By Frank Morison
What is the secret of this silent and impenetrable tomb? It is a question that presses insistently for an answer, and I propose to discuss it in the present chapter.
Certain things about this story impress me profoundly. They are not the kind of things that can lightly be set aside as of minor or only relative importance. They belong to the fundamental and bedrock features of the problem. In the first place, whatever the physical or dogmatic consequences may be, I cannot and do not believe that the body of Jesus of Nazareth rested in Joseph's garden during any part of that period that is contemporary with the rise of Christianity.
If it could be shown that there was a single document of admittedly early date dealing with the crucifixion and burial of Jesus in which it was even remotely hinted that such was the case, I for one should attach to that hint very considerable weight. It would at least introduce the same kind of uncertainty that exists concerning certain other aspects of the problem. It would provide a peg, however shaky and insecure, on which to hang a doubt. But the documents are adamant on this fundamental feature of the Easter dawn.
Whether we turn to the two dependent Gospels, Matthew and Luke, to the comparatively unorthodox Gospel of Peter, to the Gospel of John, to the Emmaus document preserved by Luke, or to the admittedly primitive Marcan fragment itself, we find the same consistent and unvarying witness to the disappearance of the body. If the situation had been the other way around; if we had been asked to believe something that was denied by every solitary manuscript that has survived the centuries, how solid and unanswerable would that cumulative and absolutely unanimous denial appear! What play could be made by the dialectician with the fact that not the smallest chink or loophole had been left for doubt. Surely (it would be contended), the real truth must have blundered somewhere to the light. Yet in all the varied literature from that far-off time, written under different skies, by men of varying temperaments, possessed by obviously divergent theories of the true course of those memorable events, there has come down to us no hint or suggestion that the facts about the grave were other than those substantially recorded in the Gospel according to Mark. However disconcerting the fact may be, the literary verdict is unanimous and must at east be given its due weight by the impartial mind.
But there is something far more arresting and significant than even this unanimous literary witness, and I do not see how even the most confident of modem critics can view it steadily and consistently without experiencing a feeling of profound disquiet and unrest. I mean the extraordinary silence of antiquity concerning the later history of the grave of Jesus.
It is strange -- this absolutely unbroken silence concerning a spot that must have been a very sacred place to thousands of people outside the circle of the Christian believers themselves. If the disciples were deceived in this matter, or if the intensity of their faith in the Appearances led them to ignore or to attach no importance to the condition of the grave, what of the preponderant mass of the Jewish public Outside? Did no one regard with reverence the sepulchre that held the mortal remains of the greatest Teacher that Israel had seen since the prophetic days? Had Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus no counterpart among all the toiling multitudes who crowded around the boats on the shores of Galilee and filled Capernaum and Cana and Nazareth with tumultuous throngs? Surely for every man or woman who carte under the magnetic influence of the disciples there must have been a hundred who had no illusions concerning the grave, but were filled with profound grief and sorrow by the untimely death of Christ.
Yet we can search in vain for any sign or hint or whisper that during those first four crucial years when the Christians were teaching their strange doctrine within the walls of Jerusalem there was a stream of pilgrims to that silent grotto beyond the gate. We catch no echo of any controversy between the many who knew the real facts and the deluded few who taught and presumably believed otherwise. Why did the least believable of all the cults of Christianity survive and leave no traces of the one rational and divergent form that, according to all reasonable expectation, ought to have overmastered it and triumphed in its stead?
Or take the same central problem from another and slightly different point of view. Let the reader sit down and in the quiet of his own study ponder one very simple but searching question. Why was it that Jerusalem became the center and focus of this mad unreason that in the coming years was to spread itself outwards to the uttermost limits of the Roman world? Why Jerusalem in preference to Capernaum, or even Nazareth itself? There are a hundred reasons why so demonstrably fragile a myth as the belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus ought to have flourished in the congenial soil of Galilee and to have withered within the precincts of the real grave.
