By Frank Morison
Whoever comes to this problem has sooner or later to confront a fact that cannot be explained away or removed by any logical processes whatever. It looks us persistently in the face as the one concrete and unassailably attested certainty of the situation.
This fact is that, sometime between the close of the thirty-six-hour gap and a period we cannot reasonably place more than six or seven weeks later, a profound conviction came to the little group of people whose behavior we have been considering a change that attests to the fact that Jesus had risen from the grave.
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.
If the sole evidence for this really extraordinary phenomenon lay in a single passage in the early chapters of the Acts it would be possible to regard it as the rather exuberant record of a contemporary historian whose close connection with the movement had biased and colored his views. But this is precisely what no one can claim. There is a far earlier and more authoritative testimony in the letters of Paul, of Peter, and of James the Just, and in the admittedly historic network of Christian churches stretching from Jerusalem through Asia Minor to the catacombs at Rome. Only from an intensely heated center of burning zeal could this vast field of lava have been thrown out from a tiny country like Palestine to the limits of the Roman world. We cannot insist on the strict reign of causality in the physical world and deny it in the psychological. The phenomenon that here confronts us is one of the biggest dislodgments of events in the world's history, and it can be accounted for only by an initial impact of colossal drive and power.
Yet the original material from which we have to derive this dynamic force consists of a habitual doubter like Thomas, a rather weak fisherman like Peter, a gentle dreamer like John, a practical tax gatherer like Matthew, a few seafaring men like Andrew and Nathanael, the inevitable women, and at most two or three others.
I do not want to minimize the character of the historic nucleus from which Christianity sprang, but, seriously, does this rather heterogeneous body of simple folk, reeling under the shock of the Crucifixion, the utter degradation and death of their Leader, look like the driving force we require? Frankly it does not, and the more we think of it disintegrating under the crisis, the less can we imagine it rewelding into that molten focus that achieved those results. Yet the clear evidence of history is that it did. Something came into the lives of these very simple and ordinary people that transformed them out of all similitude to the broken and shattered party of Jesus that we have recently been studying.
What that experience was -- whether it was physical, psychological, or both, or some transcendent happening outside the sphere of our immediate knowledge is the real crux of our present study.
Before we proceed to a fuller and more detailed discussion of this question, however, there is one point that calls for special notice. According to the official history of these events -- a document that was not only universally accepted from early times, but that comes from the pen of a writer who had exceptional facilities for learning what really did happen, the first public statement concerning the resurrection of Jesus was made in Jerusalem during the Feast of Weeks that is to say, the feast immediately following the fatal Passover, and seven weeks after the date of the Crucifixion.
Why, in the first instance, this seven weeks' gap? It is a very pertinent and suggestive question. The date when Acts was first committed to writing by Luke was at least some thirty or forty years after the events in question. There was time for the legend of the Resurrection if legend it was to have assumed its fullest and most developed form. Many of the actual eye-witnesses had passed away and a broad gulf of years lay between those who remained and the events themselves. The story they would tell in AD. 65 would either be the literal truth, which of course would be unassailable, or such a development of it as would carry the maximum conviction to the contemporary mind. The story would not tend to become less convincing as time went on. It would tend rather to lose its weak and incongruous elements, to shake out its awkward and inconvenient features.
Viewed, however, from the standpoint of pure legend, this seven weeks' gap is an inconvenient feature, an anachronism of the first order. It does not help the credibility of the apostles' story. It embarrasses it. It provides an unnecessary and even incomprehensible stumbling-block to faith. It leaves the door wide open for the entry of the gravest suspicion. People would say: If Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday and appeared to His disciples, why did they not proclaim it from the housetops at once? Why wait for seven weeks, until people had begun to forget about the great tragedy, and then suddenly spring their announcement on the world?
It is difficult to conceive of a version of so momentous an occurrence as the Resurrection that would contain in itself so prolific a seed of doubt. If the story was a complete fiction it does small credit to its originators. Can we doubt that absolutely untrammelled legend, told and retold many years after the event, would have avoided altogether so fatal a source of weakness and have placed the triumphant public announcement of the Resurrection on the very day that its discovery was made?
