For other posts in this series, please visit the series’ page.

 The Christian Defenders’ second reason for believing that the Bible is true is that the Bible contains “embarrassing details.” They begin,

If I were to create a religious book I would make sure its theology, details, and people were flawless. I wouldn’t leave questions unanswered that should be addressed. But this is not what we see in the Bible. In fact, no man in the ancient world would want to admit to certain details in the Bible, especially if it made men look weaker.[1]

What they are attempting to get at is what is commonly referred to as the “criterion of embarrassment,” one of the criteria of historicity used in studies of the Gospels and their relationship to the historical Jesus. The standard criteria include:

  • Criterion of independent attestation: “[I]f a saying or deed of Jesus is attested independently by more than one source, it is more likely to be authentic.”[2]
  • Criterion of dissimilarity: [I]f a saying or deed of Jesus does not coincide with (or works against) the agenda of early Christians, it is more likely to be authentic.”[3]
  • Criterion of contextual credibility: “[I]f a saying or deed of Jesus cannot be credibly fit into his own first-century Palestinian context, then it cannot be regarded as authentic.”[4]

The criterion of embarrassment is in some sense a subset of the criterion of dissimilarity in that it “focuses on actions or sayings of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church”[5] and thus would have worked against their agenda. One classic example of the criterion in action is in analyses of the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. The Gospel of Matthew records John as telling Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14) This question from John to Jesus is missing from Matthew’s source, the Gospel of Mark (Mark 1:9-11). Why would Matthew insert it? Because the one being baptized was usually considered to be inferior to the one doing the baptizing. But how could that be? Jesus was the Messiah and clearly superior to John! Mark’s account, therefore, was to be amended and so in the Gospel of Matthew we find a modification to explain away what seems problematic in the Gospel of Mark.[6] What this means in practical terms is that the story of Jesus’ baptism is probably rooted in a historical event.[7]

Yet this criterion is not in and of itself strong enough to determine the authenticity of a saying or action of Jesus. It “has its limitations and must always be used in concert with other criteria.”[8] One of its limitations is that it isn’t always clear what would have been considered embarrassing to the earliest Christians. There’s a lot we don’t know about them and so determining what would have been “embarrassing” or “worked against” their agenda is difficult to determine.[9] As Meier cautions, “The…criterion of embarrassment – like any other criterion – must not be invoked facilely or in isolation.”[10]

Facilely and in isolation is unfortunately how pop-apologists often employ the criterion. For example, SJ Thomason in a recent post on the existence of Moses wrote,

The character of Moses meets the criterion of embarrassment. If authors of the Bible were trying to dupe their audiences with grand stories and majestic claims of Divine inspiration, including weak “heroes” with multiple flaws would seem absurd. Yet just about every character in the Bible is weak in some way.[11]

This is truly a perplexing series of sentences and I have no plans of offering a full analysis here. What it shows is that Thomason not only doesn’t understand the criterion’s proper use, she also renders it absolutely devoid of value for in employing it to explain everything she in effect explains nothing. But this is a common tactic of pop-apologists and one that demonstrates their utter lack of credibility.

The Criterion and the Empty Tomb

The Christian Defenders apply the criterion of embarrassment to the stories of the discovery of the empty tomb in the Gospel accounts. They write,

We see examples of this in the gospels when women went to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty, (Matthew 28:1-10, John 20:1-18, Luke 24:1-12, and Mark 16:1-8). Such a major discovery (if fabricated) would include men making this discovery due to the fact that, in Jewish culture a woman needed 2 witness’ to validate her testimony.

The argument then is that had the Gospel writers wanted to make the story more palatable they would have had men discovering the empty tomb and not women. The story’s authenticity is secured by virtue of the fact that it wasn’t men but women who made the discovery.[12] Superficially this argument makes sense, but it is when you begin digging into the details that it falls apart.

THE GOSPEL OF MARK AND THE EMPTY TOMB

Strictly speaking, none of the four canonical Gospels contain a resurrection narrative but rather feature “a demonstration that Jesus has risen.”[13] For these authors, the empty tomb is the first evidence that Jesus is alive and it is therefore pivotal to the ensuing narrative both rhetorically and historically. For if there was no empty tomb and Jesus had remained dead then, as the apostle Paul makes plain, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Setting aside the question of whether the apostle Paul was aware of an empty tomb,[14] a tradition concerning it and its discovery as it relates to the resurrection of Jesus developed at some point in the earliest days of Christianity. The earliest account of the empty tomb and its discovery is found in the Gospel of Mark (16:1-8) and it is upon this version that both the Matthean and Lukan authors base their own.[15]

The Empty Tomb Narrative of Mark (16:1-8)

1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.[16]

Before we dive into the text, it would do us well to consider what has transpired to get us to this story in the final chapter of Mark’s Gospel. On a Friday following Passover Jesus dies, the victim of Roman crucifixion at the instigation of Jewish authorities (Mark 14:53-65; 15:1-15). Of all the things we can say positively concerning the historical Jesus, this is the most secure.[17] The portrait of Jesus’ death is that the would-be messiah has been abandoned by those closest to him. The disciples all had fled (Mark 14:50-51; cf. 14:27) and the only ones nearby were those who intended to mock and deride him (Mark 15:25-32; 15:35-36). In the midst of his pain and feelings of abandonment, Jesus utters a cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) Even God himself, Jesus believes, has left him.[18]

As he is dying there are women who were “looking on from a distance” (Mark 15:40). The text suggests there were many women present (Mark 15:41) but singles out three: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome (Mark 15:40). With the possible exception of Mary the mother of James and Joses, these women have never appeared in the Gospel of Mark before this moment,[19] despite the Markan comment that they “used to follow [Jesus] and provided for him when he was in Galilee” (Mark 15:41). Yet as we will see, their presence in the story that follows is vital.

640px-Accademia_-_Crucifixion_by_Andrea_Previtali
Italian painter Andrea Previtali’s (1480-1528) depiction of the crucifixion. This depiction is more in line with the Johannine account of Jesus’ death in John 19. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Following Jesus’ death, a “respect member of the council [i.e. the Sanhedrin]” (Mark 15:42) by the name of Joseph of Arimathea goes “boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:43). Joseph too is a character never before mentioned by Mark and as a member of the council would have participated in the trial of Jesus before the high priest (cf. Mark 14:53-65). But we are told that Joseph “was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43), a way of saying he was awaiting the coming of the messiah. Normally family members or followers would be among those to request the body[20] but in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is seemingly estranged from his family[21] and all of his disciples have fled. It is therefore up to someone who has no familial relationship to Jesus and is certainly not a disciple to request the body for burial. His presence in the narrative as a sympathizer is similar to that of other Markan characters in the Passion narrative who function as a sharp contrast to his disciples.[22]

Upon hearing Joseph’s request “Pilate wondered if [Jesus] were already dead” and so he asks the centurion to confirm that Jesus is deceased (Mark 15:44; cf. Mark 15:39). The centurion confirms it and gives permission to Joseph to take the body for burial (Mark 15:45). Why does Mark include the back and forth between Pilate and the centurion over whether Jesus was dead? It perhaps has something to do with the claims of opponents that Jesus had not been resurrected because he was never dead. But Mark makes it clear that before Pilate released the body of Jesus to Joseph he made sure that Jesus was dead.[23] Jesus has not escaped Roman justice.

Having procured the body of Jesus, Joseph purchases a linen cloth, takes Jesus’ body down from the cross, wraps it in the cloth, lays the corpse “in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock,” and rolls a stone in front of the entrance. (Mark 15:46). That someone who had no prior relationship to Jesus and was inclined to declare him guilty of the crime of blasphemy was now willing to go through this much trouble to offer Jesus a proper burial would have no doubt surprised Mark’s readers. But again, the role Joseph plays in the Markan narrative is one who is to be contrasted with Jesus’ disciples. The lesson for the Markan audience is clear: they should behave more like Joseph, one who was merely a sympathizer, than like the Twelve who had abandoned Jesus entirely.[24]

As Jesus is buried and the stone is rolled in front of the tomb’s door, two of the women mentioned in Mark 15:40 observe “where the body was laid” (Mark 15:47). That last clause seems like a throwaway line, but its importance cannot be understated. What Mark is saying is that in the narrative of 16:1-8 the women did not go to the wrong tomb as some had claimed because they knew precisely where Jesus had been buried. Therefore, the clause serves an apologetic purpose.[25]

Having considered its context, let us look at the text of Mark 16:1-8 in brief detail.

16:1

  • “When the sabbath was over…”

Recall that in the Markan narrative Jesus has been killed on a Friday and had been buried that evening on “the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath” (Mark 15:42). Consequently, Jesus’ body had not been properly anointed.

  • “…Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome…

These are the three women mentioned in Mark 15:40, two of which were present for Jesus’ burial (Mark 15:47).

  • “…brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.”

“Spices” are aromata and refers to spices, oils, and salves that are often used in the context of burial rites.[26] That it is women who have come to perform this duty is unsurprising as “Jewish women played a central role in preparing corpses for burial.”[27] The purpose of the anointing is two-fold: to pay respect to the dead and to keep the corpse from offending the nostrils.[28] On a literary level, the need to anoint Jesus is the pretense upon which the women go to the tomb and find it empty. Without it, there is no reason for the women to be there.

16:2

  • “And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.”

The first day of the week would be Sunday and the women get up “very early…when the sun had risen”[29] to go to Jesus’ tomb to perform their duty.

16:3

  • “They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’”

Because it was “very early” on Sunday and because apart from Joseph of Arimathea these women were the only ones who knew the location of the tomb, there is a concern[30] that no one will be present on site to remove the stone that had been placed in front of it. On the surface this question is somewhat perplexing. Surely if Joseph had been able to roll the stone in front of the tomb’s entrance the Friday before (Mark 15:46)[31] then the women could roll it back. In reality, the women’s question functions as a literary device foreshadowing what is about to transpire and subsequently highlight their utter lack of any expectation to find what they found.

16:4

  • “When they looked up…”

Mark employs a participial form of anablepō, “I look up.” Elsewhere in Mark the verb is used with regards to those whose eyesight has been restored (Mark 8:24; 10:51-52). Mary Ann Beavis writes that “the women see that the stone has been rolled away, presumably through divine agency.”[32]

  • “…they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”

With the stone rolled back the women’s concern is addressed though their question is not. Who has rolled the stone back? The Markan author inserts that the stone was one that was “very large [megas sphodra]” and so whoever rolled it back must have had the power to do so. But who?

16:5

  • “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side…”

Now the question of Mark 16:3 is answered. Or is it? While it is true that they find within the tomb a “young man [neaniskon], this does not mean that he is the one who has rolled the stone away. The women stumble upon the scene to an already opened tomb and therefore do not witness who has removed the stone from the door.[33]

  • “…and they were alarmed.”

Regardless of who removed the stone, they are certainly surprised by the presence of the young man, who is sitting inside the tomb on the right side in a white robe.[34] Mark employs the word exethambēthēsan to express their astonishment. Of all the Gospel writers – indeed, of all the New Testament writers – Mark is the only one to use the verb ekthambeomai and he does so in contexts where it expresses both amazement (Mark 9:15) and emotional distress (Mark 14:33). But given that the women had expected to find the body of their deceased master and not a mysterious stranger, it is likely the latter that is intended by Mark. Who was he? Had he stolen the corpse? What has happened to Jesus?

16:6

  • “But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed…”

Picking up on the emotional reaction of the women, the young man issues a negative command using the same verb in Mark 16:5: Mē ekthambeisthe – “Do not be alarmed [or distressed].” What he tells them next is intended to allay their fears.

  • “…you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.’”

The young man knows that they have come to anoint Jesus, the one “who was crucified.” But as he makes plain, Jesus was not present but rather “has been raised [egerthēnai].” These words both allude to Jesus’ words in Mark 14:28a (“But after I am raised up [ēgerthē]”) and demonstrate through the use of the passive voice that it was God who raised Jesus from the dead.”[35] As proof for this unexpected miracle, the young man invites the women to see “the place they laid him.” The implication is that because Jesus’ body is no longer in the tomb that he must be alive. But how could this possibly demonstrate resurrection? The mere absence of the body does not mean that Jesus is alive. The recognition of this fact is implied by the command of Mark 16:7.[36]

16:7

  • “’But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Without direct interaction with Jesus there would be no way of knowing whether his corpse was stolen or if he had truly been resurrected. The appearance of Jesus to those who had followed him would constitute confirmation that the unexpected had happened. Or, at least, what was unexpected to Jesus’ disciples.

That Peter is singled out is a subject we will consider shortly. (See “Mark 16:1-8 and Paul” below). One question that must be asked is what the young man means when he tells the women that “he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Each “you” is plural and could in theory include the women. But I find such a reading doubtful. The word “that” is hoti[37] and is often used in Mark the way we use quotation marks at the beginning of a quote, i.e. for direct discourse. So this could simply read, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’”[38] In this case, the women are not part of the group to whom Jesus will appear in Galilee. Supporting this view is the addendum to the command: “just as he told you.” This is a reference to the words of Jesus Mark 14:28: “But after I am raised up [cf. Mark 16:6] I will go before you to Galilee.” Both Jesus and the young man use the same verb – proagō. In Mark 14:28 the verb used was future tense, anticipating the resurrection. Here it is in the present tense since Jesus had been raised and was on his way to Galilee to make an appearance to the disciples. Since the women were not present for Jesus words in Mark 14:28, they are not included in the appearance alluded to in Mark 16:7.

The appearance of Jesus to the disciples isn’t just for show. In the Markan narrative, the disciples have acted terribly toward Jesus: they all abandoned him (Mark 14:50) and Peter thrice denied he knew him (Mark 14:66-72). The Markan audience would have likely understood the appearances to be a sign that the disciples had been forgiven and that Jesus desired communion with them once again.

The disciples’ cowardice has been forgiven. Even Peter is to be included, despite his having proven to be too rocky to bear fruit, too eager to save his life, too ready to deny his identity as a follower of Jesus, too ashamed of Jesus and his words and therefore one of the adulterous and sinful generation of whom the Son of Man should be ashamed on the day of judgment. The news this Gospel has to tell is much better than Jesus’ initial statement that “the reign of God is at hand.” The truly astonishing, amazing good news is, “even Peter.” Even Peter is to be included in the story about to begin anew in Galilee, the place of service and witness.[39]

The women were to bear this message of reconciliation to the disciples.

