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Who Moved the Stone? 10. The Evidence of the Principal Fisherman

By Frank Morison


      There are three men in particular whose testimony concerning this matter, if it could be obtained, would be absolutely final and conclusive. The first is the fisherman, Peter, who himself led the attack on Jerusalem, and who was for several years the unchallenged leader of the movement. The second is the Prisoner's brother, James the Just, who for some extraordinary reason threw in his lot with the Christians and who ultimately perished for the cause. The third is a certain Saul from Tarsus, who, backed by the full power of the State, tried to smash the movement and was eventually engulfed by it.

      All these three men thus came under the spell of the post-Crucifixion experiences of Christianity. They all suffered the extreme penalty of their convictions after the manner of that barbaric age James in Jerusalem itself Peter and Saul in Rome. If we could learn what each of these outstanding primary witnesses for Christianity believed and taught about the Resurrection, many obscure points in our study would be made clear. Let us consider first the case of Peter.

      When the veil lifts, and the united party of Jesus is discovered in Jerusalem, the man we find in a position of unquestioned leadership and authority is not the man whom, on purely psychological grounds, we might have been led to expect. It is not the intimate friend of Jesus and trusted disciple, John. It is not the practical Matthew. It is not the fervent idealist, Nathanael. It is a certain fisherman named Simon, who later came to be called Peter.

      Fortunately the earlier history of this rugged fisherman is better known to us than that of any other single member of the party, and many of the facts recorded about him are of a kind that mere adulators would not have reported, still less have invented. They stick out from the narrative by their sheer awkwardness, their uncompromising fidelity to truth.

      Take for example the severe rebuke Jesus is reported to have addressed to him while they were wandering in the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi: "Get thee behind me Satan, for thou savorest not the things that be of God." This is not the kind of reminiscence that would do a man's reputation any good, especially when it appeared in a quasi-official document read Sunday by Sunday in a large proportion of the churches of Christendom. There can be only one intelligible reason for its inclusion and acceptance. It was a historic part of the whole gamut of strange experiences by the disciples during the great Ministry, and it had to remain.

      Or take that other and even more famous episode, on which the fierce light of publicity has beaten through all the centuries the denial of Jesus by Peter in the outer court of the high priest's house. This episode belongs unmistakably to the historic recollections of those far-off days. What possible explanation can we devise of this humiliating story appearing in an admittedly pro-Christian document, bearing the name of the friend and interpreter of Peter, other than the perfectly natural and consistent one that it was the stark and naked truth. If evidence were needed of the high standard of veracity prevailing in the early church we have it here in its most convincing form.

      If, therefore, we are compelled to accept these less heroic episodes in the life of Peter as a direct transcript from life, we are surely on firm historic ground when we take the softer details in the Gospel portraiture as depicting with great truth and fidelity the man himself. We find him on the whole a very lovable person, possessing possibly a rough exterior but an intensely warm and loyal heart; rather impulsive; quickly roused to sudden anger, but as quick to perceive and acknowledge the error of his ways. It is the glory of this type of man that he is peculiarly susceptible to reason when the hot rush of some sudden emotion is past.

      Moreover, he was a fisherman by trade, with the Galilean peasant's ingrained simplicity of character. There is no trace in the Gospels of any special subtlety or intellectual brilliance. The dialectical dilemmas by which Christ occasionally turned the more deadly shafts of the Pharisees were probably less obvious to Peter than to some of his companions. He seems to have led the party and to have been its spokesman, partly on account of his seniority, but chiefly because of his sterling human worth. He was so transparently open, frank, and in earnest so completely and unconsciously free from hypocrisy. It was this man who, on behalf of the entire surviving body of original adherents and with their obvious consent and concurrence, made the ringing claim that Jesus had risen from the grave. He is reported to have made it in Jerusalem within a few weeks of the Crucifixion, and with a certain decisiveness of language that calls for the closest study.