How then are we to regard this curious gap of seven weeks between the event itself and its first public affirmation? To my mind there can be only one satisfactory answer, viz., that we are here dealing, not with legend or romance, but with fact. The romancer can mold his incidents to fit his purpose, the biographer must take what life gives him.
I suppose that many of my readers have stood at some time or other on some ancient road a road that has served the needs of mankind for several centuries and wondered why at a particular point it makes a sudden turn or detour to avoid, as it appears, nothing. There does not seem to be any reason why it should not have gone straight to its objective. The detour does not shorten the distance; it lengthens it. It does not make the gradient easier; very often it stiffens it. Why this incomprehensible loop or bend, when it would have been so much easier to have gone straight forward?
Whenever a situation like that occurs, if you will go back far enough into the history of that countryside, you will find the explanation in some vanished landmark, some enclosed space, or some established right that the common people, who made the road, could not dispute. The road bends and twists because there was something very real to be avoided.
It seems to me that something closely analogous occurs in the problem we are now studying. It would have been quite easy many years after the event, when Jerusalem lay in ruins and the sacred sites themselves were utterly lost in the debris of the final convulsion, to have invented a story of the Resurrection in which this strange element of the seven weeks' delay was entirely absent. Given the initial acceptance of the fact of the Resurrection at all, it would have sounded far more convincing to foreign cars if the announcement had followed forthwith upon the discovery. At that time there would have been no one effectively to dispute it. It would have seemed the necessary and logical result of so remarkable and outstanding an event.
But we are forgetting the people who originally made the road. 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.
It is clear, therefore, that from the beginning the seven weeks' gap, with all its disconcerting loopholes and opportunities for the skeptic, was an integral part of the Christians' account of what happened. They told the story of those seven weeks because it was the only story that truthful people could tell. It was the way things fell out. In other words, it was a fact of history.
As soon as we realize this we begin to see that the supremely vital date when the great Christian declaration was first made publicly in Jerusalem cannot have been other than that of the Feast of Weeks in the Crucifixion year the date Acts assigns to it, and the only date Christian tradition has ever associated with it.
Consider now the manner in which this momentous declaration is reported to have been made. Jerusalem was passing through one of its periodic phases of high emotional activity. Again it was feast time, and although there was probably not quite the same congestion as prevailed during the Passover, the city was full of visitors and pilgrims. With so many people present having no other-object or occupation than the observance of the Feast, the narrow streets and bazaars of old Jerusalem were invariably animated and religious feeling ran high.
Now according to Acts it was during this period that the event we are considering took place, and the details that have been transmitted to us bear strongly the impress of truth. We have to imagine a party of twelve or fourteen men and possibly some half-dozen women, suddenly emerging from a private dwelling-house in Jerusalem in a state of great emotional excitement. We have to think of a crowd quickly gathering about them; some openly scoffing and accusing the central group of overindulgence in wine; others anxious to hear what the excitement was about. And we have to think of the fisherman Peter standing on some eminence, possibly the steps of the house, and making a public explanation.
Obviously in some such way as this was the first public declaration of Christian experience made. But mark now the probable course of events. So long as the belief that Jesus had risen was nursed in private, declared and recounted only to intimates behind closed doors, the external situation in Jerusalem might have remained unchanged, but the moment the claim of the disciples was seriously and publicly circulated, it is obvious that two things were inevitable.
In the first place, a heated controversy was unavoidable between the partisans of the new movement and those who were opposed to it. This was no ordinary difference of opinion on a religious question of minor importance. It amounted to a great public scandal. If what the disciples said was true, then the priestly group that had pressed through and achieved the destruction of Jesus had betrayed the people and been guilty of the most heinous offense before Cod. If it was not true if the whole thing was a pretense and a sham then on moral grounds alone it ought to be exploded and stamped out at once. There was no possibility of taking a half-way position. A man was either in favor of the new movement or violently against it.