16:8

  • “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them…”

The NRSV renders the Greek conjunction kai as “so” but this translation is too suggestive. Normally the word “so” is used to indicate a causal connection, akin to the word “therefore.” But Mark uses the word kai as a means to move the narrative along and perhaps here it should be rendered simply as “then,” i.e. “Then they went out….”

Mark describes their departure from the scene with an aorist form of pheugō. Its usage here is no doubt intended to remind the reader of the actions of the disciples in Mark 14:50 – “All of them deserted him and fled [ephygon].” That is, the women have the same response to the young man that the disciples had to Jesus. The reason the disciples had fled is because the shepherd was being smote (cf. Mark 14:43-50; cf. 14:27); the reason the women have fled is expressed in a gar clause: “for [gar] terror [tromos] and amazement [ekstasi] had seized them.” While this reaction is consistent with theophanies,[40] what follows next is quite perplexing.

  • “…and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Given all we’ve learned about the women – their remaining to witness the crucifixion when others had deserted, their watching the burial of Jesus, their faithful visit to anoint his body – gives us the impression that they will do exactly as the young man commands: they will go and they will tell the disciples the hopeful message. But Mark emphasizes that they don’t do any such thing: the women “said nothing to anyone [oudeni ouden eipan].” And why didn’t they? The gar-clause explains it: “for [gar] they were afraid [ephobounto].” This response, rooted in fear, is another indication that the women have become like the disciples who had also responded in fear (cf. Mark 6:50). Fear is faith’s opposite (cf. Mark 4:40) and the women are acting without any faith at all.

A Fitting Ending

This is how Mark’s Gospel ends.[41] In some ways, it doesn’t seem quite right. After all, the Markan community knew about Jesus’ resurrection so the women must have said something to someone, right? How does this ending fit in with the Markan narrative overall?

First, in the narrative of structure of Mark there is a particular symmetry such that the opening narrative (Mark 1:2-9) and the closing narrative (16:1-8) function as bookends.

  • In both narratives there is a messenger: John the Baptist in the opening and the young man in the closing.[42]
  • In both narratives clothing sets apart the messenger: John wears clothing made from camel’s hair and has a leather belt (1:6) and the young man is clothed in a white robe (16:5).[43]
  • In both narratives the messenger makes an announcement concerning Jesus: John the Baptist declares Jesus will “baptize…with the Holy Spirit” (1:8)[44] and the young man declares Jesus has risen (16:6).[45]
  • In both narratives Jesus is stated to be from Nazareth (1:9; 16:6).
  • In both narratives Galilee plays a role in Jesus’ actions: he “came from Nazareth of Galilee” (1:8) and “he is going…to Galilee” (16:7).[46]

This structuring seems intentional.

Second, the account plays on many Markan motifs and themes that readers of Mark have no doubt encountered. For example, Timothy Dwyer has written extensively on the “wonder motif” and observes that the silence of the women in Mark 16:8 “is a function of the wonder, subordinate to it, and not the main feature of the narrative.”[47] He offers a number of examples found in the Gospel which illuminate not only how the motif has already been at work in the Gospel but can also “help one understand 16:8.”[48]

  • In 6:45-52 the disciples initially respond in fear to the sight of Jesus walking on the sea because “they thought it was a ghost” (6:49) and they “were terrified [etarachthēsan]” (6:50). However, Jesus tells them to “not be afraid [mē phobeisthe]” (6:50) and when he gets into the boat with them, the wind ceases and they become “utterly astounded” (6:51).[49] Here “there is an initial fear at the sight of the ‘phantom,’ which is comforted, and then a greater awe follows.”[50]
  • In 4:35-41 the disciples respond in fear to the storm that threatens to capsize them: “He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid [Ti deiloi este]?” (4:40) Their response to Jesus’ ability to calm the stormy sea is one of wonder: “And they were filled with great awe” (4:41).[51]
  • In 5:35-43 Jairus is told his daughter has died and becomes fearful: “Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear [Mē phobou], only believe” (5:36). Fear gives way to “amazement [ekstásei megálēi]” (5:42) when Jesus resuscitates the deceased child.

Dwyer observes that

16.1-8 follows the same pattern. There is a reaction at the ‘young man’ (vv. 5-6) which is soon comforted [i.e. 16:6]. After the message of the resurrection, a greater and more lasting wonder follows. The sight of the ‘young man’ causes astonishment, but this is not what the women should be astonished about. When they are told that God has intervened and raised Jesus from the dead and that Jesus will appear in Galilee, they are struck with a greater wonder. This is more lasting, and fully appropriate.[52]

Not only is there the motif of wonder, but the Gospel of Mark revolves around two important themes: the importance of discipleship and the identity of Jesus. These two themes are intertwined in narratives that highlight both.

For example, in Mark 4:35-41 we observe the disciples are afraid that the storm and sea will capsize the ship and drown them all and so they wake up Jesus and ask him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38) The actions of the disciples in waking up Jesus and asking this question suggests they think he can do something about their circumstances. And yet when Jesus calms the sea they not only respond with awe but they then ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). They have failed to grasp what was before them. This theme of the disciples’ misunderstanding is prominent in the Gospel of Mark.

  • In 6:50-52 the disciples react in fear at the sight of Jesus walking on water and the reason they were “utterly astounded” (6:51) was because “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:52).
  • In 7:17-23 the disciples ask Jesus about “the parable” (i.e. 7:14-16) to which he replies, “Then do you also fail to understand?” (7:18)
  • In 8:14-21 the disciples misunderstand Jesus’ reference to “the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod” (8:15) which results in Jesus asking them, “Do you not yet understand?” (8:21)

Why emphasize the disciples’ misunderstanding this way? Because how one responds to Jesus and his message is important to Mark. His Gospel is as much about Jesus as it is about those who followed him and are following him, i.e. the Markan audience. The response of the disciples is a sign that even those who had walked and talked with Jesus failed miserably; sometimes expectations were not met.[53] For his paradigm Mark had to look no further than the Hebrew scriptures wherein “God’s love is met by infidelity and failure, but only to be renewed by God.”[54] 

 Mark has intended for his readers to identify not only with the Twelve but also with the women. Yet his portrait of them is as complicated as it is brief. As we’ve already discussed, they are initially painted in a positive light, being among the few who remain with Jesus to the end and beyond. But they do not grasp fully the message of the young man and they fail to convey his message to the disciples. As Joel Williams observes, there is a juxtaposition of promise and failure.[55]

Consequently, Mark’s ending serves as an encouragement to the reader. Yet Mark’s ending is not only an offer of hope, but is also a warning. Mark moves the reader to identify with the women as the tomb, and then he creates a distance between the reader and the women because of their disobedience. In moving away from an identification with the women, the reader must acknowledge that failure, fear and disobedience are all still possible in the period between the resurrection and the parousia.[56]

In some sense, Mark is inviting his audience to consider what they will do with the message of the young man. Will they respond in fear, saying “nothing to anyone,” or in faith?

Mark 16:1-8 and Paul

At this point we must return to the question of the criterion of embarrassment. Specifically, we must address how this story came into being and whether it is rooted in history or legend. Recall that the argument put forward by the Christian Defenders is that the story is unlikely to be a fabrication because the testimony of women was of so little value in antiquity no one would believe it. A fabricated story would have men discover the empty tomb, not women.

365px-Bacchiacca_-_Maria_Maddalena_(Palazzo_Pitti)
A painting of Mary Magdalene holding a container of myrhh by Bachiacca, an Italian painter of the sixteenth century (Wikimedia Commons).

From the standpoint of the narrative, the women are not the first to discover that the tomb is empty. That honor belongs to the young man (Mark 16:5). But setting that aside, even if the women were the first eyewitnesses to the tomb, they are not eyewitnesses to the resurrection. Mark 16:1-8 is not a resurrection narrative. Jesus does not make an appearance in the closing narrative of Mark’s Gospel and thus his presence is only alluded to in the command of Mark 16:7. The fact of the resurrection is contingent not upon the empty tomb so much as it is upon the appearance of Jesus “the disciples and Peter.” While the empty tomb plays a central role in the narrative as the first evidence of resurrection, it does not function as the most important evidence of resurrection.

The essence of the Markan Passion narrative and the account of the empty tomb is this: Jesus died, he was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day. Implied in Mark 16:7 is that he appeared to “the disciples and Peter.” This tradition is no doubt one of the oldest in Christianity as it is also echoed in the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. There he says that Jesus died (15:3), was buried, and was raised from the dead on the third day (15:4). Paul also mentions that Jesus “appeared to Cephas [i.e. Peter], then to the Twelve” (15:5) as well as to a host of others (15:6-7) including Paul himself (15:8). So what Mark has done it seems is constructed a more “fully developed Passion narrative” based upon this tradition about which Paul also knew.[57] Does this mean, then, that Mark and his audience would have thought of the Gospel as fiction?

Far from “fictionalizing” the narrative, however, the goal of the author was to bring it to life for the audience. They assumed that the story was “true” in its basics, but giving it a narrative quality required texture and detail that the older tradition [i.e. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8] simply did not provide. The interaction of the author and audience – storyteller and hearers – was a driving mechanism in composing the story.[58]

But why women? Why not men? After all, in the tradition Jesus first appeared to men and not to women. The reason for this can be accounted for in yet another Markan motif: the reversal of expectations.[59] As we observed previously, Mark wasn’t simply writing a Gospel as an academic exercise in historiography. He wasn’t some impassioned investigator who intended to just relay the facts. Mark’s Gospel is a deliberate crafting of the story of Jesus for a particular audience. Therefore, the women aren’t necessarily included in the story because of a tradition stating they were there but because female followers in the Gospel of Mark “supplement and complement the Markan portrayal of the disciples, together forming, as it were, a composite portrait of the fallible followers of Jesus.”[60] Could he have made the female characters male instead? Certainly, but the Markan Gospel is all about the reversal of expectations because the reign of God is about such a reversal: “[M]any who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (10:31).

From the first-century Jewish and Jewish-Christian point of view, one could hardly be more of an outsider to the central drama of religious faith and practice than a Roman centurion – or a woman! But the reversal of outsiders and insiders is basic to the good news of Jesus according to the good news of Mark….

I find Mark’s Gospel permeated (narratively) by the reversal of expectations – historically conditioned expectations. It would seem that the historical reality of women’s lower status and the historical reality of women’s discipleship together support in Mark’s Gospel the surprising narrative reality of women characters who exemplify the demands of followership. How do the women characters shed light on what it means to follow Jesus? By following and ministering, by bold and active faith and self-denying service. Why are women characters especially appropriate for the role of illuminating followership? Perhaps because, in the community of the author, women were in a position to bear most poignantly the message that among the followers the “first will be last, and the last first.”[61]

Thus in Mark 16:1-8 it is the women who are on the scene when men, especially the disciples, should have been. In constructing his narrative this way, Mark lauds female followers of Jesus both in the narrative and in his community. And yet as we have seen, their women’s failure to follow the command of the young man demonstrates that they are fallible and serves as a warning to the Markan community.

What then do we make of the criterion of embarrassment as it relates to Mark 16:1-8? Well, the criterion simply has no bearing upon it. The story is first and foremost a literary creation, crafted in language, motifs, and themes that are thoroughly Markan. Furthermore, His work was intended for an audience of those who were already followers of Jesus. It is doubtful that he had evangelistic purposes in mind when composing it.[62] The community was composed of both male and female followers and so the addition of female followers who have such promise but fall into such peril serves as a reminder of the pitfalls of failing to obey the gospel.

How can the criterion of embarrassment have any bearing on this?

THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW AND THE EMPTY TOMB

The earliest interpreter of the Gospel of Mark was the author of the Gospel of Matthew.[63] The account of the empty tomb in Mark 16:1-8 serves as a paradigm for Matthew 28:1-10 though with significant modifications that serve Matthean motifs as well as expansions to shore up what was apparently lacking in the Markan account. As I did with regards to Mark 16:1-8, I will offer a brief examination of the context in which the Matthean account is found, beginning with the women observing from a distance in Matthew 27:55-56.

The Women Observing from a Distance

Matthew 27:55-56

Mark 15:40-41

55 Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.

56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.

41 These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

It is apparent at first glance that the two accounts are virtually identical: not only are many of the details the same but in their essence they are congruent with one another. However, there are particulars that stand out and should be considered.

27:55

  • “Many women were also there, looking on from a distance…”

Matthew has taken the “many other women” of Mark 15:41 and moved it up to the beginning of this section in the Passion narrative. He has also described the women as “looking on from a distance” using the exact same language in Mark 15:40.

  • “…they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.”

As in Mark 15:41, these women are all that is left of Jesus’ followers that had come from Galilee. Matthew omits the line from Mark 15:41 that they had “come up with him to Jerusalem” as the narrative already makes clear that they had followed Jesus to Jerusalem. In Galilee these women had “provided for him,” language that is identical.

27:56

  • “Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”

As in Mark 15:40, three women stand out as being among those who had followed Jesus and were observing the crucifixion at a distance. However, Matthew has made some changes.

First, in the Gospel of Mark the second Mary was “the mother of James the younger and of Joses.” Unless this is the mother of Jesus[64] then it is a character that has never before appeared in the Markan narrative. In Matthew’s redaction of Mark he has changed it so that James is simply “James,” not “James the younger.” He has also changed Mark’s “Joses” to “Joseph.” The only other James and Joseph who are associated as siblings are the children of Mary and therefore siblings of Jesus (Matthew 13:55). Given other changes Matthew has made to the Markan narrative concerning Jesus and his family,[65] it is very possible that this Mary is also the mother of Jesus. However, it seems odd that he not only does he not come out and say this is his mother but also that she appears second in the list of women.

Second, in the Gospel of Mark the third woman was Salome but here in Matthew it is “the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” Zebedee was the father of James and John, two fishermen who had been called to follow Jesus (Matthew 4:21). As a character in the Gospel of Matthew, she makes an appearance in Matthew 20:20-23 where she requests that Jesus allows her sons to sit on his right and left hand in his kingdom (20:21).[66] Given the words of Matthew 27:55, she has been a follower of Jesus along with her sons from perhaps the start of his ministry.[67] So either Matthew has understood the Markan “Salome” to be the name of the “mother of the sons of Zebedee” or he has found Mark to be in error by including Salome.[68]

Jesus’ Burial

Matthew 27:57-61

Mark 15:42-47

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.  42 When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. 45 When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. 46 Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

Again, Matthew has clearly followed the sequence of events in the Gospel of Mark but continues to make specific modifications that play into how he tells the story of Jesus.

