By Frank Morison
It is almost impossible to imagine anything more fortunate from a purely historical point of view than the fact that, just at the moment when Christianity was taking the measure of its adversaries, there chanced to come to Jerusalem a young man, who, judged even by high modem standards, can claim to be a very competent and almost impartial observer.
The name of this young man was Saul. He was a Hebrew of very careful upbringing, intensely zealous in the performance of his religious duties, but with a mind broadened by contact with the wider life and speculative thinking of the Greco-Roman world. He was acquainted with at least some of the writings of Aratus, of Epimenides, and of Menander, as his later speeches show. And he hailed from Tarsus, in Cilicia. The year was about AD. 34.
The fact we have chiefly to deal in this chapter is that this young man, coming with some freshness to the problem, began by being the outstanding figure on one side of the controversy and ended in being the outstanding figure on the other. He attempted to suppress the movement by force, but was himself suppressed and assimilated by it.
Thus, to the long line of singular conversions the conversion of Peter and Matthew and Philip; of the women Salome, Mary, and Joanna; of the hostile James; of Matthias, of Barsabbas, and the rest we have to add that of this fresh and independent observer. As every serious student of the problem will agree, this is a phenomenon that cannot be evaded or side-tracked. It must be faced. We must learn what it was that first threw this young man Saul so vehemently on the side of the priests and what is involved by his complete intellectual transfer to the other side.
I propose, therefore, in the first instance, to examine with some care the situation that must have prevailed in Jerusalem at the time when Saul came upon the scene and for a short period afterwards.
It is clear that when Saul of Tarsus first came into prominence as a protagonist in this affair, a public controversy must have been going on for a considerable time. The movement had grown from its original nucleus of nineteen or twenty people to a large following requiring seven deacons to deal with and supervise the daily ministrations. And the only possible way in which such a growth could have taken place was by direct propaganda that is to say, by public and private argument and teaching.
It would hardly seem necessary to state so obvious a truth were it not for the fact that Kirsopp Lake in a widely circulated sentence has lent his name to what appears to be a direct denial that this was the case. The passage in question found in his book The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, page 195, is as follows:
Matthew and the Gospel of Peter give us a valuable hint that the story of the empty tomb, and the emphasis which was laid on it, came into discussion at a later period, in connection with the controversy between the Jews and Christians. That this controversy does not belong to the earliest period is psychologically certain. At the beginning the Jews were not prepared to argue; they persecuted. Only later, when Christianity had obtained a firm footing, can argument and controversy have begun.
If these words are to be taken literally, they can only mean that at no time in Lake's view did the Jews argue with the Christians prior to the Great Persecution of A.D. 35 and that in some incomprehensible way the movement just grew, without argument or disputation of any kind, until its formidable character attracted the notice of the authorities and drew the expected reprisals.
This is, of course, manifestly absurd indeed, it is so contrary to the evidence that I cannot believe that Lake really intends to suggest it. What he means, I take it, is that the highly placed rulers did not themselves condescend to argue or dispute with the Christians.
In this they were merely following the tradition of their class, and repeating the tactics they employed against Jesus. Throughout the long drawn-out struggle with Jesus these highly placed Sadducees the men who really controlled the situation did not appear. They left it to their subordinates, the scribes and Pharisees, to debate with, and endeavor to entangle, the great Teacher. It was only when their arch-enemy was at last actually within their power that Annas, with his son-in-law, Caiaphas, and the other members of this wealthy Sadducean family, threw off the mask and came into the open.
So, clearly, it was with the after-history of the movement. Every now and then we find the high priest and his associates emerging to take official action, such as the summary arrest and interrogation of Peter and John, but for the most part they remain in the background. It has always been a sound maxim of governments and official persons to avoid playing into the hands of their adversaries by affecting to ignore inconvenient minorities until the pressure of events compels them to do otherwise.