Second, however anxious the authorities might be to let the dangerous question of their policy against Jesus sleep, they could not ignore a campaign to preach their moral guilt under their very noses and in the temple precincts. Events would be too strong for them. They would be compelled into some repressive action in self-defense. To have failed to have done so would have been to abrogate their position and to concur by silence.
It is clear from the testimony of Acts that during the four years when the Christian community was growing by leaps and bounds prior to the first great persecution under Saul of Tarsus, both these conditions were fulfilled. The leading apostles were arrested at least once, and possibly twice. The first occasion was ostensibly in connection with some trouble about a crippled man, but mainly and obviously owing to their teaching about Jesus. This is clearly shown by the fact that, on being released, they were adjured "not to preach in that name" any more. It was the first fruitless attempt of authority to grasp the nettle that was destined to overrun and destroy the garden of its peace.
But side by side with this somewhat indecisive action on the part of the Jewish rulers and perhaps explaining it is the undisputable fact that Christianity was gaining adherents at a prodigious pace. The movement was spreading beyond all reasonable expectation. It does not seem to me to matter seriously whether the reader is prepared to take Luke's statement literally that three thousand people embraced the new faith on the first day or not. The terrific persecution of Saul, involving an inquisition to places as far distant as Damascus, shows that four years later it had grown to really alarming proportions. If the community that Saul tried to break up numbered no more than five thousand souls (Acts 4:4), it meant that over three persons had been converted every day (including Sabbaths) for four years. This is a surprising rate of growth for so revolutionary a doctrine within the confines of Jerusalem itself, and the figure of five thousand souls is almost certainly underestimated.
Now the question the reader will have to consider seriously is whether it was possible for all this widespread agitation and conflict of ideas involving as it did the definite claim that Jesus had risen to have been conducted successfully or indeed at all, in the actual and physical presence of the remains of Jesus. This is a concrete point to which we shall have to return repeatedly, for it is vital and quite fundamental to our understanding of the case.
Primarily, of course, it is a question of the evidence, and it is a noteworthy fact that such indications as we have point decisively in the opposite direction. Consider, first, a circumstance already briefly alluded to in a previous chapter, but which now forces itself into special prominence. I mean the absence of any sign that the tomb of Jesus became an object of interest to His contemporaries during the critical weeks and years following the Crucifixion.
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. 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.
Now this is really extraordinary. Whichever way we look at it, it is a formidable fact, and it challenges examination. After all, the number of people in Jerusalem who were intimately known to Jesus during His lifetime and who might be subject to some kind of illusion on the occasion of His death was really quite small and inconsiderable. If we reckon them at thirty we are probably well within the mark. This minute body was scattered among a vast concourse of pilgrims from the provinces and distant countries, numbering in all some hundreds of thousands. One would have thought that out of this great and varied multitude there would have been not a few to whom the decisive issue was the condition of the grave, that a controversy would have sprung up as to its contents, and that the issue would have been hotly disputed on both sides.
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.
But it is not only the oblivion of the tomb that is so arresting. There is the curious and opposite fact that its vacancy cannot be denied without creating an intolerable position from the reasoned and logical point of view.
Consider the position in Jerusalem a few weeks from the extreme radical and negative standpoint. The party of Jesus has returned to the capital after an uncertain period of sojourn in distant Galilee. It may have been three weeks or it may have been six or seven. The precise length of the gap is immaterial, for in either case the intense passions engendered by the Crucifixion would have tended to die down. During the period of their absence the individual members of the party have undergone an experience that has changed their whole outlook. Dwelling continuously on the events of the past two years, and especially on certain obscure sayings of Jesus that were not understood at the time, they have become convinced that Jesus has risen and has been "exalted," as they put it, "to the right hand of God." This belief has been greatly intensified by certain experiences on the part of one or more members of the party who are convinced that the risen Jesus has appeared to them with the marks of His passion in His flesh. These experiences are communicated to the others who are already in the mood to believe, and in due course the whole party, the men as well as the women, set out for Jerusalem to proclaim the truth that Jesus was, therefore, in very truth the Messiah. (I have tried to present the radical case with fairness and justice. If the reader feels that, stated thus, it lacks conviction, let him try to strengthen it. He will find how extraordinarily difficult it is to put the case more vigorously with due regard to psychological probability.)
