"My dear Watson," Sherlock Holmes was wont to say, "always prefer the probable impossible to the improbable possible."
It was March 20 or 27 in the year AD29. A handful of Roman soldiers stood on guard outside a tomb on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Inside the tomb was the body of a Jewish teacher, crucified on the orders of the Roman Governor, and certified dead. No elaborate burial had been possible because it was the Passover Sabbath.
Two Jewish gentlemen had carried out the burial apparently by themselves, but witnessed by a number of women who were followers of the dead prophet. A heavy stone had been rolled against the door of the tomb which was carved out of natural rock; a stone light enough for two men to put into position, but too heavy for three women to move out again.
It was a natural enough precaution at a time and in a country where the robbing of graves was not at all unknown. The soldiers were an additional precaution because some words used by the dead man had suggested that he believed himself capable of rising from the dead.
But the precaution was of no avail. Early in the morning an earth tremor, the second in two days, was felt in Jerusalem. The soldiers came back to the city in alarm and reported to those who had posted them that, when the shock was felt, the stone had rolled away from the door of the tomb, and an angel had appeared to them, sitting on the stone, dazzling white in the uncertain twilight of the very early dawn.
Whether or not they believed the story, the Jewish authorities bribed the soldiers to say that they had fallen asleep, and that while they were asleep the body had been stolen by the dead man's followers. Not a very clever story to be sure, for if the soldiers were asleep, how could they know who had stolen the body, or indeed, if it had been stolen at all? But perhaps it was the best that could be managed in a hurry.
So the tomb was unguarded. Soon afterwards, while it was still dusk, five women came to anoint the body, a tribute and a service which had not been possible on the Friday evening. Expecting to have difficulty with the stone, they were surprised to find it rolled away. One of them, Mary Magdalen, was so excited that she rushed back into the city to tell the dead man's disciples. The others remained at the tomb, and saw much more.
They reported afterwards that, like the soldiers, they had had a "vision of angels." Two men stood by them in shining clothes and spoke with them. Two angels or one? Here is a discrepancy which has given ammunition to our critics over the centuries. But think, bribe a bunch of soldiers and they will spread an identical lie all over Jerusalem. Take three women to the tomb, none of them expecting anything unusual, and you will have to piece the story together for yourself.
There is confusion, but the bottom line is clear: the women went into the tomb, found no body, and received a message: "Go back to Galilee, and there you will meet him again." And that is precisely what they did.
Meanwhile Mary Magdalen had reached the city with her news. Peter and John set out on the double, while Mary set out again, presumably at a walking pace. Peter and John arrived at the tomb, and went in. They verified the absence of the body and noticed something very significant. The body had been wrapped in a winding sheet, and a napkin had been wound around the head. These were found in position, as though the body had dematerialised and passed through them. For his part John was convinced. But at any rate it is enough to indicate that the body had not been buried deeper in the ground by the earthquake.
So far the evidence is negative. You have a consistent story of the disappearance of the body, but no story of an appearance by Jesus. No one has ever refuted or denied the disappearance. The official story put about at the time accepted that the body had disappeared, and attempted to explain it away.
Fifty days later, when one of the dead man's disciples made a speech before a large crowd in Jerusalem itself, he treated the fact that the tomb was empty as common knowledge. Years later, when Saint Paul was on trial before King Agrippa, he could assume the events were well-known: "for these things were not done in a corner."
But our records are no longer negative. At this point positive evidence begins. Mary Magdalen stood at the tomb weeping because her master was dead, and she thought that even his dead body had been taken away from her by she knew not whom. A shadow falls over the door. It must be a gardener. "Mary." "Master!"
As the day wore on the other followers were picking up the rumours and waiting for more news. It came in the late afternoon. The dead prophet appeared to Peter, that one of his disciples whom he had appointed to be the leader of the others, strengthening their faith.
Around that time he seems also to have appeared to his own kinsman James, who did not then believe, but was to become a major figure in the Jerusalem Church. Shortly after this two followers were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, about eight miles from Jerusalem, when they met a stranger whom they did not recognise until he shared their evening meal. Like Mary Magdalen, they found difficulty in recognising him. Why, we do not know, but do not let us stand for the allegation that it was an hallucination. An hallucination mistakes a stranger for a friend. These two mistook their friend for a stranger, as did Mary Magdalen.
That was to be the hallmark of the pattern - Jesus was to appear again and again, but sometimes unrecognised and unexpected. The wish was certainly not father to the thought when Doubting Thomas saw him.
And then Saint Paul, writing to the Corinthians, speaks of over 500 people at once seeing the risen Christ, and virtually offers their names, addresses and telephone numbers!
So then, these are the events of the first Easter Day, collected from six different sources, all but one of which seem to have been compiled within forty years from older material. The Christian submission to the jury is this: the events which I have described, coupled with similar events spread over forty days or so, coupled with the dramatic change in the behaviour of the dead man's disciples immediately afterwards, coupled with an astonishing revolution in the personal moral lives of those who through them accepted the story, coupled with a living tradition which through the centuries and still now convinces people by the million, all this establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead, and that his person and mission are eternal and divine in their origin and object, in their motivation and inspiration.
If you dissent you must either doubt the authenticity of the documents, or the trustworthiness of their authors, or the good faith of the witnesses on whom the authors relied. Or you must question the interpretation of the story.
Today I can only take one view: those who say, "Oh yes, the documents are as reliable as any others of that time; those who compiled them were conscientious enough; the witnesses on whom they depended were doing their best to describe what they saw and heard; but there must be some mistake because miracles don't happen, people do not rise from the dead."
Facing the facts
We reply: face the facts - the women insisted that the tomb was empty and no one at the time contested it. In all honesty, if there had been a body in that tomb, how could the Church have ever got started? So, who took the body?
The Jewish authorities? Hardly - it was in their interest to produce the body. Pilate? He would not want the body to disappear - that would lead to unrest and disturbance - just what he had been trying to avoid by allowing the crucifixion. The women were not strong enough to move the stone.
So, did some other human agency remove the body when the guards had deserted their posts? Someone friendly to the disciples? Why leave the winding-sheet and napkin lying there?
No, if you are going to give a purely human account, you must stick to the one which was first in the field: deliberate fraud on the part of the disciples. You have to say that those who were cowering behind locked doors two days earlier took the body and hid it, boldly accused the authorities of unjust execution and suffered imprisonment, torture and death to support a story they had made up to deceive the public.
That is possible but improbable: the probable impossible, the undying faith of the Church and her irrepressibly joyful and confident greeting is: Christos anesti! Christ is risen!