Jerusalem was always hostile and unsympathetic to the genius of Christ; Galilee was His home. Those who loved Him best and must have mourned Him most came from that smiling province. No one seriously doubts that within fourteen days of the Crucifixion Peter and Andrew and some others of the apostolic band stood on the shores of that inland sea and felt the call of their ancient and honorable trade. Granted that a vision came to one of them and perhaps to all. But why did not this mystic church of believers spring into being and strike its deepest and most central roots in Galilee, the spiritual home of Jesus, a place impregnated with His personality and teaching? Why did everybody who caught the infection of this spring madness gravitate to Jerusalem as steel to a magnet? Why should so irrational a doctrine flourish most readily and take its implacable stand in the veritable presence and vicinity of that which it denied?
There is only one answer to all these questions that satisfies alike the unanimous literary witness and the collateral requirements of historical circumstance. It lies in the assumption that the story of the women's visit to the grave as given in all its primitive and naked simplicity in the Marcan fragment is the true story. It was told, not because it had any particular apologetic value for as an apologetic it can be riddled with criticism but because things fell out that way. In other words, it was a fact of history.
Now as soon as we begin to think of this story about the women, not as a legend of comparatively late growth, but as historic fact, we begin to discern certain characteristics of the Marcan version that stamp it very noticeably with the marks and evidences of truth.
Consider first the identity of the women who are reported to have visited the tomb. It would have been a very strange thing if nobody had gone to pay a last tribute to a friend so noble and so lovable as Christ. It would have been stranger still if the band of mourners had not been predominantly women: Yet it would have been the strangest thing of all if they had not been these particular women. They fit the circumstances as the hand fits the glove.
After all, Jesus was their man and they were His women. If we had been told that it was Claudia Procula, or Lazarus, or even Nicodemus who paid the clandestine visit to the grave we should, I think, in the absence of strong corroborative evidence, be justified in harboring a doubt. But who were more likely to attempt this last poignant service to the dead Leader than the mothers of His men and the woman whose life His influence had utterly transfigured? When, therefore, Professor Schmiedel would have us believe that the story about the women is unhistorical and was probably circulated for the first time toward the close of the Apostolic Age, I am bound to say quite frankly that I do not believe him. And I base that conclusion on something far greater than any fact he adduces the mighty and unchanging instincts of the human heart, especially the feminine heart. Regarded as legend, this story denies the most probable thing in the whole history. It is precisely when we regard it as fact that we find it to be firmly based on the solid and enduring foundations of human experience.
Now this sense of a certain vital trueness when regarded as fact, and a certain unreality when regarded as fiction, becomes even more pronounced when we look more closely into the details of the story. Mark says that after their strange encounter at the tomb the women ran away, and the language he uses suggests that they did so in a state of some confusion and alarm. His words are "They went out, and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them." He adds further the very significant words: "They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid . . ."
We do not know what the writer of Mark originally set down as the closing words of this sentence, for the famous fragment breaks off abruptly at this point. But whatever the conclusion may have been, the sense of the main passage is clear. The women, after witnessing the burial on Friday afternoon, decided to pay their last act of respect and love to Jesus on Sunday morning. It was quite obviously a clandestine visit, partly no doubt because the garden was private property, but chiefly because they feared the priests. Peter's angry denial in the courtyard of the high priest's house shows that it was a dangerous thing, during those hours when deadly passions were let loose, to be associated even distantly, with the party of the Nazarene.
They set out according to a prearranged plan shortly before dawn, when comparatively few people would be about and when, according to their view, the garden would almost certainly be deserted. Clearly they had no inkling or expectation of anything abnormal. Their sole preoccupation was with the stone they knew to be heavy and the removal of which might be beyond their strength. Looking to the right and to the left lest their errand should be detected, they softly approached the tomb. A few moments later they were fleeing through the entrance of the garden into the open road.