Now it is hardly possible to make a greater mistake than to assume that when we have accounted for the conversion of the disciples we have accounted also for the sudden and very rapid rise of Christianity. The crucial test has to come.
We have to bring these convinced but (according to the hypothesis) --really deluded people into the very heart of the city where the awkward and irremovable tomb lies, where people have been going about their work daily for weeks believing that the grave has never been interfered with, and who have now come to accept the official coup philosophically as representing ultimately the will and purpose of God. And we have to think of them as selling out to convert this great and varied community to their own view and belief.
Primarily and outstandingly this stupendous attempt at evangelization had, necessarily, to take the form of an appeal, not to the emotions, but to the intellect. The Jews were a very logical people, and we have only to read the address of Stephen, the speech of Paul from the fortress steps, and the other preserved utterances in Acts to see how invariably the Christian leaders sought to appeal to the minds and judgments of their hearers. As we shall see later, the controversy engendered by the declaration of the disciples was a fierce intellectual controversy that raged for many months in every synagogue where the pretensions of the Christians were seriously raised.
If we could imagine all this taking place in Capernaum or Tiberias or any other town far remote from the scene of the trial and Crucifixion, it would be possible to think of it as meeting with some measure of success. A really convinced body of people on the one hand, with no ready means of testing or obtaining exact data, might have led to numerous converts, though whether the church could have held them is another matter.
But history decrees that this controversy had to be fought out in Jerusalem where no real illusions could prevail, where anybody could go and see the tomb between supper and bedtime, and where an overwhelming body of official, authoritative and conclusive witness existed. Yet it is in this center of solid and conservative realism that, according to Luke, no fewer than three thousand converts were made in one day, increased shortly afterwards to five thousand.
What was the determining factor in this steady erosion into the Judean body that in a few short years became so serious and widespread that Saul of Tarsus was driven to organize a tremendous campaign of suppression against it? Whence came the drive that convinced one reasonable person after another that the Christians were right and the priests were in the wrong? Could anything have prospered with the disciples if in addition to the denials of the priests and the real doubts and waverings of the populace, the tomb itself had given a silent and impenetrable no!
But there is another aspect of this question that must not be overlooked. I mean how it was that the disciples themselves came to believe in this astonishing thing.
We have been proceeding rather on the assumption that we can postulate anything of the disciples providing that it accounts, superficially at least, for their behavior. But to the student who makes the human mind his province there is no knottier or more baffling problem than this. We know these eleven men better than we know any other single group of persons in antiquity. Their characters are written plainly in the narratives, and Jesus Himself, who chose them, was no mean judge of mental and spiritual qualities.
In the early stages of our reconstruction we rejected the suggestion that the disciples stole the body of Jesus, on the ground that it was repugnant and out of keeping with their known moral qualities and their singularly unimaginative type of mind. But difficulties not less insuperable present themselves when we try to think of them uniformly and without exception coming under the influence of a complete delusion. Somehow the rugged fisherman Peter and his brother Andrew, the characteristically doubting Thomas, the seasoned and not too sensitive tax gatherer, Matthew, the rather dull Philip, intensely loyal but a little slow of apprehension, do not fit easily into the conditions required for an absolutely unshakable collective hallucination. And if it is not both collective and unshakable it is of no use to us. The terrors and the persecutions these men ultimately had to face and did face unflinchingly, do not admit of a halfhearted adhesion secretly honeycombed with doubt. The belief has to be unconditional and of adamantine strength to satisfy the conditions. Sooner or later, too, if the belief was to spread it had to bite its way into the corporate consciousness by convincing argument and attempted proof.