But while it may thus be true that the highly placed representatives of the Jewish hierarchy "did not argue with the Christians," it is obviously not true of the Jews themselves. It could not possibly be true. Practically every convert to the faith for the first five years was a Jew himself. You could not have a movement growing at an average rate of eighteen to twenty new recruits every week for five years without a ferment of ideas involving both public and private argument. And it is in the character of that argument that the real interest of this story lies.
Now if anyone will sit down and try to reason out quietly how it was that this small body of personal adherents of Jesus grew within four or five years to the dimensions required by the severity of the Great Persecution, he will be increasingly perplexed by one fact, the fact that all this took place within a surprisingly short distance from Joseph's tomb. And whatever may have happened to Joseph himself, this tomb was irremovable. If, therefore, the negative critics were right, we should have the really ironical situation that throughout the period when the disciples were gaining converts daily at a prodigious rate, the conclusive disproof of their main contention lay within two thousand yards of the scene of the controversy, and in the very tomb where everybody knew it had been placed on the afternoon of the Crucifixion.
This, indeed, might have been a quite intelligible situation had the disciples taken almost any other line than that which they did. A moment's reflection will show that many things could be said about Christ during the critical weeks following the Crucifixion without raising, even in a distant connection, the condition of the grave. It could be asserted that He was a great and good man whose violent death in the height of His power was a national calamity and even a national disgrace. It could be contended that the sublime teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, and of the parables, marked Him out as the greatest of the long line of prophets and seers born in Israel. It might even be asserted, though at some risk to one's personal liberty, that the whole prosecution was a deliberate murder and a heinous offence in the sight of God.
We can imagine any one of these statements being discussed in a private or semi-public meeting in Jerusalem, after the excitable Jewish manner, with much heat and volubility, and then the whole company, so to say, pulling on their hats and going home without a single person giving a thought to that silent chamber in Joseph's grotto. But we cannot by any stretch of the imagination conceive of such meetings being held in the very heart of the city, to celebrate and proclaim the resurrection of Jesus without the mind of every single hearer going back instantly to the crucial matter of the tomb.
Very subtly, but decisively, the condition of the grave itself would become the final arbiter in this matter. Either it contained the remains of Jesus or it did not. If it did not contain the body, one thing is absolutely certain. Paul must have been aware of that very surprising fact. He must have known of it from the beginning, through the whole period of his disputations with the Christians and the Great Persecution must have been deliberately launched in spite of it.
One can hardly imagine a considerable body of people going about Jerusalem and declaring openly that Jesus had risen side by side, as it were, with the phenomenon of the empty tomb, without the two circumstances being very widely and publicly connected. The authorities might affect to ignore the disciples' claim, but the fact that the body of a first-class political prisoner had disappeared in mysterious circumstances could not in any conceivable circumstances be unknown to them. And if the authorities knew, Saul would know also.
Thus, if the Marcan narrative is true, Saul of Tarsus must have been abundantly informed concerning the real facts, not only from the official side as regards the supposed abduction of the body, but through his disputations in the synagogue with the Christian interpretation also. But we are specially concerned at this juncture with the contrary assumption that the Marcan narrative is not true.
We are asked to assume that throughout the entire period when Saul was challenging the Christian party to the first and greatest fight of its existence, and, of course, for many years afterwards, the body of Jesus lay in Joseph's tomb. It follows that when, three years later, he returned to Jerusalem a converted man, it was still there, and that Saul knew it. We have to think of him spending an entire fortnight at the Christian headquarters conferring chiefly with Peter and James concerning a doctrine in which the fate of the body was of no account. The legend of the women's adventure (in this case a wholly fictitious creation of a secondary epoch) had not yet arisen. The honesty of these men is unimpeachable. They had a big enough task already without complicating it by direct falsehoods or imaginary mantels. Their whole problem was how best to preach their unique message to the world. We have to think of them, therefore, gravely discussing policies and plans and recollections with the knowledge that the remains of their great Master still lay in the tomb.
