By Frank Morison
Before we can consider what these facts mean, and especially what validity attaches to the various explanations that have been brought forward to account for them, it is necessary to complete the general picture of the historic background that has hitherto engaged our thought.
We saw in a preceding chapter that the sudden and unexpected arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane late on Thursday night split the little party of His personal adherents into two distinct groups. Throughout the preceding chapters we have been studying in some detail what took place in connection with the smaller of these fragments, the one that was, as it were, marooned or temporarily isolated in Jerusalem itself. We have given comparatively little thought to the larger fragment outside. Yet the behavior of this larger fragment is one of the essential factors of the problem. Is there anything in the documents that throws any light upon this important question?
It will serve to clarify our thought if we remember there are really two missing groups of people that have to be accounted for. There are the nine disciples who are reported to have fled at the arrest, but there are also the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany, whose absence from the Crucifixion and burial is one of the most notable and significant features of the narratives. Here are two sisters who were devoted heart and soul to Jesus. Their restful home was one of the few luxuries He ever allowed Himself. It was probably from their house that He stepped out on the last morning He was to see as a free man. Yet when the blow fell and every ounce of comfort was needed by His stricken supporters, these two noble and devoted women slip utterly out of the picture. There must be some solid and historic reason for this, and it is our task, if possible, to find it.
It is usually a sound inference, when two or more unusual features emerge in an otherwise normal and intelligible situation, to assume that there is some connection between them. In the present instance there are special reasons for suspecting it. We must never forget that throughout the troubled five days preceding the arrest, Jesus and His companions had made their home at Bethany. I have sometimes speculated as to whether the domestic arrangements in the house of the two sisters permitted of accommodating the thirteen persons who constituted the party. Probably they did not, in which case Jesus and possibly one or two of the elder apostles stayed in the house, while the other disciples found temporary lodgings nearby.
In any case, the evidence is that the whole party slept in the village throughout the week, making the three-mile journey to and from Bethany each day. Further, with the exception of Judas Iscariot, who knew otherwise, the probabilities are that the disciples fully expected to return to Bethany as usual on Thursday night. That mysterious lingering in the garden long after the usual time for retiring must have been very perplexing to them, and as the hour steadily approached midnight the minds of the two sisters also must have become the prey of anxiety.
With these facts before us let us go back to the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. All the accounts agree in suggesting that the party sent by the priests to effect the arrest was too large to admit of them walking or marching abreast. Even on the road leading from the city gate to the junction of the Bethany road and the mountain track over Olivet they would probably form an irregular column stretching roughly some twenty yards along the road. We have to think of this irregular and motley aggregation of rather excited men arriving at the entrance of the Garden and deploying through the trees to the place where Jesus was, the torchbearers with Judas in their midst coming first, accompanied by the temple guards, and these in turn followed by the miscellaneous body of "witnesses" and other persons assembled at short notice in the city.
The arrest would, of course, be made as soon as Judas had identified Jesus, and Peter had probably already struck the blow at the servant of the high priest before the rear of the arrest party had closed in or knew precisely what was going on. There would probably be a good deal of shouting and confusion as, with the torches held aloft in the center of the open space between the trees, the officers of the Sanhedrin tied the hands of Jesus behind His back. In the meantime the rest of the expedition must have closed in on the little knot of men surrounding the Prisoner.
It is no part of our present purpose to inquire how it was that Peter and John came to be separated from their comrades and to get into the city unrecognized. It seems probable, however, that, standing close to Jesus as Peter undoubtedly was, and with the available space between the trees rapidly filling, both Peter and John became involved in the crowd in such a way as to make withdrawal conspicuous. In the very dim light, and with the torches flickering uncertainly ahead, it may have been not only prudent, but the simplest way of achieving their purpose, to go on with the crowd, relying on the obviously motley character of the gathering to secure their admission unchallenged at the gates. It is only in some accidental and unpremeditated fashion such as this that we can imagine them having the hardihood to risk detection by entering the city.
If this is what actually happened, then we have precisely the condition already postulated as obtaining in Jerusalem on the following morning.
But our main interest as present is with the other nine disciples. Before we can even remotely contemplate the possibility of these men fleeing away there and then to Galilee, as Kirsop Lake suggests in a theory we shall discuss later, we must look at this situation closely and especially at the springs of their conduct.