27:57

  • “When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus.”

Matthew has streamlined the Markan wording found in Mark 15:42 – “When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath” – into simply “[w]hen evening had come.” The reason for this is plain to anyone who has read the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Throughout the Gospel of Mark we find explanations for Jewish customs that reveal his intended audience, though Christian, was likely made up of many Gentiles for whom these customs were foreign.[69] Generally speaking, Matthew has no need to do so since his audience was perhaps almost entirely Jewish and for whom the Markan explanations were unnecessary. Here the Matthean audience would have understood that since Jesus was crucified on a Friday that it was naturally the day before the sabbath and therefore the day of Preparation for it.

With regard to Joseph of Arimathea, it is clear that Matthew has deliberately changed the Markan Joseph so that he appears in a better light. In Mark 15:43, Joseph was described as a “respected member of the council” and therefore among those who had called for Jesus’ death (Mark 14:55; 14:64), a scene that also appears in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 26:59; 26:66). Matthew has deliberately omitted that detail for two possible reasons. First, there may be an allusion to Isaiah 53:9 – “They made his…tomb with the rich.”[70] Second, Craig Keener explains that

[g]iven early Christian experiences with and feelings toward the Sanhedrin, the invention of a Sanhedrist acting piously toward Jesus (Mark 15:43) is not likely.[71]

Matthew has also altered the rather generic phrasing found in Mark that Joseph “was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” into the more specific wording of discipleship.[72] Joseph is no outsider and he is not a mere sympathizer. He is instead a follower of Jesus, one who belongs to the Christian community. His behavior toward Jesus in seeking out his corpse makes perfect sense (cf. Matthew 14:12).

27:58

  • “He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus…”

In the Markan narrative, Joseph is said to have gone to Pilate “boldly [tolmēsas]” (Mark 15:43). Why “boldly”? It may have to do with the different portrayals of Pilate in the Markan and Matthean narratives.

In Mark’s Gospel, Pilate goes along with the condemnation of Jesus with only mild reservations. He is “amazed” at Jesus’ silence at accusations put forward by the chief priests (Mark 15:4-5) and seems to be taken back by the cry of crucifixion that comes from the crowd (Mark 15:14). Yet Pilate’s reservations about Jesus’ guilt are set aside since he would rather “satisfy the crowd” (Mark 15:15) than let Jesus go. Instead, at the urging of the crowd, Pilate releases Barabbas, one who “with the rebels…had committed murder during the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). Following this, Pilate sends Jesus away to be flogged and crucified (Mark 15:15). Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified between two “bandits,” a word that translates the Greek term lēstas (from lēstēs). At its most basic meaning, lēstēs refers to robbers and brigands and in Roman society they “fell within the scope of the lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis…and later were condemned to be killed by beasts or crucified.”[73] Lēstai are described as ruthless, pictured as beasts and warmongers, causing people to live in fear for their lives.[74] But in Josephus, whose writing appeared in the decades following the writing of the Gospel of Mark, the term lēstēs becomes “almost…a technical term for Jewish freedom fighters under the Roman empire.”[75] For example, we read in The Jewish War,

The impostors and brigands [lēstikoi], banding together, incited numbers to revolt, exhorting them to assert their independence, and threatening to kill any who submitted to Roman domination and forcibly to suppress those who voluntarily accepted servitude. Distributing themselves in companies throughout the country, they looted the houses of the wealthy, murdered their owners, and set the villages on fire. The effects of their frenzy were thus felt throughout all Judaea, and every day saw this war being fanned into fiercer flame (The Jewish War, 2.264-265).[76]

But are freedom fighters – veritable insurrectionists – what Mark intends here? France writes that

there is nothing in Mark or, indeed, in any of the gospels to associate these two [lēstai] explicitly with Barabbas or any other nationalist movement. But the coincidence that at the time of Jesus’ arrest some men were in fact awaiting execution as insurrectionists, that one of their number was released instead of Jesus, and that Jesus’ alleged crime was political treason is enough to convince most interpreters that these were [lēstai] in Josephus’ sense, and thus that the [basileus tōn Ioudaiōn] was appropriately placed between two other ‘revolutionaries’ from whom, in Roman eyes, he could be distinguished only in that his claim as [basileus] was more audacious than theirs – hence his place in the middle of the group.[77]

So if Mark indeed intends to portray Jesus as an insurrection crucified among insurrectionists then we now have a tenable explanation as to why Joseph goes “boldly” to Pilate to request Jesus’ body for burial: he risked being associated with Jesus’ alleged crime. And as a member of the Sanhedrin, such an association not only risked expulsion from the council but death by the Romans as insurrection was not tolerated.

But Matthew has made changes to the narrative such that Joseph no longer needs to go “boldly” before Pilate for his request. As we already observed, Joseph is only “a rich man” in Matthew’s Gospel and not a member of the council. And while he is considered to be a disciple, the risk of guilt by association is minimized by Matthew’s portrait of a sympathetic Pilate. He does so in a couple of ways.

First, Matthew inserts a brief story about how while Pilate was asking the crowd whether they wanted to release “Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is the Messiah” (27:17), he receives a message from his wife who had a dream about Jesus: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him” (27:19).[78] This adds further emphasis to the statement of Matthew 27:18 that Pilate “realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed [Jesus] over” (cf. Mark 15:10). Jesus, whoever he truly was, was an innocent man.

Second, while Mark claimed that Pilate handed Jesus over “wishing to satisfy the crowd” (Mark 15:15), Matthew claims no such thing. Instead, he has inserted a narrative in which Pilate, for fear of a riot but know Jesus was innocent, takes some water, washes his hands, and in front of the crowd declares, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (Matthew 27:24). With these narrative developments, “Matthew has made it clear that Pilate did not regard Jesus as guilty.”[79] 

Therefore, in the Markan narrative Joseph goes “boldly” before Pilate because there is a risk of association between Joseph, a member of the Sanhedrin, and the crucified insurrectionist. But in Matthew, this association has been erased such that the need for boldness is not needed. Joseph is going to request the body from a sympathetic Pilate, a man who not only believed that Jesus was innocent but also demonstrated that belief publicly in front of the crowd.[80]

  • “…then Pilate ordered it to be given to him.”

Matthew has omitted the Markan back and forth between Pilate and the centurion over whether Jesus was dead (Mark 15:44-45). Mark had included it as an apologetic against claims Jesus had not died from crucifixion. But for Matthew, this is not as important: Jesus is dead and the proof is seen in the events of Matthew 27:51-54. Instead, as we will see, Matthew presents another apologetic for a separate issue that apparently developed within his community.

27:59

  • “So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth….”

Matthew has added to the Markan narrative by inserting that the cloth in which Joseph wrapped Jesus’ corpse was “clean.”[81]

27:60

  • “and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.”

The Matthean improvements upon Joseph’s character continue, this time by stating that Joseph had not simply placed Jesus in any tomb that had been hewn from rock (Mark 15:46) but rather had placed him in “his own new tomb.” This tomb was no doubt expensive and it had been recently made. The giving of it to Jesus is “a tribute to his deep attachment to Jesus.”[82]

As in the Gospel of Mark, Joseph is said to have rolled a stone in front of the tomb’s entrance. However, Matthew has taken the reference to the stone’s size in Mark 16:4 and moved it up in the narrative. This is because, as we will see, there is no concern from the women who visit Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning about who will roll the stone away from the entrance (cf. Mark 16:3).

Following his actions at the tomb, Joseph is said to have “went away.”

27:61

  • “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.”

Though Joseph has left, two women remain at the tomb sitting opposite from it.[83] As in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 15:47), this is meant to counter any notion that come Sunday morning the women had gone to the wrong tomb. It also functions to highlight the women’s faithfulness to Jesus who remain with him to the end.

Summary

The Matthean redaction of Mark in Matthew 27:57-61 reveals the author’s interest in both improving upon the piety of Joseph of Arimathea as well as that of the women who remain at the tomb for an unspecified period of time. Furthermore, Matthew has distanced Joseph from the Markan claim that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, something that would have no doubt been seen as libelous in Matthew’s post-70 CE community.

The Guards at the Tomb

Matthew 27:62-66

Mark (no parallel)

62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.”66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

No parallel

The Matthean narrative of 27:62-66 is interesting for a number of reasons. First, there is no parallel to it in any of the other Gospels, including the Gospel of Mark. It is therefore unprecedented. Second, the story highlights the wickedness of the religious authorities, particularly the Pharisees who are the subject of a lengthy diatribe in Matthew 23, a diatribe unprecedented both redactionally and historically.[84] Matthew has it out for the religious authorities. Third, this story is part of an apologetic against a claim that Jesus had not been resurrected but rather that his corpse had been stolen, perhaps by the disciples (cf. Matthew 28:11-15). The apologetic is essentially that since there were guards at the tomb the body could not have been stolen. Ergo, Jesus must have risen from the dead.[85]

27:62

  • “The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate….”

Joseph had buried Jesus on Friday and therefore before the sabbath had begun. Consequently, Joseph (and the women) are able to honor the sabbath properly. This pericope opens on the day “after the day of Preparation,” a circumlocution for the sabbath. Though not explicit in the text,[86] there does seem to be some irony in the fact that the Pharisees had attempted to trap Jesus by asking him if it was lawful to cure someone on the sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14) and yet here they are with the chief priests coming before Pilate on the sabbath asking for Jesus’ tomb to be guarded.

There is some deliberate contrast that is going on in this text between faithful Joseph and faithless religious authorities. Joseph had gone to Pilate to do the honorable thing: have Jesus buried properly. The religious authorities have gone to Pilate to do the dishonorable thing: seal off the tomb from those wishing to view Jesus’ body.

27:63

  • “and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that imposter said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.”’”

It is quite telling that the religious authorities refer to Pilate as kyrie (“sir” or “lord”) but refer to Jesus as ho planos (“that imposter” or “the deceiver”). As the narrative continues it is revealed that Jesus is truly kyrios by virtue of his resurrection and that the religious authorities are in actuality hoi planoi.

The authorities claim to remember something Jesus had said before his death: “After three days I will rise again.” This is an interesting claim because there is no evidence within the Matthean Gospel that Jesus ever said any such thing to the religious authorities. He most certainly does so with the disciples present (Matthew 16:21; 17:23, 20:19). And while Jesus does mention “the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39) explaining to “the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 12:38) that “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40), he never uses a form of egeirō. And given the fact that the disciples do not fully grasp Jesus’ words when he plainly states he will die and be raised on the third day, it is unlikely the Pharisees would have understood the reference to the sign of Jonah in such a way.[87]

27:64

  • “Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.”

The fear of the authorities is that if the tomb remains unsecured the disciples may go and steal Jesus’ corpse, declaring that the empty tomb is evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. If such a thing were to happen, they contend, “the last deception would be worse than the first.” That is, the claim that Jesus was the messianic king would be nothing compared to the claim that such a king has been resurrected and therefore vindicated by God. And so they demand[88] that Pilate make the tomb “secure until the third day” to avoid any problems.

27:65

  • “Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.”

Pilate, perhaps recognizing that claims of resurrection might lead to insurrection, tells the religious authorities to take care of it. Whether the “guard of soldiers” is reference to temple police or to Roman troops is not clear.[89]

27:66

  • “So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”

So the religious authorities along with the guard of soldiers go to the tomb and secure it “by sealing the stone.” This perhaps involved the use of a wax seal “to ensure that any attempt to open the tomb would be detectable.”[90] Between the seal and the contingent of soldiers, the hope was that no one would want to disturb the tomb. This was, of course, intended to be a temporary measure and the guards would be gone after the third day. But what the guards and religious authorities do not know but the reader does is that neither a seal nor a contingent of soldiers can prevent what is about to transpire on Sunday morning.

Summary

What is the historical value of this narrative? Given that we find it only in the Gospel of Matthew we may question where he got this story. How is he aware of the inner workings of the religious authorities? How could he have known of the conversation between the authorities and Pilate? Why doesn’t Mark – our earliest Gospel – mention it? Why doesn’t the author of Luke – one who had claimed he had done careful investigation in producing his Gospel – bring it up?[91] Why doesn’t the author of John?[92]

Furthermore, given its function in the Matthean narrative it seems that the story was created to account for a rumor that had developed that the disciples had stolen the body while the soldiers were asleep (cf. Matthew 28:11-15). But again, this seems very contrived as mere apologetic posturing. Dale Allison imagines a conversation between Matthew and “critical Jews” on the topic.

Matthew: Jesus rose from the dead and his tomb was empty (28:6).
Opponent: Did Jesus really die?
Matthew: A Roman guard kept watch over him; surely he was dead before his body was released (27:36).
Opponent: There was a mix-up in tombs?
Matthew: The women saw where Jesus was buried (v. 61).
Opponent: The disciples, seeking to confirm Jesus’ prophecy of his resurrection after three days, stole the body.
Matthew: The disciples had fled, they were nowhere near (26:56).
Opponent: Then someone else stole the body.
Matthew: A large stone was rolled before the tomb; it was sealed; and Roman soldiers kept watch (28:2-6).
Opponent: The soldiers fell asleep.
Matthew: They were bribed to say that (28:12-15).[93]

It is not my intention here to consider all the arguments for or against the historicity of this pericope. Based upon its function in the narrative flow, I suspect that it is not an authentic account. However, it is very likely that the early Christians encountered naysayers who claimed that Jesus was still dead and that the disciples were the ones who had whisked the body away.[94]

The Empty Tomb Narrative

Matthew 28:1-10

Mark 16:1-8

1After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” 1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Matthew 28:1-10 follows Mark 16:1-8 but makes very apparent changes such that they end up being stories with entirely different imports. As already stated, this is not a resurrection narrative so much as it is an empty tomb narrative. Yet as we will see, we do have our first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus at the end of this section.

28:1

  • “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.”

Matthew has a tendency to abbreviate Mark’s redundancy and so he keeps the essence of Mark 16:1 (“When the sabbath was over”) but streamlines the wording of Mark 16:2 from “very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen” to simply “as the first day of the week was dawning.”[95] But why have they come so early? In the Gospel of Mark they do so to anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1) but here it is simply “to see the tomb.” Though perhaps unnoticed by most readers, this change is significant.