Was this the historic situation? I suggest that it was not, and that nothing can adjust it and bring it into alignment with the facts. Consider first the small but highly significant fact that not a trace exists in the Acts, or the missionary Epistles or in any apocryphal document of indisputably early date, of anyone going to pay homage at the shrine of Jesus Christ. It is remarkable this absolutely unbroken silence concerning the most sacred place in Christian memory. Would no woman, to whom the Master's form was a hallowed recollection, ever wish to spend a few moments at that holy site? Would Peter and John and Andrew never feel the call of a sanctuary that held all that was mortal of the Master? Would Saul himself, recalling his earlier arrogance and self-assurance, not have made one solitary journey and shed hot tears of repentance for his denial of the Name? If these people really knew that the Lord was buried there, it is very, very strange.
Consider next the very singular mailer of the documents. The testimony is curiously inverted. It faces strangely in the wrong direction. If Christianity began by proclaiming merely the survival of Jesus and progressed by slow stages of legendary accretion to belief in the physical vacancy of the tomb, the oldest and most primitive documents ought to be the least emphatic. The clear lamp of the original normality ought to be seen shining through their primitive and archaic language. It is not so, It is precisely the Matthean and Marcan documents, which by universal consent reach back furthest towards the lost origins, that are most sharply cut in their outlines and describe the vacant tomb with the coldest objectivity.
Consider, too, the infinitely perplexing fact that behind at least two of the Synoptic Gospels there stands an unshaken historical connection between the probable authors and Paul. The man who wrote the twenty-fourth chapter of Luke spent many weeks in the company of the great apostle. He was more than a companion; he was a friend. In his closing years Paul wrote the immortal tribute to his fidelity: "Only Luke is with me."
The man who wrote the first eight verses of the sixteenth chapter of Mark was in all human probability, by the admission of the best modern scholarship, John Mark himself, a young man who quarreled with the apostle Paul but who lived to regain his affection and regard. Did both these men secretly hold a doctrine opposed to that of the venerable leader they followed and admired?
Thus, long before we come to the missionary Letters the hypothesis gives occasion for the gravest doubt. But when we turn to the admittedly genuine letters of Paul himself and read them in the only way it is fair to read them, taking the words in their plain and obvious sense, the last vestige of uncertainty as to Paul's real beliefs concerning the Resurrection seems to be removed.
Consider, for example, this isolated and almost parenthetical reference from the very early letter to the Galatians:
Paul, an apostle (not from men, neither through man, but through Jesus Christ, and Cod the Father, who raised him from the dead (1:1).
Or this from the even earlier first Epistle to the Thessalonians:
Ye turned unto God from idols, to serve a living and true Cod, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivereth us from the wrath to come (1:9,10).
Or this from the famous introduction to the list of witnesses in I Corinthians 15:3,4:
For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures.
Or yet again this reference in the same brilliant chapter:
If Christ is preached that he hath been raised from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? (v. 12).
It is difficult to read these passages, either with or without their context, without feeling that the writer's thought is far removed from that of mere spiritual survival. But there is one graphic paragraph in this same chapter that surely sets the whole matter at rest.
Like large numbers of his fellow Christians, Paul believed that Jesus of Nazareth would return in glory to the earth, and he clearly expected it in his own lifetime. We need not stay to consider the difficulties such a concept presents to the modem mind, because it is beside the point. It was a belief that commended itself to vast numbers of people during the first fifty years of the Christian era, and Paul shared it.
Now there was a very practical question connected with this belief. Some of the believers had died; others were still living. How was this situation to be met at the return of Christ? Paul answers the question with unqualified directness.
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (I Cor. 15:51,52).
It is impossible to take this passage in the obvious sense in which the writer intended it without recognizing that behind it lay a definite concept of the transmutation of the physical body into the glorified and spiritual body. It was indeed true, as Paul saw very plainly, that mere "flesh and blood [could] not inherit the Kingdom." Something had to happen, both to the dead and the living, to fit them for life in the transcendent sphere. In the case of the dead, Paul conceived of this change or transmutation as taking place at the instant of resurrection. But that he conceived the identical body as undergoing this change seems to be indisputable. "It [the body] is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body." Elsewhere he sharpens this definition to an even finer point when he writes to the Romans that God "shall quicken your mortal bodies."