Such in its broad outlines is the Marcan account of what happened. It reads like a transcript from real life. Its very defects as a legend are the strongest proof of its actuality. The terror of the women, their failure to make more than a momentary inspection of the tomb, their precipitate retreat and reported silence all these are strange ingredients in a story told with apologetic intent thirty years later or indeed at any time after the event. Regarded as fact, they are like a breeze of truth blowing across the landscape on that historic morning.
Two facts, therefore, seem to stand out clearly as belonging to the historic certainties in this matter. First, that certain women of the party of Jesus really did go to the tomb in the early hours of Sunday morning; second, that a few moments later they fled from the garden in a state of some excitement and alarm. Now it seems to me that, quite apart from what we are told in the Marcan fragment, we should be compelled to infer that the women met someone at the tomb. Their shaken nerve and their precipitate retreat demands it. Had the garden been deserted, had they come merely to an empty cave (or even to a closed one) they might have been halted in perplexity, but they would hardly have run away. It requires a presence to produce that sense of instant confusion and precipitate departure. And the curious thing is that it seems to demand a human presence. I will ask the reader particularly to ponder that point.
In the nature of things we do not and cannot know how a normal human being would act if it were possible for him or her to be confronted suddenly by an authentic visitant from another world. It is perhaps almost idle to inquire. I cannot help feeling, however, that if the vision produced the kind of impression we associate with an "angel" the result would not be to induce terror, but rather a slowly dawning wonder, a consciousness of the nearness of great and sacred things. If the visitor possessed also the power of speech there would be something in the tone to allay fear and to compel attention. It is not so easy after all to think of such a vision striking terror into the hearts of pious women.
But to come suddenly and unexpectedly upon another person, without warning of any kind, in the interior of a rather dark cave at dawn, is a very different matter. The situation is saturated with terrifying possibilities. It provides precisely that element of mental and moral shock that the Marcan account of this episode so clearly demands. It must never be forgotten that on any reading of the affair this visit to the tomb was in the strictest sense hazardous and risky. It is not by accident or apologetic design that dawn was chosen by these faithful and heroic friends of Christ. It was the one golden and fleeting moment of opportunity. Every minute that passed after the sun had risen increased their peril. They were clearly committing a trespass in entering the garden at all, and they knew it. That, I take it, is the meaning of the phrase "They feared lest any man should see them." It is certainly a fundamental element in the psychological atmosphere of Mark.
Thus we come face to face with a very interesting fact. Test it where we will, this story has the peculiar and authentic ring of truth. It does not read like a story invented many years afterwards to lend color and support to the Christian theory of the Resurrection. It looks far more like an original recollection of an actual event. And yet, even when we have said this, I doubt if we shall have realized how near this famous old fragment comes to what Dr. Bartlet calls the "sheer historic facts." Indeed, I do not think that we shall ever reach a full understanding of the Resurrection problem until we are prepared to recognize that the story of the women's adventure, as told in this very early narrative, is not only the true story in the sense that the women actually went, and that they fled on discovering another person in the tomb, but true also in the far deeper and more important sense, that the place they visited really was the original grave of Christ.
Let the reader go to some quiet place apart and think out that issue to its logical conclusion. Let him recall first that all the hypotheses that have come down to us from a remote antiquity, purporting to explain the Resurrection phenomena, take as their basic assumption the physical vacancy of the real tomb.
This is the more noteworthy because criticism on strictly rational grounds was not wanting even in the earliest days of Christianity. Every conceivable taunt and imputation it was possible to hurl at the disciples and their cause is reflected in the literature. We read at great length, for example, of the charge that Jesus was born of fornication; that the disciples threatened to set the temple on fire; that Joseph of Arimathea could not be found when he was wanted; that the women were seen at the tomb as early as midnight; that the body was discovered by Pilate in a neighboring well. All these and many other innuendos can be found in the apocryphal literature. Yet when we do come at last upon indubitable snatches of controversy about the real issue we find not, as we should have expected, that the vacancy of the grave was stoutly and categorically denied but that the disciples were accused of having abducted the body. It is strange, this failure of the keenest intellects in Judea to put their finger on the one solid and unanswerable argument that it had never been disturbed!