In the Gospel of Mark the women do not anticipate the resurrection: they went to the tomb to anoint a cadaver, not a king. Since in the Matthean narrative the women do not come to anoint Jesus’ body, they have only come to see his tomb and therefore also have no expectation that Jesus will be raised. Gone is the question that plagued them in Mark 16:3 – “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” That question had presupposed the women would be at the grave alone. But in Matthean narrative the women will not be alone for there are people present: the guards. And since they don’t need to get into the tomb, the women’s question is omitted by Matthew.

Mark’s Gospel had mentioned three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Matthew has only Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (i.e. the mother of James and Joseph) going to the tomb. As they were the ones to witness the burial (Matthew 27:61) it is narratively fitting that they are the ones to go to the tomb. Apart from Joseph (and the guards), they are the only ones who know where to find it.

28:2

  • “And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.”

Just as an earthquake signified the death of the messiah and was a precursor to a resurrection (Matthew 27:51-52), so too an earthquake functions as a precursor and signifier of a resurrection. The cause of the quake is explained by the actions of “an angel of the Lord.” He has rolled back the stone, previously described as “great” (Matthew 27:60), and triumphantly sits upon it. Since the angel of the Lord is God’s representative, this is Matthew’s way of declaring that God is victorious over death, having raised Jesus from the dead.

There is a certain symmetry in the way Matthew has constructed his narrative about Jesus. As we will see, the angel is the one who declares the resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:6) just as the angel of the Lord had declared his birth (Matthew 1:20-23). And just as Joseph obeys the command of the angel of the Lord (Matthew 1:24; 2:14) so too the women will obey the command of the angel (Matthew 28:8).

It should also be noted that the Markan and Matthean narratives strongly disagree on what happened Sunday morning. In Mark’s Gospel, the women arrive to a tomb that has already been opened and only witness the young man upon entering (Mark 16:4-5). Yet here the tomb was still sealed when they arrived and they witness its opening by the angel (Matthew 27:2). There is no reasonable way to reconcile these two accounts and it seems clear Matthew has altered the storyline for dramatic effect.

28:3

  • “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.”

This description of the angel elevates the young man of Mark 16:5 from one who could be mistaken for a mere mortal to one who has divine authority. When Jesus was transfigured before the disciples, Matthew says that “his fact shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matthew 17:2).

28:4

  • “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”

Just as there was an “earthquake [seismos]” when the angel came down and rolled back the stone, so also the guards “shook [eseisthēsan] and became like dead men” at the sight of the angel. Not even the soldiers could stand before the awesome presence of the divine.

28:5

  • “But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.’”

Matthew has essentially followed Mark 16:6. However, he alters the Markan Mē ekthambeisthe (“Do not be alarmed”) to Mē phobeisthe hymeis (“Do not be afraid”). As we noted above, the word choice of the young man was determined by the word choice of the Markan narrator who stated that at the sight of the young man the women became exethambēthēsan (“alarmed”). Here the word choice is determined by the reaction of the guards who “[f]or fear of him [tou phobou autou]” shook and passed out (Matthew 27:4).

28:6

  • “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”

As the young man had done in Mark (16:6), the angel informs the women that Jesus was not in the tomb and had been raised. But the angel adds the words “as he said,” words that the young man in Mark does not. The words akin to “as he said” in Mark belong not to the resurrection per se but rather to the prediction that Jesus would appear in Galilee to the disciples in keeping with Mark 14:28 (Mark 16:7). This change reveals the emphasis Matthew has placed upon Jesus’ resurrection and recalls not simply Jesus’ own words (i.e. Matthew 16:21) but also that of the religious authorities who were worried that the disciples would steal the body since they did not believe Jesus would actually be raised (Matthew 27:63-64).

We can also see that Matthew has followed Mark 16:6 in having the angel invite the women to see where Jesus’ body had been laid. This is further evidence that Jesus has been raised: his body is gone.

28:7

  • “Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message to you.”

Matthew has modified the command of the young man in Mark 16:7 so as to include the declaration that Jesus “has been raised from the dead.” This addition is curious and is perhaps a sign that Matthew considered Mark 16:7 to be wanting. Consequently, the angel’s command is to not only tell the disciples that Jesus will appear to them in Galilee but also that Jesus “has been raised from the dead.”

28:8

  • “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

With Matthew 28:8 and 28:9 Matthew has changed the Markan narrative radically. No longer do the women flee in fear and say “nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8); now they leave the tomb “quickly” because they were commanded to do so quickly (Matthew 28:7), their fear now mingled with joy, and they run to inform the disciples of the angel’s message.

28:9

  • “Suddenly Jesus met with them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.”

Since the Gospel of Mark ends with the failure of the women and their fear, there are no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. But Matthew has changed this so that the women not only obey the angel’s command (Matthew 28:8) but also are the first to witness the resurrected Jesus.

Jesus’ first word to the women is the first word the resurrected Jesus utters to anyone: Chairete, “Hail,” or “Greetings!” This is the word with which Judas greeted Jesus in the garden when he betrayed him to the religious authorities (Matthew 26:49). It is the word which was wielded as a verbal weapon when the Roman soldiers dressed him as a king and mocked him (Matthew 27:29). But now, on this Sunday morning where hope for the future has been restored, it is a greeting of joy. It too has been resurrected.

Upon hearing Jesus speak to them, the women respond with worship: they “took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” There is more Matthean symmetry at work here. In the beginning of the Gospel, Magi came to Bethlehem to find “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). When they find Jesus, their response is one of worship (Matthew 2:11). Now, at the end of the Gospel, the risen king is worshiped by the women before they go to tell the disciples the good news.

28:10

  • “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’”

Jesus’ message is a reiteration of the angel’s (Matthew 28:5, 7). Like the angel, he tells them Mē phobeisthe, “Do not be afraid.” He also expresses the message of the angel that the women are to tell the disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee. In Mark’s Gospel, we took this as an indication that they had been forgiven. Indeed, the reference to “the disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:7) suggests that Peter has been singled out for both his desertion of Jesus in the garden as well as his denial that he knew Jesus multiple times. Here in Matthew 28:10 this message of forgiveness is amplified for now Jesus doesn’t simply refer to the Twelve (really, eleven) as his disciples but rather as his “brothers,” expressing kinship that goes beyond physical bonds (cf. Matthew 12:46-50).[96] And as we discover in Matthew 28:16, Jesus does indeed fulfill his word to the disciples (Matthew 26:32) and to the women that he would appear to them.

Summary

What do we make of this version of the resurrection story? For starters, it is abundantly clear that Matthew depends on Mark’s sequence of events: the women go to the tomb, the tomb is discovered to be empty, a statement about Jesus’ resurrection is made, the women are commissioned to go and tell the disciples, and the women exit the tomb. But he has changed many of the details.

  • The women do not come to anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1) but to simply see the tomb (Matthew 28:1). Consequently, there is no concern that no one will be present to assist them with rolling back the stone (cf. Mark 16:3).
  • The women do not arrive and see that the tomb is already open (Mark 16:4) but rather they witness the opening of the tomb by an angel of the Lord (Matthew 28:2). Consequently, they do not enter the tomb to find one who shouldn’t be there (i.e. the young man) and become “alarmed” (Mark 16:5).
  • The women do not flee the tomb in fear, saying nothing to anyone (Mark 16:8) but rather quickly leave the tomb “with fear and great joy” and rush to tell the disciples what has transpired (Matthew 28:8). Consequently, the women do not experience an appearance of Jesus on the way (Matthew 28:9-10).

The change in details is also a sign that a change has been made in the overall tone of the Markan narrative. The women in Mark are portrayed initially as faithful followers: they are at the crucifixion (albeit from afar) when the disciples have fled, they pay close attention to the site of Jesus’ tomb, and they get up early on Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body. But this faithfulness ends with fear and therefore faithlessness. It is an ending that is both surprising and unsurprising. The Markan author has his readers expecting the women to go and tell but ends with their being more like the disciples who also fled. But in Matthew’s Gospel the women are exemplary throughout the account. They too are at the crucifixion, they too see the place where Jesus had been buried, and they too rise up early on Sunday morning to go to the tomb. But their response to the angel is not one of fear but fear mixed with joy and they carry out the mission for which the angel has commissioned them. As a result, their faith is rewarded with the first appearance of the risen Jesus.

A logistical issue also arises when analyzing Matthew’s account. Presumably the removal of the stone is so that the risen Jesus can exit. This is what is suggested by the Markan narrative: the stone is removed, the body is gone, and Jesus is on his way to Galilee. But in Matthew’s narrative the women witness the stone being rolled back and yet still the initial sign of Jesus’ resurrection is that his body was no longer in tomb. They do not see Jesus come out! So then Jesus must have already left the tomb before the angel came to roll back the stone. If this is the case, then what bearing does an empty tomb have for the narrative? Jesus could have simply appeared to the women at first and that would have demonstrated that he had been resurrected.

Noel-coypel-the-resurrection-of-christ-1700
A depiction of the resurrection based upon the account in Matthew. Notice the seated angel, a woman (Mary), and a stunned (Roman) soldier. Painted by the French artist Noël Coypel around 1700 (Wikimedia Commons).

One final question that should be addressed: why has Matthew made these changes to the Markan narrative? One does not change one’s source without good cause. He must have detected inadequacies in both the details of Mark’s account as well as the motifs implicit within it. And yet he grants it enough authority to retain its basic outline. If Matthew’s version of events is closer to the truth we cannot know. Apart from Mark, his sources are lost to us. What we can say is that the Matthean narrative serves his interests and that of his community. This is seen especially in the fact that the empty tomb narrative of 28:1-10 is sandwiched between two connected stories about the duplicitous nature of the religious authorities (Matthew 27:62-66; 28:11-15). Given the Matthean community’s apparent conflict with religious authorities, these stories serve as a polemic against them as well as an apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus.

All this also means that the criterion of embarrassment can hardly have any bearing on the narrative of 28:1-10. Matthew has gotten his information from Mark and Mark has included the women for narrative and thematic purposes, not historical ones. Matthew has no problem with this but apparently does disagree with the picture Mark ends up painting of the women and the resurrection generally. He adds correction and expansion that serve his purposes, regardless of whether they are rooted in what really transpired.

The Rumor of the Stolen Body

Matthew 28:11-15

Mark (no parallel)

11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

No parallel

This pericope is a continuation of the narrative in Matthew 28:1-10 and picks up the scene of 27:62-66. It’s absence from the other Gospel accounts is telling.

28:11

  • “While they were going…”

Matthew is continuing the story of 28:1-10, expressing that the women are fulfilling the command of the angel (Matthew 28:7) and of Jesus (Matthew 28:10).

  • “…some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened.”

As the women are on their way to declare the truth of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples, so also “some of the guard” go to Jerusalem to report “everything that had happened.” The author is setting up a contrast now between the disciples and the religious authorities. The former do not cover up the resurrection when they learn of the message while the latter do. Nevertheless, the soldiers are themselves “a further witness to the reality of the empty tomb.”[97] But whereas the women have a message of hope, the soldiers have a message of failure for not even the schemes of men could thwart the divine plan.[98] Consequently, the coverup that ensues intensifies the guilt of the religious authorities.[99]

28:12

  • “After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers….”

Rather than confess that Jesus is the messiah and the true king of Israel, the religious authorities devise a scheme to bribe the soldiers from speaking of what has transpired. For the reader of Matthew, this scheming is further evidence that Jesus has in fact been raised.[100] It also serves a narrative purpose for Matthew: this is the last time these religious authorities have assembled to plot against Jesus.[101] Their conspiring is what led to Jesus’ crucifixion (cf. Matthew 16:21; 21:23; 26:3; 26:47, etc.) but now that they have failed to keep him sealed in the tomb they try to suppress the truth. And they utterly fail as the ending of Matthew (28:16-20) implies.

28:13

  • “telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.”’”

Their plan is not without humor. First, how could the religious authorities think anyone would believe that the soldiers could sleep so soundly that the disciples could come to the tomb without making a sound, roll the stone back without any noise, and whisk away the body without making a disturbance. Second, asking them to do so was a veritable death sentence as falling asleep on duty warranted execution. Why would anyone take that deal?

The scene here can be compared to the story of Judas’ offer to betray Jesus to the chief priests (Matthew 26:14-16). In both money is exchanged and in both the religious authorities are involved. But in 26:14-16, money is offered to reveal information while in 28:12-13 it is offered to suppress it. And Judas, a disciple of Jesus, fails to live up to his expectations: he dies unaware that Jesus’ death is not permanent (Matthew 27:3-10). The soldiers on the other hand reported what actually transpired which cause a negative reaction from the religious authorities.

28:14

  • “If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”

The threat of execution is real and the religious authorities claim to guarantee they will protect the soldiers should Pilate become aware that they purportedly fell asleep on duty. But given their duplicitousness with regard to the truth of the resurrection, why should the guards trust that the authorities will keep their word? They should not and yet the do.

28:15

  • “So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.”

The NRSV’s choice of “as they were directed” masks the underlying Greek word: an aorist passive form of the verb didaskō (“I teach”). Matthew is employing irony here in that while Jesus has been teaching the truth to his followers which is vindicated by his resurrection, the chief priests are teaching lies which is contradicted by the resurrection.[102]

We also find out that at the time of the Gospel’s writing this rumor was still in circulation among the Jews. If the Gospel of Matthew had been written not long after the death of Jesus this statement would be unnecessary. The language therefore suggests that a considerable amount of time has transpired between the events described and the writing of the Gospel of Matthew.

Summary

This section is complicated in that we can recognize elements of historicity as well as elements of apologetic and polemic.

Evidently the Jewish opponents of Matthean Christianity…did not dispute the historicity of the empty tomb but rather assigned its cause to theft in the cause of piety. Our story answers that slander in kind: the rumour of theft was a self-serving lie fortified by money. Clearly Matthew’s Christian community knew and cared about what the synagogue across the street was saying.[103]

Consequently, this text is a mixed bag. The story concocted by the chief priests to explain the empty tomb is so obviously ridiculous that it strains credulity. Surely it is an invention of the Matthean author to counter claims of grave robbery. And yet it is unlikely that the claim itself is not historical, namely that the Jews had been saying the body was stolen. Matthew must have been reacting to something. The question is this: is his response objectively the case or is it just an apologetic meant to explain it all away?

