WHO MOVED THE STONE ?

As a young man, a journalist called Frank Morison decided to study the life of Jesus Christ. His starting point was one of decided scepticism – that the story of Jesus’ life as given in the Bible was unreliable and that science had disproved the idea that miracles could happen.

From his studies Morison decided to write a book on the last seven days of the life of Jesus. He says that he did this for three reasons:

  1. This period seemed remarkably free from the miraculous element that on scientific grounds he held suspect.
  2. All the Gospel writers devoted much space to this period, and, in the main, were strikingly in agreement.
  3. The trial and execution of Jesus was a reverberating historical event, attested to indirectly by a thousand political consequences and by a vast literature that grew out of them.

Following Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion, which Morison examined in great detail, he comes to the conclusion that Jesus was really dead when he was taken down from the cross:

That Jesus Christ died on the cross, in the full physical sense of the term, even before the spear wound was inflicted by the Roman soldier, seems to me to be one of the certainties of history. All the accounts affirm it, and if the earliest record (that of Mark) is trustworthy, Pilate himself verified this point by direct inquiry of the centurion, before giving permission for the disposal of the body. No one seems to have questioned the fact at the time, or at any period during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses.

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the curious thesis that Jesus only swooned and recovered later in the cool of the rocky tomb was advanced as an explanation of what had happened.

So what Morison then does in his book is to carefully examine the possible explanations as to why three days after Jesus was buried the tomb was found to be empty:

1.  The disciples stole the body

Morison came to the conclusion that there was not a single writer whose work was of critical value today who held that this was a tenable explanation. This was due to the fact that the character, reactions and writings of the disciples made it impossible to think that they could have carried out such a coup and carried it through without detection. If they had stolen the body sooner or later someone who knew the facts would have been unable to keep them hidden.

Further, no great moral structure like the early church, characterized as it was by lifelong persecution and personal suffering, could have reared its head on a statement that every one of the eleven apostles knew to be a lie. I have asked myself many times, would Peter have been a party to a deception like that, would John, would Andrew, would Philip or Thomas? Whatever the explanation of these extraordinary events maybe, we may be certain it was not that.

2.  Joseph of Arimathea secretly removed the body to a more suitable resting-place

Morison examines this possibility and comes to the conclusion that because Joseph of Arimathea would have needed help to carry this out, when the disciples started to preach that Jesus was risen from the dead witnesses would have been found to disprove what was being said.

We cannot find in the contemporary records any trace of a tomb or shrine becoming the centre of veneration or worship on the ground that it contained the relics of Jesus. This is inconceivable if it was ever seriously stated at the time that Jesus was really buried elsewhere than in the vacant tomb. Rumour would have asserted a hundred supposed places where the remains really lay, and pilgrimages innumerable would have been made to them.

Strange though it may appear, the only way we can account for the absence of this phenomenon is the explanation offered in the Gospels, namely, that the tomb was known, that it was investigated a few hours after the burial, and that the body had disappeared.

3.  The authorities removed the body

Morison concludes the whole case for the supposed official removal of the body really breaks down when it is confronted by the admitted facts of the situation. If the priests induced Pilate to change the burial place, or to authorize their doing so, they must have known the ultimate and final resting place of the body of Jesus. This would have destroyed forever the possibility of anyone credibly asserting the physical resurrection of Jesus, because in the last resort, and if challenged, they could always have produced the remains. It is the complete failure of anyone to produce the remains, or to point to any tomb, official or otherwise, in which they were said to lie that ultimately destroys every theory based on the human removal of the body.

4.  The women made a mistake and went to the wrong tomb

Morison, however, points to a fatal flaw in this possibility being true. If Jesus’ body was really in another tomb then the Jewish and Roman authorities could easily have produced the gardener to answer all the nonsense being preached about an empty tomb.

Here was the one man who could have spoken with complete and final authority, whose slightest word could have blown the whole flimsy story to the winds. Where is the confident statement of the priests that the grave of Jesus was not vacant, and that the mouldering remains still lay within it?

Morison comes to the inescapable conclusion that there were two very good reasons why, as a matter of historic fact, this young man was never called as a witness by the enemies of Christianity. In the first place he was not a gardener at all. But the supreme and decisive factor lay in the fact that, throughout the early decades of Christianity, the physical vacancy of the authentic tomb of Christ was not in doubt. Events seem to have conspired to place that beyond the reach of argument.

Morison then looks at several pieces of evidence:

  • The spread of the Christian message;
  • The evidence of Peter; James, the brother of Jesus; and Saul who became a Christian out of a Jewish background;
  • The witness of the great stone!

And finally comes to this conclusion:

There 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’.

Morison reached this conclusion by examining the evidence impartially, as a historian or journalist should. He did not treat the Gospels as inspired Scripture but the core facts to which the Gospels bear witness – that Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane, that Peter denied him in the courtyard while he was on trial, that Christ was executed by Roman authorities in spite of the reluctance of Pontius Pilate to carry out the charge, that a guard was set at the tomb on Saturday, that a group of women visited the tomb early Sunday morning and found it empty, and that Jesus appeared to his disciples after he had risen from the dead – Morison came to the conclusion that these core facts are undeniable in light of the evidence.

Examining the facts changed Frank Morison’s life. Will you examine the facts? It may be that your life will be changed too!

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