Who did move the Stone?
A book that’s still sells well 65 years after the author’s death must be good – and it is. Frank Morison’s best-selling ‘whodunnit’, Who Moved the Stone?, first appeared in 1930 – and it’s still a page-turner. The book reviews the Easter story forensically, and argues its points so well that early reviewers thought the author must be a lawyer. He wasn’t. Frank Morison was the pen-name of Albert Henry Ross (born 1881, died 1950), an advertiser, journalist, and writer, who lived and worked in Leamington Spa, Worcestershire, England.
Morison meant to write an account of Jesus of Nazareth’s final week, discounting all the miraculous elements. But the evidence led him in a different direction. His book shares with us his careful sifting of the gospel-writers’ accounts, the historical evidence, and the psychological and circumstantial details that common-sense can deduce from the facts. It makes compelling reading.
A few (just a few) of his remarks don’t quite fit today’s standards of political correctness. I didn’t notice that when I first read the book in the 1960s, but times have changed – especially in our understanding of gender equality. Also, its Bible quotations are from the King James version (the most popular English Bible version in 1930). Those issues apart, Who Moved the Stone?, is refreshingly modern. It goes to the core of key issues that explain the remarkable course of “the greatest story ever told”:
- What was the real charge against Jesus?
- Was his trial legal, and how was the verdict reached?
- What happened during the gaps in the gospels’ accounts?
- What made the guards leave the tomb?
- In the very city where Jesus had been buried, how did the apostles get away with preaching that he was alive?
This book has the appeal of a detective story but, unlike many ‘whodunnit’ novels, it doesn’t hold back evidence to keep readers guessing. Many readers already know the key points of the gospel stories, whether through reading the Bible or seeing it portrayed in films. But Morison’s scrutiny brings the evidence to life, and draws out inferences to complete a vivid picture.
Some early critics accused Morison of relying solely on the New Testament stories. That’s just not true. Morrison quotes from Josephus, and the non-canonical gospels of Peter, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, and the Gospel of the Hebrews, plus a range of Roman historical documents. But some of his most insightful passages deal with parts of the story that aren’t covered by any of these sources – events that happened off-screen, so-as-to speak, but which reason dictates must have occurred:
- Why did the rulers need Judas’s help?
- Why did they leave the arrest until the last (and riskiest) moment?
- Why did the priests bring an unnecessarily large arrest party?
- Why did the arrest party take so long to reach Gethsemane?
Secular history shows Pontius Pilate to have been “a coarse, rather tactless and very obstinate man”. So, why do the gospels show him trying to release Jesus, and ultimately giving way to the priests, whom he usually scorned? Sceptics cite that as a reason to doubt the gospel account. But Morison proposes plausible explanations that fit the gospel story, and explain how Pilate’s behaviour was consistent with his known personality.
The author started out as a formal church-attender who always stopped chanting the Creed when it got to the clause, “…on the third day (Jesus) rose again”. Yes, he recognised Jesus as a good man, but risen from the dead? No way! But he ended up, convinced by the evidence – an incredible turnaround. Morison’s scepticism was forced to give way in the face of overwhelming evidence. As he says, “It is easy to say that you will believe nothing that will not fit into the mould of a rationalist conception of the Universe. But suppose the facts won’t fit into that mould?”
To the critics who say that Morison couldn’t possibly have started out as a sceptic and arrived at those conclusions I say, that’s sad for them! In 1930s Britain, churchgoing was normal, but scepticism was rife. Albert Ross (alias Frank Morison) numbered himself among the churchgoing sceptics. He was not, and never became, a ‘fundamentalist’. No fundamentalist would dismiss Matthew’s account of angels at the tomb, as Morison does, or propose, as he also does, a non-miraculous solution to the question that provides the book’s title.
Who really dunnit?
Who did move the stone?
Morison’s book proposes a remarkable solution – but I won’t spoil the story by giving away its conclusion.