Whatever the answer to those questions is, its function in the story is certainly clear: to cast doubt on the Jewish religious authorities and to magnify the resurrection of Jesus. The sharp contrast between the women and the chief priests highlights the reversal motif that Matthew has borrowed from Mark’s Gospel. If anyone should be proclaiming the truth it should be the religious authorities who are to be trusted figures who lead God’s people. And yet they are the least trustworthy of anyone. Matthew, then, has changed the women’s failure in Mark by not only changing the tone of the encounter but also by contrasting them with the utter failure of the religious authorities to rightly tell all that “Jesus who was crucified…has been raised” (Matthew 28:5, 6).

The Ending of Matthew

Though I will not be offering commentary on Matthew 28:16-20, a couple of quick observations are in order.

First, it functions as the fulfillment of Jesus words both before the crucifixion (Matthew 26:32) and after (Matthew 28:10). Second, the disciples’ response to seeing Jesus is the same as the women’s: worship (Matthew 28:17; cf. 28:9). Third, Matthew notes that this worship is mingled with doubt, the reason for which perhaps has to do with their frequent response to Jesus in the Gospel. Fourth, this doubt is done away with by Jesus’ reassuring words in 28:18-20, namely that he has been given authority over all things and he would remain with them to the end of the age. Therefore, while Mark’s Gospel ended in fear and silence, Matthew’s Gospel ends with worship and proclamation. It is a fitting ending.

THE GOSPEL OF LUKE AND THE EMPTY TOMB

We now come to the second interpreter of the Gospel of Mark, the author of Luke-Acts.[104] As we will see, Luke follows Mark but makes significant changes of his own to the presentation. There is far more exposition in Luke’s Gospel than in Matthew’s and the tone is certainly different from Mark’s. Yet Luke ends up being in many ways far more faithful to Mark’s Gospel than Matthew is.

In this section I will only be offering a verse-by-verse commentary on Luke 23:49-24:12 but will mention the narratives found in Luke 24:13-53 as they relate to other texts.

The Women Observing from a Distance

Luke 23:49

Mark 15:40-41

49 But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things. 40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.

41 These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

That Luke is drawing from Mark is certainly clear but his rearrangement makes for a smoother read.

23:49

  • “But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

In the Markan narrative of 15:40-41 the only ones who “stood at a distance, watching” the crucifixion were the women who had followed and provided for him in Galilee. But here in Luke it is not only the women but also “all his acquaintances [pantes hoi gnōstoi auto],” or, more literally, “all those who knew him” of whom the women are a part. This is obviously a Lukan exaggeration since not all those who were acquainted with Jesus were watching the crucifixion scene. But it does raise the question as to whether the disciples are present. Recall that in Mark the disciples had not only fled the scene of Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:50) but were predicted to do so (Mark 14:27). But this is missing from the Gospel of Luke. Luke has deleted that section of Mark because it included a prediction from Jesus that following the resurrection he would appear to the disciples in Galilee (Mark 14:28). Luke cannot have that since for him Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem, not Galilee (Luke 24:36). The city of Jerusalem plays a central role in Luke’s Gospel.[105]

The scene at the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39-54) concludes with Jesus’ arrest but not with the flight of the disciples and the author tells us that “Peter was following [Jesus and those who arrested him] at a distance” (Luke 22:54), similar language to what we find in Luke 23:49 with regards to Jesus’ “acquaintances.” There is therefore nothing in the Lukan narrative itself that precludes the disciples from being part of this group.[106]

Summary

Luke, in his redaction of Mark, includes the women as witnesses to the crucifixion of Jesus though he does not name them as Mark had done. Further, Luke has included them as part of Jesus’ “acquaintances” in the language of the NRSV, thus expanding the circle of witnesses to more than just a few women.

Jesus’ Burial

Luke 23:50-56

Mark 15:42-47

50 Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, 51 had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment

 42 When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. 45 When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. 46 Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

Again, Luke is following the Markan order of events (more closely than Matthew does) and even lifts directly from the Markan text. His modifications to the Markan text reveal his desire to create a smoother narrative that captures not only what he believes transpired but to make it a better read for his audience.

23:50

  • “Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council….”

Luke, unlike Matthew (Matthew 27:57), is willing to keep Joseph of Arimathea as a member of the Sanhedrin though with significant caveats (cf. Luke 23:51). He has prefaced the mentioning of his membership on the council with the notice that he was “a good and righteous man,” language that reminds us of other characters in the Lukan narrative (cf. Luke 1:6) including Jesus himself who just a few verses before was declared by the centurion to be dikaios (Luke 23:47), “righteous” or “innocent” (NRSV).

23:51

  • “had not agreed to their plan and action.”

In Mark it is implied that Joseph had agreed with the plan of the Sanhedrin and their decision to accuse Jesus of a capital offense. But Luke is quite explicit that Joseph had not done so.

  • “He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.”

Of Joseph Mark had written, hos kai autos ēn prosdechomenos tēn basileian tou theou – “one also who himself was waiting for the kingdom of God.” Luke has written something similar, condensing Mark: Joseph is hos prosedecheto tēn basileian tou theou – “one waiting for the kingdom of God.” In this regard, Joseph is like Simeon (Luke 2:25-26), one eagerly awaiting the coming messiah.

23:52

  • “This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.”

Luke begins to simplify the account of Mark 15:43-45.

23:53

  • “Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.”

The exchange of Pilate with the centurion found in Mark 15:44-45 has been erased entirely. We are left to assume that Pilate granted Joseph’s request.

As in Mark, Joseph takes Jesus’ body down, wraps it in a linen cloth, and lays it in a tomb. But the description of the tomb is that it is one “where no one had ever been laid.” In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph buried Jesus in a rock-hewn tomb that was intended for Joseph’s use and was brand new (Matthew 27:60). Similarly, while Luke does not claim that tomb was for Joseph, it is one “where no one had ever been laid” and therefore likely new.

23:54

  • “It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning.”

Following Markan language (Mark 15:42),[107] Luke points out that it is Friday, the day prior to the sabbath.

23:55

  • “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid.”

Mark mentions these women by name: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses. Luke refrains from identifying them until Luke 24:10. In any event, their purpose is the same as Mark’s: they know where the tomb is so that any accusation they went to the wrong tomb in Luke 24:1 is unfounded as is any claim that they placed a different body in the tomb: “they saw the tomb and how his body was laid.”

23:56

  • “Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”

The spices and ointments are no doubt intended to anoint Jesus’ body for his burial, an act rendered impossible by the rapidly approach sabbath (cf. Luke 23:54). Luke emphasizes both their faithfulness to Jesus in making preparation for Jesus’ burial and to Jewish law regarding the sabbath.

Summary

Luke follows the Markan ordering of events and even borrows directly from Markan wording. But it is clear he has streamlined much of what Mark has written, producing a reading that is smoother but has its gaps. He has also improved upon the character of Joseph, retaining his status as a member of the Sanhedrin but qualifying that he was a “good and righteous man” who did not go along with the council’s plan.

The Empty Tomb Narrative

Luke 24:1-12

Mark 16:1-8

1But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. 1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

We now come to the Lukan empty tomb narrative which, as we will see, follows the general outline of the Markan narrative but has significant changes.

24:1

  • “But on the first day of the week, early at dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.”

The language is similar to that of Mark’s – “And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen” (Mark 16:2). The purpose of the visit to the tomb is to anoint Jesus’ body, though the women here are not concerned about who will remove the stone as they are in Mark’s account (Mark 16:3).

24:2

  • “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb….”

Luke is rephrasing Mark 16:4.

24:3

  • “but when they went in, they did not find the body.”[108]

Luke, though basing his account on Mark 16:5, has changed the narrative. In Mark’s Gospel the women enter the tomb and see a young man. Here they enter the tomb and they see nothing at all, not even the body that should have been lying there.

24:4

  • “While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.”

Whereas Mark had but one man clothed in a white robe and sitting within the tomb on the right side (Mark 16:5), Luke has two men in “dazzling clothes” appearing suddenly and standing beside the women.

24:5

  • “The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’”

Luke has followed Mark 16:5 in that the women respond in a fearful manner but Luke mentions that these women “bowed their faces to the ground.” Their message is thematically similar to what we read in Mark 16:6 but the wording is obviously different: “He is not here, but has risen” is essentially the inverse of the Markan wording while the question “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” is absent from Mark’s Gospel. The tone of the men is one of accusation: they were expected to recall what Jesus had predicted (cf. Luke 24:6-7).[109]

24:6-7

  • “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

The two men are no doubt referring to the words of Jesus in Luke 9:21-22. The implication then is that the women were present when Jesus had these discussions with his disciples. Note that in the Gospel of Mark, the young man commands the women to go tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee “just as he told you,” recalling Mark 14:28. Since Luke has omitted that pericope and there is no command to go and tell, this reference is entirely lost.

24:8-9

  • “Then they remembered the words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and the rest.”

Unlike the women in Mark who fail to deliver the message to the disciples (Mark 16:8), in Luke they inform the disciples “and the rest” of what has happened. But they aren’t commanded to do so and are said to have “remembered the words” that Jesus spoke.[110] The emphasis then is on their reaction, set in contrast to Mark’s Gospel. They don’t need to be told to spread the good news since it arises naturally from what has transpired.

24:10

  • “Now it was Mary Magdalene Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.”

Finally, Luke identifies the women. He is in agreement with Mark that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (and Joses) are in the group. But he omits Salome’s name and includes Joanna. But in the Markan narrative, both Mary Magdalene and Joanna have precedent (Luke 8:2-3) and they are too among those who “provided for [Jesus] out of their resources” (Luke 8:3; cf. Mark 15:41). The identity of Mary the mother of James is not certain.[111]

Luke refers to the disciples as “the apostles,” something Mark does sparingly. But given that the Gospel of Luke is the first of two books the author has written and that the second is about the growth of the early Christian movement under the apostles Peter and Paul, the use of “apostle” to refer to the disciples functions as a way to anticipate what is soon to come.[112]

24:11

  • “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

The immediate response of the disciples is that of unbelief.

24:12

  • “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen clothes by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

Luke continues his departure from Mark for Mark has no such story about Peter going to the tomb and seeing for himself that Jesus’ body is not there. However, there is some debate as to whether this verse belongs in the Gospel of Luke at all.[113] Regardless, Peter’s response is more akin to the women of the Markan narrative, setting up a direct contrast between the women of Luke and Peter. Peter goes to the tomb, sees that it is empty in accordance with the message of the women, but doesn’t announce it to anyone. He may be “amazed at what had happened” but such a thing “is neither tantamount to faith nor does it portend the eventuality of genuine perception or faith.”[114]

Summary

Just as Matthew found the Markan ending in 16:8 to be inadequate, so also Luke has expanded upon the Markan narrative so that the response of the women is one of faithfulness and not failure. But whereas there is a command of the young man to go and tell in Mark, no such command comes from the two men of Luke. Rather, Luke’s portrait is such that the women naturally want to go and tell the disciples the good news.

So what bearing does the criterion of embarrassment have on the Lukan text? As we concluded in our discussion of Matthew’s redaction of Mark, Luke is getting much of his information from Mark and making changes appropriate to his themes. He is also correcting Mark where he sees error (i.e. Mark 16:8). For example, the appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Galilee is entirely absent and simply cannot be reconciled with either Mark or Matthew. Perhaps Luke has it right and Mark and Matthew have it wrong. Or perhaps Luke has it wrong and Mark and Matthew have it right. Or perhaps they are all wrong and no one is right. But all three cannot be correct in their version of the account. This complicates using the criterion because the themes important to Luke are woven into the story such that any historical data is mixed in with Lukan motifs. How are we to then discern what has a historical referent and what doesn’t? The historicity of the Lukan empty tomb scene is therefore doubtful.

The Ending of Luke

Luke includes two stories not found in any of the other Gospels. The first is the visit of Jesus to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and the second is his appearance to the disciples wherein he proves he is not a ghost, commissions them to spread the gospel, and ascends to heaven (Luke 24:36-53). In keeping with Luke’s view that Jesus is the savior of the whole world (Luke 2:11, 14), Jesus commissions the disciples to proclaim the gospel “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN AND THE EMPTY TOMB

It is simple to do analysis of Matthew and Luke because as Synoptic Gospels they share so much with the Gospel of Mark. John breaks the mold in many ways. Yet there is evidence that John had access to similar traditions as that of Mark and Luke or had direct access to the texts of Mark and Luke themselves. It is difficult to be certain which is the case.[115] In any event, this commentary will focus primarily on two connected passages: John 19:38-42 and John 20:1-18. Invariably, surrounding texts will come into play.

Jesus’ Burial (John 19:38-42)

38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

The similarities between the Johannine account of Jesus’ burial and that which we find in the Synoptics should become obvious to any reader. We will consider them in the commentary below.

19:38

  • “After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.”

All four of the Gospels contend that it was Joseph of Arimathea who took it upon himself to provide Jesus with a proper burial. Matthew and Luke derived their information from Mark’s Gospel whereas it is not entirely clear where John derived his. Regardless, Joseph is presented in John’s Gospel as “a disciple of Jesus,” something he shares with the Gospel of Matthew’s depiction (Matthew 27:57). But John has added an interesting caveat: “though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews.” Elsewhere in John’s Gospel people fear the Jews because of the threat of expulsion from the synagogue for confessing Jesus as messiah (John 9:22; 12:42; cf. 16:2). This threat, however, seems to be somewhat anachronistic as so called aposynagōgos does not seem to belong to the era of the historical Jesus but to that of the Johannine community in the period following 70CE.[116]

Joseph goes to Pilate to request the body of Jesus in conformity with the Synoptic tradition and, as in the Synoptic tradition, Pilate gives him permission to take down Jesus’ body from the cross which Joseph then does.

19:39

  • “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”

The character of Nicodemus appears only in the Gospel of John and his role in the burial subverts the story line of the Synoptics. Nicodemus, we are reminded, is the one who came to Jesus by night (John 3:1-21). He also appears in John 7:45-52 where he appears sympathetic to Jesus. However, Nicodemus is not presented as a believer in Jesus. Rather, “John’s Joseph is similar to Matthew’s, but his Nicodemus resembles Joseph in Mark and Luke.”[117] Here he accompanies Joseph so that he might assist in burying Jesus properly. To that end, he brings “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” As the Roman pound was about twelve ounces by today’s standards, the total weight of the mixture was roughly seventy-five pounds,[118] an impressive amount. As Craig Keener observes, “In a setting where Jesus has been condemned for treason as a messianic claimant, Nicodemus lavishes gifts on him as a true king in his death.”[119]

19:40

  • “They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen clothes, according to the burial custom of the Jews.”

