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Book Review

Who Moved the Stone?   By Frank Morison. Faber and Faber, Ltd.
First Published May 1 1930

Mr. Morison has written a book of unusual character on the trial and resurrection of our Lord. We are accustomed to devotional studies of the events comprised in the period between the entry into Jerusalem and the first preaching of the Gospel, and the chapters of the Gospels and Acts which deal with them have been the subject of exhaustive literary criticism for many decades. But a study of the historical sequence of events from the standpoint of the human motives, characters, and circumstances of those engaged in them is not so common. And Mr. Morison's study is all the more interesting because, when he began it, he believed that the kernel of the story was simply the death of a supremely good man, and his aim was to disentangle this from the legendary accretions which had grown up around it. It was the records themselves that brought him to another mind. His method, let it be said at once, is not that associated with the severer disciplines of New Testament theology. Textual and literary criticism are alike eschewed, and there are many points of historical criticism which he leaves alone. His plan is rather to concentrate on a few large and undisputed facts, and to inquire into the connexions between them, using the records to illustrate these connexions; and on this basis he builds up a narrative of intense human interest and considerable historical value.

The first fact which Mr. Morison emphasizes and sets himself to account for is the hurried character of our Lord's arrest and trial. The priestly party were determined to be rid of Jesus, if possible: but in that case why did they leave his arrest to the last possible moment, and then apparently have to act with precipitancy? Mr. Morison's view is that they were deterred not only by fear of the people, but by fear of Christ Himself: what might He not do if they tried to take Him? It was Judas's visit to them on the Thursday evening that changed the situation; for what Judas told them was not only the exact place where they could find Jesus, but also that He had been speaking a few moments before in a way that showed He would not resist. There was just time for the priests to get sentence passed and executed before the Feast if they acted quickly. Caiaphas visited Pilate at once and secured his consent to facilitate matters; and, this done, the Temple Guard was sent to Gethsemane to effect the arrest. Twice the subsequent proceedings nearly broke down
once, when the witnesses could not agree, and only Caiaphas's bold adjuration of Jesus to answer the question whether He were the Messiah kept the action in being; and a second time, when Procula's message almost brought Pilate back to the strict judicial procedure. But the priestly movement was too strong for him, and had its way.

Mr. Morison is, I think, right in rejecting the view that Judas was simply a common informer paid to reveal his Master's secret hiding-place: Jesus was not living in secret, and knowledge of his whereabouts at any moment was not worth the payment of 5. At the same time Mr. Morison hardly seems to cut deep enough. He gives no reason, for instance, for Judas's visit to the priests earlier in the week (Mark xiv. 10, 11), nor any indication of what passed then. And yet the suggestion
made by Schweitzer and others, and more recently by Mr. Lowrie,  (Jesus according to St. Mark. Longmans.) that what Judas divulged on this occasion was our Lord's claim to be the Messiah fits in very well with Mr. Morison's reconstruction. It would account, for instance, for the form and substance of Caiaphas's question when the evidence of the false witnesses had broken down; for the question was one which it would surely be profane for the High Priest to ask unless he were sure of the answer; and it would fall in well both with the urgency and with the hesitancy of the priests in regard to our Lord's arrest. Again, it is not inconsistent with Mr. Morison's view of what Judas divulged on the Thursday evening of his Master's readiness to die. On this view the prominence given to Judas at the Last Supper, attested by the Fourth Gospel no less than the Synoptists, is significant. Readers of THEOLOGY are familiar with the conception of the Eucharist as the act in which our Lord consecrated Himself to His approaching death; and Judas understood His meaning at least thus far, that he knew that Jesus would not resist. And the same lesson, it may be added, must have impressed itself on his mind from the Washing of the Feet. The evidence seems to point, then, to Judas having revealed two secrets the two great secrets of our Lord's life and teaching: the first, on the Tuesday, that He had claimed to be the Messiah; the second, on the Thursday, that He believed Himself to be such a Messiah as must die and rise agam.

Mr. Morison is not less interesting when he passes on to the Resurrection, though there are many who will hesitate to endorse all the details of his reconstruction of the story. He believes, for instance, that the Matthrean story of the guards at the sepulchre rests upon fact, and that it was indeed they who rolled away the stone. Finding the grave empty, the guards returned in excitement to the city; and they were overheard talking in the street by the young man who had "fled naked" in the Garden of Gethsemane. This young man, further, had overheard our Lord telling His disciples on that night of the trial that He would rise again and go before them into Galilee.

Thrilled at what he heard the guard saying, he ran at once to the tomb; and he was sitting in it looking at the ledges, empty save for the grave-clothes, when he was surprised by the women. They were naturally frightened and fled, but not before he had been able to tell them that the Master's prediction was fulfilled.

The critical reader will feel that there is a good deal of guesswork here: apart from the guard, a young man who has to be supposed to have overheard crucial conversations on two quite different occasions becomes rather a creature of fiction. Simpler hypotheses will account for the facts. At the same time Mr. Morison may be right in his view that the figure whom the women encountered in the grave really was a man and not an angel; and he has undoubtedly done a real service to Marcan exegesis in interpreting the women's silence of Mark xvi. 8 by reference to Mark i. 44. As he says, the command to "say nothing to any man" in i. 44 is shown by the context to mean: "See thou say nothing to any man. Keep it to yourself and to those intimately concerned"; and the statement in xvi. 8 that "they said nothing to anyone" should be understood in the same qualified sense.

The force of Mr. Morison's treatment of the Resurrection, however, does not lie in these individual points, but in his clear exposition of the difficulties that beset any attempt to deny, or to evade, the empty tomb. The sudden and rapid rise of Christianity has always been the strongest argument for the Resurrection, but it is not always realized how completely this implies the emptiness of the tomb.

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 which 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.

The argument is undoubtedly overwhelming. If the grave was not empty, or if the women went to the wrong tomb, or if the Jews or Romans had removed the Lord's body, why was not the bubble pricked? Instead, the Jews had nothing to fall back on except the fabrication about the disciples having removed it by stealth. Such a story was tantamount to an accusation of blasphemous dishonesty, and may account for the frenzy of Saul's zeal against them. It also means that, if the accusation were false, their message of the risen Messiah was true.

Mr. Morison's book is valuable as redressing a balance which the literary criticism of the Gospels had undoubtedly distorted. In the last resort, what the historian of Christian origins has to deal with is some brute facts
a betrayal, an arrest, some forms of trial, a crucifixion, an empty grave, and the swift spread of Christianity on the basis of belief in Christ's Resurrection. Literary analysis of the documents, like that undertaken by Canon Streeter and Mr. Gardner-Smith, induces a fatal tendency to miss the wood for the trees, and to divert attention from the brute facts or to cloke them in webs of ingenious surmise. The chief value of the book before us is the strong common sense with which it faces the facts and the human situation underlying them. A sober judgment will insist on leaving in obscurity some of the connexions between events which Mr. Morison claims to have discerned. But it will none the less be grateful to him for the main lines of his bold reconstruction of the greatest chapter in the history of the world.


Version: 30th December 2021

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