By Frank Morison
I suppose that no one can read through the earliest account of the Resurrection as it is given in the Gospel of Mark without being arrested by the extraordinary significance of what we are told about the golal or great stone that, according to the evidence, was placed against the entrance to the grave.
We are all familiar with the kind of shock a person experiences when he suddenly encounters something for which he is not looking, something which, like the footprint on the sand in Crusoe's stow, sends the mind swiftly back in search of an explanation. Such an experience, I think, awaits everyone who comes fresh to the story as it is told in Mark, because, contrary to expectation and without searching for it, we are driven by the logic of the facts to investigate another story, told in another Gospel, the story of the guards.
I remember with some vividness the surprise with which this fact was first borne in upon my own mind, because I had fallen into the habit of regarding the reported incident of the guard as being of a secondary and probably apologetic character. The general trend of critical opinion was then, as now, somewhat unfavorable to its acceptance as a genuine fact of history. It was pointed out that it was an unheard-of thing for soldiers, particularly Roman soldiers, to sleep at their post of duty; that even if they declared they had done so nobody would have believed them; and finally, that the reasons given for posting a guard at all were in themselves highly improbable and belong to a later and secondary epoch.
I accepted these statements at the time without question and proceeded entirely on the hypothesis that no one troubled to go to the grave between sunset on Friday and the hour when the women put in an appearance. The implication was that neither the Romans nor the priests took any interest in the tomb of Christ after the latter had once been assured that the law demanding burial before sunset had been complied with.
To my surprise I found that the teaching of the Marcan record (the only really early account of the Resurrection we possess) does not wholly support this view, but is rather to the opposite effect. In order that we may consider closely all that it implies, it will be helpful to have the full text of the Marcan passage before us right up to the point where the original manuscript breaks off:
And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Man' 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. And they were saying among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the tomb? and looking up, they see that the stone is rolled back: for it was exceeding great. And entering into the tomb, they saw a young man sifting on the right side, arrayed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he saith unto them, Be not amazed; ye seek Jesus, the Nazarene, which hath been crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold, the place where they laid him! But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you. And they went out, and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them: and they said nothing to any one; for they were afraid (16:1-8).
This is the incomparable original fragment that has descended to us. It is by far the oldest and most authoritative account of what happened to the women, and it probably follows closely the story as they related it and as it was first circulated in primitive times.
First a word as to its atmosphere. It is impossible to read this passage impartially and with an open mind without being impressed, and impressed favorably, by its straightforward and objective character. It is singularly frank, open, and direct. It shows few, if any, traces of adjustment to later conceptions. It is primitive in character and nails the original version of the episode, as it were, to the mast. Moreover, and this is a point of considerable significance, it is entirely free from incidents of a necessarily supernormal character. It tells of the women setting out to arrive at the tomb about dawn. It describes their anxiety concerning the stone. It tells how on reaching the tomb and finding the stone already moved they went in and found a young man sitting within in a white garment. It tells how he gave them a certain message that in their highly strung and unprepared state unnerved them so that they fled in confusion from the tomb.
This is of course very dramatic and unusual, but the whole story is unusual, from the sudden arrest and crucifixion of Jesus to His hurried burial in a rich man's grave. Given the early hour, the half-light, the uncanny feeling associated with all human contacts with the dead, and the utter unpreparedness of the women for what actually happened, their behavior in the circumstances described is strikingly realistic and true to life.
But, as I have said, it is with the stone itself that we are chiefly concerned -- the one silent and infallible witness in the whole episode -- and there are certain facts about this stone that call for very careful study and investigation.
Let us begin by considering first its size and probable character. The passage I have quoted above leaves us in no doubt that the stone was large and consequently very heavy. This fact is asserted or implied by all the writers who refer to it. Mark says it was "exceeding great." Matthew speaks of it as "a great stone." Peter says, "for the stone was great." Additional testimony on this point is furnished by the reported anxiety of the women as to how they should move it. If the stone had not been of considerable weight the combined strength of three women should have been capable of moving it. We receive, therefore, a very definite impression that it was at least too weighty for the women to remove unaided. All this has a very definite bearing on the case, as we shall see shortly.