It is strange, too, that no one ever thought of the simple expedient of confronting the disciples, and especially the women, with the individual who, beyond all question, knew what had taken place. For there was a witness in the garden that morning.
By the very irony of circumstances, on the day that brought the women to the tomb, at the identical hour of their visit (viz., shortly after dawn), and in the precise spot that from the standpoint of the hypothesis is of supreme importance, a young man was working. He not only saw the women approach and run away, but (we are told) he recognized their mistake and tried to point out to them where the real tomb lay. He was, therefore, a completely detached and independent observer of the whole episode.
Having regard to the exceptionally early hour at which this encounter took place, it is reasonable to suppose that this young man must have been either the official gardener or custodian of the place or a workman preparing the tomb for an imminent interment. In either event, we reach a situation profoundly and even ludicrously destructive of the women's case. If the young man whom they surprised at the tomb was the gardener, he was there to be questioned at any time, and to give the true version of what had taken place. It can hardly be contended that he would not remember encountering three agitated women at such an unusual hour and bent on such an exceptional mission. If he was a workman preparing the grave for an interment, then some Jewish citizen must actually have been buried in the mistaken tomb within a few hours.
Thus, there was the young man himself to whom appeal could be made; there were the friends, relatives, and mourners of the deceased person, who had only too sorrowful an occasion to know that the latter was buried within a few yards of the notorious Nazarene! Can we imagine, with all this conclusive evidence available, that the personal enemies of the disciples (and they were many) would never have sought it out?
Surely we cannot, and in that simple reply, it seems to me, lies the dismissal of the theory of the women's mistake. For whether they told their story within the first seven minutes or, as Lake believes, at the end of the first few weeks, the result must have been the same. Think of those four years of persistent propaganda and steadily deepening conviction and success. Think of the weekly discussions and disputations in the synagogues. Think of the innumerable private controversies as to whether this Jesus was the Messiah or whether He was not. Think of the highly placed Sadducees who were prepared to go to almost any length to discredit and overthrow the cause. Think of the opposition suddenly being reinforced by the logical and relentless mind of Saul.
Think of all these admittedly historic things and then reflect that the evidence that could have pricked the bubble was to be obtained for the asking by merely walking a distance no greater than that from Hyde Park Corner to the Marble Arch. Think of another matter, too. What an impetus such inquiries would have given to that contemporary veneration of the real resting place of Jesus, of which, as we have seen, there is not a trace!
Personally, I am convinced that no body of men or women could persistently and successfully have preached in Jerusalem a doctrine involving the vacancy of that tomb, without the grave itself being physically vacant. The facts were too recent; the tomb too close to that seething center of oriental life. Not all the make-believe in the world could have purchased the utter silence of antiquity or given to the records their impressive unanimity. Only the truth itself, in all its unavoidable simplicity, could have achieved that.
I would have the reader mark also one curious but very suggestive detail of the narrative, to which, for various reasons, attention has not hitherto been drawn. It concerns the young man whom, according to Mark, the women surprised in occupation of the tomb. This is a mailer that will bear close and attentive study.
Mark does not leave us in doubt whether the young man was standing close to the tomb or working some little distance away from it. He tells us explicitly that on "entering into the tomb," the women found him "sitting on the right side." Thus his presence remained undisclosed until that one terrifying moment when the women were on the point of entering the cave. Hence clearly their consternation and precipitate departure. Had this young man been the ordinary gardener of the place, working in the open and in full view of those who approached, the women would surely never have reached the door of the tomb at all. Most probably they would have halted a short distance away and, upon deciding to retire, would have done so discreetly and unobtrusively. But this, of course, is not the Marcan picture at all. According to our document, the shock came at the very entrance to the cave, where, in the nature of things, they were least prepared for it.
