The mystery of the empty tomb.
- 1. The visit of Peter and John.
John relates how Mary came, telling them that the body had been taken. (Note that Mary did not say Jesus was alive, as she had not yet seen Jesus and was still convinced someone had taken the body.) He then outran Peter to the tomb and, looking in, saw the empty graveclothes; but did not go inside. Peter did go in, and discovered that the headpiece was not lying with the other items but folded by itself (Jn 20:5-7). After this John also went in and, on seeing this evidence, apparently concluded that a miracle had occurred. This in spite of the fact that he had not yet realised that Jesus' resurrection was predicted in the Old Testament (v.9).
- Why would this evidence be so telling to John?
- a) Well, for one thing, he would have realised that it effectively ruled out the Jewish authorities as being responsible for the body's removal. Merely to touch a corpse made one ritually 'unclean' (Num. 19:11), and anyone who died by hanging from a tree was regarded as 'accursed' (Deut. 21:22-3); so the Jews would definitely not have wanted to unwrap the body.
- b) Similarly, we have already noted that anyone stealing the body would not be likely to spend time unwrapping it at the scene of the crime.
c) Finally, the account indicates that there was something peculiarly significant about the positioning of the graveclothes. He emphasises that the linen strips that had wrapped his body were just lying there, whilst the piece that had been round his head had been folded up and laid to one side. There are two possible interpretations of this:
- Many commentators take it to mean that the strips were lying intact on the ledge where he was laid, as if he had simply passed through them as he rose from the dead, and then afterwards removed the head piece.
- On the other hand, John also describes a very similar incident when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:43-44). Lazarus had come from the tomb wrapped from head to toe in strips and with a cloth round his face, just as Jesus would have been, and Jesus had told the onlookers to help remove them. As Lazarus had been standing, by the time they finished there would have been a circular heap of strips around his feet.
- The crucial point is that, either way, the distribution of the strips would be quite unlike that produced by unwrapping a dead body. Thieves would have been forced to either pull and tear the strips away as he lay there, or else struggle to lift and unwrap the body, leaving them more obviously scattered. Clearly, what John saw convinced him that this had been no corpse.
- 2. The Forgotten Tomb
- It is particularly interesting to note at this point that, following Mary's encounter with Jesus a few minutes later, there is no further mention of the tomb itself.
Just consider for a monent how strange that would be if it were the only tangible evidence of Jesus' resurrection! Surely, it would then have become a place of pilgrimage and the graveclothes objects of the utmost importance. Yet this does not happen.
- In fact, there is no mention of any further attempt to even identify the site prior to the 4th century, and the precise location remains a matter of speculation to this day, with some favouring the Church of the Sepulchre, some the garden tomb and others, neither.
- So how do we account for this? Clearly, if the body of Jesus had still been in the tomb, it would have been even more of a draw for those who loved Him. Indeed, it would then have been easy for the authorities to produce it and kill the resurrection story stone dead; so we are forced to conclude that the body had indeed gone.
- The authorities might have tried to deny access to the empty tomb: but if they did, why no mention of this? The most plausible explanation is that provided by the gospels themselves: the disciples had no further interest in the tomb because they were preoccupied with Jesus' resurrection appearances.
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