Now the fact that is stated with great explicitness in all the surviving versions of the incident is that when the women arrived at the tomb they found that the stone had been moved.
I do not think that the physical implications of this fact have been fully realized. For surely it means that the women were not first at the tomb. They were forestalled. Someone who had a very definite interest in this tomb had been there prior to their arrival.. That this is the only possible inference for those who believe, as I do, that we are here on the track of a true historic event will be obvious.
Unless, therefore, we are prepared to maintain that the stone was moved by supernatural agency, or that it was pushed forward from within, or that it became displaced accidentally by an earth tremor (a contingency in Judea not wholly to be set aside), it becomes a matter of great historical importance to know what person or persons had both the opportunity and the incentive to disturb it. For it is clear that as early as dawn on Sunday morning it had been moved.
This is a very big and formidable inquiry, involving the reopening of some questions we have already considered. But I see no means of avoiding it. If the visit of the women is historic, the fact that the stone had been interfered with is historic also. We must, therefore, accept it as one of the physical conditions of our inquiry.
Let us consider in turn the three principal directions from which such an interference with the grave might have come. Could Joseph of Arimathea have returned after all, as he clearly had the right to do some time between the close of the Sabbath observance and the moment when the women came on the scene?
The answer to this question must clearly depend on the purpose for which he came. If it is contended that he came privately and alone (let us say to have a final look at the features of the dead Leader), then I think we must reject the suggestion decisively on two counts. In the first place, it is most improbable that he would have done this in the middle of the night. Second, the evidence is that he would not have been able to get in. If three women felt themselves unable to move the stone, on the ground of its great size and weight, it would require at least two men to have done so. Joseph, if he came alone, would have been barred out of the tomb by his own act.
We are left, therefore, with the suggestion that Joseph came with a working party, choosing, perhaps, the dark hours to avoid the curious attentions of the crowd, and with the express object of removing the body to a more suitable resting place. I have always felt that, if no other satisfactory solution offered, this would have to rank high as a purely rationalist explanation of the observed phenomena. It falls in with two elements of the situation very aptly. It explains why the women found the tomb open. It also explains why we cannot locate the body.
But it runs aground irretrievably at this point. It does not explain why, when a few weeks later Jerusalem was ringing with the claim that Jesus had risen and had been seen by His disciples, the men who helped Joseph to perform this nocturnal exhumation and reburial, did not declare what they knew. The alternative tomb could not have been very far away, and it is doubtful whether the reinterment could have been accomplished at all without some kind of official permit.
Moreover, there is the bona fides of Joseph himself to consider in the matter. If it is true that Joseph acted in a sense on behalf of the Jewish authorities in fulfilling the law by burying the body before sunset, what possible reason could there be for concealing this perfectly natural and legal proceeding? Annas and Caiaphas and the other leaders behind the prosecution must have been aware of it. If so, why their silence, when the mere statement of the fact, supported by irrefragable proofs, would have been the most damning and conclusive reply to the pretensions of the Christians?
But there is another and a very serious point where the hypothesis fails to join on with the recorded evidence. It throws no light whatever on the women's assertion in the earliest and most primitive record that they found someone in occupation of the tomb.
Those critics who have fastened on the fact that in the Marcan account there is nothing necessarily supernormal in the identity of this "young man" seem to me to render real service to the cause of truth. A statement so matter-of-fact and circumstantial as this would hardly falter on the fundamental objective element of the situation. If the evidence is strong that the women went to the tomb and found it open, it seems to me equally strong that they encountered and were spoken to by someone when they reached there.