      So far as Luke's testimony itself goes, there can be of course no question as to the purport of Peter's teaching. The language attributed to him on the memorable occasion when he stood up and made the first historic declaration to the assembled crowd on the day of Pentecost is extraordinarily clear and definite. Moreover, there is a certain primitive quality about the phraseology of his speech that stamps it as belonging to a much earlier stratum of belief than that which prevailed when the historian actually wrote. The exact words are worth studying:

      "Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and give ear unto my words. For these are not drunken, as ye suppose; seeing it is but the third hour of the day . . . . Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of Cod unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, even as ye yourselves know; him, being delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of Cod, ye by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay: whom God raised up, having loosed the pangs of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it .... This Jesus did God raise up, whereof we are all witnesses."

      Mark first the very significant words Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of Cod. Long before the time when Acts was first written, the Christian community had ceased to speak of Jesus in this particular way. He had become an object of veneration, even of worship. Thus the very phraseology of the speech betrays an early and primitive source. It breathes the kind of atmosphere we should have expected within seven or eight weeks of the Crucifixion itself.

      But when we come to the explicit references to the Resurrection we find an equally early and contemporary note.

      This Jesus did God raise up, whereof we all are witnesses.

      The phrase is direct and immediate. It fits something that has recently happened. It would be inappropriate to an event long past. Moreover, it is repeated in closely similar language on three separate occasions in the early chapters of Acts.

      If, as some critics have suggested, these varied speeches are really independent accounts of the same event, then the similarity of the phrasing is significant. It suggests that we have here a clearly remembered and actual transcript of Peter's speech. Versions that differ so widely in the details, but come abruptly to fundamental agreement concerning this one phrase, are noteworthy as evidence.

      Thus the testimony of Acts, written of course many years after the event, is explicit that the fisherman, Peter, who was then the dominating figure of the movement, taught the resurrection of Jesus in what, having regard to the context, can only be regarded as a resurrection in the full physical sense. In this he was apparently supported and upheld by the united party for which he spoke.

      But there is really a much stronger and more convincing bit of evidence embedded in this ancient record than anything Peter himself is reported to have said. It consists of something that, according to Luke, he did not say.

      It will be remembered that according to Lake's theory of these events the women who went to the tomb in the early dawn of Sunday morning did not immediately report their discovery, because the disciples were supposed to be in hiding or to have fled already to Galilee. It was suggested that they remained in Jerusalem throughout the period when the rest of the party were undergoing their strange experience in Galilee, and that it was not until several weeks later, when the men returned in a body to Jerusalem, that the story of the women's adventure came out.

      Everyone will surely agree that even if the women did originally keep silence owing to the supposed absence or flight of the disciples, their silence must have been broken immediately the two parties came together again. We cannot reasonably imagine Peter and the entire apostolic band returning to Jerusalem full of their conviction that they had seen Jesus without the women at once recounting their adventure at the grave. The two experiences were so absolutely complementary. Nay more, the women's testimony, coming as a new and hitherto unknown fact, would seem to be a crowning proof of the reality of their own experience. Not only would it strengthen their own conviction, but it would furnish a most powerful lever for the conversion of others. We should naturally expect Peter, therefore, to bring out prominently this surprising confirmation of the disciples' claim in the speech he made from the steps of the house. He was announcing an almost incredible thing to an incredulous crowd. He was manifestly anxious to convert the people to his own belief. According to Luke, these very women were probably standing in the little group surrounding Peter when he made the speech. Yet there is not a solitary word either about them or about their discovery. And in two subsequent speeches he made, and which are reported quite fully in the Acts, the same startling omission is manifest.