In the Gospel of Mark Joseph is said to have “bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 15:46; cf. Matthew 27:59-60 Luke 23:53). The women, having observed that Jesus had not been anointed, “bought spices [aromata], so that they might go and anoint him” (Mark 16:1). John’s sequence of events completely contradicts that which we find stated in the Gospel of Mark for here Joseph and Nicodemus take the body down and wrap it “with the spices [tōn arōmatōn], according to the burial customs of the Jews” before Sunday morning. In fact, when Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb on Sunday morning, there is no indication in John that she does so with spices to anoint Jesus’ body.

That Jesus was thus embalmed with spices (without a hint that the process was incomplete) is not easily reconciled with the information in Mark and Luke (but not Matthew) that on Easter morning the women came with spices to the tomb.[120]

19:41

  • “Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.”

The notion that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was “new” is found also in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 27:60) though there it is stated that the tomb was Joseph’s “own new tomb.” The notion that it was a tomb “in which no one had ever been laid” is found also in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 23:53). The notion that this tomb was located in a garden near the site of crucifixion is foreign to all of the Synoptics but recalls the garden of John 18:1.

19:42

  • “And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”

The use of a tomb near the site of crucifixion is a consequence of the chronology within the narrative: “John’s language points not to the indignity of this location but rather to the haste with which Jesus is buried.”[121]

Summary

Whether John knew of the Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ burial or simply of traditions upon which they may or may not have drawn, he has certainly added elements in that subvert the account found in the Synoptics.

  • The Synoptics only mention Joseph’s participation in the burial, not Nicodemus’.
  • The Gospels of Mark and Luke suggest that the burial of Jesus happened so quickly that it was not possible to give Jesus a proper anointing and this was the purpose of the women’s visit on Sunday morning.
  • Nicodemus seems to take on the traits of the Markan and Lukan visions of Joseph.

These developments are in keeping with John’s theological purposes and so their historical value is debatable. However, they do confirm at least two things: 1) the centrality of Jesus’ burial in the Christian tradition and 2) the role of Joseph in that burial.

The Empty-Tomb Narrative (John 20:1-10)

1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

The stories of John 20:1-2 and 20:11-18 sandwich the story of 20:3-10 and it is to Mary Magdalene that the first appearance of the risen Jesus happens. But there are various problems with the narratives throughout John 20 that make it quite apparent that John is not so much narrating history as he is theology.

Nowhere, it has to be said, does the evangelist move further from history than in these four episodes [of John 20]. They are not accounts of what actually happened, but moral tales that allow John to drive home a series of important lessons. [122]

Of course, John no doubt believes that what he is doing is telling his audience what has transpired on that Sunday morning but the way in which he constructs the account reveals his motives and not, as it were, those of a historian.

20:1

  • “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”

The Synoptics all convey the idea that though it was early on Sunday morning, it was light out, not dark. This discrepancy is perhaps best explained by Johannine motifs, specifically the conflict between light and darkness (cf. John 1:5). Keener writes, “[T]he light of the world was about to be revealed in its darkness.”[123] Specifically, Mary’s darkness will soon be vanquished by the light of the resurrection (cf. John 20:11-18).

Congruous with the Synoptic tradition, Mary Magdalene is named as one to be first on the scene of the empty tomb. Though she is the only one mentioned by name, it is clear that she is not alone (cf. John 20:2).[124] However, unlike the Synoptic accounts Mary neither sees an angel remove the stone (Matthew 28:2) nor enters the tomb to either be surprised at the sight of a stranger in the tomb (Mark 16:5) or by the sudden appearance of two strangers (Luke 24:4). Instead, she sees merely that the stone (which to this point has never been mentioned) has been “removed from the tomb” and runs to report what she has discovered.

20:2

  • “So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved…”

The primacy of Peter is seen even in the Gospel of John and will be evident later in John 20:6 and in John 21:15-19. The identity of the disciple “whom Jesus loved” is debated.[125]

  • “…and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’”

Mary has no expectation that Jesus has risen. She thinks someone has taken the body and laid it someplace else. This is not a surprise as grave robbing was a known problem in Palestine in the region and had been for some time,[126] as the so-called Nazarene Inscription makes clear.[127] There is some panic to what she is saying, however, and it is surely intended to be indicative of her commitment to Jesus.

20:3

  • “Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.”

The primacy of Peter is reiterated here (cf. John 20:2). This account also brings the Lukan narrative to mind for there also Peter runs to the tomb (Luke 24:12). However, the “other disciple” is not mentioned; Peter runs alone.

20:4-5

  • “The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there….”

The beloved disciple reaches the tomb first but he does not enter. Rather, the Johanne author writes that he “bent down [parakypsas] and saw the linen wrappings lying there.” The Lukan author had used the exact same participle (parakypsas) to describe the activity of Peter in Luke 24:12, the implication there being that Peter did not actually enter the tomb but observed from the entrance that Jesus’ body was gone and only the “linen cloths” remained.

20:6-7

  • “Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.”

The beloved disciple defers to Simon Peter and allows him to enter the tomb first. Peter discovers the linen wrappings lying in the tomb and that the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head was set in a different place. This is a sign to Peter that Mary’s concern is unfounded: “The placement of the cloth speaks against body snatchers.”[128] The suggestion made by some that Jesus passed through the clothes such that they were lying there in the outline of a body is unfounded.

Peter’s actions here differ from what happens in the Gospel of Luke. As noted in the comments on John 20:4-5, in the Gospel of Luke Peter does not enter the tomb but only stoops in (Luke 24:12). Here in the Gospel of John he actually enters the tomb where he observes not simply the linen clothes that the beloved disciple had but also the wrapping for the head.

20:8

  • “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed….”

Why has the Johannine author included the beloved disciple as one who witnessed the empty tomb? The answer is two-fold. First, the testimony of the empty tomb is founded upon not simply the word of Peter alone but also of this other disciple. Herman Ridderbos writes,

The dominant emphasis is not on the differences in the conduct of the two men but – and this was of far greater importance for the church – on what they saw together as two important witnesses…that early morning Jesus’ tomb was empty.[129]

Second, the ending of the Gospel of John purports to communicate the testimony of the beloved disciple: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). The fact that he was among the first to not only see the empty tomb but enter it magnified his status in the community and added further legitimacy to his role in that community. This status is further commended by his response to what he saw: “he saw and believed.” George Beasley-Murray observes that in the Gospel of John the verb pisteuō (“I believe”) “when used absolutely, as here, means genuine faith (see e.g., 5:44; 6:47; 19;35; 20:29.”[130]

20:9

  • “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Interestingly, the belief of the beloved disciple is contrasted with his misunderstanding, specifically of “the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” To what the Johannine author is referring is not clear. Jo-Ann Brant speculates that he may be referring to passages like Daniel 12:2-3 or Psalm 16:11 (cf. Acts 2:25-28) “that were understood by many in the late Second Temper period to signify resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:4).”[131] Regardless, the author intends to highlight not simply the misunderstanding but also that Jesus’ resurrection had been foretold by the authors of Holy Writ (cf. Luke 24:25-27; 1 Corinthians 15:4).

20:10

  • “Then the disciples returned to their homes.”

This ending is anticlimactic. There is no indication they return to the rest of the disciples to proclaim what they’ve found. Instead, Peter and the beloved disciple return to their respective homes (cf. Luke 24:12).

Summary

The Johannine empty tomb narrative centers on the figures of Peter and the beloved disciple. It began with the concern from Mary that Jesus’ body had been taken, though it isn’t clear upon what basis she has that concern since we are not told she enters the tomb to see. Regardless, this concern of grave robbers is akin to the Matthean claim that some Jews had circulated a rumor that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body (Matthew 28:11-15). There the counter claim was that the religious authorities had paid the guards to say that (Matthew 28:12-13). Here the concern over grave robbers is countered by the eyewitnesses Peter and the beloved disciple who observe that, while the body of Jesus is missing, the linen wrappings remain and the head wrapping has been rolled up and set aside, an odd thing for grave robbers (who would have no doubt been in a hurry) to do.

But this new narrative comes at the cost of disagreeing with the Synoptic traditions on a host of issues. For example, while the Johannine narrative agrees with both the Gospels of Mark and Luke that Mary Magdalene and the women found the stone covering the tomb’s entrance already rolled back, the Gospel of John makes no mention of these women either entering the tomb or of the surprising find of someone other than Jesus inside it. And while of the three Synoptics the Gospel of Luke does mention Peter as coming to see the empty tomb, it is only Peter who does so and there is no mention of any other disciple coming along. And of course it is clear that the Markan narrative with its abrupt and unexpected ending is contradicted at the outset of the Johannine narrative.

Is John presenting a more historical account of what actually transpired on that Sunday morning? Given the late appearance of the Gospel of John in the history of Christianity it is difficult to tell. Furthermore, there are obvious Johannine motifs at work which include the necessity of faith, a response that is perhaps highlighted by the absence of any angels, as Ashton writes,

By leaving the angels out of this story John opens the door to faith. He is able to record the response the beloved disciple makes, not the voice of an intermediary, but to a vision of emptiness. [132]

John has also crafted the narrative such that the visit to the tomb by Peter and the beloved disciple is sandwich by stories about Mary. This should be enough to make us very skeptical about the historical value of the narrative. How this relates to the criterion of embarrassment will be taken up at the end of the next section.

The Appearance to Mary (John 20:11-18)

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The scene here contains elements of the Synoptic traditions but John has reworked them in keeping with not simply the narrative he has created but also the themes he emphasizes. Not only that but he

draws on the conventions of classical Greek literature in order to achieve what Aristotle…judged the telos of a superior tragedy, a sudden reversal in the circumstances of a main character.[133]

These elements include 1) an encounter, 2) a delay in recognition, 3) presentation of tokens of identity, 4) a moment of recognition, and 5) reaction and reunion.[134] Each of these elements are present in the Johannine narrative.

This narrative is the other end of the “sandwich” from John 20:1-2 which featured Mary arriving at the tomb, finding the stone rolled away, and running to inform the disciples. The ensuing narrative did not feature Mary at all but was focused upon Peter and the disciple who Jesus loved. Here Mary is again featured.

20:11

  • “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb…”

The NRSV is problematic here in at least two ways. First, the verb translated as “weeping” conveys the notion not simply of crying but of wailing, a true lamenting of the circumstances in which Mary has found herself. Not only has Jesus died but his body has come up missing.[135] Second, the phrase translated “to look” does not appear in the Greek text and is wholly unnecessary since the next verb implies that the reason for her bending over into the tomb was to look.

John uses the same verb to describe Mary’s bending over into the tomb as he did for the beloved disciple (John 20:5) – parakyptō. In this way John is highlighting the difference in response to the empty tomb by Mary and the disciple. The beloved disciple responded in belief (John 20:8) but Mary, as we will see, remains in unbelief.

20:12

  • “and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.”

The position of the angels is perhaps an allusion to the ark of the covenant upon which two angelic beings (i.e. cherubim) faced one another with wings outstretched (Exodus 25:10-22).[136] But if this is what John intends with the imagery, it is wholly lost on Mary whose reaction to seeing the angels is still unbelief.

20:13

  • “They said to her, Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’”

This response to the question of the angels is staggering: “The view of the interior of the tomb produced faith in the disciple; Mary, however, still thinks only of tomb robbery.”[137] She persists in unbelief.

20:14

  • “When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.”

Thus begins the encounter with Jesus which continues with a delay in recognition.

20:15

  • “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’”

Mary, standing before Jesus whom she is seeking, does not recognize him. Instead, she mistakes him for the gardener. Brant writes, “The misidentification points to the degree to which Jesus’s appearance is unexpected.”[138] From the risen Jesus she requests the body supposing that this “gardener” has taken it away. But she is about to get the surprise of a lifetime.

20:16

  • “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).

The speaking of her name represents the token of recognition in the narrative. With it, Mary recognizes Jesus for who he is with the word “Rabbouni.” But John is also playing up a theme that has appeared earlier in his Gospel: Jesus as the good shepherd.

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all of his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep….For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father….

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand (John 10:2-4, 14-15, 27-29).

The shepherd has called his sheep by name: “Mary!” And with that she recognizes Jesus for who he is: “Rabbouni.”

20:17

  • “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’”

Jesus’ command to Mary to not “hold on to” him has perplexed exegetes. The word John uses here is the present imperative of haptomai, a verb that at its most basic meaning is communicated by the English word “touch.” If by using haptomai the Johannine Jesus is telling Mary not to touch him in any way, then we have a conflict with John 20:26-28. John Ashton writes,

We embroil ourselves in similar absurdities if we try to read the third episode, the appearance to the disciples, as if it followed upon the second. After informing Mary that he was about to ascend to heaven to the Father, did Jesus go up and spend an hour or two in heaven, only to redescend that very same evening for a visit to the disciples?[139]

However, Ashton may be going a bit overboard since it is possible that haptomai may be used to express precisely what the NRSV communicates, namely that Mary was holding on to Jesus and thereby not letting him go. For example, the Corinthians had used haptomai in their letter to Paul which the apostle references in 1 Corinthians 7:1 – “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch [haptesthai] a woman.’” Given the context there the connotation is more than just a mere touch but suggests something more physically involved. Similarly, John’s Jesus tells Mary to not continue with her physical apprehension of him; she cannot keep him there for he had “not yet ascended to the Father.”

The message that Mary is to give to Jesus’ disciples is that of ascension. That is, for the Gospel of John, Jesus’ ascension is as important as either his crucifixion or resurrection.

John makes clear that the elevation of Jesus which effected human salvation involves the chain of crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension; these constitute his ascent to his Father, reversing the incarnation process by which he descended to earth.[140]

Jesus’ words – “my Father and your Father,” and “my God and your God” – recall the words of Ruth to Naomi: “But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). However, as Beasley-Murray notes, as apt as the parallel is,

it should be noted that while it is Ruth who chooses to come under Naomi’s God, it is the Redeemer who has chosen to come to us, and in virtue of his saving activity, living, dying, rising, and ascending, makes us the sons of the Father and the people of God.[141]

The Johannine message is that Jesus has made those who believe in him part of the family of God. The disciples have become his “brothers” since they now share the same Father.

20:18

  • “Mary Magdalene went out and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

Mary is obedient to Jesus’ command and informs the disciples that Jesus has risen and delivers the message she has been commissioned to give.