Yet by no conceivable fancy can we imagine Joseph and his party taking the precaution to leave anyone behind in the tomb when it was once vacated. They would almost certainly require the whole of their personnel to carry out the operation in hand. To leave a picket in the tomb for any purpose whatever seems outside the requirements of the situation. What with the necessity of carrying lights and tools and the need for resting the bier as they went along, even a party of three people would have their hands pretty full. Moreover, the reported message given to the women is utterly at variance with what such a picket, in such circumstances, would have said. It seems therefore that we must reject the hypothesis as being contrary to the available evidence.
We come now to the second group in our inquiry the friends and disciples of Jesus. I said in an earlier chapter of this book that, by the almost universal consent of mankind, it was unthinkable that these overwrought and harassed people should have had either the originality or the daring to have conceived and carried out this feat. Since then we have studied the behavior of these people closely at short range, and the previous decision stands. It. stands impregnably on moral grounds alone. Anything seems preferable to the supposition that the disciples either singly or as a party were capable of such a deception, and the conversion of Saul clinches it. Saul came over at last because he was convinced not only that the disciples were honest, but that they were right!
Thus by a process of exhaustion we come to our third group, the Jewish authorities themselves, and here the field widens, because, when we think of it, there are a number of reasons why the official power might have taken an interest in this tomb during the particular period we are considering.
The modern critical distrust of the story of the guards seems to be based on certain doubts arising mainly under two distinct headings:
I. The story bears marks of being apologetic in character and therefore belongs probably to a later age than that in which the Christian crusade was launched.
2. It is improbable in itself and is inconsistent with the ascertained realities of the situation.
We will agree at once, that, if in later years the Christians were pressed for a really indisputable proof of their contention, a story of this concrete kind would go far to allay doubt and to steady the faith of the nascent church. But this of course would equally be the case if the story were true or had a substantial substratum of truth in it. The whole thing really turns on two questions: Is it improbable in itself? Is it inconsistent with the other known facts of the situation? After Careful consideration it seems to me that to both questions we must return a decided negative.
As everyone knows, there are three versions of the story of the guard preserved in the early literature, and these accounts differ materially in certain details. In Matthew, which is of course by far the earliest and generally the most trustworthy document, the guards tell their story to the priests and are paid by them to circulate a false statement. In Peter the guards report directly to Pilate and are told by him to keep silence. In Nicodemus they follow the course described by Matthew.
But all the accounts are in fundamental agreement on two points:
1. Pilate was approached and gave permission for such a guard to be set. The Witness of the Great Stone
2. The guard kept watch during the night preceding the visit of the women.
Now the reported approach to Pilate is extremely significant. The position of the Jews in relation to the remains of Jesus was peculiar and in a certain sense delicate. Although He was a Jew and had been prosecuted at the instance of the Jewish leaders, the punishment and sentence was Roman. Technically, the body of Jesus was Roman property and the disposal of it a Roman concern. After the rebuff they had received over the wording of the superscription, this was no time for appearing to override Pilate's authority or even to appear to be encroaching upon Roman preserves. If, therefore, the priests had any real concern with the tomb of Christ, it seems certain that they would be compelled first to communicate their anxieties to Pilate, and through him to gain freedom to do what they considered necessary.
All this points strongly to the truth of the story, because in later years this purely technical sovereignty of Pilate over the crucified body would tend to be overlooked. It is only a small point, but to the trained student of history the synchronization between the report and the less noticeable requirements of a situation is instructive.
This brings us to the question: Had the priests a strong incentive, or indeed any incentive at all, to concern themselves about the tomb of Christ? Was this incentive sufficient to justify the possible raising of further trouble by going to the procurator? Pilate was admittedly in a bad humor, and discretion dictated giving him a wide berth. Is there anything of a sufficiently urgent character to warrant our believing that they went to him a second time?