If, therefore, this element of sudden surprise is essential to the Marcan picture, what are we to make of the strange occupation of the visitor? The interior of a dark and untenanted cave at dawn is a very strange resting place for a workman who had a serious job in hand. If he was the gardener, what was he doing inside the tomb at all, when he could have rested in so much greater comfort in the fresh, cool air outside? Why the need of rest in a sepulchral and unhealthy atmosphere when dawn had only just broken? There does not seem to be any visible reason for a normal human being occupying a death chamber at such an unusual hour unless he had come expressly for the purpose, and had some very real and definite interest in the tomb.
And it is of course precisely that intense interest in the contents of this particular grave that can explain adequately why a young man who had just run all the way from Jerusalem could be discovered a few minutes later "sifting in the tomb." There must have been something peculiarly provocative of thought in the spectacle of that vacant ledge, especially if, as two of our Gospels assert, the grave clothes were still there. We can imagine him sitting down to ponder what this strange phenomenon might mean until a few moments later he was disturbed by footfalls and whispering voices without. For a brief moment the figure of a young woman darkened the door and was gone, and, running out, he saw three agitated women fleeing in alarm. He called after them a message they either did not hear or were too unnerved and frightened to heed. This is only a small detail very likely to be overlooked by a fabricator with his mind intent on an angel, but deeply impressive when regarded as an integral part of the original facts.
But there is another, and a very strong reason, for believing that the place the women visited could not have been other than the original tomb of Christ. It must be obvious to anyone who gives this matter a moment's thought that Mary Magdalene and her friends must have told their story at the earliest possible moment consistent with their own safety and that of the disciples. To suppose that three women (two of them already well advanced in middle age) could go through an unnerving experience like that an experience calculated to leave an indelible mark on their minds and to say nothing about it even to their closest friends, is absurd. Lake has pleaded, however, for a delay of about three weeks on the ground that the disciples were not in Jerusalem. Let us grant that provisionally, but beyond the date of the disciples' return no reasonable person can be constrained to go. It is certain that this essential reunion could not have been effected later than the Feast of Weeks, when it is commonly agreed that the whole party was again in Jerusalem. The disciples were therefore in possession of the story before the vital date of Pentecost. If the women had not told their story by then, surely nothing would have extracted it from them.
Now it is here that we begin to meet a fact of very high historical significance, for it is clear that the disciples did not make use of the story as evidence of the Resurrection. There is not a word about the women's experience in the famous Whitsuntide sermons that launched the Christian movement on its historic course. We catch no hint of its being employed in the other speeches recorded in Acts. And, as though to clinch the matter, there is a curious and suggestive silence throughout the missionary Epistles, including Paul's famous letter to the Corinthians, where, if anywhere, we should have expected to find it. In all this varied literature and correspondence there is a neglect of the women's evidence that wears almost the aspect of a suppression. Yet Luke, who took no inconsiderable part in the work of the early church, and who was for long months the intimate companion of Paul, evidently knew the story, since he related it in his own Gospel. So also did Mark, who similarly spent some time with Paul.
What was the explanation of this very pointed and obvious suppression of a phase of the Easter experiences that was to become later one of the most treasured of Christian memories? Why was it that when the great series of written lives of Jesus began to appear, embodying those traditions that through long usage had engraved themselves imperishably on the recollections of the church, we find this story about the women embedded deeply and inextricably at the center and heart of the whole matter? There is an explanation big enough to satisfy this and the other varied aspects of this many-sided problem.
Let us go back to the early hours of that memorable Easter. As everyone who has attentively studied the Gospels knows, there are strong reasons for thinking that the message Mary Magdalene brought back to the city shortly after dawn was not to the effect that Jesus had risen, but that for some unexplained reason the body had been removed. This is the clear testimony of the record that tells us what one of the women actually said within a few minutes of the discovery.