Thus everything we know about Paul is consistent with the assumption that he believed the tomb of Christ to have been vacant on the morning of Easter Sunday. Nothing we know about him supports the suggestion that he knew it had never been disturbed.
I cannot find, however, that any modern writer has recognized and worked out the important bearing the historic phenomena of the grave must have had on the conversion of Paul.
It will be apparent to everyone who gives this subject a moment's thought that so completely exhaustive an intellectual conversion as that of Paul must have rested, not merely on a partial acquiescence in one aspect of the disciples' case, but on a fundamental satisfaction as to its truth as a whole. Yet volumes have been written on the psychology of the conversion as though it were a subject that could be discussed independently of Saul's thought about the problem of the grave. This problem lay at the core of the whole controversy, and it was clearly impossible for Saul to have reached the point of extreme and violent antipathy to the Christian belief without having his own private opinion concerning it.
Now if the conclusions of our present study be justified, the fact was that the tomb was vacant on Sunday morning. I submit that when Saul came on the scene this fact was not doubted. It never had been. But it was the subject of a bitter difference of opinion between the opposing camps. The Christians asserted that the body had been raised. The Jewish rulers declared that it had been stolen.
It must not be overlooked, however, that Saul entered the fray as a partisan of the priests. He must have shared their knowledge and taken largely their point of view. If the reader will try to put himself in the place of Saul he will see how difficult it was for a really logical mind to be opposed to the Christians without taking a most sinister view concerning the vacant tomb. The whole thing would look like a "plant." He could hardly avoid drawing the conclusion that, even if the disciples themselves had not actually planned it, they were at least privy to the abduction and concealment of the body. This lifted the whole thing out of the region of legitimate discussion into the field of deliberate falsehood and deceit. It called for one thing only its utter and ruthless extermination enforced by the full power of the State.
Thus began the Great Persecution, of which the arrest and stoning of Stephen were the first overt acts. That the almost unearthly serenity with which Stephen went to his death left its mark on the mind of Paul is unquestioned, as indeed it must have done on many others. But there was no abating of the severity of the onslaught. It was intensified. The haunts of the Christians were systematically raided. Men and women were brought brutally to the state prisons to await summary, judgment, followed in many cases by death. Others fled to distant villages, to find themselves pursued by the same implacable hatred and universal power. It became a very dangerous thing to proclaim or admit adhesion to the cause of the Nazarene.
It was while things were in this state that news came to Saul, doubtless from the leaders of the orthodox synagogue at Damascus, that things were not well in that city. The heresy had already taken deep root, and was being strengthened daily by the arrival of fresh fugitives. Saul could not bear the thought or remain passive so long as any vestige of the conspiracy remained unpunished. He sought and obtained from the Jewish power in Jerusalem letters of authority to the dependent synagogues. Assembling a little party of supporters, he left the city on the most momentous journey of his life.
Six days later, as the dusty procession came within sight of Damascus, something happened something destined to have profound and far-reaching effects on the world's history. There is reason to think that those who accompanied Saul saw a light other than that produced by the glare of the noonday sun and that when they picked him up he was a temporarily blinded man. We are told that they led him by the hand for the short distance that separated them from the city. It was a strange ending to so brave and determined an adventure, but I do not see that we can doubt that it is historic. Luke could surely not have obtained the very circumstantial details he gives from anyone else than Paul himself.
How can we account for this incident having the admittedly historical consequences that it did? Why should a man of this tough breed and of this admittedly sane and virile mental caliber be uprooted in an instant from his cherished beliefs and swept like chaff before the wind into the dogmatic camp of his most hated enemies?