Summary

Though this narrative shares some elements with the Synoptic tradition, John has created a narrative that is at its core wholly unlike it.

For starters, the sight of the young man in Mark’s Gospel creates such alarm that the women “said nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8). Similarly in both Matthew and Luke the sight of angelic beings stirs an emotional response although there it is met with faith and not only fear. But in John’s Gospel the angels hardly matter at all; the main feature is the Christophany. And the only one of the Synoptics that features a Christophany is the Gospel of Matthew.

Why is John’s Gospel so different from, say, the Gospel of Mark? Fundamentally it has to do with their divergent visions of Jesus. Mark’s Jesus is wholly human, a regular Joe from Nazareth who has been chosen by God to be the messiah. He heals the sick, raises the dead, and casts out demons. But while John’s Jesus certainly heals the sick and raises the dead, he doesn’t perform any exorcisms and therefore lacks exchanges between Jesus and these evil spirits. In those exchanges the demons recognize Jesus for who he truly is but Jesus commands them to not speak, choosing to keep his true identity a secret for the time being (see Mark 1:23-26). But John cannot have any such exchanges because there is no so-called “Messianic Secret.” Ashton writes,

The fourth evangelist, wrestling throughout his work with the paradox of the genre, has renounced the solution widely attributed to Mark and known as the Messianic Secret. The Christ of the early part of his narrative has been given from the outset the lineaments of divinity. This means that John, unlike Mark, is unable to hint at any reservations on the part of Jesus himself: the before/after is continually stressed, but its Johannine application, the two levels of understanding, concerns not Jesus himself but Jesus’ contemporaries on the one hand, including the disciples, and the readers of the Gospel on the other. There is no split or uncertainty in Jesus’ own consciousness. A divine nimbus surrounds him even while he is still on earth, and at his death he simply passes to another mode of glorification. The transformation this entails is of the subtlest and easy to miss. In a sense, then, John – unlike Mark – may be thought to require a recognition scene in order to establish the identity-in-difference between the earthly and the risen Jesus.[142]

For the Johannine Jesus, the cat is out of the bag so to speak. He is the divine Logos who has been with God from the very beginning (John 1:1) and the one who makes God known (John 1:18). The reader of John’s Gospel has a firm grasp on Jesus’ identity and knows throughout the narratives twists and turns that Jesus must be triumphant for who can thwart God?

Coupled with the intentional structuring of this text along the lines of Greek literature, what can be said of the passage’s historical value? In what sense does the criterion of embarrassment come into play? I do not think it can. In the next section I will propose a hypothesis as to why the women have become part of the narrative that doesn’t necessitate there being a historical core to the narrative.

THE ORIGIN OF THE WOMEN IN THE EMPTY TOMB NARRATIVE

The earliest inference of an empty tomb comes from the words of the apostle Paul:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, (1 Corinthians 15:3-5a).

Paul’s claim, then, is that the gospel of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection originates in both tradition (“what I in turn had received”) as well as in the Hebrew scriptures.[143] Scholars have long recognized that Paul seems to be reciting a creed, a “stereotyped formulation” that includes four clauses introduced by the word hoti (“that”).[144] It did not originate with Paul but likely first appeared sometime between 30 and 33 CE.[145]

The creed is not fleshed out for us in great detail but Paul’s own theology as recorded for us in his letters helps us understand some of these. For example, though the creed tells us merely that “Christ died” using the aorist form of the generic apothnēskō, we know from various statements in Paul’s epistles that this death was by crucifixion (1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2, 2:8; 2 Corinthians 3:14). And while the statement that Jesus “was raised the third day” suggests immediate translation to heaven, we know both from what Paul wrote in the rest of 1 Corinthians 15 and from how Jews understood resurrection in the Second Temple period generally[146] that the creed posits a physical resurrection.

However, neither Jesus’ burial nor the appearance to Cephas are explained directly. The way Paul writes, it was to Cephas that the risen Christ first “appeared [ōphthē].” However, as we’ve already seen, in the Gospels of Matthew and John the first appearance isn’t to one of the Twelve but to Mary Magdalene. If it is indeed the case that the traditions found in the Gospels concerning the empty tomb originated with the disciples, then why did Mary fail to be mentioned in the creed? Paul’s view on women were such that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) so why would he not make the appearance to Mary more explicit?

Nor does Paul make much of the empty tomb itself. He clearly believed Jesus had been buried following his death but the lack of any details leads us to only speculation.[147] That Paul fails to mention Joseph of Arimathea or the women visiting Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning doesn’t necessarily mean that these events did not take place. But the tomb doesn’t seem to play as important role in Paul’s thought as it did in the Gospel writers for those writers believed the tomb to be the first, though not the primary, evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. In the creedal formula Paul recites, the burial is just seen as the logical counterpart to Jesus’ crucifixion. A dead body has to be placed somewhere. The emphasis is on Jesus’ resurrection, the appearance to Cephas, and the Pauline expansion of appearances in verses 5b-8.

365px-Caravaggio-The_Conversion_on_the_Way_to_Damascus
Paul’s famous conversion on the road to Damascus. This story is featured in the book of Acts though Paul does not go into any details about such an experience in his epistles. Nevertheless, he claims to have had a vision of Jesus on part with that of Peter and the other disciples. This painting is from Michelangelo Merisi, an Italian artist of the late sixteenth and early seventheen centuries (Wikimedia Commons).

So from where did the narrative originate? I believe that it may be the creation of the author of Mark’s Gospel. Mark no doubt had access to the creed of 1 Corinthians 15 and so any bios[148] of Jesus required the inclusion of his death, burial, and resurrection. To tell his story, then, required filling in some of the gaps created by the ambiguity of the creed, in particular the empty tomb. But with what could he do so? Largely, the scenes in and following the Markan Passion narrative come from a reading of the Hebrew scriptures. For example, Mark 15:22-32 is made up of allusions to Psalm 22 and Psalm 69. Consequently, the “core narrative” of that section is as follows:

Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull)….And they crucified him….It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews’ (Mark 15:22-26).[149]

But allusions to scripture are not the only place from which Mark received his information. Some of it was born out of an apologetic concern. Since the early Christians were claiming that the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus was that he had appeared to his followers, the natural reply from opponents would be that they had seen a spirit.[150] The Markan narrative is thus created to show that the women had discovered the tomb of Jesus to be empty. This in no way detracts from the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:5 that Jesus appeared to Peter because the Markan narrative allows for it as a consequence of the women’s silence. The message of Jesus’ resurrection must have gotten out somehow and it did so by the appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Galilee. There is no conflict between the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 and the empty tomb narrative of Mark. The narrative serves both Markan purposes that fit with his themes and motifs and also an apologetic concern that developed in the years between Jesus’ death and the writing of the Gospel of Mark.

The women enter the narrative as the polar opposite of the disciples. While the male disciples are part of Jesus’ inner circle, they still flee the scene and abandon Jesus in his hour of need (Mark 14:50). The women, on the other hand, function as minor characters often do in the Markan narrative: exemplars of belief. They had been in the background, providing for Jesus while he was in Galilee (Mark 15:41) and at Jesus’ final hour they are there for him, albeit from a distance (Mark 15:40). They also are there for the burial (Mark 15:47) and they are there for the first evidence of the resurrection – the empty tomb (Mark 16:3-5). But though they enter the narrative as exemplars of faith, the women end up behaving just as the disciples had, fleeing the scene and saying “nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8). Mark, therefore, is able to preserve the tradition in the creed that it was to Cephas (i.e. Peter) that Jesus first appeared. Mark’s work in “[l]imiting the story to this simple form in no way diminishes the belief of the first followers of Jesus.”[151]

The presence of the women in both Matthew and Luke, then, is derived from Mark. They are borrowing the narrative from him and reshaping it as they needed. The criterion of embarrassment simply doesn’t apply for it seems more likely that if they truly were embarrassed by such a detail they would have simply repudiated it. Instead, Matthew and Luke trusted Mark’s work, assuming that either Mark was reliable and had not invented the scene or that it didn’t matter since one of the key issues was a demonstration that Jesus was alive against claims to the contrary. The Gospel of John had been made aware of the Markan creation but manipulated it for his themes.

Any claim that the early followers of Jesus would not have invented the empty tomb narrative with the women’s involvement falls flat. In this case, then, the criterion of embarrassment is not useful.

NOTES

[1]5 Reasons How We Know the Bible is True” (12.7.18), christiandefenders.org. Accessed 19 March 2019.

[2] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (Oxford University Press, 2016), 549. See also pp. 243-245.

[3] Ibid. See also pp. 245-247.

[4] Ibid. See also pp. 247-248.

[5] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Doubleday, 1991), 1:168.

[6] The Gospel of Luke avoids the conversation by employing the passive participle baptisthentos and dropping any reference to John (Luke 3:21; cf. Mark 1:9). The Gospel of John doesn’t mention the baptism at all (John 1:29-34).

[7] Meier, 1:168-169. See also Ehrman, The New Testament, 246.

[8] Meier, 1:170.

[9] Ehrman, The New Testament, 247; Meier 1:170-171.

[10] Meier, 1:171. Bart Ehrman also cautions against the misuse of the criterion of dissimilarity when he writes, “[I]t is always easier to make a judgment concerning a particular tradition when it passes both of the criteria [of independent attestation and dissimilarity].” See Ehrman, The New Testament, 247.

[11] S.J. Thomason, “Did Moses Exist?” (3.17.2019), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 21 March 2019.

[12] A similar argument is made by Darrel Bock in his commentary on Mark. He writes,

The church never would have created such a scenario to carry their core resurrection claims. Selling a difficult idea (resurrection) through the testimony of people (women) who do not count culturally as witnesses was not a plan designed in some budding church leaders’ conference room to turn around a discouraged community. The women are in the account because they were in the event.

See Darrell Bock, Mark, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 379.

[13] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 1098.

[14] For a brief discussion, see Gerd Luedemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (Fortress Press, 1994), 45-47.

[15] For an overview of the Gospel of Mark that explains key themes, see Keith F. Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 63-102.

[16] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[17] Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (Vintage Books, 1999), 8.

[18] See my post “Jesus’ Death in Mark and Luke: A Response to Pop-Apologist Mike Winger on Bart Ehrman” (1.23.19), amateurexegete.com.

[19] The identity of the mother of James the younger and Joses is debated. It could be that she is Jesus’ mother since among Jesus’ siblings in Mark 6:3 are both a James and a Joses. However, it would seem odd for Mark to not mention that this Mary was also Jesus’ mother if that is indeed who she was. He has clearly had no problem identifying her as such before. Furthermore, 15:41 states that these women “used to follow [Jesus] and provided for him when he was in Galilee.” Yet we are told that it is Jesus’ family – his mother included – who think Jesus has “gone out of his mind” and head to Capernaum to take hold of him (3:21, 3:32). It seems doubtful that she would offer him and his disciples material support if she believed he was not in his right mind.

[20] William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 579.

[21] John Dominic Crossan, “Mark and the Relatives of Jesus,” in David E. Orton (editor), The Composition of Mark’s Gospel (Brill, 1999), 84.

[22] For example, the Roman centurion who stands at the cross and observes Jesus’ final breath declares, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39). This is not even something the disciples themselves recognize and they have spent far more time with Jesus than this centurion! See my post, “Musings on Mark: Minor Markan Characters – The Centurion at the Cross” (11.17.18), amateurexegete.com.

[23] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina vol. 2 (The Liturgical Press, 2002), 454. See also Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, WBC vol. 34b (Thomas Nelson, 2001), 520.

[24] For more on Joseph of Arimathea, see Joel F. Williams, Other Followers of Jesus: Minor Markan Characters as Major Figures in Mark’s Gospel (Sheffield Academic Press, 1994). 188-191.

[25] Evans, 521-522.

[26] F. Wilbur Gingrich, Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, revised edition (The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 28. See also Rodney J. Decker, Mark 9-16: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor University Press, 2014), 271.

[27] Mary Ann Beavis, Mark, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2011), 241.

[28] R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 677.

[29] On the issues surrounding the grammar of the text, see Evans, 534.

[30] The verb translated in the NRSV as “had been saying” is the imperfect elegon. The Markan author could have used an aorist verb to communicate the idea that this was a conversation they had but once on the way to the tomb but the use of the imperfect perhaps suggest that this was a central concern that they discussed along the way.

[31] It has been suggested to me that the statement of Mark 15:46 should be understood to mean that Joseph had others perform the work for him, akin to how the Deuteronomistic Historian tells us that “Solomon built the house [i.e. temple], and finished it” (1 Kings 6:14). This is certainly possible but I have my doubts. It is clear from the context that Solomon did not personally build the temple but utilized workers from Israel and other regions (1 Kings 5:13-18). We are not told that Joseph either hired help to assist with Jesus’ body or that as a “respected member” of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43) he had servants that could do so. Furthermore, Joseph’s actions are meant to give the reader a sense that he is a man of duty and that what he has done for Jesus was very noble. He is concerned enough about Jesus’ fate that he takes upon himself the task of shutting up the tomb’s entrance.

[32] Beavis, 242.

[33] Robert Stein suggests that the fact that the verb “had been rolled away” is in the passive voice that it is “a divine passive indicating that God was the ultimate cause for the stone’s removal from the entrance of the tomb.” See Robert H. Stein, Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2008), 730.

[34] The young man (neaniskos) is understood by both Matthew (Matthew 28:2) and Luke (Luke 24:4, 24:23) to be an angel (or, as in Luke, two angels) and this may well be what Mark has intended in his narrative. However, for an alternative view see my post “The First Witness to the Empty Tomb” (4.28.18), amateurexegete.com. There I argue that it is possible Mark was drawing attention to the neaniskos in Mark 14:51-52, using him as a stand in for the disciples and therefore as a message of hope and restoration. See also Bock, 380.

[35] Donahue and Harrington, 458.

[36] As C.M. Tuckett observes,

The resurrection is almost assumed without question, and the empty tomb interprets it by the (self-evident) fact that Jesus is ‘not here.’ He is not present. There is thus no sense in which for Mark the empty tomb guarantees the reality of the resurrection or assures the presence of the risen Jesus. Almost the reverse is the case: the empty tomb is an empty tomb. Jesus is not here to be experienced as a tangible objective proof of anything. If then he is not here, where is he to be found? The next verses provide an answer – albeit enigmatically.

See C.M. Tuckett, “Mark,” in John Barton and John Muddiman (editors), The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2001), 920-921.