We must picture these three women, after their terrifying experience at the grave, running away from that place of dread as hard as they could towards the open road. Their ages were dissimilar. Mary Magdalene was a young woman; the two others were the mothers of grown men. When they arrived in the public highway it must have become clear that someone ought to run ahead and inform the disciples. Mary Magdalene, as the youngest and most agile of the party, would almost certainly volunteer, leaving the older women to follow at their own pace. A few moments later we read of a breathless and obviously distressed girl knocking at the door of a certain house in Jerusalem and delivering her historic message: "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb and we know not where they have laid him."
Such was the message, in all its primitive despair and urgency, that Mary Magdalene brought to the disciples Peter and John. Meanwhile, it is very probable that the two older women, returning home as fast as they could, related to their friends a rather fuller account of what had occurred, in which prominence was given to the unexpected visitor to the grave. Indeed, it is not unlikely that already the thought that the young man was an angel may have begun to take shape in their minds. This would account for the very definite statement in the Emmaus document preserved by Luke:
Moreover certain women of our company amazed us, having been early at the tomb; and when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive (24:22,23).
So the early hours of the morning passed in a welter of excitement and confused questionings as to what the events in the garden might mean.
If mailers had ended here the course of history might have been changed, for there can be no doubt that when the disciples were at last convinced that the Lord had risen, the women's testimony would have been produced in evidence; the identity of the young man would have been raised, and the whole question of the encounter at the tomb would have become a mailer of public discussion. But, as I read the situation, events took a very different and far more formidable course. Before the sun had risen far in the eastern sky a strange, but very definite rumor began to circulate through the crowded streets and bazaars of the city. It came, not from irresponsible sources, but from members of the temple guard. The details were circumstantial, and the story was that the disciples had stolen the body of the Nazarene.
The blow fell, in all its bitter injustice and startling suddenness, upon a party not yet fully reassembled after the hurried flight of Thursday night. It menaced the safety of everyone who was known, even distantly, to have had connections with the Nazarene. Late that evening the disciples found it expedient to meet under conditions of great secrecy behind barred doors. That night also, according to ancient tradition, the Appearances, those strange projections from the world of spirit into the world of sense, began.
Confusing as these events must have seemed at the time to those who passed through them, one fact is clear. The physical vacancy of the tomb itself was not in doubt. The moment we recognize this we begin to get real light on the historical reasons for the suppression of the women's story.
The women's experience was not used as evidence at any period during the early Jewish-Christian controversy for two very simple but sufficient reasons. In the first place, it proved nothing that was not already conceded by the other side. The only fact the story could establish was that, at about six o'clock on Sunday morning, the body of Jesus was no longer in the place where Joseph had laid it. But who wanted to prove something that was not only common knowledge, but was being made the basis of a very serious charge against the disciples themselves?
Second, the story possessed the grave weakness of admitting that certain members of the Christian party had actually been in the neighborhood of the tomb under conditions of some secrecy and at a suspiciously early hour on the morning in question. This was a very damaging admission to make in the peculiar circumstances in which the disciples found themselves. In all ages the essence of a good defense against a serious charge has been to prove an alibi. If a man is accused of committing a murder in Lincoln's Inn Fields and he can show proof that at the time the deed was committed he was asleep in his bed at Notting Hill, he will probably be acquitted. If, however, he admits in cross-examination that he really was out that night, that he was in the neighborhood of Lincoln's Inn Fields shortly after the time of the murder, and was actually looking for the deceased man, he will increase the difficulties of his counsel tenfold.
Now that, as I understand it, was precisely the situation regarding the followers of Jesus. They were being charged publicly with having abducted the body. It was a very difficult charge to refute even if they had been free to come out into the open, but we have reasons for believing they were in hiding, meeting in clandestine fashion behind closed doors. What would it have meant to that broken little remnant of Christ's party to have admitted openly that the women had been at the tomb! What a handle it would have given to their opponents to have been able to say that, on their own confession, the Christians had been hanging about the garden at dawn!
Anyone who looks at this matter impartially will see that during that never-to-be-forgotten week, when no one knew what fresh dangers and humiliations were in store for them, the whole tendency would be to say as little as possible about the abortive visit to the grave. And, surprising though it may seem, this reluctance on the part of the early Christians to give prominence to the women's testimony did unquestionably persist through early Christian times.