Those who assert that there is not, surely overlook two very considerable elements in the situation. In the first place, there are strong reasons for thinking that some kind of temporary guard or watch must inevitably have been placed over this particular garden. Had the body of Jesus been cast, as might have been expected, into the common grave, official protection for the burial place would naturally have been provided as a mailer of course. Jerusalem was always a very crowded and turbulent place at feast times, and this was no ordinary execution. You could not have so famous and in some quarters so execrated a body as that of Jesus, lying about, as it were, in a place accessible to the public without let or hindrance. It is absurd to suppose anything so foreign to the highly civilized government that Jerusalem possessed. The precautions appropriate to the occasion would have been provided automatically, and no one would have thought it in any way unusual.
But if there is one bit of historic truth that stands out of the narratives it is that the body of Jesus did not suffer this particular indignity. All the documents declare that Joseph of Arimathea, a Jew of some local standing and substance, went to Pilate and 'asked for the body,' and that Pilate granted this request. Joseph of Arimathea thereupon proceeded with his plans, using a tomb that may have been chosen because of its proximity to the Cross, but which more probably was his own personal and private property.
I do not think, however, that it has been fully realized how this simple circumstance, unimportant though it may appear at first sight, must have altered the whole legal and constitutional position with regard to the body of Jesus insofar as it affected the maintenance of law and order in Jerusalem.
The onus of keeping the peace and of maintaining order among the vast throngs that came to the feasts, rested entirely upon the civil power. Had Jesus been convicted of any offense less serious than that involving the capital sentence, His safe custody and protection would have fallen solely to the Jewish authorities. But the Roman Emperor had expressly removed the power to inflict the death sentence from sectarian hands. Thus with the uttering of Pilate's judgment, the legal control of the Prisoner passed definitely from the Sanhedrin and its officers into the Roman charge. Technically, at least, Pilate was responsible for the consequences of his own act.
This would doubtless have suited the high priest and his advisers very well, because had any unruly demonstrations taken place, either at the place of Crucifixion or at the place of subsequent burial, the procurator himself would quickly have suppressed them, if necessary by armed force.
But history did not take this particular course. To the intense dismay and indignation of the authorities, one of their own number went privately to Pilate and begged for the body. This reversed the whole favorable position from the priestly point of view and brought the protection of the grave and the maintenance of public order definitely back again as a strictly Jewish and official concern. Hence the fury of the authorities against Joseph, which is so plainly indicated in the apocryphal literature.
Even, therefore, if no hint had been given to us in the Gospels that such was the case, we should have been compelled to assume that the question of preserving order under the quite exceptional conditions created by the proceedings against Christ gave the high priest and his advisers occasion for some disquiet. Pilate, in the most open way possible, had washed his hands for the second time of all responsibility in the matter of the Nazarene. He had delivered the body to the care of a Jew, who buried it (possibly from necessity) in a peculiarly open and exposed place beyond the city gate. If trouble or rioting occurred at the place of burial, the responsibility for quelling it would have been the priests', and Pilate would have been quick to emphasize that point.
Obviously the simplest way out of their dilemma was for the priests to go to Pilate with a request that the military authorities themselves should undertake temporarily the protection of the garden. This was the more reasonable since Pilate undoubtedly had the necessary reserves, whereas Caiaphas could fall back only on the temple guard a quite inadequate force in the event of really dangerous trouble arising. That the priests did go to Pilate with this very natural request, but with wholly unexpected results, seems to be clear from the Gospel according to Matthew.
The passage in which Matthew describes what took place at this interview is very instructive, and it will be helpful to have the exact words before us:
Now on the morrow, which is the day after the Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees were gathered together unto Pilate, saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest haply his disciples come and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: and the last error will be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them, Ye have a guard: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, the guard being with them (Matt. 27:62-66).
Such is the earliest and unquestionably the purest form in which this persistent old tradition has come down to us.
If the reader will concentrate his attention in the first instance on the matters of fact recorded in this passage, he will find that there are four definite statements: 1. The interview took place, not on the day of the Crucifixion, but the day after. This is given quite explicitly: "On the morrow, which is the day after the Preparation."
2. Pilate was expressly asked to undertake the protection of the tomb: "Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure."
