moment of their arrival at the grave.
Now to anyone actuated by a desire, not to score points, but to arrive at the historic truth, it will be obvious that the fragments of recollection that have reached us as to what actually happened during the next few minutes reflect an experience of no ordinary kind. It is not as though the different accounts agree. If they did we should have to approach the problem from a different angle. But they make no attempt or pretense of agreeing, even though the earliest version of what happened was before both Matthew and Luke when they wrote, and all three Synoptic Gospels were common property when John produced his work. The one thing that seems to be certain is that on arrival at the tomb they received a shock for which they were totally unprepared.
The essence of their discovery was that the tomb had in some way been disturbed and that contrary to their expectations the body of Jesus was no longer there. Luke summarizes the consistent testimony of the Synoptic writers on this point when he says, "They found not the body." But as though to underscore the deeply imbedded character of this tradition we have that immensely significant passage in the Gospel according to John a passage so outspoken and diverse from the Synoptic versions that even the uncritical reader must be arrested by it:
She [Mary Magdalene] runneth therefore, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we know not where they have laid him.
I do not wish to influence unduly the opinion of anyone who feels that when it comes to choosing between the Synoptic writers and the writer of the Fourth Gospel about a mailer of historic fact the earlier writers have the prior claim to acceptance. But I am bound to say that, coming where it does, this passage impresses me profoundly. It is like a clear shaft of sunlight piercing the mists of this memorable dawn.
Unless, therefore, we are prepared to throw overboard the whole corpus of the surviving literary evidence, a course I am convinced no honest and critical reader of this book will suggest, we are driven to the conclusion that when these women reached the tomb they really did receive the impression that the body had gone. I think also that it is a reasonable inference that, coming as it did at dawn, under somewhat eerie conditions, and to minds utterly unprepared for it, this discovery by itself was calculated to produce a condition bordering upon hysteria. Particularly will this appear to be the case when we remember that at least two of the women were no longer young. We have no means of knowing the age of Joanna, but Mary the wife of Cleophas and Salome, if they had not already reached their fifth decade, must have been approaching it.
This point may not seem at first sight to be of much importance, but psychologically its significance is considerable. These women must have felt and acted very much as a similar group of women might feel and act today if confronted suddenly and at an unnaturally early hour by an equally unexpected phenomenon in Kensal Green Cemetery. The first and immediate effect would be one of stupor, followed quickly by an urgent sense of the necessity of immediate counsel and help. If, therefore, as seems very probable, Mary Magdalene, the youngest and most active member of the group, volunteered to run quickly back to the city to tell the disciples Peter and John, leaving the older women to follow at their own pace, we have a situation corresponding closely with the version given in the Fourth Gospel. This would also account satisfactorily for Mary's breathless employment of the plural "we."
Whether we may make this further inference or not is a legitimate mailer for future study, but the central fact in this strange episode does not seem to be susceptible of doubt. These women planned to perform a certain service to their late Master at the earliest moment consistent with the observance of the Sabbath. In accordance with their purpose they arose very early on Sunday morning and went to the tomb. But the supremely important historical fact is that this service was never rendered. Whatever else happened in Joseph's garden that morning, the evidence is that the women failed to find Him and that according to their report the body was no longer there.