It is not the immediate effects of the conversion that we are concerned with, though these are noteworthy. But how did this reorientation of a man's entire presuppositions survive the solitary communion in Arabia, the nine years' patient waiting in Tarsus, and all the bitter persecutions and hardships of the great missions? Why was one of the greatest intellects of the ages brought over and fixed in an instant of time from one pole of dogmatic belief to another?
We do not know, and shall probably never know, all that Saul experienced on the Damascus road. There are many ways in which invisible reality can make itself known and felt to the sentient soul of man. But of one thing lam personally convinced. The facts that led to Saul's conversion were the same facts that so profoundly modified the behavior of Peter and Matthias and James the Just-but, curiously, they came to him in the reverse order.
The disciples began with the staggering but confusing fact of the empty tomb. It was one of the physical surprises of that memorable morning. There is reason to believe that they were actively sought after by the authorities on that account and that when they met, it was behind locked doors.
But with Paul the situation was strangely different. He came to the whole singular phenomenon from the opposite point of the compass. He was saturated with the priestly point of view. To him the disciples, like their Master, were deceivers, blasphemers against God, and the authors of a wicked and dangerous heresy. He was determined to stamp it out to the last man. He started for Damascus with that intent. He arrived there an utterly shaken and repentant man. Nothing that he saw or heard or experienced thereafter had the slightest effect on this settled state of mind. He recovered from his temporary blindness; he did not recover either his skepticism or his hate. He went into Arabia for a time of solitary seclusion to think it out. He came back the same radically altered man. He was ready to preach in Damascus, and did preach, but his name spelled terror to his late enemies, and some friendly spirits let him down in a basket over the rampart of the city. He had the courage to go to Jerusalem and face the ignominy, the contempt, of his return. He spent fifteen days with Peter, who knew as much as any mortal man could know about the whole matter. Again, he was smuggled out of the city to avoid trouble and returned to his native Tarsus.
And yet, when nine years later, the young church at Antioch, remembering his zeal, sent Barnabas to fetch him, they found a man utterly unchanged in the serenity and fixity of his belief. As we read the letters of his middle and later life we find no trace of any mental weakening, rather the coming to maturity of a fine intellect, an intensely logical and ordered mind.
I have purposely stated the essential facts very soberly because the facts themselves are sober. You cannot explain a lifetime's practical devotion like this by "atmospherics" or providential thunderstorms or any ephemeral or hysterical experience. If it requires a "purple passage" to describe how Paul came to believe in Christ, we may be certain that we are on the wrong track.
It may indeed be that the actual experience that came to him on the Damascus road was in some way peculiar and conditioned by his temperament. It may be, as Lake himself has hinted, that an invisible Presence really did stand at that roadside, and that as Saul drew near he saw something that animals sometimes seem to sense, rather than to apprehend with the physical eye. It may even be that he heard a voice. Have we never heard our own name spoken with the utmost plainness and distinctness when no mortal person was present? It is not really strange that according to his companions, they heard Saul speaking, and, looking around, saw no one.
In such questions we touch the very borderline of our present knowledge. But on the intellectual side of this phenomenon the truth is clear. When Saul was really convinced that he had seen the risen Jesus the immense and overpowering significance of the empty tomb swept for the first time into his mind. It was as though the great stone itself had crashed into and carried away his last defenses. He saw that if the disciples were not deceivers, then they were right -- right through the whole range and gamut of their claim. He realized why one could not associate a martyrdom so glorious as that of Stephen with a vulgar deception involving connivance with the abduction of a corpse. He began to understand why Peter was so sure and why everyone connected with this movement was so unaccountably joyous and so immovably convinced.
And the curious thing is -- indeed, it is the master circumstance of all this strange story -- that once this conviction had been reached, its effect on any normally constituted mind was enduring. The vacancy of the tomb was a historic fact fixed and unalterable. Its authority grew rather than declined with the passing of the years. It was never shaken throughout Paul's lifetime, and in the writer's judgment it remains unshaken to this day.