3. Pilate refused this request: "Ye have a guard: go your way, make it as sure as ye can."
4. The priests thereupon acted upon their own initiative: "So they went and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, the guard being with them."
This is a perfectly reasonable and logical sequence of events. It fits in with a situation of immediate and pressing anxiety to the priests; it agrees with the known character of Pilate; and it explains why the women had no occasion to alter their plans.
It is frequently asserted by modem writers on this subject that it is "impossible to find room" for the incident of the guard in the earliest tradition. The suggestion is that, had the women known the tomb was guarded, they would not have set out on their secret mission.
So long as the guard is loosely thought of as being set with full public knowledge throughout the whole period of the temporary burial, it will of course be impossible to find room for the visit of the women. But according to Matthew it was not set in this spectacular and melodramatic way. Its necessity was not recognized for nearly twenty-four hours after Joseph had laid the body in the tomb. It was only when the Sabbath was drawing to a close and the city was about to reawaken to its normal life that the extreme urgency of this matter seems to have been recognized. How could three or four women be expected to know what was going on secretly at the procurator's residence on Saturday evening, especially if, as is most probable, they went to bed early in preparation for their work at dawn?
Second, the point that is usually urged against the probability of the priests taking action in this mailer seems to me to be open to very serious doubt. It is usually contended that the excuse given to Pilate (viz., that the disciples might steal the body) is wildly improbable; that even if it could be conclusively proved that Jesus predicted His resurrection, the behavior of the disciples shows that they had not apprehended or believed Him; and the elaborate selling of an official guard to prevent such a shadowy contingency is, to say the least, unlikely.
Personally, I should feel the force of this argument very strongly if it agreed with the accounts of the Trial, which it does not. It seems to me a very strange and suggestive thing that right back in the very earliest and most primitive accounts of this trial there is the persistent assertion that the whole case against Jesus hinged upon a sentence containing those cryptic and most unusual words: "in three days."
We are not dealing with unsophisticated or half-educated people in this very able bit of political statecraft, but with some of the subtlest and most observant Jewish intellects of their day. Behind all their maneuvering for position, the search for actual witnesses, and the sudden dropping of the charge when the witnesses failed to agree together, is the evident historical fact that Jesus on some memorable occasion made use of a phrase containing these words, a phrase that clearly infuriated the Sadducean leaders, but that would not stand the literal meaning the witnesses tried to give to it.
If, therefore, as the records plainly show, the main attack of the prosecution was concentrated on this phrase, the inference seems to be clear. Not only did Jesus make a statement that is probably preserved in its fullness in John, but the priests knew He had made it and deliberately selected it as the most vulnerable utterance for their purpose.
All this produces a situation involving the exact opposite of indifference to the conditions of His interment. No one at that early stage could predict what was happening in the minds of the vast multitudes who, a few days previously, had hailed Jesus as their political deliverer. To leave the tomb utterly unprotected, when a reasonably urgent request to Pilate would ensure it against unauthorized violation by interested persons, was in a measure to invite the very thing they were most anxious to avoid.
I mention these considerations not indeed as proof that the guard was set, for such proof is at this distance of time impossible but to show that the placing of some kind of watch over the tomb during this particular and very critical weekend is by no means so improbable as it at first seems.
When, however, we come to consider seriously the consistency of the story with the established facts of the situation, we are on firmer and more positive ground, for surely the biggest and most certain of the ascertained realities in this situation is that some time between the hour when Joseph and his burial party left the scene and the first streaks of dawn on Sunday, the stone was moved. As from previous observation three women had reasons for doubting whether their combined strength would be equal to the task, the inference is that the party responsible for this action consisted of two or more persons. The time was almost certainly during the dark hours between sunset on Saturday and sunrise on Sunday, for there is no trace of anything unusual on Saturday, and the discovery was made as early as dawn on Sunday.
Thus we seem compelled to postulate the presence near the tomb during the dark hours of Sunday morning of a group of people capable of removing the stone. If the people who did this strange thing were the representatives of the Jewish power, it must have been because some unusual circumstance caused them to look inside the tomb. Moreover, as an hour or so later they were not found by the women, the further inference is that they had gone away to report to their superiors.