[37] See Rodney J. Decker, Mark 1-8: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor University Press, 2014), 18.

[38] Decker comments that this instance of hoti “[i]ntroduces the clausal complement (direct discourse) of [eipate].” See Decker, Mark 9-16: A Handbook on the Greek Text, 276.

[39] Sharyn Dowd, Reading Mark: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Second Gospel (Smyth & Helwys, 2015), 420.

[40] For example, Daniel 10:7 says, “I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, though a great trembling fell upon them, and they fled and hid themselves.”

[41] In truth there are four endings to the Gospel of Mark. For an overview, see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 102-106. See also David Alan Black (editor), Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: 4 Views (Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2008). My position is that 16:8 is the original ending of Mark’s Gospel.

[42] David E. Garland, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel (Zondervan, 2015), 177.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Technically John declares there was one to come who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. It isn’t clear that John knows this to be Jesus, either from his words or even from the baptism narrative of Mark 1:9-11. However, the reader knows that it is about Jesus.

[45] Ibid., 177-178.

[46] Ibid., 178.

[47] Timothy Dwyer, The Motif of Wonder in the Gospel of Mark (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 192.

[48] Ibid.

[49] The wording of the NRSV makes for smooth reading but the wording of the Greek is far more interesting. Mark has written kai lian ek perissou en heautois existanto, which is literally, “And exceedingly in abundance in themselves they were astounded.”

[50] Dwyer, 192.

[51] The Greek text reads kai ephobēthēsan phobon megan, which is literally, “And they feared with great fear.”

[52] Dwyer, 192. It should be noted that while I agree with Dwyer on the presence of the “motif of wonder” found in the Gospel of Mark generally and in 16:1-8 particularly, I take the silence of the women to be a sign of their failure to follow the command of the neaniskos just as the disciples had failed to follow the commands of Jesus. Dwyer does not. See Dwyer, 191-192.

[53] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina vol. 2 (The Liturgical Press, 2002), 29.

[54] Ibid., 33

[55] Williams, 202.

[56] Ibid., 202-203.

[57] L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), 153.

[58] Ibid.

[59] This motif may be rooted in the teachings of the historical Jesus himself. See Dale C. Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (Fortress Press, 1998), 131-136.

[60] Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, In the Company of Jesus: Characters in Mark’s Gospel (Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 47.

[61] Ibid., 60, 61.

[62] On the reasons the Gospels were written, see Nickle, 65-68.

[63] Along with the consensus of New Testament scholars, I accept the position of Markan priority. For an overview, see my video “The Synoptic Problem: The Two Source and Four Source Hypotheses” (12.31.18). For an overview of the Gospel of Matthew, including his themes, see Nickle, 103-133.

[64] See note 18.

[65] In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ family isn’t estranged from him as he is in the Gospel of Mark (see note 20 above).

[66] Matthew 20:22 is a good example of the phenomenon of editorial fatigue. Mark Goodacre explains editorial fatigue:

When one writer is copying the work of another, changes are sometimes made at the beginning of an account that are not sustained throughout. The writer lapses into docile reproduction of the source. Like continuity errors in film and television, editorial fatigue results in unconscious mistakes, small errors of detail that naturally arise in the course of constructing a narrative. This phemonenon of ‘fatigue’ is thus a telltale sign of a writer’s dependence on a source.

See Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze (T&T Clark International, 2001), 71-72.

In Mark’s Gospel the request to sit beside Jesus in his kingdom is made James and John (Mark 10:35-37) and not their mother (Matthew 20:21). In the Matthean version, when the mother approaches Jesus to ask for a favor he asks her, “What do you want?” The verb Jesus uses is theleis, the second person singular form of thelō. This makes sense since he is addressing one individual: the mother. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus uses the second personal plural thelete since it is James and John together that are asking (Mark 10:36). After she makes her request in Matthew he replies, “You do not know what you are asking” (Matthew 20:22a). But whereas Jesus had used second person singular verbal forms he now uses second person plural. Why? Because Matthew has slipped back into his source, the Gospel of Mark, which also uses second personal singular forms (Mark 10:38). We should have expected singular forms since he is responding to the mother’s request. But he uses the plural because he is copying directly from the Gospel of Mark.

[67] There is a measure of tragic irony in the role the mother of the sons of Zebedee plays. David Turner writes,

The mother of Zebedee’s sons previously envisioned her sons sitting on both sides of Jesus’s throne (20:20–21), but now she watches Jesus’s cross with revolutionaries crucified on both sides of him.

See David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2008), 671.

[68] In his commentary on Matthew, Grant Osborne just combines all the accounts and states that

there were at least four women present at the cross: the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Clopas and mother of one of the Twelve, and Salome, probably Mary’s sister and mother of James and John.

See Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2010), 1048. This seems a bit much and involves too much syncretism of all the accounts, ignoring what makes each unique.

[69] Mark often explains Jewish customs, an exercise unnecessary if his audience was made up of primarily Jews. One classic example is found in Mark 7:1-23 where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and scribes about why some of his disciples “eat with defiled hands, that is, without washing them” (7:2). 7:3-4 is Mark’s attempt to explain why such a practice existed at all, something he would not have to do if his audience was Jewish. However, Mary Ann Beavis contends that it is possible that Mark’s audience was made up of many Jews but not Palestinian Jews and so they may not have been familiar with the particulars of Jewish sects like the Pharisees. See Beavis, 13-14.

[70] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 1089.

[71] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 690.

[72] R.T. France observes that Matthew’s

unusual use of the verb rather than the noun (literally, “who had been discipled to Jesus”; cf. 28:19) reminds us of the “discipled scribe” in 13:52, one who has come into the Jesus movement from an unusual background.

See France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1089.

[73] Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Hendricksen Publishers, 1994), 2:395.

[74] Ibid., 2:292.

[75] France, The Gospel of Mark, 646.

[76] H. St. J. Thackeray (translator), Josephus with an English Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray in Nine Volumes, (Harvard University Press, 1956), 2:426, 427.

[77] France, The Gospel of Mark, 646.

[78] Dreams play an important role in the Matthean narrative, particularly in the beginning where Joseph’s dreams keep him from divorcing an unexpectedly pregnant Mary (Matthew 1:20-24) and stir him to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:13-15). Here too in Matthew 27:19, a dream about Jesus is intended to preserve his life but, ultimately, fails.

[79] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1090.

[80] Ibid.

[81] Herbert Basser and Marsha Cohen write,

As for the designation of Joseph of Arimathea as a man of means, it is noteworthy that Joseph used linen cloth, which the wealthy would not have used. The Talmud suggests linen was used for paupers during this time period and the relatives were always ashamed to admit they could afford no better.

See Hebert W. Basser and Marsha B. Cohen, The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-based Commentary (Brill, 2015), 709.

[82] Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, WBC vol. 33b (Thomas Nelson, 1995), 859.

[83] Joseph’s departure from the tomb is described using the aorist apēlthen while the women are described using an imperfect periphrastic: Ēn…kathēmenai. France observes that the comment that Joseph “went away” “provides a contrast with the women who remained at the site.” See France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1091.

[84] It is doubtful that Jesus would have had such a conflict with the Pharisees in his historical context. It is more likely that texts like Matthew 23 reflect the historical circumstances of the author of Matthew rather than that of the historical Jesus. For more, see White, Scripting Jesus, 312-317 and Dennis C. Duling, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in David E. Aune (editor), The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament (Blackwell Publishing, 2010), 304-306.

[85] Dale C. Allison, Jr., “Matthew,” in John Barton and John Muddiman (editors), The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2001), 885

[86] If Matthew intends for there to be some criticism of the religious authorities for coming to Pilate on the sabbath, he does not make it clear. However, perhaps the circumlocution of referring to the sabbath as the day after the day of Preparation is Matthew’s way of saying that if the religious authorities were truly concerned about Jesus’ burial they should have prepared for this on the appropriate day.

[87] Hagner writes, “It is a mistake to suppose that the Jewish authorities had a very clear conception of what Jesus had predicted. Matthew’s formulation of their word reflects later, more specific knowledge.” See Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 862.

[88] The word translated as “command” is keleuson, an aorist verb in the imperative mood.

[89] Though if Roman soldiers are implied, it would make what happens in 28:1-10 far more interesting because it would be suggestive that the Matthean author viewed the resurrection as a display of power against the Romans who certainly viewed themselves as the greatest power in the world.

[90] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1095n20.

[91] Luke fails to mention the guards at all but follows more closely the Markan narrative.

[92] This is especially true for the Gospel of John and its anti-Jewish slant. Such a story would serve his purposes well if it were rooted in a known fact from the time of Jesus.

[93] Allison, “Matthew,” 885.

[94] For a discussion of this, see Donald A. Hagner and Steven E. Young, “The Historical-Critical Method and the Gospel of Matthew,” in Mark Allan Powell (editor), Methods for Matthew (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 31-43. See also Luedemann, 122-125.

[95] However, there is still some awkwardness to the Matthean language. See Osborne, 1061; France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1098-1099.

[96] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1103.

[97] Osborne, 1075.

[98] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1104.

[99] Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 876.

[100] Margaret Davies writes,

Nevertheless, the references to the necessary bribing and to the reassurance that Pilate could be dissuaded from taking action (soldiers who slept on guard normally suffered the death penalty) reinforces the readers’ understanding that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead.

See Davies, Matthew, second edition (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), 236.

[101] Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 876.

[102] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1106.

[103] Allison, “Matthew,” 885.

[104] For an overview of the Gospel of Luke, including key themes, see Nickle, 134-163.

[105] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina, vol. 3 (The Liturgical Press, 1991), 14-15.

[106] John Nolland observes that the reason there are onlookers “at a distance” in Luke is because “Luke is likely to see witnessing the crucifixion as a foundation for later being able to function as witnesses to the resurrection, and Luke has both women and men firmly in this role.” See Nolland, Luke 18:35-24:53, WBC vol. 35c (Thomas Nelson, 1993), 1160.

[107] Though Luke “economizes” the Markan text. See ibid., 1165.

[108] Some manuscripts of Luke end with “they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” For more, see Metzger, 156-157.

[109] Nolland, 1189

[110] See Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 838-839.

[111] It may be a reference to Jesus’ mother but this is not certain. See notes 20 and 64 above.

[112] Nolland, 1191.

[113] See Metzger, 157-158; Johnson, 388-389.

[114] Green, 840.

[115] Frank Kermode observes,

There are…problems arising from [the Gospel of John’s] resemblance to [the Synoptic Gospels]. Indeed there is a long list of questions calling for answers from historical critics, and it is fair to say that the answers are always changing, and the list of questions always lengthening.

See Frank Kermode, “John,” in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible (The Belknap Press, 1987), 440.

[116] For a discussion on the issues surrounding aposynagōgos, see J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Four Gospel, third edition (Westminster John Knox, 2003), 46-66.

[117] René Kieffer, “John,” in John Barton and John Muddiman (editors), The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2001), 996.

[118] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Baker Academic, 2003), 1163.

[119] Ibid.,1164.

[120] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospels and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary (The Liturgical Press, 1988), 96.

[121] Jo-Ann A. Brant, John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2011), 256.

[122] John Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel, new edition (Oxford University Press, 2007), 477-478.

[123] Keener, 1178.

[124] Herman Ridderbos writes,

The Johannine resurrection narrative begins with traditional material: the Evangelist took for granted that his readers knew of the story. He mentions only one woman, but has her speak in the plural: ‘we do not know…” (vs. 2).”

See Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, John Vriend, translator (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 631.

[125] For a discussion, see Michael J. Kok, The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist (Cascade Books, 2017); George R. Beasley-Murray, John, second edition, WBC vol. 36 (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), lxxii-lxxv; Kieffer, “John,” 961.

[126] Beasley-Murray, 371.

[127] See Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, second edition (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 550-551.

[128] Brant, 267.

[129] Herman Ridderbos, 632.

[130] Beasley-Murray, 373.

[131] Brant, 268.

[132] Ashton, 481.

[133] Brant, 265. Cf. Keener, 1189-1190.

[134] Brant, 267.

[135] Brant writes,

Translating the Greek klaiousa with the word “weeping” risks filling the action with behaviors normative to a culture that is not Mary’s. This is not silent weeping but wailing aloud, with streaming tears as a sign of the depth of her sorry and respect for the dead as well as the added grief over the possible disrespect done to Jesus’s body.

See Brant, 268.

[136] Ibid.

[137] Brown, 97-98.

[138] Brant, 269.

[139] Ashton, 478.

[140] Brown, 98.

[141] Beasley-Murray, 378.

[142] Ashton, 484.

[143] As Margaret Mitchell observes,

And yet [Paul] himself was working with existing materials. Paul’s message of Christ crucified (the logos tou staurou, “the word of the cross”) was a claim that came with proof – scriptural proof. The four-episode version of Paul’s gospel narrative twice includes the refrain kata tas graphas, “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). The great wordsmith, therefore, was not only a writer but also a reader, an interpreter, of the scriptures of Israel.

See Margaret M. Mitchell, Paul, the Corinthians, and the Birth of Christian Hermeneutics (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 8.

[144] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, Anchor Yale Bible vol. 32 (Yale University, 2008), 541.

[145] Luedemann, 38.

[146] See Shaye J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, second edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 85-88. Other conceptions of resurrection and immortality existed in the Second Temple period as well. See George W.E. Nickelsburg, Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins: Diversity, Continuity, and Transformation (Fortress Press, 2003), 131.

[147] John Granger Cook argues persuasively that “Paul and his readers, Jewish or pagan, would have assumed that a tradition about the burial of Christ and his resurrection on the third day presupposed an empty tomb.” See his piece “Resurrection in Paganism and the Question of an Empty Tomb in 1 Corinthians 15,” New Testament Studies (2017) vol. 63 no. 1, 56-75.

[148] It is generally accepted that the canonical Gospels, Mark included, fall into the genre of bioi, that is a kind of biography of Jesus. See Gerd Theissen, The New Testament: A Literary History (Fortress Press, 2012), 53-58.

[149] See White, 135-137.

[150] Ibid., 147. White observes,

This same charge seems to be a concern in both Luke and John, where disciples are told to touch him, and Jesus eats food (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-29). The Lukan version of the appearance to the disciples makes this earlier charge more explicit, as Jesus says, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (24:39). A story about finding the tomb empty is both a natural way of responding and a logical inference to the fact that he was buried and was raised.

[151] Ibid.

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Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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