      It is possible, superficially at least, to explain this fact by saying that Peter did not know of the women's visit to the grave. If that were indeed true, then nothing would be more certain than that the women never went to the grave at all. If Mary of Cleopas and Salome and Joanna had not told their most intimate friends and kinsmen, after seven weeks' absence, of the most momentous and surprising episode of all that tragic weekend within ten minutes of their coming together, it was because there was nothing to tell, and all that strangely moving and human story was a palpable and utterly baseless invention of later days. Yet we may search Acts through and through and we will find no hint or whisper of this story of the women covertly emerging into view. No breath of any controversy arising from it is reflected even in the earliest of the Epistles. From the moment these women make this last appearance on the page of history they sink, like the vacated tomb itself, into undisturbed oblivion, save that the unforgettable memory of their adventure is embedded deeply in every document and every scrap of written recollection treasured by the church.

      How can we account for this strange silence going right back through the earliest Epistles to the very opening proclamation of the faith on the day of Pentecost? There is one explanation big enough to stand foursquare to all the many-sided aspects of this very complex situation. It lies in the simple assumption that the Gospels are right and that a secret so far-reaching in its consequences could not have remained locked for seven weeks in the bosoms of three or four women.

      By nightfall on Easter Sunday the essential facts must have been known in Jerusalem, not only to those in high places, but as a quiver of rumor throughout the whole city. Men selling out to walk to a distant village that evening apparently knew sufficient of the details to declare that "certain women of our company amazed us, having been early at the tomb." Within twenty-four hours at most the story must have been public property. Explanation was met by counter-explanation, charge by counter-charge. And high above all these vulgar wranglings came the sinister suggestion: "The disciples have stolen the body."

      If that be assumed we can understand why it was that seven weeks later when, upon the initiative of the disciples themselves, the whole question of the Resurrection was brought into the sharpest focus and lifted to the level of a great national and political controversy, no recognized leader of the Christians thought it necessary to bring forward the evidence of the women.

      The reason for this very significant silence seems to be clear. The physical fact for which the women alone could vouch did not stand in need of any proof or argument. It was notorious and had been so already for seven weeks. If St. Paul's Cathedral were to be burned down this evening the fact that the policeman on point duty in Cheapside was the first to discover the outbreak would be a matter of some interest and would almost certainly appear in any subsequent history. But no one would dream, two months later, of calling the constable to prove that the great and historic edifice had been destroyed.

      Indeed, if the historian of the future, delving into the faded volumes of the Times, found that seven weeks after the date usually given for the outbreak a prominent public man actually cited the policeman's testimony as evidence of the catastrophe it would create the gravest doubt as to the reality of the occurrence.

      Thus, whether we consider the recorded speeches in the Acts or their even more significant omissions, we reach the conclusion that the witness of the fisherman Peter to the physical vacancy of the grave is beyond question. But we have still to consider another and an independent witness. For above and behind all this stands the massive and very impressive witness of Mark.

      I agree profoundly with all that Lake has said in that carefully studied chapter about the primitive character and essential trustworthiness of the gospel of Mark. Historically that document is unique. It stands like a great rock far out to sea, washed by the incoming tide long before the coastline of the distinctively Christian literature is reached. It casts its mighty shadow across all that littoral. It divides the very waters that flow towards it.

      That this rugged and uncompromising old document stands in a special relationship to the teaching of Peter has been a tradition of the church from the very dawn of Christendom and will be disputed by few. It has the simple directness of his frank and objective mind. It is markedly deficient in that smooth polish that a more literary and cultured pen could have given to it. It is singularly synoptic, abrupt, and reminiscent of disconnected utterances and recollections.

      Jesus Himself once said, "Search the scriptures, for these are they that testify of me." So this rugged old fisherman might arise from his grave, as Mr. Chesterton has pictured the great heresiarchs arising, and say, "Search Mark, for therein will you find the essence of my teaching."

      If this indeed be the case, then any real doubt as to what Peter himself taught and believed must be set at rest. For in the very heart of this primitive and ancient document, which some have said contained a passage so outspoken and damaging to the church that it was deliberately destroyed and lost forever to the world, there stands that wonderful and arresting passage, pellucid in its clarity as a lunar landscape, yet cold and objective as the dawn:

      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.

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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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