These inferences are necessarily provisional, based on the assumption that it was the watchers who removed the stone. It is of course possible to suggest a quite different solution. If the reader feels that the evidence for the existence of the guard is insufficient, it is open for him to consider whether some other body of people might not have come during the dark hours with far more sinister intent. This is our old solution of the stealing of the body with a vengeance, and with all its collateral consequences. To pursue this idea thoroughly, we should have to inquire what persons there were in Jerusalem at this time who had the necessary incentive to attempt this abduction, what they expected to gain by it, and to what destination and for what purpose they conveyed the body.
But I propose a more radical test than this. It seems to me that no theory concerning these events can be regarded as historically valid if it does not simultaneously explain, not only the coming of the women at the time they did, and their finding of the tomb open, but also their dramatic confrontation by the young man in the tomb, and the message which, according to Mark, he gave to them.
There is nothing in the passage quoted on page 147 to show that the women regarded this individual as a supernormal being. He is just a young man wearing a white garment. They discover him in the tomb and in reply to the question their dumbfounded appearance clearly suggested, he gives them a curious reply:
Be not amazed: ye seek Jesus, the Nazarene, which hath been crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold, the place where they laid him! But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you (Mark 16:6,7).
So long as the reader allows his mind to be influenced by the fact that in the later and derivative documents these, or closely similar words, are attributed to an angel he will miss much of their force. An angel would naturally be regarded as omniscient and his knowledge would therefore convey little. But as soon as we think of this young man as an ordinary human being suddenly surprised in his examination of the tomb by the arrival of the women and surprising them in turn by his unexpected presence, light begins to spread over the whole field.
To realize what this dramatic situation means I think it is necessary to try to visualize how the women suddenly and unexpectedly came on the scene. We have to think of them approaching the tomb in the dim light of the early morning utterly unsuspecting any human presence. Their minds were preoccupied with the stone and how they should move it, and their sole thought was to wrench this away and thus gain access to the dear lacerated body of their Lord.
We do not know how far away they were when the fact that something had changed first became apparent to them, but the probability is that they were quite close. In any case, the stone was not where they had last seen it. It was moved to one side and the mouth of the cave stood revealed. The realization of this fact probably halted them for a moment, and then, wondering greatly as to what this might mean, they softly approached the tomb. To their terror they saw a figure sifting in the dark interior, and in the grip of an unnameable fear they started backwards. Simultaneously the occupant of the tomb, his attention suddenly aroused by the sound of voices outside and the momentary darkening of the door, turned around to find them already retiring in alarm.
I picture him running out and calling to them as they retreated: 'Don't be frightened. You seek Jesus, the Nazarene. He is not here. Behold the place where they laid him . . ." But the women were too terrified and shaken to hold conversation, and as Mark graphically states, "They went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them."
If this strange scene was enacted in the manner briefly suggested above, it is clear that we are in the presence of a new and important fact. The situation is complicated by an independent visitor to the grave who for some reason started even earlier than the women and yet without knowledge of their quest.
Is this person historic or is he a myth? If the former, how does his presence at this particular juncture fit in with and adjust itself to the other known facts of the situation?
Before we consider what the Marcan testimony really is about this vital question, there is one point that calls for special consideration. I mean the terror of the women that which made them run and flee from the tomb. I do not think this psychological element of terror in the Marcan record has received the close study it deserves. Setting out as they did with the express purpose of ministering to the dead, the minds of the women must have been prepared in advance for the depressing and even eerie conditions under which the work was to be accomplished. We cannot readily imagine them being alarmed by the vacant chamber or by any creature of their own imagination.
