What Did the Women Find?
- 1. As noted previously, the women were not coming to witness a resurrection; but to embalm a corpse.
- 2. Different women are named in the various accounts.
- Matthew mentions Mary Magdalene and 'the other Mary' (Mt 28:1). Mark mentions Mary Magdalene, 'Mary mother of James*' and Salome (Mk 16:1). Luke names Mary Magdalene, Joanna and 'Mary mother of James*'; but indicates that these were not the only women in the group (Lk 24:10). John mentions only Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:1).(* From Mt 27:56 and Mk 15:40 we learn that Mary, mother of James was also mother to Joses, and that this James was known as 'James the Less'; presumably to distinguish him from 'James the Just', the brother of Jesus.)
- All accounts tell us that they arrived early in the morning (John says it was still dark when Mary came (Jn 20:1) and Matthew says dawn was beginning (Mt 28:1)).
- 3. Could it have been the wrong tomb?
- This idea is confronted with a number of obstacles:
- (i) Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the fact that the women had personally observed the tomb's location when Jesus was taken there.
- (ii) Since they were clearly not expecting any resurrection; but rather expected to find the tomb sealed, with the stone in place, why would they confuse it with an open one? And if they had, why did they not realise their mistake on finding it empty?
- (iii) The authorities could have scotched the rumours of Jesus' resurrection by simply producing the body.
- 4. The Open Tomb
- Mark mentions that they had been concerned about who would move the stone, as it was a big one (Mk 16:3). Mark, Luke and John all report that on arrival they found the stone already rolled away from the tomb. Matthew tells us an angel moved the stone and terrified the guards (see previous discussion). He does not tell us if the women actually saw this happen; but continues by describing the angel's conversation with the women (Mt 28:1-7).
- 5. There are discrepancies as to how many men or angels were seen, and when.
- Matthew refers to one angel and some very frightened guards (who may or may not have been seen by the women), with the angel telling the women to 'Come, see the place where the Lord lay' (Mt 28:2-6). He then tells them Jesus will be going into Galilee. At some point they must have entered the tomb: for they then 'went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy' (7-8). The first words of the angel may indicate that initially they were outside the tomb: but that depends upon the internal layout, as such tombs often had several alcoves.
- Mark tells us that after entering the tomb they saw a 'young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side,' who gives them a similar message to that related by Matthew. He also tells us that they fled from the tomb, trembling and afraid.
- Luke tells us that they went into the tomb and saw two men standing by them in shining garments. Again, a similar message is given.
John records that at this point Mary Magdalene still has no real idea what is going on: because when she finds Peter her message is that, 'they have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.' (Jn 20:2) According to John's account, it is not until much later that Mary looks inside the tomb and sees two angels.
- Can these differences be reconciled? Yes, quite easily.
- (i) The issue of whether the 'men in white' are called angels or not may seem important to us: but had little significance from the Jewish standpoint. Old Testament references to angels frequently refer to them as 'men' and, contrary to popular belief, indicate that is precisely what they often looked like (eg. Gen 19:1,10,12,15,16). So Mark and Luke's descriptions cannot be taken to mean these were not angels; but simply that they looked like men. This also explains why John tells us that Mary, even after seeing two angels in the tomb (Jn 20:12), still assumed the body had just been moved (v.15): to her, they looked like ordinary men.
- (ii) The difference in numbers seen is also easily explained by the conditions within the tomb. The women saw the messengers (which is what 'angel' actually means), heard the message and fled. They would have had to enter in single file: those in front would have had the best view; whilst those behind would have seen less. Mary Magdalene, it seems, didn't even get in before the others were rushing to get out. The precise detail of the account recorded would depend on which of the women was relating their story.
Does the story so far indicate 'embellishment,' or an intent on the part of the writers to convey a symbolic rather than a literal resurrection message?
According to the church fathers, the first gospel to be written was that of Matthew: but his account has a very explicit angel (though only one) and contains the additional detail concerning the guards.
Mark's account is much preferred as the conjectured first gospel by advocates of embellishment. It is the shortest, and has the briefest and simplest resurrection account, with just one 'young man in a long white robe.' Moreover, the remainder of Mark is of disputed authorship, there being several known versions with different endings, so it is possible to ignore anything that follows the account of the women.
- However, there are a several objections to the embellishment theory:
- (i) If we look at what is in Mark's account we still have a clear statement that the tomb had been opened and the body of Jesus had gone. We are told explicitly that Jesus had been resurrected, that the absence of the body demonstrated the fact and that he was going into Galilee, where the disciples would see him. In other words, we are still looking at a fully-formed statement of a physical resurrection. All that actually differs in Mark's account is that he only speaks of one messenger and he doesn't call him an angel.
- (ii) 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (which is generally dated between AD 54-7), whilst making no mention of the women's account, lists resurrection appearances to Peter, the twelve, 500 at a single time, James, all the apostles and finally Paul: and, as mentioned elsewhere, analysis of this passage indicates that these verses are based on an even earlier statement of faith.
- (iii) A strong case can be made on grounds of content that Luke did not base his gospel on either Mark or Matthew, or if he did that he certainly was not attempting to embellish his account. For example, the whole of Mark 6:45-8:26 is absent; including the account of Jesus walking on the water, which any embellisher would surely have used. Similarly, Luke's account of the birth of Jesus shows no awareness of Matthew's account of the visit of the Magi and the flight into Egypt.
- (iv) John's gospel, though still reckoned by most scholars as the last to be written, does not make sense either as the work of an embellisher. His account of Mary's visit to the tomb appears on the face of it to contradict the other accounts: he leaves out the testimony of the other women and says that at the time Mary first found Peter and John she had no idea what had happened to Jesus, except that he had been taken (Jn 20:2). On the other hand, as with Luke, it seems that none of the other gospel writers were familiar with John's account: an embellisher would scarcely have dropped such a poignant story nor contradicted John's version of events.
- (v) If a charge of embellishment were made, it would have to be against Matthew. But, in respect of the account of what the women saw, the only real difference is that Matthew calls the messenger an angel.
- (vi) As far as a symbolic intent is concerned, the empty tomb appears as the central feature of every single account. It is very hard therefore to regard this as a mere symbolic addition. Clearly the writers are stating that the tomb was empty.