Now the peculiar thing about this phenomenon is that, not only did it spread to every single member of the party of Jesus of whom we have any trace, but they brought it to Jerusalem and carried it with inconceivable audacity into the most keenly intellectual center of Judea, against the ablest dialecticians of the day, and in the face of every impediment a brilliant and highly organized camarilla could devise. And they won. Within twenty years the claim of these Galilean peasants had disrupted the Jewish church and impressed itself upon every town on the Eastern littoral of the Mediterranean from Caesarea to Troas. In less than fifty years it had begun to threaten the peace of the Roman Empire.
When we have said everything that can be said about the willingness of certain types of people to believe what they want to believe, to be carried away by their emotions, and to assert as fact what has originally reached them as hearsay, we stand confronted with the greatest mystery of all. Why did it win?
The Christian church drew its steadily mounting numbers not from the occasional visitors to the feasts, but from the resident population of Jerusalem. We have to account not merely for the enthusiasm of its friends, but for the paralysis of its enemies and for the ever-growing stream of new converts that came over to it. When we remember what certain highly placed personages in Jerusalem would almost certainly have given to have strangled this movement at its birth but could not -- how one desperate expedient after another was adopted to silence the apostles, until that veritable bow of Ulysses, the Great Persecution, was tried and broke in pieces in their hands -- we begin to realize that behind all these subterfuges and makeshifts there must have stood a silent, unanswerable fact, a fact that geography and the very fates themselves had made immovable. We realize also why it was that throughout the four years when Christianity was growing to really formidable dimensions in Jerusalem, neither Caiaphas, nor Annas, nor any recognized member of the Sadducean camarilla, whose prestige and personal repute was so deeply affronted and outraged by the new doctrine, ever took the obvious shortcut out of their difficulties.
If the body of Jesus still lay in the tomb where Joseph had deposited it, why did they not say so? A cold and dispassionate statement of the real facts, issued by someone in authority, and publicly exhibited in the temple precincts, would have been like a bucket of water upon the kindling fire of the Christian heresy. It would have steadied the situation in their favor. It would have impeded immensely, if not destroyed, the growing daily stream of new converts.
Apparently they did nothing of the kind, for the reason that they could not. In all the fragments and echoes of this far-off controversy that have come down to us we are nowhere told that any responsible person asserted that the body of Jesus was still in the tomb. We are only given reasons why it was not there. Running all through these ancient documents is the persistent assumption that the tomb of Christ was vacant.
Can we fly in the face of this cumulative and mutually corroborative evidence? Personally, I do not think we can. The sequence of coincidences is too strong. When we remember the swinging around of the disciples from panic fear to absolute certitude, the singular matter of the seven weeks' gap, the extraordinarily rapid adhesion of converts in Jerusalem, the strange absence of administrative vigor on the part of the authorities, the steady growing of the church, both in authority and power, until the whole situation blew up into the frenzied attempts at suppression under Saul, we realize The Historic Crux of the Problem that we are in the presence of something far more tangible than the psychological repercussion of a fisherman's dream.
The vacant tomb itself must have been the final and unanswerable objective witness. It could not be got rid of by either side. By the very irony of fate the disciples were committed to prosecuting their campaign within a quarter of an hour's walk of the place in which, if their contention was false, the moldering remains of their great Leader lay. The practical issue could be settled at first hand, immediately, and by any number of witnesses. If the women's statement was true, and the remains of Jesus were no longer in the tomb, it would be as easy to test that fact as it was for the women to make the original discovery seven weeks earlier. Even Joseph would not permanently seal an empty chamber intended for his own use.
Thus by another converging line of thought we come back to the point from which we started. However baffling and disconcerting it may seem at first sight, the evidence for the essential accuracy of the women's story is overwhelming in its consistency and strength. It is the kind of evidence that impresses by its quiet unobtrusiveness, its steady pointing in one direction. Yet, as we shall see, the direction remains unchanged when we test the same historic situation by another and a greater criterion, the personal witness of certain people whose right to be heard is absolute and whose authority cannot be gainsaid.