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Who Moved the Stone? 15. The Servant of the Priest

By Frank Morison


      Who was the young man who, if this interpretation be the true one, anticipated the women and shared with them the earliest experiences of that memorable morning? We shall probably never know, for if Mark withheld his name it must have been for very good and sufficient reasons. But there is one thought in that connection that I venture to think will bear profound and repeated study.

      If the reader will take the last eight verses of Mark's Gospel (16:1-8) and will study them carefully, remembering that they represent probably the earliest written account of these events, he will, I think, be pulled up very sharply by one fact -- the absence of any hint or suggestion as to how the stone itself came to be moved. An impenetrable curtain descends abruptly at the conclusion of the burial on Friday afternoon and does not rise again until dawn on Sunday, when the stone has already been removed. Why was this? Did the church, as late as AD. 58, know nothing of what happened during that critical period, or was Mark writing under the pressure of some intense reserve?

      The point is worth pondering because the same curious reluctance to deal with the physical cause of the movement of the stone comes out very strikingly in the parallel passages from Luke and John. Luke says:

      But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they [the women] came unto the tomb, bringing the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.

      John's version is no less peculiar and arresting:

      The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, while it was yet dark, unto the tomb, and seeth the stone taken away from the tomb. She runneth, therefore.

      In each case the women arrive to find the stone already rolled away, yet with no hint from the writers as to how this came about. It is only when we turn to Matthew's Gospel that we read of a great angel descending and removing the stone.

      Now the peculiar and significant thing is this. We can search the apocryphal writings through and through, and we shall nowhere find even the remotest suggestion that the Lord Himself broke the barriers of His own prison. We are told that the stone "rolled away of itself," or that supernatural beings descended and moved it. But nowhere is the obvious miracle recorded that Jesus Himself threw down the physical defenses of the grave.

      Why did nobody ever say that the Lord Himself, of His own power and might, thrust aside the stone and achieved release from the cave? Why does every document that discusses this question assume that the stone was moved from without --either by an angel or by means of invisible power?

      I suggest that we are here in the presence of a deep and far-reaching historical fact -- a fact that laid its compulsion on everyone and diverted ultimately the very course of tradition. The moving of the stone was never ascribed to the power of the risen Lord Himself because there were men in Jerusalem who knew the real facts concerning what happened during those dark hours preceding the dawn on Sunday. Those facts precluded the hypothesis being truthfully advanced, and for evidence of that we must turn yet again to that ancient and curiously archaic story of the guard.

      I have already given reason for believing that in the original and true version of this story the priests went to Pilate, late on Saturday afternoon or early evening, in the hope of arranging with him for the policing of the grave -- a precaution desirable in view of the unpredictable attitude of the populace when the restraint of the Sabbath observance was removed. Pilate refused their request, as Matthew's version clearly shows, and the priests had no alternative but to fall back upon the temple guard for this necessary duty.

      Now there are two good reasons for thinking that Matthew's version of this incident, while not perhaps the original and primitive form of the story, is so near to that original as to constitute a valuable basis of historical study. In the first place, it is by far the earliest form in which the story has come down to us. Second, it is entirely free from those illogicalities that crept into it in a later age.

      This fact is strikingly demonstrated in the language of the guarantee the priests are reported to have given the members of the guard: "If this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and rid you of care." So long as the guard Is thought of as a Roman detachment, set by Pilate himself under the command of a centurion (as in the later and derivative accounts it was represented to have been), this guarantee will seem utterly illogical and absurd. It was perfectly well known that the penalty for sleeping at the post of duty was death, and neither Annas nor Caiaphas, nor any member of the Jewish camarilla had the power to protect a single Roman soldier from the wrath of Rome.

      But Caiaphas, as the acting high priest and the supreme arbiter of the civil destinies of Judea, did unquestionably possess the power to protect a member of his own entourage, acting under orders, in the very unlikely event of the procurator interesting himself in a mailer he had expressly posited in Jewish hands. The very words "If this come to the governor's ears" show how remote this contingency was felt to be. I mention the point here because a great deal of thoughtless and superficial criticism has been directed against a feature of the story that did not form and could riot have formed part of the primitive account.

      There is a deeper and more suggestive bit of evidence for the historicity of the story embedded in the documents. It lies in the last three words of the explanation given by the priests: "the disciples stole him away while we slept."

      What are these three words doing in a pro-Christian document, circulating widely throughout Palestine, if they. do not represent something very real and actual in the original charge? Let us grant that the story of a guard at the tomb had a certain apologetic value to the early Christians, since it made it more difficult for unbiased persons to believe in the physical abduction of the body. But the essence of this defense was that the guard should keep awake. A guard who slept was of no use to the Christians, and was futile and dangerous as an apologetic. Why, then, did this strange reference to the sleeping of the guard become embedded, not only in the wording of the charge itself, but also in the Christian version of what happened?