People usually fly in panic when some dreaded personal disaster is very near and very pressing, and when there is no time for calmer reflection or the invention of resource. In this case the danger was at one time very close, but the disciples could not have run many yards through the thicket before the realities of the situation would be forced upon them.
In the first place, if the Garden occupied the site tradition has always assigned to it, it lay at the foot of the hill of Olivet. The arrest party must have entered it by a gate opening on to the main Jericho road. Anyone fleeing therefore from such a party and desiring to avoid observation would do so in the direction opposite to that from which the party had come that is to say, up the sloping side of Olivet and towards Bethany. Every step they took would bring them higher up and in a position of advantage over the Garden below.
Fortunately for the disciples, the extent of their possible danger was clearly indicated. If anyone was searching for them among the trees below, the fact would be indicated by the visible trail of the torches. Every move in the game would be apparent, and the disciples were in a position of unparalleled advantage. They had only to watch for an approaching light and keep it at a distance.
But it seems obvious that nothing of this kind took place. After the lapse of a few moments the whole arrest party appears to have returned to Jerusalem. The retreating lights of the torchbearers would be clearly visible as the party wound its way to the appointed entrance. Whatever immediate danger there was to the remaining disciples retreated with those lights. Nothing further would happen until daylight came.
This is the common-sense view of the matter, and there is no logical or visible reason for it being otherwise. Given this period of respite, what would be the psychological state and position of the disciples? How would they behave? What urgent considerations would press for solution?
No one can possibly answer these questions with full knowledge and certainty, but we can hazard a guess and correct it by our observations later. It seems to me that if the disciples stopped to take stock of their position, one fact must have presented itself to them in a very alarming light the fact that both Peter and John were missing. They would put the worst possible construction on this. They could not be expected to know or foresee the peculiarly fortuitous circumstances in which these two men probably gained entrance to the city. Seen from their side of the shield, the absence of Peter and John their total failure to respond to the calls of the comrades would assume a most sinister significance. They would probably infer that they had been arrested, and that only their own promptitude in retreating at the critical moment had saved them from a similar fate.
This would, I think, effectually deter them from making any immediate attempt to get into the city. On the other hand, if (as they assumed) John and Peter had been taken prisoners, the position of the women, unprotected and exposed to the full blast of the priests' hostility and the popular frenzy, would be very serious. That was a point that must undoubtedly be taken into account. If there were no other data available, we could perhaps hardly go beyond this. We should have to leave the nine missing disciples on the hill of Olivet and admit that as to what happened thereafter, there was no clue.
But we have still to explain that other remarkable fact the simultaneous disappearance of Mary and Martha from the narratives. Are these two circumstances connected? Will one given set of conditions explain both? What combination of circumstances will account for the absence of these two women from Jerusalem during the terrible hours that preceded and followed the Crucifixion? How is it that when every other woman of the inner circle of Christ's companionship seems to have been engaged and indeed deeply immersed in the affair, Mary and Martha, to whom He owed so much, are so strikingly missing?
A great deal of light is thrown on this matter when we remember the strategic position of Bethany. This little village, nestling on the other side of Olivet, was, as it were, the sentinel of Jerusalem on the main Jericho road. Anyone coming from the north, up the steep ravine from Jericho immortalized by Jesus in the story of the good Samaritan, had to pass through Bethany. Conversely, in going from Jerusalem to the north, the traveler had to pass through it.
This fact has a number of important bearings on our problem. In the first place, it means that if the disciples really had set off to go to Galilee they would have had to pass within a few yards of the home of Mary and Martha at which, or near to which, they had been staying for the past five days. Assuming they got so far, with the clear evidence of the darkness to show that they were not followed, is it conceivable that they would not have gone in to break the appalling news to the sisters and to seek their counsel and help?
But there are a number of other reasons why the disciples would, in all human probability, make for Bethany.
1. Such belongings as they possessed (and it is not to be imagined that they would travel without some simple kind of impediments) must have been at Bethany as their temporary home.
2. Mary and Martha, as intimate friends of Jesus, would need warning of the dangerous turn events had just taken. There was time for them to flee too, if flight was really necessary.
3. If the women actually in the city realized what was going on and found it prudent to leave Jerusalem, they would flee first to Bethany, for through Bethany their course lay.