But if you will try to think of three ordinary and normally courageous women going to a grave at early dawn with the object of anointing the dead; if you will think of them entering the tomb rather hesitatingly, expecting to find a recumbent corpse in its winding sheet, and finding a white-robed figure sitting up, you have all the constituents of tenor in their most frightening form. Few women could have experienced it without running for their lives. And the impression that the Marcan account gives is that they did run, without waiting to consider the full purport of the news that the young man called after them. Such at least is my personal reading of the event. It answers to something deeply necessary to the understanding of the whole story.
But at what cost do we get this glimpse of the strange realities of that morning? For if this young man is a historic feature of the situation, his presence introduces a new factor to the problem, another thread in the web of circumstance that finds its center and focus in the tomb of Christ. Is there any hypothesis that will explain simultaneously all these unusual and apparently disconnected happenings?
Now it is one of the very curious features of this problem that what seems to be the true answer to these questions is imbedded in the Marcan fragment itself. The clue is provided by the last five words of the message the young man is reported to have given to the women: "He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you." When did Jesus tell His disciples He would meet them in Galilee? We turn back over the pages of the manuscript, past the account of the trial and the Crucifixion, until we come upon them suddenly in Mark.
And Jesus saith unto them, All ye shall be offended: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered abroad. Howbeit, after I am raised up, I will go before you into Galilee (14:27,28).
The peculiar thing about this little fragment of conversation is that it is reported to have taken place on the way to Gethsemane. The Paschal Supper was over. Judas had long since left to complete his compact with the priests. The party, now reduced to eleven men and their Leader, had risen from their couches and descended to the street. It was during the journey to the Garden that Jesus, according to Mark, uttered these strange words.
If they were actually uttered, could they have been overheard? At first blush we should say "no!" The very meeting place for this supper had been kept a close secret by Jesus, lest a premature betrayal should rob Him of that last quiet conference with His friends.
We picture the lights being turned out and the party descending quietly and unostentatiously to the street, preparatory to the walk to Gethsemane. There does not seem room for the intrusion of a stranger, or even a sympathizer who was not a member of the apostolic band.
And yet --and yet -- according to Mark, there was at least one other person who made the journey to the Garden of Gethsemane that night. I cannot personally see how the language that Mark uses concerning this person can be interpreted in any other way than that he entered the Garden with the disciples, for the narrative clearly says "he followed with" Jesus. And the story about him is meaningless except as an elemental bit of truth, an episode incongruous enough in relation to its selling, but part of the immortal adventure of that night.
I said something in an earlier chapter about the Gospel of Mark standing like a great rock far out to sea in advance of the distinctively Christian literature. It arrests even the uncritical reader by the granite sharpness of its detail. And nowhere do we feel its realism more than in that strangely graphic description of the last hour of Christ's freedom. This is surely no merely literary creation of a secondary age. Who would have invented that story of the disciples falling asleep out of sheer weariness in the gravest hour of their Master's peril; or that touch about the twice-repeated awakening as He returned softly to them at intervals from His communing under the distant trees; or His permissive words, when His personal crises was past and the peace of decision had come to him: "Sleep on now, and take your rest," to be followed shortly, as the glare of the advancing torches became visible, by the poignant words "Arise, let us be going: behold, he that betrayeth me is at hand"?
This is obviously a true history of that never-to-be-forgotten night. It spares no feelings, least of all those of the disciples themselves. It stands out as a stark and imperishable record of one of the master episodes of human history. And if there is one thing that clinches and confirms the veracity of the narrative it is surely that curiously irrelevant incident of the young man whose cloak was snatched from him in the struggle and who fled naked into the night. Why should we be told anything about this man except for the weighty and sufficient reason that the thing happened? The retreating figure of this naked youth is clearly one of the ineffaceable impressions of a dramatic five minutes that remained engraven deeply in the memory of everyone present.
Now there is something infinitely strange in all this, and worthy of the closest study. For the strangeness lies in the way in which certain fixed and unalterable features of the situation fit together.