      I submit that the awkward and peculiar nature of the circumstances left no alternative to the priests, for the whole truth they dared not tell. It may indeed be that the guard really did fall asleep, from sheer exhaustion, during some part of that memorable night. When we remember that these men were probably drawn at short notice from the temple police who had been on practically continuous duty since the arrest on the previous Thursday, this is by no means improbable. The policing of a deserted garden outside the city wall, throughout the dark hours of an April night, after a prolonged spell of exhausting duty elsewhere, my well have been monotonous and devoid of interest. There were probably no signs of nocturnal visitors, and, as the long hours dragged wearily by, need we be surprised if sleep overcame them?

      Since the records have perished, the truth concerning that matter will probably never be disclosed. But there is one hint in an obscure and long-forgotten document that I am bound to confess comes to me personally with peculiar weight. It is in that strange old fragment, of which only a few sentences survive the Gospel of the Hebrews. A passage in that document describes how Jesus, after His resurrection, appeared to His brother James. I will give it in full:

      Now the Lord, when he had given the linen cloth onto the servant of the priest, went unto James and appeared to him (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour wherein he had drunk the Lord's cup until he should see him risen again from among them that sleep), and again after a little: "Bring ye, saith the Lord, a table and bred and immediately it is added: "He took bread and bless an brake and gave it unto James the Just and said unto him My brother, eat thy bread, for the Son of Man is risen from among them that sleep."

      What is it about this famous passage that arrests and challenges our thought? Primarily, of course, the cent"' fact of which it speaks is attested independently by two of the weightiest historical considerations in the world. First, it is undeniable that, despite his earlier and unfeigned hostility, James, the brother of Jesus, did go over to the church" and that, upon the authority of Josephus, he perished violently on its behalf. Second, there is the authentic voice of Paul, calling to us, as it were, across the centuries with a quiet insistence: "He appeared unto James." The agreement of two such witnesses lends to this passage an authority almost exclusively its own.

      What, then, are we to make of that curious and significant sentence that describes Jesus as giving "the linen cloth to the servant of the priest"? Is this a complete invention, a flight of fancy, or are we here right back in some vaguely remembered' detail of the original night? I will venture to warn the reader not to return too hasty an answer.

      If there is one thing in the New Testament that threatens to emerge unchallenged from the present religious and intellectual turmoil it is the real and objective character 01 the Appearances. This phenomenon could not have be the product of pure imagination. Rather, it seems to can for some undiscovered but externally exerted force The simplest explanation, of course, is that the manifestations occurred where Jesus Himself was. There are signs in the Gospels that there may have been difficulties of a real and strictly scientific kind in establishing communication between what (for want of a more exact phrase) we must call the world of spirit and the world of sense. There is a certain quality in the daylight Appearances that suggests that recognition was occasionally difficult, or, s a meteorologist would put it, the visibility was poor.

      But such parallels as we possess seem to indicate that darkness is favorable to certain delicate forms of transmission and reception. Do not even our wireless signals fade and recover as the twilight passes into he night?

      I have an impression, not solely dependent on this isolated passage in the Gospel of the Hebrews, that as dawn approached in that quiet garden, something happened that caused one of the watchers hurriedly to awaken his companions and to proceed to a closer inspection of the tomb. It may have been only the stirring of the trees, or the clanging of a gate in the night breeze. It may have been something more definite and disquieting, such as that which later shook and utterly humbled the proud and restless spirit of Paul. "He appeared to Cephas. . . then to the twelve. . . he appeared to James . . . last of all, as unto one born out of due time, he appeared to me." Did He appear also in the first instance to "the servant of the priest"?

      If that were so, then we should indeed have stumbled, almost unconsciously, upon the true answer to one of the profoundest questions that has engaged the thought of the church from the time of the Early Fathers to our own-viz., why it was that, despite the wavering of tradition concerning the locality of the Appearances, the disciples were so immovably convinced that the Resurrection itself took place in the early hours of Sunday morning.

      There may be, and, as the writer thinks, there certainly is, a deep and profoundly historical basis for that much disputed sentence in the Apostles' Creed "The third day he rose again from the dead."

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See Also:
   Who Moved the Stone? Preface
   Who Moved the Stone? 1. The Book that Refused to be Written
   Who Moved the Stone? 2. The Real Case Against the Prisoner
   Who Moved the Stone? 3. What Happened Before Midnight on Thursday
   Who Moved the Stone? 4. A Psychological Parallelogram of Forces
   Who Moved the Stone? 5. The Situation on Friday Afternoon
   Who Moved the Stone? 6. Thirty-Six Hours Later
   Who Moved the Stone? 7. On the Behavior of Two Sisters and the Men Who Fled in the Night
   Who Moved the Stone? 8. Between Sunset and Dawn
   Who Moved the Stone? 9. The Historic Crux of the Problem
   Who Moved the Stone? 10. The Evidence of the Principal Fisherman
   Who Moved the Stone? 11. The Evidence of the Prisoner's Brother
   Who Moved the Stone? 12. The Evidence of the Man from Tarsus
   Who Moved the Stone? 13. The Witness of the Great Stone
   Who Moved the Stone? 14. Some Realities of that Far-Off Morning
   Who Moved the Stone? 15. The Servant of the Priest

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