It is impossible to read through the early chapters of Acts with their very detailed accounts of the primitive preaching without being impressed by the singular absence of contention regarding the tomb. If it had ever seriously been doubted that the body was missing, the adventure of the women and what it implied must have been thrust by the implacable force of events into the very foreground of the Christian dialectic. It would have overshadowed every other consideration, for until that was settled nothing fundamental to the Christian thesis stood.
But the disciples were, obviously spared this interminable and fruitless wrangle. The facts were so well known that the campaign they undertook could positively be conducted with greater success in Jerusalem, where the abandoned tomb lay, than in any other place in the world. It was this that enabled them to concentrate (as Acts clearly shows that they did) on the two vital contentions that ultimately rent Judaism asunder, viz., that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and that life had been raised by the direct hand of God. They could surely never have reached this advanced stage of the discussion so early, if the physical vacancy of the tomb had not been common ground.
Thus we can see how, as a matter of historic fact, the adventure of the women at the grave did sink into comparative oblivion beside the much vaster and more vital issues that events determined. Its memory was cherished personally by the women themselves, for they alone had the honor of originating a very human service to their Master at a time of great danger and uncertainty. It was known to the disciples themselves. In quieter and more settled times it was doubtless included in the instructions of the church. And out of that widespread dissemination of the story throughout the Christian churches of Europe and Asia arose all those divergent and developed accounts of which Luke and Matthew's versions are typical.
Thus the young man at the grave, who really was a young man in the original story, became in course of time the great angel of Matthew, and the two mighty and dazzling celestial visitants of Luke. Thus, too, the rolling away of the stone, the true history of which was known only to the priests, became the subject of numerous conjectures, some saying that it rolled away of itself, others that the angels moved it. But behind all these secondary versions stood the simple and historic facts.
It is when we recognize this clearly that we begin to understand something of the meaning and significance of that wonderful document I have described through these pages as the Marcan fragment. Many years later, when the hopes of an immediate return of Christ were fading, and the church was settling down to its historic work, the need was felt for some connected record of the outstanding events of the life and death of Jesus. The earliest extant history of that kind is the famous fragment of Mark. If the writer was John Mark, he was singularly filled for telling that story, especially the closing chapters. He was a Jerusalemite who as a youth lived through those stormy and tempestuous days. That he had access to first-hand information about the closing week is obvious from the minuteness, the almost startling sharpness and fidelity of his detail. No one but a writer in close touch with the facts could have given us that unforgettable moonlight picture of the Garden of Gethsemane. I submit, too, that there are touches in his description of the women's adventure that suggest a similar authentic source.
For some reason Mark believed that Jesus had predicted not only His own death, but His resurrection also. He believed, too, that shortly before His death, on the way to Gethsemane, our Lord reiterated that solemn warning. With these conceptions in his mind and with the first-hand information that reached him from other sources, he pieced together and built up one of the most graphic pieces of description in all literature. It stands out above its fellows by its sheer objectivity, the crystalline quality of its clarity.
He describes the vigil in the Garden and the midnight arrest in words that only too plainly rest on fact. He gives us a really intelligible account of the trial before Caiaphas and the abasement of Peter. He describes the Roman trial, the journey to Calvary, and the Crucifixion in language so simple and yet so poignant that, as Chesterton has truly said, the reader feels as though rocks had been rolled over him.
He describes how, just as the awful tragedy was coming to its culmination, Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate for permission to bury the body, and obtained it. He tells how the stricken and sorrowing women followed in Joseph's trail and beheld where the body was laid; and how, as the sun went down on that awful afternoon, the stone was hurriedly but reverently placed across the mouth of the cave. He also explains how, having bought spices during the weekend, the women arose early on Sunday morning and came to the tomb at dawn.