Thus the peculiar position of the village, combined with the fact that the home of Mary and Martha was an obvious rendezvous for both groups of possible fugitives, marked it as the place to which the disciples would almost instinctively go.
Whether, therefore, we hold that these nine men set out at once to go to Galilee, or whether we hold that they were of sterner stuff and would at least make an effort to rescue their womenfolk, or whether we picture the situation as merely one in which nine tired men in urgent need of rest went to the nearest and most likely place, we bring these men within a short time of the arrest to Bethany.
Let us now look at the mailer from the inner side of the little home at Bethany. As we have already seen, the situation described in the Gospels implies that the two sisters were expecting Jesus to return on Thursday evening, and, as the hours went by and He did not come, they would naturally become alarmed and anxious. Had the night passed without any news of Him at all, it seems certain that at least one of the sisters would have journeyed to Jerusalem the next morning, when contact would have been established between the two groups. In that case we should probably have heard of Mary or Martha of Bethany (perhaps both) being present at the Crucifixion and burial.
We can find, however, nothing even remotely suggesting this in the Gospels. The complete silence of all the records with reference to the Bethany sisters, particularly as regards the women's project and subsequent visit to the tomb, is extremely suggestive and challenging. It can only mean that the conditions prevailing in Bethany either prevented news of the tragic denouement from reaching them or that for sufficiently good reasons they refrained from attempting to join their friends within the walls.
That this is what happened seems to be indicated by the peculiar quality and atmosphere of the records. If only two or three of these worn-out and unhappy men made their way in the darkness to the little home at Bethany, can we not imagine what would have taken place?
We must make allowance, I think, for the obviously shaken nerve of the disciples. Jesus had just been arrested by the temple guard and by order of the priests. John and Peter (in their view) had also been arrested. The mood of the people was violently hostile. All this would be told, losing nothing of its menace by reason of the uncanny hour at which it was related. On the other side, the women were impressionable, and knowing nothing of the true state of affairs, would readily form an idea of the situation, darker than even the facts warranted. Whichever way they looked at it the future was full of immediate menace. What was going on behind the distant walls of Jerusalem? Perhaps even then the traitor Judas was preparing to lead another party at daybreak to complete the arrest. While the valleys around Olivet were being independently searched, Bethany would not be overlooked. They might even arrest the sisters as being implicated in the mailer.
These are thoughts that would almost inevitably present themselves to their minds. But there were other considerations. The mothers of three of these nine men were still in Jerusalem exposed to dangers and possibilities that were uncertain but not the less real on that account. Would they get warning of their peril in time? If so, at any moment they too might knock at the door of that little house.
Of course, with history to guide us we know that the situation within the city was curiously different. We know that Peter and John were not arrested. We can see now that the priests were satisfied when they secured Jesus, for it was Him they feared. But, given the flight of the disciples in obvious panic to Bethany, either as the first stage of the journey to Galilee or as the most obvious sanctuary for the moment, the psychological atmosphere in that little home must have been roughly as we have described it. Uncertainty, apprehension, and fear for the personal safety of everyone connected with Jesus must have been its dominant note.
The following morning would bring no amelioration of this state -- rather the coming of daylight would intensify it. Anything might happen and at any moment. The very worst was to be feared. It is curious to think that all the time Jesus was passing through the final and harrowing stages of His public trial, and while their supposed enemies were deeply obsessed with other things, this little group of people was probably laboring under the gravest apprehensions.
It is curious also to reflect that by the very nature of the circumstances they would tend to be cut off from knowledge of what was going on. In the ordinary way and at normal times there was a certain traffic between Jerusalem and Bethany by which news of what was taking place in the city would be received in two or three hours. But a judicial execution of the greatest Teacher the city had seen within living memory was a sensation of no ordinary kind. The square of Pilate's court and the road to Calvary were an irresistible magnet, and the normal traffic between Jerusalem and Bethany would on that account be temporarily stayed.
Not until the great cry had gone up and the vast crowds poured back into the town is it probable that any real news of what was transpiring in Jerusalem percolated out to the surrounding villages, and by that time the sun was setting and the Sabbath was at hand.
Such, as I conceive it, was the most probable situation during those confused and dramatic hours when Jesus paid the great penalty. It accords with the clear teaching of the records, and it resolves what must otherwise remain utterly inexplicable and obscure. I submit it tentatively and with respect as a possible solution.