This is a short but incisive account of the last days of Jesus written by a sceptic with a scientific and logical mind set, and a complete disbelief in miracles.
The author sets out to examine the documentary evidence about the resurrection with the intention of debunking what he considers to be a myth. Close analysis of the gospels causes him to change his mind. He examines each part of the crucifixion story, beginning with the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, and looking closely at the events as recorded in the gospels, at the psychological motivations of the characters, and at the cultural setting of the time.
Morison begins with an examination of the case against Jesus, and the wrangling between the Roman and Jewish authorities about his guilt. In this section he argues that the evidence against Jesus was flimsy to non-existent, and that in securing his execution the Jewish leaders played fast and loose with the traditions of Judaism, ignoring the importance to Jewish Law of the sanctity of human life. He goes on to describe the time that Jesus spent in the garden before his arrest, suggesting that he was deliberately delaying his departure in anticipation of the arrival of the arresting party. Morison suggests that there were many delays caused because the pharisees needed to come to an arrangement with Pilate to put Jesus to trial before sundown the next day, so that the whole business could be expedited before the beginning of the Passover.
There is a close analysis of the trial which sews together the events from all the gospels and casts interesting light on the motives of Pilate and Caiaphas leading up to the final accusation that Jesus claimed he was King of the Jews. The role of Pilate’s wife is considered, along with the motivation for Pilate’s refusal to remove the sign saying “This is the King of the Jews”. The following chapter looks at the crucifixion itself, considering common views such as that in the Quran – that Christ was not dead but taken down alive from the cross. The last half of the book moves forward in time 36 hours, examines the events surrounding the tomb and considers the different gospel versions. He looks at the role of the women in discovering the empty tomb, and considers the whereabouts of the different disciples, telling the story from the points of view of Peter, James and Paul, and drawing conclusions about the identity of the man in the tomb who speaks to the women when they first arrive. He concludes with a clear summary stating that the weight of evidence is clearly in favour of the gospels being true accounts rather than legends later imposed on the event.
Some people have objected to Morison favouring the Gospel of Mark as the earliest, and thus closest to a factual account, saying that all the gospels should be given equal weight as the inspired word of God. I imagine they find his occasional reference to the apocryphal gospels such as Peter even less welcome!! The fact is that Morison was writing in the 1930s and was responding to the textual approach of the German critics whose aim was to subject the Bible to critical analysis; the significance of scientific criticism of religion was also an influence on his thinking – his early ideas were influenced by Huxley and Matthew Arnold who were of the post Darwinian generation, so we need to see Morison as a man of his time. In any case the Bible is a collection of different types of books, and to understand each one we do need to think about textual issues such as the use of metaphor.
In the end of course faith, belief and obedience are all we have, but it’s clearly enough – that’s what God says throughout the Old Testament, and that’s what Jesus says in the New. Morison’s approach is a delight. He writes logically and argues his case with grace and insight. The account brings to life the final days of Jesus in a way that is very hard to do for people like me, who have read and heard the accounts frequently but never given this amount of thought to the very fine details, and to the exact sequence of events.
To me there are many things unanswered in the Bible – we have to trust God and not expect to be able to explain everything in a rational way, and there are a couple of holes in Morison’s logic – especially with respect to the man in the tomb, who he sees as the gardener, coincidentally also present at Gethsemane. Nevertheless this was a fascinating and interesting account of the final days of Jesus and one that would repay the effort taken to read it – both as an inspiration to faith and as a model of how to write with clarity and logic.