If anyone will take the story of the women's adventure as it is recorded by Mark, and regard it, not as a piece of fiction, but as an honest and authentic bit of history, he will find himself increasingly impressed by something that does not emerge in the traditional interpretations of the episode. The arresting thing in that story is not that the women went to the tomb at dawn, or even that they found it vacated. It is surely that they were not the first to make the journey that morning; that they were anticipated by someone who had an equal interest in the tomb, and who had apparently set out from Jerusalem a few minutes earlier than themselves.
This seems to be the obvious meaning of this very ancient and primitive fragment. There is not the slightest hint or suggestion of anything supernatural in the presence of this young man, as Mark relates the story. He is merely a fourth party in an unusual adventure. He was probably as much surprised by the arrival of the women as they were startled and terrified by his presence. The swiftness of their recoil on discovering him within the chamber accounts for the brevity of his message, for as I picture the scene, he had to call loudly after them as they were retreating hurriedly from the grave. But the words he called after them are perfectly intelligible and surprisingly appropriate to such an occasion. He could not say more, for by that time they were probably out of hearing.
The moment we begin to think of this young man, not as an imaginary visitant from the skies, but as a solid reality of that never-to-be-forgotten morning, we get a situation of extraordinary interest.
We know why the women went to the tomb at this early hour. It was a matter of prearrangement. The expedition was apparently planned on Friday afternoon and prepared for during Saturday. Promptly at the appointed hour, as dawn was breaking over the eastern hills, the little party moved off upon its sad errand.
But what could have induced a young Hebrew, who presumably had also spent the night in Jerusalem, to go out at an even earlier hour to see the tomb of Christ? The question is worth pondering, for the situation is very peculiar. If the evidence had been that the grave of Jesus was undisturbed when the women came to it, we should be hard pressed to find an intelligible reason why a solitary young man should have set out before dawn on a chilly April morning to go to it. But the evidence is precisely to the opposite effect, and it is overwhelming in its consistency and strength. If one solid bit of real truth about that far-distant morning has come down to us through the ages it is that, to their great surprise, the women found the grave open, and the big stone moved to one side.
This fact, if fact it be, has certain unavoidable implications. It implies in the first instance that the tomb must have been in this state for some little time. The evidence is that the stone was too heavy to have been moved by a single pair of hands, and there is no trace of the women meeting any body of men who were capable of moving it. Whoever moved the stone, therefore, had presumably left the vicinity of the grave earlier in the morning, while it was still dark.
So much lies on the surface of the situation. But the implication is wider and more far-reaching than that, for we have to account not only for the moving of the stone, but the arousing of a young man in Jerusalem to such a pitch of excitement and curiosity that he lost no time in going personally to the grave, arriving there apparently a few minutes before the women. All this is highly significant, because the only way in which anyone in Jerusalem could have known that something unusual had taken place at the grave of Jesus before the women reached it, was by the direct report of someone who had just returned. And curiously enough, the only people who exactly fit this description are the guards of the Gospels!
Had the tomb of Jesus been rifled by a band of common marauders or by people with sinister designs upon the body, they would have disappeared as silently and mysteriously as they came. Certainly they would not have advertised their crime in the streets of Jerusalem within a few minutes of having committed it. Had Joseph of Arimathea, shortly before dawn, opened the cave with a view to removing the remains to another resting place he would have been still engaged at the new place of burial, and any message that he brought would have been reserved ultimately for official ears.
But if, as the darkest hour of night began to turn softly to the grey of dawn, a party of excited men broke into the narrow streets of the old city declaring that something was amiss with the tomb of the Nazarene, then one does indeed begin to understand how more than one sleeper might have been drawn from his bed to discover what this unaccustomed commotion was about and to hear something of the purport of the strange conversations that ensued. And if among those who listened, or to whom swift rumor came by other means, there was one man who had made that perilous journey to the Garden of Gethsemane and had heard those strange words fall from the lips of Christ, who shall describe with what haste he would seize whatever clothing was near at hand, and, rushing forth, run, as only an intensely moved and excited young man could run, to the Garden of the Resurrection?