Now in considering what follows we must never allow ourselves to forget that Mark was probably putting the story of the Easter experiences into writing for the first time, and for certain reasons the original facts differed from what was being currently taught over wide areas of the Christian church.
The very fact that such slight prominence was given to the women's experience in the public preaching of the original apostles left the door open for the widest diversity of belief as to what really happened at the grave. In some circles it was believed and taught that an angel descended and spoke to the women; in others that there were two angels. The widespread and divergent character of these beliefs is plainly shown in the first and third Gospels. Matthew and Luke did not create these versions. They doubtless recorded faithfully what had long been believed and taught in widely separated centers of the church's work.
In writing the history of these events, therefore, Mark approached a difficult and delicate task. Since he himself was a mere youth at the time of the Crucifixion he was one of the few survivors of the primitive church. He had lived through that troubled week in Jerusalem and knew the essence of the mailer as it was known to the original disciples. But he could not escape the fact that the true story told in all its bluntness and simplicity would come with a strangely chilling effect to many who had been nurtured on the more glowing and supernatural accounts.
To those who had been brought up in the belief that the women had encountered an angel at the tomb, it must have seemed a very extraordinary thing that they did not immediately proclaim the Resurrection and bring all Jerusalem to the garden to witness its result. It was the old problem of the "seven-weeks' gap."
But Mark knew the facts and, anticipating that question, he wrote a sentence that he never completed or whose end has been lost:
They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid ....
Much has been written with the intent to show that Mark meant by these words that the women maintained an absolute silence. It is admitted that it was a very unnatural thing for them to do, but there the words are, and in the submission of certain critics they admit of no other meaning.
I venture to suggest that they admit of a far simpler and more natural explanation, and in support of that contention I will call no less a witness than the writer of the Marcan fragment itself.
It so happens that in chapter 1, verse 44, of Mark's Gospel there is a sentence so similar in construction and purport to the one we are now considering as to constitute a very striking parallel. Jesus had just healed a leper of his disease. He was anxious that news of this work of healing should not get about. Mark says, "He strictly charged him and straightway sent him out, and saith unto him: See thou say nothing to any man . . ." Note carefully the close resemblance between the two sentences: "See thou say nothing to any man" "They said nothing to anyone." Both contain the same unqualified word nothing. Both come from the same pen. Let us suppose that Mark's Gospel had ended abruptly at this point. Should we be justified in assuming that the silence was to be regarded as unconditional? Volumes could be written to prove that we should. In strict logic, and detached from their context, the words can bear no other meaning. Yet, we would be wrong, for here is the completed sentence as Mark wrote it:
And [Jesus] saith unto him, See thou say nothing to any man: but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing the things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.
The moment we get the full thought of the writer before us, it is obvious that he uses the words "See thou say nothing to any man" in this sense: "Do not publish this abroad. Keep it to yourself and to those intimately concerned." For he follows on with what would otherwise be a direct negative of the original injunction.
With all deference to Kirsopp Lake, P. Gardner-Smith, and those critics who affirm that Mark implied the absolute and unconditional silence of the women, I am convinced they are wrong and that the words will not bear the extreme meaning these men seek to extract from them. The phrase as used by Mark in relation to the women's adventure is palpably an anticipation of a question that would spring to the mind of every reader to whom this newly written biography would come as a deeply interesting thing. Remember that the Matthean and Lucan documents were as yet unpublished. People would say: "If the women discovered the Resurrection at such an early hour on Sunday morning, why was not all Jerusalem aroused and summoned to witness the result?" Mark's reply to this is exact and strictly historical: "They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid .........
Thus to the long line of witnesses whose testimony we have been considering in these pages of Simon the fisherman who stood in the forefront of the original battle in Jerusalem; of the writers of Luke, Matthew, and John; of James the Just; of Saul of Tarsus; of the authors or editors of the apocryphal gospels of Peter and Nicodemus; even of the golal or great stone itself we have finally to add the writer of the most famous fragment in all literature, the broken sentence of Mark.